Trails, Rails, and Highways
How Trade Transformed the Art of Spanish New Mexico
Until August 2023
Curator Emerita Robin Farwell Gavin
Since prehistoric times, trails have traversed the broad landscape of New Mexico. Native American trails of the 12th century and earlier connected Chaco Canyon to Casas Grandes (Mexico) and Cahokia Mounds (Illinois).
In 1680 trails connected the Rio Grande pueblos and enabled their runners to carry secret codes coordinating the Pueblo Revolt. From 1598 to 1821, goods from Spain’s vast empire traveled over the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road to the Interior) from central Mexico to the remote northern frontier.
Starting in 1821, the Santa Fe Trail brought American and Mexican merchants face to face, while French fur traders and trappers roamed trails from Canada and Louisiana through New Mexico into Mexico. The Spanish Trail was forged in 1829, establishing the road from Santa Fe to the Pacific.
In 1880, the railroad opened the door to tourists, health-seekers, anthropologists, artists, and writers. And with the completion of Route 66 in 1926, automobile tourism began to flourish. Today, “cyber” trails bring the world to our fingertips.
Most of the Museum’s display galleries contain the six sections of this exhibit. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, a one-directional path leads visitors through the exhibition’s timeline from the prehistoric to the present.
Native Trails: Hallway nicho at the beginning of the tour
For millennia, Native peoples of the Southwest traveled trails from Mexico, the Pacific coast, and the Plains. As Puebloan cultures became established between 800 and 1100 AD, they traded turquoise, salt, and pottery for more exotic items such as conch shells, parrot and macaw feathers, copper bells, chocolate, and buffalo hides.
After their arrival in the 16th century, Spanish immigrants relied on the Pueblos to supply them with cooking pots, textiles, and produce, while Pueblo peoples sought iron tools, livestock, and clothing. Trade and travel along the Native trails were essential to survival.
Camino Real: Wells Gallery and adjacent hallway
The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro from Mexico City to Santa Fe officially opened in 1598 when Don Juan de Oñate and 129 soldiers, their families and native servants, forged their way north, using Native trails, to establish the first Spanish-speaking settlement in New Mexico.
From 1598 to 1821, the Camino Real was the main route of communication between the colonial province of New Mexico and the Viceregal government in Mexico City. Over this route came people and goods from all of Spain’s vast empire–from Mexico and South America, Europe and Asia. After Mexico’s independence in 1821, the Camino continued in use but became known as the Chihuahua Trail.
Santa Fe Trail: Brown Gallery and adjacent hallway
News of Mexico’s hard-fought independence from Spain in 1821 traveled quickly up the Camino Real. Trade was no longer restricted by Spain, and the first Missouri traders made their way across the Santa Fe Trail. Santa Fe became “an inland port,” where traders, trappers, and merchants from Mexico, California, Missouri, Louisiana, and Canada met and bartered with New Mexican merchants and Plains and Pueblo Indians in a truly international market. No longer under the thumb of Spain, and with the dissolution of the Mexican guilds and new sources for tools, materials, paints, and prints, local nuevomexicano artists began to work in a style much more expressive of their unique experience.
Railroad: Allred Gallery
The first trains reached Lamy (Santa Fe’s station is twenty miles east of town) in 1880. Replacing the Santa Fe Trail, goods now arrived on a daily basis, including new items that had not been available before—sheet tin for roofs, cast iron lintels and building parts, glass for mirrors and windows, and more. Nuevomexicanos could also now order from Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward as well as from manufacturers of religious items, effectively putting many traditional artists out of work.
Route 66: Besser Gallery
The completion of Route 66 in 1926 signaled a new era in tourism. Touted as The Mother Road, auto travel brought unprecedented numbers of tourists to New Mexico. Coupled with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, tourism helped many New Mexicans through the worst times of the Great Depression.
New Deal programs provided jobs building public works, recording the country’s artistic heritage, and painting murals in public buildings. Route 66 tourism brought new markets for struggling artists, while enterprising individuals established schools to teach the traditional arts and created markets where the work could be sold. One such market, Santa Fe’s Spanish Market, was established in 1926 and still takes place today.
New Mexican Art Today: Seybold, Healy, and Vedder Galleries
After centuries of change, nuevomexicanos continue to renew and revitalize their art, while holding fast to core values and beliefs. Trails are now translated into social media, and information, both historic and contemporary, is at our fingertips.
While some artists choose to remain more traditional in their imagery, others choose to use their medium as commentary on social and political themes, reflecting both their respect for the past and their concern for the future. Today, new trails are being forged at the speed of light, and new generations of artists continue to redefine “traditional” art.
Pueblo-Spanish Revival Style
The Director’s Residence and the Architecture of John Gaw Meem
On Long-Term Display throughout the Galleries
The first exhibition in this series highlights the Santa Fe Style of our historic house museum. Immediately after the Americanization Period and statehood in 1912, the Santa Fe boosters sought to redefine Santa Fe with regionally appropriate architectural styles.
Several years of discussion resulted in an understanding that both Pueblo traditions and Spanish traditions are blended together in the most iconic buildings for which the City Different is famous.
In addition to the architectural history display in the Boyd Gallery, QR codes located throughout the building can provide, via personal devices, additional information about unique architectural features and finishes.
Spanish Market Youth Artwork
On Long-Term Display in the Curtin-Paloheimo Gallery
The display of artwork by Youth Artists in Spanish Market continues in the Curtin-Paloheimo Gallery.
Various art categories are represented, including santos, tinwork, straw appliqué, colcha embroidery, precious metals, and pottery by youth artists ranging in age from seven to eighteen years old.
The west façade of the building with the main entry is seen upon approach to the site. The front portal (see floorplan 1) is a typical feature in Pueblo-Spanish Revival design, but here a rare wooden element is found. Unlike most portals, the exposed header beam and the carved corbels surmounting the viga posts are hewn from one large piece of wood rather than separate pieces attached during construction.
Accompanying the original wooden entry door with iron hardware is a historic tinwork sconce. A small window with visual access into the living room is covered by a spindled-grille.
According to Bainbridge Bunting’s 1983 publication John Gaw Meem: Southwestern Architect, Meem’s draftsmen found inspiration from a 1928 publication, Spanish Interiors and Furniture, by Arthur Byne and Mildred Stapley. “No fewer than twenty-three specific parallels between the book and house could be identified.” This three-volume hardcover publication is held in the Society’s reference library.
The front entry hall (2) features a pair of historic tinwork sconces. It opens into the living room (the largest room in the house) on the right and the dining room on the left. The east portal is accessed through a double gate of spindled wood and glass at the east end of the entry hall. These public rooms are furnished with wooden grilles that hide the former radiator heating system.
The living room (3) is stepped down from adjacent rooms and accessed through double pintle doors on the north.
The Grand Sala features a tall ceiling with vigas and herringbone design aspen pole decking above, three pairs of large windows, and a fireplace with banco. The small window that overlooks the front portal can be closed with a pair of rosette-carved shutters.
The dining room (4) features a corner fireplace, an inset alacena repurposed from an older historic structure, a tiled windowsill for setting down hot pots of food, and a hard plastered ceiling between carved square wooden beams to eliminate the potential of debris falling onto the food service area.
The large east portal (5) is brightly lit by many small-paned historic windows and doors between lightning-carved corbels and viga posts. Other interesting features include a uniquely-shaped double nicho at the south end and a fireplace with banco at the north end. A radiator cover beside the entrance into the dining room has a cupboard above it that functioned as a plate warmer in the winter months.
A large outdoor space, accessed from the east portal, has a large crabapple tree and other plantings within an enclosing banco on the east side. This east courtyard is used in warmer months for museum and rental programs.
The kitchen (6) is accessed from the north side of the dining room and the east portal. Original Mexican tile flooring, countertops, and a large decorative panel remain. It currently displays artwork from Traditional Spanish Market youth artists. The museum exit goes through the kitchen into the front patio with a large crabapple tree.
Southeast of the living room and the east portal are the more private rooms, including the library, the principal bedroom with closet and bathroom, a second bathroom, and two additional bedrooms.
The library (7) retains its original book shelves, repurposed for display cabinets and a small fireplace at the northwest corner.
The principal bedroom (8) has its own fireplace in the northwest corner and an outdoor access door to a small porch and the east courtyard garden.
The principal bathroom (9) preserves a built-in vanity with drawers and cabinets. Inside one of the cabinet doors, a beautiful vase with floral bouquet was painted in polychrome colors by a former resident of the house.
The deep walk-in principal bedroom closet (10) was opened up on the long side to accommodate exhibits.
The second bedroom (11) features another fireplace in the southeast corner. The second bathroom (12) was removed and this space became a hallway gallery that provides access to the adjacent Stockman Collections Center addition. Following historic preservation principles, the addition’s attachment goes through an existing opening and is set back from the front façade of the historic building.
The third bedroom (13) has a small closet on the north side. This rare feature in the historic house resulted from leftover space behind the large fireplace and banco in the adjacent living room.
The Museum Campus on Camino Lejo is situated at the southeast side of town along the Santa Fe Trail route that traversed 900 miles overland from Saint Louis, Missouri, to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
This trail, along with others including El Camino Real (The Royal Road) from Mexico City and the Old Spanish Trail from Los Angeles, made Santa Fe the hub of international trade which many have dubbed an “inland port.”
Archaeological remains of the Santa Fe Trail are well documented in this part of town with swales of wagon ruts and cultural artifacts cast off or lost by wayward travelers.
The Society’s property contains three archaeological easements. Two of the easements, known as ascents and descents, show paths that brought draft animals and wagons from the Arroyo de los Chamisos drainage behind the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art to the crest of the hill before descending again into the center of town.
The third easement is located within the driveway oval at the front of the Museum. Here, a Class I trail fragment is well-preserved and visible to the untrained eye. Visitors can learn more about the trail at the National Park Service’s Spanish Colonial Museum Wayside Project signage installed on the property.
Along with the historic trail, several paths connect the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art with Milner Plaza contained within the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture, the Museum of International Folk Art, the Laboratory of Anthropology, and the Museum Hill Café.
Farther down the paths are the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian and the Santa Fe Botanical Garden. The dirt and paved paths have benches and sculpture displays for rest and enjoyment along the way.
For More Information
Visitors can learn more about the trail at the National Park Service’s Spanish Colonial Museum Wayside Project signage installed on the property.
Click an icon below for detailed information from the National Park Service about each of these three historic trails.
Mexican Colonial House
Local santero Luis Tapia and his son Sergio reconstructed the pitched-roof wooden house as if it were an oversized Lego set using a system of marks that helped with placing the pieces together. The building is fifteen feet tall with a square floorplan that is twenty-five feet wide on each side and it sits on a raised platform.
The steeply pitched roof extends beyond the walls to form deep shade-casting eaves, although there are no windows.
The front faces west with a full width porch and a centered entry door. This façade contains all of the decoration on the house with carved posts and corbels, carved moldings, and a carved and painted door.
The Tarascan Indians who constructed this building are from northern Michoacán in central pre-Columbian Mexico. This area had been populated by native cultures since the third millennium B.C., but the earlier Tarascan evidence comes from around 150 B.C. with its highest achievements from 1100 A.D. to 1530 A.D.
The independent culture prevailed through many battles with the Aztec peoples and continued up through Spanish arrival in the region in the 16th century with descendants surviving today.
The Spanish brought European art and architectural styles to New Spain and the Mexican Baroque period (circa 1600-1800) witnessed a blending of native materials and techniques with European ideas of form and decoration.
This Mexican Colonial House was built in 1790 as a ceremonial grain storage building. The decorative details reveal a blending of cultures with curvilinear designs and elaborately pierced columns that are late examples of the Estípite or Churrigueresque style.
The eight-panel entry door has beautifully carved details of the personified moon and sun highlighted with white, gray, and red paint.
The 2.64 acre site on Museum Hill in Santa Fe is typical of the piñon-juniper woodland habitat. Mature Colorado piñon (Pinus edulis) and one-seed juniper (Juniperus monosperma) dominate the landscape with understory shrubs and perennials, such as rubber rabbitbrush (Chrysothamnus nauseosus), tree cholla (Cylindropuntia imbricata), soapweed yucca (Yucca glauca), prickly-pear cactus (Opuntia phaeacantha), and several grasses including blue grama grass (Bouteloua gracilis).
The native woodland has been altered over time due to extensive woodcutting practices and invasive non-native species such as Siberian elm (Ulmus pumila) and Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia).
A beautiful ponderosa pine (Pinus ponderosa) was probably planted long ago near the side of the historic house. It has created a microenvironment with the accumulation of years of shed needles on the ground underneath. During the spring through summer of 2020, the native Santa Fe phlox (Phlox nana) with bright pink flowers sprouted and thrived without any influence from staff.
Foundation plantings and gardens around the Anita Gonzales Thomas Courtyard include pyracantha, quince, rose, spyrea, and Virginia creeper.
A small Jardín de los Artistas (Artists’ Garden) was planted near the Mexican House with the assistance of the Santa Fe Garden Club and the Boy Scouts of America Troop 28. Plants with ethnobotanical importance to this region can be seen, such as madder and yarrow that are used for dyeing weaving yarns.