Giant of the Mimbres

Giant of the Mimbres2

At about milepost 7 on Highway 61, in the Lower Mimbres, there is a bit of history.  A geologic feature, a geologic feature of the type which fascinated in the middle of the 1800’s.  In the mid-1800’s, the Giant of the Mimbres was noteworthy enough to make it into three books about western journeys.  Today, it is a feature that we are all to prone to look at and say “that’s cool” or “that’s nice” and be on our way.  Reference to the site today is difficult to come by unless you delve into some professional geologic articles (see discussion and links below).  Even with a name like “Giant of the Mimbres” the fame of the site has come and gone, overshadowed, if you may, by the nearby City of Rocks State Park.  The site is referred to as both “Giant...” and “Giants... “.  (Modern) Photographs  shown here are of the site on March 22, 2016, unless noted otherwise.  The site is on private land, I think.  These photographs were taken from the right-of-way on NM-61.

John Russell Bartlett was a historian and linguist of the 1800’s, the photograph of him to the right was taken sometime during the 1850’s.  Of significance to us is the fact that between 1850 and 1853 he was the United States Boundary Commissioner working on one of the many surveys of the border between the United States (Estados Unidos de Norteamérica) and Mexico (Estados Unidos Mexicanos).  In that position he traveled the southwest, pursuing his duties and his love of linguistics.  On May 1, 1851 he was camped on the lower Mimbres:

John Russell Bartlett2

“May 1st. In camp on the Mimbres. As our animals had been poorly fed since leaving El Paso, I determined to remain here to-day to give them the benefit of the fine young grass.  All the party seemed to enjoy the relaxation; and they sallied out after break fast, some in search of game, others of the picturesque.  For my part, I took the two together; for when I went to the hills in search of game I carried my sketch book with me, as it was only among the wooded hills, the defiles, and the thick groves along the river bottom, that game was to be found; and there, too, was the most picturesque landscape scenery, and the best field for the exercise of my pencil. I first walked down the stream about two miles to a thick grove of large cottonwoods. The bottom was much contracted here; nevertheless, it was thickly wooded and forest-like. Ash and oaks were interspersed among the cottonwoods. Saw many signs of turkeys, but shot none myself. Some of the party were more fortunate and brought in several. About five miles north of our camp the river enters the hills, and a little further up, is closely hemmed in by lofty mountains. Noticed wild roses in great profusion, also wild hops, and the Missouri currant. These, in some portions of the valley, were so closely entangled together that it was impossible for one to work his way through. Found several old Indian encampments, with their wigwams standing, and about them fragments of pottery. Many well-marked Indian trails followed the river on both sides, showing that it had been, and probably is now, a great thoroughfare and place of resort for the Apaches. In the afternoon, Mr. Bausman, one of our most indefatigable sportsmen, came in from a hunt, and reported that he had seen some remarkable rocks about five miles up the river, to the north of our camp, which were worth visiting. I immediately had my mule saddled, buckled on my pistols, attached my rifle to the pummel of the saddle, and taking my sketch book, accompanied him to the place referred to, which was about half a mile from the river on the western side.  Arriving at the place, I found some singular masses of sandstone standing detached from the adjacent hills, one of them bearing a curious resemblance to a man. My timid mule was much alarmed at the gigantic object which stood before it, trembling from head to foot. We therefore stopped a short distance from it and hitched our animals to an oak which hid from view the source of their terror. Around us stood these singular isolated rocks, some appearing like castles, others like single pedestals and columns. The one resembling a human figure, which is shown in the accompanying sketch, and which I christened the “Giant of the Mimbres,” measured but three feet in its narrowest part near the ground; while its upper portion must have been at least twelve feet through, and its height about fifty. Others of equal height stood near. All are disintegrated near the earth, and are gradually crumbling away, several having already fallen. When I had completed my sketch, we mounted our mules, and hastened back to camp, which we did not reach until some time after dark, my long absence meanwhile causing much uneasiness. Several turkeys were seen during our ride, and a couple shot. A number of fish of the trout species were taken here.”  From “Personal Narrative of Explorations and Incidents in Texas, New Mexico, California, Sonora, and Chihuahua, Connected With the United States and Mexican Boundary Commission During the Years 1850, ’51, ’52, and ’53”.  John Russell Bartlett.  pp. 222 - 225   Report of activities on May 1, 1851.

sandstone rocks

The lithograph image, above is from the book.  Bartlett left his archives to the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.  Among the items left to the University were two images of the Giant of the Mimbres done with “pencil, sepia wash, and color on coarse beige paper”.  Quoted material in this section is from the Luna website (link above) of the University.

Giant of the Mimbres by John Russell Bartlett 1851

Above: “View of rock formations and valley with figures on horseback in the foreground. On the verso is "Giant of the Mimbres" in Bartlett's handwriting.” May 1, 1851  John Russell Bartlett

Giant of the Mimbres Near Santa Rita 5_1_1851

Above: “View of rock formations and valley with figures on horseback in the foreground. This drawing was never completed and contains many notes in pencil: on the lower left is "Giant of the Mimbres Near Santa Rita;" in the lower center: "View on Mimbres -- 6 miles n. of crossing;" on the left is "grass, line of oaks, valley;" and on the lower right are "Yucas" and "Yucas and Prickly pear, dwarf oaks, 10 feet high, height of man about 50 ft. Ankle 3 ft." On the verso is "Sandstone Rocks, Rio Mimbres," or the title used in Bartlett's Personal Narrative, vol. 1, p. 224” 

In 1857, “Reports of Explorations and Surveys, to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route For A Railroad From The Mississippi River to The Pacific Ocean, Volume VII” was issued.  It contained the report of Lieutenant John G. Parke about railroad route options, entitled “Report of Explorations For Railroad Routes...1854-5”.  At page 157, Parke states that: “Northeast of ‘Agua Caliente’, between it and the river, is an upheaval of felspathic porphyry, which has carried up the sandstone strata on each side, which dip northeast and southwest.  The upheaval itself presents the appearance of a battery or fortification presenting its semi-circular point to the south. At some distance from this upheaval immense blocks and loose masses of sandstone rock lie heaped together in the most grotesque forms; some of them consist of several masses, one piled on another, and in some instances nicely balanced and ready to topple; seen from a distance, in this highly refracting atmosphere, now they resemble trees, and now men; least of all would they be taken for really what they are, disintegrated sandstones.  They are now known as the Giants of the Mimbres. The wearing away of these grits, whitish and yellow sandstone, such as are described near Ojo de la Vacca and the Mimbres, show what a loose texture these rocks have; every heavy shower denudes them to some extent, and after some years they have no longer the same appearance or outline which they formerly showed.”  At page 188, Parke notes that mineral specimen 87 “sandstone grit, Giants of the Mimbres” was collected.  The importance of water sites in western explorations and ventures is epitomized by the careful mapping of water sources and the distances between them, in this report.

distance between water

City of Rocks by Bell

From “New Tracks in North America, Volume 2” by William A. Bell, plate between pp. 26 & 27.  Titled “The City of Rocks” but actually the Giant of the Mimbres.  “There are the valley of rocks, the city of rocks, &c., in which huge masses of sandstone form pillars, chimneys, altars, giant mushrooms, and temples which would compare not unfavourably with Stonehenge, had they not been geological curiosities only.  I enjoyed a few hours’ photographing amongst these grotesque forms, for they made splendid subjects for the camera.” ( p.26)  He visited the area in 1867, when he took the photograph below, which was the basis for the lithograph in the book (above).


The two rock columns in the photograph below are those shown in the upper center of the photograph above (just below the skyline). 

At the beginning, I alluded to modern geologic reports which contained information about these formations.  Jerry Mueller & C. R. Twidale’s, “Geomorphic Development of the Giants of the Mimbres, Grant County, New Mexico” appeared in New Mexico Geology in May 2002 (Volume 24, Number 2).  It is an excellent work, containing wonderful photographs and a thorough documentation of the geologic questions associated with the site.  The .pdf at the link is .8 MB in size.  In 1988, the same authors published: “Landform Development of City of Rocks State Park and Giants of the Mimbres  (see cover of .pdf for attributions), this .pdf is 1.1 MB in size.

© Robert Barnes 2017