Building a Royal Colony

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In 1607, the New Mexico colony stood at a crossroads. From the perspective of Spanish royal officials, it seemed a spectacular failure not unlike Coronado’s earlier mission. This time, however, a few hundred Pueblo people had accepted Catholic baptism at the hands of the Franciscans. The question facing the viceroy of New Spain was whether or not New Mexico should be abandoned. Ultimately, he decided to provide royal funds and support to continue the colony. One of the contributing factors to that decision was the Franciscans’ report that they had baptized 7,000 Pueblo people in the summer of 1608.

During the period of Oñate’s governorship, the Franciscans slowly built the power of the Catholic Church in New Mexico. Isolation and the governor’s near-constant travels outside of the colony allowed them to stake a claim on ultimate religious and administrative authority. As stipulated in Oñate’s contract, he was to protect the Friars and support their missionary work as an essential part of the royal program to redefine colonization. This tight connection between church and state was a hallmark of the period. Agreements between Spanish Kings and Catholic Popes known as the patronato real (Royal Patronage) had been in place since 1508. Pope Julius II initiated the patronage pacts in order to ensure that the Church would play a major role in the conquest and colonization of the Americas. In exchange for the authority to appoint clergymen, the Spanish Crown agreed to make the conversion of indigenous peoples a central piece of its colonization program. The 1573 Colonization Laws further enhanced the role of the Church in the process of Spanish expansion.

Governor Pedro de Peralta statue
This statue of Governor Pedro de Peralta is located on Grant Avenue in Santa Fe. Peralta was the first Governor of New Mexico after its transition to a royal colony.
Photograph by Monica Cioffi

When royal officials considered the question of New Mexico in 1607 and 1608, geopolitical and ecclesiastical concerns were at the top of their agenda. New Mexico still offered a buffer zone between the lucrative silver mines of Zacatecas and the threat of English, French, and indigenous expansion. The far northern colony also promised to provide a springboard for continued explorations for minerals and other natural resources.

Viceroy Luís de Velasco considered the fate of the Pueblo people that had already received baptism. Fray Francisco de Velasco informed the viceroy that the abandonment of those people would not only deprive them of further tutoring in Catholicism, it would leave them open to hostilities from natives that had not converted. In his report, he added that the Christian Pueblos “implore your majesty not to leave them in a situation in which, having abandoned their faith for ours, they would be in danger of being slaughtered.”11 In his resignation letter, Oñate had also offered the opinion that the abandonment of the colony would place any remaining Spaniards in grave danger, and doing so would hamper future attempts to retake the region.

In late January of 1609, Viceroy Velasco issued the order to place the New Mexico colony under royal control. His decision was heavily influenced by the Franciscans’ claim of 7,000 baptisms the previous summer. Their numbers may certainly have seemed suspicious: by 1608 the Franciscans had been in New Mexico for just over ten years. Only six remained in the colony after four others fled with the other discontented colonists in 1601. As of the spring of 1608 they had baptized only about 400 Pueblos, an extremely small percentage of the total population of about 40,000. Although Velasco did not leave a record of his reasoning, he perhaps realized that the Franciscans’ desire to stay could work in tandem with the royal motivations for maintaining the colony. Whether or not the conversions were genuine, there was clearly a group of people in the colony that were dedicated to its success.

Once New Mexico became a royal colony in 1609, all financial and administrative responsibility shifted to the Spanish Crown (under Oñate’s contract, he had been personally accountable for the colony’s economic, political, and social survival). With royal funding, governors, Franciscans, encomenderos, and other settlers worked to establish Spanish institutions to oversee New Mexico. A body of legislation known as the Laws of the Indies (Recopilación de las leyes de los Reynos de las Indias) dictated the colony’s organization. Viceroy Velasco appointed Pedro de Peralta as the first royal governor of New Mexico. Under the new terms of administration, the governor still remained in charge of the colony’s affairs of state. Governors had the authority to establish laws, pass legal judgment, issue land grants, appoint members of the cabildo (town council), and handle relations with indigenous peoples.

Title page from a 1681 printing of the Laws of the Indies
Title page from a 1681 printing of the Laws of the Indies.
Courtesy of The National Library of Chile

Land grants have been a point of contention over nearly the entire course of New Mexico’s history since the Spanish period. Generally, they were large land tracts that governors conferred to individuals, families, or communities. In return, the grant holders pledged to settle and develop the terrain allotted to them. Land grants were formalized through official contracts that outlined the method of usage for each parcel. Typically, grants were set aside for small-scale farming or ranching. At times they were designated as large-scale ranches to raise horses or mules for the good of the colony at large. Grantees took upon themselves the role of steward to care for the land and to use its resources in a sustainable manner.

Acequias (communal irrigation systems) provided essential water that allowed grant holders to farm. Agriculture based on irrigation had existed in the region since the Ancestral Puebloan period, although the form of its administration changed over time. Under the Spanish system, a mayordomo (overseer) was elected to allocate water usage and to address potential conflicts or issues with the communal water-sharing program. Laws and traditions that dated back to medieval Spain applied to the practice of acequia agriculture, and the spirit of its practice is best captured by a short New Mexican proverb: “agua que no has de beber, déjale correr” (water that you don’t need, let it run).12 Over time, land grants and acequias became far more than means to allocate resources. Proverbs, folk tales, dances, and corridos (or ballads) tied both institutions tightly to New Mexican culture, identity, and tradition. A governor’s land-grant policies, therefore, could endear him to or alienate him from the people.

In 1610 Governor Peralta commissioned the founding of the villa de Santa Fé and established it as the new capital city of the colony. For most of the seventeenth century it was the only sizable Spanish township in New Mexico, and it remained pitifully small by comparison to the urban areas of New Spain. To govern the colony outside of the capital, the governor divided the territory into smaller alcaldías mayores, similar to modern U.S. counties. An alcalde (mayor) was appointed by the governor or elected by the cabildo to oversee each alcaldía, depending on circumstances. Alcaldes administered both civil and criminal affairs. The alguacil (or sheriff), always a governor-appointee, assisted in law enforcement in each alcaldía. By the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, larger settlements also included a cabildo (called the ayuntamiento by the early 1800s). The town council provided a check on the administrative powers of the alcalde.

As was the pattern elsewhere in New Spain and the Spanish Americas, Pueblo peoples were organized into jurisdictions called repúblicas within which they directly participated in their own local politics. Colonial officials hoped that allowing the Pueblos to elect their own local leadership would more rapidly integrate them into Spanish forms of governance. To their dismay, traditional forms of Pueblo administration persisted. Shamans, or medicine men, seemed to pull the strings behind each election. In an effort to sidestep traditional leaders’ influence after 1620, Spanish administrators chose and appointed a gobernador to act as the head of government for each pueblo. Some gobernadores failed to gain the full support of their own people, however, because they owed their authority to the Spanish governor and not to their clan. In other instances, traditional Pueblo leadership continued to exert their influence to ensure that their preferred candidate was chosen by Spanish officials.  

Pueblos faced more than political reorganization under the Spanish colonial system. Franciscans’ attempts to transform Pueblo traditions through religious persuasion were even more disconcerting. Franciscan prelates (the overall ecclesiastical leaders) established their base of operations at Santo Domingo Pueblo, removed from the governor’s base of authority at Santa Fe. Early on, friars reported that leaders of the major tribal groups welcomed them. Franciscan leaders named their mission field the Conversión de San Pedro after the conversion of St. Peter, celebrated in colonial times on January 25. They then further divided their work into various mission jurisdictions with priests assigned to each. Although records for the seventeenth century are spotty at best, estimates reveal that throughout the century an average of thirty Franciscans ministered to population of about 20,000 baptized Pueblos. According to the report of an official 1629 visita (inspection tour), fifty different missions (which included churches and agricultural lands) had been established in New Mexico, most near existing Pueblos. Fray Alonso de Benavides, who served as prelate between 1626 and 1629, wrote extensively and worked determinedly to expand missionary work in New Mexico.

Franciscans were able to expand their influence among Pueblo peoples in a number of ways. Members of the order had been the first Catholic missionaries in New Spain. In their earliest efforts, they established a pattern of limited tolerance for indigenous religious traditions. Most learned the languages of the people to whom they ministered, and they realized that they could not expect them to convert fully to Catholicism all at once. The friars were willing to accept a syncretic, or blended, form of religious practice from indigenous people. Their hope was that with time their pupils would let go of their former beliefs in favor of Christianity. Although there is much scholarly debate over the level to which Franciscans accepted the limited continuation of Pueblo tradition, the hard realities of the Pueblo mission field suggest that the friars would either have had to accept or ignore the blending of belief systems.

Missions themselves were quasi-utopian, contained societies. Within mission walls, Pueblo people were educated in reading and writing, music, the catechism, and European cultural practices, including new forms of dress, cultivation of new crops, and lessons in animal domestication. Friars focused on children because they considered them to be the easiest to convert and change. Their hope was that the children would influence their parents to leave behind their native beliefs. The priests also sought to attract people of all backgrounds to the missions by offering them Spanish goods. These included hatchets, knives, bells, cloth, watermelon, wheat, fruit trees, horses, and even fire-arms. By offering such items, Franciscans built on their knowledge of indigenous practices of gift giving as a means to establish peaceful relationships with outsiders.


Interestingly, the mission system helped to unite Pueblos across previous community and linguistic barriers. There was no such thing as pan-Pueblo unity prior to the mission system, and even then common ground did not always lead to alliances between indigenous groups. By the mid-1600s, however, Spanish had become the lingua franca of New Mexico. People from Pueblos that spoke different languages or that held distinct cultural practices then had the shared experience of dealing with Spanish missionaries, governors, encomenderos, and settlers.

Additionally, as one scholar of this period has noted, “colonists’ isolation from events transpiring to the south and their numerically small presence in a land where the indigenous inhabitants numbered in the tens of thousands meant that everyday contacts between Hispanic settlers and Pueblo Indians were as extensive as they were inevitable.”13 In seventeenth-century New Mexico, this meant that Spanish and Pueblo boys often sat side-by-side in the Friars’ classes. They likely played together and built cross-cultural relationships early in life. Such intermixing likely began as early as the Oñate period. The wives of only thirteen of Oñate’s soldiers accompanied their husbands. Other men in the group took concubines and mistresses among indigenous women, African slaves, and Apache captives. In a few cases, Spanish men took these women as their legal wives. For example, Juan de la Cruz married Beatriz de los Angeles shortly after his arrival in 1598. She was described as “a Mexican Indian fluent in Spanish and Hispanicized.”14

In 1601, a Spanish traveler spoke of a Spanish boy in the colony who spoke the Keres language “better than the Indians themselves, and they are astonished to hear him talk.”15 Officials also reported, usually with disdain, of intermarriage and illicit sexual liaisons between Spaniards and Pueblos. By mid-century a large group of mestizos were even appointed to fill positions in the colonial government. During the tenure of governor Luis de Rosas (1638-1641), one of the early colony’s most controversial leaders, a friar accused him of tampering with the cabildo election in Santa Fe and allowing “four mestizo dogs” to take seats on the council. The bottom line was that New Mexico was a place of cultural exchange where the claim of Spanish blood purity (limpieza de sangre) was less a genealogical reality and more a means to claim positions of social and economic authority.

In many ways, Pueblo peoples were willing to make accommodations to the Spaniards. Relatively prosperous times allowed cooperation to prevail, although periodic opposition to Spanish authority occurred as well. Pueblos had several reasons to coexist with the demanding colonizers. European plants and animals expanded and enriched their diet and allowed for added mobility and fighting ability. The Columbian Exchange was mutually beneficial to Europeans and indigenous peoples. In New Mexico Spanish colonists adopted Pueblo horticulture patterns and Iberian goods helped prevent starvation and allowed Pueblos to grow crops that were more tolerant of the cold. One example was the adoption of winter wheat at Picuris. Exchange also altered the lives of nomadic peoples, such as the various Apache bands that began to base their group identity on their prowess on horseback. Domesticated animals also offered new means of supporting local economies through trade. Horses found their way to the Plains peoples through trade at Cicuye (which the colonizers renamed Pecos).

Even the in the more sensitive areas of religion and labor, Pueblos made significant accommodations. Compared to Spanish Catholicism, Pueblo religion was quite flexible. Such was the case for many of America’s indigenous peoples. Flexibility was not evidence of fragile belief systems, however. On the contrary, as a Jemez Pueblo historian has stated, for the Pueblos “to give up their religion would have been like giving up life itself.”16 Pueblo people had a tradition of integrating new elements into their existing cosmological views when it made sense for them to do so. For example, most scholars believe that the kachina rituals were adopted through contact with other native peoples in the area of present-day Sonora sometime in the 1300s. Pueblos that converted to Catholicism did so on their own terms, whether or not the Franciscans realized it. They agreed to incorporate Christianity into their existing beliefs, rather than to replace their traditions with the European faith. These different ways of understanding conversion led to religious conflicts that became more and more pronounced in New Mexico by the 1650s and 1660s.

The onerous institutions of encomienda and repartimiento were also part of the complex accommodations that took place in seventeenth-century New Mexico. Encomienda was the tribute of labor and agricultural produce given to specific encomenderos twice each year. Because of royal concerns over maintaining control of Spain’s far-flung colonies, governors were specifically prohibited from receiving encomienda in order to curb their potential economic power. They did control repartimiento, however, which was a labor draft for public works. Through repartimiento, governors required Pueblo people to spend a certain number of days per month contributing to public works projects, including tasks such as sweeping Santa Fe’s streets or constructing government buildings. Like encomienda, repartimiento was often abused. Encomenderos and governors alike required heavier tribute than the legal stipulations allowed. Some governors misused repartimiento by requiring natives to work their own fields.

Tthe union between a Spanish man and indigenous woman
Casta painting from 1770 that depicts the union between a Spanish man and indigenous woman. Their child is known as a mestizo, due to her mixed heritage. Hundreds of similar casta paintings depicted the various labels given to people of mixed heritage in the Spanish Americas.
Courtesy of Maison de l’Amerique Latine

Despite such abuses, Spaniards felt that Pueblos should be grateful to them for imposing these labor requirements. In return for encomienda labor, encomenderos pledged to provide military protection against the raids of nomadic and semi-nomadic peoples, such as Apaches, Utes, and Navajos. From their perspective, they also brought eternal salvation through conversion to the one true faith. Although most Pueblos did not appreciate the Spaniards’ conversion efforts (and they certainly did not understand them in the same way as the colonizers), they did see some benefit in added protection against raiding. In the 1660s when drought and famine set in, Apache raids on Pueblo and Spanish settlements increased markedly. As all of New Mexico’s people struggled to survive, encomenderos were increasingly unable to keep their promise of protection against raids and their demand for tribute became unbearable for Pueblo peoples.

Outright slavery was the most exploitative labor system that existed in New Mexico. Spanish colonists openly participated in the trade in captive people that had taken place at Pecos Pueblo since long before their arrival. Plains peoples arrived at Pecos each fall with hides, meat, and slaves that they looked to exchange for Pueblo corn, pottery, and blankets. In the 1630s governor Francisco de la Mora y Ceballos issued permits authorizing colonists to trade for native children “as if they were yearling calves or colts.”17 Although the governor’s rival, Fray Estevan de Perea, reported on the slave permits, Franciscans themselves also took captive children for the ostensible purpose of Christianizing them. In 1630 Santa Fe’s Spanish population of 250 was served by about 700 native and mestizo slaves. By 1680 half of New Mexico’s households held at least one slave, and some had as many as thirty.

To further augment these numbers, Spanish officials capitalized on any excuse to attack Apache, Ute, and Navajo peoples because such conflicts typically yielded new captives. By characterizing their efforts as “just war” to right wrongs or to pacify and later convert their nomadic enemies, Franciscans often, but not always, gave their blessing to the assaults. In 1620 Governor Juan de Eulate initiated the practice with a campaign against a peaceful Apache trading party. Following the assault, he was accused of selling male Apache captives to work in Nueva Vizcaya’s silver mines. In the late 1630s, Governor Rosas led a similar expedition, but failed to seize any captives. Instead, he ordered the slaughter of the Apache band his men had pursued, and the atrocity created ill-will between Pecos people and Apaches. The Spanish Crown never sanctioned New Mexico slave raids nor the slave trade, but royal officials were powerless to curb the practice that had become an integral element of the isolated colony’s economy.

Apache bands kept their distance whenever possible, but the agricultural produce, horses, and finished goods of the colony enticed them to trade with Pueblos and Spaniards in good times. During less-prosperous times they turned to raiding as an effort to gain the resources they needed to survive. Nearby Utes and Navajos also maintained very guarded relations with Spaniards and Pueblos because they too were often targeted. These tense relations with indios bárbaros point to cracks in the foundation of the Spanish administrative system that became much more pronounced by the late seventeenth century.

Back to: The History of New Mexico > Chapter 4: Spanish Colonization of New Mexico, 1598-1700