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Biographical Sketch of Geronimo Zarate Salmeron

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Sponsored by the Paul C. S. Carpenter History Project and funded by the King/Carpenter Charitable Trust

With installation of a new, term-limited governor, Pedro de Peralta, in 1609 and the departure of its first and only governor-for-life, Juan de Oñate, New Mexico passed from being a semi-feudal proprietary colony to being a royal colony, whose main business was the conversion of its Indian population to Catholicism.[1] The change had come, in part, because of a glowing report submitted to the Spanish king, Felipe III, at Christmastime 1608 by one of the New Mexican friars, Lázaro Ximénez. Several months earlier, the viceroy in Mexico City had recommended abandonment of the colony. But, as historian Marc Simmons has written, “The spectacular claim of seven thousand recent converts [made in the friar’s report] greatly impressed [Felipe]. Acting with uncharacteristic celerity he decreed that New Mexico should be taken under the patronage of the crown and converted to a royal colony.”[2]

No longer would financial support of the Province and Kingdom of New Mexico be the sole responsibility of its governor. Beginning in 1609, supply of the missionaries was to be paid from the royal coffers. The “cost to the Spanish crown during the seventeenth century [was] nearly two million pesos. Royal expenditures in support of the missionary effort exceeded revenues by a ratio of ninety to one.” [3] Much of the king’s cost came in outfitting a mission supply caravan that crawled up the Camino Real from Mexico City to Santa Fe once every three years. In addition to vestments, oil, wine, vinegar, candles, church ornaments, choir books, religious art, bells, almonds, raisins, and peach and quince preserves, the caravans carried more Franciscan friars.[4] Occasionally the new friars augmented the total contingent of Franciscans, but more often they simply replaced other friars who were rotated out of New Mexico.

With the fourth supply caravan, which left Mexico City in 1620 and arrived in New Mexico early in 1621, came fray Gerónimo Zárate Salmerón.[5] Like all of the 250 or so Franciscans sent to New Mexico during the seventeenth century, Zárate Salmerón was not born in the province, although he was a native of the New World. His birthplace was Río Alvarado, south of Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico coast, where he was born probably in the middle 1550s. The decade of his birth is inferred from the year of his profession as a priest at the Franciscan Convento Grande in Mexico City, 1579, and the usual minimum age of a new priest of 25.[6] That would put him in his mid-sixties when he arrived in New Mexico.

Fray Gerónimo was assigned as priest to the people of Jemez. They were then living in several pueblos in the general vicinity of modern Jemez Pueblo. He got to work almost immediately, founding the mission San José de Guísewa during fall or winter 1621. Not long afterward, Zárate Salmerón established a second mission among the Jemez, one eventually known as San Diego de la Congregación. This mission was associated with a pueblo at or near the location of present Jemez Pueblo, which came into being because of resettlement of some of the Jemez people from dispersed locations at the instigation of the priest himself.

The new arrangement evidently proved unsatisfactory to the residents because tensions there led to temporary abandonment of the mission and pueblo in 1623. Although he also performed missionary work at other New Mexico pueblos, Zárate Salmerón remained primarily among the Jemez people. In 1626, he was still referred to as “guardian of the convent of San José of the Jemez.”[7]

Unlike most Franciscan missionaries in colonial New Mexico, Zárate Salmerón learned the language of his parishioners, Towa, and gave it a written form for the first time. Using the newly alphabetized language, he wrote a doctrina, a book recording the principal Catholic beliefs and ceremonies, for use in instructing his Jemez charges. At least in his view, that instruction was very successful. He claimed in 1629 to have “baptized in that nation 6,566 souls.”[8]

Fray Gerónimo also found time to missionize the pueblos of Zia, Santa Ana, and Acoma, all of which used the Keresan language, very different from the Towa of Jemez. That presented him the challenge of becoming proficient in yet another language or relying on translators. Either one would have been daunting. He wrote, though, that his work among the Keres people was also successful, resulting in “building churches and convents.” He especially singled out his work at Acoma, writing that “I alone conquered and pacified El Peñol de Acoma that sustained a war with the Spaniards.”[9]

It is not clear what Zárate Salmerón meant by having “conquered and pacified” Acoma. He certainly did not oversee the building of the great mission church, San Estevan, there, although he may have paved the way for that to be done by his successor, fray Juan Ramírez, sometime after 1629. The entire pueblo was rebuilt between that year and 1640, and Ramírez is generally credited with supervising the erection of the church.[10]

Zárate Salmerón continued his missionary labors among the Jemez and the Keres for six years. But when the mission supply caravan of 1626 headed back toward Mexico City, he was evidently among its passengers.[11] He did not travel all the way to the Viceregal Capital, though. Instead, somewhere en route he left the caravan and “endeavored to enter there [the northern interior of Mexico] alone and without an escort,” hoping to bring other, less sedentary Indians into the Church’s fold. That effort did not succeed as he had wished, and finally, during 1628, he reached Mexico City.[12]

By early 1629, he submitted to his superiors a relación, or narrative account, about New Mexico, as part of an appeal for support of further mission work in Mexico’s far north. Early in the document, now known as the “Relaciones,” he explained that “I determined to come here [Mexico City] so that…you [the Commissary General] may take the means that are appropriate [to insure that missionary work continues].” In the account, he wrote:

“I make [this information] known telling about each thing and where it is, such as gold, silver, pearls, coral, garnets, copper, lead, alum, sulphur, vitriol, magnate stone, and turquoise, the terrain and days’ marches, and in which direction they ought to travel, and that with this account in their hands, it may serve as a compass and chart to those who may enter there, and that Your Reverence knowing these things, may with your Christianity, open the doors and give permission to those religious of ardor who may want to enter apostolically to shed their blood among the infidels…without soldiers…[because] it is better to go alone than in bad company.” [13]

In point of fact, fray Gerónimo devoted most of the “Relaciones” to recounting fragments from the colony’s relative short past, recalling events and people of which he himself had no direct knowledge. The result is a short hodgepodge history of New Mexico that includes many apocryphal stories and is riddled with errors and confused and garbled information. A few examples will suffice. In telling an extremely abbreviated version of the voyage made by Hernando de Alarcón (whom he calls Francisco) in support of the Coronado expedition in 1540, he says, “This fleet was lost without accomplishing anything.”[14] Both of those claims are incorrect.

Likewise, in writing about the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition to New Mexico in 1581, Zárate Salmerón states that fray Juan de Santa María, one of the friars on that ill-fated enterprise, was killed at Santiago Pueblo near Bernalillo, New Mexico. But Hernán Gallegos, one of the members of that expedition, wrote shortly afterward that fray Juan had been killed somewhere south of Albuquerque while trying to return to Mexico. On the other hand, Zárate Salmerón is able to provide a detail about the death of one of the other friars on that expedition because he saw the dead man’s skull.[15]

The fact remains, though, that errors pepper the “Relaciones.” Fray Gerónimo reports that Cape Mendocino, California, was named by people “on some vessels coming from China and the Philippines…in honor of the Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, who had sent them.”[16] Mendoza, however, had died a dozen years before the first successful eastward voyage from the Philippines to Mexico. Zárate Salmerón confuses or reports confused information regarding the names of persons and dates of events ranging from Captain Juan Morlete to the voyage made by Sebastián Vizcaíno. Thus, modern readers must use his information with caution.

Nevertheless, Zárate Salmerón’s account of New Mexico contains some fascinating firsthand reportage. For example, he spent significant effort in trying to track down Pueblo reports of Mexican Indians in New Mexico before establishment of the Spanish colony. Those reports probably represent glimmers of observations of some of the Indian allies that accompanied the Coronado expedition of 1539-42.[17] Perhaps, as valuable as any factual data contained in the “Relaciones” are the attitudes embedded in it, attitudes typical of Zárate Salmerón’s time and place.

After submission of the “Relaciones,” fray Gerónimo’s life has not been traced. Whether he survived to undertake other mission projects is not known. If he did, they were not in New Mexico.


[1] John L. Kessell, Spain in the Southwest: A Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002), 97.

[2] Marc Simmons, The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 184.

[3] Kessell, Spain in the Southwest, 97.

[4] John L. Kessell, Kiva, Cross, and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840, second edition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), 117-18.

[5] France V. Scholes and Lansing B. Bloom, “Friar Personnel and Mission Chronology, 1598-1629, concluded” New Mexico Historical Review 20(1) (January 1945):62.    

[6] Information about Zárate Salmerón’s birth and profession comes from a manuscript prepared by fray Francisco Antonio de la Rosa Figueroa in the 1760s and referred to by Alicia Ronstadt Milich in her introduction to Gerónimo Zárate Salmerón, Relaciones, translated and edited by Alicia Ronstadt Milich (Albuquerque: Horn and Wallace, 1966), 18. The manuscript itself is preserved in the Ayer Collection at the Newberry Library in Chicago.

For typical age of a new priest in those days, see John L. Kessell, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 52.

[7] Scholes and Bloom, “Friar Personnel,” 67-68.

[8] Zárate Salmerón, Relaciones, 26.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ward Alan Minge, Ácoma: Pueblo in the Sky, second edition (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1991), 20.

[11] Scholes and Bloom, “Friar Personnel,” 69.

[12] Zárate Salmerón, Relaciones, 26-27.

[13] Ibid., 27.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Ibid., 35. George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, The Rediscovery of New Mexico, 1580-1594: The Explorations of Chamuscado, Espejo, Castaño de Sosa, Morlete, and Leyba de Bonilla and Humaña (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1966), 96.

[16] Zárate Salmerón, Relaciones, 40.

[17] Ibid., 92-93.