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Not by Might

September 13, 2008, 1:38 pm

[Teo has been running with wolves and stuff. But he's still kind enough to check in and drop some Southwestern flavah on us. This post either is or soon will be cross-posted at one of Teo's two excellent blogs: here or here.]

On this day in 1692, Don Diego de Vargas Zapata Luján Ponce de León, the governor of the Spanish colony of New Mexico, arrived at the town of Santa Fe, formerly the capital of the province but held since 1680 by the coalition of Pueblo Indians who revolted against the Spanish in that year and managed to drive them out of the area entirely. Vargas, an ambitious royal administrator and member of a distinguished family in Madrid, had only recently been appointed governor, but he had spent almost all of his short term so far planning obsessively for the reconquest of his nominal province, limited for practical purposes to the area immediately around the fortress town of El Paso on the Rio Grande. He was impelled by both his loyalty to the crown and outrage at the audacity of the Indians in betraying it and, perhaps more importantly, his deep piety and desire to reclaim the Indians not just for the king, but for his beloved Catholic faith as well. After much bureaucratic wrangling, and despite the misgivings of some of the veteran soldiers on the frontier consulted by the viceroy in evaluating the reconquest plans (many of which turned out to be quite prescient), Vargas had succeeded in getting approval for his expedition, which left El Paso on August 16.

On the way to Santa Fe the expedition stopped to camp at several abandoned haciendas and Pueblos ravaged by the revolt and the resulting warfare. When it reached the area of Pueblos that were still occupied, they showed signs of being suddenly deserted, presumably in response to news that the Spaniards had returned to wreak vengeance. This was not an irrational response, since there had already been a few attempts at reconquest by previous governors since 1680, none of which had come close to retaking the province but some of which had managed to sack and destroy certain individual Pueblos, particularly Zia and Santa Ana. The Pueblos Vargas passed on his way up the Rio Grande, Cochiti and Santo Domingo, are near Zia and Santa Ana, and have many cultural and linguistic ties to those places as well, so the memory of the destruction brought by Spanish expeditions would have been particularly fresh and meaningful to the people there.

Vargas was disappointed at finding Cochiti and Santo Domingo abandoned. He had prepared for exciting dawn raids at both which might give him some quick military glory, and would at the very least leave him in a strong position for an extended siege, but in fact he was more troubled by the fear the people had of him. The fact was that he didn’t actually want to conquer the province militarily. His strong piety left him with a deep concern for the souls of the Indians, who he felt had been tempted to rebellion and apostasy by the Devil, and more than anything else he wanted them to come back to the Church peacefully and of their own free will. He was willing to impose Christianity by force, of course, but he went to great lengths to avoid having to resort to actual violence (as opposed to threats of violence, which he was quite happy to use).

Having seen the abandonment of Cochiti and Santo Domingo, Vargas was concerned that all of the Pueblos would just hide from him rather than either fighting or surrendering. When he got to Santa Fe, however, in the predawn hours of September 13, he found a great fortress built in the middle of the plaza and a whole lot of people standing on its ramparts. This was his chance to use his distinctive style to reconquer a whole province for church and crown without shedding a drop of blood.

A dialogue between the Spanish and the people of Santa Fe soon began, facilitated by interpreters and conducted initially in Tewa, the local language. The people were at first reluctant to believe that the newcomers were Spanish at all, and they challenged Vargas to prove it by firing a gun. When he refused and told them to just wait until sunrise, when they would see the image of the Virgin Mary on his standard, they continued to heckle him, telling him to prove his identity by sounding a bugle. This he would do, and he ordered both bugle and drum to be sounded, which finally convinced the people.

Once the invaders’ identity was thus established, an elaborate process of negotiation commenced which continued for most of the day. Vargas would occasionally bluster and shout threats to destroy the whole fortress if the people wouldn’t submit, but for the most part he tried to use his persuasive skills to convince them of his good intentions and get them to voluntarily submit and accept Christianity. Over the course of the day more and more reinforcements began to arrive for the Indians, coming from all the local Pueblos (who had been informed of the Spanish arrival at a dance at Santa Clara Pueblo). Vargas used his small number of soldiers to effectively keep these newcomers from getting into the fortress, but he was clearly massively outnumbered. One of the newly arrived Indians was a local chief named Domingo, whom Vargas talked to at length and found quite willing to accept Spanish suzerainty and try to persuade the people of Santa Fe to do likewise. Vargas overestimated Domingo’s authority, however, and this gambit proved unsuccessful, as were all his other pleas and threats throughout the morning and early afternoon.

In the late afternoon, however, Vargas’s relentless pressure both rhetorical and military finally broke the resistance of the people of Santa Fe, and they came out of the fortress to submit. Vargas shook their hands and embraced them, overjoyed that his quiet methods had proved so successful (though still a bit wary of whether he could really trust his new friends).

As this episode shows, Vargas was not a typical conquistador. He was, in fact, an urban sophisticate cast into this unlikely role through his intense loyalty to both his king and his religion. His peaceful reconquest ended up being far more successful than even he had hoped, and he continued in his role of governor afterward. To be fair, there was a subsequent revolt in 1696, which was put down fairly brutally, but part of the reason for its failure was that there wasn’t the same widespread resentment of the Spanish presence in New Mexico that there had been in 1680, and Vargas’s strategy of peaceful persuasion played at least some role in that.

Vargas continued to govern New Mexico off and on, subject to the vicissitudes of internal and external politics which left him in jail for a period, until he died in 1704 in Bernalillo of wounds suffered in a battle against Apaches in the Sandia Mountains. He was an example of the right man being in the right place at the right time, and given his predecessors’ failures, it is unlikely that New Mexico could have been reconquered without him. Whether his success was ultimately a good thing or not is, of course, a potential area for debate, but he was certainly successful in what he set out to do.

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