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Stacia Spragg, Associated Press
The most famous writing on El Morro, also known as Inscription Rock, is attributed to Don Juan de Onate, the first governor of New Mexico.

EL MORRO NATIONAL MONUMENT, N.M. — Graffiti has been an issue in the rugged vastness around here for centuries.

If you think that's a joke, you've never visited the 200-foot-high hunk of geology known as El Morro or, more aptly, Inscription Rock.

American Indians were cutting their symbols into the soft, light-hued sandstone of El Morro hundreds of years before Columbus was born.

Later, Spanish explorers and missionaries and U.S. soldiers and pioneers recorded news of their travels on this looming tablet 37 miles southwest of Grants. "Paso por aqui," or its English translation, "passed by here," was a favorite phrase.

It's been 400 years to the month since New Mexico's first governor, Don Juan de Onate, or perhaps one of his men carved a sentence into El Morro's tawny flank.

By 1906, when President Theodore Roosevelt designated it a national monument, about 1,000 separate inscriptions had been carved into El Morro, which simply means "headland" or "bluff."

Some inscriptions are as brief as a name and date.

Others — such as the missive written perhaps by New Mexico Gov. Don Juan de Eulate in 1620 — are long-winded and self-aggrandizing.

Some are crudely done.

Others — such as the 1857, or maybe it was 1859, signature by E. Pen Long — are so beautifully crafted they appear to have been done with a quill pen.

But the prize for the oldest non-Indian inscription — and arguably the most famous writing on the rock — goes to Onate.

In translation, it reads:

"Passed by here the Governor Don Juan de Onate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South on the 16th of April, 1605."

The words are written over an Indian petroglyph. You'd think that back in 1605, they could have found some empty space.

An emerald-green pool of cold water, screened by a thick growth of cattails, is cupped like sweet nectar in a natural, rock goblet at the base of El Morro. It looks inviting even to today's traveler, fortified as he or she is with air-conditioned motor transportation and a cooler of iced-down soft drinks.

Imagine what this pool must have seemed like to ancient Indians scratching survival from the desert, to Spanish conquistadors baking inside their ovens of armor, to citizens crossing this parched land in slow, creaky wagons headed for California.

This is not a spring but a pool fed by rain and melting snow. When full, the water hole can accommodate 12 feet and 200,000 gallons of water. Shaded by El Morro's bulk, it is always cool. And back in the day, it was the only water for 30 miles.

It was this water, not the chance to record their names in sandstone, that drew travelers — and settlers.

The settlers were Indians. In about 1275 A.D., they built a town called Atsina on top of El Morro. Visitors to the monument can follow a steep, winding trail — benches for resting are located along the way — 200 feet to the summit of El Morro and look at the ruins of the town, which was occupied in the 13th and 14th centuries.

A fierce, chill wind numbed the ears of some recent visitors on top of El Morro. But the exhilaration of being up there, of seeing that wild land unfold around you in most directions, of walking across the pure white rock — weathered clay — that caps El Morro mesa is worth the price of wind-buffeted ears.

Notches in the sandstone walls above the pool are believed to be footholds used by Indians to climb down from the top of El Morro to get a drink.

There was — and still is — a longer, safer trail leading from the top to the pool. It makes you wonder who would risk breaking their skulls by taking the perilous, foothold route.

Probably teenage boys.

Onate first visited El Morro in 1598, the same year he led about 1,000 settlers from Mexico into New Mexico.

Neither he nor any of his party was moved to write anything on the rock during that visit. But we do know Onate dubbed the place Agua de la Pena, or Water of the Rock, a name that underlines its importance as an oasis for travelers.

In 1605, 15 years before the Pilgrims stubbed their toes on Plymouth Rock, Onate came by El Morro on his return from an expedition to the Gulf of California, which he called the South Sea and which, by the way, he did not discover despite what his inscription claims.

Probably the biggest kick of visiting El Morro is the ability to stand in the footsteps of the makers of history — the powerful and famous and the brave but forgotten — and imagine what they were like.

The first U.S. citizen inscription appears at El Morro in 1849, the year after the United States had won huge hunks of the Southwest in its war with Mexico.

"Lt. J.H. Simpson USA and R.H. Kern, Artist, visited and copied these inscriptions, September 17th 18th, 1849."

Simpson was exploring the new U.S. territory, and Philadelphia artist Kern was along to illustrate the expedition. It's because of them that we know what inscriptions were there in 1849 and what condition the inscriptions were in at that time.

Kern is among the few to sign his name to El Morro more than once. He did so again in the fall of 1850 when he passed the rock on another expedition. He didn't get a third try at it. Indians killed him in Utah on Oct. 26, 1853.

E. Pen Long of the beautiful signature was part of Lt. Edward F. Beale's 1857 caravan, which came by during an experiment to test the feasibility of employing camels as Army animals in the American Southwest.

It's fascinating to think of those camels, which had been bought in Egypt, loading up on water at El Morro. The camels, by the way, did just fine in the Southwest. But the idea to use them was scrapped because they scared the bejabbers out of most horses and some people.

Beale's caravan first stopped at the rock on Aug. 23, 1857, but it's possible members of the expedition did not put their names in the sandstone until a return visit in 1859.

The longest inscription at El Morro is the one supposedly contributed by Gov. Eulate in 1620. Damage done by time and the elements make it difficult to be certain who wrote it or when. But it's fun to read, in any case, starting out like the lyrics of a song from a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.

"I am the captain General of the Providence of New Mexico for the King our Lord, passed by here on the return from the pueblos of Zuni on the 29th of July the year 1620, and put them at peace at their humble petition, they asking favors as vassals of his Majesty and promising anew their obedience, all of which he did, with clemency, zeal, and prudence, as a most Christian-like gentleman extraordinary and gallant soldier of enduring and praised memory."

Whew! That could have used some editing. In fact, it got some. A few words, including "gentleman," have been scratched through.


Ollie Reed Jr. can be reached at oreed@abqtrib.com