Los Alamos Historical Society

A History of the Romero Cabin
By Ellen McGehee, Los Alamos National Laboratory Consulting Archaeologist, April 1988

Introduction

The Romero Cabin site was located at Los Alamos National Laboratory's Technical Area (TA) 55 on land owned by the United States Department of Energy. The site consisted of an assemblage of artifacts and structural remains resulting from the homesteading of this area during the first half of the 20th century.

In 1981, an expansion of the facilities at TA-55 was proposed which would affect two sites, Laboratory of Anthropology (LA) 22766 and LA 16806, recorded by then LANL consulting archaeologist Charlie Steen. LA 22766, a dispersed lithic and sherd scatter, and LA 16806, the Romero Cabin site, were both located within the construction project area. In 1984, following the recommendations of then Laboratory contracting archaeologist David Snow and others, the Department of Energy decided to preserve the cabin and transfer it to the Los Alamos County Historical Museum. In addition to the relocation and restoration of the cabin, an extensive data recovery project was completed. This included historical research, photographic documentation, mapping, controlled excavation, and artifact collection.

Romero Cabin c. 1967

The Romero Cabin at its original site on Los Alamos National Laboratory property, c. 1967. Photo courtesy of Los Alamos National Lab

 

The Homestead Era

The Homestead Act of 1862 allowed U.S. citizens, older than 21 years of age and heads of household, to file a claim for 160 free acres of land. After improvements were made on the land (within six months of the initial application) the homesteader had five years to establish himself as a permanent occupant of the land. The final step in the homesteading process was to "prove up" the claim by filing the final paperwork after the first five year deadline but before seven and a half years had elapsed (Oakes 1983: 26). This "proving up" included the testimony of witnesses who could verify the improvements made upon the property, such as the construction of a cabin and corrals, and who could verify the permanent nature of the homesteader's residence. The number of 160 acres was later changed to 320 acres in the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909. This change was made because many arid and marginally productive western lands were difficult to successfully homestead in small acreages (Oakes 1983: 26).

Homesteading at the Romero Cabin Site

The Romero family consisted of Victor and Refugio Romero and their six children (Shaw 1984). Victor filed homestead entry papers in 1916. In these papers he stated that his house was built in June of 1913 and that it had one room and two windows. He further stated that he had a corral and that the claim was fenced on three sides. The Romero family was typically absent from the land during December, January, February, and March of each year. In those winter months the family lived down in the valley in San Ildefonso, New Mexico. There were only 13 cultivable acres on the Romero 15 acre claim with mostly corn and beans being produced (U.S. Department of the Interior 1916).

The cabin was rebuilt in 1934. A major transformation in the form of the cabin was the change from a v-pitch to a shed style of roof (Shaw 1985). Informants have mentioned that not everyone slept in the cabin and that there was a sleeping porch and a small building for the children to sleep in. However, substantial archaeological evidence for these features has not been found. The cabin's interior was roughly furnished with a homemade table, chairs and/or benches, and shelving. Pot and pans were hung on the walls and the stove was located in the northwest corner of the cabin. Informants have added that a small garden for family use was located behind (to the north of) the house. Melons were grown in this garden and, when in season, wild strawberries were a favorite local delicacy. In addition to the corral, informants can recall a chicken pen and a shed for storing grain and hay. The Romeros had cows for fresh milk, and hogs, chickens, and horses were kept on the land. Food stuffs, mostly canned, were bought from the Ranch School store, which had high prices, or stores at San Ildefonso and Buckman, New Mexico. The latter towns were located in the valley at a considerable distance from the Romero homestead, but were 'on the way' from their year round home in San Ildefonso.

Food staples mentioned by the informants included canned milk, potted meat, Arbuckle's coffee beans, and Libby's canned fruits and vegetables. Water was not readily available on the mesa top and was hauled up in barrels from the bottom of a nearby canyon. Victor's father, a partero or male midwife, owned a larger homestead to the east of the cabin site with a large souterano or underground storage area, a rock-lined cistern, and a large corral. Many of the Hispanic homestead families on the Pajarito Plateau were related by marriage and there was a network of trails that connected the neighboring properties, often leading from mesa to mesa (Ernesto Romero, personal communication).

The seasonal occupation of the Romero homestead lasted for approximately 30 years until 1942 or 1943, when the United States government appropriated the land for the Manhattan Project.

The Romero Cabin Project

In 1984-1985, under the supervision of Anthony Crosby, an architectural preservationist, the Romero Cabin was transferred and reconstructed at a site near Fuller Lodge in downtown Los Alamos, New Mexico. Some of the original wooden beams from the cabin were too rotten to use and were replaced with seasoned logs. Pieces of the corrugated roofing material and planks from the cabin's floor were also replaced. The cabin's stone foundations were moved to the new site which has been landscaped with some of the originally associated vegetation. Furthermore, prior to the relocation of the cabin, Crosby completed Historical American Building Survey (HABS) quality recording and documentation of the cabin.

Archaeological fieldwork was carried out under the direction of archaeologist David Snow and included the excavation of the cabin (Feature 1), the south log structure (Feature 2), and the privy (Feature 3). In addition to the excavation of Features 1, 2, and 3, limited sub-surface testing at trash accumulations 206, 222, and 257 was done. Both the dispersed trash from the field areas and the artifacts located in discrete trash areas were collected.

Reconstruction of the Romero Cabin near Fuller Lodge.

Historical information relevant to the homesteading of the Pajarito Plateau and the Romero Cabin occupation was located at the Los Alamos County Historical Museum. Other sources of background material included copies of the homestead entry papers filed by Victor Romero and other homesteaders, old land grant survey reports (pre-Manhattan Project), and maps and land ownership information gathered in the 1940s from the preliminary government survey of the newly acquired Manhattan Project property. In addition to the written history of the Romero Cabin, an oral tradition based on the recollections of Romero family history also existed. Genealogical and historical information was provided by Dr. Russell Shaw of Los Alamos, and several Romero family members were interviewed who remembered living in the cabin.

The Romero Cabin

As mentioned previously, the original cabin was built in 1913 by Victor Romero. This log cabin had one room and two windows and its roof was constructed in the common "v"-pitch or gabled style (U.S. Department of the Interior 1916 and Ernesto Romero, personal communication). According to Bences Gonzales, the son-in-law of Victor Romero, Feature 1, the "Romero" cabin, was actually built in 1934. Some of the timbers used came from a cabin he identified as the "Sanchez" cabin, built in the late 1800s by Victor's father-in-law, Antonio Sanchez (LASL Community Affairs News 1959).

Documentation for this earliest occupation of the site could not be found as the land was not formally homesteaded by Sanchez; however, the dendrochronology (tree-ring) data seem to confirm the 1934 construction of Feature 1. Whether this activity in the 1930s represents an extensive rebuilding of the cabin or the original construction of Feature 1, as Mr. Gonzales states, remains to be verified.

Twice in the 1960s, boy scouts did restoration work on the cabin but they did not change its form considerably (Olinger 1984).Dendrochronological data gathered from the cabin's original logs support the three periods of renovation cited above. The tree-ring dates cluster around 1934, 1961, and 1966, with one 1913 date.

The South Log Structure, the Sanchez Cabin?

Feature 2, or the south log structure, was located approximately 35 m south of the Romero cabin. This wooden structure was originally identified as an animal pen. The level of preservation was poor, but it was obvious from the remaining architectural evidence that this structure had not recently been used for habitation. In addition to the physical evidence, informants have stated that the Romero's had a pen for their hogs and that a storage shed was also located on the property (Ernesto Romero, personal communication).

However, in light of the tree-ring data which include construction dates from as early as 1894 to a solid cluster of 1912 dates, the functional history of this feature had to be carefully investigated. The controversy surrounding the Romero Cabin's construction sequence was also considered as the south log structure might have been the remains of the original Romero cabin, the older "Sanchez" cabin or both. A possible scenario, based on the above information, is that Feature 2 was really the original 1890s Sanchez cabin which was fixed up in 1913 for use by Victor Romero. At this time, or in the 1930s, this log structure could have been used as a storage shed, and later used as an animal pen.

Bibliography

Community Affairs News. 1959  1(3): 5, "Bences Gonzales Recalls 62 Years of Hill Development," Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Oakes, Yvonne R. 1983  The Ontiberos Site: A Hispanic Homestead near Roswell, New Mexico.  Laboratory of Anthropology Note No. 311, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Olinger, Colleen. 1984  Unpublished notes from telephone interviews with Clint Bowyer and Casey Stevens, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Romero, Mr. and Mrs. Ernesto. 1985  Personal communication from interview.

Shaw, Russell. 1984  Homestead Research Notes, the Romero Family.  Unpublished notes, Los Alamos, New Mexico.

1985  Unpublished notes from interview with Ernesto V. Romero of La Mesilla, New Mexico.

United States Department of the Interior. 1916  Homestead Entry Papers, No. 018000, Victor Romero,  U.S. Land Office, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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