By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint
Diego José de Vargas Zapata Luján Ponce de León y Contreras was born in Madrid in 1643 to Alonso de Vargas and María Margarita Contreras y Arráiz. His was an illustrious family, though not among the monarch's inner circle. Each of his ancestors in the Vargas line, for four generations before him, had been knights of the prestigious Order of Santiago. The family's monetary fortunes, while not pinched by any means, were also not spectacularly lavish, and his father had incurred considerable debt.
In an effort to extinguish that debt, Alonso de Vargas sailed for the Americas in 1650, following the death of his wife, Diego's mother, to take an imperial post in Guatemala. Alonso re-married and was able to move up in the colonial administration, but he died at age 43, having never returned to Spain.
A year earlier, Diego had married Beatriz Pimentel de Prado Vélez de Olazábal, almost exactly his age, the daughter of neighbors of the Vargas estate at Torrelaguna, north of Madrid. Together, the couple had five children in quick succession before 1670. As Vargas's household grew, so did his burden of debt. Neither his interest nor his talents seemed suited to managing an estate.
The mounting pressure of debt and a powerful desire for social and political prominence guided his career. He determined to leave his young family in Spain and pursue royal preferment in the Americas. In 1673, like his father before him, don Diego embarked for New Spain. On the recommendation of the Spanish queen, the viceroy in Mexico City appointed Vargas, shortly after his arrival, to the post of justicia mayor, or chief judge, in the jurisdiction of Teutila in what is now the Mexican state of Oaxaca.
As historian John Kessell has written, "He was about to begin duty in the Indies, an adventure he thought would make him a richer man, and, soon enough, see him bound again for Madrid. Instead, it lasted a lifetime." Just a year later, at home in Spain, young doña Beatriz unexpectedly died. Vargas's brother-in-law assumed guardianship of the children, only one of whom would Vargas ever see again.
In 1679, six years after his arrival in New Spain, don Diego was promoted to justicia mayor of Tlalpujahua, a declining mining area northwest of Mexico City, in what is now the Mexican state of Michoacán. By this time he had started a family outside matrimony with Nicolasa Rincón and was maintaining a home in Mexico City, on the Plazuela de las Gayas. In 1683, Vargas was promoted again, this time still at Tlalpujahua, but now to the office of alcalde mayor, or royal administrator.
During his tenure at Tlalpujahua, don Diego was able to dramatically increase royal receipts from the silver mines there. His abilities as administrator were repeatedly recognized within the viceregal court. The viceroy Conde de Paredes recommended him for even higher office. By the middle 1680s, Vargas was actively pursuing appointments in Guatemala, Peru, and New Mexico.
It was the governorship of New Mexico that he succeeded in obtaining, in 1688. Bureaucratic machinations, though, delayed his actual accession to the office until 1691. Don Diego left behind in Mexico City, Nicolasa and three children. Since 1680, when a massive Pueblo uprising had succeeded in expelling Spanish colonists, New Mexico's capital in exile had been El Paso. After 11 years of exile, the population of El Paso was only a hundred or so vecinos, or politically eligible residents, and their households, plus a small presidial garrison and settlements of Christianized Pueblo Indians. Vargas pledged, in his application for the governorship, to restore the Rio Grande Pueblo world to Spanish dominion.
Spain's rivalry with other European powers, especially France, for control of the Americas raised the reconquest of New Mexico to a very high priority in the early 1690s. Successful reestablishment of Spanish sovereignty would also mean handsome rewards, both financial and social, for the new governor. That success, however, was far from a foregone conclusion. Three previous attempts to reoccupy the Pueblo world had ended in failure.
Nevertheless, in August 1692, just 18 months after his arrival at El Paso, Vargas led a modest force of less than 200 soldiers, vecinos, and Indian allies north. Following the Rio Grande, don Diego and his expedition found the southern pueblos abandoned, their people having sought refuge in mountainous terrain in anticipation of his arrival. In mid-September, the hopeful reconquerors reached Santa Fe, the former Spanish capital. There, at least 1,000 Pueblo people awaited them.
After a perfunctory refusal to submit to Spanish rule by the native inhabitants of Santa Fe, Vargas threatened to cut off their water supply. There followed hours of verbal exchange, during which the Pueblos demanded that certain specific settlers not be allowed to return to New Mexico, and the governor consented. Finally, don Diego issued an ultimatum: either submit and be pardoned or undergo an attack by Vargas’ forces. In response, two unarmed Pueblo men left the fortified town to offer peace. They were followed by others, until by nightfall a tense calm existed between the two groups.
The following day, September 14, 1692, Vargas, the friars who were with him and the returning former residents of Spanish Santa Fe performed a formal ceremony of submission and absolution in the Indian plaza. The next day, mass was celebrated in Santa Fe and the friars baptized 122 Pueblo children born during the period of Spanish exile. Over the next month, don Diego and his force toured 12 other pueblos of northern New Mexico, conducting the same rituals at each. Before returning south to El Paso the "reconquerors" visited Acoma and the Zuni and Hopi pueblos, as well as those farther south along the Rio Grande that had been found vacant on the trip north.
Even ignoring Vargas's self-congratulation in the surviving Spanish documentary record of the ritual repossession of 1692, these were remarkable events. They required risk and restraint on both sides. Kessell has credited don Diego with "recogniz[ing] the effectiveness of diplomacy and personal relations with the Pueblo Indian peoples. His willingness to deal personally with the natives of New Mexico seems to represent a gradual change in attitude on his part during long service in the Indies." Though there was a reached accommodation, there was also a degree of deceit and subterfuge on both sides.
Calm did not last in New Mexico. In 1693, Vargas returned to Santa Fe, bringing soldiers and settlers. This time they had to fight their way into Santa Fe. Warriors from four of the pueblos sided with the colonists, but most opposed them. When the capital had been taken, don Diego ordered some 70 of the Pueblo men killed. Women and children were distributed as servants to the colonists.
Similar bloody fighting occurred at many of the other pueblos before the governor felt that the native people had truly submitted to his and the king\'s authority. The end of widespread hostilities did not mean an end to Pueblo resentment over continued heavy-handed treatment by the colonists. The plundering of Pueblo stocks of corn and other supplies, to sustain the struggling colony, was a periodic occurrence that inflamed animosity.
Nearly 250 additional colonists arrived in New Mexico by the middle of 1694, and another group of almost 150 came the next year. To accommodate many of these additional Hispanos, Governor Vargas authorized the establishment of a second settlement in the province, at Santa Cruz de la Cañada, north of Santa Fe along the Santa Cruz River. This new settlement displaced Tano Pueblo Indians, who had settled there after the uprising of 1680.
During 1695 and early 1696 there were repeated rumors that another Pueblo uprising was imminent. It was later charged that Vargas failed to take those warnings seriously enough. The colonists struggled unsuccessfully to support themselves agriculturally. Disease swept through the Hispanic populous, laying the governor low and carrying him to the brink of death. But Vargas recovered and by March 1696 petitioned the viceroy to increase the number of colonists from 276 families to 500, the minimum number, he claimed, to assure New Mexico's safety.
Viceregal action on the request was not forthcoming and in June 1696, all but five of the pueblos took up arms against the colonists. From then until November, don Diego was on a military campaign almost without pause. He and his council of war followed a familiar Spanish strategy of exploiting Pueblo rivalries and methodically subduing each insurgent Indian town in turn. Exhaustion and the coming of winter weather finally brought an enforced peace, although many Pueblos had fled the province, some permanently. The fighting that year marked the end of concerted, violent resistance by the Pueblos to Spanish political control in New Mexico.
Vargas wrote proudly to the king and viceroy of having succeeded in reconquering the province. He asked for the rewards he thought of as his due: a noble title and a comfortable annuity. Instead, he was shocked and angered to be replaced in the governorship by Pedro Rodríguez Cubero, who had arranged years before to accede to the office. It was doubly galling that, upon arrival in New Mexico, Rodríguez Cubero initiated the standard procedure of residencia, or administrative review, of Vargas's term.
The residencia process brought forward a list of charges against the former governor by the Santa Fe cabildo, or city council. Those charges included misuse of royal funds, fomenting the Pueblo uprising, and playing favorites among the colonists. Rodríguez Cubero had Vargas placed under house arrest, where he was to remain from 1697 until 1700, fuming over this poor reward. During his period of house arrest came word that the king had conferred on don Diego the title Marqués de la Nava de Barcinas and an annuity of 4,000 pesos, to be collected as tribute from the Indians of New Mexico.
The charges against Vargas remained unresolved and in 1700 he was called to Mexico City to face investigation of many of the complaints before the Tribunal of Accounts. When he reached the viceregal capital, don Diego found there his son Juan Manuel, who had recently arrived from Spain and whom Vargas had not seen in 27 years. In 1702, the Tribunal rendered a decision in favor of the former governor and cleared the way for him to serve a second term. That good news was offset by the death of his son Juan Manuel on his return route to Spain.
In June 1703, the Marqués de la Nava de Barcinas, as Vargas now always signed himself, left Mexico City to reassume the governorship of New Mexico. With him he took his two natural sons by Nicolasa Rincón. They reached Santa Fe in November and don Diego reestablished himself at the Palace of the Governors. Colonists and Pueblos alike were complaining of repeated raids by parties of Apaches. Thus, as soon as winter loosened its grip, Vargas mounted a campaign against the raiders.
As the punitive expedition proceeded down the Rio Grande Valley, illness struck the party, forcing several members to be sent back to Santa Fe. Then, on April 1, 1704, the governor himself fell desperately ill. He was taken to the home of Fernando Durán de Cháves at Bernalillo, where he prepared his last will. The marques died on April eighth, at the age of 60. "Once Diego de Vargas had made the break with [Spain] the land of his birth," wrote Kessell, "the forces drawing him homeward were never strong enough to turn the tide of events, feelings, and relationships that compelled him to remain in the New World. He said he would return, but he never did."
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Espinosa, José Manuel. Crusaders of the Río Grande: The Story of Don Diego de Vargas and the Reconquest and Refounding of New Mexico. Chicago: Institute of Jesuit HIstory, 1942.
Gutiérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
Kessell, John L., ed. Remote Beyond Compare: Letters of don Diego de Vargas to His Family from New Spain and New Mexico, 1675-1706. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.
Kessell, John L. and Rick Hendricks, eds. By Force of Arms: The Journals of Don Diego de Vargas, 1691-1693. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992.
Kessell, John L., Rick Hendricks, and Meredith D. Dodge, eds. Blood on the Boulders: The Journals of Don Diego de Vargas, 1694-1697. 2 volumes. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998.
Knaut, Andrew L. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1995.
Diego de Vargas, governor of New Mexico from 1691 to 1697 and from 1703 to 1704, led the return of Hispanic colonists to Santa Fe after an exile of 12 years following the successful Pueblo revolt of 1680.