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

Chapter X
New Mexico's Last Years of Freedom

New Mexico's "independence" as a separate province were fast closing. For the first time in many years residents saw better days ahead. In 1772 Spain finally admitted that New Mexico was a province that needed to be fully supported. Thus, the last years prior to the reorganization of 1776 were more important to New Mexico's future than any period since Vargas' reconquest of 1695.

While the Rubi inspection was in progress, Tomas Velez Cachupin retired. During 1767 Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta became governor and captain-general of the province. Before the end of his term, monumental changes in the structure of this frontier society occurred.

Within a few months after taking office, Mendinueta faced his first crisis. A flood along the Rio Santa Fe inundated Santa Fe and its suburbs in October, 1767. Mendinueta called out the residents of Santa Fe to build embankments to save public buildings. Because of their efforts the Palace of the Governors still stands. [1]

Mendinueta decided that Santa Fe was suffering from a crime wave, since in November, 1767, he issued strong orders that law-breakers be dealt with most harshly to set an example. [2] Shortly thereafter, Juan Manuel Padilla was brought to trial for killing one stolen cow "in his own house." He claimed that his family was on the brink of starvation and he took the cow to feed them. The governor sentenced Padilla to pay for the animal. However, he noted that the sentence was light because the man's family was poor and he stole for survival. Clearly, Spanish justice in New Mexico was tempered by humane considerations. [3]

In early 1768 Mendinueta sent an order to Francisco Trebol Navarro, alcalde mayor of Albuquerque, telling him to prevent further gambling, concubinage, theft, prostitution, and other offenses. Otherwise Trebol would be dismissed. [4] The governor considered Albuquerque one of the worst dens of iniquity in New Mexico.

Three days later the same message went to Phelipe Tafoya, alcalde mayor of Santa Fe, for the same reasons. [5] These notices were the first in ten years. Mendinueta's supposition that crime had increased was correct. Trebol Navarro published the bando in Albuquerque as ordered.

In January, 1768, he was appointed war captain for a proposed Indian campaign. The citizens of Albuquerque promptly submitted a petition to Mendinueta protesting Trebol's appointment on the grounds that he was not competent and that he was not popular enough to lead residents of that city. The petition was received in Santa Fe, noted and then forgotten. [6]

Serious crime in the capital increased as seen when Manuel and Pedro Moya were arrested inside the presidio warehouse in late September, 1767. The two were found carrying off weapons, powder and clothing that was royal property. Their reason for theft was that the articles were for trade with the Comanches. The brothers were brought to trial for grand theft and found guilty. They were given three-month jail sentences. [7]

Along with his attempts at controlling crime in New Mexico, Governor Mendinueta had a normal load of civil cases to deal with. Criminal matters included robbery, assault and cattle theft. In the case of Maria de la Luz Romero vs. Mariano Baca, Maria charged Mariano with slander, claiming obscenities were used against her. For hen public vilification, Baca was found guilty and sentenced to nine months in jail. [8] On the other hand, Pedro Yturveita was charged with wounding Toribio Garcia. He was brought to trial and found guilty. Yturveita was ordered to pay Garcia damages. [9]

The governor dealt with insubordination as in the case of Domingo de Luna. Luna disobeyed the orders of alcalde mayor Francisco Trebol Navarro, refusing to take part in an impending Navajo campaign. The Navajos, stirred up by the Apaches, raided the westernmost pueblos of Zuñi and Acoma. A campaign was organized to protect the two areas. Luna was brought to trial and found guilty. For his insubordination he was fined 100 pesos, and he was jailed for an indefinite term. [10]

Cattle rustling was still a problem, as a case against three men demonstrated. Pablo Francisco de Villalpondo, Joseph Trujillo, and Joseph Yendo were charged with cattle theft at Santa Cruz and were brought to trial jointly. All were found guilty. They were sentenced to an indefinite jail term. [11]

Criminal cases against Indians dropped drastically since the 1740s. There were far fewer cases of murder, assault, and rape. Cases of witchcraft also declined. When a charge against an Indian did come up it was something of a sensation. In 1773 two women from Cochiti were charged with murdering a woman from Tesuque. The murder was brutal and it had a touch of witchcraft to it. The governor, hoping not to upset relations with the natives, decided that the case was too complex for local officials so he sent it to Mexico City. At Mexico City the women were found guilty of both murder and witchcraft. They sentenced to death by fire. [12] The uproar that ensued in New Mexico caused an execution to be delayed for several years while the case was appealed. In 1775 it was sent back to Santa Fe where proceedings dragged on until 1779. Eventually, the women were given long jail sentences. [13]

The legal process in New Mexico was simple. After a person accused someone, witnesses were called. These included character witnesses along with those who had seen the crime. The defendant and the accuser were both questioned and testimony was taken. At this point, trials were still on the local level. A verdict was returned and, if no appeals were made, trial transcripts [along with the sentence] went to Santa Fe where the governor approved or disapproved them. In some cases, local trials ended in Santa Fe due to appeals or because the nature of the crime was such that the governor had to sit as judge.

Normally, the judge was the alcalde and he handed down verdicts. There were no juries, and appeals from the local level went to the governor. Testimony, witnesses, defendant and plaintiff were all brought to the capital. Once the governor passed sentence an appeal could be made. If he refused to hear the case again, the defendant could appeal to Mexico City, where the Audiencia of New Spain sat. Upon the recommendation of local officials, the case would be transferred to the capital where it would be heard. The viceroy was the ultimate judge in most cases. If a defendant lost the viceroy's interest, it was usually the end of the case.

In some rare cases, an appeal went to Spain. Usually these were for treason, on murder of a government official. The bulk of New Mexican justice ended at Santa Fe. There are no records that show an appeal directly from New Mexico to Spain, except for the unusual case of Vargas.

The many civil cases during this period were mostly land cases or dealt with the losses of livestock. Land seemed to be more of a problem than it was in earlier times. In the case of Matheo Joseph Piño of San Clemente vs. Mariano Martin, the basis of suit was a partido contract. A partido was a division of land among several parties who could not or did not wish to purchase a large section of of land. In the Piño case the plaintiff claimed that Martin had failed to fulfill terms regarding the use of land and therefore the contract should be declared invalid. The court found in favor of Piño, and Martin was ordered to pay damages and to fulfill the agreement [14]

Natives were involved in land cases too. In 1771 the Indians of Isleta sued Mariano Beitia for the recovery of land that he trespassed. Beitia claimed that it was legally sold to him, but the Governor found in favor of the Indians. [15] In land cases it was especially true that the pueblos were favored and they invariably won over claims of Spanish settlers. The contrast between this regard for native rights and that of the position of the native in Anglo frontier society is self-evident.

Other civil cases included damage claims and debt recoveries. In the suit of Joseph Sanchez against Diego Antonio Chaves at Albuquerque, Sanchez claimed that he lost property due to livestock wandering onto his land. The court found that Chaves was not at fault but that Sanchez was since his land was poorly fenced. [16]

Debt cases were infrequent. Salbador Garcia, for example, sued Nicolas Serrano in an attempt to recover payments due him for sheep he sold to the defendant. After long testimony, Serrano was found guilty, but not sentenced. He worked out his debt on the installment plan. [17] In another debt case Nicola Antonio de la Sierra sued Joseph Mariano for 478 pesos, 6 reales claiming that payment for services rendered was long overdue. The count found in favor of de la Sienna and Mariano was ordered to pay the amount plus court costs. [18]

By comparison, the civil and criminal problems that faced Mendinueta were tiny when compared to the problem of Indians. He was forced to contend with Spaniards who tried to incite the natives. In 1768 Miguel Tafoya, alias El Coyote, a well-known criminal, was charged with inciting the "Apaches de Navajo," to the west, to commit depredations against the settlements of New Mexico. The trial was held in Albuquerque, and Tafoya was confronted by eight witnesses who claimed they saw and heard him make inflammatory remarks to the Apache at a camp in the Sandia Mountains. The defendant was found guilty and sentenced to five years hand labor. [19]

The threat of Comanches was also constant in New Mexico. Despite all efforts to crush them they continued to raid the northern sector of New Mexico.

In the late 1760s the Comanches penetrated the Sangre de Cristo mountains north of Taos into Colorado where, in conjunction with the Utes, they raided into the San Luis Valley and down the Rio Grande toward Santa Fe. In May, 1768 the government established the Cerro de San Antonio post just north of Ojo Caliente to protect these lands. [20]

Fermin de Mendinueta decided that the new garrison had to be strong enough to drive out the Comanches. He assigned fifty men to the Cerro de San Antonio, where they watched the Rio Grande ford. [21] Despite efforts at containing these raiders, the new post did little good.

However, the governor did not give up. He employed several novel measures to strengthen the Spanish defensive system in New Mexico. One of the first weaknesses he noted was that the Spanish population was spread out along the Rio Grande valley where it was vulnerable to attack. He proposed that all Spanish residents be concentrated in population centers where they could repel invaders. The governor suggested that Spanish settlements should be designed much like the Pueblo Indian villages which were far more defensible than individual ranchos. He also noted that since the early days of the eighteenth century, New Mexico's Spanish population tended to spread out, and that a number of small villages and private ranches were built well away from the protection of a major town.

Such a proposal was in opposition to traditional Spanish settlement. The governor observed that there were ready-made Indian villages available for Spaniards to occupy. However, he insisted that for defensive purposes natives should settle in Spanish towns where they could be taught Spanish ways. The weakness in Fermin de Menindueta's plan was that all three major Spanish towns in upper New Mexico would have to be rebuilt since none of them could withstand sustained attack. Nicolas de Lafona noted that Santa Fe was open to attack and it remained so during the entire Spanish period. If the Spanish would have rebuilt their defensive system on such short notice is questionable. [22]

Governor Fermin de Mendinueta, following an established pattern, also augmented his meager forces by using settlers and Christianized Indians. He ordered that all settlers had to obey his demands for military service no matter when or where they were needed. He also stated that each settler was to appear with a horse, a lance, pike, or other weapon that was adequate. Since every resident of the province was obligated to perform eighteen days' public service, there was no hardship. [23]

Despite the governor's determined efforts at crushing the Comanches, he was unsuccessful. He never had enough soldiers, guns, on horses at any one time to mount a major campaign. The raiders of the plains continued to commit depredations virtually daily against northern New Mexico. Clearly, the governor had to come to some agreement with the Comanches in order to stop them. In response he arranged a treaty with the Comanche in February, 1771 at Taos. By this agreement, the Spanish would refrain from going into Comanche territory if the Indians stopped raiding the Rio Grande valley. Trade concessions were made. The Comanche were allowed to return to the annual Taos fair, from which they were banned in 1761 because of their rowdy behavior. [24] This treaty did not last, since the Comanche continued to raid New Mexico well into the 1780s when their hold finally was broken. Oakah L. Jones states that there was continual warfare throughout the 1770s. Bancroft cites the treaty as ending Comanche-Spanish difficulties. Neither Jones nor the State Archives of New Mexico show any treaty on record. Bancroft only makes a vague statement about it. 1771 did not see an end to hostile actions against New Mexico. Mendinueta continued to battle them for the balance of his term.

In 1772 the Reglamento para presidios went into effect. This was a product of the Marques de Rubi's extensive visit in the 1760s. In general, his recommendations were followed. A line of presidios was established from the Gulf of California into Texas to provide a more thorough defense system.

The new order had little impact on New Mexico since Santa Fe was already a presidio. The defensive needs of the province were more or less being met. Other than establishing a civilian militia at El Paso del Norte and shifting that presidio's force southward to Carrizal, there were no changes in the defensive structure of the province. The Robledo project, designed to put a presidio along the El Paso-Santa Fe route at Robledo was never carried out. Santa Fe neither gained nor lost by the implementation of the Regulations. [25]

It is surprising that Rubi did not consider the New Mexican situation worse than it was. Comanches, Utes, and Apaches surrounding New Mexico caused considerable trouble for Spain. Yet despite this, he made no recommendations. The fact is that Velez Cachupin maintained a careful balance between hostile tribes by trading with them and sometimes forcing them back by military expeditions. When Rubi visited, a shakey truce was in effect. Velez must have presented a picture of tranquility to the Marques, since Rubi made no mention of Indian difficulties north of Santa Fe.

But Mendinueta ruined his delicate balance with his persistent campaigns against the Indians. He placed New Mexico in greater peril than she had known since the days of Vargas. By the time the Reglamento of 1772 was published there was constant warfare on the northern edge of New Mexico. It was not until after the northernmost provinces of New Spain were reorganized in 1776 that a new and comprehensive policy of Indian control was developed. The Regulations of 1772 had no effect on New Mexico other than to irritate the Apache by establishing a presidio at Carrizal, causing them to move back into the Rio Grande valley where they committed more depredations.

Governor Mendinueta's other duties included normal communications with Mexico City. Among the many notices that came north were orders about the arrival of the trade fleet in Vera Cruz during 1769, decrees establishing new rules for the Catholic Church in Spain, notification that the Royal Squadron (Navy) had arrived at Vera Cruz to help protect the coastline, and numerous other official communications from Spain. [26] Prior to this time, notices that came from Mexico City dealt with New Mexican affairs and anything that was not of interest to the governor of that province was not sent. The change of policy occurred after 1763, with the new bureaucracy in New Spain.

The rapid extension of New Spain after 1763, with the exception of Louisiana, was indicated by better organization at Mexico City. No longer was New Mexico the main stronghold of the north; on the contrary, the newly added regions like California and Arizona tended to detract from New Mexico's position of supremacy in the northern lands of New Spain.

Fermin de Mendinueta kept busy answering Mexico City. He was requested to submit regular military status reports containing the number of soldiers at each garrison, a list of the commanders, the extent of military actions, and the status of the military in New Mexico in general. The governor submitted these reports annually (and sometimes semi-annually). [27] In addition to the military reports, the governor was requested to send in his personal records for review, which he did. [28]

The governor was also in touch with the Bishop of Durango who was interested in the status of the Church in New Mexico. In 1774 and 1775, the Bishop wrote Fermin de Mendinueta to discuss ecclesiastical matters, particularly the effectiveness of the missions and the cost of maintaining them. This was precipitated in 1774 when Viceroy Antonio Maria de Bucareli wrote to the Fermin telling him that the missions stipends would be reduced by royal order. The viceroy wanted to know what he thought would happen to the missions of New Mexico if this happened. [29] Several months later the Bishop of Durango wrote the governor inquiring about the recommendations to cut stipends in New Mexico. He also asked if the missions would be hurt by the proposed budget cuts. Other matters of religion that were discussed included the Inquisition and the numbers of churchgoers in Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Santa Cruz. But the bishop seemed most interested in the missions. [30]

Due to faulty records, it is hard to determine the extent of the cutbacks. The Crown probably did cut the mission stipend, but not enough to damage the system. In 1775 the Bishop wrote Fermin de Mendinueta about a matter that concerned him since the issuance of a cedula in 1768 revising the code for church sanctuary for criminals. The government determined that churches were used too frequently. To reduce these abuses, the Crown ordered that the practice of sanctuary was to be limited. The King stated if this order was ignored, the privilege would be revoked entirely. [31] The Church, having this night for hundreds of years, was considerably upset by the orders and circulated letters asking all Bishops what the effect of the cedula was on local officials.

When the Bishop of Durango wrote to the governor of New Mexico, he inquired about the order of 1768, whether it was being enforced, and how it might affect the status of the Church in New Mexico. The bishop also pondered the question of Church sovereignty. [32]

In a draft letter, Fermin replied that asylum might be abused and that in some cases the friars of New Mexico gave sanctuary to known criminals, letting them escape justice. The governor had to admit that in some of these cases there was a fine line between Church and State control but he noted that it was his duty to obey the Crown even if it was to the detriment of the Church's status and power. [33]

Official communications from Mexico City sometimes were ridiculous, as in the case of a notice to Fermin de Mendinueta that pelicans were a menace to fishing areas along the coastline and therefore measures to eradicate them should be taken. Imagine the mirth in Santa Fe since the nearest pelican was hundreds of miles away. [34]

New Mexico muddled along under a system of government imposed in the days of the Vargas reconquest. But those times were numbered. [35] In 1776 a major reorganization took place and it had a major effect on the province. From the time that Jose de Galvez arrived in New Spain as visitador-general, he considered the northern provinces serious trouble spots within the empire. Galvez went back to Spain in 1771 where he held the powerful position of Minister-General of the Indies. New Spain was continually on his mind and he considered the many ways in which the northern provinces could be reconstructed to provide more efficient government.

After a number of years of study and debate, the royal council recommended to the Crown that sweeping reorganization be undertaken to insure the safety of northern New Spain. In May 1776 the King gave the order that changes suggested by Galvez be implemented and that the northern provinces be removed from the direct jurisdiction of the viceroy of New Spain. They would be made into a separate administrative district under a Commandant-General who would have quasi-viceregal authority. This new administrative unit was called the Provincias Internas of which there would be two major sections: the eastern provinces (Texas and Nueva Leon), and the western provinces (New Mexico and Arizona). To fulfill the job of Commandant-General, King Charles III named Teodoro de Croix. [36]

Croix had previous experience in New Spain and was well-suited to his duties. During the year 1777 he spent time familiarizing himself with the frontier. A continual stream of letters went to Galvez with suggestions and recommendations as to the functions of the Provincias Internas. Croix later visited the major sectors of the Provincias, discussing various problems of defense with the governors. He also planned for an extensive campaign to wipe out the continuing threat of the Apaches and the Comanches. However, this was not to come about until the 1780s.

New Mexico was affected by changes in governmental structure only to the point that as of 1776 the governor was no longer responsible to the viceroy. He lost his status as governor, becoming only a military official. He reported to Croix. A radical increase in correspondence between Santa Fe and Chihuahua occurred. The fact that a Commandant-General was so much closer to New Mexico meant that there was a lot more interest in the province.

The reorganization of 1776 could be looked upon as being both beneficial and detrimental to New Mexico. On one hand, New Mexico benefited by having more direct contact with the Commandant-General who could solve problems more quickly. On the other, New Mexicans were long used to ignoring orders not considered relevant to the situation. With the Provincias Internas there was more direct control exerted on New Mexico and orders could not be circumvented. The year 1776 marked the end of the era that could be called a true "frontier society." From that time on, New Mexico became more and more integrated into New Spain. While the province's identity was never fully lost, New Mexicans did not regain the unique status they enjoyed prior to 1776.


1 Bancroft, Arizona and New Mexico, p. 259.

2 Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta, order for harsh treatment of law-breakers, November 9, 1767, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

3 Criminal proceedings against Juan Manuel Padilla, November 22-December 5, 1767, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

4 Fermin de Mendinueta to Francisco Trebol Navarro, January 2, 1768, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

5 Fermin de Mendinueta to Phelipe Tafoya, January 5, 1768 at Santa Fe, in SANM.

6 Petition of residents of Albuquerque, January 28-February 15, 1768, at Albuquerque, in SANM.

7 Proceedings against Manuel and Pedro Moya for robbery, October 5-December 24, 1767, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

8 Proceedings in case against Mariano Baca for slander, March 21, 1767-January 5, 1768, at Albuquerque, in SANM.

9 Proceedings against Pedro Yturveita for assault, April 25-May 22, 1767, at Santa Fe,in SANM.

10 Proceedings against Domingo de Luna for disobedience, July 24-August 31, 1768, at Albuquerque, in SANM.

11 Proceedings against Pablo Francisco Villalpondo, Joseph Trujillo, and Joseph Yendo, January 23-April 11, 1769, at Santa Cruz, in SANM.

12 Proceedings in case against two Cochiti women for murder, April 22, 1773-October 14, 1775 at Santa Fe and Mexico City, in SANM.

13 Appeal proceedings in case of two Cochiti women charged with murder, October 14, 1775-February 26, 1779, at Santa Fe and Mexico City, in SANM.

14 Matheo Joseph Piño vs. Mariano Martin, April 25-May 25, 1767, at San Clemente, in SANM.

15 Isleta Indians vs. Mariano Beitia, July 4-November 2, 1771, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

16 Joseph Sanchez vs. Diego Antonio Chaves, July 18-27, 1767, at Albuquerque, in SANM.

17 Salbador Garcia vs. Nicolas Serrano, July 8, 1767-March 14, 1768, at Albuquerque, in SANM.

18 Nicolas Antonio de la Sierra vs. Joseph Mariano, August 1, 1767-November 22, 1768, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

19 Proceedings against Miguel Tafoya for inciting the Apaches, June 21-October 6, 1768, at Albuquerque, in SANM.

20 Jones, Pueblo Warriors and Spanish Conquest, p. 139.

21 Alfred B. Thomas, The Plains Indiaris and New Mexico, 1751-1778, Ed. George P. Hammond (Albuquerque, 1940), XI, Coronado Cuarto Centennial Publications, 39. Also see: Jones, Pueblo Warriors arid Spanish Conquest, pp. 139-144.

22 Lawrence Kinnaird, The Frontiers of New Spain, p. 91.

23 Fermin de Mendinueta, Order for local militia rules, November 16-17, 1771, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

24 See: Bancroft, Arizona and New Mexico, p. 259, n.14, MS in Pinart Collection (original found in Pinart Collection, Bancroft Library, Berkeley); see also: Jones, Pueblo Warriors and Spanish Conquest, pp. 146-147.

25 See: Bancroft, Arizona and New Mexico, p. 259 and Bannon, Spanish Borderlands Frontier, p. 176. An excellent translation of the Regulations of 1772 is contained in: Brinckerhoff and Faulk, Lancers for the King.

26 Marques de Croix to Fermin de Mendinueta, regarding arrival of fleet, December 23, 1769; Croix to governor regarding religious matters, June 6, 1769; Croix to governor regarding arrival of Royal Squadron, March 31, 1769; and Croix to governor regarding sanctuary in churches, cedula real of July 29, 1768, April 24, 1769, at Mexico City and Madrid, in SANM.

27 Marques de Croix, acknowledging receipt of military records, March 25, 1769; March 30, 1771, June 3, 1772, April 14, 1773 and October 11, 1775, at Santa Fe and Mexico City, in SANM.

28 Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta to Marques de Croix, submitting personal service records, August 18, 1770, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

29 Antonio Maria de Bucareli to governor, transmittal of cedula real concerning mission stipends, June 8, 1774, at Mexico City, in SANM.

30 Bishop of Durango to governor, regarding religious matters, August 18, 1774, at Durango, in SANM.

31 Marques de Croix to governor, transmittal of cedula of July 29, 1768, relative to church sanctuary, Madrid, and Mexico City, April 24, 1769, in SANM.

32 Bishop of Durango to governor, regarding religious matters and church asylum, March 10, 1775, at Durango, in SANM.

33 Fermin de Mendinueta to Bishop of Durango, draft of letter regarding church asylum, May 4, 1775, at Santa Fe, in SANM.

34 Antonio Maria de Bucareli, order regarding pelican eradication, May 22, 1775, at Mexico City, in SANM.

35 See: Marc Simmons, Spanish Government in New Mexico.

36 The most complete description of Croix's actions in the northern frontier is contained in Alfred B. Thomas, Teodoro de Croix and the Northern Frontier of New Spain, 1775-1783. (Norman, 1941).

Pedro Fermin de Mendinueta

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008