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Writer sets stage on 500-year-old site

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Posted: Sunday, March 10, 2013 12:00 am

Sometimes, says Dennis Herrick, when he squints his eyes he can see conquistadors and Aztec Indians running along the path behind his home in River’s Edge III.

Yes, he’s got quite an imagination, and that helps when he can use his “literary license” to write short stories and books.

Although the city of Rio Rancho lacks any noteworthy history since its incorporation in 1981, a lot happened before anyone lived here. That was long before New Yorkers began buying land and moving here, and the area now known as the River’s Edge neighborhoods — River’s Edge III abuts what once was Santiago Pueblo — was home to the first-named Indian war in American history.

Herrick used that literary license, a lot of research and his love for history — even more so when it happened where he lives — to write, “Winter of the Metal People,” expected off the press any day now.

A native of Michigan, Herrick studied journalism, which he hoped to someday teach. Herrick spent eight years in the nation’s capital working for a congressman. He owned and published his own newspaper (the Sun) in Mt. Vernon, Iowa, for 12 years, then followed his dream to teach by moving to New Mexico.

“We sold it and came here (in 2001) because of our grandchildren,” he said. “We’d visited to see our son and really liked it. The next five years I worked on my master’s — I always wanted to teach.”

He taught at the University of Iowa, and when he and his wife, Bea, moved to New Mexico, he got a part-time teaching job at the University of New Mexico. Soon, he was teaching journalism at UNM full-time: “I was the devil they knew,” he said, with a sinister smile.

Bea got involved with Friends of Rio Rancho Open Space (FORROS), a natural given their home and its proximity to the bosque. She’s more concerned, of course, with current life in the bosque, rather than the souls who trudged through it seeking food and shelter almost 500 years ago.

Just like Dennis Herrick always wanted to teach, he’d always wanted to write, and he was good enough to win the first Tony Hillerman Mystery Writing Contest in 2004 for “Hunting Season,” which was published in Cowboys & Indians magazine. Another short story, “Missing,” earned him the 2010 Society of Southwestern Authors Writing Contest. (Both stories, plus two others, are in “Pueblo Mysteries,” published last year by Sterling Publications.)

And now, retired two years and with an active imagination and envisioning Coronado’s boot prints in the ground behind the wall of his home, what could be more natural?

“I’ve been working on the book at least 10 years,” he said, eager to see it in print from Sunbury Press.

The Tiguex (TEE-wesh, he says, in opposition to those who pronounce it TIG-way) War, waged from around 1540 to 1542, really wasn’t much of a war. What chance did the peaceful pueblo Indians living in what would become Sandoval County would do against well-armed Spanish soldiers and their companion Aztec Indians, riding horses (Herrick thinks of them as the first tanks), and wearing protective armor?

Herrick takes the point of view of a Pueblo warrior at the time, a man who reluctantly takes leadership of his people in their time of crisis, “overcoming self-doubt to lead Puebloans in successful guerilla warfare against the Spaniards,” reads a blurb on Herrick’s website.

Previously, he noted, what has been known and written about Coronado’s time in New Mexico has only been told from the conquistadors’ point of view. “People kept re-writing those (stories),” he said, which told of Coronado’s exploits from Mexico, seeking gold in what was later Arizona and New Mexico, following Indian trade routes. “I followed the historical record as closely as I could.”

His men, Herrick said, were “tough, tough guys,” and many probably walked most of the way. “It was a wilderness, but it wasn’t uncharted,” he said.

On Sunday, March 17, at 2 p.m. at DeLavy House, Herrick will regale visitors with what he’s gleaned from a decade of research into the little-known — but bloody, including dozens of Indians burned at the stake — Tiguex War. For two winters, Coronado’s military headquarters was at Santiago Pueblo, a short walk from Herrick’s comfortable home with a gorgeous view of the Sandias.

Not far from there is what is now Coronado State Monument, once the Kuaua Pueblo, and what Herrick believes is one of the best-kept secrets. First excavated in the 1930s, he said, “An overwhelming majority (of Rio Ranchoans) have never been to Coronado State Monument. A lot of it is (due to) lack of interest, or they don’t know what’s there.”

History — that’s all that’s there, folks.

“I consider it a hobby,” he says of his research and writing, knowing few make a living off it. “I’m just having fun. … I think this will be my only book.”

(See dennisherrick.com for more on the author.)

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