El Morro National Monument

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El Morro National Monument

May 5, 2007

We are staying in the Blue Spruce RV Park $13.50 for 50-amps, water & Cable TV with central dump. Blue Spruce is located on the south west corner of the I-40 exit 81 intersection.


In an earlier travel log we visited the Ice Cave & Bandera Crater along the western side of El Malpais National Monument. As you will recall it was all about volcano activity and what they left behind. In yet another Travel log we were traveling south on NM-117 along the eastern edge of El Malpais National Monument. In another Travel Log we covered volcanic cinder cones visible along the southern edge of El Malpias and south of El Malpais. In this travel log we are going to visit El Morro National Monument.



Hoodoos forming on leading edge of this sandstone cliff

Hoodoos forming on leading edge of this sandstone cliff



Finally SR-36 intersects with SR-53 and we turn north on SR-53 through the small community of Ramah and on to El Morro National Monument. The sandstone outcropping in this picture is one that can easily be seen from the almost identical El Morro inscription rock.














Desert Varnish on Inscription Rock at El Morro National Monument

Desert Varnish on Inscription Rock at El Morro National Monument



This is Inscription Rock at El Morro National Monument. Take note of the "desert varnish" on the side of this sandstone cliff.















Inscription Rock complete with desert varnish and a few hoodoos

Inscription Rock complete with desert varnish and a few hoodoos


El Morro is Spanish for the "headland." I am not sure of that name. It seems to me that it should have been named something like "lifesaving water" or "El Estanque del Penol" (the pool by the great rock)---or something that has to do with the pool and the large sandstone edifice next to it.


Most of El Morro consists of sands that were compressed into the yellowish-tan Zuni Sandstone. Later stream deposits became the Dakota Sandstone, a hard layer of rock protecting the Zuni sandstone beneath. Where erosion breached the upper layer, the exposed Zuni Sandstone wore away. The valley before you is a result of that erosion. Where the protective layer endured, as on El Morro, massive headlands remained. But even El Morro diminished. Wind and water continue to remove the sandstone grain by grain, and slowly attack the inscriptions at its base.

Note the desert varnish (dark stains) on the sandstone cliff.









Inscription Rock with desert varnish staining the sandstone walls


Inscription Rock with desert varnish staining the sandstone walls




Another view of Inscription Rock.















Hoodoo in the making

Hoodoo in the making





Do you see a face in this cliff?

Desert varnish is staining much of this sandstone wall.










To centuries of travelers, El Morro was an oasis on a dry trail. Runoff from snow melt and rain flows across the capstone of this massive formation, then plunges 200-feet to from a fresh, permanent pool.

Untold generations of Indian travelers stopped in the shade here, and then came Spanish, Mexicans, and, most recently, Americans. All found cool water, and many left their inscriptions on the rock.

Lieutenant James H. Simpson summed up El Morro in his Journal of a Military Reconnaissance, as:

"...canopied by some magnificent rocks, and shaded by a few pine trees, the whole forming an exquisite picture,... refreshing to the way-worn traveler."




Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument

Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument



Charles F. Lummis summed up his feelings about Inscription Rock in 1926 like this:

"No other cliff on earth records a tithe as much of romance, adventure, heroism. Certainly all the other rocks in America do not, all together, hold so much of American history. Onate here carved his entry with his dagger two years before an English-speaking person had built a hut anywhere in the New World, and 15-years before Plymouth Rock."

1906 was a "Monumental Year" for El Morro and Inscription Rock.

On December 8, 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed El Morro a National Monument under the Antiquities act of 1906. In doing so, he ensured that the inscriptions, petroglyphs and pueblo ruins would be preserved for generations to come.

"And whereas, the rocks known as El Morro and Inscription Rock in the Territory of New Mexico, situated upon public lands owned by the United States, are of the greatest historical value and it appears that the public good would be promoted by setting aside said rocks as a national monument with as much land as may be necessary for the proper protection thereof...

President Theodore Roosevelt, December 8, 1906

From the early Puebloan people who built their homes atop this rock, to the many explorers and adventurers who carved their names into the soft sandstone, to modern visitors who travel here to see the evidence of those who came before, El Morro reflects the history of the Southwest in a way that books can never do.

Understand that El Morro became a National Monument before New Mexico became a state.


El Morro National Monument

El Morro National Monument



This is the pathway leading to the pool and the inscriptions.
















Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument

Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument



Another view of Inscription Rock.
















Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument

Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument





When snows melt and thunderstorms dump their rain, water flushes off of El Morro's caprock. Over time these waters carved channels through the upper rock, and shaped plunge-points above the pool. Dark streaks below the overhangs trace the lingering paths of seepage. The pool, fresh and clear after storms, was a rare treasure in this dry land. It supported plants and lured animal life. This dependable oasis channeled human traffic to it, and sustained those who settled here. Drawn to this water, many travelers recorded their passage on the rock.













Pool at Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument

Pool at Inscription Rock El Morro National Monument


Before the days of interstates and automobiles, a journey from Albuquerque to Zuni (about 150-miles) typically took 9 or 10 days. Imagine the relief travelers must have felt when they reached a shady little oasis after walking or riding a horse for days across mountains, desert and lava rocks. The water at El Morro was not just refreshing; it was, at times, a lifesaver. Hundreds of years before Spanish conquistadors and soldiers passed by "El Estanque del Penol" (the pool by the great rock), the pool's dependable water supply encouraged the settlement of Puebloan people on top of the mesa.

The early 1920's marked the beginning of a period in which several major alterations were made to the pool and the pool area. The first custodian enlarged the catchment basin to provide more water for area ranchers and their stock, and erected a dam which would help retain water otherwise lost in runoff. After centuries of continuous human use, today the pool is used by an assortment of local wildlife taking advantage of its refreshing waters.



In the 16th century, after the conquest of Mexico, Spaniards sought another empire such as the Aztecs had ruled. Stories of gold-filled cities lured them to the Pueblo country. Their "new" Mexico did not match the old, but in 1598, Don Juan de Onate brought settlers and priests to found a colony. He continued the search for a rich empire. Returning from the Gulf of California, he carved the first Spanish entry on El Morro.


Some Indians met the Spaniards with friendship, others with hostility. In 1598, the Acomas attacked Captain Gaspar de Villagra. Losing his horse, he fled on foot and reached El Morro. In his epic poem, The History of New Mexico, he wrote:

By great effort I arrived at some lofty cliffs,

At which place I saw a tank of cold water,

Above whose crystalline waters,

almost blind,

I barely overcame the fury of the insatiable

thirst which overwhelmed me,

When trembling, all exhausted, I drank

eagerly of the wet liquid.

A few days later, the Acomas ambushed a Spanish detachment. The Spanish responded with the sword, killing hundreds of Indians and destroying Acoma Pueblo. Many Indians were captured and given severe punishment, but they eventually returned and rebuilt their homes.

In 1604, Juan de Onate traveled westward far beyond the Hopi Villages, on his way home he stopped at El Morro and carved on it the earliest known inscription there. Translated Onate's inscription reads:

"passed by here the Adelantado Don Juan De Onate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South (the Gulf of California), the 16th of April of 1605."

You will learn more about Onate and his inscription on Inscription Rock in the next travelogue.

The Catholic Church and Catholic religion has played a major role in New Mexico history. Franciscan priests came to the Pueblos as agents of both God and state. They sought to convert the Indians to Christianity and to make them obedient to the Spanish king. They enlisted Indians to build mission churches and to join the Spaniard's in wars against unconquered tribes. The priests taught new skills and tried to shield the Indians from harsh government policies. Submitting to Spanish power, the Pueblos found the new domestic animals and food plants desirable and the church ritual good, but were confused and dismayed to be punished for practicing their own religion.


Revolt by the indigent peoples and reconquest by a new generation of Spanish:

During the 1600's, church and state vied for dominance in New Mexico. The wrangling weakened Spanish control and encouraged the Pueblos to think of freedom. After some abortive plots, the Indians finally united under a single leader and rose in revolt in 1680. Surviving Spaniards fled south, with many settling in the El Paso area. For 12 years, the Pueblos again ruled their land. By 1692, when Don Diego de Vargas led an army back into New Mexico, the Indians has lost their unity. As defeat followed defeat, some submitted while others fled to the free tribes. New Mexico was once again under the yoke of Spain.

Westward Expansion: In 1821, New Mexico passed from Spain to the Republic of Mexico. Then the United States conquered the southwest in the Mexican War, 1846-1848, and began to map the territory and to deal with the free tribes.

A U.S. Army expedition, returning from making a treaty with the Navajos, marched near El Morro in 1849. Lieut. J.N. Simpson and the expedition artist, R.H. Kern, were led by a trader to see the inscriptions.

These two carved the first English names on the rock, sketched the Spanish engravings and wrote of "the cool and capacious spring...canopied by magnificent rocks, and shaded by a few pine trees, the whole forming an exquisite picture."

Keep Simpson & Kern in the back of your mind because the next travelogue covers inscriptions on Inscription Rock and Simpson & Kern are part of the history I will cover.

In 1857, naval lieutenant Edward F. Beale was directed to open a road from New Mexico to California. I wonder what a "Naval Lieutenant" was doing in command of a unit that I would consider an army area of responsibility.

As an experiment in transportation in the arid West, Beale took along 25 camels. Although these animals proved their worth, the army mule finally won out.

Beale's trail, which followed the old Indian and Spanish trail past El Morro, was used extensively for travel into Arizona. The trail was little used into California, however, because of the scarcity of water.

Like Lieut. Simpson and Kern, Beale and his entourage will be covered in the in the next travelogue dealing with inscriptions on Inscription Rock at El Morro.


Map of Beal's Trail from 1857









The Indian wars between the New Mexicans and the free tribes continued under the United States. For years after Mexico lost the southwest, United States troops campaigned against the Navajos, Apaches and other peoples. The Navajos surrendered in 1864 and more than 8,500 were forced to make the long walk of exile to Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. After much suffering, they signed a final treaty in 1868 and were allowed to return to their homeland. Peace was established.

The Apache wars lasted longer, but in time all of the tribes were conquered.

Today El Morro dominates a remote and beautiful land. Modern travelers pass it by, indifferent to the pool of water that once caused people to come this way. The desert oasis has lost its power.

Yet the past lives on. Pueblo farmers and Navajo ranchers, Spanish and Mormon settlers -- different cultures, different eras, still echo in the ways of their descendants.

At El Morro they paused to record their passage. With joke or boast, or merely initials and a date, they speak to us of bygone times. Even the stone is not eternal, but wears away and some day El Morro itself will be a memory. For a few centuries more the inscriptions will remain, recalling the ghost of long ago.




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