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Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto

by Grace Meredith


Anyone not intimately acquainted with the history and teaching of the Catholic Church, will find it most difficult to understand the real significance of Spanish history during this early period, and to sense subconsciously much less consciously, the inner organism of the religious and political activities. The powers of the King of Spain and of the Holy Catholic Church seem well nigh inseparable. To such a tremendous extent did the one influence the other, it seems inevitable that political and religious history go hand in hand. To mention the early seventeenth century as an interesting, dramatic, fascinating period in New Mexico history seems trite, but such it was; and it is exceedingly difficult to write truthfully and understandingly of it, without taking into long and thoughtful consideration, the strong dualistic and intimate relationship of the secular and ecclesiastical influence and power. The biography of almost any Spanish governor therefore, is linked unavoidably and oft-times fatefully with that of a Franciscan and Nieto is no exception.
It is assumed that Nieto arrived in Santa Fe shortly before, or with that unconquerable Franciscan, Padre Estevan de Perea, who was returning to New Mexico and bringing with him perhaps thirty new friars and a number of lay brothers for missionary work in the province. The party was escorted by about a dozen soldiers. Shortly before this time, the missions in New Mexico had been formed into what was called “custodia de la Conversion de San Pablo.” The first custodian was Friar Alonso de Benavides, who is honored even to this day as a priest‑historian. In the autumn of 1629, Benavides returned to Mexico and in 1630 went to Spain to make a personal report to the King on the state of affairs in New Mexico. Nieto meanwhile had become governor; and Perea was replacing Benavides.
Nieto was more amicable toward the ecclesiastics than most of his predecessors as governor, for historical documents show that he helped them in establishing missions in various localities and assisted them in other ways. In proof of this, it seems advisable to give in part, the Lansing B. Bloom translation of: Fray Estevan de Perea’s RELACION which follows herewith:
“To the nation of the Apaches of Quinia and Manases, went the Father Fray Bartholome Romero, Reader of Theology, and Fray Francisco Munoz, Preacher. And since it was the first entrada to that bellicose Nation of warriors, Don Francisco de Sylva, Governor of those Provinces, went along escorting them with twenty soldiers, although this precaution was not necessary, because on their part (the Apaches) opposition was lacking, and with exceeding pleasure they besought Holy Baptism.”
The Governor having returned with the soldiers to his Headquarters (El Real), the journey to the Crag of Acoma was arranged, and that to the Provinces of Zuni and Moqui, with ten cars and four hundred cavalry horses (caballos de armas) with everything important for the voyage, thirty soldiers well armed, and much better in spirit and fervor; the Father Fray Roque de Figeredo, Fray Francisco de Porras, Fray Andres Gutierres, Fray Augustin de Cuellar, Priests; Fray Francisco de San Buenaventura and Fray Christoval de la Concepcion, Lay Religious. These were accompanied by the Father Custodian and his companion, and the Father Solicitor Fray Thomas Manso. This journey was begun on the 23rd of June of the same year.
It seems wise to pause briefly from Perea’s report, and mention at this time, the sympathetic and fine report of one of our own modern historians, Charles F. Lummis, who writes in his own benign way of a Franciscan who courageously went alone to Acoma. From The Spanish Pioneers and California Missions
In 1629 Fray Juan Ramirez, “the Apostle of Acoma,” left Santa Fe alone to found a mission in that lofty home of fierce barbarians. An escort of soldiers was offered him, but he declined it, and started unaccompanied and on foot, with no other weapon than his crucifix. Tramping his footsore and dangerous way, he came after many days to the foot of the great island of rock, and began the ascent. As soon as the savages saw a stranger of the hated people, they rallied to the brink of the cliff and poured down a great flight of arrows, some of which pierced his robes. Just then a little girl of Acoma, who was standing on the edge of the cliff, grew frightened at the wild actions of her people, and losing her balance tumbled over the precipice. By a strange providence she fell but a few yards, and landed on a sandy ledge near the Fray, but out of sight of her people, who presumed that she had fallen the whole height of the cliff. Fray Juan climbed to her, and carried her unhurt to the top of the rock; and seeing this apparent miracle, the savages disarmed, and received him as a good wizard. The good man dwelt alone there in Acoma for more than twenty years, loved by the natives as a father, and teaching his swarthy converts so successfully that in time many knew their catechism, and could read and write in Spanish. Besides, under his direction they built a large church with enormous labor. When he died in 1664, the Acomas from being the fiercest Indians had become the gentlest in New Mexico, and were among the furthest advanced in civilization.

Going back to the Bloom translation, and quoting from it again to show the good offices of Governor Nieto; Perea says that after arriving at Zuni:
“ its natives, having tendered their good will and their arms, received them with festive applause--a thing never (before) heard of in those regions, that so intractable arid variant nations should receive the Frailes of St. Francis with equal spirit and semblance, as if a great while ago they had communicated with them. From which it is gathered as evident that God hath already disposed this vineyard for the laborers alone. ( In a note, Bloom states: “The Franciscans did not want to share the field with any other order.”) At once the Governor issued an edict that no soldier should enter a house of the Pueblo, nor transgress in aggrieving the Indians, under penalty of his life; it being settled that with suavity and mildness an obstinate spirit can better be reclaimed than with violence and rigor.
And to give that people to understand the veneration due to the Priests, all the times that they arrived where these were, the Governor and the soldiers kissed their feet, falling upon their knees, cautioning the Indians that they should do the same. As they did; for as much as this example of the superiors can do.”

“A house was bought for lodging of the Religious, and at once was the first Church of that Province, where the next day was celebrated the first mass. And hoisting the triumphant standard of the Cross, possession was taken, as well as in the name of the Roman See as in that of the (throne) of Spain. To the first fruits of which there succeeded, on the part of the soldiers, a clamorous rejoicing, with salvo of arquebuses; and in the afternoon, skirmishings and caracolings of the horses. And because the presence of the Governor was already more necessary in the Headquarters of the villa (Santa Fe) then in that place, he arranged to return with the Father Custodian and his companions. The Father Fray Roque de Figueredo pleaded exceedingly to remain there to convert those Gentiles. Well known in this Kingdom for his great prudence, virtue and letters; (he is) endowed with many graces, the principal and most necessary (ones) being to administer and teach these Indians in the Divine worship, as they (now) are; to be eminent in the Ecclesiastical chant, counterpoint and plain; dextrous with the instruments of the Chorus, organ basson, and cornet; experienced in preaching many years in the Mexican (Aztec) tongue and in Matalizinga: of clear understanding and quick to learn any difficult language.”

The mention of music in the above Perea translation, brings to mind the fact that even before Jamestown was founded, a Spaniard named Bernardo de Marta was in New Mexico teaching music! Old documents tell of him that “he was a great musician and was called the organist of the skies; he taught many of the natives in various towns to play and sing.” This was being done during Nieto’s term as governor, and it was indeed continued until the death of de Marta in September of 1635 at Zia, New Mexico.

On this expedition to Zuni, Governor Nieto assisted the Franciscans with other missions: About fifteen miles down the Zuni valley one was established at Hawwikku; and farther west at the Hopi village of Awatobi, Friar Francisco de Porras with three others, founded a mission in August of 1629. About a year later, some of the Indians succeeded in bringing about the death of Porras by poisoning sometime between 1630 and 1632, two other missionaries serving in the Zuni pueblos met their death at the hands of the Indians also. Francisco de Letrado and Martin de Arvide were at Hawwikku, the latter having been assigned to convert the Zipias. Friar Arvide left Zuni for this new field, and was killed most probably by some of the Zuni Indians on February 27th, 1632. Five days before this, on February 22nd, 1632, the Indians at Hawwikku, had killed Friar Letrado. Then this became known in March of the same year, soldiers were sent to Zuni. (presumably by either Governor Nieto or his successor) to punish the Indians for having killed these missionaries.
It is interesting to note that on the Zuni expedition in 1629, some historians say that Nieto had with him about four hundred cavalry horses, ten wagons and that his soldiers were very well armed. Perhaps, this was the reason for the noisy welcome accorded the governor and his party! At any rate, the real feeling at Zuni is shown all‑too‑well by the events recorded in the paragraph above.
On the return trip to Santa Fe in August 1629, Governor Nieto and Father Perea and their companions stopped at El Morro (so named by the Spaniards) or Inscription Rock. It is assumed they camped there because water was obtainable. It is known that someone in the party left historic notes on the rock. There has been considerable question regarding the Nieto inscription and some historians say that he left two. The inscriptions however, are partly obliterated, and Bloom states there was but one of Nieto’s. Mr. A.W. Barth, M. A. of London, England, visited El Morro sometime in the autumn of 1932. He had some correspondence with the officers of the Historical Society and Professor Bloom in a 1933 editorial, gives the Barth data. The Spanish is as follows:
Aqui (llego el senor y gobe) nador Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto
Que lo imposible tiene ya sujeto
Su brazo indubitable y su valor
Con los carros del Rey nuestro senor
Cosa que solo el puso en este efecto
De Agosto (de Mil) seiscientos Veinte y Nueve
Que sbyen a Cuni pase y la Fe lleve
Bloom says the passages in the brackets are conjectural; and that Barth believes this as intended to be read in pentameter verse.
A translation of this same inscription as given by George Wharon James follows:
Here passed the Governor Don Francisco Manuel de Silva Nieto, whose indubitable prowess and valour have already conquered the impossible, with the wagons of Our Lord the King, a thing which he only accomplished, August 9 (one Thousand) Six hundred, Twenty and Nine. That (? it be seen) that I passed to Zuni and carried the Faith.
El Morro or Inscription Rock is a large butte with perpendicular walls about two hundred and twenty‑five feet high. It is now a National Monument and is about seventy odd miles west and slightly north of Acoma and perhaps forty odd miles southeast of present day Zuni. Carvings appear on both the north and south sides and where they are found on the face of the rock, the surface is plain and of a rather soft, smooth sandstone. It would seem that anyone doing this carving, was standing at the base of the rock, as the inscriptions generally speaking are about as high as a man’s hand.
Near the Nieto inscription is the autograph of Juan Gonzales, 1629, who was one of the soldiers of this expedition and had been one of the escorts of Father Perea and his party on the journey of 1628‑1629 to New Mexico.
Perea was not only one of the most remarkable but likewise one of the most important figures in New Mexico history and it seems advisable to state that he was of Portuguese parents and ancestry and that he was born about 1666. For over a year following the departure of Father Benavides in the autumn of 1629, the Inquisition had no legal representative in New Mexico. While Perea’s appointment had probably been decided upon as early as 1627 or 1628, his formal appointment was not sent him until the autumn of 1630, and it was likely not received by him until early January of 1631. The appointment of Perea as local commissary or agent of the Inquisition for New Mexico, was formally celebrated by publication of the edict of the faith in Santa Fe on March 23rd, 1631; and he held this office until his death in 1638 or 1639. The formal celebration of his appointment was held “in the church of San Miguel with due ceremony in the presence of the governor, cabildo, and general assembly of the citizens.”
One of his letters to the Holy Office, dated November 10th, 1631, contains a quaintly sympathetic picture of life in New Mexico at this time: “so difficult in this new land and among this people, from childhood subject to the customs of these Indians, without discipline and schools, to distinguish truth from falsehood; for falsehood is so ordinary a thing in their mouths, even those who blossom out as captains and royal officials that there is no insult to the most honorable of them in saying these things.” Then in speaking of the population of New Mexico, he wrote: “so many mestizos, mulattos, and zambohigos, and others worse, and foreigners; so dangerous and of little moral strength that I am sometimes embarrassed .”
Perea’s activities as agent of the Inquisition in New Mexico in 1631 and 1632 were almost entirely confined to the practise of superstition and the bad influence of Indian customs on the white and half‑caste population. Documentary evidence reveals a rather grotesque and shocking state of affairs during the time Nieto was governor. Men were unfaithful to their wives, and the wives in a desperate effort to regain the loyalty and affections of their husbands, resorted to love potions and superstitious practices which they gained from the Indians. There was also a belief in witches! Perea did have knowledge of these things prior to 1631. The reading of the edict of the faith in March 1631, reviving the authority and the activity of the Inquisition, certainly must have aroused fear in the hearts of the New Mexico people. In his letter to the Holy Office, previously referred to, dated November 10th, 1631, he wrote:
“I have noticed that before the anathema was read to this simple folk they did not have that fear concerning the use of these powders and herbs which they now so truly show. Their hearts are agitated, and they are afraid.”
When Friar Benavides had been made agent of the Inquisition, it had aroused dangerous excitement and anxiety, but his sparing use of power in this connection had calmed the people. Now the reassertion of this authority and power by Perea who was severe and harsh awakened their latent fears and revived their anxiety. The influence of the Inquisition was not an influence of peace and courage, but one of agitation and fear.
The many documentary and historical works which have been consulted, give no space to Nieto’s further activities as governor. Mr. Scholes states in Civil Government in New Mexico, that “Silva Nieto’s own servants had turned against him and one of them murdered him in Zacatecas” Whether or not this was due to Nieto’s friendliness with the Franciscans is not stated, nor how he was murdered, nor when; but sometime in March 1632, another governor arrived in Santa Fe, and soon after, Nieto returned to Mexico.