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ALBUQUERQUE — Newly found inscriptions depicting Christian crosses and letters etched in stone have been discovered north of the Sandia Mountains — possibly the work of a Spanish expedition that visited New Mexico in the 1580s.
Albuquerque historian and author Mike Smith said he found the etchings this month while exploring a rocky, desert area east of the Rio Grande.
The Albuquerque Journal reported on the findings in a copyright story published Tuesday.
New Mexico’s state historian, Rick Hendricks, plans to examine the inscriptions Friday.
“If they turn out to be what he says they are, it would be a really exciting find, to be sure,” Hendricks said.
Smith said the style of the inscriptions, as well as the weathering they show, suggest the carvings were made by Spaniards who visited New Mexico four decades after Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored the region in the 1540s.
Smith found florid lettering that appears to spell the name “Santa Maria.” Smith said he believes the inscription was made by Juan de Santa Maria, who was one of three Franciscan priests who
participated in a small expedition to New Mexico in 1581 and 1582.
If Smith’s claim is confirmed, the find would predate New Mexico’s oldest known Spanish inscriptions, which were made around 1605 during one of Juan de Onate’s expeditions.
Hendricks said he has seen Smith’s photos of the inscriptions but declined to speculate about their origin until he views them.
Juan de Santa Maria was one of about 30 men who journeyed across New Mexico as part of the so-called Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition, Hendricks said.
The expedition was named for Francisco Sanchez, known as “El Chamuscado,” a red-bearded Spanish soldier, and Fray Agustin Rodriguez, a Franciscan priest, who started north from what is now Durango, Mexico, in 1581 on a mission to convert Pueblo Indians to Christianity.
Hendricks said the expedition included about 10 soldiers, three priests and a party of Indians who probably numbered fewer than 20. The priests all were killed but others survived.
The Chamuscado-Rodriguez expedition was among several small parties that ventured into New Mexico in the decades after Coronado traveled from 1540 to 1542 searching for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. Coronado’s expedition left no known inscriptions.
The earliest known Spanish inscriptions in New Mexico were left by members of Onate’s expedition at a site that is now El Morro National Monument.