Tomás Vélez Cachupín

by Suzanne Stamatov

In colonial times, the king governed from Spain and depended on his representatives in the New World to uphold his laws and enact his policies. His preeminent representative in New Mexico was the governor. Appointed by the crown, the governor held military and administrative authority over his jurisdiction and dispensed justice in the king’s name. Tomás Vélez Cachupín’s career as governor of New Mexico exemplifies how some governors successfully managed to fulfill their duties thus promoting harmony between Spanish/Mestizo settlers and their Indian neighbors, stimulating economic growth, and expanding settlements, while protecting Spain’s interests in its colonies.

When Governor Vélez Cachupín took office in May 1749, Comanches had been making continual attacks on the Spanish/Mestizo settlements. This harassment had not only led to the death and abductions of the New Mexican inhabitants but had resulted in a stagnant economy. The New Mexican province was surrounded by and outnumbered by Indian tribes, so Vélez Cachupín recognized that Indians “must be ruled more with . . . policies of peace than those which provoke incidents of war.” He also realized that peaceful trade with the nomadic tribes served New Mexicans’ economic interests.

When in July 1750 a Comanche ranchería of approximately 130 men in forty tents came to Taos to trade hides and captives, the governor allowed the trade fair to occur. He threatened, however, to declare war upon the Comanche if they should hereafter attack Pecos or Galisteo. Although the chiefs had agreed to Vélez Cachupín’s terms, another group of Comanches armed with bows, spears and muskets, attacked Pecos the following November.

Vélez Cachupín, with a force of presidial soldiers, immediately set out to retaliate. After six days pursuit, the governor caught up with the main body of 145 raiders and took them by complete surprise, cornering them near a pond in a box canyon. This famous military engagement came to be known as The Battle of San Diego Pond. At sunset, the Comanches retreated to the center of the pond—a difficult position to maintain due to freezing temperatures. The governor ordered his soldiers to set fire to the reeds thus illuminating the pond and to fire upon any who moved. When Vélez Cachupín heard the cries of women and children, he ordered his soldiers to stop firing and offered, through an interpreter, to spare the lives of those who surrendered. Those who refused to yield would be finished off by sunrise and denied pardon. Initially no one surrendered, but at midnight, a wounded boy of sixteen, holding a cross made of reeds, came out of the pond and asked for mercy. When the boy’s companions observed that he was well-treated by Vélez Cachupín, most decided to follow his example. Only the chief and seven other warriors continued to battle. At three in the morning, they attacked. The awaiting Spaniards fired on them, killing the chief and wounding the others.

At daybreak, Vélez Cachupín found that he had 49 prisoners and over 150 horses and mules. The rest of the Indians were dead. He kept four prisoners as hostages and released the rest with tobacco and ten arrows for hunting on their return home. He warned them to make a permanent peace or that the trade fairs at Taos would be cut off and that he would pursue them until they were “‘completely destroyed.’” His courage during battle and the compassion showed afterwards gained him a formidable reputation among the Comanches. They called him “‘the captain who amazes.’” This in turn led to peace with the Utes and Apaches.

The politically astute Vélez Cachupín did not rest with military successes. In 1754, to reduce misunderstandings between the Comanche and settlers at trade fairs, the governor enacted a list of prices and regulations to govern the trade fairs. With little circulating money in New Mexico, the list set the price of Plains Indian goods to a fixed equivalent of New Mexican commodities. The governor also studied how best to interact with the Comanche, Utes, and Apaches. In a letter to his successor, Vélez Cachupín wrote a detailed description of how the new governor should best relate to the Indians to help foster the peace. He wrote: It is necessary, when the Comanches come to Taos to trade, that your grace present yourself in that pueblo surrounded with a suitable guard and your person adorned with all splendor possible. The first measure your grace must take must be to provide security and protection for their rancheria. Prohibit anyone from entering when the fair is not open and your excellency not present.

Vélez Cachupín went on to explain that the new governor should provide a guard for the Comanches’ horse herd, a courtesy that set them greatly at ease. Upon the Comanches’ arrival, the governor should smoke with them. With that, your grace will make them understand that they are welcome…This should always be done with an appearance of pleasure and agreeableness, which they also esteem highly. Exterior acts and circumstances of one’s looks influence considerably the idea that they ought to form. You should introduce yourself with skill and with expressive words maintain in your looks a mien, grave and serene . . . With these necessary exaggerations which are required to make them cling to peace . . . permit their familiarities and take part in their fun at suitable times, all of which is necessary with this kind of people. I have done so and have been able to win the love they profess for me.

After his first term, Vélez Cachupín returned to Spain. He applied for another term as governor of New Mexico, and on 14 March 1761, King Carlos III granted Vélez Cachupín his wish, selecting him over six other experienced military men. When Vélez Cachupín returned to New Mexico, he confronted many of the same problems that had beset his first tenure. His successor had failed to heed the detailed advice Vélez Cachupín had left him regarding peaceful relations with the neighboring Indians.

The governor’s initial acts involved releasing six Comanche women captives as a goodwill gesture to the Comanches. As a result, nine Comanche warriors and six women traveled to Taos to negotiate with Vélez Cachupín and to verify that the governor had indeed returned. Recognizing the importance of captive exchanges in peace negotiations, the governor proclaimed the prohibition of the sale and purchase of Comanche genízaros. He ordered Comanche captives to be held by New Mexicans living near Santa Fe with the understanding that Vélez Cachupín might require that they be returned as a part of a captive exchange. Governor Vélez Cachupín’s astute political maneuvering led to another lasting peace with the nomadic Indians.

In addition to his military duties, Vélez Cachupín also had to attend to the judicial and economic issues facing the Spanish/Mestizo and Pueblo populace. The governor was the highest ranking civil and criminal magistrate in the province and received appeals from various alcaldías, acting as a judge of first instance in all cases of a serious nature. Alcaldes mayores carried out the investigations of the cases, and the governors pronounced sentence. The governors attempted to arrive at sentences that promoted social harmony and reflected the values of the Spanish/Mestizo community. In 1765, Eusebio Chaves attacked his father-in-law after a quarrel over land and water use. After the teniente de alcalde mayor investigated, Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín sentenced Chaves to pay court costs and his father-in-law’s medical costs. Moreover, Eusebio Chaves had to kneel and beg forgiveness from his father-in-law in full view of the entire community. Vélez Cachupín’s sentence reiterated the notion that sons owe their fathers respect, thereby underlining the crown’s belief in a patriarchal social and political hierarchy.

Vélez Cachupín also regularly handled judicial affairs that involved Indians. During his second term, the governor pronounced sentence on some Indians of Abiquiu who had been accused of witchcraft. Vélez Cachupín expressed particular interest in this case since he had personally established the genízaro community at Abiquiu. The case consists of over 100 pages of testimony. Vélez Cachupín condemned the defendants to servitude in certain Spanish families. He sent a detachment of troops to Abiquiu to destroy relics which included a stone with hieroglyphics.

Often times the governors of New Mexico found themselves carrying out European dynastic quarrels on the frontiers of the Spanish realm. The Spanish Crown also charged the governors with protecting Spain’s economic interests (namely silver mines) from rival powers. One of Spain’s adversaries in the Americas was France. In New Mexico, this rivalry often manifested itself in trade wars. In November 1750, the French traders Paul and Pierre Mallet, who had previously visited New Mexico in 1739, received a cold reception from Governor Vélez Cachupín. He seized the Frenchmen’s possessions and auctioned them off. With the proceeds, the governor paid four guards to escort the Frenchmen to Mexico City.

Nevertheless, Governor Vélez Cachupín tried to balance the dictates of Spain with the realities of his subjects’ lives. New Mexicans grew a form of tobacco, known as punche. In November 1765, the governor received a viceregal dispatch implementing a tobacco monopoly and prohibiting the planting of tobacco in New Mexico. The governor decided to forestall execution of the law, realizing that it would disrupt the local economy and adversely affect relations with neighboring nomadic tribes who obtained their tobacco from New Mexican growers. In January 1766, the governor explained, in a report to the viceroy, the negative effects that would result from the new regulation. In the end, despite his reservations, Vélez Cachupín enacted the law in the spring, his predictions proving true.

Although Tomás Vélez Cachupín was able to negotiate peace with warring nomadic Indians, he failed to maintain peaceful relations with the Franciscan friars. His first tenure was marked with discord between himself and the Franciscan custos, fray Andres Varo. The two men penned numerous letters to the viceroy complaining about each other’s behavior. Vélez Cachupín supported the Franciscans’ mission to Christianize the native population, but objected to certain practices and specific priests. The Franciscans attempted to remove Vélez Cachupín from office, but failed. The governor’s personal relationship and family ties with Viceroy Revilla Gigedo most likely helped him weather the friction with the Franciscans. Unsurprisingly, the Franciscans opposed his reappointment.

Governor Tomás Vélez Cachupín proved to be a highly effective governor for New Mexico. The courage and compassion he displayed at the Battle of San Diego Pond earned him a reputation among the Comanches, Utes, and Apaches that proved beneficial in maintaining peaceful ties. He also implemented practical solutions to help foster the peace, such as a list of the worth of Indian and Spanish/Mestizo wares to be used at trade fairs. Ever an astute politician, he studied how to best relate to the Indian chiefs. His successes as a warrior had a salubrious impact on the New Mexican economy, allowing for settlement expansion such as with the Abiquiu community. Although he executed crown and Viceregal decrees, he attempted to temper the laws to best suit the interests of his subjects.

Sources Used:

Cutter, Charles R. The Legal Culture of Northern New Spain, 1700-1810.Albuquerque: UNM Press, 1995.

–––––––––––––. The Protector de Indios in Colonial New Mexico, 1659-1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1986.

Ebright, Malcolm, Teresa Escudero, and Rick Hendricks. “Tomás Vélez Cachupín’s Last Will and Testament, His Career in New Mexico, and His Sword with a Golden Hilt,” New Mexico Historical Review 78 (Summer 2003): 285-321.

F rank, Ross Harold. “From Settler to Citizen: Economic Development and Cultural Change in Late Colonial New Mexico, 1750-1820.” Ph. D. diss., University of California Berkeley, 1992.

Kavanagh, Thomas W. The Comanches: A History, 1706-1875. Lincoln and London: The University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Simmons, Marc. Spanish Government in New Mexico. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1968.

Twitchell, Ralph Emerson. The Leading Facts of New Mexican History, Volume 1. The Torch Press: Cedar Rapids, Iowa: 1911.

Of Special Note: See the upcoming book The Witches of Abiquiu: The Governor, the Priest, the Genízaro Indians and the Devil by Malcolm Ebright and Rick Hendricks.


Tomás Vélez Cachupín served as governor of New Mexico for two terms:1749–1754 and 1762–1767.