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Facundo Melgares

A Royalist in Transition:

Facundo Melgares, the Last Spanish Governor of New Mexico: 1818‑1822

by Arthur Gomez

In August 1818 Viceroy Juan Ruíz de Apodaca, the Conde de Venadito, received documents written by an anonymous visitor to New Mexico. These papers, intercepted by Spanish ambassador to the United States, Luis de Onís, revealed startling observations about Spain’s northernmost province that caused grave concern among ruling authorities regarding the state of military preparedness along the northern frontier.

Written in French, the notes were the observations of a military expert who had visited New Mexico some time during the summer of 1817. A summary of the report referenced the vulnerability of the province:

 "I consider New Mexico, in its present position, as one of the most vulnerable points of the Provincias Internas, and because of the facility of communication by land with the United States . . . as one of the most advantageous for insurgents.…"

More alarming to the viceroy than this declaration of New Mexico’s strategic weakness was the implication that only a poorly armed militia, commanded by incompetent officers, protected its borders.[1]

The critical tenor of these remarks doubtless gave Viceroy Ruíz de Apodaca cause for concern. Not only did the document call the efficiency of New Mexico military leaders into question, but it raised serious doubts about the overall defensive capability in one of the northernmost provinces of New Spain. Among the numerous responsibilities expected of a frontier official, maintenance of security and protection of its inhabitants was unques­tionably paramount. In New Mexico, that charge fell directly upon the newly appointed magistrate, Lieutenant Colonel Facundo Melgares, gentleman of the Order of San Hermenegildo, inspector of the standing army, and governor of the province.

Like most crown officials of his day, Melgares was a member of the Spanish upper class. Born in 1775 in Villa Carabaca, Murcia, Spain, Melgares reaped the benefits of formal education and military training afforded only the nobility. A family of considerable social standing in Spain, the Melgares name was highly regarded in the New World as well. One of Facundo’s uncles presided as judge of the Audiencia of New Spain. Moreover, the young second lieutenant married into an influential military family. His father‑in-law, Lieutenant Colonel Alberto Maynez, a future governor of New Mexico, was at the time of Melgares’ arrival to the New World adjutant to the commandant general of the Provincias Internas de Occidente, headquartered in Chihuahua. For this reason, Lieutenant Melgares inaugurated his military career in New Spain not in the comforts of Mexico City as one might have expected, but in the astringent surroundings of the northern frontier.

A second lieutenant in the king’s royal army in 1803, Melgares initiated a standard ten‑year enlistment at the presidio of San Fernando de Carrizal, located seventy‑five miles south of El Paso del Norte. Like most frontier soldiers, he gained combat seasoning through numerous encounters with Apaches, whose incessant raiding upon settlements along the Rio Grande threatened the security of the Spanish frontier.[2]

Proving himself one of Commandant General Nemesio Salcedo’s most capable officers, Melgares appeared in Santa Fe for the first time in command of a contingent of sixty well‑equipped troops. His mission was ostensibly to make a show of force in order to suppress recalcitrant Pawnees, who had recently attacked a Spanish reconnaissance party.[3] Melgares responded to the entreaty of New Mexico Governor Joaquín del Real Alencaster, arriving in the provincial capital on May 30, 1806. While on this temporary assignment, Facundo Melgares participated in an episode of international intrigue that would link his name to American frontier military history for all time.

With the United States acquisition of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, Spain’s uncontested dominion in the borderlands became seriously jeopardized. Indeed, the Anglo‑Americans wasted no time in presenting a challenge to Spain concerning the delineation of the southwestern boundary that separated the two imperialistic countries. In his effort to determine the extent of territory acquired from France, expansionist President Thomas Jefferson requested Congress to appropriate funds sufficient to outfit an exploratory mission into Louisiana Territory. “Extending the external commerce of the U.S.,” was Jefferson’s justification for the expenditure. Under the command of Meriwether Lewis, the president’s private secretary, and a military assistant, William Clark, the expedition departed St. Louis, Missouri, on May 14, 1804, with explicit instructions to “infiltrate Spanish borders whenever necessary”.[4]

Anticipating the United States to send exploration parties into disputed territory, Spanish officials ordered the northeastern periphery of its empire reconnoitered to circumvent any foreign intrusion. Forewarned of the intent of the Lewis and Clark expedition, General Salcedo attended to the urgently worded message from the Marqués Sebastian Calvo de la Puerta y O’Farril of New Orleans, who warned of the impending intrusion. Salcedo forwarded Calvo’s dispatch to then Governor Fernando de Chacón advising that he increase vigilance along New Mexico’s borders.

The message, dated May 3, 1804, instructed Chacón to arrest Captain “Merry,” who was certain to cross into Spanish territory. The commandant general further instructed Chacón to secure the allegiance of neighboring Indian tribes, and to send out reconnaissance parties to determine the exact location of the foreigners. Finally, Salcedo advised his subordinate to employ Pedro Vial, a reputable frontiersman with first hand knowledge of the border region, to head the reconnaissance mission. Two days after Lewis and Clark departed St. Louis, Governor Chacón confirmed the Anglo‑American approach toward New Mexico to his superiors in Chihuahua. Two Apaches, recently arrived in Santa Fe, informed the governor that Captain “Merry” of the United States was exploring the upper reaches of the Missouri River.[5]

In compliance with the general’s mandate, Chacón ordered Pedro Vial and José Jarvet, a soldier‑interpreter with a long standing familiarity among the Pawnees, to reconnoiter the area north of the province to ascertain information about the Americans. Vial’s group left Santa Fe on August 1, 1804, following the Río Las Animas Perdidas en el Purgatario (Purgatoire) to the Napestle (Arkansas) Valley. They turned northeast and followed the Rio Chato (Platte) into present‑day Nebraska. After Vial failed to confirm the presence of the Lewis and Clark expedition, he turned to his second objective: to secure the loyalty of the Pawnees as well as other neighboring tribes to Spain. Crucial to the maintenance of frontier security was the assurance that the Indians remain loyal in the face of Anglo‑American pressure to sway them. General Salcedo rightly feared that the intruders would exert every pressure to undermine Spanish‑Indian alliances on the frontier. Confident of Comanche loyalty, but still skeptical of Pawnee fidelity, Salcedo concentrated his efforts in the north and east. In keeping with Salcedo’s policy, Vial escorted Pawnee chiefs back to Santa Fe, where they received gifts from the governor and pledged the oath of allegiance to the crown.[6]

A second Vial‑Jarvet mission followed in October 1805; however, it met with considerably less success than the first. Chacón’s successor, Joaquín del Real Alencaster, suspected foreign influence among the Pawnees when they failed to return to Santa Fe for their annual trade visit. Three weeks after Vial and Jarvet left Santa Fe, approximately one hundred Indians, identified as either Pawnees or Kiowas, attacked the reconnaissance party. Caught by surprise and substantially outnumbered, the Spaniards had no recourse but to abort the mission and return to the capital.[7]

The governor attributed the debacle to increasing American influence over neighboring Indian tribes. Vial advised his superiors that future reconnaissance parties must be larger and better equipped to be effective. He recommended further that the governor commission a fort be built on the Arkansas River that could serve both as a staging area to protect against American encroachment, and as a base from which to trade with the Indians. In light of the attack on Vial, and his suspicion that the Pawnees may have defected to the American cause, Alencaster summoned reinforcements from Chihuahua. Furthermore, the governor informed General Salcedo of his plan to dispatch yet another reconnaissance mission into Pawnee territory. At this juncture, Lieutenant Melgares arrived from the presidio of Carrizal with additional troops and instructions from Salcedo not only to encounter any American interlopers, but to “drive them back, or capture and take them to Santa Fe.”[8]    

This reference to Salcedo’s directive represents the first documented evidence to suggest that the principal military objective of Facundo Melgares in 1806 was not to intercept Zebulon Pike as historians have traditionally assumed. Indeed, the Spanish officer may have set out for New Mexico to intercept the Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis expedition, known to be in the area in search of the source of the Red River (mistakenly thought to be located near Santa Fe). On the other hand, Melgares may have been in pursuit of William Dunbar, whom Jefferson had ordered to the westernmost fringe of Louisiana. While the Dunbar mission apparently had no direct relationship to the Lewis and Clark venture, Spanish officials were convinced that this was a deliberate attempt by the American president to divert their attention from “Captain Merry.”[9]

Spanish concern about foreign encroachment was not unfounded. During recent months, events had occurred along the disputed international boundary to validate their suspicions about American intent. First, armed American troops forced the Spanish garrison at Los Adaes, near the present Texas‑Louisiana border, to relinquish their post. Concurrently, President Jefferson, in a special message to Congress in March 1806, warned of the possibility of war with Spain over frontier incidents. In a dispatch to Texas Governor Antonio Cordero, Salcedo expressed his uneasiness over the developing situation along the border:

"They [the Americans] are also massing troops without question of expense to hold by force their spoils. They are intriguing with the Indians, have built a storehouse at Natchitoches, and have filled it with gifts for them. It has not been possible for us to oppose them in force, but in order to counteract their influence among the Indians I have despatched [sic] expeditions to the various tribes.…[10]

Historian Warren Cook argues convincingly in Flood Tide of Empire that Facundo Melgares received his orders to march north well in advance of Zebulon Pike’s departure from Missouri. Furthermore, the Melgares expedition, according to Cook, was “too ponderous to have been outfitted and dispatched on a moment’s notice.” This clearly would not have been the case if his objective was to intercept Pike, who left St. Louis in July of 1806 (Melgares departed Santa Fe on June 15). Finally, there is no evidence to prove Salcedo had advance warning of Pike’s foray into Spanish territory before he ordered Melgares to New Mexico.

Thus, it was merely coincidence that Facundo Melgares entered the Arkansas Valley just months before Pike’s arrival. It is not surprising, however, that the two parties did not engage one another since Lieutenant Melgares was probably never looking for Pike. In fact, after Lewis and Clark’s triumphant return to St. Louis on September 23, 1806, Spanish authorities were embarrassed by their failure to abort the mission. Spain had a compelling reason to hide Melgares’ objectives, Cook argues, behind the readymade excuse of Pike’s coming.[11]

That Melgares was prepared to carry out his orders from General Salcedo is indisputable. He may have been surprised, however, when informed about additional duties awaiting him once he arrived at the presidio of Santa Fe. At the last minute, Governor Real Alencaster assigned the young lieutenant to complete Pedro Vial’s mission, which had failed for a third time because of desertion and mutiny among the militia enlistees and Indian auxiliaries. Melgares accepted his new task with all the pageantry worthy of his affluent life style. He amassed the largest expeditionary force to penetrate the northern plains since the days of Juan Bautista de Anza. Adding forty‑five army regulars from the presidio of Santa Fe to the sixty men he brought with him from Chihuahua, Melgares recruited another four hundred local militia and one hundred Indian allies. Each regular was equipped with two horses, one mule, and six month’s provisions.[12]

The governor’s instructions stressed three objectives: first, descend the Red River and engage the American intruders; second, explore the region from New Mexico to the Missouri River; and third, visit the Pawnees to negotiate a treaty in which they must agree to prevent American passage through their lands. Melgares fulfilled the latter directive through his encounter with several Pawnee chiefs, convincing them to enter into a formal agreement with Spain. At this point, Melgares divided his troops, taking a smaller contingent to visit outlying camps. He informed the Indians of future visits and revealed Salcedo’s plan to build a fort on the Arkansas. Unable to verify signs of foreign encroachment, and convinced he had secured the Pawnees’ loyalty, Melgares arrived back in Santa Fe on October 1, 1806.

Meanwhile, on September 1, Lieutenant Zebulon Pike entered the same Pawnee village that the Spaniards had visited just months before. As promised, the Indians tried to turn the Americans back, but without success. Instead, the party followed the Rio Grande (which Pike later testified he mistook for the Red River) toward New Mexico. The column camped near the north face of the Sangre de Cristos, which Pike erroneously believed formed a natural barrier between Spanish and American territory. In January 1807, the Americans crossed the snow‑covered range—less than one hundred miles northwest of Taos—into Spanish domain. It was here that Pike ordered his men to build a small stockade on the Conejos River, a western tributary of the Rio Grande.[13]

Reaction from the governor of New Mexico was swift and effective. In late February, he despatched Lieutenants Ignacio Saltelo and Bartolomé Fernández to inform the Americans of their error. Saltelo’s instructions were not to engage the intruders; rather, he was to provide Pike’s snow‑bound party with mules, horses, money, or whatever he [Pike] required to depart the territory. Once the Spaniards rescued the Americans, they escorted them to Santa Fe as instructed to meet with Governor Real Alencaster. The exhausted and shivering contingent arrived in the provincial capital on March 3, 1807.[14]

Assuring the foreigners that they were technically not under arrest, the governor ordered that they be escorted to Chihuahua to discuss the purpose of their expedition to the Spanish frontier with Commandant General Nemesio Salcedo. It was on this journey to military headquarters in Chihuahua, that Zebulon Pike first encountered his Spanish counterpart. On March 8, Melgares’ troops, who left the village of San Fernández, met the military escort led by Captain Antonio de Almansa. It appears that from the moment of his arrival, the junior‑grade officer made a positive impression on Pike, which remained with him for years to come.

The two soldiers spent several days discussing personal and military matters. Their daily association inspired the American to write this assessment of Melgares to his commanding officer:

"Melgares possesses none of the haughty Castillian pride, but much of the urbanity of Frenchmen; and I will add my feeble testimony of his loyalty by declaring that he was one of the few officers or citizens whom I found who were loyal to their king, who felt indignant at the degraded state of the Spanish monarch, who deprecated a revolution or separation of Spanish America from the mother country, unless France should usurp the government of Spain.[15]

Pike also wrote a letter to Real Alencaster endorsing the governor’s confidence in the lieutenant as a “gentleman and a soldier.” The American officer had little criticism of his captor except to say that he was self‑indulgent as evidenced by the luxurious manner in which Melgares traveled. Pike also observed the lieutenant to be overbearing with his own troops, but qualified this censure by insisting Melgares was quite popular with the local civilian population.[16]

On one occasion, Melgares related a story to Pike about his recent journey into Pawnee territory. Petitioned by two hundred of his militia to turn back home, he halted his march and constructed a gallows. At that point, he separated the petitioners from the rest of the unit, singled out the man who had presented the demands, and had him flogged as an example to anyone else who contemplated mutiny. This incident underscored Melgares’ determination to avoid the embarrassment that had befallen Pedro Vial. Moreover, it indicated the degree to which he was prepared to carry out his duty successfully.[17]

As quickly as their friendship began, it terminated with the escort’s arrival in Chihuahua. There the two soldiers separated, never to encounter one another again. Zebulon Pike spent the next month at military headquarters in Chihuahua before General Salcedo allowed him and his men to return home. Eventually promoted to the rank of brigadier general, Pike saw action during the War of 1812 before he was fatally wounded while leading an assault against the British at present‑day Toronto. Facundo Melgares returned to Carrizal, perhaps somewhat enlightened by his unexpected encounter with the foreigners.

Melgares soon found the opportunity to prove his loyalty to the Spanish empire in its defense against rebel insurrectionists. Shortly after Mexico’s declaration of independence in 1810, Melgares, promoted to the rank of captain, led a royalist force from Carrizal against Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla’s troops under siege at Saltillo, Coahuila. After the rebel defeat at Puente de Calderón near Guadalajara, Hidalgo and Ignacio Allende retreated north to Coahuila. Sensing victory, General Félix Calleja and one of his ablest officers, Colonel Alejo García Conde, relentlessly pursued the rebel forces. Pushed farther into northern Mexico, Allende sought refuge among rebel supporters in Saltillo. Before reaching its protective walls, however, royalist forces under Captain Melgares had stormed the rebel stronghold only to be repulsed. On March 21, 1811, after days of intense fighting, Calleja’s army, including Melgares’ fatigued Carrizal regulars, defeated the insurgents and arrested their leaders near Monclova, Coahuila.[18]

Inasmuch as Hidalgo and Allende were captured within the jurisdiction of the Internal Provinces, the prisoners were marched in chains to stand trial in Chihuahua. Forming the military escort were Manuel Salcedo, governor of Texas and nephew of the commandant general, and Captain Melgares. While it is not clear whether Melgares participated in either the trial or execution of Hidalgo or Allende, it is known that he sat on the military tribunal in judgment against other insurgents. In March 1811 Captain Juan Bautista de Las Casas of San Antonio de Béxar led a revolt in support of Hidalgo that was quickly suppressed. Las Casas was found guilty of treason, shot in the back, and decapitated. Again the royalist captain, among the five officers who invoked the death sentence, demonstrated his intolerance for all forms of rebellion against the crown.[19]

Presumably, Melgares returned to his post on the northern frontier after his brief campaign in Coahuila. Not until 1817, when political events in Europe and the United States precipitated renewed threats to New Mexico, does the name Facundo Melgares reappear on the active duty roster, this time as commander of presidial troops in Santa Fe. In that year, the French minister to the United States, Baron Guillaume Hyde de Neuville received word that French exiles in New Orleans conspired to invade New Mexico. Concerned that such an overt act of aggression would embarrass France, the minister ordered an investigation. He assigned two former French army officers, Louis DeMun and Edouard Lavaud to infiltrate Spanish territory to assess the situation. After spending most of the summer in the field, the two Frenchmen returned to Washington, where DeMun presumably compiled his detailed report on the defense capabilities of Spain’s northernmost province. It was this report, intercepted and forwarded to Viceroy Ruíz de Apodaca the following year, that caused widespread distress among Spanish authorities.[20]

In the winter of 1817, New Mexico Governor Pedro María de Allande received word from Apache informants that Americans, allied with the Comanches, planned to invade the province. Spanish uneasiness was temporarily assuaged, however, when the reconnaissance forays of Corporal Juan Lucero into the eastern borderlands failed to substantiate the rumor. In January 1818 Ambassador Onís warned of another impending American invasion from Louisiana. The attack never came. Still, the viceroy urged Allande to maintain strict surveillance along the border.[21]

Apprised of the situation, recently appointed Commandant General Alejo García Conde, the hero of Saltillo, advised the governor that reinforcements from Chihuahua, under the command of Captain Melgares, were en route to New Mexico. In July 1818 Melgares arrived in Santa Fe, with a detachment of veteran troops and a detailed strategy for the defense of the city. He quickly assumed the position of acting governor of the province. One month later, the king, with the endorsement of Viceroy Ruíz de Apodaca and General García Conde, appointed Melgares governor of New Mexico and promoted him to the rank of lieutenant colonel.[22]

Like other magistrates, Governor Melgares assumed his new administrative position with enthusiasm and an unfaltering devotion to duty. All civil and military activity in New Mexico fell under his direction, subject to the scrutiny of the commandant general in Chihuahua and the viceroy in Mexico City. His responsibilities included routine administrative functions as well as military supervision over defense needs throughout the province. Responsibility for the maintenance and training of regular presidial troops and civilian militia fell to Melgares. In this capacity, the governor’s commitment to protection against Indian hostility throughout his jurisdiction was imperative. In light of recent threats to security along the northern border, Melgares assumed the added responsibility of assuring vigilance against foreign intruders.

Scarcely a month in office, Governor Melgares exercised these obligations on two separate fronts. In early September, the governor received reports from concerned alcades that Navajos were raiding the northern villages. The governor issued a proclamation to all citizens of New Mexico, calling for grain contributions and other supplies to aid forces stationed in Santa Fe. Melgares even made a personal donation of grain and sheep “for the glory of the king and the nation.” More disturbing was the dearth of metal—always in short supply on the frontier for making weapons. In his zeal to attend to defense needs, Melgares solicited donations of metal, suggesting to one local priest that the church donate its bell to be melted down and cast into munitions.[23]

The governor’s intent was clear. He was committed to a retaliatory campaign against the Navajo. Still, the presidio at Santa Fe numbered only 167 combat‑ready troops. This shortage of soldiers left the governor no recourse but to request help from Chihuahua and to rely heavily upon local militia to carry out the punitive expedition. Melgares received praise from his superiors for his decisive action in response to Indian depredations. More important to the governor, General García Conde transferred a detachment of sixty armed regulars from the presidio of San Eleazario near El Paso to aid in the Navajo campaign.[24]

By late October, the governor was prepared to answer the Navajo threat. He forwarded a dispatch to Captain Andrés Gómez Sañudo, commander of the second militia in Taos, instructing him to advance to the village of Jemez and initiate the campaign no later than November 7. As with most of his undertakings, Lieutenant Colonel Melgares pursued his war against the Navajo with grim resolve. He vowed to either subdue them, or drive them into the California desert. He made no distinction between the Navajo and the Apache; in his judgment, both were a menace to the frontier. His military policy toward the Navajo was uncompromising, as evidenced in his pledge to orchestrate their removal from New Mexico:

"I do not believe that it is humanly possible for them [Navajo] to escape ruination or flight to the other side of the Rio Colorado … in which case we shall be rid of our trouble‑some neighbor."[25]

His determination to punish the enemy notwithstanding, events in Mexico City forced the governor to postpone the campaign.

Orders from his superiors in Mexico City, who by this time were in possession of the anonymous notes forwarded from New Orleans, directed the governor to fortify El Vado, Ojo Caliente, and Taos, three of New Mexico’s northernmost outposts. While the viceroy fully appreciated the urgency resulting from the Navajo raids, the specter of foreign invasion deserved immediate attention. In fact, Ruíz de Apodaca voiced alarm that the Americans were arming the Pawnees, whom he believed posed a more imminent danger to frontier security than the Navajo.

The French document emphasized three main points in its overall negative assessment of New Mexico’s defensive capability. First, manpower distribution was pitifully low among all military installations. With only a handful of seasoned regulars scattered about the province, defense units consisted mainly of ill‑equipped, poorly trained, and generally unpaid militia. Second, New Mexico lacked the supplies to effectively compete with the Americans for Indian allegiance. Therefore, local tribes could be easily consolidated against Spain in the event of an American invasion. Finally, government‑sanctioned reconnaissance missions proved generally ineffective. DeMun concluded from these observations that a well‑mounted expedition, staged out of St. Louis, could readily overwhelm the province. The report concluded with a designation of three routes into New Mexico viewed as most suitable for a planned invasion: (1) Sangre de Cristo Pass (present La Veta Pass in Colorado) was the most accessible, especially from the Huerfano Valley; (2) Taos, easily attainable from a branch of the Red River; and (3) El Vado road, although possible, considered the poorest entry point because of its frequency of travel.[26]

While DeMun’s observations were no doubt distressing to civil and military authorities in Chihuahua and Mexico City, this was not the first time the province had been singled out as a weak link in Spain’s frontier defenses. As early as 1812, Pedro Bautista de Pino, New Mexico’s delegate to the Spanish Cortes in Cádiz, underscored similar flaws in the province’s defense structure. At that time, Pino called for the expansion of all military forces in addition to the establishment of five more presidios. Spanish officials, however, dismissed his request as unnecessary and too expensive. In 1817 Arséne Lácarrier Latour, another French visitor to the Internal Provinces, not only observed the same weaknesses but suggested improvements to the captain‑general in Havana. Again, these recommendations were ignored. Thus, in responding to the most current reports of foreign encroachment upon Spanish soil, it is not surprising that Ruíz de Apodaca viewed them with grave concern.[27]

Two months prior to the viceroy’s alert against foreign invasion, Facundo Melgares had ordered a reconnaissance of the Arkansas Valley to substantiate rumors concerning American presence among the Pawnees. Melgares derived his information from the sworn testimony of Corporal José Cayetano Hernández, a deserter from Carrizal captured by Indians and held prisoner for several years. Once escaped, Hernández reached safety in Taos and warned military authorities about the impending danger. Hernández testified that while he was held captive, an American army officer visited the Pawnees to propose a plan of unification with the Kiowas in a cooperative effort to invade Spanish territory. The officer, according to Hernández, promised to arm the Indians in return for their pledge of loyalty. Both tribes were to meet in the fall at La Agua Gerbidora (Manitou Springs, Colorado) to finalize plans for the attack on New Mexico. While admitting he never actually saw any Americans, Hernández judged more than three hundred Indians received arms and training.[28]

Though skeptical of this testimony, the governor nevertheless forwarded a copy of Hernández’ statement to General García Conde. As an added precaution, Melgares dispatched Second Lieutenant José Maria de Arce north for verification. Arce outfitted his party of 120 men and set out from Taos on September 1, 1818. Shortly after their departure from northern New Mexico, an additional force of more than four hundred men under the command of Juan de Dios Peña, the alcalde mayor of Taos, joined the expedition. Arce’s orders specified no engagement with the Americans, if encountered. Rather, he should observe American activity and report their movements back to the governor. Arce’s men crossed the Sangre de Cristos into the Huerfano Valley and proceeded to the Platte River. After a month of reconnaissance, the officer returned to Santa Fe, reporting no sign of the intruders. Perhaps more reassuring to Melgares was Arce’s affirmation that the Indians remained loyal to the crown, and would sound an advance warning of any danger.[29]

Other intelligence, which Melgares gathered concurrently with Arce’s mission, confirmed the lieutenant’s belief that the Indians were quiescent. Before Arce’s return to Santa Fe, Captain Sañudo advised that Pedro Martín, a resident of Taos, recently returned from a visit to Kiowa country where he conferred with a Kiowa chief. The Indian leader denied any intention to invade New Mexico, and pledged his willingness to remain on good terms with the Spanish. Another mission, that of Corporal Juan Lucero, who reconnoitered Comanche territory in November 1818, confirmed no evidence of American activity. Indeed, Corporal Lucero returned to Santa Fe with hundreds of Comanches to engage in trade. This gesture seemed a clear indication to governor Melgares that the frontier was secure, and that Hernández’ testimony was a complete fabrication.[30]

Secure in the belief that the frontier was in no immediate danger of foreign attack, Governor Melgares submitted his informe to Mexico City. Despite these assurances, Ruíz de Apodaca insisted that El Vado, Ojo Caliente, and Taos be fortified. While it is not certain why the viceroy re­mained skeptical, perhaps one possibility is suggested in DeMun’s statement about the over all effectiveness of Spanish reconnaissance:

The governor of the province sends out from time to time parties to reconnoiter the country and see what is going on there. But these parties, where they go customarily never encounter enemies, (and) are very negligent.[31]

Melgares responded to the charges of negligence by insisting that while there were some inadequacies, the French report was grossly exaggerated. The governor added that his intelligence gathering efforts fell under the command of competent officers. Some missions, in fact, were carried out “as far as 100 leagues from Santa Fe” with no measurable results. He admitted, however, that because he lacked veteran troops, he relied too heavily upon local militia and Pueblo auxiliaries to defend the province.

For this reason, the governor requested reinforcements in the amount of 500 regulars—half of them infantry armed with muskets and bayonets—and pledged his commitment to fortify the northernmost outposts as directed. At addition, Melgares vowed to resume the Navajo campaign. He proposed to accomplish this dual challenge by dividing his forces on two fronts: 600 troops to defend Taos, and 400 to secure El Vado against the possibility of foreign attack. Meanwhile, a force of 800 men would be held in reserve to address problems with the Navajo. In the governor’s own words, he was bent on “defending the province if any kind of enemy tries to dispute our beneficent sovereign’s undeniable right to it.”[32]

Apparently, the viceroy did not share Melgares’ confidence in New Mexico’s state of military preparedness. Moreover, he questioned the governor’s assessment that an American attack was unlikely. For this reason, Ruíz de Apodaca ordered the commandancy of the Internal Provinces transferred from Chihuahua to Durango, so that he could scrutinize military activities more closely. This general feeling of mistrust between the central government in Mexico City and outlying provincial authorities mirrored the internal problems that plagued Spain in the final days of its empire in America. It can be argued that Facundo Melgares, not unlike many of his contemporaries, fell victim to the bureaucratic system he fought so desperately to maintain.

To be sure, Melgares did his utmost to fulfill his duty to the king of Spain; his efforts, unfortunately, were all too often in vain. Once, for example, his superiors directed him to place defensive fortifications along New Mexico’s northernmost mountain passes. The governor responded with a detailed, cost‑effective plan to construct temporary rather then permanent installations. The viceroy forwarded the suggestions to his royal engineers, who promptly rejected the structures because they were “unsuitable to the terrain.” The decision forced Melgares to halt construction and forward detailed maps of the topography to Mexico City—1,500 miles away! When the commandant general informed Melgares that he could not spare the 500 troops he requested, the governor offered an alternative plan. If García Conde provided New Mexico with 4,500 pesos per month, plus the necessary equipment, the governor promised to personally reorganize and train the local militia to combat effectiveness. Again, the viceroy rejected his proposal.[33]

For all the anxiety the anonymous French report caused officials in Mexico City, the American invasion never came. By February 1819 it appeared that the New Mexico frontier was secure except for the nagging recurrence of Navajo raiding. Melgares wasted no time in attending to the problem of Indian unrest. Acting Commandant General Antonio Cordero, however, instructed the governor to “make peace with the Indians by any means practical.”34 [34]Melgares, in response, resumed the fighting on the pretext that the Hopi requested Spanish protection against their implacable foe. The request, according to Melgares, was unprecedented; therefore, he responded enthusiastically in hope that his action would improve diplomatic relations with the traditionally defiant Hopi.

When informed that Governor Melgares had taken up arms against the Navajo, Viceroy Ruíz de Apodaca communicated his displeasure in a message to General Cordero:

"Melgares has launched a campaign despite their [Navajo] peace proposal. I highly disapprove of his action in not accepting peace. Tell him that I personally disapprove of his action and give him the necessary advice.[35]

Despite this personal reprimand, Melgares pursued the campaign to successful termination, and concluded a formal peace agreement between Spain and the Navajo on August 21, 1819.

With the frontier quiescent at last, Governor Melgares enjoyed relative peace in New Mexico for the remaining three years of his term. His final years as governor were marked by a seemingly unfaltering devotion to the Spanish monarchy—even up to the moment of Mexican independence. Just weeks after Agustín de Iturbide announced his celebrated Plan de Iguala, the New Mexico magistrate issued a counter proclamation to all citizens of the province to reaffirm their loyalty to the crown and the Constitution of 1812. Nevertheless, when issued a direct order from Commandant General García Conde to swear allegiance to the new republic, the staunch royalist reluctantly complied. According to historian David J. Weber, on September 11, 1821, “near the ill‑kept palace of the governors,” citizens from Albuquerque and other ranching communities as well as neighboring Indian Pueblos “swore dutifully to uphold the new regime.[36] Perhaps Melgares consented to do so more out of an obligation to obey a direct order than out of a sense of patriotism for the new republic.

Whatever his motive for swearing allegiance, the advent of the republic marked the end of Melgares’ career as a colonial administrator. It appears, however, that his final days as governor were not without controversy. On July 5, 1822, citizens of the province brought charges against the governor resulting in his dismissal from administrative office. He continued to serve in a military capacity until October when his successor, Francisco Xavier Chávez, assumed office. While the exact nature of the charges brought against Melgares are not known, they may have stemmed from an incident involving a local priest from Abiquiú. The prelate attempted to transfer communal property located in the pueblo to the Church. Melgares declared the transaction illegal. It certainly would not have been the first time a member of the clergy exerted pressure for the removal of an uncooperative civil official. It should be noted, however, that in August 1823 the ex‑governor was exonerated of all charges brought against him.[37]

Despite the personal controversy that clouded his tenure, the record validates Melgares as an effective military leader and loyal civil administrator. He accepted, without question, the duties of his office and carried them out to the fullest capacity. In the face of foreign invasion, don Facundo marshaled all of the limited resources at his disposal to meet the challenge that never materialized. If the governor deserved a reprimand from his superiors, it should have been for his zealous determination to bring the Navajo to the peace table, and not for dereliction of duty.

Even his adversarial attitude toward Indians as a soldier gave way to just and equal treatment as an civil administrator. During his tenure as governor, Melgares viewed the law regarding the creation of municipal governments as extending to the Pueblo Indians. When the Constitution of 1812 declared all residents of the New World citizens, Melgares interpreted this to apply to the Pueblo people. Colonial expert, Marc Simmons, noted that the governor decreed the Pueblo Indians should be regarded “as Spaniards in all things, exercising especially their rights to vote and to stand as candidates for office.” By late 1820 most of the Pueblos had installed formal municipal governments.[38]

It might be said of Melgares that his only obvious shortcoming was that of being a royalist in transition, caught at the crossroads of empire. It was not within his power—or any other frontier commander—to alter the course of a decaying monarchy, regardless of his unwavering loyalty. History seems to indicate that Governor Melgares inherited the deficiencies cited in the DeMun report. Yet, he worked tirelessly to overcome them and avert a foreign takeover. His principal obligation to the crown and to the citizens of New Mexico was to maintain peace; to that end he was successful. While it cannot be denied that his military exploits were blemished by personal controversy as an administrator, Melgares remained loyal to the Spanish cause, even in its final hour. Was his decision in 1821 to challenge the new political order grounded in deep‑rooted political conviction or did it stem from selfish motivation? As it now stands, we must conclude that he addressed the myriad problems inherent in a transitional government. In the end, Facundo Melgares, the last Spanish governor of New Mexico, was one of the many victims of an empire in decline.




[1] “Notes Concerning the Provinces of New Mexico Collected on My Mission West,” in Alfred B. Thomas, ed., “An Anonymous Description of New Mexico, 1818, “ South­west Quarterly Review, 33 (July 1929): 64‑66; Historians have speculated as to the identity of the observer. Ramón Ruíz suggests it may have been Jules DeMun, a trapper known to have visited New Mexico about this time; see, Ramón Eduardo Ruíz, “For God and Counry: A Brief History of Spanish Defensive Efforts Along the Northeastern Frontier of New Mexico,” (master’s thesis, Claremont Graduate School, 1948), 146. Another scholar, however, identifies the observer as Lieutenant Colonel Louis DeMun, brother of Jules, who was assigned by the French government to reconnoiter New Mexico, Donald A. Nuttall, “The American Threat to New Mexico, 1804‑1822,” (master’s thesis, San Diego State College, 1959), 181.

[2] Thomas Bolkan, “Facundo Melgares and the Northern Frontier of New Spain,” (master’s thesis, University of New Mexico, 1965), 4‑10; Facundo Melgares personally related his combat experience against Apaches in, Zebulon M. Pike, Explorations to the Source of the Mississippi in 1805 through the Territory of Louisiana and the Provinces of New Spain in 1806‑1807 (Denver: W. H. Lawrence and Co., 1889), 261.

[3] The reconnaissance party was that of Pedro Vial and José Jarvet discussed in greater detail below, see, Warren L. Cook, Flood Tide of Empire: Spain and the Pacific North­west, 1543‑1819 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 477.

[4] Governor Fernando Chacón to General Nemesio Salcedo, Santa Fe, May 16, 1804, SANM II: 1730.

[5] Ibid., 446‑57; Vial gained his intimate knowledge of the Red River region in 1787 when Governor Domingo Cabello of Texas commissioned him to establish an overland route from San Antonio to Santa Fe.

[6] Cook, Flood Tide, 462‑65.

[7] Cook, Flood Tide, 462‑69; Abraham P. Nasatir, Borderland in Retreat: From Span­ish Louisiana to the Far Southwest (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976), 140‑41; Nuttall, “The American Threat to New Mexico,” 70.

[8] Alencaster to Salcedo, Santa Fe, December 25, 1805, SANM II: 1937; and January 4, 1806, SANM II: 1942.

[9] Salcedo to Casa Clavo, Chihuahua, April 12, 1806, SANM II: 1856; Warren Cook is among the earliest historians to revise the long‑held notion that Melgares was searching specifically for Zebulon Pike. He explains the expedition to New Mexico as “a combined expedition to the Red iver and the Pawnee country.” Cook, Flood Tide of Empire, 446‑90; for a more recent opinion, see, David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 294, 462n.

[10] Cook. Flood Tide, 476.

[11] Cook, Flood Tide, 481‑82. Pike apparently believed himself to be the object of Melgares’ search; see, Donald Jackson, ed., The Journals of Zebulon Montgomery Pike. With Letters and Related Documents, 2 vols. (Norman, Oklahoma, 1966), 1:323‑24; Although Melgares nearly chanced to encounter the Pike expedition near a Pawnee village on the Republican River in present southern Nebraska, the Spaniard instead made a broad sweep of the plains in search of the known Freeman‑Custis expedition; see, Weber, Spanish Frontier in North America, 294.

[12] Salcedo to Alencaster, Chihuahua, May 30; July 18, 1806, SANM II 2001, refers to the desertions and Vial’s third mission; a later document refers to the trial of the deserters, Alencaster to Salcedo, Santa Fe, June 16, 1807, SANM II: 2058.

[13] The official purpose of the Pike mission in 1806 remains unclear. Most historians believe that Pike’s orders came directly from then governor of Louisiana, General James B. Wilkinson, suspected of plotting an invasion of New Mexico; see, Donald Jackson, “How Lost Was Pike?” American Heritage 16 (February 1965): 10‑15, 75‑80; Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America, 294‑95; Nuttall, “American Threat to New Mexico,” 85‑86.

[14] Ralph Emerson Twitchell, The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, 5 vols. (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1911‑1917), 3:466.

[15] Pike, Explorations, 259.

[16] Jackson, Journals of Pike, 1:324.

[17] Ibid., 1:406.07.

[18] H. H. Bancroft, History of Mexico, 6 vols. (San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Company Publishers, 1886‑1888), 4:268‑70; Michael C. Meyer and William Sherman, The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1979), 290‑91.

[19] David J. Weber, The Mexican Frontier, 1821‑1846: The American Southwest Un­der Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), 9.

[20] During the War of 1812, Louis DeMun held the rank of lieutenant colonel in the United States Army, Nuttall, “American Threat to New Mexico,” 179‑81; Nasatir says an attack took place in Texas but failed, Borderland in Retreat, 152‑53.

[21] Nasatir, Borderland in Retreat, 151; Allande to alcaldes of Conchita, Alameda, Albuquerque, and Belen, Santa Fe, March 2, 1818, SANM II: 2714.

[22] Nuttall, “American Threat to New Mexico,” 166.

[23] Governor to alcaldes, Santa Fe, September 11, 1818, SANM II: 2743; Bolkan, “Facundo Melgares,” 21.

[24] Duty roster for the presidio of Santa Fe, January 1, 1818, SANM II: 2707; García Conde to Melgares September 15, 1818, SANM II: 2774; for a list of troops dispatched from the San Eleazario Company in El Paso see, 28 October 1818, SANM II: 2761.

[25] Melgares to Sañudo, Santa Fe, October 30, 1818, SAM II: 2764; Frank D. Reeve, “Navaho Foreign Affairs, 1795‑1846. Part 11, 1816‑1824,” Eleanor B. Adams and John L. Kessell, eds., New Mexico Historical Review 46 (July 1971): 232‑33.

[26] Reeve, “Navaho Foreign Affairs, 230‑33; Nuttall, “American Threat to New Mexico,” 163, 187‑91; Thomas, “An Anonymous Description,” 53.

[27] Pedro Bautista de Pino’s published commentary on conditions in New Mexico, Exposición sucinta y sencilla de la provincia del Nuevo México, is briefly summarized in John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513‑1821 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), 219; Nuttall, “American Threat to New Mexico,” 163; Edwin 11. Carpenter, Jr., “Arséne Lácarrier Latour,” Hispanic American Historical Review 18 (May 1938): 221‑27; Ruíz, “For God and Country,” 150‑54.

[28] Alfred B. Thomas and Frank Reeve do not agree on Hernández’s status as a deserter. Reeve argues José Cayetano Hernández abandoned his post at Carrizal, “Navajo Foreign Affairs,” 230; Thomas claims Hernández was medically discharged, then accused of deserting his family in order to journey north to trade with the Pawnees, Alfred B. Thomas, ed., “Documents Bearing Upon the Northern Frontier of New Mexico, 1818‑1819,” New Mexico Historical Review 4 (April 1929): 153‑55.

[29] For a detailed translation of Arce’s personal diary, see Thomas, “Documents,” 157-64; Juan de Dios Peña to Melgares, Taos, November 4, 1818, SANM II: 2768; Nuttall, “American Threat to New Mexico, “ 174‑77.

[30] Sañudo to Melgares, Taos, September 22, 1818, SANM II: 2749; General Alejo García Conde sent Melgares the message informing him of Lucero’s return and of his findings. He advised the governor to make preparations to trade with the Comanche, García Conde to Melgares, Durango, November 9, 1818, SANM II: 2771; John L. Kessell, Kiva, Cross, and Crown: The Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840 (Washington D.C.: U. S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1979), 436.

[31] Thomas, “Anonymous Description,” 64‑65.

[32] Melgares once sent a reconnaissance mission as far as the Yellowstone Valley, Wyoming, in his quest to substantiate the rumor of American encroachment, Alfred B. Thomas, “The Yellowstone River, James Long and Spanish Reaction to American Intrusion into Spanish Dominion, 1818‑1819,” New Mexico Historical Review 4 (April 1929): 164‑77; Reeve, “Navaho Foreign Affairs,” 230; Nuttall, “American Threat in New Mexico,” 199‑200.

[33] Nuttall, “American Threat to New Mexico,” 201‑12.

[34] Bolkan, “Facundo Melgares,” 29.

[35] Reeve. “Navaho Foreign Affairs.” 230‑33.

[36] Apparently, there was a brief resumption of hostilities between the Spanish and the Navajos during these three years; see, Melgares to García Conde, Santa Fe, July 25, 1821, SANM II: 2994; Melgares to the Citizens of New Mexico, Santa Fe, March 3, 1821, SANM II: 2969.