The Trail from Chaco – Visiting Salmon Ruins, NM

Ancient Residents of Chaco Canyon move to Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield New Mexico

While staying in the Farmington, New Mexico area, we had several opportunities to explore the amazing culture that flowed from Chaco Canyon near the turn of the millenium, around 850-1200 AD.  We continue our series on the Anasazi culture here in Bloomfield at the Salmon Ruins.  See Visiting Chaco Canyon – Where did the Anasazi go? to start our tour at the beginning.

Salmon Ruins marks the transition between Chaco and what happened afterwards.  The Ruins are what is left of a Great House directly North of Chaco Canyon, approximately 45 miles along the ancient North Road.

The area is currently part of the Navajo Ancestral Lands.  They call it the “Totah” which translates roughly to “the union of many waters”.  The Piedra, Animas and La Plata rivers all flow into the San Juan within a few miles of each other.  The area has always had adequate water for farming, and been subject, at times, to extreme floods.  It is a good place to call home and people have always lived here.  There are major ruins beneath Farmington, Shiprock, Bloomfield and Aztec. Minor homesteads dated from 850 AD and before have been documented, scattered throughout the area.

The Ruins

Discovery and archaeology

In 1877, Peter Milton Salmon homesteaded the 160 acres that include Salmon Ruins.  During the time he and his family owned the property, they carefully protected it from looters and did some minor preservation.  The site is now named Salmon Ruins in honor of the family who went to great effort to protect it.

The Ruins are now owned by the San Juan County Museum Association.  The property includes a museum, gift shop and library.  The grounds contain the excavated portion of Salmon Ruins as well as a heritage park that shows reconstructed Navajo and other Native Indian homes from periods following the abandonment of the ruins.  A Pioneer Homestead Complex area includes the original Salmon home and outbuildings as homesteaded in 1877.

Influence from Chaco Culture

An early section of the building was constructed between 1068 and 1072.  It was then left empty.  Major construction resumed in from 1088-1090, apparently by architects and engineers from Chaco Canyon.  The construction is not just similar to the Chaco Canyon style, but in many ways identical.  The Chaco people lived here until about 1150 and then abandoned the site.

Because of its similarity to the architecture, pottery and other artifacts of Chaco Canyon, this Great House is considered a “Chaco Canyon Outlier”.  The term “outlier” refers to any Great House that was built under the influence of Chacoan culture, at some distance from “Downtown Chaco”.  Some of these outliers are within the Chaco Canyon itself.  Others are spread throughout the four-corners region.  Example of other outliers are Aztec Ruins and White House at Canyon de Chelly National Monument.

At the time of its construction, Salmon was the largest of the Chacoan outliers.  It had 150 rooms on the ground floor, 67 on the second and an unknown number on the third.  It also had a central tower kiva and a great kiva in the plaza. Researchers estimate that 200-300 people lived here during the busiest times.  Within 4 miles, there are 28 smaller sites that may have been occupied during the same time. This appears to have been a cultural center for those other homes.

Influence from Mesa Verde Culture

Later Mesa Verdean residents renovated this room by adding a kiva

Later, about AD 1200, people from Mesa Verde came to the site and renovated it in their own style.   Examples of their construction can be seen throughout the site.  One of the easiest to spot is the addition of a round kiva in an existing square room.

The End of Salmon Ruins

Around 1250 AD a slow migration drew people away.  By 1300 AD the village was empty.  Researchers are still scratching their heads over what caused this migration.  Although many people suggest drought, this area is well supplied with river water even during a drought, and there had been many droughts.

In the 1280s there was a final catastrophic fire.  The fire killed at least 21 children and 4 adults.   The residents laid their dead in the Tower Kiva and cremated them.  (Another theory is that the children ran to the Kiva for protection, which then burned.  Very soon after this, they left, moving on to the next step of their journey.

How Does Salmon Ruins Relate to Chaco Canyon?

Great Kiva at Salmon Ruins. Backfilled to prevent damage

The time-line for the construction of Salmon Ruins is quite interesting.  The first thing to note is that people were already living in the area of the Totah long before this Great House was constructed.  Chaco engineers appear to have traveled the 45 miles due north to this site and established the cornerstone for the property in 1068 and built a small structure, apparently with the plan to come back later and finish.  They returned about 1088 to finish the project, apparently completing major construction in roughly two years.  This was roughly the peak of the Chaco Canyon influence in the area.

Over time it appears that the influence of Chaco Canyon waned and that of Salmon Ruins increased.  Some researchers interpret this as an increase in local power over the more distant influence of the Canyon.  The dates also line up with significant drought in the Chaco Canyon area, which made maintenance of that area much more expensive.

However it is interpreted, it is clear that the cultural center of Chaco Canyon made an apparently intentional transition up to the Salmon Ruins site.  With more water, and closer to existing population centers, it seems to have been a good choice.

Travel To Salmon Ruins

Salmon Ruins can be accessed directly from Highway 64 between Farmington and Bloomfield.  There is a small ticket charge.  Also, I recommend purchasing the tour guide which details each marker along the path.  It is helpful as you walk, but you may prefer to read some it later.  It is quite detailed.

A peacock greeted us as we walked the ruins.

The walk from the museum down to the site is a paved, but fairly steep path.  If walking is difficult, you can choose to drive the car down to the parking/picnic area at the level of the actual ruins.  Ask the docent for instructions.

Depending on your speed and your interest you will want from 30 minutes to up to 2 hours to explore the ruins, the homestead, and the heritage park.

Things to look for while you are here

  • A stone ladder from one level to the next
  • A round kiva built into a square room
  • The Tower Kiva

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