Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California

Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California

by John L. Kessell

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John L. Kessell’s Spain in the Southwest presents a fast-paced, abundantly illustrated history of the Spanish colonies that became the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. With an eye for human interest, Kessell tells the story of New Spain’s vast frontier--today’s American Southwest and Mexican North--which for two


John L. Kessell’s Spain in the Southwest presents a fast-paced, abundantly illustrated history of the Spanish colonies that became the states of New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. With an eye for human interest, Kessell tells the story of New Spain’s vast frontier--today’s American Southwest and Mexican North--which for two centuries served as a dynamic yet disjoined periphery of the Spanish empire.

Chronicling the period of Hispanic activity from the time of Columbus to Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821, Kessell traces the three great swells of Hispanic exploration, encounter, and influence that rolled north from Mexico across the coasts and high deserts of the western borderlands. Throughout this sprawling historical landscape, Kessell treats grand themes through the lives of individuals. He explains the frequent cultural clashes and accommodations in remarkably balanced terms. Stereotypes, the author writes, are of no help. Indians could be arrogant and brutal, Spaniards caring, and vice versa. If we select the facts to fit preconceived notions, we can make the story come out the way we want, but if the peoples of the colonial Southwest are seen as they really were--more alike than diverse, sharing similar inconstant natures--then we need have no favorites.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
It's hard to beat the early history of the American Southwest for its varied, colorful and historically important cast of characters. Soon after 1492, Spanish grandees, roughneck explorers, church friars, military troops, Anglo-American settlers, even African-Americans joined the native inhabitants who already peopled this land to create a new society. Kessell (professor emeritus at the University of New Mexico and author of Mission of Sorrows) chronicles their acts and relationships in a solid narrative that ends well into the national history of the U.S. when these Mexican borderlands became American territory. Covering 350 years of history is not easy, and Kessell brings the job off about as well as can be expected. He doesn't get us far into the heads of his historical figures or inside their societies and cultures, perhaps because there's so much to cover. But the result is a book that effectively draws together recent scholarship and tells in clear prose the required tale even if without grand themes or memorable vignettes. Kessell reminds us that what is now the U.S. was invaded from Mexico at about the same time as it was from the east by new peoples and that its history cannot be read simply as a tale of migration westward from the Atlantic. In an era of multiculturalism, therefore, this synthesis of the founding history of a large part of the nation not usually considered a seedbed of American culture is surely welcome. For a single narrative of its broad subject, the book serves as a useful and pleasing introduction, brought alive by many well-chosen illustrations. (May) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.

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Spain in the Southwest

A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California

By John L. Kessell


Copyright © 2002 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8944-4


Sons of the Sun

Among all these peoples, it was held for very certain that we came from the sky, because about all the things that they do not understand or have information regarding their origins, they say that such phenomena come from the sky.

—As Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, 1542

By the same Indian, he [the cacique] answered him saying that with respect to what he [the governor] said about being the son of the sun, let him dry up the great river [the Mississippi] and he would believe him.

—Cacique Quigaltam's response to Hernando de Soto, 1542

Shorn of every outward sign of his Spanish superiority, unkempt castaway Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca begged to survive. His dreams of fame and domination had collapsed. As he quested for food, water, and shelter, enough to stay alive, scales fell from the former conquistador's eyes. These Native peoples who abused, befriended, or stood in awe of him were not so different from himself. They shared the same emotions: fear, grief, joy. They, too, could be caring and tender, prankish, or falsehearted and hateful.

Cabeza de Vaca saw analogies between Native societies and his own on every side. He performed tasks for them that he would never have done as a nobleman at home. These people, like Europeans, wanted others to do the work. They had allies and enemies among neighboring nations, carried on seasonal activities, commerce, diplomacy, and warfare.

It interested don Alvar that some of the Natives conveyed their belief that he and his companions had come down from the sky. To most Spaniards, their arsenals and egos intact, the image was clear. These barbarous peoples, momentarily enlightened by God, were acknowledging the heavenly or divine mission of Christians to convert and uplift them. To Cabeza de Vaca, however, the Natives' expression signaled no such submission. He knew them better. Things beyond their ken simply fell from the sky.

All the confident, early-sixteenth-century enterprises of Florida began badly and ended worse. Waves from the eruptive Spanish conquest of the Greater Antilles, they washed up on the peninsula every few years for a generation.

According to the record, robust, red-bearded don Juan Ponce de León, a venturesome knight who never underwent an ordeal like Cabeza de Vaca's, came first. Honoring the season, Ponce de León bestowed on what he mistook for a big island the Spanish adjective for the feast of Easter, la Pascua Florida. By Christian reckoning, it was the Saturday after Easter, April 2, 1513. Next day, he landed.

No individual better personified the nature and continuity of Spanish expansion at the end of fifteenth century and beginning of the sixteenth than Juan Ponce de León. Illegitimate son of a powerful Andalusian noble, he was born, nevertheless, in the north, in the province of Valladolid, heartland of spare, intolerant Old Castile, in 1474. Apprenticed as page to a great lord while still in his teens, don Juan plunged into the exhilarating final stage of the Reconquista, the Catholic reconquest of Spain from the Moors.

Directing their artillery, soldiery, and propaganda against the Muslims' last Iberian kingdom in the mountains of Granada, Their Catholic Majesties Isabel and Fernando prevailed as never before. They caught their people up in a popular war that intensified Spaniards' militant Christianity and honed their fighting skills.

Instead of the Reconquista of reality, which had been on again, off again since the eighth century as Christians, Jews, and Muslims not only tolerated each other but also caroused, Spaniards of the 1480s embraced with fervor the myth of an unbroken, triumphal Christian crusade. It electrified their spirits. Then came 1492.

Never in Spain was there such a year. Early in January, Granada surrendered. In March, by royal decree, practicing Jews were given four months to convert to Christianity or leave the country; 150,000 would go. In April, after considerable third-party brokering, Columbus—Cristóbal Colón, Genoese navigator and mystic—signed contracts with Isabel and Fernando enabling him to pursue his "enterprise of the Indies." Also that year, a Spaniard, Rodrigo Borgia, was elected pope, and Antonio de Nebrija compiled a grammar of Castilian, proclaiming it a language of empire.

On August 3, Columbus sailed westward with three small ships and crews toward the riches of the Orient. At 2:00 A.M. on October 12, after a harrowing but speedy voyage, lookout Rodrigo de Triana sighted an island in the Caribbean. From the Alhambra of Granada to San Salvador, hardly a break had occurred. No mere coincidence to Spaniards, the miracle of 1492 was divine providence.

On his second voyage, in 1493, with seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred males, including young Juan Ponce de León, Columbus inadvertently exported the Reconquista to the Western Hemisphere. The Genoese had his own commercial and spiritual agenda. When he faltered, however, his royal patrons imposed their own familiar program: acquisition of more riches and territory for Castile and the conversion to Roman Catholicism of subjected peoples.

Crews and passengers aboard Columbus's fleet in 1493 marveled at the dreamlike string of green mountaintops rising out of placid waters. Shore parties cautiously examining deserted Carib huts shuddered at what seemed to be unmistakable signs of cannibalism.

After an unintended fight with six reckless Caribs in a canoe, Columbus gave a naked young woman as a slave to his friend Michele de Cuneo, who had captured her. When Cuneo tried to force himself upon her in his cabin, she clawed him and then shrieked while he beat her with a rope. "Finally," he recalled, "we came to an agreement in such manner that I can tell you that she seemed to have been brought up in a school of harlots."

Coasting a big, mountainous island that Columbus named San Juan Bautista, today's Puerto Rico, the company put into a bay where sweet-water streams allowed them to refill the ships' water casks. The Natives of a large village all disappeared into the jungle. These were Tainos, edgy because painted Carib war parties had been preying upon them. If Juan Ponce de León fancied this island at first sight, he did not say; fifteen years later, however, he would conquer it. By then, some Tainos would welcome the Spaniards.

The word Europeans heard as Taino meant "good" or "noble" and distinguished these people from the "bad" Caribs. Far the most populous cultural group in the Caribbean, the sedentary, Arawak-speaking Tainos of the Greater Antilles, hundreds of thousands—some said millions—in 1493, lived in chiefdoms of large villages. Their thatched-roof and pole houses clustered around plazas or ball courts. They cultivated mainly manioc, or cassava, and also maize, beans, and peanuts. Skillful hunting and gathering on sea and land provided abundant protein.

Of the Tainos' elaborate ceremonial life, Spaniards seemed most amused or appalled by their veneration of zemis, small cotton, wood, or stone images representing spirits. Their easily recognizable hereditary chiefs, or caciques, to whom Columbus and his people gave names, wielded centralized authority over definable regions, traded surpluses, and dealt in war and peace with neighboring chiefdoms.

Horror ran through the expeditionary force when the ships reached Española. Of La Navidad, the seaside camp where Columbus had left thirty-nine men on his first voyage, there remained only charred ruins and mutilated bodies with their eyes plucked out. These rapacious Spaniards' demands for gold and women, and their quarreling among themselves, had cost them their lives. The Tainos of Cacique Caonabó had retaliated. With heavy heart, Columbus directed the fleet eastward along the coast against wind and current in search of a more propitious site for Spain's first New World city.

Not far from present-day Puerto Plata on the north coast of the Dominican Republic, the admiral, viceroy, and captain general contented himself on January 2, 1494, with a "well-situated rock" that looked out on a handsome, open bay and a river. To the rear, a pass led through the mountains to the interior. There, surely, fortunes were to be had by setting Native Tainos to placer mine streams for gold.

It proved not so easy. Many of the men staggered off the ships sick. More fell ill almost at once, of an unhealthy climate, said the expedition's physician, but more specifically of intestinal parasites, venereal diseases, and other infectious maladies. Yet the resolute Columbus pressed on, laying out La Isabela, his trading post colony, named in honor of the queen. Across the bay, his people built a beehive-shaped kiln for making bricks, tiles, and pottery.

The ideal that construction in the Spanish Indies be orderly, lasting, and defensible was the crown's intent. Suddenly, the discovery had presented to the Renaissance mind a tabula rasa for neatly designed, grid-plan communities and societies free of medieval clutter. La Isabela, however, unique among European New World communities, perpetuated familiar medievalism. None of its principal buildings shared the same orientation: Columbus's 18-by-48-foot house, built of cut coral stone, packed earth plastered with lime, and red Mediterranean-style roof tiles and doubling as an arsenal; the first European church in the Western Hemisphere, a simple rectangle with adjoining bell tower; and a 113-foot-long storehouse, its heavy tile roof held up by eighteen interior stone pillars. Obviously, Columbus meant La Isabela to last.

A majority of Spaniards who came to stay in 1493–94 were from the south of Spain, and their material baggage, such as the Andalusian scratch plow, later became standard in the New World. The enormous variety of artifacts in concurrent use in different regions of the Iberian Peninsula, in fact, underwent notable simplification as conquest culture crossed the Atlantic. Once an effective form of plow or cart or fishing gear had reached the Indies, there was simply no good reason to introduce other kinds not clearly superior.

The invaders, whether plant and animal husbandmen, traders, priests and professional men, or warriors, were mainly town and city dwellers. Their houses in Spain were intended mostly for extended family units, regardless of building materials, and as a rule were never as big or elaborate as their temples and council chambers.

The domesticated animals they brought, especially spirited Andalusian barb horses and snarling greyhound and mastiff attack dogs, astonished the Tainos. Cows, pigs, goats, and chickens also came ashore and multiplied. When allowed access, Natives took readily to this tamed and assorted meat supply, as they did to material items like candles or scissors that proved more efficient than their own. But they soon learned that the new technology came at the price of their freedom, even their lives. These strangers had plainly come to conquer.

"When our small village was constructed," wrote Columbus's friend Cuneo, "the inhabitants of the island from one to two leagues around came to see us in a brotherly manner, saying that we were men of God that came from the sky." Right away, the islanders learned that what most interested the men from the sky was gold from the earth.

Late in January 1494, Taino guides led two parties of Spaniards inland and they returned to La Isabela with grains and nuggets worth an estimated thirty thousand ducats. Columbus rejoiced. Forthwith, he dispatched this treasure to the crown, along with twenty-six West Indian slaves. Several hundred of the first European immigrants, disillusioned by toil and sickness, leapt at the chance to return to Spain in the dozen ships the admiral sent. Thus began an ebb and flow to and from the Indies, which depended on the news, good or bad.

Among the two hundred unsalaried, volunteer hidalgos and caballeros, those nobles and gentlemen who paid their own way in 1493, more than a few bitterly resented the Genoese foreigner Columbus. He treated them no better than common laborers, employees of his trading or factory system, a demeaning affront to the conquest-and-spoils mentality of the Reconquista.

Dealing swiftly with the first of their revolts against his authority, Columbus ordered the expedition's chief accountant confined and several alleged conspirators hanged. Of all this, Juan Ponce de León evidently stayed clear.

While fainter immigrants died or sought to return home, others adapted. They ate hard yuca bread made from the cassava's fleshy roots, fathered mestizo babies, and exploited the island's human and ecological resources. From stockades set up in the interior, they fought Taino resisters, branding and enslaving those taken as prisoners of war. And they sided with or against Columbus.

Gold finds southwest of La Isabela led to pit mining and the settlement of Santo Domingo on the south coast. When the amounts of gold bartered by the Indians dwindled, Columbus imposed a system of tribute. Finally, rumors of alleged misrule and a shipment to Spain of more than five hundred Indian slaves, which incensed the queen, resulted in the admiral's recall in 1500. But by that year, La Isabela, victim of dissension among colonists, disease, hurricane, and fire, had succumbed. The survivors had moved elsewhere.

Charming to his own kind and confident, don Juan Ponce de León got on well with people. He ingratiated himself soon enough with King Fernando's choice to replace Columbus as governor of Española, the incorruptible don Nicolás de Ovando, knight of the military order of Alcántara.

Ovando arrived in 1502 with twenty-nine ships and twenty-five hundred people, including officials of the first royal treasury office in the Indies and thirteen Franciscan friars. The ferocious July hurricane that sank or scattered the return fleet also leveled Santo Domingo, which was soon rebuilt on the west bank of the Ozama. From there, don Nicolás ruled.

First, he had to put down the uprising of Tainos under Cacique Cotubanamá in the food-producing eastern province of Higüey. In this vicious war, as usual pitting Taino allies of the Spaniards against other Tainos, Ponce de León campaigned as a captain. After the fighting, don Juan founded the new town of Salvaleón de Higüey where he directed construction of a hurricane-resistant stone house for himself. Although Ovando appointed him lieutenant governor of the area, Ponce de León did not get rich overnight, but he began building a base there. His Taino tributaries grew cassava, so he invested in a ship and supplied food to Santo Domingo. He also wooed Leonor, a young Spanish woman of humble background employed at a nearby inn, married her, and began fathering a legitimate family.

A planter and neighbor of Ponce de León's, hardly distinguishable from other ordinary Spaniards who had crowded Ovando's fleet, would achieve even greater fame, partly at don Juan's expense. Bartolomé de las Casas of Sevilla, whose father and uncle preceded him on Columbus's second voyage, at first resented the cry being raised by Dominican friars. How, these churchmen implored, could Christians in clear conscience enslave the Native peoples of the islands with such wanton brutality?

The question eventually penetrated Las Casas's consciousness. In time, he himself entered the Dominican order and was ordained a priest. Not, however, until he witnessed the cruel conquest of Cuba did he speak out. From then on, as the most zealous protector of Native Americans and critic of Spanish atrocities, fray Bartolomé de las Casas repeatedly stung the conscience of the crown. According to him, Juan Ponce de León, because of his barbaric mistreatment of Indians, deserved to burn in hell. But not everyone agreed.

The rugged island of San Juan Bautista lay only eighty miles due east of Ponce de León's headquarters at Salvaleón on the Yuma River in extreme eastern Española. Don Juan may have traded with caciques on San Juan and even attempted a settlement in 1506. He knew there was gold on the island.

Negotiating a contract with Governor Ovando in the summer of 1508, and supplying the venture from Salvaleón, Ponce de León crossed over aboard his brigantine with some fifty followers, including a free black man, Juan Garrido. He picked up Cacique Agueybana as an emissary on the south coast, then sailed around to the north where he expected to find gold. He did, but not at first in impressive quantities. Still, don Juan went back to Española the following year to strike a more profitable bargain with Ovando and to bring over his family.

Again, he looked toward permanence. At his initial small settlement, which Ovando had ordered him to name Caparra, Ponce de León had another stone residence and arsenal erected. His closely controlled, allegedly nonviolent occupation of Puerto Rico might have succeeded but for politics.


Excerpted from Spain in the Southwest by John L. Kessell. Copyright © 2002 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

John L. Kessell is author of several books on the colonial Southwest, including Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico and Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California.

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