The Middle Mimbres


This road tour starts at the intersection of San Francisco Street (San Lorenzo) and NM-35, travels west up Acklin Hill road to NM-152.  Turning left (east) it follows NM-152 to Galaz Road (crossing the Rio Mimbres along the way).  Turning left on to Galaz the tour goes through San Lorenzo and turns left on to San Francisco Street (The San Lorenzo church is shown to the right).  Rejoining NM-35 the tour completes a loop and turns north (right) on to NM-35.   At MP 15.1 the tour terminates at the intersection with North Star Road (which continues to follow the Rio Mimbres northward while NM-35 turns northwest to Lake Roberts and eventually the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument.  

The description of this tour is supported by video, photographs, and narrative.  

This section of NM-35 is part of The Trail of the Mountain Spirits National Scenic Byway.  At various times in the past this section of road was referred to as the Sapillo Loop (Silver City Enterprise - 12/8/1933) and the Inner Loop Drive by the US Forest Service.  The road between Mimbres and NM-152 was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the first part of the 1940’s and paved in the middle 1970’s.  This section of NM-35 is routinely included in the Tour of the Gila, part of the “America Tour” of the Union Cycliste Internationale. 

Starting at NM-152, NM-35 passes through grasslands, yucca, piñon, and juniper.  By the time NM-35 reaches the North Starr Road it is surrounded by Ponderosa Pine. 


Human inhabitants in this area are thought to date from 10,000 BCE and clear evidence exists of human habitation from 5,000 BCE.  Probably the most famous people to have inhabited the area are the Mimbres.  The Mimbres people are considered by many to be a subculture of the Mogollon culture.  The Mogollon were relying on corn based agriculture by 400 AD.  The Mimbres were defined as a distinct group by at least 700 AD, they left the area in about 1150 AD (Mimbres Reorganization Period).  In the 1300’s the Salado, a pueblo building culture from Eastern Arizona inhabited the Mimbres Valley for about 100 years.  The Apaches entered the area sometime shortly before 1600 AD.  

  • Deni Seymour reports on her findings on early Apache encampments in Arizona and New Mexico in a recent article in the Journal of Field Archaeology (Vol. 38, No. 2).  The Article, “Platform Cache Encampments: Implications for Mobility Strategies and the Earliest Ancestral Apaches” is summarized at the Western Digs - Dispatches From The Ancient American West website.  Seymour’s research has effectively pushed the arrival of Apaches in this area back to at least the mid-1400s.  

The Spanish were interacting with the Apaches during the 1600’s and 1700’s (sometimes peacefully).  By 1714 there was some Spanish settlement in the area, see sections below.  In 1804 the Spanish established the Santa Rita Cooper Mine, at historical Indian workings (the site was known to the Spanish as El Cobre from as early as 1780).  A Spanish population of about 800 is estimated from this time.  In 1834, the Spanish (Francisco Elguea) built a (private) fort at the mine.  During this time, several more settlements were established in the Mimbres Valley.  

By the 1820’s American Mountain Men were trapping in the area.  They typically travelled in groups called brigades and would trap ALL of the Beaver in a watershed before moving on to the next trapping ground.  In the 1840’s the U.S. Army invaded the area during the Mexican-American War.  Miners also entered the area.  This area was annexed by the United States in 1848.  In 1851 The U.S. established Fort Webster (named after Daniel Webster, Secretary of State) at the Spanish fort at Santa Rita.  In 1852 the fort was moved to near San Lorenzo (retaining its name).  The fort was abandoned in 1853 (troops transferred to Ft. Thorn in the Rio Grande Valley).  In general, formal presence in the area by Americans and Mexicans ended during this period and it was given up to the Apaches.

In 1848, Emory described the Rio Mimbres as “covered with a growth of stunted live oak...(and the) valley covered with cotton-wood, walnut, ash...(the river had many fish) without scales (Roundtail Chub).  (Report on the United States and Mexican Boundary Survey... p. 57)

An Apache reservation was proposed in the Mimbres Valley in the 1850’s but the discovery of gold at Pinos Altos in 1859 ended that idea and the Apache were forced off of (what was by this time) their traditional lands.

By the late 1860’s there were several military camps (associated with Fort Bayard, a few miles to the west).

By 1866 silver had been discovered near Georgetown and the small town grew in place in the early 1870’s.  (See more detail below.)

The end of the 1800’s saw the Mimbres Valley firmly (more-or-less) under the control of the Americans.  In 1905 the Gila National Forest was established and in 1907 Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument was created.



San Lorenzo was founded as part of the general Hispano expansion southwest from the Rio Grande Valley.  During this expansion: Cañada Alamosa (Monticello) was founded in 1864; Cuchillo Negro (Cuchillo) was founded in 1871; and Mimbres, San Lorenzo (1869), and San Juan were founded along the Mimbres River.

Earlier, in 1714, Governor Juan Ignacio de Flores Mogollón established a settlement here.  By 1853 the place had been given up to the Apaches.  Nothing remains from that period. 

In 1886 (est. 26 January) a U.S. Post Office was located in the store owned by Gorgonio Galaz.  The San Lorenzo Catholic Mission was built in 1899.

A structure built and owned by Gorgonio Galaz in 1913.
San Lorenzo, New Mexico, USA


A Smallpox epidemic affected the area in 1877 and floods, as always, occurred throughout this period.

Near the south end of the town is an adobe building built in 1895.  This is the Galaz Barn, in the 1890’s the local share croppers traded their produce for commercial goods at this place.

It is an idyllic farming community, services are along NM-35 (at the intersection of San Francisco and NM-35 and a few hundred yards south of that point on NM-35) and may include gas, grocery, and restaurant (or maybe not - services in the Black Range, in general, operate on what appears to be a shoe string and are often fleeting when they do exist).

The farms and ranches in this area receive water from an acequia is an old Spanish water distribution system which uses community-operated watercourse to distribute water to various farm and ranch steads.  In New Mexico, acequias have priority water rights because they are the oldest water right holders.  Each acequia is governed by a community association which elects commissioners and a majordomo (acequias, like many water distribution systems in New Mexico, are political subdivisions of the state).

Although farming still occurs in the area, it is giving way, increasingly, to second homes and retirees who come to enjoy the solitude, the beauty, and the Gila Cliff Dwellings just up the road.

Silver City is about 15 miles to the west and offers a full range of services.



Mattocks Ruin, Mimbres Culture Archaeological Site


This complex is located to the east of NM-35, turn right off of NM-35 at MP 3.8.  It consists of two homes from the late 1880’s and a field.  The “field” is the site of the Mattocks Mimbres Culture Ruins (550 to 1140 AD).  The site has been excavated and catalogued and then recovered for preservation.  Nothing associated with the Mimbres Culture is clearly visible at the site.  However, the research which has been conducted here was ground breaking.  The visitor center  is located in the Gooch House (see below) and is staffed by volunteers and administered by the Grant County Archaeological Society.  Visit their website for information about hours and events.

The Dr. Granville Wood House (see photograph right and in photo gallery) is on the National Register of Historic Places.  It was built in the early 1880s during a period of Anglo-Apache warfare, gun ports were built into the structure.  Wood established an orchard of apple, peach, cherry, apricot, plum, and pear during his occupancy.  

The Gooch House (photograph above and in the photo gallery) was built in the 1890’s. The history of this property is long and convoluted, visit the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site for more about its history.  In 1922 the Mattocks family purchased the property.  It is after them that the Mimbres Culture Site located adjacent to these buildings was named.  



The Black Range Naturalist, Vol. 3, No. 1, includes several articles about the Mimbres Culture and their perception of natural history.  The Mimbres Culture was centered along the Mimbres River which forms the western boundary of the Black Range.  The exact nature of the relationship between the Mogollon Culture and the Mimbres is not known but the Mimbres are generally considered to be a distinct “subregion” within the Mogollon sphere of influence.  Mimbres pottery, and in particular pottery from the Mimbres Classic period (see below) is typically used  to define the Mimbres Culture.  It is not known if the Mimbres people defined themselves as a separate people or if they saw their pottery as a defining characteristic of their culture.  During the early common era there were three major cultural areas in the American Southwest/Northern Mexico.  The Ancient Pueblo People(s), the Hohokam, and the Mogollon.  The map to the right (courtesy Wikipedia) shows the geographic area of influence for these three cultures.  (The Early Peoples Website hosts a significant number of photographs from Paquimé and the museum at that site in Chihuahua, Mexico.  Paquimé is generally thought to be Mogollon and was likely part of an extensive trade network which included the Mimbres Valley.)

The Mimberes culture left many works of art chipped into the rocks of the Black Range, see our Rock Art photo gallery.

The Mogollon culture was cohesive during the period 150 AD to about 1400 (AD).  As a subregion of the Mogollon culture the Mimbres are most clearly defined during two periods:  The Three Circle Phase (AD 825 - 1000) - which is the last period in which the Mimbres lived in pithouses - and the Classic Mimbres period (1000 and 1130 AD).  (The period spanning from 200 AD to 850 AD is less well defined.)  The Mimbres are best known for their wonderful pottery, which has been described as some of the best in the world.  

Pruitt Site - 1000 - 1150 - Mimbres Classic B on White
Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, UNM


The pithouses of the Three Circle Phase the Mimbres were four-sided structures of about 180 square feet (17 square meters).  The walls and floors were plastered.  “Kivas” were separate structures with some having a footprint of more than 30 square meters, the outline of these structures varied, some were round, some were D-shaped, and some were rectangular.  The differences in shape appear to have changed over time, with the circular ones being the oldest (700 AD) and the rectangular ones coming later (1000 AD).  The walls of these kivas were different from the kivas at other Mogollon sites and from sites elsewhere in that they had upright support beams integrated into them.

During the Classic Period structures (except for “kivas”) were above ground and formed into blocks of rooms (sometimes as many as 150) grouped around a plaza.  Quite often these blocks of rooms contained rooms thought to be for ceremonial purposes. (“Kiva” is a Hopi term which has been used to describe religious structures found below grade at most sites of this period.  As such, it is not clear how appropriate it is to use this term to describe the structures at Mimbres Culture sites.)

The Mogollon Culture (and by extension the Mimbres Culture) was one of what is broadly defined as the Oasisamerican Culture.  These cultures were able to adopt agricultural practices fairly early because of reliable water sources in an otherwise dry environment.  For instance, domesticated maize dating from 3,500 BC was found in Bat Cave, Arizona.  Agricultural practices in Oasisamerica were both developed by the indigenous peoples of the area and influenced by the practices found farther south.  Extensive trade existed between the populations in the southwestern portion of what is now the United States and what is now Mexico.

During the two pithouse periods (Early Pithouse from 1800 to 1500 years ago and the Late Pithouse Period from 1500 to 1000 years ago) agriculture and the use of pottery increased through out the Mogollon culture.  It was during the Late Pithouse period that what we now know as Mimbres pottery really came into its own.  

Swanson and Diehl (Mimbres Pithouse Dwellers) posit that “few pithouses on any given site were occupied simultaneously...evidence point(s) to relatively short occupations by small groups of people, with reoccupations over long time spans.”  There research seems to indicate that the pithouse sites were not villages as much as evidence of an “entrenched pattern of movement by small residential groups”.  During the Late Pithouse Period pithouse structures were repaired more frequently than they had been in the past.  In earlier periods they were simply allowed to decay.

During the pithouse periods, ritual structures (kivas) associated with the Mimbres culture were burned in what appears to be ceremonial acts of “retirement” (see Creel and Anyon - New Interpretations of Mimbres Public Architecture and Space: Implications for Cultural Change).  After the roof of the structures collapsed the walls, in most cases, were pushed inward covering the burned roof material and filling what had been the interior of the structures.  These “retirements” and the locations of the abandoned kivas remained in the oral histories of the Mimbres for centruries.

Creel and Anyon contend that the last of these acts occurred concurrently with the introduction of irrigation technology from the Hohokam culture, leading to more intense agriculture and what became known as the Classic Period of Mimbres culture.  Irrigation was certainly a concept that the Mimbres were familiar with but Creel and Anyon argue that it had not been necessary for their subsistence livelihoods prior to this time.  When it did become necessary they were able to take advantage of relatively sophisticated systems developed elsewhere.  They posit that this was not a dramatic and singular interaction of cultures.  They believe that significant interaction with the Hohokam had started during the 800‘s.  At about 1000 A.D., Mimbres transitioned from pithouses to pueblo style living structures and kivas were replaced with other structures.  For the most part, ritual structures used during the Classic period were allowed to simply decay.

Great Kiva Site, Mimbres Culture Heritage Site, San Lorenzo

The kivas of the Mimbres typically had objects imbedded within the architectural form of the structure.  These objects have been interpreted as “dedicatory offerings” made when the structure came into service.  Apparently these structures were viewed as transitory in nature, with their retirement from service planned from the very beginning.  Objects identified as “retirement offerings” are typically found in burned kivas.  Creel and Anyon discuss this process in “Ritual and Societal Transformation at the End of the Late Pithouse Period.” 


With the advent of more sophisticated agricultural techniques the Mimbres population appears to have increased significantly and its society became more complex.  What appear to be residential clusters of pithouses during the Late Pithouse Phase became clearly that during the Classic Period when room clusters are clearly defined in the pueblo structures.  In some cases plazas and kivas were clearly associated with some room clusters and not others.  During the Classic Period society appears to have become more stratified, with some burial sites much more elaborate than others.

When the agricultural and economic system of the Mimbres valley collapsed in about 1150 CE it is thought that the Mimbres people dispersed into different cultural areas, adopting the resident people’s style of pottery.  In any case, examples of Mimbres pottery are difficult to find after about 1150 CE.  Hegmon and Nelson in “The Archaeology and Meaning of Mimbres” (a compilation of several articles) argue that when many “large villages were depopulated around A.D. 1130, settlement continued in other villages, and people remained in the region...”.  As the resources (land fertility and wood primarily) of the Mimbres valley declined and a period of prolonged drought ensued the Mimbres Valley populations shifted; to the eastern slopes of the Black Range (Reorganization period), northward to be incorporated into the Tularosa tradition, and southward into the Southern Desert Tradition (best known for the huge complex at Casas Grandes (Paquimé) in what is now the state of Chihuahua, Mexico.


Mimbres Style l pottery is a black-on-white (sometimes called Boldface Black-on-white) style of pottery generally decorated by geometric designs (with a few examples of human and animal figures).  Mimbres Style III pottery, referred to as the Classic Mimbres Black-on-white style by some, generally depicts human and animal images and sophisticated geometric designs.  The work is often finely executed.  The image depicted is generally the central motif of the pottery and will usually be surrounded by a geometric  design around the edge of the pot.  The images of fauna are often accurate enough to determine the species of the animal depicted.  See the Mimbres Pottery Photo Gallery.

Many Mimbres pots, from the Late Pithouse and Classic Periods, have been found in grave sites, often as face masks, and usually with a hole punched in the bottom of the bowl.  (Prior to this time pots were smashed when they were “killed”.)  It is obvious from these holes that the color of the motif, whether it be black-on-white or polychrome is a surface coat which is placed on a pot of brown clay.  The use of a brown clay is typical of all Mogollon cultures.  Of note, is the fact that these pots were used prior to being placed in the grave (they show evidence of everyday use) and were not produced as burial artifacts per se.  

Starting in about 700 AD pottery styles changed fairly quickly, starting with red-on-brown they changed to red-on-white and then black-on-white.  The relative simplicity of the geometric designs on red-on-brown ceramics changed over time to become more complex and intricate.  By the mid-800’s Mimbres Style II Black-on-white designs had developed, including some that depicted the natural world rather than being limited to  geometric designs.

Galas Site - 750 - 850 - Mimbres Boldface
Maxwell Museum of Anthropology, UNM

Various sites from the “Reorganization Period” contain examples of both Mimbres pottery and examples of other stylistic traditions (like Socorro and Chupadero).  These sites clarify the transition of a culture that is today defined primarily by its pottery.


The Swarts site (or Swarts Ranch Ruin) was excavated between 1924 and 1927 by Harriet and Conelius Cosgrove.  The publication of their book, in 1932, about the site and the pottery found there generated the interest in Mimbres pottery that we see today.  The site was also excavated in 1929-1930 by Paul Nesbit of the Logan Museum.  The Logan Museum of Anthropology depicts a number of pottery examples on its webpage on the Mimbres Culture.  Depicted are pottery examples from (their classifications); Mimbres Plain, Mimbres Incised, Mimbres Corrugated, Manga Black-on-white (formerly Mimbres Boldface), Mimbres Black-on-white Figural, Mimbres Black-on-white Geometric, Mimbres Red-on-white, and Mimbres Polychrome.

The Mattock’s site (see several examples of pottery from this site in our photo gallery on Mimbres Pottery) is now the home of the Mimbres Culture Heritage Site.

Lastly, the need to protect Mimbres sites from looting was the impetus for the Federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act.  The Mimbres Foundation did its best to save Mimbres sites from the bulldozers which ravaged the area in search of the pottery which made the culture famous.

© Robert Barnes 2018-2024