(LATIN AMERICA in the 17th CENTURY – continued)

home | 16-17th centuries index

LATIN AMERICA in the 17th CENTURY (2 of 4)

previous | next

Soldiers and Missionaries to New Mexico and Texas

In 1609 the king of Spain declared Nuevo Mexico a royal colony. It was around this time that the struggling settlers abandoned San Gabriel and re-established themselves twenty miles to the south, at a place the Spaniards called Santa Fe, which was less crowded and more easily defended.

In Nuevo Mexico, it was the Franciscans who had the crown's permission to create missions, and Franciscans were making impressions upon the Pueblo as the Jesuits had upon the Yaqui. Pueblo Indians were interested in spiritual matters. They saw Franciscans flagellating themselves, walking barefoot and in many other ways depriving themselves. The Pueblo believed that priests had the power to mediate between humanity and nature, and they saw the Franciscans as people with powers like their shamans or witches. They were impressed by Spanish soldiers and well-attired officials prostrating before the Franciscans – performed to impress the Indians. Franciscans claimed the power to cure the sick, to make rain and good harvests. Many of the Pueblo Indians believed that it might be best to cooperate with and appease the Franciscans. It is rumored that some did not want to be revisited by the wrath of the gods that they heard had been put upon their people – punishment for what the Christians described as idolatry.

The Franciscans devoted their attention to the Indian children, whom they believed were more malleable than adults, and they hoped that the children would help convert adults. The Franciscans, moreover, impressed the Pueblo with small gifts: scissors, clothing, beads and such. Some Pueblo Indians appreciated the Franciscans for the material benefits they offered, including trade with Spaniards. And some saw the Franciscans as useful intermediaries between themselves and Spanish soldiers or as a force between them and the Apache.

Franciscans claimed that by 1626 they had converted 34,000 Indians. This success was in towns – an urban phenomenon like early Christianity – where the sound of the mission bell could reach the entire community. By 1630 missions had been built as far north as Taos, and as far south along the Rio Grande as Sorocco. In 1630, Santa Fe consisted of 250 Spaniards and 750 people of Indian and Spanish mixture.

In the coming decades, conflict arose between the Franciscans and secular authorities. Again the issue was labor, the secular authorities disliking the Franciscan monopoly on Indian labor. Franciscans argued that their use of Indian labor combated the inclination among Indians for indolence, that their use of Indian labor was for the good of the monasteries and the Indian community and that the secular Spanish exploited Indian labor only for their own material benefit. Sensing a dislike among the Indians in working for secular Spaniards, the Franciscans complained that secular authorities were interfering in their efforts to spread Christianity.

The Franciscans threatened to abandon the entire province, but they kept on with their work. The crown looked with favor upon the Franciscans – in small part because of the additional wealth that accrued to the crown in the form of donations, or payment for religious services that the Franciscan missions were drawing from the Indians. The Inquisition also favored the Franciscans, and local authorities at Santa Fe occasionally suffered at the hands of the Inquisition for their differences with the Franciscans.

Beginning in 1660 in Nuevo Mexico, years of draught and crop failure made life more desperate. Famine and bitterness grew. By now the population of the Pueblos was considerably less than it had been when the Spaniards first arrived – partly the result of disease from Europe. By 1680, it has been estimated, the Pueblo Indian population would be down fifty percent from what it had been in 1630. note23

Meanwhile there was confusion among the Franciscans regarding conversions. The Pueblo had been taking to Christianity as an addition to their own spiritual tradition, not as a replacement. Some Franciscans favored a gradual approach that tolerated Indian traditions. Others wanted no compromise and advocated eliminating Indian paganism. Eventually it was the latter that won, and it was backed by secular authority. The traditional religion of the Pueblo was declared illegal. Spanish soldiers destroyed Pueblo sacred places, burned Pueblo religious icons and banned native ceremonies. Spanish authorities punished disobedient Pueblos, and Pueblo Indians began practicing their religion in secret.

In 1675, Spain's governor of Nuevo Mexico had 47 medicine men arrested. The soldiers took the men to Santa Fe, hanged some and whipped and jailed the rest. After the Spanish soldiers left Santa Fe, Pueblos arrived and demanded the release of the medicine men. Without soldiers as reinforcements the governor released the surviving captives.

Pueblo Indians in various villages across Nueva Mexico, led by a medicine man named Popé, rebelled against Spanish rule, beginning at dawn on August 11, 1680. Within a few days, twenty-one missionaries and 400 Spaniards were killed, and several churches and ranch houses were in flames. On August 15, Indian warriors converged on Santa Fe. They cut off the water supply to the 1,000 men, women and children there, and they sang "The Christian god is dead, but our sun god will never die." The Spaniards counterattacked. The Indians pulled back, and on August 21 the Spaniards at Santa Fe fled, making their way southward down the Rio Grand to a mission that had been built in 1659, at El Paso del Norte, the refugees taking with them a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary.

In 1690 a small party of soldiers and four Franciscan priests moved into Texas to begin what they hoped would be Spain's rule there. The expedition stopped at what had been the French fort at Matagorda Bay, and one of the priests, Father Mazanet, set fire to the fort to discourage the French from re-occupying it. The expedition journeyed a little over 200 miles to the northeast and established a mission called San Francisco de los Tejas. In 1691, Spain appointed General Domingo Teránde los Ríos as governor of Texas, and he brought with him supplies and gifts with which to placate local Indians.

In Nuevo Mexico, meanwhile, the Pueblos had been suffering from abnormally low summer rains. Corn crops failed. Apache Indians were raiding the Pueblos. In 1692, Spanish troops led by General Don Diego de Vargas, with some Pueblo allies, cautiously moved back into Nuevo Mexico. There he acquired Pueblo allies against hostile Pueblos. News of a reconquest of Nuevo Mexico reached Mexico City and was greeted there with joy and the ringing of bells. The following year Vargas returned to Nuevo Mexico with 100 soldiers, around 800 others and the wooden statue of the Virgin Mary. Some Pueblos who had sworn allegiance to him went over to the side of resistance. Vargas defeated Pueblos holding Santa Fe, and he executed 70 of those who refused to surrender. In 1694 Vargas pursued a determined military campaign and was able to defeat remaining resistance. Then, in 1696, another rebellion erupted. Five Franciscans were killed. Churches were burned, and again the rebellion was defeated by Spanish arms, while those who refused to submit to Spanish rule fled.

In 1700, some Hopi Indians (a branch of Pueblo Indians) rose against Christianity. This came when Hopi leaders heard of the conversion of 73 Hopi at the village of Awatovi where the Spaniards had established a mission, Hopi leaders ordered the missionaries to leave, but the Spanish refused. The Hopi attacked Awatovi, burned what they could, leaving in the smoldering ruins the bodies of around 700 men, women and children – Hopi, Spaniards, Christians and non-Christians.


Copyright © 2001-2015 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.