Life on the Bad Lands: Homesteading in El Malpais

Photo of old truck and calves 

Driving into El Malpais National Conservation Area (NCA) it becomes evident that this area was once heavily homesteaded. Fences, corrals, and old rusty cars stripped to their metal skeletons scatter the landscape of the NCA. Old homes in the area were once built with hopes and dreams of a life living off the land. The remains of these homes - now abandoned - are all that's left, signs of the hardships homesteaders faced scraping a living from the land. 

From 1918 to 1940 the region was a destination for homesteaders. Local Hispanic families had homesteaded in the area since the first homesteading law of 1862. In 1916 the Stock Raising Act brought the first big wave of outsiders into the area when it expanded the claim to a section of land to 640 acres. Most of the homesteaders had little money, just enough to buy a plot of land, some livestock or equipment. The men were farmers and laborers, and many of the single women were teachers. To them, homesteading was an opportunity, a dream, and a chance for something better. 

Christeen Adams’ family came to New Mexico in 1931 in an old Model A truck from Bowie, Texas, and settled on 120 acres of what was called the Point of the Malpais. Her family first put up a tent on the 120 acres and then after about a year they moved into a three-room homestead made up of poles set in the ground on 320 acres. Adams was adopted into the homesteading family in 1935 and grew up on the Coney-Rowe homestead. Like so many homesteaders, Christeen and her family discovered that living off this land would not be easy.

Water was a critical issue when living on the dry New Mexico landscape. With the exception of those lucky enough to have a spring on their land, everyone else used wagons or vehicles to haul their water from nearby wells or springs. Adams said their family hauled water from three miles away. Another source of water was five miles away, available when a rancher gave them water rights in return for allowing his bull to graze their 120 acres. When it rained near their property, the Cebolla Canyon arroyo would bring water right up to their field of crops, so they built a dam to spread the water over their crops and made a tank or a pond to catch some of the water for their livestock.

Food was also scarce in the area. In the summer they would try their luck at farming, planting oats for hay and big vegetable gardens. Adams said her family only bought coffee, flour and sugar at the store in the nearby town of Grants. As a treat, sometimes they would go out to a crack in the Malpais with ice in it and bring back ice to make ice cream. In late fall they would butcher some of their livestock and store it in an underground cellar or kill a deer and can the meat in jars to last through the winter. 

Even that sometimes wasn’t enough to get some homesteaders through the bad winters. In 1931 it snowed 30 inches, and three days later they had a second storm. They had five feet of snow which remained until spring. Homesteaders had to survive on homemade bread, gravy and whatever small game they could find, like jackrabbits. Between the desert heat and dryness during the summers and the high elevation cold and snowstorms during the winter, it was not an easy life.

Throughout the 1930s most homesteaders struggled to make ends meet. Many left to take better jobs once WWII began, with the exception of a few who became successful ranchers. Adams’ father passed away in 1941. Her family left their homestead several times, once to work in town while her stepfather was in the war and again after the war, the family moved to the Los Lunas area, but they returned to the homestead in 1944. Her family eventually moved into town and sold their homestead to an area rancher who was buying up many of the homesteads in the region.

Today, you can still visit the Coney-Rowe Homestead where Christeen Adams grew up with her family. The memories and signs of the struggling homesteaders are still present. The Coney-Rowe Homestead is located within the El Malpais National Conservation Area and is one of the many homesteads that are preserved and protected by the Bureau of Land Management. They serve as a reminder of a time when people tried to make a home in this beautiful yet unforgiving landscape. 

For information on visiting the homestead site, contact the BLM Ranger Station at 505-280-2918.

Photo of the homestead as it looks today.

The homestead as it appears today.

Photo of Christeen Adams as a young girl.
Christeen Adams as a young girl.

Photo of the homestead as it appears today.

The homestead as it appears today.