"Fray Alonso de Benavides Reports New Mexico
Indians Eager for Conversion"
Reprinted in Major Problems in American Colonial History
Published in 1993
Edited by Karen Ordahl Kupperman
"...here, where scarcely thirty years earlier all was idolatry and worship of the devil, without any vestige of civilization, today they all worship our true God and Lord."
Italian explorer Christopher Columbus paved the way for the European conquest of North America after his 1492 journey to the Bahamas. During the early 1500s the Spanish established settlements on other Caribbean islands—present-day Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba—that had been visited by Columbus. While Columbus's wild promises of huge deposits of gold and other riches failed to materialize, the Spanish still managed to make comfortable profits from tobacco, sugar, and ranching in the Caribbean. Soon they moved onto the mainland of South America and set up trading posts in Venezuela and Colombia. Then in 1519 Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) led an expedition into Mexico in Central America, brutally conquering the Aztec empire headed by Emperor Montezuma II (1466–1520). In Mexico the Spaniards found advanced civilizations that had perfected sophisticated architectural and agricultural techniques. They also discovered an abundance of gold and silver, which enticed other Spanish conquistadors (conquerors) to prepare expeditions to the continent. When Francisco de Pizarro (c.1475–1541) invaded Peru (a country in South America) and conquered the Incas in 1531, Spain became a major world power.
During the 1530s Spanish explorers crossed the Rio Grande into southwestern North America in search of the fabulously wealthy "Seven Cities of Cibola." In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (c.1510–1554), the governor of New Galicia (a Spanish province northwest of present-day Mexico City), headed a large expedition that had been organized to find the golden cities and claim their treasures for Spain. During a two-year quest for riches Coronado explored the Rio Grande valley and parts of present-day Texas and Kansas. Finally he realized that he had been misled: The "Seven Cities" were in fact the apartment-like villages of the Pueblos (several interrelated Southwest Native American tribes)—and they contained neither gold nor silver. Although Coronado returned to Mexico empty-handed, he paved the way for Spanish settlement of the Southwest. It is for this reason that many historians regard him as one of the great European explorers.
While the conquistadors were colonizing Peru, Mexico, and New Mexico, the Spanish had had little success in advancing farther into the North American continent. In 1513 Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521) briefly explored the coast of Florida (called La Florida by the Spanish), but was driven out by local Native Americans. More than two decades later Hernando de Soto (c.1500–1542) was drawn to the region by the same tales of fabulously rich cities that had enthralled Coronado. In 1539 de Soto led an expedition into the Mississippi River valley and along the western coast of La Florida. Like Coronado, he found no gold or silver, but he did open the way for European colonization. By the 1560s the French were competing with theSpanish to establish permanent colonies on the Atlantic coast. Responding to these threats in 1565, Spanish naval officer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519–1574) claimed La Florida for Spain. The following spring he and his men built a town called Saint Augustine, which became the first permanent European settlement in North America. Later they constructed a massive stone fort that enabled the Spanish to keep the French out of La Florida. Nevertheless, Spanish settlement was confined to Florida throughout the colonial period.
By the 1600s Spaniards had made great progress in colonizing the Southwest. They were also fulfilling their goal of spreading Christianity among the "pagans"(people who worship more than one god) and "heathens" of the New World (European term for North America and South America). Military leaders created Nuevo México (New Mexico), and Franciscan friars (members of a Roman Catholic religious order) founded missions (religious centers with schools and churches) for the conversion of the Pueblo peoples. "Fray Alonso de Benavides Reports New Mexico Indians Eager for Conversion" provides a vivid description of the Catholic friars' encounter with traditional Pueblo beliefs.
The Pueblos initially accepted the Spanish presence without resistance, even adopting European innovations (new ideas or methods) in cooking, architecture, and town planning. Some also offered the Franciscans the same respect they gave their own spiritual leaders because they considered the white friars to be assistants of their gods. The Pueblos were so accepting because religion was already the center of their culture, which was headed by spiritual leaders (priests; sometimes called medicine men) who were brought to earth by the gods. Having received instructions directly from the gods, the priests conducted rituals that enabled the Pueblos to live in harmony with nature.
Things to Remember While Reading "Fray Alonso de Benavides Reports New Mexico Indians Eager for Conversion":
- Benavides believed that Spanish friars could find many converts among the Pueblos and Apaches. (The Apaches are six culturally related Native American groups who lived in New Mexico and present-day Arizona. The enemies of the Pueblos, the Apaches were known as fierce fighters.) Benavides wrote his report in an effort to convince Spanish authorities to concentrate their colonization efforts on New Mexico.
- The Apaches successfully resisted Spanish colonization, so the Catholic friars had the most interaction with the Pueblos. Traditional beliefs, such as the Pueblo creation myth (a story that explains the beginning of the world), influenced their general acceptance of Catholicism. According to the myth, the Pueblos had once lived in the center of the Earth (the middle level of the cosmos, or universe) with their mother and all living creatures. When it was time to leave, their mother gave them corn to take the place of her nourishment and appointed a priest to care for them. Helped by the birds, insects, and animals, the people and their gods climbed up to the surface of the Earth (the second level of the cosmos) and entered the White House. From the White House they could view the sky. In the sky were two sisters who were competing to see who was the stronger. It was a tie, so one sister went to the east and became the mother of white people, while the other became the mother of the Native Americans. The Pueblos remained at the White House with their gods, who taught them how to farm. They were also taught how to honor the gods by performing sacred rituals and ceremonies that integrated humans into the forces of the universe. Then the people left the White House and established their own villages.
- •The kiva, a circular room located underground, was the most sacred place in a Pueblo village. Representing the hole through which they came to the surface of the earth, the kiva extended down to the underworld (the first level of the cosmos). Through the kiva the Pueblo people could communicate with their mother and the gods. The kiva was the center of each village, and the point from which all aspects of the village—apartments, fields, boundaries—were measured. All of the important ceremonies took place in the kiva. Next to it was a room where sacred masks (worn by the priests) and other religious objects were stored. A chief priest, aided by trained assistants, took care of this room and oversaw the rituals.
- At first the Pueblos had no difficulty incorporating Catholicism into their traditional religion because they considered the white friars to be the priests or assistants of the eastern sister (the mother of the white people). Therefore the Christian god had a place with their gods. In fact, the Pueblos added Catholic practices such as kneeling in prayer and chanting to their own rituals. They included chalices (cups used for drinking wine during the Catholic communion service) among the objects in their sacred warehouse. In addition they found similarities between Catholic crucifixes (crosses bearing the image of the crucified Jesus of Nazareth, also called Christ) and their own prayer sticks, and the use of incense (a material used to produce a fragrant odor when burned) in Catholic worship services resembled their smoking rituals. The friars welcomed this blending of traditions and even formed Pueblo boys' choirs to perfect their chanting.
- Although Native Americans were initially willing to become Christians, even in the early period of Spanish colonization they had conflicts with the friars. For instance, Benavides's report opens with an account of the Pueblos driving Fray (friar) Martín de Arvide out of their village and refusing to accept other Spanish missionaries for several years. Benavides continued with a description of Franciscan efforts to convert the Apaches after converting the Pueblos.
"Fray Alonso de Benavides Reports New Mexico Indians Eager for Conversion"
. . . Father Fray Martín de Arvide, who had spent many years in preaching the divine word in New Mexico [suffered martyrdom]. The
great pueblo of Picuries had fallen to his lot. Here he converted more than two hundred Indians, suffering great hardships and personal dangers, as these people are the most indomitable of that kingdom. He founded a church and convent large enough to minister to all the baptized. Among the newly converted, there was a young man, a son of one of the principal sorcerers. On a certain occasion, the latter undertook to pervert his son and dissuade him from what the padre taught. When the father was informed of it, he left the convent with a crucifix in his hands and, filled with apostolic spirit, he went to the place where the infernal minister was perverting that soul and began to remonstrate with him, saying, "Is it not sufficient that you yourself want to go to hell without desiring to take your son also?" Addressing the young man, he said, "Son, I am more your father and I love you more than he, for he wants to take you with him to the suffering of hell, while I wish you to enjoy the blessings of being a Christian." With divine zeal, he advanced these and other arguments. The old sorcerer arose, grasped a large club near by, and struck the blessed father such a blow on the head that he felled him and then he and others dragged him around the plaza and ill-treated him cruelly. Miraculously he escaped from their hands; although very eager to offer his life to its Giver, God preserved him for a later occasion.
As a result of this the Indians rebelled, so that for several years that pueblo refused to receive a friar who might preach our holy Catholic faith to them. This situation continued until the year 1628 when I stationed there Father Andréde Zea, who converted many people. . . .
. . . All the Indians are now converted, baptized, and very well ministered to, with thirty-three convents and churches in the principal pueblos and more than one hundred and fifty churches throughout the other pueblos; here, where scarcely thirty years earlier all was idolatry and worship of the devil, without any vestige of civilization, today they all worship our true God and Lord. The whole land is dotted with churches, convents, and crosses along the roads. The people are so well taught that they now live like perfect Christians. They are skilled in all the refinements
All these nations settled in this most northerly region in order to escape the intolerable cold and to find there a milder climate, but they met with opposition and resistance from the native inhabitants of this whole land, that is, from the huge Apache nation. In fact, the Apaches surround the abovementioned nations on all sides and have continuous wars with them.
Thus, since we had converted all these nations, we endeavored to convert the Apaches, who alone are more numerous than all the others together, and even more numerous than the people of New Spain. These Indians are very spirited and belligerent. They are a people of a clearer and more subtle understanding, and as such they laugh at the other nations because they worship idols of wood and stone. The Apaches worship only the sun and the moon. They wear clothing, and although their chief sustenance is derived from hunting, they also plant much corn. Their houses are modest, but adequate for protection against the cold spells of that region. In this nation only, the husband often has as many wives as he can support. This also depends on rank, for it is a mark of prestige to have numerous wives. They cut off the nose and ears of the woman taken in adultery. They pride themselves on never lying but on always speaking the truth. The people of this nation are countless, for they occupy the whole of New Mexico. Thus, armies of more than thirty thousand have been seen on the way to war against each other, the fields swarming with them. They have no one king who governs them, in general, but in each district or province they allow themselves to be ruled by one who is famous for some brave deed. The neighboring provinces, however, always heed and have respect for someone from a larger province. . . .
Starting, then, with that portion of this nation nearest to the Pira [Piro] nation, which is the first we meet on reaching New Mexico, there is, on the opposite bank of the Rio del Norte to the west, the province and tribe of the Xila Apaches. It is fourteen leagues from the pueblo of San Antonio Senecú, where their chief captain, called Sanaba, oftentimes comes to gamble. After he had heard me preach to the Piros several times, he became inclined to our holy Catholic faith and confided his thoughts to me; and when I had satisfied him in regard to certain difficulties that he had encountered, he determined to become a Christian and said that he wanted to go and tell his people in order that they too should become Christians. This he did, and within a few days he returned to see me, with some of his people already converted by what he had told them. Confirming them in their good intentions, I persuaded them, since they were the chief lords, that, as a good beginning to their Christianity, they should at once erect a cross in the center of the plaza of their pueblo so that I could find and worship it when I came to visit them. They promised me to do this and departed very happy. And, although I, because of the demands of my office and the lack of friars, could not go there that year, withal I learned that Captain Sanaba was an apostolic preacher and desired that all of his tribe should be converted, and he had already prepared them for it.
After the lapse of a few days, I returned there to ascertain the state of that conversion. When Captain Sanaba heard that I had arrived at San Antonio Senecú, he came those fourteen to see me, accompanied by many of his people. After I had welcomed him with honor in the presence of all, he presented me with a folded chamois, which is a dressed deerskin. It is customary among these people, when going to visit someone, to bring a gift. I accepted it to gratify him, although I told him that I did not want anything from him except that he and all his people should become Christians. He asked me to unfold the chamois and see what was painted on it. This I did and saw that it had been decorated with the sun and the moon, and above each a cross, and although the symbolism was apparent to me, I asked him about it. He responded in these formal words: "Father, until now we have not known any benefactors as great as the sun and the moon, because the sun lights us by day, warms us, and makes our plants grow; the moon lights us by night. Thus we worship them as our gods. But, now that you have taught us who God, the creator of all things is, and that the sun and the moon are His creatures, in order that you might know that we now worship only God, I had these crosses, which are the emblem of God, painted above the sun and the moon. We have also erected one in the plaza, as you commanded."
Only one who has worked in these conversions can appreciate the joy that such happenings bring to a friar when he sees the results of his preaching. Recognizing this gift as the fruit of the divine word, I took the chamois and placed it on the high altar as a banner won from the enemy and as evidence of the high intelligence of this nation, for I do not know what more any of the ancient philosophers could have done. With this I bade farewell to him and his people, who were very happy. Within a few days he came more than sixty leagues to see me, rejoicing that all of his people had decided to become Christians. In his own name and in behalf of all of them he rendered obedience to me in the name of our holy mother, the church. With this good start, I founded that conversion in their pueblo of Xila, placing it in charge of Father Fray Martín del Espíritu Santo, who administered it with great courage during the year 1628.
What happened next. . .
The Spaniards profoundly disturbed the local ecology (pattern of relations between organisms and their environment) in New Mexico. For instance, they brought cattle and sheep that grazed on the land, consuming large amounts of prairie grasses. Spanish baking ovens greatly increased the need for firewood, depleting local supplies. To expand the existing network of irrigation canals, the Spanish forced native peoples to work as laborers. When the Acoma Pueblo finally refused to submit to the intruders, hundreds of Native Americans were killed or enslaved, which produced a legacy of resentment. Never finding the gold or silver they had hoped for, the Spanish struggled economically and maintained an uneasy peace with their neighbors.
Native Americans in the Southwest became increasingly resentful of the missionaries. In 1680, after eighty-two years of Spanish occupation, the Pueblo revolutionary leader Popé (c.1625–c. 1692) led a revolt against Catholicism. Defying Spanish laws, Popé urged the Pueblos to return to their traditional religion and way of life. Organizing a massive force of followers at Santa Fe, New Mexico, he led a siege in which four hundred Spanish missionaries and colonists were killed. The survivors fled hundreds of miles to the south, into Mexico. As the new leader of the Pueblos, Popé removed all traces of Spanish influence; most significantly, he outlawed the Spanish language, destroyed Catholic churches, and cleansed the people who had been baptized by missionaries. Within a decade, however, Popé's power was weakened by Apache raids, internal Pueblo dissension, and his own harsh rule. In 1692, less than two years after Popé's death, the Spaniards once again conquered the Pueblos.
Did you know . . .
- The Pueblo revolt coincided with a series of droughts that had been afflicting the Southwest for several years. Popé used fear to get people to follow him when he asserted that the droughts were caused by the Pueblo gods were offended and were punishing the Pueblos for accepting Christianity.
- Popé eventually lost support because the Pueblos had become accustomed to European goods. In addition, the Pueblos were attacked by Apaches, who seized their horses and brought them into contact with other native cultures.
- When the Spanish returned to New Mexico in 1692, the humbled Franciscans allowed the Native Americans to continue their traditional religious practices.
For more information
Guiterrez, Ramon A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Knaut, Andrew L. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Kupperman, Karen Ordahl, ed. Major Problems in American Colonial History. Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1993, pp. 42–45.
Sando, Joe S. Pueblo Profiles: Cultural Identity through Centuries of Change. Santa Fe: Clear Light, 1995.