Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 17)
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Chapter II

As plains natives roamed the region, hunting and gathering, major events to the south were to change their lives forever. The Spanish empire moved from its small settlements on the islands of Hispanola and Cuba onto the North American continent. By 1521, Hernan Cortes had conquered the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan, and upon its ruins were established the capital and viceregency of New Spain. New Spain encompassed an area from Panama to the Arctic; and while the center of the viceroy's domain was at Mexico City, it took only a few years for new tales of wealth and empire to filter down from the north. [1] From the days of Cortes' conquest, rumors of wealthy cities to the north plagued the Spanish government. One of the most "solid" stories came from a member of the ill-fated Panfilio de Narvaez expedition of 1527. In this effort, a group of colonists tried to land in Florida and settle the place. However, bad weather, poor resupply efforts, and hostile natives put a tragic end to the attempt. There were survivors, including Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca. Cabeza de Vaca, and three others, wandered through the southeastern United States, across Texas, and finally into northern Mexico, where he was found by the Spanish government. Upon returning to Mexico City, he told Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza legends of great cities and considerable wealth just to the north and west of the area he had visited. [2] The Spanish, having just conquered Mexico, were in the mood to hear about new "civilizations of wealth." The Cabeza de Vaca story only increased interest in the northern sectors of New Spain. Further, silver discoveries were made north of Mexico City in the province of Queretero, and for some reason this was associated with the possibility of "civilizations" in the north. Exploration fever was increased when, in 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza returned from the Rio Grande region with reports of the legendary "Seven Cities of Cibola" that Cabeza de Vaca described. On October 2, 1539, Fray Marcos returned to Mexico City and certified his discoveries with the Viceroy. Based upon this information, Viceroy Mendoza prepared a crown expedition to conquer the north. [3]

Chosen to lead this force was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who, after assembling an army of Spaniards and natives, began the long trek northward on February 23, 1540. This expedition was the first European entry on the western plains of North America and represented Spain's largest effort, to date, to explore the interior of the continent. [4] As Coronado marched north with 75 men, Hernando de Alarcon sailed along the Mexican Coast to the Colorado River, in tending to supply Coronado by sea. This expedition, obviously well-financed, was expected to bring results for the Spanish government. The project was one of the few ever fully financed by the crown, and Viceroy Mendoza's reputation was on the line. [5] Coronado reached the American southwest by July 1540 where he found "Cibola." What a disappointment that must have been. Instead of a city "made of gold," he found a mud pueblo on a mesa full of hostile natives. This was Hawikuh, located near present-day Zuni. After a fierce battle, the place was captured and Coronado set up headquarters. [6] At this point, Coronado dispatched Garcia Lopez de Cardenas westward to find Alarcon, while Hernando de Alvarado was sent east to explore. Lopez de Cardenas, in August 1540, found the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, but was unable to locate the Alarcon expedition at the mouth of that great river. Meanwhile, Hernando de Alvarez discovered the Rio Grande and the pueblo of Tiguex. This place represented the river pueblos of New Mexico and was populated by sedentary natives who grew such crops as corn, cotton, and wheat. Coronado moved his headquarters to Tiguex in September 1540 where he began subjugating the people of the river pueblos. [7] Coronado spent that winter putting down rebellions in the pueblos and trying to keep his little army together. While at Tiguex, the expedition heard a story from a native named "the Turk," who described a "vast civilization" northeast of Tiguex called Gran Quivira. This place was supposed to be fabulously wealthy and would put "Cibola" to shame. Coronado, desperate for results, planned a march on Quivira when winter broke. The spring of 1541 found an expedition on its way across the Llano Estacado of western Texas working its way east. The Turk led thirty of Coronado's men to eastern Kansas where they found a motley collection of stick and mud houses inhabited by primitive natives. There was no gold, there were no great civilizations. In frustration, Coronado's men tortured and killed their guide at Quivira. [8] The party started back to Tiguex, crossed western Kansas to southeastern Colorado, followed the Arkansas River west, and then went down to the Rio Grande. By November 1541 Coronado, having transmitted his findings to the Viceroy, tried to decide what to do next. That December, he fell from his horse and was badly injured. In the spring of 1542, Coronado began the long return to Mexico City, arriving at the capitol in the late autumn of that year. [9] Coronado, in disgrace from not having found the "Seven Cities," resigned his position as governor of Nueva Galicia and retired; he died in poverty. Mendoza had to answer to the crown why so much money was spent on the 1540 expedition and why there were no results. [10]

Coronado's expedition brought first contacts between Europeans and natives in the western interior of what later became the United States. The natives, while brutally treated, did gain the technology of horse and gun. Spain learned that there were no cities, that there was no gold, but that there were sedentary populations ready for Christianization. The buffalo was recorded for the first time, and native cultures at the time of European contact were described by various chroniclers of the expedition. This was an important time for both natives and Spaniards, for here two cultures met and were well documented by contemporaries. While New Mexico (as this land was called) was written off as "worthless" by the greedy Spanish, it was not forgotten. Expeditions still went north, out of New Spain, seeking not gold this time, but a place to settle. Both settlers and church men were interested in New Mexico for it offered natives for conversion, land, water, and "free" labor. For example, an illegal expedition led by Bernaldino Beltran and Antonio de Espejo occurred in 1582. However, the partners fell to arguing among themselves and were eventually disposed of by plains natives. [11]

The first serious attempt at settlement in New Mexico came in 1598 when Juan de Onate led an expedition from lower New Spain into the Rio Grande Valley. By 1600 the City of Santa Fe was founded, the second oldest European city in the present-day United States. As the Rio Grande Valley became occupied by Spanish colonists, pueblo natives were more and more abused by their conquerers. Forced labor, confiscated lands, and other brutalities were common. Settlement extended north to Taos, and during this time the San Luis Valley was visited by potential colonists. [12] That place was not suitable for colonization due to lack of useable water, and hostile Utes promptly drove out their Spanish visitors. Since existing pueblo towns ended at Taos, there was really no incentive to move much farther north. The eastern plains also held interest for the Spanish because there were also pueblos. The Pecos Pueblo, east of Santa Fe, represented Spanish interests on the plains and, because it was the object of continual plains native raids, the Spanish were forced to patrol the eastern part of New Mexico north into southeast Colorado. [13] As the seventeenth century progressed, Spanish settlers found themselves in even more trouble. Not only did plains raiders cause never-ending problems, but the province's economy was on the verge of collapse. Finally, in 1680, pueblo dwellers at Taos rose in rebellion and removed the Spanish to El Paso del Norte. [14] Rebels then took over New Mexico and proceeded to revert to what Spanish missionaries called "barbarism." The province was abandoned to its original owners until 1692. [15] In that year, Diego de Vargas began the "reconquest" of New Mexico. Vargas, with 100 soldiers, settlers, and allied natives, marched from El Paso del Norte on August 21, 1692, subduing pueblo after pueblo until they reached Santa Fe on September 12. Here, the reconquerors engaged in battle with natives who held the city. The Spanish retook the capital on September 14, 1692. This day is still celebrated in New Mexico every year as Vargas Day. [16] He then spent the next several years reestablishing Spanish settlements throughout New Mexico. Vargas faced a new Pueblo native revolt in 1696. Again, Taos was the hotbed of resistance, and Vargas moved swiftly to crush this uprising. In the army's movement north to Taos, Vargas took the occasion to march into the San Luis Valley to demonstrate Spain's strength. He found some Utes who, after limited discussion, agreed that the Spanish were indeed rulers of the region. Vargas then returned to Santa Fe, and the Valley was forgotten. [17]

Life in New Mexico during the Eighteenth century was anything but pleasant. The economy was shaky, settlement was slow and dangerous, and there was a continual fear of Pueblo uprisings. To further complicate the situation, plains raiders, most notably the Comanche and Apache, began to encroach on the eastern plains. Taos, the most outlying pueblo, was constantly attacked. Comanches soon raided the upper Rio Grande, and, in cooperation with the Utes, Taos was nearly cut off from the rest of the province. [18] The problem became so serious that the government established an outpost on the eastern plains to warn of Comanche raids while, at the same time, looking out for supposed French traders. This establishment, called El Cuartelejo, was built about 1709 and was manned by allied Apache natives. Where this place was actually located is in some doubt. Leroy Hafen, Colorado historian, places the site somewhere in far southeastern Colorado. [19] However, Kansas historians claim that the fort was farther east in Kansas and therefore was the first European settlement in that state. Wherever El Cuartelejo was located, it served as the northern-most outpost of Spanish civilization in North America. While El Cuartelejo was Spain's "early warning" post, its effectiveness was doubtful. There were only six men posted, and they were wholly ineffective against Comanche hordes.

In 1719, rumors of French traders in the region filtered into Santa Fe. The Spanish were concerned about French influence because of a closed and restrictive trade system within the Spanish Empire. Spain, very early, decided that a mercantile system was the only way to extract maximum profit from the New World. Hence, all trade was funneled from Seville, Spain, to Vera Cruz, Mexico (in the case of New Spain), and then on to the provinces. This pattern allowed full control of goods. No citizen was allowed to buy from any merchant other than Spanish. No imports were permitted except through specified ports. Naturally, when goods reached their destination, they were terribly expensive. New Mexico, being at the end of the line, having a cash flow problem, and being nonself-supporting, suffered greatly from this trade system. [20] The situation grew more intense when France, in the late 1600's, colonized the Mississippi River Valley. French traders soon found their way into east Texas, and, as goods became readily obtainable for the natives of that area, word spread that cheap European merchandise was available. The Comanche brought some trade goods into New Mexico which, in turn, caused poverty-stricken settlers in New Mexico to look to Texas rather than New Spain (Mexico) for goods. [21] In addition, the Comanche started a vicious circle of trade that involved raiding New Mexican settlements, stealing food, animals, goods, and hostages, then trading them back to settlers for food, animals, and goods. These various problems, a small trade with the French, a drain on the local economy, and the "Comanche Barrier" on the eastern plains all concerned New Mexico's government. [22]

To deal with this perceived threat, Governor Antonio Valverde sent his lieutenant north onto the plains in search of "Frenchmen." In June 1720, Pedro de Villasur and about 100 men set forth from Santa Fe, crossed southeastern Colorado, and in August ended up on the South Platte River where they found a Pawnee village. After exchanging written messages, the Spanish got a reply (in French) that "proved" the French were there. During one night, the Spanish were attacked by a Pawnee war party, and all but 13 Spaniards perished. [23] The Villasur disaster caused Santa Fe to demand more protection. Mexico City failed to help, but rather, an inspector, Pedro de Rivera, was sent to the province for the purpose of assessing defenses. Rivera recommended the establishment of an outpost among the Jicarilla Apache of southeast Colorado, a suggestion that was ignored. [24] The unprotected Jicarilla were absorbed by both the Comanche and the Ute during the 1730's. This left New Mexico's northeastern flank exposed. In 1739, the Santa Fe government got a real shock when French traders wandered into the capital. Two brothers, Pierre and Paul Mallet, from Illinois country, made it to Santa Fe by following the Arkansas River to the foothills near Pueblo, and then proceeding south along the Front Range, over Raton Pass, and into New Mexico. The party was welcomed at Santa Fe, and after some limited trading, the little group, less two Frenchmen who chose to stay, went back to Illinois. This was the first record of Europeans crossing the plains by way of what later became a traditional route along the Arkansas River and over Raton Pass. [25]

The French at New Orleans, hearing of Mallet's success, began planning a "trade invasion" of New Mexico, using the plains route of 1739. A party led by Fabry de la Bruyere made it part way up the Canadian River in 1741, but had to turn back due to low water and hostile natives. Santa Fe saw another expedition led by Pierre Mallet in 1750, who was arrested this time and sent to Mexico City. Governor Tomas Velez Capuchin had just found three Frenchmen at the 1749 Taos Fair and was in no mood for more incursions. Two more Frenchmen appeared in 1752, and they too were sent packing to Mexico City for questioning. Only the French and Indian War of 1754 put an end to French traders in New Mexico. With most tribes of the Mississippi Valley in arms, France and Spain were no longer involved in commerce. [26] Northeast New Mexico became an international no man's land because of the French and Indian War. Peace, in 1763, divided the North American interior between Spain and France. The English, established since 1607 on the east coast, took over that part of the continent. As war raged in the Mississippi Valley, New Mexico was left out. The region of southeast Colorado, western Kansas, northern Texas and northeastern New Mexico was overrun by the Comanche. These raiders continued to harass New Mexico, and in confederation with the Utes, kept the plains closed to all. [27] Comanche terror continued well into the 1770's when the crown decided to do something about New Mexico. This was part of an overall reorganization of the Empire and included an "inspection" by the Marques de Rubi in 1766-67. Rubi viewed defenses in the province and made recommendations as to improvements. This included a suggested line of presidios from California to Texas so as to stop both French and natives. In 1772 a Reglamento (order) was published that required the establishment of presidios, moving of some older ones, and the creation of the Provincias Internas, a new governmental organization. [28]

In 1776, the Provincias Internas were put into operation and Teodoro de Croix was named commandante-general of these Provinces. Within a year campaigns were begun to subdue natives of the north. Teodoro de Croix, given this task, saw that it was accomplished by a "presidio volante," or the "flying presidio." This was a rapid deployment concept that sought speedy response when hostile natives attacked. Horse-mounted soldiers could chase the offenders. [29] Yet, by 1779 the Comanche were still such a problem that Governor Juan Bautista de Anza assembled a force of some 600 men to track down the powerful Comanche Chief Cuerno Verde (Greenhorn) and stop him for good. To accomplish this feat, Anza enlisted the help of 200 Ute and Apache allies, who, coincidently, had just been defeated at San Luis Lake by the Comanche. [30] Anza marched from Santa Fe into the San Luis Valley with the largest Spanish force ever gathered in the North American interior. His army pushed over Poncha Pass, forded the Arkansas River at future Salida, and then moved into South Park seeking Comanche. Anza crossed the park to near where Cripple Creek was founded over 100 years later, and then proceeded down Little Fountain Creek, emerging on the flatlands. At this point, Anza found a Comanche encampment, and on August 31, 1779, engaged in battle. [31] Anza's troops easily overcame the women and children in camp, but Cuerno Verde and his 200 warriors were out on the plains. Anza gave chase, and on September 3, 1779, he found Cuerno Verde near the Greenhorn Mountains. Here the Comanche and Spanish fought a pitched battle where Cuerno Verde was resoundingly defeated. Comanche power broken, the eastern plains were freed from continual raiding, and northeast New Mexico was secure for the first time in nearly 100 years. Finally, in 1786, a peace was negotiated between Spain and the Comanche. The Ute also made peace, and the eastern plains were open to all. While the native menace was gone, a new threat appeared on the horizon in the form of American traders.


1. George P. Winship, The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1969), p. vi. Also: John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821 (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1970), p. 9.

2. Bannon, op. cit., p. 13.

3. Winship, op. cit., p. vi, and Bannon, ibid, p. 15.

4. As related by Winship, ibid., p. viii, and Bannon, ibid, pp. 17-18.

5. Bannon, ibid, p. 19.

6. Winship, ibid., pp. 32-33.

7. Bannon, op. cit., p. 18

8. Bannon, ibid, p. 20, and Winship, op. cit., p. 77.

9. Bannon, ibid., p. 26.

10. Ibid., p. 27.

11. Ibid., p. 32.

12. Ibid., pp. 35-38, and George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey (eds. and Trans.), Don Juan de Onate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953), Vol. I, pp. 225-228; Ralph E. Twitchell, The Spanish Archives of New Mexico (Cedar Rapids: Torch Press, 1914), Vol. 2, pp. 279-280.

13. Frederic J. Athearn, "Life and Society in Eighteenth Century New Mexico, 1692-1776" (Austin, Texas: Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Texas, 1974), p. 78.

14. Bannon, op. cit., p. 83.

15. Ibid., p. 82, and Athearn, op. cit., p. 15.

16. Bannon, op. cit., p. 87 and Athearn, op. cit. See also: Charles W. Hackett, Revolt of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Otermin's Attempted Reconquest, 1680-1692 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press 1942), 2 vols.

17. Jesse B. Bailey, Diego de Vargas and the Reconquest of Mexico (Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1942): and J. Manuel Espinosa, First Expedition of Vargas into New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1940.)

18. As related in Bailey and Athearn, op. cit., p. 43.

19. See: Alfred B. Thomas, After Coronado, Spanish Exploration Northeast of New Mexico, 1696-1727 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1935), pp. 134-137.

20. LeRoy R. Hafen, Colorado: A Story of the State and Its People (Denver: Old West Publishing Co., 1945), pp. 52-55.

21. Thomas, op. cit., p. 15, and Athearn, op. cit., p. 110.

22. Athearn, ibid., pp. 110-111.

23. Alfred B. Thomas, Plains Indians and New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1940), p. 18.

24. Alfred B. Thomas, "The Massacre of the Villasur Expedition at the Forks of The Platte River," Nebraska History Magazine, pp. 67-81.

25. Bannon, op. cit., p. 130.

26. Athearn, op. cit., p. 182.

27. As related in Bannon, p. 142.

28. See: Thomas, Plains Indians, op. cit.

29. The Reglamento is translated in: Sidney Brinckerhoff and Odie Faulk, Lancers for the King (Phoenix: Arizona Historical Foundation, 1965.)

30. Bannon, op. cit., p. 180.

31. McConnell, Bayou Salado, op. cit., pp. 49-50.

32. Ibid., p. 51.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008