Sunday, June 30, 2013

Trail Dust: Men, animals disappeared into pits called ‘sumideros’

by Marc Simmons

The word sumidero in standard Spanish has a fairly common and unexciting meaning, which is, “a sewer, drain or gutter.” But among Southwesterners in the old days, the term was applied to something else, and therein lies an unusual story, now almost forgotten.

In his reliable book, A Dictionary of New Mexico and Southern Colorado Spanish, Rubén Cobos defines sumidero as “a masked well or sinkhole.” That was what early settlers and ranchers understood it to mean.

Charles F. Lummis, who explored and photographed the back country in the 1880s, called the sumidero a curious and disagreeable freak of nature, a treacherous pitfall. “These ugly traps,” he wrote, “are a sort of mud springs with too much mud to flow and too much water to dry up.”

The ones he had been shown were generally round, 10 to 20 feet across and very deep. They occurred unexpectedly on plains or bare, alkali-covered flats.

According to Lummis, “the mud upon their surface is baked dry, and there is absolutely nothing to distinguish them from the safe ground around. But man or horse or cow that once steps upon that treacherous surface disappears from sight in an instant!”

That was a chilling prospect. He tells us that many animals and some people perished in these sumideros and the bodies were never recovered. The longest pole thrust down in the mud could not touch bottom.

Quicksands were common in Southwestern arroyos and river beds, but people expected them when fording streams and took precautions. But there was no looking out for a sumidero, claimed old-timers. You just fell in one, totally unaware. Hence the name in English, “masked well.”

The wandering archaeologist Adolph Bandelier mentioned the phenomenon in his 1888 journal. He was working in the area northwest of modern Grants in the vicinity of the village of San Mateo. There were many reports of the lethal sinkholes thereabouts.

Bandelier wrote: “San Mateo is a scattered place in a fertile valley. All along the road, for 28 miles, are the dangerous sumideros, or hidden springs, with nothing to indicate their presence on the surface.

“They are pits, constantly filled with liquid mud beneath a thin upper crust. Anyone dropping into them must die unless help is on the spot.”
Some years ago, the late Floyd Lee of San Mateo showed me a sumidero on his ranch. It was located near a line camp about 15 miles from headquarters. As Lummis and Bandelier claimed, nothing unusual showed on the surface, and I wouldn’t have known what it was without being told.

Lee seemed to think old stories about many cowboys losing their lives in these things were greatly exaggerated. However, I noticed he had carefully fenced his sumidero with extra strands of barbed wire to keep out livestock.

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