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Historical Background

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Historical Background

The Spanish Conquistadors and Padres (continued)


The second major penetration by the Spanish of the present United States was in the Southwest. There, in an arid and inhospitable land, Spanish dreams of gold and precious metals were to become nightmares. But before the reality were the myths. After Cortés' conquest of the rich Aztec Empire and Pizarro's looting of Inca wealth in Peru, should not great or greater riches be found to the north of Old Mexico? Mythmakers and dreamers began to spin wild fabrications. Soon their fantasies were given a touch of reality by the reports of a strange party of three men led by Cabeza de Vaca—survivors of the Narváez expedition to Florida—which arrived in present Mexico after an amazing cross-country trek from the gulf coast of Texas. Thus, interestingly enough, a tenuous thread from Florida stimulated the northward march of New Spain into the unknown lands of New Mexico.

When De Vaca, the other two Spaniards, and the Negro slave Estévan—after 5 years of captivity among the Indians—sought to escape in 1534, they were somewhere inland in Texas, possibly near the site of San Antonio. Traveling sometimes alone, but more often with roving bands of Indians, they wandered south and west. Probably crossing the Rio Grande into present Mexico, they moved westward for several hundred miles, crossed the Rio Grande again in the vicinity of the Big Bend, and then turned to the southwest. In June 1536, they stumbled across a party of Spaniards, who could hardly believe that the starving, nearly naked "savages" who rushed sobbing up to them were really aristocratic hidalgos and their slave.

What a story the men had to tell! The credulous Spaniards, who after the discovery of the riches of the Aztec and Inca Empires might be expected to believe anything of the new continent, were beside themselves with joy. The men's report of the fabled Seven Cities of Gold spread like wildfire, although the narrators made it plain that they had not seen these fabulous cities—only heard of them from the Indians. The Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, cautiously decided upon further reconnaissance of the region to the north before sending out the army of conquest for which his eager subordinates clamored.

When De Vaca and his two Spanish companions, not surprisingly, refused to return, Mendoza dispatched Estévan with Fray Marcos de Niza to gain further information. In 1539, the Franciscan friar, accompanied by Estévan and several Indian guides, crossed into the present United States, possibly near the Arizona border community of Lochiel. Nearing the Zuñi pueblos at the Arizona-New Mexico border, he sent Estévan ahead with some of the Indian guides. When the Zuñis killed the Negro, the friar took to his heels. After a hasty trip back, he reported to Mendoza that he had seen a city, one of the Seven Cities of Cibola, that was more impressive than Montezuma's capital itself. He probably had seen one of the Zuñi pueblos. From a distance, the sun-baked walls may indeed have glittered like gold.

Coronado marches through the Southwestern United States, in 1540-42. Disappointed at not having found the Seven Cities of Gold, he returned to Mexico. From a painting by Frederic Remington. (Courtesy, Library of Congress.)

Immediately Mendoza began organizing one of the grandest expeditions that Spain ever assembled in the New World. He appointed as commander his young friend Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, Governor of Nueva Galicia, and sent along Fray Marcos. In February 1540, about 250 mounted Spanish troops, nearly 100 footmen, several hundred friendly Indians, 4 priests, remudas of extra horses, and herds of cattle, sheep, and swine left Compostela. At Culiacan the impatient Coronado rushed ahead with 100 mounted men, leaving the slow-moving main body, with the livestock and baggage train, to follow. Crossing into the area of the present United States southwest of Bisbee, Ariz., he struck out toward the northeast until he came upon the Zuñi pueblo of Hawikuh—a jolting disappointment. It was not a magnificent city surrounded by gold-crusted walls ornamented with jewels, but a motley rock-and-clay pueblo. Furthermore, its Indian defenders were hostile. Though tired from the rapid march and debilitated by a rationed diet, the Spaniards took the pueblo by storm.

The mounted men with superior arms won the fray. Coronado ensconced himself in the pueblo and sent back one of his lieutenants, Melchior Diaz, to order the main army forward. After doing so, Diaz took a detachment and cut west to the Colorado River, roughly along the southern boundary of Arizona. He failed in his attempt to rendezvous with the expedition's ships—two supply vessels under Hernando de Alarcón—that had sailed the length of the Gulf of California and up the mighty Colorado for a distance of perhaps 50 miles.

The pueblo of Hawikuh was undoubtedly one of the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola; Fray Marcos shamefacedly returned home, but Coronado determined to pursue the search. During the summer of 1540, another lieutenant, Pedro de Tovar, led a side expedition to Awatovi and the other Hopi villages in northeastern Arizona. López de Cárdenas explored as far west as the awesome walls of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. He was the first European to view the canyon. Another small expedition under Hernando de Alvarado followed Indian guides northeast to Taos and Pecos Pueblos. Meanwhile, Coronado shifted his headquarters eastward to the pueblo of Tiguex on the Rio Grande, a few miles north of the site of Albuquerque. Heavy fighting ensued with the Indians, who finally surrendered.

From an Indian the Spaniards called the Turk, "because he looked like one," Coronado heard marvelous tales of the rich land of Quivira farther to the east. In the spring of 1541, the entire army, with renewed hope, marched eastward under the Turk's guidance. In truth, the Indian was a native of the Plains country, seeking to escape from captivity among the Pueblo Indians. But he easily duped the Spaniards, who so avidly sought gold and conquest—even though Ysopete, another Plains Indian who accompanied the expedition, denied the Turk's stories. Somewhere along the eastern edge of the Texas high plains, Coronado sent the main army back to Tiguex. With 30 cavalrymen, 6 infantrymen, some servants, and the 2 Plains Indians, he trekked toward the northeast into present Oklahoma and Kansas, which did not yield the riches the Spanish sought. The Turk confessed his duplicity and the Spanish garroted him. At the very time that Coronado was in Kansas, the De Soto expedition—which had originated in Florida—was probably only a few hundred miles to the southeast.

Coronado, frustrated at finding no wealth in Kansas, turned back to Tiguex, where the Spaniards spent a dreary winter before dragging themselves back to their homeland in the south. Not only had their high hopes of riches been dashed, but the inhospitable lands they had traversed were unsuitable for colonization. The discovery by Diaz and Alarcón that Baja (Lower) California was a peninsula and not an island was the only concrete result of the expedition. For about 40 years, New Spain's interest in the north country waned.

New Mexico—which then included present Arizona and the rest of the Southwest—was colonized in 1598 by Juan de Oñate because of the lingering suspicion that the fabled land of Quivira might, in truth, be real, and because of persistent rumors of mineral wealth in the mountains. The Rodríguez and Espejo expeditions of 1581-82 stimulated these rumors. In 1581, Friar Agustín Rodríguez, with two other Franciscans and a small band of soldiers, entered the upper Rio Grande region to convert the Pueblo Indians. The priests remained there without military escort. Fearing that they were lost, the following year Antonio de Espejo went to their rescue. The three friars had been killed; Espejo had little to report, but his return quickened Spanish interest again in the lands to the north. An unlicensed expedition under Castaño de Sosa in 1590 was thwarted when soldiers from Chihuahua overtook it and arrested the leader. About 1590, Indians slaughtered another group, led by Francisco Leyva de Bonilla and Antonio Gutíerrez de Humaña, some where in the Plains country.

It was Oñate, sanctioned by the Crown and leading a powerful force, who made the first permanent settlement. Crossing the Rio Grande at present El Paso, he and some 400 followers proceeded up the river to the juncture of the Chama. In that vicinity, in the summer of 1598, they founded the colony of San Juan de los Caballeros in one of two Indian pueblos. Late in the year or early in 1599, they established San Gabriel de Yungue-ouinge at the other pueblo as the capital of New Mexico. From these bases, Franciscan friars scattered to the pueblos and in 1601 Oñate himself rode grandly off with an expedition to find Quivira. He traveled down the Canadian River, across the Texas Panhandle, and probably into the same general region of southern Kansas that Coronado had reached in 1541. On another trip, in 1604-5, he passed though the Gila country of Arizona to the Colorado River, but again found no gold or silver.

The little colony on the Rio Grande grew discontented under Oñate's leadership; he resigned about 1608 and Pedro de Peralta replaced him the following year. Probably in 1610 Peralta moved the capital southward and reestablished it at Santa Fe, which he founded in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The priests continued to expand their evangelical work among the neighboring pueblos, but otherwise the province grew slowly. In the second decade of the 17th century, perhaps 20 priests were serving some 30,000 converts in more than 40 small churches in the upper Rio Grande area. Military and civilian personnel numbered only a few hundred. Several minor expeditions searched the surrounding mountains and made other tours—as far as west Texas—in the vain pursuit of treasure.

Early Spanish land exploration (to 1700) in present United States. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Early Spanish sea exploration (to 1700) along coasts of present United States. (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Only the apparent success of the mission effort among the sedentary Pueblo Indians kept the tiny colony in New Mexico alive, for the venture proved unrewarding otherwise. New Mexico settled quickly into an isolation and pastoral lethargy that was to be its chief characteristic for the next two centuries. The small number of Spanish settlers and soldiers—competing with the clergy—exacted burdensome tributes and forced labor from the Indians in an attempt to derive a livelihood. The clergy and civil leaders clashed on many other issues, and civil-military discord seriously weakened the small colony.

Disaster struck in 1680. The padres' success had been more apparent than real, and the Indians proved to be more recalcitrant than they had seemed. Resenting the tributes and the new religion that was forced on them, they rebelled under an unusual leader, Popé. They killed more than 400 Spaniards and drove the rest off their scattered estates and out of Santa Fe. The survivors fled panic-stricken southward into the province of Chihuahua, where the following year they founded El Paso del Norte, now Juarez, Mexico. One small group of friars and loyal Indians continued on and stopped on the north bank of the Rio Grande a few miles southeast of present El Paso. There, also in 1681, they established the mission community of Corpus Christi de Isleta.

That same year, Gov. Antonio de Otermin made an attempt to re-conquer New Mexico but failed. A decade elapsed before Diego de Vargas received a commission to reestablish dominion over the province. In 1692, he led a strong force up the Rio Grande. The pueblos submitted with little resistance, and the Spaniards reoccupied Santa Fe. In their absence, the Tano Indians had moved into the town. Friction between them and the newcomers erupted soon into a bloody fight, the Tanos being driven into the mountains. For the next 6 years, like brush fires on the prairie, sporadic rebellions burst out in the pueblos; De Vargas was kept busy chasing from one to another before, finally, he reinstituted complete and lasting Spanish authority.

The history of the province from the time of the reconquest until the newly independent Mexico took it over in 1821 is a record of the ebb and flow of missionary activity in the Indian pueblos; civil-military-religious clashes; the slow spread of ranchos and haciendas into the plateaus away from the rivers; the coming and going of a long line of royal Governors; the building of little villages along the rivers and in the valleys; frequent warfare with the Apaches, Navajos, and Comanches; occasional explorations into the vast, unknown regions surrounding the upper Rio Grande; and, finally, visits by French fur traders from the northeast.

New Mexico was hopelessly separated from the pulse of the Spanish Viceroyalty. It was a distant outpost from which twice a year long caravans made the wearisome trek to Mexico City and back, bringing news, gossip, and supplies. For the most part, the widely scattered towns and ranches were self-sustaining, and even the smallest had some fortifications against Indian attack. The largest town during this period was not the capital of Santa Fe but the village of Santa Cruz, about 20 miles north on the Rio Grande. Twice destroyed by Indian raids late in the 17th century, in 1706 it was reestablished by Gov. Francisco Cuervo y Valdez, who also founded that same year a small post southwest of Santa Fe that he named San Felipe de Alburquerque (later Albuquerque) in honor of the Viceroy. The latter remained a sleepy, pastoral village until after the coming of the Anglo-Americans in the middle of the 19th century.

In the Taos Valley, in northern New Mexico, were three distinct villages: the Indian pueblo; a Spanish villa, Fernando de Taos, a short distance away; and tiny Ranchos de Taos, about 3 miles farther south. The Indians of the Taos Pueblo had been the first to rebel in 1680 and were the last to submit, in 1696, to the reestablishment of Spanish authority. San Gerónimo de Taos, the mission church of the pueblo and one of the earliest in New Mexico, constructed in 1620, was rebuilt in 1706 after being razed during the Pueblo Revolt. In 1723, the Spanish officially established the Taos Fair, whose origins reached far back into prehistoric times. Conducted annually almost every year thereafter for more than a century, it became an important source of contact and commerce with the Plains Indians and French trappers.

From some Plains Indians (Cuartelejo Apaches) the Spaniards learned of a French expedition that had left the Illinois country for the purpose of trading in New Mexico. The Spanish response, as always to French intrusion, was reflexive. In 1720, an expedition under Pedro de Villasur rushed north from Santa Fe. In a fight along the North Platte River with Pawnee Indians, Villasur and his interpreter, Jean l'Archeveque, lost their lives. Months later, 12 survivors of the expedition struggled back to Santa Fe.

In 1727, New Mexicans heard alarming rumors of a French settlement 160 leagues north of Santa Fe, which proved, indeed, to be a French trading post at a Cuartelejo Apache village. Then, in 1739, the Mallet brothers and a party of fur traders appeared in Santa Fe. Spain and France were at peace in Europe, but the Spanish Crown directed the capture of any other Frenchmen who appeared in New Mexico. After 1746, despite the royal injunction, French trappers apparently began to visit the Taos Fair. In the years following 1762, when Spain acquired western Louisiana from France, royal Governors in both New Mexico and Texas made good use of the French traders in dealing with the Indians of the "northern tribes."

In Pimeria Alta—the northern region of the province of Sonora, which included present Arizona south of the Gila River—the Spanish were far less active than in neighboring New Mexico. This was especially true in southern Arizona (northern Pimeria Alta), where the Spaniards made only a nominal penetration of an area not more than 60 miles square south of Tucson in the Santa Cruz Valley; they had little or no effect on the rest of modern Arizona. Ultimately, in Arizona the Spaniards established three missions, only two of which were active at any one time, and founded a few visitas and a small presidio. In southern Pimeria Alta, in contrast, Spanish activities were more intensive. There at one time three presidios protected a series of missions and visitas, and miners were quite active.

The entradas of De Niza, Coronado, and Oñate, in 1539, 1540, and 1604-5, merely passed through Pimeria Alta, but the Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino thoroughly explored it, beginning in 1687. After founding a group of missions in southern Pimeria Alta, in 1691 he entered present Arizona. For the rest of the decade he visited the Indians; stopped at the future sites of the Tumacacori, San Xavier, and Guevavi missions; established Indian rancherias to support envisioned missions; and wandered north to the ruins of Casa Grande on the Gila. In 1700, under his direction, Indians laid the foundations of San Xavier del Bac Mission, ultimately one of the most magnificent in North America, and Kino soon founded San Gabriel de Guevavi Mission. Unable to obtain funds or missionaries from the Spanish Government to operate the missions, however, he returned to his headquarters in southern Pimeria Alta, from where he directed activities until his death, in 1711. His successors carried on his efforts there.

In 1732, a new group of Jesuits—mainly Germans—renewed the apostolic effort in northern Pimeria Alta. From Guevavi and San Xavier, despite occasional Apache raids, they continued Kino's work by founding six visitas at the rancherias in the Santa Cruz Valley. An uprising of the Pima Indians in 1751 jolted the Spanish authorities into a greater awareness of the area, and the following year they founded a presidio at Tubac to protect the small group of settlers in the region; and padres built a mission 3 miles away at the village of San José de Tumacacori. It was from Tubac that Juan Bautista de Anza set out in 1774 to open an overland route to California.

San José de Tumacacori Mission
This scene illustrates life at San José de Tumacacori Mission, Arizona. The mission Indians engaged in religious, educational, farming, and handicraft activities. (From an exhibit at Tumacacori National Monument.)

To better cope with Apache depredations, in 1776 the Spanish authorities replaced the presidio at Tubac with one at the site of Tucson. In 1767, the Crown had expelled the Jesuits from all the Spanish colonies, and the Franciscans had moved in. In 1773 they abandoned Guevavi and centered their activities at Tumacacori, and in 1785 began construction of present San Xavier del Bac Mission, which they completed in 1795.

In the 1790's, in addition to the few hundred missionaries and settlers in present Arizona, about 20,000 Hispanic people were living in New Mexico in scores of isolated estates and hamlets scattered along the upper Rio Grande. Their quiet, near-indolent retirement was rudely shattered by the appearance of the Americans on the northern frontier just after the turn of the century. But Spain lacked the power or the energy to push back the tide. After Mexico gained her independence in 1821, together with the Spanish possessions in the present United States, she opened the province to the Yankees, who gained a major inroad into the Southwest via the Santa Fe Trail.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005