The name of Ghost Ranch comes from a loose translation of Rancho de los Brujos, or Ranch of the Witches. The story behind this supernatural sobriquet says something not only about Ghost Ranch but of the character of the region and the people who lived -- and still live -– there.
From the days of the first Spanish mission at Santa Tomás Apostole de Abiquiu in 1754, Abiquiu had a reputation as a being a region beset by sorcerers (maleficios) and witches (brujos and brujas). Male witches, in particular, were considered especially malevolent. Ominously, the struggling young community was best by a gruesome and mysterious illness, which claimed the lives of Christian and Indian alike. Then harvest after harvest failed, grazing livestock inexplicably died, and young women were possessed by demons and fell writhing to the floor during mass. It seemed the place was accursed.
Franciscan friars responsible for the spiritual guidance of the Genízaros (Indians from various tribes who had been abducted and enslaved to the Spanish or Pueblo Indians who lived willingly alongside the Spanish) wrote to the governor in Santa Fe complaining of the interference of local sorcerers, whose ringleader was one Miguel el Cojo (Michael the lame). Rounding up fifteen Genízaros accused of witchcraft, the authorities demanded that they reveal secrets of their demonic rituals, believing that the persistence of pagan beliefs was responsible for the community’s trouble. Threatened with being burnt at the stake, El Cojo divulged the location of pagan idols, and yet even after these were destroyed the witch-hunt continued.
A search of the surrounding countryside revealed numerous Native American sites, many of great antiquity; all "pagan" symbols such as petroglyphs were eradicated. Still, the Abiqueños whispered that the brujos had not been entirely vanquished. Everyone knew, for example, that they could be seen abroad at night, when they took the shape of tecolotes (owls). The pagan ceremonies, too, were never completely forgotten.
In the 1860’s, in the canyons of the vast Piedra Lumbre north of Abiquiu, shepherds circulated stories of ghosts who haunted the desolate area. They refused to take sheep into one narrow canyon in the northeast in particular, as they claimed that at night white ghosts sailed up the cliffs walls emitting the moans of the damned. There were stories, too, of a great snake that slithered from the base of the red cliffs at sundown to search for its favorite prey –- young children.
It was here, near the base of these cliffs, that two brothers built a homestead in the late 19th century. The narrow canyon provided an ideal holding pen for cattle, but soon rumors spread that the Archuleta brothers were not ranchers but rustlers who used the remote canyon as the base of their illegal activities. Even worse, it was said that the brothers invited unsuspecting travelers to stay at their ranch then murdered them in their sleep, appropriating their possessions before burying the bodies in the red hills behind their homestead. People in the area began calling their ranch Rancho de los Brujos, and it was said that the ghosts of the Archuleta brothers’ victims haunted the place.
Like all good tales involving evildoers, the story of the Archuleta brothers ends in greed resulting in self-destruction. The younger brother went to a cattle sale Santa Fe, returning with a sack of gold which he then hid from his older brother. When the younger brother would not divulge where he’d buried the money, his brother killed him in a fit of rage. The murderer then turned on his brother''s widow, threatening that if she did not reveal where the gold was hidden that he would feed her daughter to Vivaron, the great snake said to lurk among the cliffs of the Piedra Lumbre. The terrified widow managed to escape with her daughter in the night, seeking refuge with relatives in Santa Fe.
Decades passed before the daughter dared return to search for her father’s buried treasure, but she found nothing. However, she recounted the legend of Vivaron to Arthur Pack, the wealthy easterner who had purchased the ranch and established a dude ranch there. Pack naturally dismissed the tale as a myth. Not long after, however, an amazing cache of dinosaur remains was found at Ghost Ranch, including the exposed skeleton of a phytosaur at the base of a cliff, thirty feet long and resembling nothing so much as a giant serpent.
It’s easy to dismiss these tales of witches, giant snakes, and buried treasure as mere tales of the superstitious. And yet, as I hiked along a rugged path winding through the painted hills of Ghost Ranch, it struck me that I, too, would not want to be caught wandering alone near the base of the towering cliffs after sundown.