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Biography of Admiral Don Phelipe de Sotelo Ossorio

Biography/WPA Writers' Project of Admiral Don Phelipe de Sotelo Ossorio, the sixth governor of New Mexico.

By Grace Meredith
Field Worker

WPA Biography Project

Sixth Governor of New Mexico

1625 - 1629

On December 21st, 1625, Admiral Don Phelipe de Sotelo Ossorio arrived in Santa Fe and became the sixth governor of New Mexico. It is assumed that he was born in Spain, though the date and place of his birth are not now available.

As a member of the same party and caravan, he left Mexico City in the spring of 1625 with Friar Alonso de Benavides, who was not only the new custodian of the New Mexico missions, but the first agent of the Inquisition in New Mexico as well. On January 24th, 1626, Benavides was formally received in Santa Fe as prelate and commissary of the Holy Office; and on the following day, the first edict of the faith was read in the church at Santa Fe in the presence of Ossorio and other assembled citizens and soldiers of the province.

Historical documents show, that Ossorio was quite a braggart, almost without any sense of humor, and that he held a highly colored and self‑satisfying opinion of his own particular and vast importance. Qualities like these could do nothing but make him exceedingly unpopular with his associates, especially the rough, sturdy frontiersmen who made up most of the New Mexico during his time. Any continued attitude of superiority on the part of anyone, governor, soldier or citizen, was speedily resented; and thus in the brief period of a very few months, Ossorio seems to have become heartily disliked. Some of his policies, to say nothing of his actions and speech, were so opposed and challenged, that at times he was compelled to lead his own horse to waters!

By the end of the summer of 1626, denunciations were made concerning statements that Ossorio had made, and while these may have been serious potentially, they did not result in serious difficulties at that time, due to the fact that Father Benavides was using his authority as New Mexico representative of the Inquisition, very sparingly indeed. This meant no lack of interest or concern on the part of Benavides, but rather was because he was so extremely busy with the vast and increasing details of missionary activities in the province, that he had scant time for anything else.

France V. Scholes in The First Decade of the Inquisition in New Mexico, has brought to light much valuable information heretofore unobtainable in this country concerning certain events which occurred in the seventeenth century, and since some of these events actually happened during the time Ossorio was governor and had, in many instances, to do with him personally, it seems wise to quote directly from the above mentioned article:

“The existing evidence indicates that Benavides examined only ten witnesses between the autumn of 1626 and the spring of 1629, and that seven of these probably made their declarations of their own free will. Although most of these declarations deal with the conduct of Governor Sotelo Ossorio and indicate that some of his statements and actions were hostile to the Church, they are also interesting for the information they contain concerning certain incidents of Santa Fe life in those early days.”

“The ten witnesses who testified before Benavides in 1627 and 1628 were, with one exception, soldiers of the villa, members of those leading families that were already beginning to achieve some importance and to monopolize the few honors and local offices that the government of the province and the villa afforded. Some of the incidents which they related seem now to have come out of comic opera, but they show how trivial matters aroused the passions of these rough men, proud and sensitive of their privileges. Minor incidents took on major importance, and rumor traveled speedily from house to house. They indicate also how the events of the preceding years and the establishment of the authority of the Holy Office in New Mexico had made them over‑suspicious and ready to suspect word or deed that seemed to hint of error and heresy. A resume of the evidence follows.

1. On a certain winter evening late in 1627, the governor end and some of the soldier‑citizens of Santa Fe were gambling at the home of Alferez Diego de Montoya. During the course of the play the governor took exception to certain acts or words of Captain Alonso Baca. Word followed word. The governor finally warned Baca not to get too churlish, and boasted that he was accustomed to fighting. Had he not quarreled with all the bravest men of Spain? More than that, he was ready to “contend” with the saints if opportunity offered, with St. George, St. Dionisius, St. Leo, St. Damian, even with St. Peter and St. Paul! Finally, with an oath, he jumped to his feet, drew his sword half out of it scabbard, kicked over the candles and the gambling table, and stalked out of the house. All to the great scandal of those present!

2. On another occasion—this time in the Casa Real—the governor made similar remarks, boasting that he was even more valiant that St. George and St. Dionisius.

3. One Sunday in June 1628, the governor arrived late at Mass, and took his place just as the Sanctus bell was being rung. After mass, with the citizenry assembled in the church yard, he began to upbraid some of the soldiers for lack of courtesy in not rising when he had entered the church. Capt. Pedro Lucero de Godoy, thinking that these remarks were directed at him, tried to explain, saying that he could not rise during the Sanctus. To which the governor, enraged, replied: “I swore to Christ the other day that you (people) must rise even if they are elevating the Host!” As a result of these shocking remarks “the land is so scandalized .... that it talks about nothing else.” “He must be a heretic, since he demands that people leave off adoring God in order to adore him.”

4. Of more fundamental importance were the reports of certain incidents illustrating Sotelo’s attitude toward the clergy and ecclesiastical privilege and immunity. During the summer of 1626 testimony had been received concerning the instructions that Sotelo had given a soldier who had been ordered to capture a certain fugitive mulatto servant. The soldiers had asked what he should do if the servant fled to the asylum of a church, and Sotelo was reported to have ordered that he should be seized even if clinging to the crucifix itself. (This was the declaration of Diego de Santa Cruz, August 3rd, 1626). Nothing appears to have come of this early incident, although Benavides did report it in a special letter to the Holy Office, and cited it as an example of lack of respect for the Church and its immunities. Then in 1627‑1628 other incidents occurred which once again created the possibility of controversy. It was reported that in a discussion concerning the right of asylum in churches, the governor had declared “with depreciation of ecclesiastical censures, that a mere church meant nothing to him”; and that later during the same discussion, he had “sworn to Christ that he had rather deal with the Devil in Hell than with those of the habit” (the friars). There was some friction concerning certain powder houses and fortifications that Sotelo had ordered built, for the friars asserted that the church and convent would be menaced by the proximity of these strongholds. Sotelo on his part, was said to have boasted that for cause he would turn the guns on the church and convent and demolish them. It was also reported that he seldom went to mass, and that he had made fun of excommunications by saying that if he were excommunicated he would force absolution within two hours. And another witness stated that Sotelo had described an incident that had occurred in Mexico, when a certain governor, finding that his soldiers were friends of the friars, had executed the soldiers and had packed off the friars, including a Commissary of the Holy Office, to another part of New Spain. Moral: let the soldiers of New Mexico be on his side!

5. There were also the usual rumors of moral laxness, for a certain friar informed another friar that an Indian woman had confessed carnal relations with the governor, and the second friar reported this information to Father Benavides.

6. It was said to be known publicly that Sotelo had sent one of his agents to the pueblo of San Juan to bring an Indian woman versed in magic and black art to Santa Fe to try to save the life of a soldier who had been bewitched. (This bewitched soldier was Juan Diego Bellido).

In short, Sotelo was profane, blasphemous, lacking in respect for the clergy and the mass, immoral, and suspect in the faith! But Benavides does not appear to have taken these charges very seriously, or to have been active in investigating them. Only three witnesses seem to have been formally summoned; the others made their sworn declarations of their own accord. The reader of this testimony quickly senses an atmosphere of personal animosity that may have inspired it, and it may be doubted whether the soldiers were religious zealots who had been shocked by Sotelo’s profanity and lack of respect for the cloth. Sotelo had insulted them and hurt their pride, and denunciation of his foibles was a means of retaliation. Perhaps Benavides realized this and did not press the case on that account. The investigation was apparently in abeyance when Father Perea returned in the spring of 1629, and there is no evidence that the charges ever resulted in formal trial of Sotelo by the Inquisition.”

Although unnamed by Father Benavides in his Memorial, according to Bloom and Donnelly in New Mexico History and Civics, Ossorio is identified as the one whom Father Benavides charged with “nefarious business of enslaving Apaches and selling them south to the mines .... and so thwarting the Christianizing work of the missionaries among this people.”

Though many historical works have been consulted in seeking to bring to light other information concerning this early period, there seems for the most part to be very few records of events. However, Charles F. Lummis in The Spanish Pioneers and the California Missions, states that: “the parish church in Santa Fe was finished in 1627” by Father Alonso de Benavides. A church had been built in the villa about 1606, but it did not long meet the requirements of the growing community, thus in 1627 another was built. It may be interesting to note that in 1617, three years before the Pilgrims landed, there were already eleven churches in use in New Mexico.

During Ossorio’s term, New Mexico had but one Spanish settlement the villa of Santa Fe, where it is said there were about two hundred and fifty Spaniards, with twice that many half‑breeds and Indian dependents. Radiating from Santa Fe, there were friars in twenty‑five missions who served about ninety pueblos, and who claimed to have ninety thousand neophytes. Evidence shows however, that these so‑called converts were more often than not, resentful and sullen toward the Spaniards both ecclesiastical and lay, and anxious to resume their old barbarous ways of life. There was constant apprehension on the part of the Spaniards that the Indians would attempt to free themselves and perhaps revolt, so that unceasing vigilance by day and night was needed. It should be remembered that the friars went to teach and to pray and to convert, in the most remote, lonely and almost inaccessible places, and generally speaking, the none‑too‑friendly Indians were their sole companions over long periods of time. So far as home‑making went, it was confined almost entirely to the vicinity of Santa Fe. It made little difference whether a man was a missionary, soldier or colonist, when he turned his back on Mexico City to travel the fifteen hundred odd miles to Santa Fe across mountain, desert and river, he took his very life in his hands. Any hour in the twenty-four, either along the route to New Mexico or after arrival there, brought danger of one kind or another.

With the arrival of Father Perea in the spring of 1629, who was returning from Mexico City, Ossorio was introduced to his successor as Governor; and Benavides was relieved of his custodianship; and it is assumed that they returned to Mexico City in the autumn of 1629.


The Coming of the White Man by Herbert Ingram Priestley. The Macmillan Co. New York 1

The Spanish Pioneers and the California Missions by Charles F. Lummis. A. C. McClurg & Co. Chicago. 1929.

Old Santa Fe by Ralph Emerson Twitchell. Santa Fe New Mexican Publishing Corp. Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1925

"Civil Government and Society in New Mexico in the Seventeenth Century," by France V. Scholes. New Mexico Historical Review April 1935.

New Mexico Historical Review for October 1928.

New Mexico Historical Review for July 1935

New Mexico History and Civics by Lansing B. Bloom and Thomas C. Donnelly. University Press, Albuquerque, New Mexico 1933.