Major geological, economic, and cultural conflicts formed the Rio Chama Valley, leaving many markers and stories.
Visible geological layers tell of oceans, multi-color sandstone formations, crosscutting upthrusts, and faults. There are dinosaur and fossil remains that are more than 300 million years old. Prehistoric peoples left evidence of their presence as far back as the Paleoindian period, more than 12,000 years ago.
By the 11th and 12th centuries, other prehistoric communities thrived here, using irrigation to water their fields. Historic Tewa people and bands of Ute, Navajo, Jicarilla Apache, and Comanche nomads made their livelihood hunting, trading (including horses and human captives), and farming in this area.
Settlement continued when the Spanish empire sent conquistadors and priests in search of wealth and converts. Coronado’s expedition in 1540 and Oñate’s in 1598 brought settlers and horses to the area south of Abiquiú. By the 18th century, this area was the middle ground between colonial invaders from the south and open warfare to the north and east.
In 1724 some families received land grants from Spanish authorities. Using water channeled by ditches (acequias), they farmed and raised sheep for family use and trade.
Many land grants were created during the next 50-plus years, including one in 1754 to the Genízaros living in Abiquiú. Communities of farmers in Cañones, Youngsville, Coyote, El Rito, and other areas of the Rio Chama watershed also received land grants. Eventually, these land grants and land rights became subject to speculators’ manipulations and contests in the courts with unfortunate results for some locals.
Trade also defined this area as networks of footpaths and horse and mule trails made up early trade routes that established Abiquiú as an important market for many decades. In 1829 the first successful round-trip caravan to Los Angeles from Abiquiú marked the start of the Old Spanish Trail.
Artists and adventurers are drawn to the dynamic, rugged beauty and freedom here. Ghost Ranch was created and built by Bostonian Carol Bishop Stanley in the early 1930s. Stanley ran it as a guest ranch until environmentalist Arthur Pack bought Ghost Ranch from her in 1936. Pack gave Ghost Ranch to the Presbyterian Church in 1955. Artist Georgia O'Keeffe owned homes at Ghost Ranch and in Abiquiú. O'Keeffe's work draws visitors from around the world who come to tour her home and visit the areas that are depicted in her paintings.
Throughout the history of this region, movement of people in and out has been a constant, which has created a multicultural community of entrepreneurs, farmers, ranchers, artists, and crafts people.
Today, the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area helps to sustain the communities, languages, cultures, traditions, heritage, and environment of Northern New Mexico, and in nearby Pueblos, annual dances and ceremonies keep traditions alive.