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miles, but was located near the upper edge of the flood plain.
The ditches quite closely followed the contour of the land
where the floodplain begins to steepen toward the base of the
cuestas and uplands. Most of the agricultural fields were
located between the ditch and the river, so that irrigation
water would flow by gravity across the land and drain into
the river. Most of the old fields and sections of the ditches
are still visible and give an indication of the life and activity
that once pervaded the valley.

Transportation routes in the Puerco valley in the 19th
and early 20th centuries were of minor importance, as there
was relatively little travel or trade among the villages or with
the "outside." The routes that did exist were only wagon-
track roads or trails. In the valley these ran almost parallel
to the river, connecting the villages one with another. There
were also several roads that led eastward out of the valley
toward the Rio Grande valley. On the opposite side a road or
two led westward to Marquez (Juan Tafoya) and the moun-
tains and mesas from which wood was obtained.

Several routes of travel extended entirely across the
middle Puerco valley. The best known of these were the ones
followed today by highways 6 and 66 and one that crossed the
river at Cabezon the latter a route from Santa Fe to Fort
Wingate (Fort Wingate was near present-day Gallup) . U. S.
Army troops and a stage line used the Cabezon route, and

37. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Survey Report . . . , op. tit., p. 117.

38. U. S. Department of Agriculture, 'Water Facilities Area Plan . ... op. tit.
p. 46.



270 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

Cabezon village was important as a way station and water-
ing stop. Even a temporary army post was set up at the vil-
lage in the last decade of the century. 39 Other advantages of
this route were a bridge near the settlement, which existed
until at least 1882, 40 and the Cerro Cabezon, a landmark
visible for miles. The Santa Fe railroad was built west from
the Rio Grande valley in 1880. The railroad and the wagon
roads from Los Lunas and Albuquerque began to carry most
of the traffic across the valley, and the route through Cabezon
began to dwindle and disappear.

But the disappearance of this route was only a minor
change in comparison to others about to take place. The entire
population of the middle Puerco valley soon began to feel
changes occurring in both the landscape around them and in
the nearby Rio Grande valley. Soon it became apparent that
irrigation and grazing, as the settlers practiced them, were
insufficient for gaining a livelihood in the middle valley, and
they began to desert the area for the second and final time.

The people of the settlements farthest downstream were
first to find they could not make a living in the valley, for
they deserted their little communities as early as the 1880's
and '90's. At the villages of San Luis, Cabezon, Guadalupe,
and Casa Salazar, the settlers were more successful for a
time, but eventually the majority of them were also forced
to move. Guadalupe and Cabezon were abandoned only a few
years ago. San Luis and Casa Salazar are still occupied, but
only by a few families [1957]. The four villages of this area
either met or are meeting the fate of the lower villages it
has only taken longer. Yet all during the twentieth century
these villages were declining in prosperity. At least one man
moved away from Cabezon as early as 1900 because, accord-
ing to him, he could no longer farm successfully and the
town was not prosperous. 41

Yet only the villages and their associated croplands were
deserted ; the rangeland on all sides is still used for grazing.
At the downstream settlements, the land passed into private

89. Gurley, op. cit.. p. 60.

40. Bryan, Historic Evidence .... pp. 273-274.

41. Ibid, p. 274.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 271

or government ownership and is now grazed by stockmen who
live far from the valley. Similar conditions exist in the San
Luis-Casa Salazar area except for the few remaining settlers,
who also graze a few animals the last remnant of the old
occupance.

The basic changes in the occupance of the middle valley
have been, therefore, not only the abandonment of villages,
but a shift from the dual economy of irrigation agriculture
and stock-raising to stock-raising alone. The significance of
this second change is that grazing as a single economy is in-
capable of supporting a resident population within the valley.
The few settlers who still remain are only partially supported
by their livestock, and they will probably all leave the valley
soon. The outsiders, those who have taken over the use of
the land, find no necessity for living in the valley. Briefly,
then, except for the villages and croplands, the middle valley
has not been deserted, but only given over to the use of non-
resident graziers.

Among the several causal factors for the change, the most
fundamental was the harsh desert environment in which the
settlements were placed. The type of occupance and land use
practiced was extremely hazardous under the most favorable
natural and economic conditions. But the period of settlement
was not a time in which conditions remained always favor-
able. Considering only such minor factors as annual varia-
tions in rainfall and flash floods, it is probably correct to
surmise that the occupance was most closely adjusted to the
"wet" years and was very imperfectly related to the "dry"
ones.

In the larger view, a series of adverse changes occurred
in both the physical environment and in economic conditions
that encroached on the settlers. Each of these changes con-
tributed in some degree to the abandonment of the valley, yet
the relative importance of each change can only be estimated.
The alterations in the physical environment were those of
severe injury and deterioration of land resources, with a
resulting decrease in productive capacity of the land. The
economic changes were the growth and development of the



272 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

Rio Grande settlements and other nearby communities, so
that the Puerco valley was left an area of relative as well as
absolute poverty.

One of the most serious changes in the land base of the
middle Rio Puerco area was the impoverishment of its vege-
tative cover. Vegetation depletion has been general on almost
the entire New Mexico watershed of the Rio Grande graz-
ing capacity has decreased 40 to 50 percent but the most
pronounced conditions of range depletion within this area
are found in and near the Rio Puerco valley. 42 Some areas are
more badly deteriorated than others. The most severely in-
jured rangelands are located between Cuba and La Ventana,
and between Cabezon and Casa Salazar. "Intermediately
deteriorated" and "slightly deteriorated" plant cover is found
throughout the remainder of the valley. 43

Depletion of the range was caused by overgrazing : it is
estimated that as early as 1890 the rangeland surrounding
the middle valley was overstocked. 44 Deterioration of plant
cover followed promptly, and probably continued little
abated until almost the present day. The blame for overgraz-
ing must be shared by both the Rio Puerco settlers and by
other graziers who brought animals into the area beginning
in the 1880's. The animal population was so large, near the
turn of the century, that the range grasses were eaten down
almost to ground level, many of the plants died, and few new
ones became established. In some locations grasses were re-
placed by hardy cactus, Russian-thistle, snakeweed, and
other plants of low grazing value.

A small part of the range adjacent to the valley has a
grazing capacity of one animal unit per year for each 50-80
acres. Capacity for most of the range is one animal unit for
every 80-130 acres, and another small area has a capacity of
one animal unit for every 130-210 acres. In almost every case,
however, the past use of the range has exceeded grazing
capacity. On some of the land, for example, less than 50 acres

42. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Survey Report . . . , op. cit., p. 8.

43. Ibid., from a map based on field surveys of range conditions, overlay on Map 6.
Criteria not stated.

44. Ibid.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 273

have been allotted per animal unit, whereas 80-130 acres were
needed. 45

No correlation is apparent between the various degrees
of overgrazing from place to place and the history of aban-
donment, yet overgrazing and vegetation depletion were
important in both decreasing present grazing capacity and
in their effects on erosion.

The natural grass cover of the middle Puerco area was
the principal control over the rate of runoff and soil erosion.
With much of its cover destroyed by overgrazing, the land
became more subject to both water and wind erosion, of
which water erosion was by far the most serious. The two
types of water erosion, sheet and gullying, are both found in
the area ; but sheet erosion, which is most active in reducing
the topsoil, has proceeded to only a slight degree. The entire
valley and closely adjacent area as far south as the Montano
grant have suffered "slight" sheet erosion, but much gullying.
Farther back from the valley on either side, there has been
a greater amount of sheet erosion ("moderate") with less
frequent gullies, and the entire lower section of the valley
has suffered slight sheet erosion. In the terminology of the
Soil Conservation Service, "slight sheet erosion" signifies a
removal of less than 25% of the topsoil, and "moderate sheet
erosion" signifies removal of 25% to 75 %. 46 Generally speak-
ing, it appears that sheet erosion has been one of the
less important factors in the decline of the Puerco settle-
ments, but the same cannot be said of gully erosion.

Accelerated gully erosion, including the entrenchment of
the Rio Puerco, was the most significant and striking change
in the physical environment of the middle valley. The alluvial
sediments of the old flood plain have been scarred and
grooved by countless deep erosion channels, of which the
Puerco channel is the largest. Thousands of tons of uncon-
solidated material have been eaten away, slumped off, and
carried downstream by the river and all its tributary arroyos.
Not only has this erosion removed and ruined considerable
areas of useful land, but it has also made natural floods im-

45. Ibid.

46. Ibid., p. 207 and Map 12.



274 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

possible, has resulted in lowering of the water table, in silting
of irrigation systems, and has made more difficult the con-
struction of diversion dams. Each of these associated factors,
in turn, and especially the last, has been significant to some
degree in the decline of settlement.

Accelerated gullying and channel erosion began in the
1880's, thus coinciding with overgrazing and depletion of the
range. Overgrazing must be considered the primary causal
factor in the entrenchment of the Rio Puerco and its tribu-
taries. For this reason overgrazing is one of the basic causes
of the valley's decline. 47

The channel of the Rio Puerco, created by the tremendous
erosional abilities of flash flood waters, is perhaps the largest
"gully" of its kind in New Mexico. As flash floods increased
in volume with the increased runoff on the watershed, the
river channel deepened and widened rapidly. At several loca-
tions in the lower part of the valley, for example, the channel
increased in width from an average of 75 feet in 1881 to 790
feet in 1939. 48 In 1927 the remains of an old dam were found
at the site of Los Cerros ; the base of the remnants was 22
feet above the bottom of the channel, indicating a deepening
of that many feet since the dam was used in 1887. 49 At La
Ventana the channel was only about eight feet deep in the
1870's, whereas it is now approximately 50 feet in depth. 50

As the channel deepened and widened, the settlers had an
ever-increasing task in the construction and maintenance of
their diversion dams. At first the dams were only flimsy struc-



47. Bryan has found some evidence that long term fluctuations in climate may be
the ultimate cause of arroyo entrenchment in southwestern United States. He agrees,
however, that overgrazing on the Rio Puerco watershed was the immediate, if not the
ultimate, cause of the rapid entrenchment of the river. See Bryan, op. cit., p. 281 ; Bryan,
"Pre-Columbian Agriculture in the Southwest, as Conditioned by Periods of Alluviation,"
Annals of Association of American Geographers, XXXI (December, 1941), pp. 232-236;
and Bryan, "Change in Plant Associations by Change in Ground Water Level," Ecology,
IX (1928), p. 477.

48. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Survey Report . ... op. cit., p. 216.

49. Bryan, "Historic Evidence . . . ," op. cit., p. 277.

50. Ibid., p. 275. Local baselevel for the Rio Puerco is the elevation of the Rio
Grande at the point where it is joined by the Puerco. This baselevel is actually rising
slightly because the Rio Grande is aggrading its bed. A part of the lower Puerco, in
response to this change, appears to have ceased downcutting. Farther up, the Puerco is
still well above its local baselevel and is able to continue downcutting unabated.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 275

tures of logs, brush, and stones and were easily destroyed by
flash floods. When the river channel increased in size, the
dams had to be larger and stronger, and these in turn were
more costly to build and required more frequent repairs.
Finally, when even their most carefully constructed dams
were washed out, the people already discouraged and im-
poverished by the other changes that were taking place
around them found it easier to abandon their villages than
to replace the dams once more.

That the downstream settlements in the valley were aban-
doned first was probably partially due to the headward
deepening of the river channel, which affected these settle-
ments first. The old dams, croplands, and ditches of these
downstream villages have all disappeared, and little remains
of the villages themselves, with the exception of San Fran-
cisco. Though deserted sixty years ago, many of the stone
and adobe walls of this village are still standing. Following
the abandonment of the settlements in this area, and even
before San Ignacio was totally deserted, two commercial
companies attempted to irrigate part of the valley in the
Montano grant. The plans and efforts of these companies soon
failed for much the same reasons that private settlement
failed but not before considerable expenditures had been
made. 51

The history of community ditch systems in the San Luis-
Casa Salazar area is somewhat confused, yet it aids an under-
standing of the importance to this area of the entrenchment
of the Rio Puerco. According to one report "an irrigation
system of considerable extent was put into operation at Cabe-
zon in 1865." 52 a date previous to that believed to mark the
beginning of the second period of settlement. But according
to an early investigation, all the ditches in the area were
constructed in 1872, which date seems to coincide with the

51. Kirk Bryan, "Historic Evidence . . . ," op. cit., p. 276 ; New Mexico, First Report
of the State Engineer of New Mexico, 1914, pp. 52, 34-39 ; New Mexico, Second Biennial
Report of the Territorial Engineer to the Governor of New Mexico, 1910, see "Rio Puerco
Irrigation Co." and "H. A. Jastro" in table opposite p. 70 ; New Mexico, Fifth Biennial
Report of the State Engineer of New Mexico, 1922, same names, in table following
p. 77.

52. U. S. Department of Agriculture, Water Facilities Area Plan .... p. 40.



276 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

founding of the settlements. 53 The ditches and dams at that
time were probably in about the same locations as those most
recently used. The northernmost dam was one above San Luis
that diverted water into a long ditch on the west side of the
river. Perhaps San Luis was also served, at one time in the
nineteenth century, by a ditch that began at La Ventana,
about twelve miles upstream. 54 Just above Cabezon a dam
marked the beginning of two ditches, one on either side of the
river, that irrigated the farms of this community. A short
distance below Cabezon a dam diverted water into a ditch on
the east side of the river. Another short distance down-
stream, and below the mouth of Arroyo Chico, was a dam
from which ditches extended on both sides of the river. These
two ditches, which were those of the Abra de los Cerros sys-
tem, are believed to have extended all the way to Guadalupe
and Casa Salazar. In addition there was yet another diversion
above Casa Salazar from which a ditch on the east side began.

Although the diversion dams were easily destroyed by
large flash floods, they were almost as easily replaced in the
early days of settlement. There is a record of dam failures,
for example, at both Cabezon and San Luis in about 1877. 55
The San Luis barrier, then "a very small affair of brush and
poles," was soon rebuilt, as was the Cabezon dam. But by
1880 the latter structure must have been destroyed again,
for the San Luis ditch was extended south to serve Cabezon.
Later, however, each town seems again to have had a sepa-
rate ditch. One local resident said that the Cabezon dam was
washed out for the last time in about 1922 (a very few rem-
nants of it may yet be seen), and apparently the San Luis
ditch was then extended to Cabezon again. Somewhat later,
in 1936, the last diversion to serve Guadalupe and Casa Sala-
zar was washed out, 56 and not since that year has irrigation
farming been practiced at either community.

Meanwhile the dam at San Luis was destroyed again in

63. U. S. Congress, Senate, Equitable Distribution of the Waters of the Rio Grande,
55th Cong., 2d Sess., Doc. 229, 1897-98, p. 167.

54. Information from Soil Conservation Service file on San Luis Community Ditch.

55. Bryan, "Historic Evidence . . . ," p. 273.

56. Soil Conservation Service file, op. cit.




San Luis Dam 1938





Ruins of San Luis Dam



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 277

1926 or 1927. 57 Soon thereafter the people requested the state
engineer's office to investigate a new site for it. In 1928 a
location was selected about one-half mile above the site of
the destroyed barrier, and an appropriate structure was rec-
ommended. 58 Apparently the local people were planning to
build the dam themselves, as in the past ; but the structure
was not begun until 1934, when construction was aided by
federal funds. In 1936 the new structure was completed by
the Soil Conservation Service, working with the local people.
In 1939 and 1940 the Civilian Conservation Corps and the
Soil Conservation Service made a few repairs and relocated
the heading of the ditch. Diverted waters served only San
Luis and not Cabezon.

The San Luis Community Ditch system was the only one
in the middle Puerco valley ever to receive government as-
sistance. For all repair and construction work, the local resi-
dents furnished the labor, and the government provided
materials, equipment, and supervision. But no great expendi-
tures of public money were ever made. Total cost to the gov-
ernment for work done in 1939, for example, was estimated
at$3,697. 59

San Luis dam was also the only one in the Puerco valley
built according to recommendations of qualified engineers.
All the others were haphazard contrivances wedged into nar-
row sections of the river channel. Usually there was no bed-
rock on which to build, and the unconsolidated alluvium of
the valley made very unsound footing. Poor construction and
poor foundation conditions, in addition to the pressures of
floodwaters, were the most important factors in destruction
of the dams. Even the one at San Luis, though better engi-
neered and constructed than the others, was not proof against
summer flash floods. It was destroyed by a large flood on July
24-25, 1951. This was the last dam in existence in the middle
Puerco valley, and with its destruction one of the basic eco-

67. Ibid,

58. New Mexico, Eighth Biennial Report of the State Engineer of New Mexico,
1928, p. 58.

69. Soil Conservation Service file, op. cit.



278 NEW MEXICO HISTORICAL REVIEW

nomic activities of the Puerco settlers, irrigation agriculture,
became a practical impossibility.

Little information exists concerning crop yields in the
Puerco valley, but it may be assumed that productivity was
always low. In the drier middle valley, the yields were prob-
ably somewhat lower than those of farther upstream. Dry
farming was attempted in the middle valley when irrigation
became impossible, but without success. Dry-farm corn ("un-
improved native corn") yielded only five bushels per acre at
San Luis, but much of the acreage that was planted failed
completely. 60

The low crop yields were not so much a product of the de-
struction of land resources as they were of the natural pov-
erty of the land. Lack of water was the major difficulty
there was never enough rain and often not enough irrigation
water. Soil quality was less important, even when the soils
were somewhat eroded by sheet wash. Nevertheless, yields
probably did decrease somewhat as a result of the removal of
top soil.

Periodic drouth was a contributing factor to the decline
of the middle valley that had a special effect on crop yields.
Sometimes drouth took the form of local "dry spots" and
sometimes it was general over the entire valley. If in any
year or series of years there happened to be insufficient rain,
and thus insufficient floods, there was probably a high per-
centage of crop failure. Then the people had to depend mostly
on their livestock. Although there has been no agriculture in
most of the middle valley for over a decade, the prolonged
drouth of that period has adversely affected the range
vegetation.

Not long after resettlement of the Puerco valley in the
1870's, the open rangeland available to the settlers became
more and more restricted. In Spanish times unoccupied and
ungranted land between settlements had been considered to
be for the use of anyone, but the Americans put into practice
the idea that all land was to be under some definite owner-
ship. At the beginning of the American period (1846) , most

60. Soil Conservation Service file, op. cit.



GEOGRAPHY OF MIDDLE RIO PUERCO VALLEY 279

of the land of New Mexico was placed under federal govern-
ment ownership as public domain. In time much of it passed
into private ownership, and non-resident livestock operators
gained control of large tracts on either side of the Rio Puerco
valley ; the Puerco settlers were deprived of the range they
had used so freely. At first they were probably unaware of
what was happening. Later they were financially unable to
acquire their own rangelands.

More recently the available range has dwindled still fur-
ther due to such measures as the creation of national forest
(in the San Pedro Mountains) , purchase of land by the gov-
ernment for Indian use, and control of the public range under
the Taylor Act. 61 Thus public land that once was parcelled
out to private owners is now being returned to government
ownership or control. This trend results from both a desire
to safeguard the resources of the Puerco area and from
nationwide federal conservation policies.

Even the old land grants, except the crop fields in the val-
ley bottom, have long since passed out of private hands, so
that the range lands of these grants are no longer freely
available. The federal government now owns the Ignacio
Chavez, Ojo del Espiritu Santo, M. and S. Montoya, Montano,
and Sedillo grants. Resident and non-resident graziers of the
valley are allowed to use some of this land, but much of it is
reserved exclusively for Indians of nearby pueblos. At the
present time only a few dozen animals are owned by the re-
maining settlers in the valley. Their stock is restricted to
small areas for which grazing rights have been acquired and
to the old croplands in the valley.

From outside the Puerco valley came a number of eco-
nomic influences on the settlers, in addition to range re-
striction. While the middle valley remained in a state of
semi-isolation, New Mexico as a whole became "American-
ized." This meant such things to the settlers of the valley as
property taxes, military service, and need for larger cash in-
comes. These new conditions tended to disrupt both the iso-
lation and especially the self-sufficiency of the valley.

61. Ralph Charles, "Land of Manana," Land Policy Review, I (November-December,


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