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New Mexico in the 18th Century

by Robert Torrez

The 1700s were a period of extraordinary change for New Mexico. From the time New Mexico was settled by the Spanish in 1598, the colony was essentially a government-subsidized Franciscan mission for the Pueblo Indians. Following the Pueblo Revolt and Reconquest, the authority of the Church was reduced substantially. Because of the expanding influence of the French, English, and Russians in North America, New Mexico developed into a defensive zone against these enemies of the Spanish Crown.

One of the most significant modifications of Spanish policy occurred as a direct result of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. On that fateful August morning, the Pueblos were on the verge of losing their cultural identity due to the suppression and exploitation they had endured almost since the day New Mexico was colonized by the Spanish. While the revolt succeeded only in temporarily expelling the Spanish from New Mexico, it did force the Spanish government to reassess the manner in which they conducted relations with the region's native peoples. The ultimate success of the revolt lay in the resulting changes in Spanish attitudes that enabled the Pueblo to maintain their language and ancient religious practices.

During the 18th century it became Spanish practice, if not official policy, to be more tolerant of Pueblo religious and cultural ceremonies. This was partially the result of the hard lessons learned from the Pueblo Revolt, but there were other practical reasons. After the reconquest of 1692-93, the Spanish realized they would have to cooperate with their Pueblo neighbors in order to defend the colony against the various tribes that besieged them from all directions.

The 18th century was an incessant cycle of raids on Spanish settlements and Pueblos by the various nomadic Indian groups that inhabited New Spain's northern frontier followed by Spanish retaliatory campaigns. To fully understand the scope of this problem, it is necessary to realize that New Mexico was quite literally surrounded by hostile tribes. Along New Mexico's northern and eastern frontier were the Comanche and Jicarilla Apache. Also to the north and northwest were the Utes, who constantly fought with the Comanche but who also frequently raided the Spanish towns and Pueblos of the upper Rio Grande. To the northwest was Navajo territory, and to the southwest, south, and southeast, the various Apache tribes. With this in mind, it is not difficult to see why Indian relations dominated New Mexico during this period.

While each of these tribes presented New Mexico with problems at various times during the century, the Comanche, who are mentioned in Spanish chronicles as early as 1705, posed the greatest threat to the colony's survival. By 1750, this tribe had extended its power throughout much of what is now eastern Colorado, northeast New Mexico, and western Texas. Spanish archives tell of Comanche attacks on many Rio Grande communities throughout the century, including Taos, Picuris, Pecos, and Albuquerque.

In the 1770s, the Spanish government developed an aggressive policy designed to defeat the various unfriendly Indian tribes in northern New Spain and obtain peace treaties with them. Implementation of this policy in New Mexico fell to Juan Bautista de Anza, who was appointed Governor in 1777. Governor de Anza decided that to establish peace with the many hostile tribes that threatened New Mexico's frontier, he first had to break the power of the Comanche. To accomplish this, he needed to deal decisively with Cuerno Verde (Green Horn), the most influential Comanche chief of the time.

In 1779, de Anza managed to surprise Cuerno Verde south of present day Pueblo, Colorado. In the ensuing battle, Cuerno Verde was killed and his tribe decisively beaten. Despite the defeat, Comanche raiding on New Mexico did not stop immediately. Ironically, the effort to follow up and force the Comanche into peace negotiations was hindered by the subsequent diversion of Spanish resources to support the American colonies' rebellion against England.

Governor de Anza finally entered into a formal peace treaty with the Comanche in 1786. This treaty not only ended their raids on New Mexico's settlements but gained the Spanish a valuable ally against the Apache. It was an agreement the Comanche honored for several decades, and one that allowed a beleaguered New Mexico to divert attention and resources to other matters.

Despite constant raids by and campaigns against the Comanche, Utes, Navajo, and Apache, New Mexico managed to expand its settlements during the 18th century. In 1695, a new villa, or seat of government, was established at Santa Cruz de La Canada, north of the capital at Santa Fe. In 1706, the villa of San Felipe de Albuquerque (present-day old town in Albuquerque) was established to accommodate the expanding population along the middle Rio Grande. As the colony's population grew, there was an urgent need to establish communities further from the Rio Grande Valley and out into New Mexico's irrigable mountain valleys. Much of this expansion was made possible through a system of land grants that awarded tracts of land to individuals and groups who agreed to establish settlements and cultivate land along the frontier. Santa Rosa de Lima to the north, San Miguel del Vado to the east, and Tomé to the south are examples of communities that were established along New Mexico's frontier during this period. This system of land distribution differed greatly from the form of encomienda, which characterized land tenure in New Mexico prior to the Pueblo Revolt.

Prominent among those who shouldered the burden of frontier settlement and defense, was the growing mestizo, or mixed blood, population of the province. Among the least recognized of these groups are the genízaro. The genízaro were Indians from many tribes who had, for a variety of reasons, lost their tribal identity. Many of them had been captive children who were raised in Spanish households, had been baptized, assumed Spanish surnames, and eventually became Hispanicized. Genízaro settlements, such as those established at Abiquiu and Tomé, bore a significant portion of New Mexico's frontier defense well into the 19th century. Despite many struggles, these communities grew and made possible the subsequent development and expansion of New Mexico.