New Mexico, Part I

There no place on Earth without an interesting story, and there is no story about any of 19 present-day states of the United States that doesn’t begin with the Spanish Empire as a backdrop.  The story of New Mexico is one of these.


During the Middle Ages, Spain operated as a multi-national conglomerate —much like the Roman Empire that preceded it.  The Spanish arrived in the Americas for one purpose: to enrich the Spanish Crown.  In the accomplishment of this goal, the Spanish conducted exploratory expeditions, conquered indigenous people, transformed these people into sources of labor, and then set about to extract the vast resources found in the new land.  For the most part, the Spanish accomplished their mission.  They displaced native populations and immersed them in Hispanic culture and placed them on the hierarchical ladder of Spanish society.  The Spanish extracted gold and silver, established vast plantations, created new towns and cities, established provinces, and incorporated them into the Spanish Empire.  Having subjugated the natives, the Spanish took their place at the top of a complex social structure, and to make this arrangement legal and binding, they created encomiendas [Note 1].  Overall, it worked out quite well for the Spaniards, as demonstrated by the brilliant seventeenth-century societies in Lima, Peru and Mexico City.

New Spain

New Spain Coat of Arms

Coat of Arms, New Spain

In terms of land area, the Spanish Empire was twice the size of ancient Rome.  Like Rome, the Spanish Empire was too large to manage from Spain and so the Spanish crown created four viceroyalties to oversee political, social, and administrative institutions.  Spanish viceroyalties were established in New Spain, Peru, Rio de La Plata, and New Granada.  New Spain included North America, South America, Asia, and Oceania.  In North America, Spanish territories included present-day Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, parts of Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, Nevada, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming.  In present day Canada, Spain controlled the area of Southwestern British Columbia.

In the process of creating their American empire, Spain vanquished millions of natives and reshaped them in Spain’s own image.  The societies they created remain with us today.  The Empire of Spain lasted for more than 300 years … a long enough period of time to pass along to all subsequent generations their language, culture, religion, and social structure.

There is a downside to this story.  In achieving everything previously described, Spain bequeathed to its successors lasting problems that originated within Hispanic society itself: its structure, philosophy, politics, its method of distributing wealth, and even its relationship to the Church.  Modern Hispanic societies maintain many (if not most) features from the Middle Ages, including their class structure an embedded cruelty toward anyone “below” their station.  This is not a judgment—it is a fact.  The Spaniards could not help who they were.  They were the product of centuries of events before them that was far beyond anyone’s control, and they could not help but to pass along to subsequent generations their uniquely culture.  Then, as now, Spanish culture was true to its history and able to transmit its own unique set of values (or lack of them) to others.

It did not take the Spanish long after their arrival in the New World to send out explorers to learn about this new place, and they spared no expense in doing so.  Francisco Vasquez de Coronado assembled an enormous expedition at Compostela, Mexico in 1540.  His mission was to locate the mythical cities of Cibola.  What they knew of it they learned from the writings of Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, who wandered for eight years finding his way from Florida to Mexico.  De Vaca and three companions were the only survivors of an expedition mounted in 1527.  In their travels, they lost several hundred men and eighty horses.


The journey begins by Frederick Remington

Senior Coronado was sure he would do better.  He assembled 1,300 horses and mules, hundreds of sheep and cattle as a portable food supply.  He would explore the land, of course, but he was looking for riches.  What he found were natives who lived in pueblos, whom he named Pueblo Indians.  There were no magnificent cities, no high-order civilizations.  But Coronado didn’t do better than De Vaca and he returned to Mexico a poor man, dispirited, and to some extent, discredited.  Nor did subsequent expeditions uncover cities of gold —only wide plains and dangerous natives.

Fifty years later, Juan de Oǹate marched north from the valley of Mexico taking with him 500 soldiers and settlers, 7,000 head of livestock, and founded the first Spanish settlement in Nuevo Mexico.  The year was 1598 and the settlement was called San Juan de los Caballeros (St. John of the Knights).  San Juan was located in a small valley near the Chama River, which flows into the Rio Grande.  Oǹate constructed a roadway he called El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the royal interior road, which was a 700 mile trail from New Spain to his remote colony.  Senior Oǹate became the first Spanish governor of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico.

Oǹate intended to subjugate the natives, but this wasn’t the Valley of Mexico and these natives were not inclined to surrender to anyone.  Oǹate was persistent, however.  Scholars assure us that, “Spanish governors were a greedy and rapacious lot whose single-minded interest was to wring as much personal wealth from the provinces as their terms allowed.  They exploited Indian labor for transport, sold Indian slaves in New Spain, and sold Indian-made products manufactured by forced labor.”

Oǹate was no exception; he pulled out all stops to suppress New Mexico Indians.  He began by cutting off the left foot of every man over the age of 25-years.  He mercilessly killed hundreds of these people, mounted continuous raids and reprisals against the nomadic tribes, especially the Apache, Navajo, and Comanche.  Meanwhile, Franciscan missionaries could not understand why these natives continually shunned Catholicism.

Hostile Indians

Pueblo Indian Dress

Pueblo Indian Attire

The San Juan settlement was particularly vulnerable to Apache attacks, and so in 1610, Oǹate’s moved the capital to a place called Santa Fe.  Following Oǹate as governor, Pedro de Peralta ordered the construction of a governor’s palace so that everyone would know that the Spanish governor was an important man.  But Santa Fe wasn’t prosperous and in a few years all that remained in Santa Fe were a few Catholic missions.  Albuquerque became the new settlement in New Mexico beginning in the mid seventeenth-century.  Decades had passed and the Indians still wanted nothing to do with the missionaries.

A struggle began between the secular and religious factions in New Spain.  The fact was the Spanish settlements weren’t colonies in the sense of the British-American ventures.  Spanish people didn’t migrate to the new world so that they could perform labor as common peasants —that was what the Indians were for.  But native populations were decreasing as the result of European diseases, they were being worked to death, and childbirth took a sudden downturn.  A dispirited broken people often choose not to have children.  Soon, Spanish sources of labor dwindled.

In 1512, the Spanish Crown promulgated the Laws of Burgos that governed the behavior of Spaniards in the Americas, particularly with regard to indigenous people.  The maltreatment of Indians was forbidden.  Initially, the law only applied to the Island of Hispaniola, but was later extended to Puerto Rico and Jamaica.  The Franciscans in New Mexico, if they knew of these laws, ignored them.  In the minds of Franciscan missionaries, the solution to the problem of dwindling natives was to work them harder.

In 1650, governor Bernardo Lopez de Mendizabal prohibited the New Mexico priests from punishing the Indians or from employing them without compensation.  He also allowed the Indians to practice their traditional observances.  The priests could not accept such interference by a politician, so they complained to the Inquisition.  Mendizabal was arrested and taken to Mexico City for trial; when he died in 1664, his body was buried in a pig pen near the prison.

Afterwards, under governor Diego de Penalosa, the priests reigned supreme in New Mexico and life for the Indians got much worse.

It should not surprise anyone that the Indians of New Mexico harbored great hostility toward the Spaniards and their priests.  The natural economies of the Indians were disrupted when they were sent off to work the encomiendas.  The Indians might have been a bit slow, but they weren’t stupid.  They began using new farming implements as weapons of defense, not only against hostile Indian raids, but against the Spanish as well.  A severe drought swept through the area in the 1670s, which increased the number of attacks by hostile Indians who were scavenging for food.  Spanish soldiers were unable or indisposed to adequately defend the settlements.  Life among the Pueblo Indians was dismal; they soon returned to worshiping their own gods which caused the Franciscans to repress them even more.

When Franciscans arrested an Indian leader by the name of Popé (pronounced Po-pay) for practicing witchcraft, Popé reacted by orchestrating a revolt.  After regaining his freedom, Popé relocated to Taos where he planned an uprising against the Spaniards.  He did this by dispatching runners to all the Pueblos carrying knotted cords that signified the number of days remaining until the beginning of the uprising.  When the Spaniards learned of the planned uprising, Popé ordered the date advanced to 13 August.  It was a massive  rebellion and the Spanish were driven from all but the southern-most portion of New Mexico.  The Spanish created a temporary capital in El Paso (Texas); it would do until Spain reconquered New Mexico.

Once the Spaniards were gone, Popé ordered the destruction of all crosses and other Catholic symbols.  He was serious about this; any Indian refusing to carry out these orders was himself put to death.  He also ordered the destruction of Spanish livestock and crops (wheat and barley), and demanded that any Indian married in the Church dismiss his wife and take another under traditional rites.  Popé seized the governor’s house and ruled over all Pueblo, collecting tribute from them until his death in 1688.

Popé’s death caused a problem among the Indians: who should inherit his hard-won authority?  The tribes were often separated by hundreds of miles; they spoke six different languages.  Who should rule?  These power struggles —weaknesses— encouraged raids by the nomadic tribes.  Drought weakened the Pueblo further —physically and psychologically.  In 1692, Diego de Vargas led the Spanish military assault against the Pueblo at Santa Fe.  He called for the Indians to surrender, promising them clemency if they would swear their allegiance to the King of Spain and return to the Christian faith.  The weary Indians agreed to sue for peace. 

Through the Indian’s short-lived independence, they gained a measure of freedom from the Spanish after 1692.  They were permitted to observe their own religious rites and maintain cultural traditions.  The Spanish crown issued substantial land grants to the Pueblo Indians and charged public defenders to protect those rights.  However, the Spanish experienced no such success with the Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Ute, or Navajo; these hostiles continually raided Spanish settlements.  They took what they wanted, leaving dead settlers, soldiers, and sedentary Indians in their wake.  Pueblo Indians not killed outright were taken as slaves.  This was the nature of the plains Indians.

The Comanche

Comanche Warrior

Comanche Warrior

Beginning in the early 1600s the Southwest plains Indians developed a horse culture.  Massive raids stripped the Spanish of their horses and cattle and the population of these hostiles increased over time to around 45,000.  By the mid 1700s, the plains Indians controlled territories from South Texas to Alberta, Canada.  The Navajo were among the first mounted Indians to develop a pastoral culture based on sheep stolen from Spanish settlements.  Comanche judged wealth by the number of their horses, the Navajo by the number of their sheep.

The greatest danger to Spanish settlements after the Pueblo revolt was the Comanche.  Their territory was called the Comancheria, which was well in place in 1700.  It was, for all intents and purposes, a Comanche Empire.  The Comanche successfully confronted the Spanish, Mexican, French, and Americans in New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, and Mexico.  In their time, the Comanche were the most powerful military force in North America.  They maintained this reputation through utter ruthlessness, which included the slaughter of settlers, demands for tribute, robbing supplies, enslaving captives, and holding high-born persons for ransom.  The Comanche also incorporated other plains Indians into the network: Kiowa, Ute, Navajo, and Apache.  In this way, their language and culture spread across the expanse of the North American plain.

The Empire was an economic construct rooted in a vast network that facilitated trade.  Politically, it was a decentralized system.  There was no central Comanche authority; each chief went his own way, and no tribal chief could order another to comply.  In this sense, the tribes and bands operated as a cooperative.  When this was not possible, for whatever reason, they simply went to war and settled matters through violence.  Typical of nomadic cultures, whenever a band reached a certain population level, some number of them split off to organize a new band.  These bands then became part of an extended network of family and friends with shared customs, traditions, and values.  Young braves could advance within the framework of this system by proving themselves in battle.

New Mexico settlements first reported contact with the Comanche in 1706; by 1719, Spanish settlements were under constant attack.  What made the Comanche stand out from other hostile groups was the level of their violence.  It didn’t matter to the Comanche if one was a Spaniard or the member of a different Indian tribe —everyone who was not a Comanche was the enemy.  The Comanche were mobile and elusive than other Southwest Indians.  They knew where the Apache and Navajo lived; the Apache and Navajo never knew where the Comanche were.

Among European settlers and native Indians alike, the Comanche were a puzzle.  While participating in peaceful trade gatherings with New Mexicans, they concurrently raided other settlements.  At the trade fairs, they would trade or sell their captives and do this while kidnapping others from settlements some distance away.  There was no greater danger to New Mexico settlements than the Comanche Indian.  Literally thousands of Spanish settlers were killed or kidnapped between 1700 and 1850, forcing the abandonment of many settlements.

In 1779, a Spanish expedition of 600 soldiers under Juan Bautista de Anza surprised a Comanche village near Pueblo, Colorado and killed Cuerno Verde (Green Horn), who was one of the most prominent Comanche war chiefs at the time.  This event prompted the Comanche in Colorado and New Mexico to sue for peace.  These Comanche subsequently joined a Spanish and Pueblo force that concentrated on the subjugation of the Apache.  Rather than raiding Spanish settlements in New Mexico, they instead began concentrating their raids in Tejas and Mexico.  Peace with the Comanche in New Mexico stimulated population growth.  Throughout this period, the citizens of New Mexico lavished the Comanche with gifts (bribes) and the peace in New Mexico was maintained until the United States conquered it in 1846.

While peace with the Comanche benefitted New Mexico settlements, it did not protect them from Apache and Navajo raids.  The Navajo were eventually defeated by the United States Army under Colonel Christopher H. “Kit” Carson in 1864, but the Apache did not surrender until 1886.  Anglo-European expansion in the American southwest destroyed Comanche culture by the spread of disease and constant warfare with a white population that could not be stopped [Note 2].

Mexican American War

Following the Battle of San Jacinto on 21 April 1836 (a battle that, according to General Sam Houston lasted 18-minutes), President-General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna was taken prisoner.  On 14 May, Santa Anna and Texas Ad Interim President David G. Burnet signed the Treaties of Velasco.  There were two: The public treaty contained ten articles [Note 3]; a private treaty contained six [Note 4].  Why the Texans felt it necessary to execute two treaties is not well-understood.  In any case, the government of Mexico repudiated Santa Anna’s agreement arguing that as a prisoner of war, he was under duress at the time of his agreement.  Accordingly, hostilities continued to exist after Santa Anna’s release.

Mexican American WarThe admission of Texas into the United States in 1845 prompted the Mexican American War.  On assuming the American presidency in 1845, James K. Polk attempted to secure an agreement with Mexico establishing the boundary at the Rio Grande; he was also interested in the purchase of California.  What Polk (and others) failed to realize was that no Mexican politician could agree to the alienation of any Mexican territory, including Texas.  Frustrated by Mexico’s intransigence, Polk ordered the US Army to advance to the Rio Grande; Mexico viewed this as an act of war. 

At the conclusion of hostilities, Mexico ceded its northern holdings to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848.  These holdings included California, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.  The treaty also resolved the question of the border dispute in Texas.  The United States agreed to recognize resident’s claims to lands granted them by right of ancestral and Spanish land grants.

After admission, Texas continued to claim the northeastern portion of New Mexico as part of the state of Texas.  This issue was finally resolved with the Compromise of 1850 when Texas ceded these claims to the United States.  Congress formally established the Territory of New Mexico in September 1850.  At that time, all citizens of New Mexico became citizens of the United States, which the people of New Mexico embraced without any hesitation [Note 5].

The United States gained additional territories in the Gadsden Purchase of 1853 (Southwestern New Mexico and Southern Arizona, south of the Gila River).  The Gadsden Purchase permitted the United States to construct a railroad system in the acquired areas.

Notwithstanding the establishment of the New Mexico Territory, peace did not come to New Mexicans in 1850.  It was an enormous territory that included most of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and portions of Colorado.  When the Civil War broke out in 1861, New Mexico played a role in the trans-Mississippi theater of operations and both sides in the conflict claimed territorial rights within the territory.  For their part, the Confederacy claimed the southern tract as its own Arizona Territory and waged an ambitious campaign to control the American southwest.  Its goal was to open up a corridor to California.  Confederate assertions were short-lived, however.  The Battle of Glorieta Pass settled the matter in 1862.

(Continued next week)


  1. Brands, H. W.  Dreams of El Dorado.  New York: Hachette Books, 2019
  2. Sanchez, J. P.  New Mexico: A History.  Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2013
  3. Fehrenbach, T. R.  Lone Star: A History of Texas and the Texans.  De Capo Press, 1968, 2000.


  1. Encomienda was a legal system instituted in 1503 in which the Spanish crown defined the status of indigenous populations.  It was based upon the practice of extracting tribute from Muslims and Jews during the Reconquista of Muslim Spain.  An encomienda granted to a Spanish noble (or others) exclusive rights over the land, all of its resources, including human inhabitants, so long as the noble protected these persons and instructed them in the Christian.  An encomienda was not a land grant per se; it was the right to exercise supervisory authority over the land and its people.  It was the duty of the individual who received this grant to make the people and the land productive for the good of the Spanish Crown. 
  2. In 1875, there were only about 1,500 Comanche left alive, which is about the same number of Comanche that live today on the reservation at Fort Sill, Oklahoma —formerly known as Indian Territory.
  3. Summarized, (a) a cessation of hostilities, (b) Mexico would not again take up arms against Texas; (c) the immediate withdrawal of Mexican forces across the Rio Grande; (d) restoration of property confiscated by Mexicans; (e) an exchange of prisoners; (f) Santa Anna’s safe return to Mexico; (g) the Army of Texas would not approach closer than five leagues to retreating Mexican forces.
  4. Summarized, (a) Santa Anna’s liberation on condition that he use his influence to secure from Mexico acknowledgment of Texas Independence; (b) Santa Anna’s promise not to take up arms against Texas; (c) withdrawal of Mexican forces from Texas; (d) Mexico’s acceptance of a Texas mission; (e) to strive for a treaty of commerce; (f) acknowledgement of the Rio Grande as the southern border of Texas.
  5. The willingness of Hispanic citizens of New Mexico to join the Union contrasts sharply with Hispanics in South Texas and California, who never accepted the political reality of their citizenship.  Most people living in South Texas and Southern California today continue to regard themselves as citizens of Mexico.

About Mustang

Retired Marine, historian, writer.
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