History of Otero Mesa
The lands of the Greater Otero Mesa Area have born witness to the presence of Native Americans, the Spanish in the Colonial era, Mexicans, and the sovereignty of the United States. Both prudence and due diligence should be exercised to insure that our cultural heritage is not jeopardized in a precipitous rush to exploit this fragile landscape.
Prehistory & Native Americans
In prehistoric times, salt was a necessary food additive for human survival. It was used widely as a food preservative and therefore a valuable commodity for trade. The salt deposits in the eastern Tularosa Basin provided a significant resource upon which the populations living in the high plains desert region depended.
Human habitation in the Hueco Mountains extends back 10,000 years. with various Native American cultures being identified as having occupied the land since these first inhabitants. Radiocarbon dating indicates that ceramics were introduced into the salt deposit regions of the eastern Tularosa Basin between 700-1000 A.D. These ceramic vessels were fragile and it has been suggested that they were used to transport and store salt from the salt beds too more densely occupied sites.
Unfortunately, many of these remains were collected in the 1920’s from these sites. Grooved and ungrooved stone axes, mauls, projectile points, metates and manos can be seen in private collections in the area. But information as to when, where and under what circumstances they were removed from their sites is lacking.
The Hueco Tanks State Park contains numerous petroglyphs and pictoglyphs and is a sacred site to several Native American tribes. Petroglyphs and pictoglyphs are also found in the caves and stone outcrops in the Guadalupe and Cornudas Mountains. The Guadalupe Mountains are a sacred site to the Apache Indians where the Apache deity White Painted Woman, a central figure in the female coming-of-age ceremony, rests.
The need for salt also led the Spaniards to these salt deposits during the Hispanic Colonial Period. In addition to preserving food, the Spanish used salt to refine silver ore.
In 1692, Don Diego de Vargas, the newly appointed Governor of New Mexico, ventured east–seeking salt for the people of old El Paso (known as Juarez today). He and his force traveled from the Hueco Mountains to the Cornudas Mountains, Crow Spring (Ojo de Cuervo) and on to the “South Point” of the Guadalupe Mountains.
His is the first written account documenting the presence of salt deposits, a description of the Guadalupe Mountains, and critically, the finding of water at Alamo, Crow, and Guadalupe Springs.
The route De Vargas took became the preferred route from El Paso to the salt deposits and the Guadalupe Mountains because of this discovery of water. The presence of Apaches in the region was a significant barrier to the full use of the route and the land it accessed until the later part of the 19th century.
Westward Expansion of the United States
With the end of the Mexican War in 1848, the lands north of the Rio Grande were ceded to the United States by Mexico. United States Military maps of the era show that the De Vargas trail continued to be used as an access to the Guadalupe Mountains and points east. In 1858, the 1st Butterfield stage heading west encountered the 1st Butterfield stage heading east at the foot of the Guadalupe Mountains along the De Vargas trail. This famous stage route that ushered in the California gold rush and brought farmers, miners and ranchers west utilized the very route that De Vargas had opened from the Hueco Mountains to the Guadalupe Mountains.