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The Biography of Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa Briceño y Berdugo

The nineteenth governor of New Mexico, Captain don Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa Briceno y Berdugo, to give his full name, was born in Lima, Peru in the year 1624.

By Grace Meredith
Field Worker

Nineteenth Governor of New Mexico


WPA Biography Project

The nineteenth governor of New Mexico, Captain don Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa Briceno y Berdugo, to give his full name, was born in Lima, Peru in the year 1624. Descendant of the famous houses of Peñalosa, Briceno, Ocampo, Berdugo and Cordova on his father's side; and on his mother's from Davila, Valdivia, Cabrera and Bobadilla, Peñalosa as he was generally known, was in reality the "son of someone."

He was an adventurer worthy of the name. Alert, daring, resolute, and brave; a skillful soldier, a wise, self‑assured and it must be admitted, sometimes shifty administrator; but he had a kindly, tolerant sympathy and rare understanding for those beneath him in family or position and a sort of fixed vanity and fierce pride in dealing with those of his own rank. Peñalosa's heart moved in contrasting beats: romantic and business‑like; pleasing one moment, violent and overbearing the next; a man in love with life, who joyed in the wide open spaces, the wild trails into the unknown, arid who preferred building to battle.

He was married to the granddaughter of Fernan Cortez.

His pleasing personality, his ease and self‑assurance, not only obtained the appointment as governor of New Mexico for him in 1660 from the viceroy, Count of Banos, but actually gave him the assistance of the Franciscans in Mexico City, at whose request, it is said, he went out to New Mexico to replace Mendizabal, the former governor.

At this time the Supply Service of the New Mexican missions played a very significant part in New Mexico life. Fray Juan Ramirez was still in charge of it. New settlers going out to the province for the first time, friars, traders, citizens of New Mexico returning home from a visit or business trip to Mexico, and frequently a new governor accompanied the caravan—all glad for the opportunity to have the protection of the military escort, to say nothing of company over the long hard miles from Mexico City to Santa Fe.

On the return journey to Mexico City, the party was much the same  except that it was an ex‑governor who went back, and occasionally too there were prisoners of the Holy Office being taken to Mexico City for trial by the Tribunal of the Inquisition.

In the historical works now available, it is not stated that Peñalosa travelled north with the Mission Supply Service, but it is known that enroute he lingered in Zacatecas for almost three months and for a time stayed in Parral in 1661; and in June of the same year, he was in Cuencame, Nueva Vizcaya, the well known mining town.

It is interesting to note too, that at this time, (June of 1661), Fray Nicolas de Freytas who was returning to New Mexico, was with Peñalosa, and that a remarkable friendship developed between the two. The beloved Eugene Manlove Rhodes writes of this as follows:

"He established the first American press‑agent, Father Friar Nicolas de Freytas, of the Order of St. Francis, Preacher, Commissary Visitor of the Third Order, and Guardian of the Convent of San Ildefonso in this kingdom, and Chaplain to His Most Illustrious Lordship."

By November of 1661, Peñalosa was governor of New Mexico.

Almost at once, Peñalosa and Fray Alonzo de Posada, who had succeeded Ramirez as custodio and who was also commissary of the Inquisition, were at swords‑points so to speak, over New Mexico policies. But more than this, they quarreled over the disposition of the property left in New Mexico which belonged to the former governor, Mendizabal, and to which in reality neither had any just claim. It is certain that Posada was relentless in his campaign against Governor Peñalosa. Concerning that the Franciscans had been instrumental, to say the least, in having Peñalosa appointed governor, this animosity seems to have been a personal one on the part of Posada.

It seems certain that Peñalosa made some expeditions from Santa Fe. Quoting from Gene Rhodes:

"The Freytas record of the journey "through the country of the Escanzaques to the large river which they call Mischipi" is fearfully and wonderfully made. Nevertheless, it seems probably that Peñalosa reached the Missouri near where Omaha now stands; certain that he marched from Santa Fe three months northward into the buffalo country. The description of rivers, soil, vegetation, fish, animals, are circumstantial and tally exactly to the last detail with out knowledge, bird and flower, shrub and tree; even to the Indian's proverb "To ten Hiroquees four of the Tuft, and to these two of the Escanzaques and to ten Escanzaques one Apache." Also the sons of Peñalosa's dorados (Golden Ones) live in New Mexico today, Duran and Chavez, Lucero and Godoy: their twilight tales keep him foregoer yet, and hold him last of the Conquistadores.

"Shifty‑fortunate Peñalosa brought his dorados safely back to Santa Fe, not one lost on that long expedition, to Quivira, (Quebira —Great Land); he dreamed of map‑making and Dukeships. There was also a sweet woman‑child, born in Santa Fe at about this time, born to his love but not to his name, of whom he had much pride and joy. The granddaughter of Cortez had died young, and before Zacatecas.”

It seems to have been definitely established by historians that Peñalosa made expeditions to the Zuni and Moqui towns; and that several new missions were established in the province of New Mexico during his reign, though the Franciscans seem to deny that this was done with any of his assistance.

Throughout his entire term, he was in controversy or serious quarrel with Fray Posada. Some of this difficulty seems to have been over whipping of certain young Indians for practising age‑old ceremonials that wise men of their tribe had taught them. One of the historical records of this time is an order from Peñalosa—forbidding anyone to ill‑treat the Indians and also forbidding Indians to be permitted to stay overnight in towns. It is true that he opposed the oft‑times harsh methods of convention to which the Franciscans resorted, and perhaps by that opposition earned their enmity.

Peñalosa left New Mexico either at the end of February or the beginning of March of 1664. C.W. Hackett writes of this:

"With him in his carriage was his concubine who had lived in the palace with him in Santa Fe. Before them Peñalosa had the royal standard carried unfurled..."

H.I. Priestley gives another version:

"...he was arrested in New Mexico and sent to the capital under a guard paid from his own confiscated property..."

Peñalosa was delivered a prisoner to the Inquisition in May 1665, end in June of the sane year, quoting further from Priestley:

"...he was tried for having usurped the jurisdiction of the Holy Office, extorting testimony from witnesses who had appeared before it, and for swearing at that August court con petulancia y soberbia. He had earned the hatred of Mendizabal by trying to steal the effects of the latter after his arrest; hence Mendizabal's wife was very willing to testify that Peñalosa had professed to be superior to the Inquisition, the court of the Crusada and even the audiencia. He had gone so far as to arrest a criminal in a church, violating the right of asylum. When Posada, the commissary retaliated by placing an embargo on some goods which Peñalosa was shipping to Parral and excommunicated him, the governor clapped the commissary into prison. To the friars this was unendurable. They began to consume the Host in preparation for departure from the province; but after a secret conference with some of them, Peñalosa set the commissary free.

"When Peñalosa made the expedition to Moqui, he entered the church at Santa Fe with his hat on and partook of the Sacrament while clanking spurs at the very altar.

"Peñalosa was finally sentenced in February 1668, after more than two years of trial. Besides being openly reprimanded, he had to march in public as a penitent with a candle in his hand, abjure his heresies and pay a fine of five hundred pesos. More serious from his point of view, he was denied the power to hold political or military office and was exiled forever from New Spain and the West Indies.

"It is hardly surprising that under the circumstances he should seek an outlet for ambition under the flags of the enemies of his country."

Eugene Rhodes writes of Peñalosa at this time:

"Discredited, penniless, friendless, without employment; poor antagonist for the all‑powerful Inquisition!

"Haughty‑stubborn Peñalosa took sneer and slight of silken Grandees in very ill part. There were forbidden duels; tough Peñalosa vistor; punishment not pushed home. We may hope that this unlooked‑for clemency was in some part due to grudging admiration for the man, respect for unmerited misfortune; it is certain that once his vanquished antagonist pleaded for him. And authority shrank from any irrevocable affront to the powerful families of our Diego's kinsmen, who had drawn together to a sinister and sullen faction during the months of his imprisonment. Even the all‑powerful Inquisition had not quite dared Diego's death. In fact, they were lenient with him—as Inquisitors go.

"Peñalosa was resolved for Spain and justice. it was time of truce: he took ship under an English heretic; landed in London. He gained favor with the English king and the Duke of York, who were keen to hear of that great river of his, the Mischipi or Palicada, and the rich country of Quivira. But the Marquis de Fresno and the Count de Molina, Spanish Ambassadors, threw discredit upon him, gave him cold looks; told King James that this was a contumacious rebel, a man not allowed to set foot in Spain: Spanish justice Diego saw at last how useless it was to seek redress of Spain.

"He was American‑born; to his death‑day he never put foot to Spanish soil. The ambassadors persecuted him afresh, intrigued against him, sought his life by the hands of secret bravos—luckless! heaped infamy upon him, quite case down his credit at the court; drove him out at last.

"He proceeded to France, threw himself "upon the protection of the greatest kind in the world." Spanish Ambassadors, Marquis de Los Balazes and others, looked upon him coldly, expressed "distrust of his stay in France."

"By this time, Peñalosa's purpose was shaped and hardened. Taking a hint from the English king who had shown so much interest in that river of Mischipi, he set himself to turn trance to that great river, to throw France against Spain in the New world. He made it his life‑work‑and he succeeded.

"By now he knew himself to be a marked man; knew that he was to mix no more at first hand with the affairs of the great. He accepted that fact, humbled himself, drew into the background. He sought for his middleman; found him in the young Sieur de La Salle, an adventurer whose imagination was fired by a storied river he was to follow from the Great lakes for an eight months' journey to the Gulf of California—Road to China!

"Peñalosa threw himself into La Salle's party, pushed La Salle's fortunes with all his genius. More especially he bent his intrigues to tempt the cupidity and ambition of the Grand Monarch with the richness of the Gran Quivira.

From this time, Peñalosa becomes a thin and shadowy figure. There is a glimpse of him at the house of one M. Morel, where he dined in company with La Salle and Beaujeu. He knew shallows and miseries. Rumor makes him a fencing master—a good one—under the assumed name of Pinito Pino. —And, year after year, trackless rumors of Quivira swell cumulative, beat on the ear of King and Court and France, turn all eyes that way; La Salle is listened to, applauded, encouraged; gets his chance: France is committed to the "Mischipi."

"At last—victory French Government consents; La Salle's foray to New Biscay, Peñalosa’s to Panuco, are mutually to support each other. La Salle's to go first. It is 1684: Peñalosa is sixty years old: La Salle sails from La Rochelle in July. Alas! A luckless expedition, and bungles; the Spaniards are alert, energetic; La Salle proves unfit: French Government loses heart, abandons both La Salle in Texas and Peñalosa in France. Beaujeu and the Abbe Cavalier record how eagerly they awaited the reinforcements under Peñalosa till the end of 1686. Peñalosa died in Paris almost the same day that La Salle perished in Texas.

"On this tormented planet perhaps there has been no man, missing greatness, who came so near that frantic blame and praise which men call Fame and prize so strangely, as this baffled Peñalosa. He set a bound to the empire of Spain, that dim adventurer; his dream became Louisiana; his hand was first in America to strike a blow for freedom, first to dare the Inquisition: be that his epitaph."

As Alice Corbin Henderson writes in the Foreword to Mr. Rhodes' Peñalosa:

"Peñalosa' s signed order of January 1664, forbidding the Masters of Doctrine to employ the Indians" in spinning, weaving mantas, stockings, or any other things, without my express license or liberty" is among the records of the Historical Library in the old adobe Palace of the Governors, which still fronts the Plaza of Santa Fe."


Peñalosa, by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Writers' Editions, Santa Fe New Mexico, 1934.

New Light on Don Diego de Peñalosa, by C. W. Hackett. Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Volume VI.

New Mexico Historical Review for April 1934.

New Mexico Historical Review for April 1935.

The Coming of the White Man, by H.I. Priestley, The Macmillan Company, New York. 1929.

History of Arizona and New Mexico by H.H. Bancroft, The History Company, San Francisco, 1890.

The Expedition of Don Diego Dionisio de Peñalosa, Governor of New Mexico, from Santa Fe to the River Misehipi and Quivira in 1662. New York 1882, by John Gilinary Shea.

Foreword by Alice Corbin Henderson in Peñalosa by Eugene Manlove Rhodes, Writer's Editions, Santa Fe, New Mexico. 1934.