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First-person accounts of sites explore history, identity of the West

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — New Mexico has a prominent and deserved presence in the newly released book “First Impressions: A Reader’s Journey to Iconic Places of the American Southwest.”

That prominence is marked by the fact that seven of the 15 places referenced in the book are in the state. The seven have imbued New Mexico with its recognizable enchantment ——Santa Fe, Acoma Pueblo, Zuni Pueblo, Carlsbad Caverns, Chaco Canyon, El Morro/Inscription Rock and the Taos Valley; the latter is really three iconic sites in one —— Taos Pueblo, the town of Taos and Ranchos de Taos.

As you can see, in this context “place” is broadly defined. Likewise, the meaning of book’s title. “First Impressions” refers to the initial recorded opinions of Hispanics and Anglos about the Native peoples and the startling, exceptional landscape they encountered over the centuries.

The authors are historians David J. Weber and William deBuys. They worked on the book sequentially. DeBuys completed the task started by Weber, who died in 2010.

Author David J. Weber

“Before he died, he had basically collected the first-person (historical) accounts, the first impressions that were relevant to each of the 15 sites,” deBuys said in a phone interview from his home in El Valle.

Even before deBuys’ involvement, Weber had told him of the project’s concept.

“It’s a great way to approach the exploration of interesting, powerful sites,” deBuys said. “And it’s a great way to find a door to the original materials into Southwest history.”

By “original materials,” deBuys is talking about primary sources. For example, the book quotes Spanish Capt. Hernando de Alvarado writing to his boss, conquistador Francisco Vásquez Coronado, in 1540 upon seeing Acoma: “It is one of the strongest things that have been seen, because the ciudad is located on a very high, steep, rugged hill of rock.”

The book moves forward in time. More than half-century later, conquistador Juan de Oñate and his troops stopped at Acoma, an event that eventually resulted in bloody confrontations still discussed today.

Fast-forward to 1846, when the first Anglo-American visited Acoma. The book quotes Army Lt. J.W. Abert’s diary description: “I consider the view of this place to exceed anything I have ever yet beheld. … The inhabitants are very hospitable.”

The New Mexico Seven are in good company. These are the other eight iconic places ——the Grand Canyon, Canyon de Chelly, San Xavier del Bac, Casa Grande and Mohave Villages (all in Arizona), as well as Mesa Verde in southern Colorado, and the remote Rainbow Bridge in southern Utah.

“This book certainly illustrates the manner in which the Southwest contradicts the widely held view that most of North American history is an east-to-west migration,” deBuys said.

Spanish soldiers, priests and colonists traveled northward from what was New Spain (today Mexico) to what was northern New Spain, later part of Mexico (today the American Southwest).

Though the book may be an armchair experience, readers should arm themselves with the volume as they visit these 15 sites, regardless of whether they are Easterners, Midwesterners or New Mexicans. The book is a rich lesson in history and self-identity.

DeBuys is also the author of “River of Traps,” a Pulitzer Prize nominee. Weber, who lived in Ramah, was founding director of the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University.