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Sevilleta Cultural History - From Piro Pueblo to National Wildlife Refuge


1581    Rodriquez and Chamascado visit the northernmost Piro pueblo

1598    Onate renames the pueblo Nueva Sevilla

1630    Mission Church of San Luis Obispo de la Sevilleta

1680     During the Pueblo Revolt, all Piros relocate near El Paso del Norte

1811    A group of 67 Spanish families settle in the area

1819    The 67 families successfully petition for a land grant

1846    United States take possession of New Mexico

1912    New Mexico becomes a state

1928    Socorro County purchases La Joya de la Sevilleta grant for back taxes

1937    Thomas Campbell and John Raskob purchase land grant from county

1946    Campbell buys out Raskob and makes Sevilleta  into a cattle ranch

1966    Thomas Campbell establishes Campbell Family Trust 

1973    Sevilleta becomes a National Wildlife Refuge

Don Juan de Onate

Thomas Cambell

John Raskob

The Piro Area 1580-1680

La Provincia de los Piros, Michael Bletzer

Eighty years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, Coronado arrived in what became Arizona and New Mexico, seeking cities of gold. He found none in his 1540 expedition, but the later discovery of silver on the Mexican plateau brought others hoping to find riches underground as well as souls to save above it. In the early 1580s, two expeditions reached the northernmost Piro pueblo, later known as Sevilleta.

In the centuries that followed, Sevilleta's identity shifted repeatedly, depending on who was in power. This quiet corner of New Mexico has known Piro puebloans, Spanish conquerors, Franciscan friars, farmers, sheepherders, stockmen, sophisticated investors, and now researchers and interpreters. The land was home to Native Americans, then held by a Spanish King and his grantees, then sold to investors, and finally, given to the United States government.

Historical Details

In Search of Riches and for the Glory of God

In June of 1581, a friar named Rodriquez and Francisco Sanchez, a ruddy, red-bearded Spanish captain know as Chamascado (meaning “scorched”) led an expedition of 30 men from Chihuahua into Nuevo Mexico. They followed the meandering Rio Concho until it met a great river, which they followed north. Rodriquez and two other members of the party has been born in Andalucia and found that these New World landscapes reminded them of those they had left behind. They dubbed the wide river Guadalquivir, after Andalucia’s principal river. 


To this point they had met only nomadic Indian tribes, but along this “Guadalquivir” they visited nine settled communities, which they called pueblos (towns). Here were multi-storied houses of stone masonry, inhabited by Indians who wore woven garments made of the cotton they grew. They kept flocks of turkeys and raised maize and squash, among other food crops. Chamascado showed the Indians mineral samples and they in turn brought back pieces of ore, which were assayed by miners on the expedition and found to be only moderately productive. The northernmost of these Piro pueblos they named El Oso, the bear. 


The expedition continued north to Taos and east to plains covered in bison, then southwest to Acoma and Zuni. Rodriquez and another friar insisted on staying behind to begin their missionary work. Chamascado died on the return trip, but his men identified five mining areas worth developing. 


While some wondered about mining potential, the Franciscans expressed alarm about the fate of Rodriquez and his fellow friar. Although reconnaissance and pacification expeditions required permissions that took years to obtain, rescue missions did not. The opportunity appealed to a former officer of the Inquisition named Don Antonio de Espejo. He offered to both fund and lead the effort to find the friars. Seven months later, Espejo and his party retraced the steps of the Rodriquez/Chamascado expedition. They soon learned from the Piros that the friars had been killed, but rather than returning home, they continued on, camping near El Oso, then prospecting from present day Arizona to the Pecos River. Espejo had been born in Cordoba, on the banks of the Guadalquivir. He died on his way to Spain to seek permission from the King to establish a permanent settlement that he called Nueva Andalucia.


La Entrada: Don Juan de Onate, 1598

After years of negotiation and preparation, Don Juan de Onate led a caravan of over 500 men, women, children and 7,000 livestock north from Zacatecas. Onate had been born in Zacatecas, the son of a silver baron.The caravan traveled a direct and difficult 50-day route to El Paso del Norte. Continuing north,  Onate took a shortcut away from the river across what came to be called Jornada del Muerto (Journey of the Dead Man). They arrived at Teypana pueblo, the southernmost of the Piro pueblos, where the Piros gave them food and water. In turn, Onate renamed their settlement Socorro, Spanish for “succor,” meaning to give assistance in times of hardship and distress.


When Onate reached the northernmost of the Piro pueblos, members of the party who had been born in Spain may have commented on its site—on the east side of a great river—like Sevilla on the Guadalquivir. Whether for an imagined resemblance or in hopes of a prosperous future, Onate renamed the pueblo Nueva Sevilla. While his kinsmen roamed east toward Abo, Onate stayed at the pueblo for two weeks, sleeping inside for the first time since leaving Zacatecas. 


Shortly after Onate headed north, Apaches destroyed the pueblo, which was rebuilt over the next generation. By 1630, the Franciscans had erected a mission church, San Luis Obispo de la Sevilleta and Sevilleta (“Little Seville”) became the pueblo’s common name. During the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the Piros did not participate. Instead, they headed south to El Paso del Norte and by 1681 the pueblo was in ruins. (Recently, excavation work has begun on both Teypana near Socorro and the pueblo Sevilleta, especially valued because it is the only Piro pueblo with a mission church.)

La Joya de la Sevilleta Land Grant

After the Piros departed, the land at Sevilleta remained uninhabited for over 100 years, until 67 families arrived as a group in 1811. In 1819, the founding families petitioned Belen’s Alcalde for a land grant and soon received one. By the second half of 19th century, they had established settlements containing some 1500 persons. La Joya remains today. (La Joya is often translated as “jewel, ” but a secondary meaning is “hollow,” which fits its location—in a hollow just south of the hill which contains the ruins of the pueblo.)


La Joya was located on El Camino Real de la Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road of the Interior Lands established by Onate. As the full name implies, there were other royal roads, but El Camino Real de la Tierra Adentro was the longest and most influential. It followed Native American paths and trade routes from Mexico City to Ohkay Owingeh, above Santa Fe. In New Mexico, it led along the east side of the Rio Grande, above the flood plain, less a single road than a braided route that varied according to season and weather. El Camino Real carried everything from new foodways to new belief systems as friars, traders, soldiers, settlers and Indians traveled North America’s first highway, actively used until the coming of railroads. La Joya became a key gathering place for caravans before they headed south—past a narrow passage near San Acacia where Apaches could ambush a small party. 


Of Taxes and Unlikely Investors and a Wildlife Refuge

The United States took possession of New Mexico in 1846 and there followed disputes about the extent and nature of the Sevilleta land grant. In the end, the Sevilleta grant was judged to be a grant to individual families, not a community land grant. After New Mexico became a state in 1912, taxes were levied on the trustees of the Sevilleta grant. They could not pay, and in 1928, Socorro County acquired the land for back taxes.


In 1937, the Sevilleta land was acquired by Thomas D. Campbell and his partner, John J. Raskob. In 1928, Campbell was on the cover of TIME Magazine, which dubbed him “the Henry Ford of mechanized farming” for applying industrial principles to agriculture. He was widely known as the  “Wheat King,” due to the 95,000 acre size—and huge yield—of his Montana wheat farm. (Much of the farmland was leased from the Crow Indian Tribe, a transaction made possible by Campbell’s acquaintance with the Secretary of the Interior.)


John Raskob was a self-made man, who had started as Pierre Dupont’s personal secretary and become vice-president for finance at both Dupont and General Motors (GM)—where he also owned 43% of the stock. In 1928, Raskob supported Al Smith’s presidential candidacy and became Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The Chair of the GM board supported Herbert Hoover, Al Smith’s opponent, and insisted that Raskob resign from either the DNC or GM. Raskob left GM, sold his stock—and built the Empire State Building. 


Campbell and Raskob were introduced by a mutual friend in New York City and soon became partners in several land transactions. They purchased the Sevilleta land grant from Socorro County for under 50 cents an acre. Although Raskob’s name was not on the deed, he provided all of the money in return for a quitclaim deed from Campbell and his wife. In case of Campbell's death, the quitclaim deed enabled Raskob to record it and assume title for the Sevilleta land. The land in question had been severely overgrazed. Their plan was to clear the title, fence the property, remove all cattle and let the grass grow, believing the land would eventually bring $3 to $5 an acre. As happened elsewhere in New Mexico, families who had for over 100 years considered the land to be theirs were dispossessed.


With the coming of WWII, Campbell offered his services to his country. In addition to an important role overseeing the maintenance and operation of ground vehicles, he developed napalm, which was used against Japan. During the war, Campbell held the rank of Colonel. Afterward, he was made a Brigadier General in recognition of his contributions. He had come through the war and was now in his 50s. Campbell wanted to spend a sizable part of his time raising cattle at Sevilleta. Raskob had no knowledge of cattle and no interest in learning at his stage in life.  Campbell bought him out, dug wells and ran cattle. Over the next two decades, which included the severe 1950s drought, Campbell considered the future of Sevilleta. Shortly before his death in 1966, he formed the Campbell Family Foundation in hopes that the foundation would see that the land was maintained in its natural state and used for the purposes of education, research and conservation.


After years of consideration and with the skillful assistance of the Nature Conservancy, the land was transferred to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Sevilleta became a National Wildlife Refuge on December 28, 1973.

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