Montezuma’s Fire — Legend? Or True Story?

Stories abound throughout New Mexico — as they do anywhere people gather and share experiences. This one is about a fire kept in a kiva, the underground ceremonial room of the pueblo people.

PECOS_KIVA-1Josiah Gregg, a trader along the Santa Fe Trail, told the story in 1844. Montezuma, the Aztec king, had chosen the people of Cicuyé — the pueblo today known as Pecos southeast of Santa Fe — and commanded them to keep a sacred fire burning until his return.

The people built an Aztec temple, according to Susan Magoffin, who repeated the story two years later in her diary documenting her trip along the Santa Fe Trail — and later El Camino Real to Chihuahua. She claimed to be the first white woman ever to make that trip.

The place where the sacred fire was kept was at the north end of the pueblo, in a ceremonial kiva 40 feet in diameter.

The fire, Magoffin wrote, was believed to have been kindled by Montezuma himself and had been kept burning down through the generations.

Gregg said he had seen it smoldering and reported men, women, and children alike tended the sacred fire.

Time was not kind to the people of Cicuyé and, by the 1840s, only a few people remained at the pueblo. Everyone else had joined their relatives at Jemez.

One writer said an old man still living there spoke of tending the fires, along with his goats. The writer had to leave before satisfying his curiosity. Instead of entering the kiva to see for himself, he pocketed a cinder of the sacred fire and left.

All that remains are the mounds of the ruined pueblo, now part of the Pecos National Historic Park — and the legend of Montezuma’s sacred fire.