National Park Service
Kiva, Crown, Crown


The Invaders

The New Mexico: Preliminaries to Conquest

Oñate's Disenchantment

The "Christianization" of Pecos

The Shadow of the Inquisition

Their Own Worst Enemies

Pecos and the Friars

Pecos, the Plains, and the Provincias Internas

Toward Extinction



Chapter 9: Toward Extinction, 1794-1840

The Onslaught of Settlers

Evidently Santa Fe promoter Esteban Baca, who rounded up sixteen willing derelicts in 1821, would have moved right into the pueblo. In his application for a settlement grant, which seems to have been lost in the independence shuffle, don Esteban did not mince words. He understood that there were now only eight or ten Pecos Indian families left, and all that land going to waste. Their church was falling down. Their minister had abandoned them. Because they were so few, "and having no title," the Pecos were plainly in peril. Besides, the king wanted vacant lands peopled and planted. Therefore, reasoned Baca, his people, "leaving to the Indians whatever land they can cultivate," would move in, reverse the downward population trend, rebuild the church, and bring in a minister. It was, if nothing else, a very good try. [36]

The real onslaught began in 1825. That year Gov. Bartolomé Baca and the Diputación Provincial, New Mexico's token legislature under the Mexican constitution of 1824, in effect threw open the Pecos league. A typical grant of lands allegedly uncultivated by the Pecos for many years went to the illiterate Rafael Benavides and several companions. Its boundaries were "to the east the little springs that are on this side of the Río de la Vaca [Cow Creek], to the west the river, to the north the trail that comes down from Tecolote, and to the south the boundary of Diego Padilla [one of the Los Trigos grantees]." The word spread. One Luis Benavides pleaded in March 1825, the same month he retired from military service, for a "small property in the surplus land of the natives of Pecos to sow a few maize plants and some wheat" for his large family and "relief from so many miseries." [37]

Bartolomé Baca

With or without grants, they came. Almost overnight dozens of families settled "the Cañón de Pecos." Beginning with the baptisms of two male Roybal infants in the mission church, April 16, 1825, mention of Hispanos from the Cañón de Pecos became more and more frequent. This in fact was the beginning of the present-day village of Pecos. By the early 1830s, the priest at San Miguel del Vado was listing settlers merely "from Pecos," and in May of 1834, he buried a boy "in the chapel of Pecos." Plainly they were there to stay. [38]

The Pecos Fight Back

The few remaining Indians of the pueblo did not surrender to encroachment without a fight. When proceedings in their favor, supposedly sent by the governor in 1825 to the Mexican congress, "went astray," they tried again the following year. Alcalde Rafael Aguilar, his lieutenant Juan Domingo Vigil, and "General" José Manuel Armenta, all Pecos Indians, appealed to the Diputación to halt the unlawful alienation of their lands. Some recipients of these grants were speculating. Without having acquired any legal rights to the land or having occupied it the required five years, they had begun selling it off. Others had already planted at the insistence of don Juan Vigil, one of the grantees with Rafael Benavides. "It is not nor has it been our desire," the Pecos insisted, "that they give them our lands." What the Indians had not planted, they used as pasture for their livestock.

Had they no rights as citizens under God and the nation? "Well we know that since the conquest we have earned more merits than all the pueblos of this province." If grants were to be made, they should be of land truly vacant, "as it is at Lo de Mora, at Las Calandrias, at El Coyote, at El Sapell&oaucte;, on the plains of the lower Río Pecos, as it is on the lower Río Salado and the R&iaucdte;o Colorado [the Canadian]." Those were truly lands without owners—a fact certain Apaches and Comanches would surely have challenged. [39]

At least they had bought time. None of the settlers, came the word from Santa Fe, could sell or otherwise alienate Pecos lands until the government resolved the matter. When Gov. Antonio Narbona finally had in hand the information he had requested from the constitutional alcalde of El Vado, he reported to the Mexican minister of domestic and foreign affairs. Narbona was bluntly on the side of the settlers.

Antonio Narbona

The lands in question at Pecos amounted to "8,459 varas" on both sides of the river, "abandoned," in the governor's words, "many years back." The forty-one settlers involved had had to clear what they had been given. These lands, according to the governor, lay farther than half a league from the pueblo. The Indians, no more than nine families, not even forty persons, still possessed a full league in the other directions, largely unattended and unworked. No wonder these Indians were the poorest people in New Mexico. They had always refused to mingle with the Hispanos, hence "their barbarous state." Narbona had little sympathy for them.

His suggestion was to break up the Pueblo communes, to give each Indian individual property rights. That way the Indians themselves would progress toward civilization, and lands that lay barren would be brought under cultivation. Otherwise, the Pueblos would remain "mere slaves to their ancient customs," as Narbona put it.

None of them has any authority to transfer property, not even to succor himself. At the same time, that which their pueblo cedes to them, imperfectly and with many limitations, is only enough to make them miserable and keep them in the decadence that even they themselves recognize. [40]

Narbona's rhetoric solved nothing. His ebullient successor, Manuel Armijo, inherited the problem. The settlers divided into factions. In March 1829, thirty-one individuals, who were "settled in the Cañón de Pecos," signed or put their x's on a document at the "Ciénaga de Pecos" reiterating their opposition to others who had been granted land in that area. There simply was not enough to go around.

That same month, the Pecos protested again. Rafael Aguilar and José Cota, representing the pueblo, beseeched the Mexican governor to hear them. It had now been five years since their lands had been invaded by settlers. Apparently the governor had ordered that these intruders be given final title. Still, the Pecos begged him to consider

how great must be the pain in our hearts on seeing ourselves violently despoiled of our rightful ownership, all the more when this violent despoilment was executed while they threatened us with the illegal pretext of removing us from our pueblo and distributing us among the others of the Territory. Please, Your Excellency, see if by chance the natives of our pueblo for whom we speak are denied property and the shelter of the laws of our liberal system. Indeed, Sir, has the right of ownership and security that every citizen enjoys in his possessions been abolished? [41]

It was a good question, good enough that a commission was named to consider it. Carefully weighing the petition of the Pecos along with other documents bearing on the case, the commission came up with a surprisingly unequivocal two-point answer, which the Diputación enacted.

1) That all the lands of which they have been despoiled be returned to the natives of the pueblo of Pecos.

2) That the settlers who have possession of them be advised by the alcalde of that district that they have acquired no right of possession because said grant was given to lands that have owners. [42]

Now it was the affected settlers' turn to cry violent despoilment. The case went to court. [43] Whatever the details, the decision did not adversely effect the lineal descent of the full Pecos league in the courts. Whether the settlers actually got off the pueblo's land is another question. From the El Vado church records and the subsequent settlement pattern, it is plain that they did not.

When the pitiful remnant of Cicuye, the eastern fortress-pueblo, finally resolved to abandon the place, the persistent invasion of their lands beginning in 1825 must surely have been a factor. [44]

Santa Fe Trade

Late in 1818, after an absence of more than eight years, the aging fifty-year-old Fray Francisco Bragado returned to the Pecos Valley. He settled in at San Miguel del Vado. When the spirit moved him, which was not very often if the church records are any indication, he climbed on a mule or horse and rode with an escort to the mission of Pecos. More often than not, the Pecos who cared came to him.

While he sat by a fire or in the shade of a portal at San Miguel, Father Bragado rarely lacked topics to chew over with his cronies. Times were changing at a dizzy pace. He could talk elections. Under the reimposed Spanish constitution, which seemed a cruel mockery to traditional monarchists, even the few Indians at Pecos elected a municipal government in January 1821, Quanima as alcalde and Rafael as the one council-man. [45] Then there was all the talk of Mexican independence. As a peninsular Spaniard, but a rather down-to-earth sort, the Franciscan must have had mixed feelings about that.

From his vantage at El Vado, he witnessed the opening of the Santa Fe trade, a business that would reorient New Mexico's economy and pave the trail for the United States Army a quarter-century later. Enterprising, semi-literate "Captain" William Becknell was the first. Gambling on a cordial reception by Governor Melgares, he and a company of twenty to thirty men had set out from Missouri with their merchandise lashed aboard pack animals. In mid-November of 1821, they pulled into San Miguel. Up in Santa Fe they made a killing, commercially speaking. The next year they were back with wagons. In 1825, the year Father Bragado died, goods estimated at $65,000 passed over the Río Pecos ford. San Miguel was the port of entry, the ancient pueblo of the Pecos no more than a curious relic up the trail a ways. [46]

hand-written note
The Pecos remnant elects a municipal government under the Spanish Constitution of 1820 (SANM, II, no. 2954).

The hapless Thomas James and party, forced by Comanches on the plains to hand over much of their merchandise as a guarantee of safe passage, had crossed the ford at San Miguel only two weeks after Becknell. James was the earliest Anglo-American visitor to describe in detail the pueblo of Pecos, or the Fort as he called it. Despite the quarter-century that elapsed between his overnight stay on November 30-December 1, 1821, and the publication of his Three Years among the Indians and Mexicans in 1846, the word picture he painted was essentially accurate. He mentioned nothing of Montezuma, a perpetual fire, or a huge voracious snake.

Leaving San Miguel, which James described as "an old Spanish town of about a hundred houses, a large church, and two miserably constructed flour mills," the Missourians fell in with a company of New Mexicans.

pack train
Mexican muleteers and pack train. Gregg, Commerce

We stopped at night [November 30, 1821] at the ancient Indian village of Peccas about fifteen miles from San Miguel. I slept in the Fort, which encloses two or three acres in an oblong, the sides of which are bounded by brick [stone] houses three stories high, and without any entrances in front. The window frames were five feet long and three-fourths of a foot in width, being made thus narrow to prevent all ingress through them. The lights were made of izing-glass [selenite] and each story was supplied with similar windows. A balcony surmounted the first and second stories and moveable ladders were used in ascending to them on the front. We entered the Fort by a gate which led into a large square. On the roofs, which like those of all the houses in Mexico are flat, were large heaps of stones for annoying an enemy. I noticed that the timbers which extended out from the walls about six feet and supported the balconies, were all hewn with stone hatchets. The floors were of brick, laid on poles, bark and mortar. The brick was burned in the sun and made much larger than ours, being about two feet by one. The walls were covered with plaster made of lime and izing-glass. I was informed by the Spaniards and Indians that this town and Fort are of unknown antiquity, and stood there in considerable splendor in the time of the Conquerors. The climate being dry and equable and the wood in the buildings the best of pine and cedar, the towns here suffer but little by natural decay. The Indians have lost all tradition of the settlement of the town of Peccas. It stood a remarkable proof of the advance made by them in the arts of civilization before the Spaniards came among them. All the houses are well built and showed marks of comfort and refinement. The inhabitants, who were all Indians, treated us with great kindness and hospitality. In the evening I employed an Indian to take my horses to pasture, and in the morning when he brought them up I asked him what I should pay him. He asked for powder and I was about to give him some, when the Spanish officer forbade me, saying it was against the law to supply the Indians with amunition. Arms are kept out of their hands by their masters who prohibit all trade in those articles with any of the tribes around them. On the next day in the evening we came in sight of Santa Fe.

wagon train
March of the Santa Fe caravan. Gregg, Commerce

Mexican Independence

On Epiphany, Sunday, January 6, 1822, in Santa Fe the wide-eyed, waspish Thomas James witnessed New Mexico's celebration of Mexican independence. To hear him tell it, he was indispensable, erecting the seventy-foot liberty pole and running up the first flag. But his heart was not in it. The revelry scandalized him, or so he said. "No Italian carnival," he reckoned, "ever exceeded this celebration in thoughtlessness, vice and licentiousness of every description."

An unforgettable day, Gov. Facundo Melgares called it in his official report. Surely some orator likened the coming of the Three Kings to the coming of the Three Guarantees—Independence, Religion, and Union. There were salvos, processions and pageants, and, as on most public occasions, Indian dances in the plaza. James, who wrote in retrospect during a time of intense anti-Mexican feeling, never tired of comparing the low-life Hispanos of New Mexico to the sober and industrious Pueblo Indians. He admired the people of San Felipe who "danced very gracefully upon the public square to the sound of a drum and the singing of the older members of their band" during the second day's festivities. "About the same time," he remembered,

the Peccas Indians came into the city, dressed in skins of bulls and bears. At a distance their disguise was quite successful and they looked like the animals which they counterfeited so well that the people fled frightened at their appearance, in great confusion from the square. [47]

Religious medal struck in the United States for the Mexican market. Gregg, Commerce
top of pageTop

previousPrevious Table of Contents Nextright