Gaspar Castaño de Sosa

by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

The attempt made to settle New Mexico in 1590-1591, led by Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, might have succeeded but for one ruinous detail. The venture was illegal. Thus, even if Castaño and his colonists had been able to insert themselves into the society of Pueblo Indians without raising the animosity of their new neighbors, the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City wanted their venture ended. According to the king and the Council of the Indies, freelance expeditions into previously "un-pacified" lands had to be curtailed, by force if necessary.

In order to take control of a situation in the Americas that threatened to dissolve into anarchy, Felipe II in 1573 issued new Ordinances concerning New Discoveries. These laws of "pacification" set strict conditions for the granting of licenses necessary for mounting expeditions of reconnaissance and settlement. As the foundation upon which the rest of the legal structure rested, the Ordinances stipulated in no uncertain terms that "No person, whatever his state or condition, shall make any new discovery by land or sea, or conduct an expedition, or form any new settlements in any area already discovered or yet to be discovered, without permission from Us or from those to whom Our authority is delegated." It was precisely this provision that Castaño and the colonists he led had flaunted. They had not obtained a capitulación, or concession, from the king before beginning their expedition to New Mexico.

Since the Coronado expedition had leapt over the gap between New Mexico and the northernmost frontier of New Spain in the early 1540s, that frontier had stuttered northward. Discovery of silver at Zacatecas in 1547 provided major impetus to this expansion. Mining centers such as Sombrerete, Fresnillo, Nombre de Dios, Durango, and Santa Bárbara came into existence as a result of largely unchecked exploration and subsequent exploitation of mineral resources and native communities. There were officially sanctioned expeditions also, one led by Ginés Vázquez de Mercado in 1552 and another led by Francisco de Ibarra in 1562-1563. In addition, during the late 1550s and early 1560s Alonso de Zorita, an oidor, or judge, of the royal audiencia (high court) in Mexico City had urged a return expedition to New Mexico.

As a result, the northern frontier of New Spain was buzzing with Spanish activity–most of it unauthorized and undocumented–that often provoked retaliation from native peoples of the region. It was to curb the mounting violence and impose greater imperial control that the Ordinances concerning New Discoveries were promulgated. Bad habits, though, proved hard to break, especially on the fringes of empire, where royal authority often rested with the very individuals whom the king\'s laws and provisions were designed to rein in and independent exploration, mineral prospecting, and slave raiding continued to mount.

During the 1580s two widely publicized expeditions penetrated all the way to New Mexico. The first was made in 1581 by a small party of three Franciscans and seven soldiers under the leadership of Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado and fray Agustín Rodríguez. They had obtained license from the viceroy to journey to New Mexico for the purpose of carrying news of the Catholic faith to the Indians there. At the conclusion of the party\'s sojourn among the Pueblo people, two of the friars insisted on remaining in the north while the rest of the party returned south.

Ostensibly, anxiety over the friars\' fate launched another small entrada from San Bartolomé late in 1582, led by Antonio de Espejo and authorized through the Franciscan hierarchy. The expeditionaries found that the friars had been killed, but spent months reconnoitering the region. The expedition dissolved in dissent and returned to San Bartolomé. One effect of the two entradas was a reinvigorated interest in New Mexico and its potential in minerals and highly developed native population. Furthermore, the Espejo expedition demonstrated the practicability of a route to New Mexico by way of the Rio Grande and the Pecos River.

After the return of Espejo and his companions, the king directed Viceroy Pedro Moya de Contreras and his immediate successors to designate a leader for full-scale settlement of New Mexico. Several applicants were considered and rejected, including Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, and the process dragged on for the better part of two decades until at long last an agreement was concluded with Juan de Oñate.

Years before Oñate was made adelantado and governor of New Mexico, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa and all the settlers of Almadén in Nuevo León set out en masse for New Mexico, against the express directive of the new viceroy Luis Velasco II. Castaño justified this move in two ways: The colony in Nuevo León had been disappointed in its search for precious metals and the few sources it located there were quickly exhausted; and as lieutenant governor of the province of Nuevo León, he and the present governor, Luis de Carvajal, had extended Spanish sovereignty to the vast territory that had become Nuevo León in 1583, the region farthest to the northeast in New Spain.

Ill fortune had struck the province. Signs of rich minerals played out quickly, and Carvajal had been taken before the Inquisition as a crypto-Jew. It was under these circumstances that Castaño had organized the move to New Mexico, claiming to anyone who would listen, including by messenger to the viceroy that he was acting under the original settlement authority granted to Carvajal. Late in July 1590 a "colony on the move" set out from Almadén, nearly 200 people, ten or more two-wheeled carts, livestock, household goods, and supplies. Fortuitously, there was also a multilingual native guide and interpreter.

From late July until nearly the end of December the expedition toiled slowly and laboriously northwestward, primarily following the Pecos River. When the party reached the junction of the Pecos and Gallinas rivers they understood that traveling upstream with carts would soon be impossible because of the narrowness of a canyon ahead. A scouting party that had been sent ahead returned with news of a very large and strong pueblo of Indians upstream along the Pecos River. Weeks later Castaño and his party began referring to this settlement as Pecos, a version of its name in the Keresan language.

After an initially peaceful reception at Pecos Pueblo, the scouting party had been attacked there, losing much of its armament and other gear. Furthermore, three Spaniards had been wounded. In light of this misfortune, Castaño determined to travel ahead of the main body of the expedition with a party of about 40 men to Pecos, in order to retrieve the lost armaments and other goods. The carts and remainder of the expedition would halt along the river and await further directions.

When Castaño and his advance guard reached Pecos, they attempted to coax the reluctant natives into admitting them to the pueblo by offering trade goods and making gestures of peace. The people of Pecos rejected the captain general\'s overtures. In response, a council of leaders of the advance guard resolved to force their way into the pueblo. After a pitched battle most of the people of Pecos abandoned the pueblo.

Without securing Pecos, Castaño and the advance guard, taking supplies from the mostly vacant pueblo, departed westward toward the pueblos along the Rio Grande. The first pueblo reached by the advance guard was today\'s Tesuque Pueblo. There, the advance guard was received without opposition, and for the first time Castaño performed formal rites of possession, which included the erection of a cross, the sounding of trumpet fanfare, and the appointment of Indian officials for the pueblo. Over the course of the next two and a half weeks of January 1591, Castaño toured most of the Tewa, eastern Keres, and Tano pueblos, always carrying out the same ritual, with apparent acquiescence of the native inhabitants.

As the end of January neared, Castaño decided that the time had come to bring the remainder of the expedition from its camp on the Pecos River to the Rio Grande pueblos. The round trip, through heavy snow by way of Cañon Blanco and the Galisteo Basin, took more than a month. The expedition spent almost half that time prospecting for silver in the Cerrillos Hills area near San Marcos Pueblo but without success. The search for mineral sources occupied much of the remainder of the expedition, using Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo as its base. Areas of particular interest for prospecting were the Ortiz and San Pedro mountains, south of present day Santa Fe.

Castaño made a circuit of the southern Tiwa pueblos in the area of modern Bernalillo and Albuquerque. It was during this week in March 1591 that the expeditionaries applied the name Rio Grande for the first time to the river still called that today. Castaño\'s progress through the pueblos was rudely interrupted in mid-March by the arrival of an armed party of Spaniards coming from the south. Led by Juan Morlete, this force had been dispatched by order of Viceroy Velasco to arrest Castaño and put an end to his illegal incursion into New Mexico. The captain general submitted to Morlete\'s warrant, placing himself in custody.

Within days, the expedition now led by Morlete, was on its way out of New Mexico, by way of the Rio Grande and Conchos River. In late July 1591, during his forced return to Mexico City, Castaño drafted a contrite letter to the viceroy giving assurance that he had never intended to flout royal authority in leading the colonizing expedition. Nevertheless, he was brought to trial before the audiencia in Mexico City on charges of having "marched into New Mexico with a company of soldiers recruited on his own authority, without any order or permit to do so."

In March 1593 the Audiencia rendered its decision, finding Castaño guilty as charged and sentencing him to six years of exile in the Philippines, where he was to serve at the pleasure of the royal governor. From his prison cell in Mexico City, Castaño filed an appeal of the decision, but in October he was put in shackles and boarded the ship of Captain Felipe de Sámano bound for the Philippine Islands. During his exile in the Philippines Castaño discharged various assignments but was ultimately killed during an uprising of Chinese galley slaves on a boat headed for the Molucca Islands. Meanwhile in Spain, the Council of the Indies, after reviewing his case, reversed the Audiencia\'s decision, finding Castaño not guilty of willful disobedience and rescinding the sentence of exile.

Sources Used:

Hammond, George H. and Agapito Rey, eds. and trs. The Rediscovery of New Mexico, 1580-1594: The Explorations of Chamuscado, Espejo, Castaño de Sosa, Morlete, and Leyva de Bonilla and Humaña. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1966.

Kessell, John L. Kiva, Cross, and Crown: the Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.

Kessell, John L. Spain in the Southwest, a Narrative History of Colonial New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2002.

Powell, Philip Wayne. Mexico\'s Miguel Caldera: The Taming of America\'s First Frontier, 1548-1597. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1977.

Powell, Philip Wayne. Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: the Northward Advance of New Spain, 1550-1600. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1952.

Schroeder, Albert H. and Dan S. Matson. A Colony on the Move: Gaspar Castaño de Sosa\'s Journal, 1590-1591. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1965.

Gaspar Casstaño de Sosa led the entire town of Almaden, Mexico to New Mexico in 1590-1591.

Reproduction prohibited without express permission from the State Records Center and Archives.

Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives.