Displaced Families of Navajo Dam Remembered

4/13/2021

A San Juan County Historical Society booklet concludes a four-year project on Navajo Dam's ‘lost communities of Los Martinez, Los Pinos, Rosa and Arboles. By Donna Hewett. Sponsored by Serious Texas BBQ and Durango Party Rental

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Buckle up for a deep journey, not into outer space, but to the bottom of a massive lake 40 miles east of Farmington, New Mexico. You're watching the "Local News Network," brought to you by Durango Party Rental and Serious Texas Bar-B-Q. I'm Wendy Graham Settle. 60 years ago, the newly rising waters of Navajo Dam swallowed four rural settlements. Today, the remnants of Los Martinez, Rosa, Arboles and Los Pinos sway beneath the sky blue water. When construction of the dam began in 1958, the Bureau of Reclamation must have rationalized that something had to give in order to provide irrigation to the Navajo nation. The 200 or so families who were pushed out were also largely forgotten, until recently that is. Local historian, Patricia Boddy Tharp has made it her mission to record every soul born, married or buried in the erstwhile villages. Her four years of research evolved into "The Lost Communities of Navajo Dam," volume one and two published separately during the past year and a half, and it offers a rare glimpse into a vanished society, one that grazed goats and sheep and raised fruit crops.

It was a barter society. They were subsistence farmers, like what we call sustenance farmers today, before the word was even invented, they were sustenance farmers. They were not over producing. They were not wasting anything. They subsisted on the land. They grew enough crops to get their family fed through the winter, their cattle and livestock fed with alfalfa and oats, through the winter, and they had herds of goats and sheep in the beginning, later, cattle, and that was all they needed, and if they wanted, say, flour from the general store, then they could trade lambs or they could trade pelts or they could have extra fruit that they might sell. So there was no money.

Hispanos freighting mule trains from Abiquiu, New Mexico, through Largo Canyon, up to the San Juan Mountains, were familiar with the beautiful river valley, so when the area opened up for homesteading in 1876, many chose the prime river bottom land to settle. Any US citizen over the age of 21 could claim up to 160 acres, basically free of charge, but there were conditions.

The requirements were that you had to live on your property for five continuous years, and you had to make improvements by planting crops, building your house, your outbuildings, which typically were a barn or a stable or a corral, and then you proved up, and the early years, they had to go all the way to the general land office in Santa Fe, and you can imagine what that entailed. Even today, driving from here to Santa Fe is no easy task, and they went in their horse and wagon to prove up, and they had to take two corroborating witnesses, who also testified under oath, the three of them then would testify under oath, that, yes, I am an American citizen. Yes, I am over 21 years old. Yes, I have lived on my land from... And they told the date to this date that they were proving up, and it was five years, or maybe more, and that they had built houses and outbuildings, and they had planted crops, and then the two witnesses had to sign as well, and then the land was theirs, 160 acres, which was wonderful.

It's a past that only exists in old photographs and in the hearts and minds of the kids who grew up there. Some of Tharp's primary sources are those whose families were among the first to homestead the land, and sadly, the first to leave. Now grandparents themselves, they remember the good and the bad. For 79 year old Aztec resident, Nioma Espinosa Gallegos, the animosity from the federally approved displacement still remains.

It was a devastating move for everyone, because they had been settled here for many years. They had built homes. My grandmother had a wonderful Adobe house, and I'm sure they had built the house themselves and their buildings, all the outbuildings that they had, so it was devastating for the whole family, because their roots were here. This is where they were born. My father was born here in 1899 and his older brothers and sisters were born here. So it was devastating for the whole family, not just for the people that moved. It was for all the people that had come back to visit them, like me, that I would come here. So there's no way to go back now to those places.

Her husband of nearly 60 years, Ross Gallegos, speaks fondly from his old stomping grounds at Creek.

I had a lot of good memories over here, just playing with the local kids here. We'd come down here here, just a place right here from where I'm at now. We'd go play football, then I had the brothers have played over here... They had horses. We'd go horseback riding all over this here place, with all these hills, these back roads and everything. So we got to see that. Either that or we'd go fishing or we'd go swimming.

86 year old Delia Velasquez still lives in the house that she and her husband built six decades ago in Blanca, New Mexico, surrounded by her three sons and their children. Until 1957, the family had no electricity or running water. She reminisces from Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, where she was baptized. It's the only structure left of the once vibrant Los Martinez community.

We used to dry green chili with roasted chilies and peel 'em, and then tie 'em with a string, make a little row of three chilies in a row, and we dry 'em in the clothesline. We'd stagger 'em on the clothesline, and in the winter time, we'd soak 'em in water. The green chilies would come up real dark but they were really, real tasty. We'd soak them in warm water and then cut 'em and make a little roux, and either add scrambled egg and water to it, and that would go with our food, with our beans or potatoes, whatever, 'cause store-bought things were the only thing my dad would buy in a large amount, was rice and macaronis, and after the 1940's, like 1945, I think, we got a pressure cooker. We could can anything, everything.

Once the decision was made to dam the San Juan River and create the lake, people were given about a year to sell their property to the government. Along with a few churches, three generations of graveyards were moved to higher ground, where memories of the past are kept alive.

The people were really resilient. They were close. They believed in family. Their faith was so important to them. And when they were displaced, then this... They didn't have that anymore. They didn't have those bonds.

A mass and feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is held in the tiny immaculate church every December. Everyone is welcome. Published by the San Juan County Historical Society, both volumes of "The Lost Communities of Navajo Dam" can be purchased at the Farmington Museum and at Maria's Bookshop in Durango, or you can email p_tharp@hotmail.com. Thanks for watching this edition of the "Local News Network." I'm Wendy Graham Settle.

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