A Forgotten Kingdom: The Spanish Frontier in Colorado and New Mexico, 1540-1821
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 29)
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Chapter XI
New Mexico, 1776-1821

The reorganization of 1776, transformed New Mexico from a sleepy rural province to a more vital player in the greater Spanish Empire. Upon being absorbed into the western province of the Provincias Internas, the government looked at New Mexico with a more critical eye. Finally, the Crown was willing to invest substantial amounts of money in New Mexico.

The man behind this remarkable vitality was Teodoro de Croix, the nephew of Viceroy Croix who had served in New Spain during the 1760s. Croix was commissioned by Viceroy Antonio Maria de Bucareli to organize the north and to implement the Regulations of 1772. He travelled throughout northern New Spain. In 1778 he called a conference of all provincial governors to discuss Indian affairs. Juan Bautista de Anza, from Sonora, Fermin de Mendiueta of New Mexico, Barn of Nueva Vizcaya, and many others attended. Here they approved an alliance that Croix worked out with the Comanches, one that was also designed to stop raiding Apaches. It was noted that 1,800 men would be needed to implement the new policy. [1]

However, a royal order in 1779 told Croix to make friends with enemy Indians in order to prevent further depredations. While Croix tried to subdue the natives of northern New Spain, New Mexico was active in solving her Indian problems. Then, in 1777 Juan Bautista de Anza was named governor.

When Anza arrived in Santa Fe during 1779, things began to happen. Prior to his assumption of power, during 1776 an expedition set out from Santa Fe under the leadership of Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalante who, with a party of nine, including Fray Francisco Atanasio Dominguez, left the capital headed toward present-day Four Corners. They sought a route to Monterey, California. In doing so they crossed western Colorado, entered modern Utah, followed the Colorado River through Arizona and ended up back in Santa Fe via Zuñi, having failed to find a route to the coast. But this expedition left the Spanish with their first knowledge of western Colorado and the Great Basin. [2]

Governor Anza refused to be cowed by the Comanche threat. Upon assuming office, he organized an expedition to eliminate the menace. In 1779, de Anza set out with 573 men who were later joined by Ute and Apache allies. During August, 1779 he marched into the San Luis Valley, up the west side of the Sangre de Cristos, crossing the rivers of San Antonio, Pinos, Conejos, La Jaras, and the Rio de los Timbres. He forded the Rio Grande at "El Paso de San Bartolome", and then headed north to "La Cenega" [sic], from whence de Anza crossed Poncha Pass into South Park. Finding no natives, he proceeded into the eastern foothills and, near present day Pueblo he discovered a large band of Comanche led by Chief Cuerno Verde [Greenhorn]. During a monumental battle, Greenhorn was killed and de Anza delivered a resounding defeat to the natives. The Comanche, having suffered heavily at the hands of the Spanish, sued for peace. [3]

However, de Anza found that the Utes now presented problems. They feared relations with the Spanish, and therefore refused to cooperate with de Anza in crushing the Comanches. It took the governor several years to sign a peace treaty with all the Indian nations concerned.

In 1786 the Comanches agreed to give up their nomadic ways and settle in villages. For this the Spanish needed seeds, tools, and the technology needed for farming to help resettle the plains raiders. A settlement named San Carlos was established near Taos in 1787. It soon failed and they abandoned the area in disgust. This ended attempts at pacifying the Comanches. Yet a lasting peace was secured. [4]

During the 1780s the Commandante of the Provincias Internas, General Jacobo Ugarte y Loyola, decided that the two most distant capitals of New Spain must be linked. In 1786, he sent Pedro Vial from San Antonio, Texas. Vial arrived in Santa Fe in May, 1787, where Governor Fernando de la Concha warmly received Vial's party. Pedro Vial completed his map and diary at Santa Fe. Concha soon discovered that it was hardly the most "direct" route. The governor, with Vial's approval, revised the map and came up with a shorten route. With the new trail opened, trade into Santa Fe from the east became much easier.

In 1792 Governor Concha sent Vial, Vicente Villanueva, and Vicente Espinosa to Saint Louis from Santa Fe under express orders from Viceroy Revillagigedo to the two towns with a trade route. Vial's successful trip to Saint Louis provided a trace that eventually became the Santa Fe-Missouri trade of the famous Santa Fe Trail. [5]

The days of Spanish dominance in northern New Spain were nearly over. During a twenty year period after the Revolutionary War in the United States, more and more Americans found their way into Santa Fe. The 1803 Louisiana Purchase robbed Spain of her last buffer against American incursions.

This change was reinforced in 1806 when Zebulon M. Pike was captured along the Conejos River, in the San Luis Valley of Colorado. He was taken to Santa Fe where he professed total ignorance of being on "Spanish" land. Despite Pike's fate, more Americans arrived in Taos and Santa Fe. Manuel Lisa showed up as early as 1805, while Joseph McLanahan, James Patterson, Reuben Smith and others arrived just a few years later, only to be slapped in jail. During 1812 Robert McKnight, Samuel Chambers, and James Baird arrived in Santa Fe with six mule loads of goods. They were arrested and their wares were confiscated. The ill-fated panty was held in prison until 1820.

A major problem that any trader faced was the constant change of government during this period. One governor would be permissive and the next far from friendly. American traders never knew what to expect. Only after 1821, when Mexico secured her independence, did Santa Fe break away from the colonial trading system and become the major center for a Mexican-United States commerce.

The year 1821 marked the end of Spanish rule in New Spain, and of course, New Mexico. In that year Agustin de Iturbide, raised the banner of rebellion and drove out the Spanish. A new nation called Mexico was born. The Spanish were removed from Santa Fe and a Mexican governor was appointed.

New Mexico became a different province. Trade was opened and the route between Santa Fe and Saint Louis became permanent. Americans came and went. For the first time in its history, New Mexico was able to develop her economy through trade. The conditions for New Mexico's citizens improved for the first time in a hundred years.

Yet New Mexico did not experience Mexican rule for long. In 1846 the United States declared war against Mexico over the Texas annexation question. New Mexico was taken by Stephen Watts Kearny in a relatively bloodless military operation. The Americans, like the Spanish, found that the land, the climate, and the great distances may have been too great for them.

As the Spanish period drew to a close, New Mexicans could look back at a history that originated some 300 years before. Back to 1540 and Coronado's first probing of the arid, hostile land that was so remote. From the outset New Mexico provided nothing but bleak prospects. There was no gold. There were no cities. The parched countryside, relieved only by the muddy Rio Grande, was so uninviting, so unpromising that it languished for another fifty years until colonists breached its hostile interior.

Prodded by the Church, authorities at Mexico City sent Juan de Oñate north in 1598. At this point New Mexico became a colony. The Spanish had the opportunity to remove themselves forever from New Mexico in 1680. The moral power of the Church and a fear of losing land to foreign powers brought the Spanish back. In 1692 the heroic figure of Diego de Vargas retook the whole of New Mexico. By 1695 Vargas had restored all of the province.

1776 marked the greatest change in New Mexican governmental and military affairs since the days of Vargas. In that year, the Regulations were published. New Mexico was incorporated into the Provincias Internas. The Marques deRubi's report, one of the most sensible ever written about New Mexico, brought many of its woes to the attention of the crown. It is a credit to King Charles III, his ministers, and various viceroys, that Rubi's perceptive ideas were implemented.

During the 300 years of Spanish occupation, New Mexico can be said to have been a land in which Spain found itself entrapped. The forbidding land, its native peoples, the harsh climate, and other factors contribute to Spanish entrapment. A century later, the United States, too, found this strange land to be a place of disappointment.

Juan Bautista de Anza
Juan Bautista de Anza


1 The late eighteenth century in New Mexico is best described by the following: Alfred B. Thomas, Forgotten Frontiers: A Study of the Spanish Indian Policy of Don Juan Bautista de Anza, Governor of New Mexico, 1777-1787 (Norman, 1932); Thomas, Teodoro de Croix and the Northern Frontier of New Spain, 1776-1783; Donald E. Worcester, Ed.," Advice on Governing New Mexico, 1786," New Mexico Historical Review (July, 1949), XXIV, 236-254.; Bernard E. Bobb, The Viceregency of Antonio Maria de Bucareli in New Spain, 1771-1779 (Austin, 1962); and Fray Atanasio Dominguez, The Missions of New Mexico, 1776. Trans. by Eleanor Adams and Angelico Chavez (Albuquerque, 1956).

2 The Escalante expedition is described in Herbert E. Bolton, Pageant in the Wilderness: The Escalante Expedition to the Interior Basin (Salt Lake City, 1950). See also: Angelico Chavez and Ted J. Warner (Eds.) The Escalante Diary. (Provo, Utah, 1976).

3 Indian policy during the late Spanish period is discussed in: Max L. Moorhead, Jacabo Ugarte and Spanish-Indian Relations in Northern New Spain, 1769-1791 (Norman, 1968), and San Luis Valley historian Ruth Marie Colville, Del Norte, Colorado, May 11, 1989. Personal Communication.

4 Bernardo de Galvez, Instructions for Governing the Interior Provinces of New Spain, 1786. (Berkeley, 1951), Trans. and Ed. by Donald E. Worcester.

5 New Mexico during the early nineteenth century is described in: Noel Loomis and Abraham P. Nasatir, Pedro Vial and the Roads to Santa Fe (Norman, 1966).

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008