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Casa Morena, the Chaco Canyon outlier that never was

There are a lot of interesting things to be found in the desert if one is clever in the search. Part of that is looking for unusual items on maps, especially older maps.  You know, weird shit.

I have noticed that the Chaco Culture National Historic Park (Chaco Canyon to us plain folk) outliers are shown as blobs of National Park Service holdings on a variety of maps. These include USGS topos, as well as commonly used street atlases of the state. No big mystery there, and I’m more than a bit familiar with all the Chaco Canyon outliers.

As part of my typical “searching for weird crap in the desert”, I came across what appeared to be a rather odd Chaco park holding. It’s at 35.70012, -107.91815, and is about 13 miles east of Crownpoint. Now this is certainly the middle of nowhere, perhaps even downtown nowhere. In several New Mexico map books it’s shown as about a quarter section of land (160 acres) with a National Park Service designation. Pulling up the 1963 Laguna Castillo USGS quad shows the area clearly labeled as “Chaco Canyon National Monument”, the park’s name before it became all cultured-up. This was interesting, as I had never seen any mention of outliers in this area. The nearest ones were Kin Ya’a to the west and Pueblo Pintado to the far northeast.

Portion of 1963 USGS quad, Laguna Castillo quad showing Chaco Canyon National Park area in Section 17 of T17N, R10W

I checked “The Outlier Survey” by Powers, Gillespie and Lekson and turned up nothing. Likewise a big zero in the “Anasazi Communities of the San Juan Basin” by Marshall et all.  What was this place? Examination of the area in Google Earth showed nothing obvious to be found, or at least from a high aerial viewpoint. The BLM’s land ownership map for the area muddied things up by not showing the land as anything other than private property.

When Chaco Canyon National Monument got culture and became the Chaco Culture National Historic Park in 1980, 33 outlying sites were specifically identified as “archaeological protection sites” and specifically listed. This mystery site was not among them.  Huh?  This could be fun.

When all else fails, there’s always a brute force Google search. From the USGS topo map, I knew its legal description would be the SE 1/4 of Section 17, T17N, R10W, so that’s what I looked for. Uh, that was a pain.

Getting the precise syntax just right was tricky, but eventually I came across the initial Presidential proclamation that created Chaco Canyon National Monument in 1907. And there, at the bottom of the attached map, was something labeled “Casa Moreno”. WTF was this?

Map of 1907 Presidential proclamation creating Chaco Canyon National Monument

Now that I had a clue as to what to look for, I found a second Presidential proclamation from 1928, again showing a “Casa Moreno”.

Map of 1928 Presidential proclamation. Casa Moreno is still there.

Turned out this “thing” was also known as “Casa Morena”.  Here’s an excerpt from the “Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico”, 1907, edited by Fredrick Webb Hodge:

Casa Morena (Span.: brown house ).
An ancient pueblo ruin of considerable importance, situated near the top of the continental divide in NW New Mexico. It is usually assigned to the Chaco Canyon group, but this is assumed without evidence except as to outward appearance. No excavations have been made and the ruin has not been described. It is built of sandstone after the manner of the Chaco canyon pueblos. It is in the midst of the desert, far from water, and not near any of the main trails. (E. L. H.) Kinahzin. Hewett, inf n, 1905 (Navaho name).

So why isn’t this listed anywhere contemporary as a ruin?

Digging further I found the Master Plan for the Culture National Historic Park has an entry for Casa Morena, and it poops out the following:

This tract was set aside by the proclamation of 1907. This tract, which is privately owned, does not contain any archeological remains and should be deleted.

Oh….bummer. So that’s why it’s not a ruin, and no longer a part of the Chaco Canyon park.  It was removed from the park by Public Law 96-550, passed by the Congress on December 19, 1980.

A little more searching turned up the ultimate and detailed answer. It’s very nicely explained by archaeologists Robert and Florence Lister in their 1984 book, “Chaco Canyon: Archaeology and Archaeologists”:

….. It seems that in 1901 when Special Agent Holsinger recommended that certain Chaco ruins be embraced in a proposed federal preserve, he included a site called Casa Morena, described as similar to Kin Ya-a though larger and in more ruinous condition. Holsinger gave a legal description of its location which placed it about eleven miles east of Crownpoint. Congress withdrew the land and included it with those set aside for Chaco Canyon National Monument. However, when the National Park Service found time to pay attention to the sites in the detached areas outside the main canyon and its immediate environs, they could not find Casa Morena, even though New Mexico state maps as late as the 1940s located it a short distance southeast of Pueblo Bonito.
A review of the circumstances makes it clear that Holsinger had not visited the site but, while in Thoreau awaiting the train for his return to Phoenix, had been told about a ruin whose name he interpreted as Casa Morena. Based on that conversation, he assumed it to be another of the large, isolated Chaco settlements, and in so doing, caused perplexed government officials years of trouble. Since it never has been located, it appears likely that the site is one presently known as Casamero, a medium-sized Chaco-type complex named for a local nineteenth-century Navajo headman. Although not in the exact location given by Holsinger, it is in its general vicinity and fits his description. Casamero, it turns out, is on Bureau of Land Management lands, not within the national monument.

Good to know.  The Listers nailed it. It saved me a long trip to nowhere and killed an afternoon of research. If only they all were this easy.

Hold on…wait just a minute…..Maybe this is what the man wants us to believe??! What if there were in fact spectacular ruins there? Wouldn’t this all be a great smoke screen to keep the pot hunting asshats away? This makes for a perfect cover story! Nope, nuttin’ to see here, just move along. Ruins? No ruins here. That would be friggin’ genius!

Or maybe I just spent too much time around Area 51….