Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History
© 2013 John Kessell
In the early 1500s, the Spanish triumphed over the Aztecs and established a new Spain — an empire forged out of the new world. The equatorial tropics were only the beginning for Spain, however, as far above them loomed the entire continent of North America, full of possibility. The Spanish were lured north with simple and expressed motives: there was oro in them thar hills. They were teased with stories of great cities to the north, rivaling even the splendor of now-perished Tenochtitlan. Their explorations would take them as deep into the interior as Kansas, and create a new province for colonial Spain: “New Mexico”. The Spanish in the American Southwest is a history of the Spanish empire in the present-day states of New Mexico, Texas, Arizona and California, one which aims to tell the story of cultures in collision — or collusion, as the Spanish often relied on alliances with locals, using chronic warfare between populations to make friends. The province of New Mexico was named such in the hopes that it would prove as abundantly wealthy as Mexico, but easy loot wasn’t to be found. Angry natives were, though, and in abundance — constantly resisting the dons and once driving them out of the region entirely. Still, the ‘new Mexico’ would remain a Spanish possession, maintained at great expense for the benefit of seemingly no one but the Church, until Napoleon invaded Spain and provided the opportunity for the New World to declare independence from the old.
As this is billed as a narrative history, what are some of the interesting threads? Accounts of exploration always have an aura of fascination about them, although the Spanish were more disappointed with the constant lack of golden cities than mesmerized by the landscape. In this history we see the Spanish grow from explorers to conquerors, and then — as the generations pass — men who belong more to New Mexico than they do Spain. They struggle constantly with the neighbors, whose kin they have effectively enslaved and alienated from the local gods — and later on, the Spanish have to double down on the unproductive province because of other European powers. France is especially aggressive in Louisiana and Texas, and the Anglo-Americans keep eying the west with a certain avaricious glint. The main reason Spain held on to the Southwest prior to strategy becoming a factor, however, was religion, as the religious orders (Jesuits and Franciscans) assured the Crown that they had baptized many souls, people who will be killed by their neighbors should Spain leave. Speaking of the friars, don’t think of them as gentle souls living lives of poverty and service to their fellow man. The friars in the southwest were potentates, who relied on the forced labor of the locals and who threatened even the Spanish military and civil powers in terms of authority. One early friar — addled by the desert sun and encouraged by his distance from Italy — claimed to have the full authority of the Pope in the New World, and another effectively ousted the first governor of New Mexico proper when he (Peralta, the Santa Fe avenue’s namesake) challenged the cleric’s rule.
More will follow on the Southwest this year, including a travel account based on Coronado’s first foray into the region, a history of the region between Mexican independence and the American invasion; and a modern history of the state of New Mexico itself.
The Spanish Frontier in North America, David Weber
West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, Claudio Sant. Covers the Russo-Spanish contest in California
Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather.