Saturday, June 28, 2014


El Morro, Cibola County, NM. Photograph: Russ Finley.

One site that has seen much history is El Morro rock in Cibola County, in western New Mexico. This large rock outcrop has a permanent pool of water in an arid environment, and pre-historically had a pueblo built on top of the rock. Ancestral Puebloan rock art can be found on the cliffs and spires of El Morro, as can the inscriptions and names of later comers.

Onate inscription over prehistoric figure, dated 1605,
El Morro, Cibola County, NM. Photograph: Russ Finley.

The earliest historic inscription on El Morro is that of Don Juan de Oñate who annexed New Mexico to the Spanish empire.  “In 1595 he was ordered by King Phillip II to colonize the northern frontier of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. His stated objective was to spread Roman Catholicism by establishing new missions in Nuevo México. He began the expedition in 1598, fording the Rio Grande (Río del Norte) near present day El Paso in late April.” (Wikipedia)

“In January, 1598 a colonizing expedition moved north out of San Geronimo (located in what is now the state of Chihuahua in northern Mexico). It was under the leadership of Juan de Oñate, a resident of Zacatecas who was fifty years old at the time. It included 121 Spanish soldier-colonists, some with their families, several missionaries, and a number of persons of mixed Spanish and Indian descent – about 400 persons in all. The colonists took wagons, tools, livestock and everything else needed for conquest and settlement.” (Slater 1961:4)

“Late in April, 1598 the expedition crossed the Rio Grande, in the vicinity of modern El Paso, Texas, and proceeded north. Headquarters were made at the pueblo of Caypa, renamed San Juan, on the Rio Grande north of modern Santa Fe.” (Slater 1961:5)

"On April 30, 1598, he claimed all of the territory across the river crossing to the north for the Spanish Empire. That summer his party continued up the middle Rio Grande Valley to present day northern New Mexico, where he encamped among the Pueblo Indians. He founded the Province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, and was its first colonial governor.”  (Wikipedia)

El Morro, Cibola County, NM. Photograph: Russ Finley.

The first known historic inscription to be placed on El Morro "is that of Don Juan de Oñate, governor and colonizer of New Mexico, and founder of the city of Santa Fe, who in 1605, on his return from a trip to the head of the Gulf of California, passed by El Morro and carved a record of his visit.” (

“Although his contract authorized Oñate to bring two ships a year “free of taxes and import duty” to New Mexico, the adelantado still had not traveled to the coast and identified a harbor. That challenge he met at last between October 1604 and April 1605, while the fifty or so colonists left all winter at San Gabriel told stories by the fire, made love, and wondered if the ocean had swallowed him up. To prove that it had not, a member of the party inscribed deeply in the sheer sandstone wall behind the pool at El Morro: “Adelantado don Juan de Oñate passed this way on the 16th of April 1605 returning from the discovery of the South Sea.” “I discovered a great harbor,” he wrote apprehensively to a new viceroy, “and clarified the reports of extraordinary riches and monstrosities never heard of before.” (Kessell 2002:86)

The translation of this inscription, the earliest known historic inscription at El Morro, and quite probably the earliest historic inscription in North America reads as follows:

There passed this way the Adelantado Don Juan
De Oñate, from the discovering of the South
Sea, on the 16th of April, 1605.” (Slater 1961:7)

It is not my intention here to present the whole story of Don Juan de Oñate (you can look that up at your local library, or online), just to present what might be the single earliest authentic historic inscription in North America. Why historic inscriptions instead of older Native American rock art? In many instances a historic inscription can actually tell a story, we can research the details behind its history and know much more of its meaning and content. That, in itself, can bring us an exciting involvement that is harder to find with the more ambiguous Native American rock art. In past postings I have presented inscriptions about Antoine Robidoux, the 11th Ohio Volunteer Cavalry, the 5th Cavalry, General Crook, the 2nd Colorado Cavalry, and others. While the primary focus of RockArtBlog will remain prehistoric rock art, I will continue periodically present historic material that I feel to be of interest.


Kessell, John L.
2002    Spain in the Southwest, A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Slater, John M.
1961    El Morro, Inscription Rock, New Mexico, Plantin Press, Los Angeles.


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