Sunday, February 26, 2017

Salt harvest a colorful chapter in state

by Marc Simmons

One of the colorful chapters in the history of New Mexico that is scarcely remembered now involved the annual cosecha de sal, or salt harvest, regularly undertaken by our pioneer settlers. I’ve long thought that the many details surrounding this fascinating activity could easily be turned into a small book.

In prehistoric times, both Pueblo and Plains Indians collected salt at saline lakes in the area. It became a major trade item, transported in baskets on Indian backs and widely distributed.

Incoming Spanish colonists quickly identified prime salt sources, to meet their own needs. The most accessible was found in the southern end of the Estancia Basin, where a cluster of saline ponds and small lakes offered a never-ending supply of the essential mineral.

Salt for man and beast, of course, is a nutritional necessity, not a luxury although many people are prone to use it simply because it enhances the taste of food. Colonial Spaniards, like other people, put it to a variety of uses.

As a preservative, dry salt was rubbed into green beaver pelts or buffalo hides, and various foods could be kept for long periods in salt brine. For example, buffalo tongues, a major export product, were pickled in barrels of brine and shipped south down the Camino Real.

Pure white salt also served a variety of uses in our local folk culture. A small bowl of it was often kept on the narrow shelf above a fireplace opening. Before the family went to bed, someone would toss a pinch of salt onto the red embers in the belief that doing so would prevent flying witches from descending the chimney during the night.

A man from Truchas once told me that when he was a boy his aunt always stood in front of her house whenever a storm gathered above the village. As the thunder cracked, she tossed a handful of salt in the air, in the form of a cross, saying “Santa Barbara, libranos de rayos!” (Santa Barbara, save us from lightning.) Her house was never struck.

When time came for the yearly harvest, the royal governor, through town criers, announced the date of departure for the cart caravan that always assembled at the village of Galisteo. To protect the convoy, he sent a squad of soldiers and sometimes a small cannon, since the salines were in dangerous Apache country.

As many families as possible sent at least one representative to join the workers, so they could receive a share of the harvest. Range sheep required about a quarter ounce of salt per day, so ranchers with large flocks needed huge quantities.

Leaving Galisteo, often after a wild fandango the night before, the throng of salt gatherers was in a festive mood. The men knew that weeks of hard work lay ahead, but they were accustomed to that.
A three-day march brought them to the Laguna del Perro, the largest salt lake. After camp was pitched, everyone got busy. Some gatherers went along the shore, raking encrusted salt into piles which could then be scooped into wool or leather sacks.

Others waded out into the shallow lake where the fresh salt was quite pure and shoveled it from the bottom. Ox carts waited at water’s edge, dried hides having been tied to their open rails and the bed to create a leathern tub to receive the wet salt.

After several weeks, the job was completed and the caravan made its return. Because of the danger and labor involved, this salt sold for $1 a bushel in towns along the Rio Grande.

A territorial law passed in 1854 provided that all citizens could freely collect salt at the lakes. But not everyone got the word. Years ago I heard an older resident of Galisteo relate how her grandfather had been conned into buying the lakes for a princely sum.

“That was not uncommon,” she said with a chuckle. “In those days, purchasing the New Mexican salt lakes was equivalent to a New York visitor buying the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Marc Simmons is a retired historian and author of thirty-five books I was honored to present The Rounders Award to him in 1991.

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