Mission San Esteban de Acoma

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Mission San Esteban de Acoma (1629-1830s) - A Spanish mission established in 1629 by Fray Juan Ramirez in present day Cibola County, New Mexico. Abandoned by the Spanish as a mission during the Pueblo Revolt (1680-1692). Reestablished in 1698 and continued as a mission until the 1830s. Only the convento, cemetery and the church remain today. Also known as Mission San Esteban del Rey.

Mission San Esteban de Acoma, Church on the Left, Convento on the Right.

The Spanish Period (1769-1821)

Kiva Entrance Ladder.

Juan de Onate officially established the name New Mexico when he was appointed the first governor of the new Province in 1598. Onate extended the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, "Royal Road of the Interior," from Santa Barbara, Chihuahua into New Mexico opening it up for settlers and missionaries. The indigenous people of the new province were the Pueblo peoples and groups of Navajo, Apache and Utes. The villages of these people became known to the Spanish as Pueblos. The early missionaries sought to establish missions at each of the major pueblos and attempt to form the indigenous peoples into european like communities bring them into the catholic religion.

Bell Tower.

The Mission San Esteban de Acoma was founded in 1629 by Fray Juan Ramirez and was built between 1629 and 1641. The mission was built on top of a central mesa rising 370' from the desert floor. The mesa had only one route up via a narrow path cut into the rock and suitable only for humans and burros. All of the construction materials including dirt and water had to be hauled up that single path. The cemetery was constructed on a steep slope that was walled off to form a square and filled with dirt hauled up from the desert below.

Mission Plan HABS
Mission Drawing HABS

The church itself was a coffin shaped structure 145' long and 45' wide with two bell towers on the front that added another 25 or 30 feet. The walls were originally about 40' tall but have been lowered over the years with roof modifications and deterioration. Attached to the north wall of the church was the Convento, a 110' square of rooms enclosing a central courtyard. The cemetery extended out from the front of the church about 135' and was about 114' wide. In the back of the church was an enclosed corral.

The church was built over the main square of the original pueblo and was placed to cover over the main kiva, a place of religious significance for the Acoma. The kiva was a round sunken room entered by a ceremonial ladder. Covering over the kiva was meant to remove it from the Acoma consciousness, The Acoma responded by building disguised kivas in the adjacent pueblo, the kivas became square and above ground looking much like regular buildings.

The construction of the mission was a monumental task and the Acoma were very proud of the accomplishment. They were not happy with Spanish rule and the Spanish clergy who treated them as slaves and servants. The Acoma were part of the Pueblo Revolt in 1680 and they killed both of their Spanish priests but they did not destroy the mission they had labored so hard to build. They also harbored refugees from other pueblos during the conflict.

The Spanish returned to New Mexico in 1692 with relative ease but the Acoma in their natural fortress held out until 1698 before they submitted to Spanish rule and the Catholic church.

Mexican Period (1822-1846)

The Mexican Revolution transitioned New Mexico from Spanish rule to Mexican Rule circa 1822. It was during the Mexican period that the role of the mission changed to a purely religious one and the mission lands were reduced to property around the church and associated cemeteries. The Mexican government instituted a secularization program for the missions that confiscated mission property and sought to remove all Spanish missionaries.

The American Period (1846-Present)

The Mexican War was declared by the U.S. Congress on 11 May 1846 in response to a Mexican attack on U.S. troops in Texas. The declaration of war opened the door for American occupation of New Mexico and U.S. forces occupied Santa Fe in August 1846.

On 1 Nov 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed land patents to various Pueblos for their holdings, and personally presented silver tipped ceremonial canes of office to the recognized Pueblo Governors at an observance in Washington, DC. These symbols of the Governors authority continued a tradition established by the Spanish and the Mexicans governments. Some of the pueblos still have all three canes while some have only the Spanish and American canes. These canes are still a symbol of office for the Governors. Lincoln's land patents resolved the ownership issues surrounding the mission lands and laid the framework for the present reservation system. The Acoma are in possession of all three canes.

Current Status

War memorial at the Visitor Center.

Must See! The mission church has been restored and the Convento is being restored. The mission cemetery is active and ready for the third level of burials. The village on the upper level is not normally fully occupied but used somewhat as retreat area and by artisans who sell crafts and food to the visitors.

The Acoma operate a visitor center, museum, and cafe below the mesa. The visitor center runs conducted tours to the upper level that run about an hour and a half. The tour includes a visit inside the church. Still photography is permitted with the purchase of a tour package that includes a camera permit. Video or audio recordings are not permitted. Pictures are not allowed inside the church or of/from the cemetery.

Visitors are shuttled to the top and back in comfortable modern busses. The upper level is at 6,568' and this can cause some difficulties for people not acclimatized to this altitude. The guide will call for a van to return anyone having difficulty at any time. This is a well run operation.

Location: Acoma Pueblo, Cibola County, New Mexico.

Maps & Images

Lat: 34.89532 Long: -107.58258

  • Multi Maps from ACME
  • Maps from Bing
  • Maps from Google
  • Elevation: 6,568'

GPS Locations:



Visited: 17 Apr 2015

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