A History of Puye Cliff Dwellings

Welcome to the ancient ancestral home of the Santa Clara Pueblo people atop the breathtaking Pajarito Plateau. Puye Cliff Dwellings overlooks Northern New Mexico's spectacular mountains and valleys, the sources of everyday sustenance and spiritual fulfillment for generations past and present.

Puye Cliffs was home to 1,500 Pueblo Indians who lived, farmed and hunted game there from the 900s to 1580 A.D.

Puye Cliff Dwellings was home to 1,500 Pueblo Indians who lived, farmed and hunted game there from the 900s to 1580 A.D.

Inhabitants of Puye Cliff Dwellings then moved into the Rio Grande River Valley. They became ancestors of today’s Santa Clara people, who now live at Santa Clara Pueblo, 10 miles east of Puye Cliff Dwellings.

Puye Cliffs comprises two levels of cliff and cave dwellings cut into the cliff face, as well as dwellings on the mesa top. Over one mile long, the first level runs the length of the base of the mesa. The second level is about 2,100 feet long. Paths and stairways were cut into the face of the rock to connect the two levels and allow people to climb to the top of the mesa.

Representing early Pueblo architecture, cave dwellings on the mesa top were part of a single, multi-storied complex built around a large, central plaza. While the total number of rooms is unknown, the south part of the complex had 173 on the ground floor and multiple stories in various places, similar to modern-day Taos Pueblo.

The largest of all settlements is the in the Pajarito Plateau, Puye Cliffs was excavated in summer 1907 by Edgar Hewitt in cooperation with the Southwest Society of the Archeological Institute of America. Puye Cliff Dwellings was the first of the ancient pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley to be systematically excavated.

I was named a National Historic Landmark in 1966.

The Pajarito Plateau

The Pajarito Plateau was formed from successive layers of basalt and volcanic tuff created by eruptions of the Jemez Caldera volcano. Over time, erosion by rain, snow, wind and cycles of freezing and thawing carved through the tuff to form sheer cliffs that border the canyons of the Jemez Mountains.

The weathering of the cliffs created a hardened by easily broken surface layer with a soft and crumbly underlying tuff that could be dug away by stone tools.

Beginning in the late 900s, the upland mesas flanking the east side of the Jemez Mountains were settled by ancestral native peoples. At first, they gathered into hundreds of separate family-size dwellings. By 1300 A.D., they were converging into a few principal villages of increasing size.

Such villages included Puye, Tsankawi, Tyuonyi, Otowi, Shufinne and Tsirege. The word “tsirege” – which means “little bird” in the ancestral Tewa language – was adopted and translated into the Spanish “pajarito” by Edgar Hewitt. He applied it as a general name for the great area of prehistoric settlement around the eastern flanks of the Jemez Mountains.

Harvey House at Puye Cliffs

Harvey Houses were built by the legendary Fred Harvey Company in the late 1800s as amenities for tourists traveling to the Southwest by railroad and, later, by passenger car. The Harvey House at Puye Cliffs is the only Harvey House built on an Indian reservation.

About Santa Clara Pueblo

The people of the Santa Clara Pueblo are a federally recognized Tewa Indian tribe located on the west bank of the Rio Grande River. This community can be found 25 miles north of Santa Fe and one mile from Española.

The original Pueblo of Santa Clara was established sometime in the 1400s. With a population of 2,800, today’s Santa Clara Pueblo – “Kha-‘Po Owingeh” (Singing Water Village, also known as Village of Wild Roses) – was built around 1580. It has a base of 57,000 total acres with lands ranging from 5,500 feet above sea level in the Rio Grande Valley to nearly 11,000 feet in the Jemez Mountains.

The tribe traces its ancestors to prehistoric villages and cliff dwellings west of the current region. Puye Cliff Dwellings is one site that the Pueblo occupied from approximately 900 A.D. to the late 1500s.

The first contact between the Spanish and Santa Clara Pueblo took place during the Coronado Expedition (1540-1542). The explorers established a settlement near the current-day Pueblo village in 1598 and then moved their headquarters close to what is now Santa Fe in 1610.

Facing increasing religious persecution, the Pueblo tribe united and revolted against Spanish rule in August 1680. They succeeded in driving the Spanish from New Mexico and keeping them out until the conquistadors’ return in 1692. The Spanish ultimately defeated the Tewas in 1694.

After the re-conquest, the Spanish did not persecute Pueblo religion as they had before. Pueblo lands were protected under Spanish and Mexican rule and further preserved under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, when New Mexico came under United States rule.

Today, Santa Clara Pueblo remains a vibrant representation of centuries of distinctive art, culture, language, tradition and hospitality. The village also maintains its own form of government that has been recognized by Spain, Mexico and the United States.

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