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Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa Briceño y Berdugo

by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa Briceño y Berdugo, formerly Spanish provincial governor of New Mexico, ended his days in France, far from his one-time jurisdiction where he offered to lead an armed force to seize New Mexico and all of northern New Spain for Louis XIV. Peñalosa, a native of Lima in Spanish Peru and a functionary in the imperial bureaucracy, was appointed governor of New Mexico in 1660. In his late thirties at the time, he was to replace a highly controversial figure, Bernardo López de Mendizábal.

Don Bernardo's freewheeling entrepreneurial activity and permissive attitude toward Pueblo religious practice had earned him the virulent displeasure of the Franciscan community in New Mexico. As governor, for instance, he proclaimed that Pueblos could again perform their traditional masked ceremonial dances, despite adamant disapproval of the friars, who strove to completely replace native rites with those of the Roman Catholic Church. Mendizábal further angered the clergy by prohibiting their continued use of free Indian labor. He insisted that even Indian servants and assistants of the friars should pay tribute, from which he himself and other lay New Mexicans would benefit.

There followed a series of charges and countercharges lodged with the viceroy and the Office of the Inquisition by the governor and the priests against each other. The Franciscans even threatened to withdraw from New Mexico altogether, if Mendizábal's harassment of them, as they saw it, did not cease. Acting a year ahead of the scheduled expiration of don Bernardo's term in office, the viceroy, Juan de Leyva y de la Cerda, designated Diego de Peñalosa to take his place. Peñalosa, himself, had had a rather checkered past in imperial service. After serving in several posts in the viceroyalty of Peru, he fled to New Spain in the face of questions about his conduct while in office. There, his fortunes seem to have improved. He served as an alcalde mayor, or royal administrator, in Michoacán before being tapped to assume the governorship of New Mexico.

At about the same time, a new Franciscan custos, or chief administrator of the religious province, fray Alonso de Posada, was also appointed. He and Peñalosa reached New Mexico within months of each other in 1661.

Both Peñalosa and Posada immediately launched investigations of Mendizábal, Posada on behalf of the Inquisition, Peñalosa as a standard administrative review, or residencia. Posada reinstated the ban on kachina dances and ordered masks and other native religious paraphernalia seized and burned. Peñalosa invited colonists and Indians to come forward with any complaints they might have against the former governor, Mendizábal. Over the next 30 days more than 70 complaints were filed. In 1662 both the Inquisition in Mexico City and the civil audiencia, judged Mendizábal guilty of malfeasance and worse and had him transported to the viceregal capital for final disposition of his case. As it turned out, the former governor died in prison before a final verdict and sentence were reached.

Back in New Mexico it was not long before aggressive fray Alonso intruded into what Peñalosa saw as his domain as governor. Posada attempted to confiscate encomienda tribute, and Peñalosa exploded. He insisted that, as governor, he alone should exercise control over such royal grants. Matters only got worse when Posada intercepted goods of former governor Mendizábal that had been seized by Peñalosa. By the fall of 1663 relations between the custos and don Diego had deteriorated beyond repair. After a dispute over Peñalosa's disregard of the tradition of sanctuary within churches, Posada excommunicated him. In response, the governor threatened to arrest and deport the custos.

Peñalosa carried out his threat, holding Posada prisoner in the governor's residence in Santa Fe, with light cannons trained on the exits to prevent his escape. This was an action unprecedented in New Mexico history. After nine days, both governor and custos relented, each retracting his threats against the other. But messages had already been sent to the Office of the Inquisition in Mexico City. Fearing prosecution before the Holy Office and the results of his impending residencia, Peñalosa fled from New Mexico, leaving Tomé Domínguez de Mendoza as caretaker in the governor's office. When Peñalosa arrived in Mexico City, though, he was arrested by the Inquisition. A little less than two years later, in 1665, the inquisitorial judges read out their sentence: prohibition from ever again holding civil or military office, permanent banishment from New Spain, and participation in a formal auto de fe, or act of public penance.

After his banishment and confiscation of his property, Peñalosa sailed to England. There, he offered his knowledge of New Mexico to King Charles II to aid in a possible invasion of Spanish America by the British. But his offer was rebuffed, so he crossed the Channel to France. There he took a French wife and by 1678 was again conspiring against Spanish interests in the Western Hemisphere. In that year he made a formal proposal to King Louis XIV to lead a French expedition to take control of Quivira and Teguayo, where mineral wealth was said to be plentiful. At that time the king deferred making any decision on Peñalosa's proposal.

Four years later, though, the former New Mexico governor renewed his offer, this time addressing it to the French foreign minister, the Marquis de Seignelay. Peñalosa's plan for the invasion of New Spain centered on the establishment of a French colony at the month of the Rio Grande. From there, a French force would easily, according to Peñalosa, be able to occupy the mining region of Nueva Vizcaya. Again, nothing came of this scheme.

Then, within a year or two more, he approached the French authorities with a new idea. Now he suggested that a French colony be planted at or near the mouth of the Río Pánuco, from which, as in his previous plans, the mines of northern New Spain could supposedly be wrested from Spain.

Not coincidentally, a complementary proposal was then being advocated by René Robert Cavelier, the Sieur de la Salle. The famed voyageur had recently completed a reconnaissance by canoe from Montreal in Canada to the confluence of the Mississippi River with the Gulf of Mexico. He then returned to France to lobby for Louis XIV's support of an enterprise that would establish a French settlement near the mouth of the Mississippi. Part of La Salle's plan was also to invade New Spain.

Peñalosa, like La Salle, asked for ships, men, money, and authority over the lands he would seize. In his mind's eye, the disgraced former governor surely envisioned a triumphal return to Santa Fe leading a French troop that would exact vengeance from Peñalosa's enemies there. Yet again, though, the aspiring conqueror was disappointed. No subsidy from the king was forthcoming.

The Spanish turncoat was incredibly persistent, presenting for a fourth and final time the outline of an invasion plan in 1684. In coordination with a combined French and Indian force from La Salle's proposed Mississippi River settlement, Peñalosa was to march from east to west across New Spain, severing the Northern provinces from the viceroyalty. The mines from Durango to Culiacán and all points farther north would quickly fall to France. After the anticipated victory, the former north of New Spain would be separated into "two beautiful, rich governments," one to be administered by Peñalosa and the other by La Salle.

Although Cavelier's proposal was ultimately endorsed and underwritten by Louis XIV, none of the surviving documents include mention of approval of Peñalosa's twin plan. In 1687, the former governor, who styled himself the conde de Santa Fe, died in France. In that same year, La Salle died in what is today East Texas, at the hands of his own men. None of the intentions of the two men to grab northern New Spain for France bore fruit. Peñalosa never again saw New Mexico.

The former governor of New Mexico supported his final proposal to the French monarch with information he said he had obtained during an expedition he made from Santa Fe to Quivira in 1662. He provided his intelligence about Quivira in the form of a report, ostensibly authored by fray Nicolás de Freytas, a Franciscan ally of Peñalosa during his term as New Mexico governor. When the text of the report was published in English in 1882, it resulted in contrasting assessments on either side of the Atlantic. In the United States it was accepted unquestioningly as the genuine record of an actual trip. In Spain, on the other hand, it was proclaimed in print that "Peñalosa did not make such an expedition," and in addition, "forged the work, adding the name of Freytas when he moved to Paris in 1673."

The Freytas report claimed that Peñalosa had set out for Quivira in March 1662. Using Inquisition documents located by Adolph Bandelier in the Archivo General de Indias in Sevilla, Spain, historian Charles Hackett, in 1919, showed that, instead, Peñalosa had left Santa Fe for the Hopi pueblos on April 1, 1662. Other documents showed that Peñalosa had attended a baptism at Isleta Pueblo in mid-June 1662, just at the time when the Freytas report claimed the governor was in Quivira. Together, the Inquisition documents demonstrated that the trip recounted in the Freytas report could not have been made.

Despite the convincing evidence that Peñalosa's trip to Quivira never occurred and that he therefore had no first-hand knowledge of that region, modern scholars still occasionally are deceived and study the so-called Freytas report as though it were factual. But it recounts an imaginary trip reported by a disaffected former governor of New Mexico to further a delusional plan to regain his office. An instance of premeditated deception in a historic document such as this, although rare, is a contingency that historians must always be on the lookout for.

Sources Used:

Hackett, Charles W. "New Light on don Diego de Peñalosa: Proof that He Never Made an Expedition from Santa Fe to Quivira and the Mississippi River in 1662." The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 6(3) (December 1919):313-35.

Kessell, John L. Kiva, Cross, and Crown: the Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Riley, Carroll L. The Kachina and the Cross: Indians and Spaniards in the Early Southwest. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1999.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.

Weddle, Robert S. Wilderness Manhunt: the Spanish Search for La Salle. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1999.