Eighty miles southeast of Albuquerque, in the hollow of towering desert ranges, lies the arid country which Indian tradition calls the Accursed Lakes. Here, at the points of a large triangle, sprawl the ruins of three once flourishing pueblo cities, Abo, Cuaray, and Tabira. Once, says tradition, streams flowed into lakes inhabited by great fish, and the valleys bloomed; it was an unfaithful wife who brought down the curse of God.
When the Spaniards came these cities were at the flood-tide of prosperity. Their combined population was large. Tabira was chosen as the site of the mission whose priests should trudge the long desert trails and minister to all.
Undoubtedly, it was one of the most important of the early Spanish missions. The greater of the two churches was built of limestone, its outer walls six feet thick. It was a hundred and forty feet long and forty-eight feet wide. The present height of the walls is twenty-five feet.
The ancient community building adjoining the church, the main pueblo of Tabira, has the outlines which are common to the prehistoric pueblos of the en-tire southwest and persist in general features in modern Indian architecture. The rooms are twelve to fifteen feet square, with ceilings eight or ten feet high. Doors connect the rooms, and the stories, of which there are three, are connected by ladders through trap-doors. It probably held a population of fifteen hundred. The pueblo has well stood the rack of time; the lesser buildings outside it have been reduced to mounds.
The people who built and inhabited these cities of the Accursed Lakes were of the now extinct Piro stock. The towns were discovered in 1581 by Francisco Banchez de Chamuscado. The first priest assigned to the field was Fray Francisco de San Miguel, this in 1598. The mission of Tabira was founded by Francisco de Acevedo about 1628. The smaller church was built then; the great church was built in 1644, but was never fully finished. Between 167o and 1675 all three native cities and their Spanish churches were wiped out by Apaches.
Charles F. Lummis, from whom some of these historical facts are quoted, has been at great pains to trace the wanderings of the Quivira myth. Bandelier mentions an ancient New Mexican Indian called Tio Juan Largo, who told a Spanish explorer about the middle of the eighteenth century that Quivira was Tabira. Otherwise history is silent concerning the process by which the myth finally settled upon that historic city, far indeed from its authentic home in what now is Kansas. The fact stands, however, that as late as the latter half of the eighteenth century the name Tabira appeared on the official map of New Mexico. When and how this name was lost and the famous ruined city with its Spanish churches accepted as Gran Quivira perhaps never will be definitely known.
“Mid-ocean is not more lonesome than the plains, nor night so gloomy as that dumb sunlight,” wrote Lummis in 1893, approaching the Gran Quivira across the desert. “The brown grass is knee-deep, and even this shock gives a surprise in this hoof-obliterated land. The bands of antelope that drift, like cloud shadows, across the dun landscape suggest less of life than of the supernatural. The spell of the plains is a wondrous thing. At first it fascinates. Then it bewilders. At last it crushes. It is intangible but resistless; stronger than hope, reason, willstronger than humanity. When one cannot otherwise escape the plains, one takes refuge in madness.”
This is the setting of the “ghost city” of “ashen hues,” that “wraith in pallid stone,” the Gran Quivira.