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Alonso de Benavides

Born: 1578

by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Some of the most detailed documentary information about the Spanish province of New Mexico in the early decades of the 1600s comes from reports written by fray Alonso de Benavides. Fray Alonso was resident as custos, or superior, of the custody of the Conversion of St. Paul, as New Mexico was known within the Franciscan Order, from 1626 to 1629.

Alonso had been born to Pedro Alonso Nieto and Antônia Murato de Benavides on the island of São Miguel in the Azores in about 1578. He was, thus, a Portuguese by birth. Only two years after he was born, though, the Azores and all of Portugal's empire became Spanish territory and remained so until 1640. Nevertheless, Alonso likely grew up speaking Portuguese, although he may have been bilingual in Spanish at an early age. His most recent English translator, Baker H. Morrow, has pointed out what seem to be occasional Portuguese elements in the Spanish text of the reports for which Benavides is known, which were written in his early 50s.

Regardless of Benavides's level of comfort in writing in Spanish, he spent his adult life in New Spain and its far frontier, New Mexico. By the age of 20 he was residing in Mexico City, and in 1603 was a professed Franciscan friar. That added Latin to fray Alonso's linguistic repertoire. He ministered to native populations in Cuernavaca, Puebla, and Veracruz as the years advanced. In 1623 he was elected to the position of custos for New Mexico, although he did not actually assume his duties there until 1626.

Fray Alonso traveled to New Mexico with what was supposed to be the triennial mission supply caravan, the province's only regular link with the rest of the Spanish empire. Benavides later brought to the king's attention that, in fact, five and even six years often elapsed between caravans. That situation, the friar pointed out, was debilitating to the province's external commerce and trade. According to him, such lengthy intervals between caravans were one of the principal impediments to certain prosperity for New Mexico.

With Benavides, twelve other friars also traveled to New Mexico in 1626, the number in imitation of Christ's cadre of disciples. As custos, fray Alonso stationed the new friars to fill vacancies caused by the death of older clerics and to minister at new churches. During his three-year tenure, the custos claimed to have established new missions among the Piro and Tompiro Pueblos. He founded, for example, the Blessed Most Holy Virgin of Socorro church at a Piro pueblo at the site of the modern town of Socorro. He also oversaw the erection of two other churches and associated conventos, or friars' residences, among the Piro.

By the end of his term, fray Alonso claimed, there were 50 well-built and beautifully decorated churches in New Mexico. While the Franciscans concentrated on converting and ministering to the indigenous population, Benavides also ordered the construction of a substantial adobe church for the Hispanic residents of Santa Fe. This replaced what he called a flimsy hovel they had been using since the founding of the town.

Among the Pueblos of Jemez, the custos had one impressive church erected and another rehabilitated. This was in an effort to concentrate, or congregate according to the official term, the people into only two towns, which made ministering to them much easier for the friars. As fray Alonso later wrote, "These people had been scattered all about this kingdom when I arrived as custodian." He also assigned a priest for the first time to Acoma Pueblo.

At least in reports to his superiors, Benavides presented an extremely rosy picture of relations between Indians, Franciscans, and lay Spaniards. Everywhere, he said, the Pueblos had been baptized and were happily being taught European trades and skills. According to fray Alonso, the native people had readily adopted Christian practices, looking, to his eyes, like they had been "Christians for a hundred years." Adults and children alike conformed to the daily routine and liturgical calendar dictated by the Catholic Church. "The young boys and girls, who morning and afternoon always come to catechism," he wrote, "apply themselves without exception and with the greatest of care."

Equally harmonious were relations, as depicted by Benavides, between lay settlers and the much more numerous natives. In his words, the presidial soldiers "are all well drilled and humble, and for the most part a good example to the Indians." There are hints though, even in fray Alonso's idealized view, that all was not as congenial as his words insisted.

To maintain their safety, the colonists found it necessary to cultivate a fear among the Pueblos, a fear of the colonists. This they did, according to the custos, by frequent firing of their arcabuses, apparently in the direction of native people. "If this were not the case," Benavides admitted, "the Indians would often be inclined to murder the Spaniards." This violent possibility was not hard to find realized in New Mexico's recent past. In 1623, for instance, the people of Jemez Pueblo had risen up, destroying the mission San José, which only a few years later fray Alonso had rehabilitated. Nor was the calm the friar reported very durable. The Zunis were to rise up and kill two friars in 1632, only three years after Benavides's departure from the province.

Ignoring or concealing such animosity lying just below the surface of early Spanish New Mexico, the custos unwaveringly reported a benign and happy province inhabited by two distinct populations, Pueblos and Hispanos, comfortable in every way with having been brought together less than 30 years previously. Not only had the Pueblos proved amenable to conversion, but other neighboring tribes showed that they were anxious to be taught about the Christian faith as well.

In particular, Benavides and his subordinate friars had carried their missionary work to the various bands of Apaches. As fray Alonso described the situation, Apache people inhabited the whole periphery of the Pueblo world; from the Jornada del Muerto in what is now southern New Mexico north to the Strait of Anian, the mythical Northwest Passage across the continent. The custos undertook to preach in person to some of the Apaches; to others he sent already converted Indians. His attempts to attract Apaches to the Faith had, in his own view, been singularly successful.

Fray Alonso and his Franciscan brethren had, it appeared, been aided in their efforts by the miraculous intervention of a nun. Jumanos Indians who lived on the Southern Great Plains came to the Rio Grande asking to be sent a priest. When the friars inquired what had prompted their request, they were told a remarkable story. The gist was that a woman dressed in blue had appeared to them at their encampments on the plains. She reportedly had told the Jumanos to travel to the Rio Grande to request that priests be sent.

As a result, fray Juan de Salas was dispatched to preach to the Jumanos, which he did for several days. In the end, he baptized a claimed 10,000 people and cured the illnesses of many. Not only among the Jumanos, but everywhere in New Mexico, curing illness was a major effort of the friars, according to Benavides. He expressed great pride in the work of conversion and provision of aid to native people that the Franciscans of his custody had accomplished.

When a new custos, fray Esteban de Perea, arrived in New Mexico in 1629, Benavides traveled to Mexico City to spread the good news, as he saw it, about the province. There, he was an extraordinarily successful booster of his own successes and the province he had just left. He could not praise New Mexico enough. The land, he said, was extremely fertile, producing bountiful crops of both native and European cultivars. Included among those indigenous plants were cotton, beans, squash, and corn, the Pueblos' staple food.

What fray Alonso failed to add was that New Mexico's climate, then as now, is subject to marked extremes of temperature and precipitation. The Pueblo farmers knew this from centuries of experience. Thus, storage of large yields produced during the most favorable years was essential to tide them over during the inevitable and recurring periods of severe drought or erratic frost. There was the slightest suggestion of this latter problem in Benavides's reports when he mentioned in passing that the land is very cold. So cold, he wrote, that the Rio Grande froze solid, and loaded carts could be driven across the ice, "as well as great mobs of livestock running at top speed."

The friar also lauded the Pueblo people as "fully clothed," a widespread European criterion for determining a population's level of civilization. As already evident from his admiration of the fertility of the land, they were excellent farmers, yet another mark of civilization. The Pueblos were, though, prone to laziness, in Benavides's view. Hence, the presence of friars to urge them on and require their labor was essential, so fray Alonso insisted, to their survival. This, of course, ignored the hundreds of years of continuous Pueblo occupation of the Rio Grande region and their successful agricultural adaptation and innovation there.

So glowing were Benavides's descriptions of his former custody that his superiors in Mexico City decided to send him to Spain in an effort to persuade the royal court that increased expenditures in New Mexico would be amply rewarded. In Madrid his listeners, like those in New Spain, were thrilled by his stories of a wondrous land and miraculous conversions. In 1630 a written version of his report, his Memorial, was published at crown expense, even going into two printings. And he succeeded in obtaining authorization for 30 more friars for New Mexico.

While in Spain, fray Alonso also had the opportunity to travel to the Franciscan convent in Ágreda, in the old kingdom of Castile. There, the twenty-eight-year-old abbess, María de Jesús de Ágreda, told him stories of her own miraculous bilocation to the plains of eastern New Mexico and what is now the Texas Panhandle. These stories seemed to match the reports Benavides had heard while in New Mexico of the "lady in blue" who had preached to the Jumanos and other nomadic Indians. For fray Alonso, María de Jesús's ecstatic stories, confirmed God's favor toward the Franciscan missionary effort in New Mexico.

Benavides added this sensational news to a revised and enlarged version of his written report, which he presented at Rome to Pope Urban VIII in, 1634. Again, those who heard and read fray Alonso's record of his experiences in and observations of New Mexico were awestruck. By this means, the friar earned for himself appointment as auxiliary bishop of the island of Goa, a former Portuguese outpost in the Arabian Sea. He departed for his new post from Lisbon in April 1635. That is the last we know of him; he never reached Goa. Presumably, he drowned at sea. With his marvelous reports, though, he had assured the king's continued support for New Mexico as a field of missions to the Pueblos and other indigenous peoples.

Sources Used:

Ayer, Mrs. Edward E., tr. and ed. The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, 1630. Chicago: 1916; reprint, Albuquerque: Horn and Wallace Publishers, 1965.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Hickerson, Nancy Parrott. The Jumanos, Hunters and Traders of the South Plains. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994.

Hodge, Frederick W., George P. Hammond, and Agapito Rey, trs. and eds. Fray Alonso de Benavides' Revised Memorial of 1634. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1945.

Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest, a Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Knaut, Andrew L. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.

Morrow, Baker H., tr. and ed. A Harvest of Reluctant Souls: The Memorial of Fray Alonso de Benavides, 1630. Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1996.