For centuries, the only water between Acoma and Zuni, a distance of about 100 miles, was a cistern-like basin filled by rain and snowmelt running down the face of a bluff we know as El Morro.
For centuries, people pausing for water inscribed their names and symbols in the soft sandstone. So many left their mark in the rock, the bluff reads like a who’s who of New Mexican history.
El Morro was declared a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906, preserving the inscriptions and the stories they represent. Walk the half mile Inscription Trail today and you’ll learn some of those stories.
One carving reads: “Paso por aqui el adelantado Don Juan de Oñate del descubrimyento de la mar del sur a 16 de Abril de 1605.” The first governor of the Province of Nuevo México was searching for a trail to the Pacific Ocean. He left his mark at El Morro after his visit to the Gulf of California.
Don Diego de Vargas’ name is also on the wall. De Vargas recaptured Santa Fe twelve years after the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. His 1692 inscription boasts of his conquest at his own expense “for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown.”
Other Spanish travelers left their inscriptions — Ramón García in 1709, Ensign Don Joseph de Payba Basconzelos in 1726 (returning to Santa Fe at his own expense, although it’s not clear from where he started), and the “Lord and Governor Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto.”
The longest Spanish inscription was carved by Governor Juan de Eulate in 1620, the year the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Eulate wrote he made peace with the Zuni, “with attention, zeal, and prudence, as such a particularly Christian gentleman and gallant soldier of unending, praiseworthy memory.” Someone later scratched out the word gentleman, an act that begs an explanation but delivers none.
In 1846, the United States assumed sovereignty of New Mexico. Soon English inscriptions began to appear. The first was carved by Lt. James H. Simpson. He was a topographical engineer traveling with Col. John Washington, who attempted negotiating a peace with the Navajo and ended up murdering Chief Narbona. Simpson drew maps and pictures of Canyon de Chelly and Chaco Canyon. He made copies of all the inscriptions at El Morro before leaving his own name here and perhaps left the first blooper, spelling “inscription” without its “R.”
Then, there’s the 1857 inscription by P. Gilmer Breckenridge, the man in charge of Lt. Edward Beale’s herd of camels. Beale was testing the usefulness of camels in the Southwest desert. His experiment succeeded only to be thwarted by the Civil War, which cut off his funds.
An elegant inscription was made by E. Penn Long of Baltimore, Maryland. He, too, was a member of Beale’s expedition, as were Misters Engle and Bryn.
R. H. Orton of the California Column left his name and a symbol of a church in 1866, most probably on his return home after mustering out of the army.
Women, too, left their mark. There are inscriptions by America Frances Baley and Sallie Fox, who was twelve at the time. They were part of a emigrant wagon train, led by L.J. Rose. His name, along with P.H. Williamson’s and John Udell’s, is also found on the wall. The emigrants were headed for California in 1858. Near the Colorado River, they were attacked by an estimated 800 Mojave Indians. The Mojave killed nine and injured 17, while suffering 87 casualties themselves. Sallie Fox was shot in the arm with an arrow. Survivors walked back to Santa Fe to wait out winter. Then, in 1859, they started for California again, accompanied by Lt. Beale. Sallie made it to California where she lived to ripe old age.
Once past the inscriptions, visitors can continue along a two-mile trail that switchbacks to the top of the bluff. Besides the incredible vistas from 200 feet above the valley floor, hikers can visit Atsinna pueblo, abandoned in the late 1300s. About 1,000 people lived here, descendants of today’s Zuni. They had rain cisterns built into their pueblo, but also cut handand- toe steps on the cliff face so they could access the natural pool at the base of the bluff.
Along the inscription wall, you’ll see images they carved: antelope, lizards, snakes, bear paws, human figures, hands, masks, and sacred symbols.
When you visit El Morro, you’ll drive along New Mexico Highway 53 from Grants. As you paso por aquí (pass through here), pay attention to the road — not its surface, but its history. The road you drive on was the wagon road Lt. Beale surveyed and laid out during his camel mission. It ran from Santa Fe to the California–Arizona border. It was the first practical highway along the 35th Parallel and was a popular trail for emigrants in the 1870s. When the Union Pacific railroad was surveyed, engineers chose to use Campbell’s Pass, 25 miles north of El Morro. That pass eventually was the one used for Route 66 and today’s Interstate 40. Perhaps it also served to protect the unique history inscribed by so may travelers over so many years.