3. General History of Missions

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Before proceeding to take up the stories of the different Missions separately, it is desirable to devote a chapter to the general history of churchbuilding in New Mexico, so as to have a connected view of the subject.

The commencement of missionary work was almost simultaneous with the first Spanish settlement. The expedition of Coronado was military and in the nature of an exploration of an utterly unknown region. No women or families accompanied the army and there was no idea of colonization or permanent occupation by the expedition. Consequently there was no attempt at church building. The journey of Espejo was equally without any intention of settlement; but the coming of Oñate was expressly with a view to permanent occupation. After overcoming many obstacles he left the mines of Santa Barbara on January 20, 1598, with the long line of his soldiers and colonists, which was increased somewhat on the march by the addition of some who were not ready at the time of departure.

According to the best authorities, this expedition when it entered New Mexico comprised about four hundred men, one hundred and thirty of whom were

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accompanied by their families. There were in the train eighty-three wagons and 7,000 head of cattle. Accompanying the expedition were no less than ten Franciscan friars, of whom eight were priests and two lay brothers, all in charge of Padre Alonzo Martinez as comisario. Its progress was necessarily slow on account of the women and children and domestic animals. Oñate crossed the Rio Grande not far from Paso del Norte, on May 4, 1598, and the advance guard reached the most southerly pueblos, near the present San Marcial, on May 28th. Continuing up the Rio Grande Valley they arrived at Santo Domingo and San Ildefonso early in July and San Juan on the 9th of that month. On account of the kindness and hospitality received from the Indians of San Juan, the words “de los Caballeros,” “of the gentlemen,” were added to the name of the town, and the pueblo has always retained its full title of “San Juan de los Caballeros.” The beauty and broad expanse of the valley across the river from San Juan and extending up the Chama as far as the eye can reach, attracted the attention of the Spaniards, and it was soon determined that this was the most favorable spot that had been found for the location of their settlement and capital; and the San Juan Indians generously allowed them to occupy the houses in the little pueblo of Yunque until they could erect their own buildings.

It was on the 12th day of July that the settlement was finally made and the colony permanently located; so that this may be called the Birthday of Spanish

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New Mexico; and the three hundredth anniversary of this event was elaborately celebrated by the Historical Society of New Mexico on July 12, 1898, with a procession of Indians on horseback and a number of historical addresses.

Oñate was a man of untiring energy, and after determining on this location, he made rapid journeys to Picuris and Taos on the north, and within a fortnight had not only visited those pueblos but extended his rapid excursion to Pecos on the east, to San Marcos and San Cristobal on the south, and to Santo Domingo on the southwest, where he met the main body of his little army, which had marched more slowly than the comparatively small advance guard. He then went directly west to Cia and Jemez, and returned to the new capital, which had been named San Gabriel, on August 10th.

Meanwhile the wagons and cattle of the colony were slowly arriving, and on August 18th the last of them had reached the little town, and there were great rejoicings that the whole body of settlers was at length reunited after their journey of more than six months.

No time was now lost in building their church, the first Mission in New Mexico and almost the first in what is now the United States; for the time antedated the settlement of Jamestown by more than eight years and that of Plymouth by twenty-two. Under the direction of the governor and the zealous Franciscans, the work proceeded rapidly.

It did not need to be very large to meet present

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requirements, and the record shows that it was completed in two weeks; but, if its size was small, the ceremonies of its dedication were made as elaborate as possible in order to impress the minds and hearts of the natives. These ceremonies took place on September 8th, and at their conclusion there was a dramatic representation of a conflict between the Christians and the Moors, in which the former by the timely aid of St. James were gloriously victorious, to the great satisfaction of all the audience, both white and red. To cement the friendship of the Indians and afford them entertainment, festivities were continued for an entire week; all kinds of sports, both of the Spaniards and of the Pueblos, being indulged in, amid much rejoicing.

Advantage was taken of this era of good feeling, and of the presence of large numbers of Indians from all directions, to hold a great meeting of the Spanish officials and ecclesiastics and the representatives of all of the pueblos that could be reached, under the grandiloquent title of “Universal Meeting of all the Earth” (Junta universal de toda la tierra). On this occasion their obligations both to Cross and Crown were elaborately explained to the Indians, and they acknowledged the sovereignty of the Spanish king, and agreed to receive the Franciscans as their religious guides; though at the same time they tactfully suggested that the Spaniards certainly would not wish them to profess a belief which they did not yet comprehend.

All of the friars were of course in attendance, and

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as soon as the ceremonies were concluded, the comisario began the practical part of their missionary work by dividing the whole inhabited territory of New Mexico into seven districts, each of which was assigned to one of the Franciscan fathers.

As this was the initial point of all the missionary work, and those thus sent out were the first band of church-builders in our land, it is well to preserve their names.

To Fr. Francisco de San Miguel was assigned the Province of the Pecos, with seven pueblos on the east, and also the pueblos of the Salinas country extending to the great plain.

To Fr. Juan Claros, the Province of the Tihuas, on the Rio Grande and including the Piros pueblos below, as far as Socorro and San Antonio (Teipana and Qualacu).

Fr. Juan de Rosas was placed in charge of the Province of the Queres, including Santo Domingo, Cochití, San Felipe, San Marcos, San Cristobal, etc.

Fr. Cristoval de Salazar was appointed to the Province of the Tehuas, including San Juan (Caypa), San Gabriel, San Yldefonso, Santa Clara, etc.

To Fr. Francisco de Zamora was assigned the Province of Picuris and Taos and the surrounding country.

To Fr. Alonzo de Lugo was given the Province of Jemez, including Cia, and many pueblos whose names cannot now be identified, in that general vicinity.

Fr. Andres Corchado was put in charge of a Province composed of the country west of Cia, including Acoma, Zuñi, and Moqui.

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The other Franciscan friars not so assigned were Pedro Vergara and Juan de San Buenaventura, the lay brother, who appears to have remained with Father Martinez, the comisario, to aid in his work.

The seven who were placed in charge of the districts into which New Mexico was divided, left immediately for their fields of labor; each taking his way into an unknown land, among a people whose language he did not understand, isolated from all familiar faces, with nothing but his undaunted faith and missionary zeal to support him in his lonely work.

“The harvest was plenteous but the laborers were few”; and so, in the succeeding year, Friars Martinez, Salazar, and Vergara went to Mexico for the purpose of securing more Franciscans for the Missions then being established. On the journey Padre Salazar died; Comisario Martinez remained in Mexico, and Fr. Juan de Escalona was sent in his place as the head of the Mission, with six or eight additional brothers.

Besides the inevitable difficulties of their work, the Franciscan missionaries, from the very first, found themselves antagonized, and many of their efforts rendered futile, by the a action of Oñate and succeeding governors, and their opposition to the methods of the Franciscans. Their points of view were essentially different. The governors generally had no thought but of holding the Indians in subjection, of making further explorations and conquests and of securing any personal gain possible from their official position. The other officials and the little army

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of soldiers naturally agreed with the governor and his wishes.

The friars, on the other hand, thought only of the salvation of souls, of the baptism of the natives of all ages, and the stamping out of heathen ceremonials. These essential differences created much friction and finally open antagonism. The first letters written at San Gabriel of which we have copies, express this bitterness of feeling. They appear in Torquemada's “Monarquia Indiana,” and are written by Father Escalona, the comisario, to the superior of the Franciscan order in Mexico. They accuse the governor of all kinds of crimes and malfeasance. They charge cruelty in sacking Pueblo villages without reason; that he had prevented the raising of corn necessary for the garrison and people and thereby brought on a famine and caused the people to subsist on wild seeds; and insisted that the colony could not possibly succeed unless Oñate was removed. On his part, the governor wrote to the viceroy and the king, charging the friars with various delinquencies and general inefficiency.

But notwithstanding these drawbacks, the missionary work went on. There were changes in the person of the chief Franciscan, but no change in policy. Fr. Alonzo Peinado succeeded Fr. Escobar as comisario in 1608, and brought with him eight or nine additional friars. At this time, just ten years after the first settlement, the missionaries reported that over 8,000 Indians had been converted to Christianity.

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Six years later, Fr. Peinado gave place to Fr. Estevan de Perea, and he in turn was succeeded by Fr. Zarate Salmeron, who instilled new energy into the missionary work. By 1617 the number of supposed converts had reached 14,000, but there were yet only eleven of the friars. Salmeron was a great orator and indefatigable worker; for eight years he lived at Jemez “sacrificing himself to the Lord among the pagans,” and also having charge at Cia and Sandia; and he tells us himself that he baptized no less than 6,566 persons with his own hands. His success and the account of it which he took personally to Mexico, attracted much atttention, and resulted in the elevation of the New Mexican Mission into a “Custodia” called the “Custodia de la Conversion de San Pablo,” claiming 16,000 converts, and having at its head the celebrated Alonso de Benavides, who came from Mexico with twenty-seven additional friars. This increase in the clerical force showed immediate results, as only five years later the baptized converts are reported at 34,000.

Benavides was not only a most energetic custodio, constantly making visitations and inspiring the friars to greater activities, but we are indebted to him for the most authentic history of the mission work which had yet been written, with incidental descriptions of the towns and pueblos, of climate and products, of great interest and value. He had been induced to make a journey across the ocean to Spain in order to interest the king himself in the far distant work of the Franciscans, and his report

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was presented to the king of Spain in person, in Madrid, in 1630. Benavides never returned to New Mexico, but became archbishop of Goa in Asia.

There can be no doubt that his estimates of the number of Indians, like most of those of that day, were much exaggerated. Apart from the usual enlargement in the numbers of the population when they are estimated and not counted, there was throughout the whole report an evident attempt to impress the king with the greatness of the field and the importance of sending additional assistance to the Franciscan missionaries, and especially of providing a bishop for New Mexico in order that the converts might be confirmed and a better administration secured. But the report is the best authority for the condition of the Missions at that time, and certainly describes a wonderful work performed within thirty years after the first settlement.

He describes each group or “Nacion” separately, and the following condensed summary contains the substance of the report so far as the Missions and churches are concerned:


“Piros nation, most southerly in New Mexico; on both sides of the Rio Grande for 15 leagues, from Senecu to Sevilleta; 15 pueblos, 6,000 Indians, all baptized; 3 missions, Nuestra Señora del Socorro at Pilabo, San Antonio de Senecu and San Luis Obispo at Sevilleta.

“Tihua nation, 7 leagues above Piros, 15 or 16 pueblos, 7,000 Indians, all baptized; 2 missions, at Sandia and Isleta.

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“Queres nation, 4 leagues above the Tihuas, extending ten leagues from San Felipe and including Santa Ana on the west; 7 pueblos, 4,000 Indians, all baptized; 3 missions.

“Tompiros nation, ten leagues east of the Queres, extending 15 leagues from Chililí; 14 or 15 pueblos, over 10,000 Indians, all of whom were converted and most all of them baptized; six missions; these lived near the Salinas.

“Tanos nation, 10 leagues northwest of the Tompiros, extending 10 leagues; 5 pueblos and 1 mission; 4,000 Indians, all of whom had been baptized.

“Pecos pueblo, of Jemez nation and language; 4 leagues north of the Tanos; 2,000 Indians and a very fine mission.

“Villa de Santa Fé; 7 leagues west of Pecos; capital; 250 Spaniards and 700 Indians.

“Tehua nation, west of Santa Fé toward the Rio Grande, extending 10 or 12 leagues; 8 pueblos, including Santa Clara; 6,000 Indians; 3 missions, including San Ildefonso.

“Jemez nation; 7 leagues to the west there were 3,000 Indians, but half died, people now gathered in 2 pueblos of San José and San Diego.

ldquo;Picuris pueblo; 10 leagues up the river from San Ildefonso, 2,000 Indians baptized, and the most savage in the province.

“Taos pueblo, of same nation as the Picuris, but differing somewhat in language, 7 leagues north of Picuris; 2,500 baptized Indians; church and convento.

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“Acoma pueblo, 12 leagues west of santa Ana, containing 2,000 Indians; which was reduced in 1629 and at which one friar was located.

“Zuñi nation, 30 leagues west of Acoma, extending 9 or 10 leagues, containing 11 or 12 pueblos and 10,000 converted Indians; there were 2 missions at Zuñi.”


Benavides summarizes the whole matter by saying that at that time there were about fifty friars in New Mexico, serving over 60,000 natives who had accepted Christianity; that they lived in ninety pueblos, grouped into about twenty-five Missions with churches and conventos, and that each pueblo also had its own church.

In 1629 a considerable number of friars arrived from Mexico under the leadership of Father Estevan de Perea; and these occupied new fields and erected some of the most important churches. Among these was Father Garcia de San Francisco, who founded a church at Socorro, and Father Francisco Acevedo, who is credited with the erection of the churches at Abó, Tenabó, and Tabira, in the Salinas region, lie died in 1644, so that we have an approximate date for the building of those notable edifices. The Salinas pueblos were destroyed or abandoned owing to the persistent attacks of the Apaches, between 1669 and 1676, as will be stated in more detail when those pueblos are described.

The “Cronica” of Vetancur contains a list of the principal Missions as they existed in 1680, just prior to the Pueblo Revolution, with the name of the priest

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in charge of each. The points of interest in this will be embodied in the separate descriptions of the Missions. It shows how thoroughly the whole of New Mexico was covered at that time by the Missions of the Franciscans, most of them being the centers of districts, from which the friars living in the central convento visited and served the smaller surrounding villages.

In summing up, in his report to the king, the triumph of the Cross in New Mexico, Benavides refers to one matter that has not received the attention to which it is entitled. After telling of the condition of the people in the old days of paganism, and the almost miraculous change made in little more than twenty years, and of the regard and affection of the people for the friars and for Christianity, he says:


“as is amply shown by all the churches and conventions which they have built, all of which have been made solely by the women and the boys and girls of the doctrine; for, among these nations it is the custom for the women to make the walls, and the men spin and weave their mantas, and go to war and the chase, and if we oblige any man to build a wall he seeks to escape from it and the women laugh at him.”


From this it appears distinctly that the walls of the churches built, at least as late as 1629 when Benavides wrote, were made by the women, assisted only by the boys and girls of the missions. The use of the word “solamente” clearly excludes any others.

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Inquiry in existing pueblos as to this subject has failed to show any knowledge, among those questioned, as to this building of the church walls by the Indian women; from which it may be inferred that such has not been the custom since the Revolution of 1680. But it can scarcely be assumed that so reliable an authority as Benavides should make a statement so broadly unless it was a fact, and especially as to a matter which must have been within his personal knowledge during the very active years in which he was at the head of the entire mission work of the province.

It certainly adds to the interest of the older of the Missions still existing, and the ruins of others, built before 1680, to know that their massive walls were the work of the women of that generation.

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