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Inscription Trail

March 29, 2019

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

Enhance today’s blog by listening to three different musical interpretations of the land:

Zuni Rain Dance (30 seconds)

El Corrido de Norte” by Los Halcones De Salitrillo (4 min)

A’ts’ina: Place of Writings on Rock” by Michael Mauldin (1 min)

Inscription Trail may be off the beaten path according to today’s standards, but this was not always the case. As early as 1200 AD this place became a vital rest stop. Near the western border of New Mexico, Inscription Trail sits at the base of a sandstone bluff and presents one of the only watering holes for many miles in what can seem like a desolate place. Among the petroglyphs, foreigners began to inscribe their names into sandstone, hence the name Inscription Trail. This place maps history in a way seldom seen today. It is a literal palimpsest of names, cultures, events, and ecology.

To begin, the land itself is ever-changing. While El Morro (Spanish name for “the headland”) holds water, the bluff’s top is arid, dry, and windswept. Snow and rain run into El Morro’s twelve foot deep pool and is the only visible water for miles which is how it quickly became the watering hole for all peoples of the west. It also supports wildlife rarely seen in the desert such as mud swallows, tiger salamanders, and catfish. Juniper trees and shrubs at the bluff’s base contrast the windswept, sky-filled cliff. Crows nest in sandstone fissures as El Morro echoes with the fall of water.

As Europeans arrived and later as homesteaders moved west, El Morro became popular with scouts and explorers. Of course, Native Americans already knew of it. A Zuni town stands atop the great sandstone bluff at A’ts’ina (place of writing on rocks). Petroglyphs of bear and bighorn sheep date back to 1275 AD. (It would be another three hundred years before the first Spanish explorer arrived.) The pueblo atop the cliff contains almost 900 rooms and is thought to have housed about 1000 people.

In 1583, Don Antonio de Espejo traveled from Mexico (New Spain) along the Rio Grande into what is now the state of New Mexico. As part of a journey to rescue some abandoned friars, he met many native tribes. Some of their interactions were peaceful and some not, however he relied upon their information. Various indigenous communities told him of way to find metal ores and mines which immediately interested Espejo. He extended his travel without permission from the church of Spain. In his journeys around the Zuni pueblo, he discovered El Morro (though he called it “El Estanque de Penol” or “pool at the great rock”). Espejo did not find minerals or gold, however his journey did mark a defining point of New Mexican history which was to become an important site for missionaries.

A couple of years ago, I wrote about the ways in which land carries historical reminders. This is, of course, true for El Morro. A few hundred years after Espejo, many wagon trains rolled through this area, and the name changed once again to Inscription Trail. This single place which contains a vital watering hole lists hundreds of names etched in stone. All names and images on this wall offer a glimpse into history.

Few names have received more attention than Juan de Oñate. According to the Inscription Trail Guide provided by the National Park Service, Oñate’s inscription is “one of the oldest and more famous inscriptions at El Morro…inscribed in 1605, fifteen years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. In 1604, Oñate left the settlement of San Gabriel with thirty men in search of the ‘South Sea’ (the Pacific Ocean). During their trip, the group visited the Gulf of California as well as the South Sea. On his return, Oñate left this inscription:

Paso por aq[u]i el adelantado Don Ju[a]n de Oñate del descubrimyento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.

Governor Don Juan de Oñate passed through here, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605.”

It should be noted that this was Oñate’s second time through the area, having first passed through in 1598. Oñate has a fairly brutal history in New Mexico. He founded settlements for the Spanish and also became the first colonial governor of Santa Fe, as recognized by New Spain (Mexico). In doing so, however, he is best remembered for the Acoma massacre where he killed about 1000 people of the Acoma pueblo. Those who were not killed (500 or so) were forced into servitude. Of those, Oñate ordered the removal of one foot from all men above the age of twenty-five. He was eventually banished from New Mexico and exiled from Mexico City for such brutality. His name is etched in perpetuity along Inscription Trail. Don Juan de Oñate is not the only political figure to sign his name here either. General Don Diego de Vargas also passed through in 1692 and much like Oñate, his record is also problematic. After the Pueblo Revolt in 1680, he reestablished Spanish control over the Native Americans and then became governor.

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)

General Don Diego de Vargas’s inscription roughly translates to: “General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico, at his own expense, was here, in the year of 1692.” (Photo credit: Alissa Simon)


Not all travelers at Inscription Rock were conquistadors, generals, or adventurers. Some were homesteaders and settlers looking for land. The Inscription Trail Guide explains:

“More than 150 years later, below Vargas’s inscription, three men added their own inscriptions. P. H. Williamson, Isaac Holland, and John Udell were members of the first emigrant train to try this route to California in 1858. The original caravan consisted of forty families and was led by L. J. Rose, who was born in Germany but made his fortune in dry-goods in Iowa. At El Morro, they left their inscriptions and then moved on to the Colorado River, where they were attacked by Mojave Indians.

“Thanks to journals kept by the immigrants, we know that survivors of the attack, including Rose, the Baley sisters, and Udell and his wife who were both in their sixties walked most of the way back to New Mexico to wait out the winter. Some of the party started again for California in 1859 in the company of Lt. Edward F. Beale.”

Beale himself is a fascinating figure. Following the Mexican-American War, Congress commissioned a number of expeditions into the deserts stretching between California and Texas. (They were, of course, eager to gain access to this uncharted wilderness and failed to recognize that much of this land was already inhabited by a wide variety of Native American tribes.) Beale’s Wagon Road stretched from Arkansas to Los Angeles. In addition to charting the road, Beale attempted to use camels. While the camels performed well, he notes, they eventually lost out to mule trains (and mule lobbyists). Beale’s signature is not on the wall, however some of his men did record their names.

Finally, it seems a fitting end to Women’s History Month to note that a handful of women also signed their names at El Morro, including the above-mentioned Baley sisters. There is also an inscription by the then twelve-year-old Sallie Fox.

Whatever name we choose to call this place: Inscription Trail, El Morro, or A’ts’ina, it reminds us of the complexity of human history.

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