The human history of the Rio Chama Valley is rich with tales of struggle, innovation and survival.  This brief history of the Rio Chama Valley gives just a taste of what awaits the ardent history buff.  We invite you to explore our colorful cultural heritage through the many books and articles you will find at the Chama Public Library and local bookshops.Northern New Mexico and the Rio Chama Valley in particular have been called some of the richest regions for archaeology studies in the U. S.  Indigenous peoples of the Southwest have inhabited the Rio Chama Valley for at least 1,000 years.  The Puye Cliff Dwellings, established near the end of the Anasazi period stand in silent testimony to the resilient, hard working character of the ancient ones...learn more


As the Anasazi period came to a close, and as early as the 14th century, the ancestral Tewa People established pueblos in the general vicinity of today’s Abiquiu.  Among them, the sites of Poshuouinge, Leaf Water and Tsama remain relatively intact.  Visits can be arranged through special educational group tours...learn more

Today, the descendants of the Tewa continue many of the traditions of their ancestors through rituals and ceremonies in their current homes in the Ohkay Owingeh, Santa Clara and San Ildefonso Pueblos...learn more

Further north, in the vicinity of present-day Tierra Amarilla and Chama, New Mexico, the nomadic Capote band of the Ute mountain tribe frequented the hunting grounds of the fertile upper Rio Chama Valley, well into the mid -1800s.  Many remnants of their encampments, including fields of pottery shards and spear and arrow points can be found throughout the Rio Chama Valley.

Today, the most influential native group in the Rio Chama Valley is the Jicarilla Apache Nation.  Driven from their customary homelands along the Arkansas and Platte Rivers of Colorado, the Apaches waged a long and often desperate battle for survival.  In 1887, by executive order of the U.S. government, a permanent reservation for the surviving Jicarilla Apaches was finally established just west of Chama, a considerable distance from their ancestral homelands.  Today, gas and oil production have helped make the Jicarilla Apache a wealthy, progressive nation as they enter the 21st century...learn more

Rich in history for Native peoples, the Rio Chama Valley is equally important to European settlers.  In July 1598 (9 years before the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia) Don Juan de Onate founded the first European settlement in the West near the confluence of the Rio Chama and the Rio Grande.  He named it San Juan de los Caballeros.  Although the Spanish capital of Nuevo Mexico would later be moved to Santa Fe, the settlement by Don Juan de Onate began a period of Spanish colonization throughout the Rio Chama Valley.  The small communities were faced with harsh conditions, drought and armed conflicts over rights to the land. Nonetheless, the early Hispano settlers were a tenacious lot and managed to carve out an efficient system of acequias.  These irrigation canals provide the lifeblood even today for the agricultural and domestic needs of the Valley inhabitants...learn more

During the period that Spain and Mexico claimed the territory of Nuevo Mexico, hundreds of Land Grants were made to prominent citizens.  The Grants were intended to not only reward the recipient, but to provide a basis for settling and protecting the lands that were beyond the reach and resources of the Spanish Crown to defend.

After the Mexican-American war ended in 1848 these land grants were administered by the United States government.  Although the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was intended to protect private property rights, endless legal battles caused many land owners to lose much of their land. Furthermore, many people couldn’t identify what lands were rightfully theirs since they lived in communal resource areas...learn more

The Treaty did, however, open up the Rio Chama Valley for settlement by the third group of our tri-cultural heritage.  In 1866, Camp Plummer (renamed Fort Lowell in 1868) was established on the Rio Chama near the present-day town of Tierra Amarilla.

With protection from raiding Utes, European settlers expanded their influence through such communities as Las Nutrias, La Puente, Los Brazos, Los Ojos, Plaza Blanca and Tierra Amarilla.    All of these communities were settled in the mid 1800's and portions of some of the original houses are still places of residence, in a good state of preservation.  Many of the houses are listed as “significant structures” on state and federal registers of historic and cultural  places.  They were established by about sixty or so settlers who came from Abiquiu, because of the Tierra Amarilla land grant.  In Los Brazos one can dream of earlier days when there were three stone mills on the Brazos River or get a majestic view of “El Chorro”, the Los Brazos waterfall.  Every year around Cinco de Mayo, El Chorro can be seen from the surrounding communities as the torrent of water spills over the cliff.

At about this time, the little village of Chama was about to make history.  In February 1880, the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad began construction of the San Juan extension, a route that went from Alamosa, Colorado to Silverton, Colorado by way of Cumbres Pass, Chama and Durango.  Railroad service to Chama began in February, 1881 and facilities for servicing railroad equipment, a depot, warehouses and stockyards were set up along the route surveyed for the railroad.

The brief period of construction from 1880-1881 was one of the most exciting episodes in the area’s history and Chama almost immediately became a boomtown.  The possibilities for development attracted both industrious and disreputable characters from all around.  Individuals interested in developing the coal mines in Monero rapidly appeared on the scene as did representatives of the lumber industry, laborers, engineers and contractors to build the railroad and buildings required to accommodate the mass of people attracted to the booming railroad town of Chama.

For many years Chama remained a rowdy and exciting place to be.  It was a very prosperous town with plenty of work and a great deal of entertainment in the forms of saloons, gambling houses, moonshine stills, etc.  Groceries were expensive and outlaws, such as the Clay Allison gang, regularly held up the railroad pay car construction camps with large payrolls, saloons and gambling houses.

In the past, the main industries of the area were logging, mining and sheep and cattle ranching.  Before the logging industry clear-cut much of the timber, the vast grasslands one now sees, were hundreds of square miles of forest.  In pre-logging days the forest was so thick that it was difficult for a man on horseback to negotiate his way through the trees.  The sheep industry operated on a grand scale until the depression and the terrible winter of 1931-32 combined to nearly wipe out the sheep industry.   The visionaries at Tierra Wools, however, keep the traditions and art of the sheep very much alive today...learn more


The Green Rio Chama Valley Today

The Rio Chama Valley offers a unique blend of cultures.  In the shops and cafes you will hear a mix of English, Spanish and Native languages, often used in concert.  And you’ll hear a lot of laughter.  Serious conversations often turn to the environment and politics, as big changes are again underway.  The local economy, once fueled by agriculture, is increasingly fed by tourism and new businesses started by transplants from more congested urban areas.  We live in and visit the Rio Chama for the same reasons – clean air and water, open spaces, exciting scenic vistas, outdoor sports, and a warm and welcoming community that embraces cultural, religious and political diversity.  The Rio Chama Valley is one of the last great places to visit or live, and each year more and more people discover its treasures.

As a community we are concerned about the future for our children and our grandchildren.  As a community, we recognize that our role in preserving and restoring this verdant valley is perhaps the greatest gift we can give to our heirs.  You will find that “Green” is more than just a token here.  In our land use planning, in our commitment to education, in our agricultural practices and in our celebration of our cultural heritage, we are united in our resolve to be good stewards of a watershed that feeds and preserves a way of life for New Mexicans and beyond.

Want to learn more about the Chama Valley? Contact us.

We are here to assist. Contact us by phone, email or via our Social Media channels.

  • Facebook