San Miguel del Vado Historic District
Located east of Santa Fe and Las Vegas, its most significant period was during the height of the Santa Fe Trail between 1821 and 1880.
San Miguel del Vado was officially the political seat of San Miguel County until 1860 when it was bypassed by the construction of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad in Las Vegas, New Mexico.
San Miguel del Vado was established by Lorenzo Marquez of Santa Fe, along with fifty-one other Spanish families.
This was thanks to the land grant approved by the Spanish governor of the territory in November of 1794. Frontier settlements like this were generally intended to protect the colony’s interior from Comanche raids.
The residents of the village, or vecinos were Spanish, Pecos Indians, converted Comanche, and enslaved Native Americans called genîzaros.
Many of the village’s residents raised stock or grew crops using acequîas (irrigation ditches) that carried water from the Pecos River. Like nearby Pecos, San Miguel del Vado served as a gateway to the plains; buffalo hunters called ciboleros often passed through the village.
By 1804, San Miguel del Vado’s population had increased enough to ask the Bishop of Durango for a church. Construction began the following year. The village continued to grow and, by 1812, there were 230 heads of family in the area–leading some to believe that San Miguel del Vado would one day become one of the biggest towns in New Mexico.
The 1827 census confirmed this suspicion, showing that the village had almost 3,000 inhabitants.4
Pecos River Crossing for the Santa Fe Trail
During the Spanish period, del Vado served as a buffer against Comanche raids but also against American and French merchants trying to tap into new markets. Once Mexico gained its independence, though, it welcomed trade with the United States.
This about-face meant that San Miguel del Vado was now the official eastern entrance into New Mexico, and the first settlement encountered by westward travelers after their trip across the plains.
The village lay at an easy crossing of the Pecos River, adding to its attractiveness for travelers.
Merchants would stop here and repackage or combine their goods to reduce their loads, thus avoiding duties and other extra fees once they reached Santa Fe.
Some French and American merchants would conduct their business in the San Miguel commons, bypassing Santa Fe completely on their way to Chihuahua and thereby avoiding taxes altogether.
The Spanish government eventually stationed troops in San Miguel to stop smuggling and tax evasion by merchants on the Santa Fe Trail.
In the village’s west plaza, archeologists have found ceramic and metal remains that suggest it was a particularly active location for trade.
San Miguel has many historic buildings from different architectural periods. The town’s plaza is bisected by the Santa Fe Trail and the Pecos River, essentially creating two distinct plazas.
The two oldest buildings on the east side of the plaza, the Dance Hall and Zaguan House, retain Spanish period characteristics including low windows and wood ceilings.
West of the Plaza lies the foundation of the old San Miguel County courthouse and what may have been a hotel, remnants of the town’s more recent history
Del Vado’s church is located on the west side of the plaza. The church is one of the oldest remaining buildings in the settlement, but its mixed styling–featuring Gothic windows and spires, wood and linoleum floors, and a bell added in 1821–speak to multiple layers of the town’s history.
Despite these different design influences, the internal structure of the church is the same as when it was built in 1805, and it still functions as the cultural center of the village.
Southwest of the historic church, metal and ceramic artifacts still litter the ground. These were likely left by Santa Fe Trail travelers that stopped to rest or trade in San Miguel del Vado.
In 1841, a Texan expedition to New Mexico ended up lost and hungry near the Pecos, and were easily captured by Mexican troops. Since it was fairly obvious that the outfit was part of a Texan campaign to annex northern New Mexico, members of the expedition were help captive in San Miguel before being marched to Mexico.
The women of San Miguel and the parish priest treated the captives with much kindness.NRHPTX
As the eastern gateway to New Mexico, San Miguel del Vado would also play a role in the Mexican-American War. As tensions rose between the nations rose, the Santa Fe Trail remained in use.
The trail was used by U.S. General Stephen W. Kearny during the seizure of Santa Fe in August 1846. General Kearny took control of San Miguel del Vado before reaching Santa Fe.
The Mexican-American War ended in 1846 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and what would become New Mexico Territory became a part of the United States.
Decline in the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century
As an agricultural economy dependent upon stock (mainly cattle) was affected by industrialization in the region. The economic and political center of San Miguel County shifted to Las Vegas in 1860.
With construction of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, San Miguel began to see its young men and workers leaving for better economic opportunities in Las Vegas, Santa Fe, or southern Colorado.
This continued into the second half of the nineteenth century as San Miguel was reduced by the Supreme Court ruling of 1897 that shrunk the San Miguel Land grant from 300,000 acres to 5,000 acres.
This decision cut the village off from its abundant range land, farmland, and timber.
San Miguel Today
Today, NM State Route 3 follows the same route the Santa Fe Trail did during its heyday. The village was bypassed by construction of the interstate highways. Because San Miguel del Vado is off the beaten path, it was able to maintain its identity as a prime example of a Spanish colonial and early Mexican settlement. This district has been preserved as an integral part of the Santa Fe Trail’s history.
How to get there
The San Miguel Historic District is 45.7 miles from Santa Fe. Take the I-25 North from Santa Fe for 39.2 miles, take exit 323 to NM-3 South. Drive 2.3 miles south. Find the historic church on google maps here.
Beauvais, Robert J. “San Miguel del Vado Historic District.” National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form. Santa Fe: New Mexico State Planning Office, 1972.
Jenks, Kelly. “Archeology at San Miguel Del Vado.” San Miguel Del Vado, New Mexico State University Department of Archeology (accessed November 28, 2018).
Jenks, Kelly. “Vecinos en la Frontera: Colonial History and Archaeology at San Miguel del Vado, New Mexico.” SMRC Revista (Spring/Winter 2011): 15–25.
Weiser-Alexander, Kathy. San Miguel del Vado. Legends of America.