Archaeologist investigating who built ancient chapel

By Tom Sharpe
Santa Fe, New Mexico (AP) 6-08

Restoration work at San Miguel Chapel could turn up new evidence about who built what is billed as the nation’s oldest church, says the group planning the restoration.

Tradition holds that Barrio de Analco, a neighborhood just south of the Santa Fe River, was founded by Tlaxcaltecan Indians – Christianized natives of Mexico who sided with the Spanish against the Aztecs in the 1500s and accompanied colonists north in the 1600s.

“The presence of Tlaxcaltecans in Santa Fe has long been assumed, but no evidence has ever been brought to light that undoubtedly proves their presence here,” says a statement issued by Cornerstones Community Partnerships, which recently began assessing the chapel’s condition. “Are they indeed the Indians who built San Miguel Chapel in Santa Fe?”

According to the announcement, Elizabeth Oster, an archaeological consultant who has been researching the mystery, believes by the time colonization of Santa Fe began, other Indian allies might have accompanied the Spanish to Santa Fe, including the Caxcans of Nueva Galicia, which now includes the states of Jalisco and Zacetecas.

“In her work, Oster has found that although the Spanish documented every detail regarding their colonization of Santa Fe, such as detailed lists of personal possessions and the names of all family members, she has not found any proof that the founders of San Miguel were Tlaxcaltecans and is trying to piece together how the assumption came to be,” says a Cornerstones news release. 


Cornerstones says its assessment of San Miguel Chapel will require the removal of samples from the middle of its adobe walls and the hard-packed dirt floors beneath its wood floor. This might result in unearthing bones and other artifacts, the group says, since graves are known to exist beneath the paved entrance to the chapel.

Cornerstones said it will contact “a long list of Native American Tribes in the region ... to solicit their concerns about the work that might impact the pre-Spanish Puebloan remains that are known to exist beneath and around the chapel.”

Unearthing human remains isn’t the only concern. Removing samples from deep in the adobe walls risks disturbing the chapel’s foundation, says the news release. But doing nothing could cause problems, too, because long-term moisture entrapment in the walls or floor “ultimately causes structural failure by turning the bricks or hard dirt into dust,” says the release.

Cornerstones took over preservation work at the chapel two years ago from Michael Moquin, an adobe craftsman who had been hired by St. Michael’s Corp., the Christian Brothers’ firm that owns the chapel and the building across East De Vargas Street that houses the Oldest House Shop.

Both buildings are among Santa Fe’s oldest tourist attractions.

According to the Cornerstones news release, construction of San Miguel Chapel, sometimes called a mission, began in 1710 on the site of where a building had been erected between 1610 and 1628, partly destroyed in 1640, rebuilt and then once again destroyed in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

The release says archaeological work there from 1955 to 1958 turned up evidence of the two earlier churches plus the remnants of a Pueblo Indian structure from the 1200s.