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El Cuartelejo –“The Home Far Away”

National Historic Landmark Since 1965

El Cuartelejo (also spelled El Quartelejo) was constructed along Ladder Creek in what is now Scott County, Kansas. This archeologically significant site dates from 1650 to 1750 A.D. and is the northeasternmost pueblo ruin in the United States.

The site todayCanyons and bluffs surround the ruins from all directions and shield the area from adverse weather. The hills were look-out areas for intruders upon the village and the native rocks were collected for building material in the pueblo’s construction. It is not known whether all the structure was made of native rock or just the foundation with adobe used for the upper walls.

During the winter there is a panoramic view of the hillsides and canyon rims. If you visit El Cuartelejo, be sure to do a 360-degree turn. This all-encompassing view gives one a sense of what the canyon looked liked to the original inhabitants and a clue to how they could securely guard the pueblo.

The rocks are from the Ogallala formation, Pliocene Epoch, and date back 5 million years. This was the age when rhinoceros, camels, and horses roamed the Kansas plains.

Ladder Creek, which is adjacent to El Cuartelejo, is a spring-fed creek and runs year round. Infrequently—during torrential rains—temporary waterfalls cascade down the hillsides.

The Indians at this site may have built irrigation ditches to water their crops in this lush valley environment. Between forty to fifty springs could be found in the valley; many were situated close to Ladder Creek where bottomland was plentiful for raising corn and other crops. Present-day Lake Scott consumed some of this land.

At one time, this whole valley region was an Indian campground. Artifacts found at El Cuartelejo were typical of the Plains Apache Indians. The Plains Apaches roamed further from the pueblo, but also used it as a marketplace for trading buffalo hides for other foods and goods.

Part of the present-day park was a major Apache village. Although there may have been other types of people coming through or camping, archeological evidence points to the Apaches and pueblo dwellers living in this area.

Herb and Eliza Steele homesteaded this land and built a rock house just south of El Cuartelejo. Mr. Steele is credited with discovering these ruins around 1888. According to local newspaper accounts, Mr. Steele observed ground squirrels bringing up parched corn through their holes to the surface. At this point the Kansas Historical Society was contacted about Herb Steele’s findings.

This began one of the earliest archeological digs in the state of Kansas.

Martin and Williston excavate the site
Photo published in the Kansas University Science Bulletin, Oct. 1909.
In 1897 and1898, Handel T. Martin and Professor S.W. Williston, paleontologists from the University of Kansas, led an archeological dig that verified the ruins as El Cuartelejo. In 1899, Prof. Williston presented and published his scientific findings to the Kansas Historical Society.

Martin’s study and investigation was published in 1909. The 1912 Kansas Cyclopedia included the following passage: “After remarking that much of the stone has been taken away by the people living in the vicinity, [Mr. Martin] asks the rather pertinent question: ‘Would it not be well for the state to preserve at this late day our only known pueblo from further destruction?’”

During excavation the lower 2½’ of the stone walls were exposed. The outside walls measured between eighteen and twenty inches thick and surrounded seven different rooms. These rooms ranged in size from 10’ by 14’ to 16’ by 18’. The total pueblo area measures 32’ by 50’. No windows or door evidence was found leading experts to classify the dwelling as a pueblo type ruin.

Charred ends of ladder posts were also uncovered leading to the theory that the pueblo was burned during its later years. Numerous artifacts were uncovered and now reside at the Kansas State Historical Museum and the University of Kansas.

In 1970, Tom Witty of the Kansas State Historical Society re-examined the El Cuartelejo site. Twenty sites were found in conjunction with the pueblo, although only one pueblo building is known to exist. The other sites were either camp areas or storage buildings.

During the excavation the whole pueblo floor, hearths, and locations of posts were unearthed. The outline of the pueblo walls was found to be different then the 1898 dig, and the south porch posts were discovered for the first time. Also found was evidence of an Apache roasting pit under the ruins, pre-dating the pueblo. The walls were then stabilized and informational placards were added.

The D.A.R. (Daughters of the American Revolution) Kansas Chapter holds the land deed to El Cuartelejo. In 1925, the D.A.R. erected a granite marker on this site. It was discovered later that the marker was actually on top of part of the pueblo ruins and the marker was subsequently moved further away.

The El Cuartelejo site is now maintained by Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks and is situated within the confines of Lake Scott State Park. A park permit is required to visit the ruins.

The National Park Service lists El Cuartelejo as an “at risk” site. The landmark is deteriorating due to weather and needs wall repair and stabilization/preservation work. The threat level was “watch” in 2004.

There has been renewed interest from the Kansas State Historical Society on ways to preserve this site, and research is on-going.

Wildlife and Parks improved access a couple years ago by installing a concrete walkway to the area and a bathroom that is handicapped accessible. The railings protecting the site are unstable and placards are barely readable or are missing.


1664: Taos Indians fleeing from Spanish persecution started moving northward looking for a new home. They settled in the area among the Plains Apaches. This village was called El Cuartelejo and the Apache inhabitants the Cuartelejo band. The Taos Indians remained for only a few years. Before the pre-1680 pueblo revolt in New Mexico, a Spanish expedition led by Juan de Archuleta returned the pueblo Indians back to New Mexico.

1696: Picuris Pueblo Indians resettled El Cuartelejo and joined with their Apache trading partners.

1706: Picuris returned to New Mexico by Spanish General Juan de Ulibarri.

1720: Pedro de Villasur led a Spanish expedition of one hundred men. They camped at El Cuartelejo en-route to scouting for French forces somewhere north and west of this location. They wanted to observe the French soldiers’ strength in numbers and location.

About 150 miles north of the site the Spanish troops died under an attack by bands of Pawnee Indians which supposedly were under French control. El Cuartelejo was considered a potential military outpost for the Spanish after these battles, but the plans were dropped.

1727: French traders were reported by the Indians at this site.

1730s: Frequent Comanche, Ute and Pawnee attacks on the Cuartelejo Apaches forced the abandonment of El Cuartelejo.

Legends of El Quartelejo

These stories are just for fun and it's doubtful there is any factual basis behind them.

Apparition Mound

If you should travel west from the sixth principal meridian up the trail through the Smoky Hills in Kansas, you would see to the west a row of mounds that rise about the rough hewn turrets like lonely sentinels. One rises high above the other. This is Lone Mound.

Going on through the valley, a great surprise awaits you. You look up and about—startled. Lone Mound has disappeared. Chagrined, you forge on to where peaks edge up against the sky, and still it is nowhere to be seen.

Yet, supposing you should stop upon a line north of Scott City, you would look down on a small valley, green with verdure and gray with shale. A silvery stream makes a horseshoe curve and then flows on to Many Waters. There in the curve stands a monument erected by the Kansas Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution. It marks the site of the Taos Indian pueblo, El Quartelejo.

If by chance you should learn the tale about this bluff upon which you stand, you would no doubt become more startled. You are standing upon the crest of Lone Mound. The Indians knew it as Apparition Mound.

Indian legend has it that once an Indian maiden and her lover wooed here, and when the moon was round and large made worship in simple offerings to the God of Love and Tenderness. But there came a time when the jealous chief, who had cast looks of desire upon the comely maiden sent her lover upon a mission from which he never returned.

Day after day the maiden waited and watched. Time rolled by and the girl grew frail and wan. Her heart was filled with desolation.

When the moon rose round and bright an emaciated figure was seen to dance wildly upon the crest of the knoll. She screamed curse after curse upon the chief and his people. Then, still screaming defiance, she flung herself far out upon the rocks below.

In flesh the girl was no more, but the folk lore of the Indian says that every night when the moon if full, the apparition dances upon the ledge.

From that day on ill fortunes befell the people of the valley. Sickness came. Their crops perished.

Then came the white man fighting his way westward. The Taos Indian vanished, leaving only a memory. Early in the 1700s the pueblo of El Quartelejo became an outpost of Spanish civilization.

This may or not be a tale born in the fanciful mind of the Indian, but there is still another story.

Love In El Quartelejo

With the passing of the Indian, El Quartelejo bloomed again. Spanish people blazed the trail for new generations. So again, love flowered in the quaint old settlement. The moon, peeping over the rim again, shone upon a man and maiden strolling among the age-old rocks. Then one night another man, bending stealthily, ran a few paces and darted behind a clump of trees.

His name was Garcia Roderique, and the evil leer which etched his features, disclosed the passion that was within his heart. A fire of jealous hate burned within the soul and as he crouched his hand stove to his knife. Silently he watched the forms of Juan Fererro and Angela Bernado slowly approach. The arm of Juan lay about her slim waists. “Santa Maria,” whispered Garcia as he drew in a quick breath.

The pair had stopped by the clump of trees and stood silently watching the moon as it cast its enchanting rays over the Smoky Hills. Garcia crouched and waited, but fear suddenly seized him. Juan stood straight and tall; under the short jacket were muscles that flowed like those of a panther. These had been tested by Garcia in friendly combat. His nerve seemed to have deserted him and he only crouched in breathless suspense. They passed on, and Garcia stood erect, but for some unknown reason Juan turned about. There was no time to regain his hiding place, Garcia saw.

‘Garcia,’ Juan exclaimed, ‘why are you here? See, you have startled Angela, Explain, please.’ ‘I have no explanation to make. Is not the air free to breathe, and are the confines of these river bottoms owned by you, senor,’ Garcia mocked. ‘Garcia, I suspect you are here for a purpose. What may it be?’ ‘Just what is it, that Senior Juan might suspect?; Garcia’s voice was suave. ‘You are spying upon us,’ snapped Juan. ‘You lie, dog’ Garcia’s voice was hot with anger. Juan’s arm shot out and there was a resounding slap which left a crimson stain upon Garcia’s cheek.

With a scream of anger, Garcia lunged forward, and a knife glistened in the light of the full moon, but his wrist was gripped by a hand of steel. The knife flew into the brush. Another twist and Garcia rolled on the ground.

‘You are a cur.’ Juan’s voice was still calm. ‘By all the laws of El Quartelejo I should kill you with my knife, but gentlemen reserve the knife for battle. An hour hence I will be at Apparition Mound with swords. An hour hence, senior.’

As Garcia got to his feet an evil smile spread over his features. Garcia was acknowledged to be a peer among fencers. Juan had been a failure at swords.

Within just an hour Garcia Roderique walked boldly toward the crest of Apparition Mound. He felt master of the situation. Juan was there before him and they took their places alone with seconds.

The men tipped blades. From the first Garcia fought like a merciless demon. Always on guard, he played with Juan as a cat plays with a mouse. When he was ready he would thrust the blade through his enemy’s heart. Presently he drew back for the fatal drive but it never went home. A long mournful sigh wailed above his head, and, for just an instant, he lifted his eye to Apparition Mound. Then he stared, fascinated, hypnotized. And as he stared, Juan’s blade passed through his body and he slid to the ground.

What Garcia saw will never be known, but the moon was large and round, and legend says that under the full moon the apparition of the Indian maiden dances and screams down curses upon the unjust.

But there is even another story.

Passing of El Quartelejo

Perhaps 30 years after the Spanish moved out, El Quartelejo suffered a lapse of silence. Passing years took toll on the rude building, and wind and rain attacked its walls. They cracked and peeled, although the relics of past generations still remained within. A few years later the Comanches of the prairies discovered the old shelter and moved in. But it continued to decay. Then came a night when it ceased to exist.

The Indians encamped in the valley sat watching a bank of clouds that gathered against the wind. The full moon flooded the valley in a sheen of silver was soon obscured. Flashes of fire darted back and forth across the sky. A continuous rumble reverberated across the hills.

Some of the Indians, like children, retreated to their teepees and hid beneath their blankets, while others watched. Flash after Flash lighted the heavens. Suddenly there was a crash of thunder, and for a second a blast of fire illuminated the valley.

There were Indians who told that during the flash they saw the pueblo flatten to the ground. Others told a stranger tale.

The legend says that when the hills were still lighted by the vivid flash which brought El Quartelejo down, two figures appeared upon the crest of Apparition Mound – they stood hand in hand and were looking eastward, as though at the full moon. Then vanished with the subsequent darkness.

Is there truth in the Indian legends? Had the Indian maiden and her lover met again? On certain nights the moon still looms large and bright. Does the apparition still appear upon Lone Mound? Some shake their heads in silent awe. Some smile. Who knows the truth?

Stories published by The News Chronicle, Bill Boyer, Scott City, KS for the Diamond Jubilee Anniversary Celebration of Scott State Lake, 1994.  Thanks to Bill Boyer for the fun of including legends.

©2015 Keystone Gallery / Photos © Barbara Shelton unless otherwise noted

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