Willa Bowra, 1980
Who populated this area before “Aztec”?The area of land that encompasses Aztec has been occupied and used for over a thousand years. The early occupants of this land were the Anasazi, a name derived by the Navajo meaning the ancient ones. Cliff dwellings, pit houses and basketmakers are terms used to describe their sites. The Anasazi reached their highest peak around the AD 1100 as evidenced by Aztec Ruins. Sometime around AD 1300’s, the area was abandoned for a reason that eludes and is still debated by archaeologists to this day.
There are several theories that have accreditation:
- There are definite indications of a twenty-three (23) year drought that began in 1276, therefore driving the Anasazi out in pursuit of water;
- The Aztec Ruins are signified by a “fortress” as a result of raids by enemy tribes who might have cleared out the Anasazi Indians.
Aztec Ruins and the Animas RiverOn the west bank of the Rio de Las Animas Perdidas stands the Aztec Ruins National Monument, the remains of a great prehistoric town built in the 12th century. The creators of the Ruins used materials of stone and mortar to create massive masonry and huge apartment houses. The main ruin at the monument covers two acres, stands three stories high and contained 500 rooms averaging 10 by 12 feet.
This terraced pueblo is seven rooms wide at the base and four and five rooms wide across the wings. An enclosed plaza is dominated by the Great Kiva. Tree ring dating provides evidence indicating that most of the pueblo was built between AD 111 and 1115. Cultural and Architectural evidence indicates that the builders who abandoned the site by the middle of the 1110’s were related to the people of the Chaco Culture located at Chaco Canyon to the south. By AD 1125, people reoccupied Aztec Ruins whose culture resembled that of the people of Mesa Verde, Colorado. These people remodeled and enlarge the ruins and occupied the area until they too abandoned the ruins in the late 13th century.
The Animas River, which flows through Aztec, is derived from the Spanish name, Rios de Los Animas Perditas that means "River of Lost Souls." Two tales arise from why the river was named such. One being that the Spanish fought a number of Indians in a battle and tossed their bodies into the river, the second story suggests that it was named such because of the number of Indians and early explorers who lost their lives while trying to cross the river. Regardless of how the river got its name, it has continually provided the valley with the sustenance so needed in a semi-desert environment, water.
The name of Aztec can also be attributed to the misguided notion of Escalante’s visit to the San Juan Basin and finding large ruins, now known as Aztec National Monument, that were thought to have been built by the Aztec Indians. However, we know today that the Anasazi were responsible for the construction of the ruins. Yet with an early Mexican population settlement, the name remained with the city.
How Aztec Became a CityThe recorded history of Aztec does not start until the summer of 1776. The arrival of Father Francisco Atanosio Dominquez and Father Francisco Velaz de Escalante, two friars who were seeking a shorter trail route from Santa Fe to the missions in California. On route to find a suitable trail, the two friars and several explorers passed through the San Juan Basin. Don Bernardo de Miera y Pacheco, a mapmaker and surveyor, was a member of the exploring party. It is from his maps that many of the names of the rivers and the valleys were documented and are still in use today. Such names as Rio Florida (River of Flowers), Rio de Las Piedras (River of the Stones), Rio de Los Pinos (River of the Pines), and Rio de San Juan (River of St. John). Despite their efforts, Father Dominquez and Father Escalante never did find a suitable trail to the missions of California. However, their efforts did provide a route for all other explorers and early settlers into the San Juan Basin region.
Aztec was established in the late 1800’s. In its infancy, it was only a trading post in Taos County in the 1880’s. It was not until 1887 that Aztec became an established community. San Juan County was formed by cutting the west portion of Rio Arriba off. By 1890, the Aztec Town Company was formed and was in need to divide 40 acres of land for laying out a town. Aztec was born. Unlike the rest of the Wild West, the earlier Anglo-settlers of Aztec were of agriculture and horticultural backgrounds.
Though cattle raising and herding became prevalent later in the area, the farming of the valley took root sooner and hence allowed Aztec to develop a character quite different from the rest of the Southwest. For the most part, the citizens of Aztec were law abiding and quite proud of their peaceful community.
The citizens of Aztec were struggling to produce income to help boost the economy of their newly found town. In 1894, the Territorial Legislation financed a program called the “Experimental Farm”. This “experimental farm” was set up to teach local farmers the best crops that will grow in this area. The program was a great success for the Town of Aztec. However, the program ended in 1901 due to the lack of appropriations by State Legislation.
In 1895, Main Street was created with incoming businesses such as a blacksmith, a drugstore, barber shop, livery barn, a flour mill operated by water power, two lawyers, a doctor and a dentist, all of which were located on the East Side of Main. A meat market and a saloon with a mercantile store were located on the central block of Main Street.
The economy of Aztec was sustained by activities of new people coming in to build homes and farms. The older citizens were on pensions from the Civil War and consequently their income added to the economy.
By 1900, the City of Aztec was a beautiful town of homes with picket fences, flower and vegetable gardens. Aztec quickly became a well-established town, growing with sufficient businesses to supply the needs of the people.
The agricultural forum was sound and sufficiently maintained the economy of the town. The future of Aztec was bright and full of optimism. In 1900, daily delivery to the post office was a standard. By 1903, telephone exchange service began and by 1905, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad had a standard rail constructed between Durango and Aztec. Aztec became the shipping point for hundreds of head of sheep and cattle. In 1908 electricity found its way to Aztec, but since it was DC current, it was limited to sundown until midnight. It was not until the 1920s when the outfit was purchased by a Chicago company and converted over to AC current that electricity was available 24 hours a day. That same time in 1908, the Alturian Club was formed by several women of the community who donated time in the refinement of their community. They were the founders of the present city library.
Though Aztec for the most part was a peaceful town, it would occasionally have its debacle with a rowdy kid on occasion. As such, Aztec built a one-room jailhouse in 1910 for delinquent kids so as not to house them with “adult” lawbreakers. The jailhouse is currently on display at Pioneer Park. By the end of the 1910s, Aztec had approximately 30 businesses, including general merchandise, grocery, meat market, two newspapers, a bank, two lawyers, a bake shop, three doctors, two dentists, several carpenters and painters. Aztec was well on it’s way to becoming a busy town with well-stocked stores and many services such as jewelry and clock repairs.
In 1910 the population for Aztec was a steady 700 people and supported another 300 people living in the surrounding farming communities in Blanco, Bloomfield and La Plata. Aztec was the most convenient place to shop.
During the depression, Aztec did not feel the ill effects as much as the rest of the nation. The bank did not close and citizens were able to sustain the daily lives by working the land for food and supplies. Aztec was stagnant during the 1930’s and the 1940’s.
Political History of AztecThe greatest political controversy that plagues the City of Aztec has always been the County Seat. In 1887, the Territorial Government appointed Aztec as the county seat. It was in the same year that San Juan County was formed. The first meeting of the county commissioners occurred on March 7, 1987. That same month, citizens of Farmington, Junction City, Largo and Mesa City protested and petitioned for the removal of the county seat from Aztec to their own towns. In 1890, an election was held to determine the permanent residency of the county seat: Junction City received 255 votes, Aztec 246 votes, Farmington 1 vote and Mesa City no votes. In 1891, Judge E.P. Seeds ordered the City of Aztec to move the records to Junction City. So tentatively, Junction City retained the county records and county seat for a short duration. During this time, Junction City built a small two-story courthouse. Coincidentally, Junction City is now part of Farmington.
Junction City had been chosen for the permanent site for the San Juan County courthouse by the election. Aztec claimed the election was illegal and proceeded to take their case before the presiding judge of the district, Edward P. Seeds. Edward P. Seeds investigated the election process and found that Sam Johnson voted for Junction City and was not a resident of the county because he had been in the area for only 40 days. Johnson was arrested and pleaded guilty for illegal voting. Judge Seeds soon began to uncover discrepancies and illegal activities with the election.
Judge Seeds ordered the county seat to return to the Town of Aztec. Junction City appealed the case to the Territorial Supreme Court and on August 24, of 1892. The Territorial Supreme Court awarded Aztec with the County Seat. Within a year, Junction City ceased to exist.
By 1905, Aztec had upgraded with installation of the railroad and the telephone. The Town of Aztec was growing at an increased rate so citizens decided to incorporate and elect a Town Board (Presently known as the City Commission). A mayor and four trustees were elected. The Town was now organized and with an elected government that took over the maintenance and responsibilities of the streets, alleys, ditches, sanitary conditions and keeping the town clean. Citizens wanted a clean town and were determined to keep it that way.
Economical EvolutionIn 1901, the Durango Oil and Fuel Company drilled the first oil test in the county, on the East Side of Aztec. They drilled to a depth of 1500 feet and found no oil. They tried again, drilled to a depth of 1700 feet, and got a rainbow colors of water, but no oil. Shortly after, Durango Oil and Fuel Company abandoned the effort to find oil in Aztec. The effort was not completely abandoned. In 1921 the Aztec Oil Syndicate began drilling on the outskirts of Aztec and found an abundance of oil at 985 feet. They then drilled to 1750 feet and found a big flow of gas. The gas was piped to Aztec for domestic and commercial use. Gas sold for a flat rate of $1.50 per residence and burned in coal stoves by making burners out of piece of pipe by sawing nicks or drilling small holes, an inch apart. At the time, Aztec was the first and only town in New Mexico to use natural gas for fuel.
Between 1916-1918, several other companies began drilling and found that “shallow” drilling produced oil. Drilling activities throughout the basin were increasing employment and bringing in oil field workers, many of who were making their homes in Aztec. The economy was boosted by oil money.
February of 1950, the Federal Power Commission issued a temporary permit to the El Paso Natural Gas Company to lay a transmission line extending the San Juan Basin to California. This changed the Town of Aztec with an increase in revenue and a greater opportunity for employment, not limited to Aztec, but the surrounding areas and abroad. The El Paso Natural Gas Company employed a majority of the men from the area. Aztec was soon housing more people and businesses were booming. Citizens of Aztec who held patented land were also profiting from the transmission line.
By 1955, the population for Aztec was at an all time high of 7,000. There was a tremendous amount of construction activity with new buildings emerging throughout the Town, especially on Main Street. With an increase in revenue, the Town of Aztec built a new courthouse, post office, the streets were paved, waterlines extended, parking meters were installed on Main Street, and a new City Hall was built.
Activity increased in the mid-1960’s with the development of power plants, increased oil activities, increased mining of coal and uranium. Jobs were plentiful in Aztec and the surrounding areas. Life was good in Aztec.