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Yellow Earth and a Dual Name


TIERRA AMARILLA, Rio Arriba Co., New Mexico






Gary B Speck


Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico is another of those map dots that looks more important on the map than it does in real life. Today, it remains as the Rio Arriba County seat, but is really a sleepy class D community.  There are only a handful of active businesses, including the 1917 county courthouse & more recent county administrative center, a police/sheriff department building, a post office and a small café.  The rest of Tierra Amarilla is dead, even though some 350 people live here.


Tierra Amarilla isn’t as old as other towns in this part of the state, dating only to 1862.  The name comes from the Spanish for yellow earth, due to the color of nearby clay deposits.  Even so, it began life as Las Nutrias and was located just southeast of Camp Plummer, a US Army post built in 1860 to protect settlers in the area.  In 1866 the post office was established, but it was called Tierra Amarilla.  The fort closed in 1869, and the post office followed suit, which leads me to believe this may have been a support OR blow-off town for the army folk. However, the town remained alive, and the Tierra Amarilla post office was re-established in 1870.


Still going by the dual name, Las Nutrias / Tierra Amarilla had grown into THE place to be and the Rio Arriba County seat was moved here. Then to share its importance with the world, in 1880, the name of the town was officially changed to match the post office – Tierra Amarilla.  In 1881, with the arrival of the railroad off to the north in Chama, life here changed.  A courthouse was built and Tierra Amarilla boomed.  That courthouse was torn down in 1916 and replaced with a larger one in 1917. 


Life remained quiet in this nearly anonymous little town hidden deep in New Mexico’s hinterlands.  At least until June 5, 1967 when an armed band led by land rights activist Reies Lopez Tijerina, raided the courthouse and attempted to make a citizen’s arrest on the District Attorney.  He then shot a couple of court employees then fled into the mountains.  Tijerina became the focus of a massive manhunt, and a few days later, he surrendered to authorities, ending Tierra Amarilla’s brush with infamy.  Around town few reminders of those rowdy days remain with a couple slogans and painted statements still visible on one of the town’s buildings


Tierra Amarilla has a unique personality.  Even though the population is around 350, the vast majority of the town appears mostly abandoned. We saw little activity and few cars, except at the government buildings and the café. So, where they all live is unknown to me, but my guess is that the population also includes outlying farms and ranches.


Scattered throughout the town are numerous abandoned structures.  The one that caught my eye was Lito’s Ballroom, a collapsing adobe and wood, single-story that once housed a dance hall, café, bar and fishing tackle sales outlet.  At least that’s what was painted on its dangerously crumbling, rear-leaning front wall. Nearby is what appears to be a dead motel or a row-apartment, its adobe walls not sharing any secrets from within.    


Across the street is an old store/warehouse and the very active police/sheriff station.  A little further west is the county courthouse and a large building housing the café/sandwich shop.  Behind the latter is the Martinez House which is currently undergoing historical renovation. Across the street is a large, boarded-up, wooden building that appears to have once been a store.


Down along the highway, a dead gas station, café and store building turn vacant, dead window sockets out to the highway.



This was our Ghost Town of the Month for January 2014.




·        Tierra Amarilla Grant (No section/township or range markings noted on grants.)

·        Latitude: 36.6990140 / 36° 41’ 56” N

·        Longitude: -106.5522360 / 106° 33’ 08” W



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FIRST POSTED:  January 11, 2014

LAST UPDATED: February 01, 2014




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