The Jemez people lived near Stone Canyon, south of Dulce, New Mexico, around 2,000 years ago. They moved to near their present location after the arrival of the Athapaskans, around the fourteenth century. However, some of them moved to the San Diego Canyon–Guadalupe Canyon area, south of Santa Fe, where they established numerous large fortresses and hundreds of small houses.
The Jemez recognized two divisions, or kiva groups: Squash and Turquoise. The people were further arranged into matrilineal clans with specific ceremonial functions. In modern times photography by outsiders has been discouraged.
More than any other pueblo, Jemez was built on the heights of mesas. It featured apartment-style dwellings of up to four stories, containing as many as 2,000 rooms, as well as one- and two-room houses. The buildings were constructed of adobe (earth-and-straw) bricks, with pine beams across the roof that were covered with poles, brush, and plaster. Floors were of wood plank or packed earth. The roof of one level served as the floor of another. The levels were interconnected by ladders. As an aid to defense, the traditional design included no doors or windows; entry was through the roof. Two rectangular pithouses, or kivas, served as ceremonial chambers and clubhouses. The village plaza, around which all dwellings were clustered, is the spiritual center of the village where all the balanced forces of the world come together. Jemez people also built cliff dwellings to guard access to important places and monitor trails.
Before the Spanish arrived, Jemez people ate primarily corn, beans, and squash. They also grew cotton and tobacco. They hunted deer, mountain lion, bear, antelope, and rabbits. Twice a year, after planting and again after the harvest, men would travel east to hunt buffalo. The women also gathered a variety of wild foods including piñon seeds, yucca fruit, berries, and wild potatoes. The Spanish introduced wheat, alfalfa, chilies, fruit trees, grapes, sheep, cattle, and garden vegetables, which soon became part of the regular diet.
The Spaniards found them in 1540 and built a mission at Giusewa Pueblo in the late sixteenth century. In 1621, they began another mission at the Pueblo de la Congregación, the present Jemez Pueblo. In 1628, Fray Martín de Arvide arrived at the Mission of San Diego de la Congregación with orders to unite the scattered Jemez communities, after which the Jemez Pueblo became an important center for missionary activity.
Despite the pueblo's position as a missionary center, the Jemez people actively resisted Spanish efforts to undermine their religion. They joined in rebellion with the Navajo about 1645, a crime for which twenty-nine Jemez leaders were hanged. They also took a leading part in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. For years, the Spaniards had routinely tortured Indians for practicing traditional religion. They also forced the Indians to labor for them, sold them into slavery, and let Spaniard-owned cattle overgraze Indian land, a situation that eventually led to drought, erosion, and famine. Popé of the San Juan Pueblo and other Pueblo religious leaders planned the great revolt, sending runners carrying cords of maguey fibers to mark the day of rebellion. On August 10, 1680, a virtually united stand on the part of the Pueblos drove the Spanish from the region. The Indians killed many Spaniards but refrained from mass slaughter, allowing most of them to leave Santa Fe for El Paso.
The Jemez people withdrew to sites on the top of the San Diego Mesa in 1681. When the Spanish left they descended, only to reascend in 1689 when they sighted a new Spanish force. Some returned again to the pueblo in 1692, when they, along with Keresans from the Zia Pueblo, arrived at an understanding with the Spanish. Most Jemez, however, still resisted the Spanish, a situation that resulted in fighting between the Jemez and the Keresan pueblos of Zia and Santa Ana. This in turn resulted in a punitive Spanish–Keresan expedition in 1694, ending in the death or capture of over 400 Jemez people. All prisoners were pardoned after they helped the Spanish defeat the Tewas at Black Mesa.
By 1696, the Jemez Pueblo had been rebuilt and reoccupied at or near the original site. The following year, however, after joining again with the Navajo in an anti-Spanish revolt, the Jemez returned to their ancestral homeland near Stone Canyon. Others went west to Navajo country; of these, some eventually returned to Jemez but many remained with the Navajo. Some Jemez also fled to the Hopi Pueblo but were returned several years later by missionaries. The Jemez exile did not end until the early eighteenth century, when members of the tribe returned and settled at Walatowa, twelve miles south of their former mesa homes. At that time they built a new church, San Diego de los Jémez.