Jemez Pueblo lies in a narrow valley near the Jemez River surrounded by magnificent red sandstone mesas about 55 miles northwest of Albuquerque. Because of the weather problems engulfing the Four Corners region in the late 1200s, the Jemez people migrated from there to the Canyon de San Diego area in the southern Jemez Mountains. When Francisco de Coronado and his men arrived in 1541, the Jemez nation was one of the largest and most powerful in northern New Mexico with a population of about 30,000. Coronado's men found numerous large masonry pueblo villages situated on the high mountain mesas and among the canyons. Some of those early constructions were as much as five stories tall and contained more than three thousand rooms. There were also hundreds of smaller living units scattered through the area. The Jemez influence in the region was based mostly on their role as traders, well-connected throughout the Southwest and northern Mexico.
Due to the rocky nature of their volcanic landscape, the Jemez had to create products like pottery to trade with their neighbors to supplement their harvests of beans, corn and squash. The present-day pueblo was built as a result of continuing Spanish attempts at converting the Jemez to Christianity. The people opposed the Spanish at every turn and were often punished by Spanish military action. Jemez was one of the last tribes to submit to Spanish rule, the people often moving west and hiding out among the Navajo in the Jeddito Canyon area when there were Spanish troops in their homeland. Those who stayed in the Jemez area held out for 4 years before being defeated by Spanish guns. As a result of the contacts created between the fleeing Jemez and the Navajo they lived among, there are still certain strong ties between the two tribes.
Walatowa, the primary Jemez Pueblo village, was established around 1400 and quickly became a center of trade. Today it is the only village remaining of six major sites in the Jemez Mountains that were occupied by the Jemez people when the Spanish arrived. Jemez is also the only pueblo remaining that speaks the Towa language. The last survivors from Pecos Pueblo (Cicuye) were invited to Jemez in 1838. Towa was also spoken in the village of Awatovi on Antelope Mesa in Kayenta-Tusayan (ancestral Hopiland), until Awatovi was destroyed in the winter of 1700-1701.
The people of Jemez speak Towa. They are the only speakers of Towa left on the planet. For a long time the trail of their migrations began in the Four Corners area and moved southeast, across the Upper San Juan and into the Gallina Highlands before descending in valleys on the south side of the Jemez Mountains. Then in the early 2000s, one former pueblo governor embarked on a mission to recover their lost pottery heritage. He succeeded, and in succeeding, he added a thousand years to their prehistory.
He knew his people originally made black-on-white pottery prior to living in the Four Corners area. Researching ancient potsherds and analyzing their contents put him on a track to a pottery-making community among the Fremont people from north and west of the Colorado River. He also pushed the date of their first pottery back to around 200 CE.
When the Jemez were still living in the Four Corners area most of their potters produced plainware while a few developed a distinctive black-on-white pottery. By the time they migrated to the Jemez Mountains that had shifted so that they were only producing a small amount of plainware. In the mid-eighteenth century pottery making stopped and the Jemez traded with Zia Pueblo for most of their pottery. An effort to revive pottery making among the people began in the 1920s but it never took hold and eventually stagnated.
During the 1960s, interest in Native American art rose significantly among collectors and tourists. That helped to stir the people of Jemez to learn to make higher quality pottery and revive that tradition again. Several potters excelled at making their traditional hand-coiled pottery including Mary Small and Mary E. Toya. Other potters improved their art and since the 1980s, traditional Jemez pottery-making has made a comeback. While most of today's Jemez ware is red, they also use some black and tan tones. Traditional designs include plants, feathers and wildlife. Jemez potters have become very proficient and are now producing a wide variety of forms and types of fine pottery.
The pueblo's historic main village of Walatowa is no longer open to the public. People are welcome to visit the Jemez Pueblo's Walatowa Visitor Center located a few miles north of the historic pueblo. The Visitor Center has a museum and gift shop offering the best in Jemez arts, crafts and other products.