New Series: Background To The Movie ‘Oppenheimer’

The Romero Cabin near Fuller Lodge in downtown Los Alamos. Photo by Chris Judson

Presented by the Los Alamos Historical Society and Team Oppie

Historical Background: Chapter 1, The Pueblo People and the Homesteaders

As the opening date approaches for Christopher Nolan’s highly-anticipated major motion picture, Oppenheimer, it seems like a good idea to offer a series of short articles on the historical background to the story and the characters presented in the movie. The list of characters is based on the cast as shown in the movie’s website. These articles will be brief introductions; much more information is available in publications and local museums.

Los Alamos is located on the slopes of the huge Valles Caldera. During enormous eruptions about a million and a half years ago, and again a million years ago, the volcano shot out many cubic miles of volcanic ash and then collapsed, resulting in the Valles Caldera and the Pajarito Plateau.  Snow runoff and summer rains flowing down the outer slopes of the caldera carved steep-walled canyons into the plateau, resulting in the distinctive canyons and mesas of Los Alamos.

Thousands of years ago people lived in the area, making their living by hunting and gathering.  Around the middle of the 1100s CE, ancestors of today’s Pueblo people began settling on the plateau. They grew corn, beans, and squash, and used blocks of the volcanic ash to build homes, and carved rooms into the cliff walls. In the 1500s they moved on, with many settling among other Pueblo people in the nearby Española Valley.  By the 1600s Spanish settlers were coming into the area and building small farming settlements, often along the Rio Grande River or near Pueblo villages.

Moving forward to the 1800s, Anglo settlers had come into the area, and New Mexico was a territory of the United States. The Homestead Act was signed in 1862, and by the late 1930s there were thirty-six homesteaders with claims on the Pajarito Plateau. Most were local Hispanic people who continued to maintain homes in the valley, but went up to their homesteads on the plateau to dry farm and work on their claims in the summer. Their main crop was beans, but some also planted corn, wheat, and squash, raised livestock, and gathered native plants. Each fall they moved back down to the valley, where they could care for their crops and orchards and the children could attend school. The Romero Cabin near the Memorial Rose Garden behind Fuller Lodge was the home of one of the homesteader families. A brochure is available at the History Museum for a driving tour of the locations of many of the homesteads in what is now Los Alamos.

 Backgroud of Characters

Kitty Oppenheimer (played  by Emily Blunt)

Katherine (Kitty) Puening (1910-1972) was born in Germany, and her family moved to the US two years later. She studied botany, receiving her degree from the University of Pennsylvania. She was politically active and, as many college students did at that time, became a member of the Communist Party. She was married to Frank Ramseyer (annulled), Joe Dallet (killed in the Spanish Civil War) and Richard Harrison. Kitty and Harrison worked at CalTech, where she met Robert Oppenheimer. She married him in November, 1940, the day after she divorced Harrison, and their first child, Peter, was born in May.

In 1942 Oppenheimer became director of the secret Los Alamos laboratory of the Manhattan Project.  In March, 1943, the family moved into one of the houses built by the Ranch School, now called the Oppenheimer House and belonging to the Los Alamos Historical Society. Their daughter, Toni, was born in the base hospital in 1944.  After the war they moved to Princeton, and later built a beach house in the Virgin Islands. Kitty passed away in 1972, five years after Robert.

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