Where We Live – in an adobe mud house
I have a couple weeks of vacation time coming up in the beginning of July and I plan on going home to The Lower Farm in Ledoux, New Mexico. Ledoux is about five miles from the historic Mora Valley.
The valley known locally as Lo de Mora in Nuevo Mexico formed a natural gateway for nomadic native tribes of the southern plains to enter the Sangre de Christo mountains and harvest the resources of deer, elk, beaver, bear and mountain lion. For generations Indian hunting parties, Spanish and Mexican ciboleros, commancheros, and French trappers had camped in the valley and used the route in reverse to access the buffalo herds that lived on the plains. There where no official boundaries as we know them and the timber, grazing and land use was generally communal for the benefit of all. The arrival of Spanish settlers brought European methods of land tenure to the region.
Despite the danger of attack by Comanche and Apache hunting parties a handful of Spanish families from the other side of the Sangre de Christo mountains settled along the banks of the Rio Aqua Negro ( Mora river). The seventy six paisanos who occupied the Lo de Mora around the year 1818 where isolated, faced hardship, and because of the distance and difficulties of travel lacked religious sacraments. They requested permission of the authorities to build a church in the valley. These determined people slowly brought change to the landscape and culture of the valley. Following law and protocol the residents were able to eventually receive an official grant of land from the Mexican government in 1835.
Manuel Antonio Sanchez, the Alcalde Mayor of San Jose de las Trampas, traveled across the Jicarita peaks with jefe politico of Nuevo Mexico, Albino Perez, to the valley of Mora in October of 1835. The purpose of Manuel Sanchez’s journey to Lo de Mora was to officially layout the Plaza de Santa Gertrudis site and to distribute the agricultural and grazing lands to the original seventy-six families. After the boundaries of the plaza were established and the irrigated agricultural lands were divided and measured the next step in land distribution was to address the boundaries of the ejidos. These common lands streched from the forested mountains to the grassy llano and were for the benefit of the community (It was later determined that there were 827,000 acres within the original Mora tract). To complete the formal act of possession the grantees performed “en demostracion de alegria arrancaron yerba, tiraron piedras, exparcieron punadas de tierra, e hicieron otros actos posesorios dando vivas a Dios y a la Nacion” (in a lively demonstration of possession, they would tear weeds from the ground, throw rocks and handfuls of earth, as well as other physical acts, while giving shouts of praise to God and Nation). These official actions established the Mora Community Grant as a legitimate grant under the laws of Mexico.
By royal decree the grant conveyed to the individuals who lived there the right to build homes, the right to plant and irrigate the bottom lands along the Rio Agua Negra and it gave the community the right to use the surrounding natural resources for the common good. The residents of the grant were left to their own devices for the protection of their homes, families, livestock, and crops. This isolation and individualism created a strong sense of community among the people in the Mora valley who lived under harsh and punishing conditions. The society they created was one of consensus and communalism based on religion, customs, land and the resources it provided .
The people that lived in the Mora valley had to be rugged and independent to procure necessary food, shelter and clothing for their families. Everything they needed had to come from the land. Theirs was a subsistence economy based on barter and shared resources. There where no stores nearby and any tools or supplies that might arrive originated in Chihuahua or Mexico City thousands of miles away. In irrigated fields they grew corn, beans, squash and chili. They raised sheep and goats for wool, milk and meat. They hunted the forest for game and harvested timber. For their homes they built them from the earth itself.
Adobe which is a mixture of clay, sand, straw and water can be formed into blocks for building. It had been used in Spain all the way back to the 8th century B.C., during the late Bronze Age and Iron Age. When the Spanish came to the new world they brought with them the knowledge of adobe architecture and used it extensively as it was well suited to the frontier.The majority of structures in the province of Nuevo Mexico where built of adobe including the governors home and offices, churches, casas and casitas. Making adobe bricks or an entire adobe house required few tools that could not be fashioned at the homestead or on site. The material was inexpensive, readily available, in abundant supply and sustainable – with periodic maintenance.
Near the same time that the settlers where petitioning for formal possession of their land the Mexican government overturned old isolationist trade practices of the earlier Spanish and began to allow entrepreneurs from the United States to import goods and follow the old trade routes through the Southwest. The Americans found a ready market for their manufactured goods in the frontier province. The Santa Fe Trail which began at St. Joseph, Missouri was soon choked with oxen and mule teams hauling freight wagons to Nuevo Mexico. One spur of the trail went by close to Santa Gertrudis de lo de Mora. The subsistence economy was about to be transformed.
In August of 1846, General Stephen Watts Kearney and the Army of the West marched into Las Vegas, New Mexico, about 30 miles from Mora and declared the people, land and territory were now under the jurisdiction and laws of the United States. Without a shot being fired New Mexico was now part of the U.S.. Five months later the New Mexicans and some Indian allies staged a revolt in Taos and killed several Americanos including Charles Bent the territorial governor. The revolt quickly spread and Mora became a hot bed of activity.
Indian people who had witnessed the loss of land and change in their culture because of the Spanish invasion were not anxious to experience another influx of people and the changes they would bring. In the Mora Valley, and throughout northern New Mexico the rebels were the same rugged individualists, heirs to community land grants, and small farmers who had settled Nuevo Mexico and valued the close attachment to the land and the resources it provided. The people who fought to preserve this lifestyle were mostly poor, but they owned their own land and had learned to survive in a sustainable economy.
In 1851 The United States Army built Fort Union twenty miles from Santa Gertrudis. The purpose of the fort was to protect travelers on the Santa Fe Trail from Indian attacks, serve as a supply center for Army operations and keep an eye on the Nuevomexicano population. Life in Santa Gertrudis de lo de Mora was rapidly changing. Many found employment at Fort Union and for some their first experience with a work for wage economy. They hired on as teamsters, carpenters and hauled firewood, timber and hay for the livestock. Farmers in Mora began to raise wheat to supply the commissary at the fort and there where five mills operating in the valley. The fort became a commercial force that influenced the economy, changed the traditional land use in the area and changed life in the Mora valley forever.
The American system of land tenure was based on market value. That system conflicted with the one which had been imported from Spain and used in New Mexico for several hundred years. The effect of this new policy resulted in the disintegration of a subsistence economy that had developed in New Mexico on community land grants. Because the original families were unable to utilize the vast holdings within the grant strategies and subterfuge were developed to gain ownership of land rights. Small farmers and ranchers favored the traditional system used in the community grants to allocate lands based on crop and livestock raising. Private land owners pursued private property rights that allowed arable and pasture lands to be divided into individual ranches. Over time, capitalism became the dominant economic base for the region and a cash economy replaced the subsistence economy.
Like many of the land grants issued during the Spanish and Mexican periods, the Mora grant has one leg in the past and one in the present and straddles a time when subsistence agriculture was replaced by corporate social structures and capitalism. National and global events affected the lives of Mora residents both economically and politically over the course of generations but these people have maintained a sense of independence and individualism to the present day – and are still wary of outsiders.
There are still many adobe structures and homes in Mora and throughout northern New Mexico. Some are being lived in, others are melting back into the land from which they were formed. The Lower Farm is a 150 year old adobe house that is being historically restored and preserved for its sustainable qualities. I’ll be busy mixing mud during my vacation this year.
Source used: New Mexico Office of the State Historian.
Photos: Jack Chapman and Dohn Chapman.