New Mexico History Begins Civilization in the West

By George Wharton James in 1920


Coronado's March by Frederic Remington, 1897

Coronado’s March by Frederic Remington, 1897

The history of New Mexico is the history of the beginning of civilization in the western part of the United States. It is of such vast importance that two large volumes are required merely to catalogue its Spanish Archives. For, as its name implies, it was regarded as a “new” Mexico, and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his conquistadors fondly hoped to find therein the gold, silver and precious things that had enriched Cortes in Mexico, Pizzaro in Peru, and dazzled the old world.

It was a myth that allured Vasquez de Coronado to the exploration of New Mexico — a mere crazy tale that rumor had set afoot years before; just such a rumor that would later send men speeding hither and yonder to find gold. Mexico and Peru were the “Klondikes” of the time that had dazzled the eyes of all Europe by their prodigal and fabulous wealth.

The stories that spread over Spain, Mexico and elsewhere about the tons of golden and silver vessels and the abundance of precious stones of Montezuma and the Incas made men crazy with greed and they were ready and eager to fly in any direction that suggested a duplication of the experiences of the envied Hernan Cortes and Francisco Plzarro.

The myth that started the explorers into New Mexico was that “somewhere” up in that region where the buffalo roamed were seven cities, richer in gold and all that man lusted after than anything that had yet been discovered. The report of Marcos de Nizza, who was sent out to verify the rumors by Antonio de Mendoza, the Viceroy of New Spain, who hoped to outdo Cortes in his discoveries, did not lessen the excitement. Coronado’s expedition only excited explorers even more. After Coronado had explored New Mexico, finding nothing, he refused to believe that the Seven Cities of Gold did not exist and pushed his way into Kansas, again finding nothing. There, convinced against his will, he turned back. When Coronado returned empty handed – Cibola having seemingly disappeared into thin air, it was so startling that it took the Spaniards years to get over it. It practically killed Coronado for it may truthfully be said he died of a broken heart, a disillusioned, disappointed man.

All that the Spaniards found were seven Indian pueblos — villages built of adobe, or rude pieces of rock plastered over with adobe — whose people lived in aboriginal simplicity, who had neither gold, silver, precious stones, nor anything of great value. They knew nothing of mining, though they had picked up a little turquoise, and a few garnets and peridots.

However, myths of fabulous treasure die hard, and in the hope that the country would still justify the first stories told of it, more explorers came — again to be disappointed. A new element, by now, began to assert itself. This was an age of religious zeal and activity never before or since surpassed. The monkish orders of Spain were as frenzied in their zeal to save the souls of the heathen aborigines as the explorers were to get gold. Therefore, soon came the friars — Franciscan, Jesuit, Carmelite, and Dominican — all eager to gain the priceless reward of the spirit, ambitious to win the approval of their God by leading the souls of the natives into the fold of the church.

Then began another invasion — that of the missionaries. Churches, convents, and monasteries sprang up like magic. Eager to become martyrs, these men dared death daily by forcing their religion upon the natives, and such was their fiery energy and dauntless courage that they succeeded in convincing the Indians — against their will and desire — that they must help build the temples of worship desired by the newcomers. This was the period when the Mission Churches of New Mexico arose, 100 to 150 years earlier than those of California.

Simultaneously, villas or towns were started — San Gabriel, Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and others — for the Spanish and Mexican colonists, who still clung to the old tradition or myth and fondly hoped they might find the wealth their predecessors doubtless had overlooked.

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser

San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, New Mexico by Kathy Weiser

Between them — friars and colonists — they succeeded in arousing in the hearts of the Indians, a hatred so intense, fiery and insuppressible that the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 ensued and violent death stalked through the land. On that dreaded day the Indians, led by the zealous patriot, Popé, arose almost to a man — and woman, for the women shared in this bitter hatred — and fell upon every white man and woman they could reach.

Scores were slain, Santa Fe was besieged and Governor Antonio de Otermin, with a band of clinging, terrified refugees, fearfully fled down the Rio Grande River to near where El Paso, Texas now stands and breathlessly waited for help.

It came in time, and under Diego de Vargas the Indians were first cajoled and then whipped into submission. From that time, until the Mexicans asserted their independence, the Pueblos of New Mexico were regarded as loyal to Spain — lukewarm, perhaps, yet not actively hostile, transferring their allegiance in perfunctory fashion to the republic of Mexico, and, on the arrival of Stephen W. Kearny, in 1846, to the United States.

However, there were other Indians, besides the Pueblos, such as the Apache and Navajo, who were not inclined to accept the sovereignty of Spain, and who looked with a greater or lesser degree of contempt and scorn upon all attempts of the friars to change their religion. On being informed that unless he believed what the church taught, would assuredly be damned, promptly replied that “he would be damned if he did.” They were insolent, defiant, incorrigible and unconquerable. Missionaries and colonists had brought into the land horses, cows, sheep and innumerable seeds for fruit trees, vegetables and grains. With a speedy appreciation of the value of the livestock, these nomadic Indians began to raid the flocks and herds of the colonists and those of the Indians who had become Christianized and counted as “the faithful.” A state of perpetual war, therefore, might be said to exist, the Apache, Navajo and a few of the tribes swooping down upon the Spaniards and Mexicans and their possessions.

Indian Attack

Indian Attack

It was during these fighting days that the Navajo woman learned the art of blanket-weaving — which she had always known in a very crude and primitive fashion — with the wool from the sheep of the Spaniard, and to this fact, combined with the Navajo> discovery that roast sheep and ox were more satisfying than the flesh of rabbits and the like, is undoubtedly owing most of the depredations committed by the nomad Indians upon the Mexicans.

In these conflicts considerable skill and generalship were often displayed, and thus came into existence a mass of stories, told with great gusto around the herders’ and cowboys’ campfires, and before the open fire-places of the Mexican homes, of deeds daring and thrilling, of narrow escapes and bloody achievements, of which later writers have made good use.

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