Located about 25 miles southeast of Taos in a high mountain pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Picuris was once larger than Taos. Spanish explorer Don Juan de Onaté referred to the village as the "Grande Pueblo de Picuris." Reports from other Spaniards who visited the area in 1598 claim the original pueblo structure was nine stories tall.
Picuris and Taos both found their origins at Pot Creek Pueblo. There came a day around 1250 CE when there was an argument that created a schism. Part of Pot Creek Pueblo was burned and the rest was abandoned. Some of the residents went up into the Taos Basin and merged with a pueblo of indigenous people who had been there for many years before. Some of the residents went southeast and founded the whole new pueblo of Picuris.
The location was in the opening of a pass through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. That pass became a trade route between the Rio grande pueblos to the west and the Plains tribes to the east. The people the Spanish first called Xicarilla lived in the hills and valleys around Picuris, and some lived on the eastern side of the Sangre de Cristos and down the Canadian River drainage.
Picuris grew large and wealthy through the annual trade fairs they hosted. As a large and wealthy pueblo, Picuris drew special attention from the Spanish and they were massively abused by the Franciscan monks and the surrounding Hispanic settlers. Their response to that put their people (and the Xicarillas) in the forefront of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.
Because of the central role Picuris Pueblo played in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, when the Spanish returned in 1692 they fought hard and retook Picuris, leveled the pueblo, burned the remains and scattered the residents. Eventually the people returned and rebuilt but they were not allowed to host the trade fairs that had previously made them wealthy. As they couldn't legally trade any more, the Apaches, Comanches and Kiowas started raiding them. Picuris has never returned to its former glory.
In the center of today's pueblo is the San Lorenzo Mission church, built in the 1770s. The church was discovered to be in danger of collapsing in the 1980s due to water damage. The building couldn't be saved and was shortly torn down. Tribal members then spent eight years using traditional methods to rebuild the church on the existing foundation. The original Picuris pueblo site was excavated in the 1960s and is now a registered archaeological site.
Taos and Picuris Pueblos (and the Jicarilla Apaches) traditionally used a clay for their pottery that is high in mica content. This micaceous clay creates a distinctive metallic luster that sets their pottery apart from all other pueblo pottery. In addition, these micaceous clay pots and bowls are the only pueblo pottery that can be put directly on a fire or stove for cooking.
The Tewa Pueblos to the south sometimes copied the Taos/Picuris style but they used different clays and temper and achieved different results. Taos and Picuris pottery is very similar to each other. The main difference between Taos and Picuris pottery is that the unpainted functional Picuris pots tend to be thinner than those of Taos potters.
On some of their pots they coat the pot with a slip of mica before it is fired. Often the clouding from the firing process (now known as "fire clouds") will be the pot's only decoration. Sometimes Picuris potters added raised rope or inlaid beads or molded clay animals to their pots. Some of their pottery is striated, too, the striations achieved by various methods.
In the old days, the surrounding Hispanic villages often purchased Picuris functional pottery for household use. While the unpainted functional pottery has been in production since about 1600, it really dominated the Picuris pottery market after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Picuris potters produced a fair amount of their traditional pottery styles until the mid 1900s when their primary source of micaceous clay was almost destroyed by an industrial mica-mining project. Loss of the clay source nearly ended the Picuris pottery tradition.
More recently Anthony Durand took on the job of reviving the Picuris pottery tradition after his grandmother showed him a new source of micaceous clay on the lands of Picuris Pueblo. These days, many non-Picuris artists are also using micaceous clay to create beautifully shaped pots, figures and sculptures. Recently there has been a movement among the pueblo potters to create more aesthetic and artistic styles of pottery using their micaceous clay. They hope this effort will create a market for their pottery as works of art rather than just functional utility ware.