Cultural geography: The Galisteo Basin


When my inquisitive Spanish ancestors asked the Tewa Pueblo people about the geography south of today’s Santa Fe, responses described what was plainly obvious — a plain (pun intended). The Tewa word for “south” is akong pi’ye (“direction of the plains”) and is applied to a region that was populated by their brethren, a people that archaeologists today call the Tanos. They are also called the Southern Tewas because their language was similar to that of the Tewa.

The Tewa name for the Tanos was Thaa Nuuge Ing Towa (the words mean “live,” “below over at,” “there” and “people”) or Thaanu Towa (“Living below People”). The closely related Tano, Pecos and Keres peoples, who lived in multistoried adobe villages (called pueblos by the Spanish) and farmed the land south of Santa Fe, were all “Living Down Country People” to the Tewas.

Today this approximately 300-square-mile area is called the Galisteo Basin. Galisteo is a Spanish name derived from kálistos, a Greek word meaning “very beautiful.” It was bestowed by members of the Rodriquez-Chamuscado Expedition in the fall of 1581, during a naming spree that included saint names, descriptive names and names evocative of locations in today’s Spain and Mexico reapplied to numerous pueblos and geographic features encountered in New Mexico.

The basin is within a larger watershed primarily drained by the Río Galisteo. The region features broad llanos (plains) and flat-topped mesas bordered by sierras (mountain ranges)It is an ancient seabed thrust upward and broken by uplifts of rock formed deep within the earth’s crust, marked by layers of flat sandstone that the Tano Indians used as building material. In some locations, beds of gypsum contain alabaster (called jaspe in New Mexico Spanish), which was roasted in hearths. The resulting powder was applied as whitewash to the interior of rooms. At certain locations in the basin, molten lava broke through the surface or was pushed up through cracks. It solidified into curious walls called crestones (crest-like intrusive dikes), parts of which have been exposed through erosion. 

The lure of the Galisteo Basin is water draining from the southern slopes and foothills of the Sierra Nevada, the traditional name for the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. For 53 miles, the Río Galisteo has several sections of active flow interrupted by dry spots. The area is warm enough for at least a four-and-a-half-month growing season, with plentiful wood for building homes and keeping them warm during the winter.

The basin has numerous archaeological sites that after A.D. 1300 underwent major development into massive multistoried room-block pueblos with plazas. During the Coronado Expedition of 1541-1542, Galisteo Pueblo was called Ximena (he-MEN-ah), but this name did not stick. A party of Spanish led by Antonio de Espejo passed through the area at the beginning of July 1583, and thereafter the Spanish used the name La Provincia de los Tanos. Its inhabitants were described at the time as being more bellicose than the area’s other cultural groups.

After European contact, the Tanos fell into difficulties caused by climate change, raids by marauding Indians and burdensome obligations to the church and state of the Spanish. The decline began in earnest with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and continued steadily in ensuing years, despite efforts by the Spanish to support the Tanos continuing habitation of the area.

At the west side of the basin, near the town of Cerrillos (“Little Hills”), are the remains of San Marcos Pueblo. This pueblo may once have been called Ya-tze in the Keres language or Kua-kaa in the Tano language, but more certainly it was known as Kuunyae Ongwi Keji (“Turquoise Pueblo”) in Tewa. The village site was likely chosen due to its proximity to Ojo de San Marcos, a spring near the Río Galisteo. On Feb. 18, 1591, a group of Spanish making the first attempt at establishing a colony in New Mexico bestowed the name San Marcos (St. Mark). The site was also near deposits of kalaite (green to pale-blue turquoise), which residents extracted from irregular holes hammered out of bedrock with stone mauls. They also mined lead, used in pottery glazes, and otherwise enjoyed their resource-rich locale.

But the blessing of location also proved the undoing of the Tanos of the Galisteo Basin. In the 18th century they bore the brunt of many attacks from the Apaches and later the Comanches, who roamed a vast area to the east as a horse culture upon the llanuras (Great Plains).

This is more than hinted at by the name of a rim and downslope (bajada) bounding the south of the Galisteo Basin: Bajada de los Comanches. This prominent feature is crossed today by the highway to Stanley and Moriarty. Another place-name portending the marauders of yesteryear is the scenic Cañoncito del Apache, which bounds the basin on the east. Here the railroad and Interstate 25 pass through a narrows formed by massive sandstone walls along the Río Galisteo. The railroad stop of Lamy lies at the mouth of the cañoncito.


The rail juncture was named after Roman Catholic archbishop Jean Baptiste Lamy, who served as the first archbishop of New Mexico, from 1875 to 1885. This is an example of a commemorative place-name, in contrast to so many others in the basin that wax descriptive.

Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Galisteo Basin saw a growing population of Hispano sheep and cattle ranchers, resulting in many Spanish geographic names. Examples include the Real de los Dolores (“Our Lady of Sorrows”) mining camp in the Sierra de Ortiz, which attracted gambusinos (gold panners). The Sierra de Ortiz is a massive uplift of metamorphic rock holding veins of metallic ore. These low mountains were once called the Sierra de San Lázaro after the nearby Tano Pueblo but became “de Ortiz” when shepherd José Francisco Ortiz discovered gold there in 1828.

Pueblo Blanco (“White Pueblo”), perhaps originally named Khayay Pu (“Rabbit Shrine”), is named for its light-colored soil. Another local pueblo was named Shé (or maybe Ché) — a mysterious name possibly related to the Tewa word for “ladder” (she’ay). Ladders were important appliances for all pueblos, which lacked floor-level doors — to foil raiders, residents retreated to rooftops and pulled up the ladders.

San Cristóbal Pueblo was given its Spanish name in 1591 by the Castaño de Sosa party. The Franciscan order had established mission churches at both San Cristóbal and Galisteo by 1639. A remnant of the church at San Cristóbal, built of flat rocks, is still visible from the highway. Galisteo and San Cristóbal were important waypoints south of Santa Fe for Hispano settlers en route to obtain salt from the remnants of a paleo-lake in the Estancia Valley. Salt was necessary for preserving food and hides and was exported to Chihuahua for the processing of silver ore.

We can thus conclude that the Galisteo Basin, or what the Tewas called Thaa Nuu Ge Akong (“Live Down Country Plain”), is a borderland cultural landscape, with names linked to its many ethnicities. It is on the edge of arid terrain along the lush Río Grande corridor, interrupted by streams of water from the mountains. These streams were availed of by an agriculturally opportunistic people. The basin is also bordered by wide, open plains, once roamed by nomads and thereafter by sheep and cattle pastoralists. Many of the place-names arising there from time immemorial reflect the connections between people, their sources of food and the landscape they settled on.

Roberto H. Valdez is a native of New Mexico whose ancestors settled here in 1598. He holds a master’s degree in geography, with an emphasis on human-environment interaction, from the University of New Mexico and is currently a history and geography instructor at Northern New Mexico College in Española.


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