Canyon Road Arts

Santa Fe’s 400th anniversary

Celebrating America’s oldest capital city

Ross Stefan (1934-1999)    Mountain Top Way      c. 1967     Oil on Canvas     26 x 40
Ross Stefan (1934-1999) Mountain Top Way, c. 1967 oil on canvas, 26″ x 40″

Do the math! Yes, Santa Fe officially became a town under Spanish law fully ten years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

Santa Fe is America’s oldest capital city and the second oldest surviving European settlement in the United States, following St. Augustine, Florida.

Plans are underway for a fifteen-month-long celebration of the founding of Santa Fe, beginning Labor Day weekend, 2009.

The multi-faceted commemoration will kick off September 5th – 7th with a weekend festival featuring multiple live music stages, historical pageants, a “procession of lights,” food and fireworks.

Other activities spread throughout the celebration include an arts and lecture series, outdoor cinema, symphony concert, and live and televised history programs for public schools. Two books and two films of Santa Fe history also are in the works.

For event times and locations log on to or visit the Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in the new Community Convention Center.

Glen Crandall   Walnut and Tiger Maple
Glen Crandall, Walnut and Tiger Maple Wooden Vessel 4.5″ x 7″

The Colonization of New Mexico and Founding of Santa Fe

Santa Fe deserves a blow-out celebration, not just because of its antiquity but because it is a miracle that the city was ever founded at all.

Considering drought, famine, Indian raids, internal dissent, and the sheer distance from the rest of New Spain, New Mexico had many reasons and opportunities to fail.

That it survived long enough for Santa Fe to come into existence is an improbable story of uncommon dedication and perseverance.

Edward Curtis (1868-1952)    Aiyowitsa - Cochiti
Edward Curtis (1868-1952) Aiyowitsa – Cochiti, c. 1925 Photogravure on Van Gelder 17.5″ x 13″

In the 1580s, King Felipe II of Spain decreed the “pacification” of the northern reaches of his American colonies, hoping that settlement would discourage other Europeans from intruding into his territory.

To spare the royal coffers Felipe would recruit a wealthy entrepreneur to fund and govern the colony in exchange for profiting from its resources. His man was Juan de Oñate, the son of a successful rancher and silver mine developer in Zacatecas, Mexico.

In 1595, Oñate recruited more than 200 heads-of-household who could serve as soldier-citizens in the new colony. Once assembled and provisioned, Oñate and the colonists were anxious to start, but for two years the lumbering Spanish bureaucracy delayed the expedition.

In the meantime, many recruits abandoned the project. By the time the contingent left Mexico City, Oñate was accompanied by only 129 qualified householders, barely enough to sustain the settlement.

Charles Fritz    Absaroka Burial      Oil on Canvas Board     8 x 16
Charles Fritz, Absaroka Burial, oil on canvas board 8″ x 16″

Prospective settlers surely were daunted by the remoteness of the territory which lay 1,600 miles northwest of Mexico City, accessible only by a rugged and dangerous overland route.

Each household was promised a grant of land, tribute from the Indians paid in goods and labor, and the coveted title hidalgo (roughly the equivalent of English “gentleman”) if they stayed in the colony for five years.

What attracted most of the soldier-colonists, however, was the hope of discovering gold and silver in the new territory, then returning to New Spain as rich men. Indeed, this was Oñate’s primary motivation in seeking the commission to found the colony.

Charles Fritz    View in the Flathead Valley
Charles Fritz, View in the Flathead Valley, c. 1990 oil on canvas board 6″ x 8″

The colonists made up a diverse lot. The heads of household were españoles or cirollos, Spaniards born on the Iberian Peninsula or in New Spain, respectively.

Most were single men (and a few women) in their 20s, but some were married and brought children. The colonists also brought Mexican Indian laborers plus servants and slaves, many of mixed race including Afro-Europeans.

In addition to the settler, Oñate had requested that several Franciscan Friars be sent for the purpose of providing spiritual assistance and to convert the Indians to the Christian faith.

Felipe obliged with financial support of the missionaries to take that burden from Oñate. In all, the contingent numbered 600 or 700 souls.

Sioux Beaded Child’s Vest
Sioux Beaded Child’s Vest, c. 1910 12.5″ x 13.5″

After months of excruciatingly slow travel, Oñate led his band of settlers into their new homeland in the summer of 1598.

They initially camped at the Pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan) before moving across the Rio Grande, converting the abandoned Pueblo of Yunque into a settlement they named San Gabriel.

Many settlers, however, continued to live at the Pueblo since they relied on the Tewa Indians for their very survival. The Indians provided the settlers with food until they could establish their own crops and build herds of sheep, goats, and cattle.

They taught the newcomers about local flora and fauna, and generally about survival in this strange and harsh land.  The colony also existed at the pleasure of the Indians simply because they vastly outnumbered the Spanish.

The nearby pueblos held several thousand residents, and the population of all the Pueblo provinces at that time is estimated at about 60,000 (nearly 100 times the number of settlers).

Olaf Carl Wieghorst (1899-1988)   Marble Canyon Country
Olaf Carl Wieghorst (1899-1988) Marble Canyon Country, c. 1930 oil on canvas 10″ x 13″

The Pueblos quickly learned there were benefits to helping the strangers. European vegetables, grains, and domestic animals were a welcome supplement to the Indian’s diet of corn, beans, squash and game.  Metal tools made agriculture and other tasks much more efficient. More importantly, the Spanish had superior weapons technology that helped the Pueblos fend off the frequent raids by their surrounding nomadic neighbors, the Navajo, Apache and Comanche.

Sioux / Cheyenne Beaded Dress
Sioux / Cheyenne Beaded Dress, c. 1910 51″ x 45″

Thus began a cooperation between the two peoples that resulted in subtle mixing of cultures and, soon enough, in intermarriage. Of course, Spaniards took Pueblo wives partially because the settlement included far more men than women.

The Native partners were acculturated into Spanish society rather than the reverse, but it still meant that many Spanish families had Indian relatives and another reason to maintain good relations. The colonists and the Pueblos lived side by side; together yet apart.

Despite this growing interdependence, episodes of tension-sometimes exploding into violence-did mark the early years of the settlement. The most notorious occurred in 1599 when an expedition led by Oñate’s second in command stopped at Acoma Pueblo to trade for provisions.

Wilson Hurley (1924-2008)    Santa Catalina    c. 1972    Oil on Canvas    36 x 72
Wilson Hurley (1924-2008) Santa Catalina c. 1972 Oil on Canvas 36 x 72

For reasons unknown, the Acomas set upon them and several men were killed. In retaliation, Oñate sent some seventy armed men back to capture or kill everyone there. Miraculously, the Spaniards conquered the fortress-like village atop the mesa, and marched the survivors back to San Gabriel for trial.

Males twelve to twenty-four and females twelve or older were sentenced to twenty years of slavery. Males twenty-five or older were to have one foot severed and then be bound to twenty years of “personal servitude.” It is not known to what degree these punishments were actually carried out.

Edith Hamlin (1902-1992)   Homestead on the Sevier    c. 1948    Oil on Canvas     25 x 30
Edith Hamlin (1902-1992) Homestead on the Sevier
c. 1948 oil on canvas, 25″ x 30″

Ultimately, it was not soured relations with the Pueblos that nearly caused the abandonment of New Mexico before Santa Fe was even founded. It was internal dissent among the colonists.

The soldier-citizens quickly became aware that there was no gold or silver to be found in the province, dashing their hopes for fast riches. The work of surviving in this arid country was disheartening at best, and many families quickly lost their enthusiasm for the new colony in the face of constant poverty and hardship.

In September 1598, four deserters stole horses and fled south despite the fact that leaving the colony without permission could result in a death sentence. Two of the escapees were captured and killed without trial.

E. A. Burbank (1858-1949)  Pog-Ah-Ninnie-Ah-Ey
E. A. Burbank (1858-1949)
Pog-Ah-Ninnie-Ah-Ey (Santa Clara)
c. 1909 conte crayon 14″ x 9″

A second wave of recruits with their families and servants arrived at San Gabriel on Christmas Eve of 1600, adding welcome security to the tiny settlement. Nevertheless, serious talk of abandoning the colony already had begun and many settlers placed the blame directly on Oñate, charging that he was mentally unstable and incompetent to govern.

During the summer of 1601, while Oñate was leading an expedition on the Great Plains, the colonists openly debated the idea of leaving. A majority supported abandonment, and in early October some 400 men, women and children (about two-thirds of the colony) hurriedly left for New Spain.

Returning the next month, a furious Oñate sent his men on the chase, but the colonists made it to the Nueva Vizcaya province without being captured. Adding to Oñate’s rage and desperation, the authorities in Mexico City refused to prosecute the deserters.

Ralph Goltry (1884-1971)   Adobe Home     c. 1930    Oil on Canvas     18 x 28
Ralph Goltry (1884-1971) Adobe Home c. 1930 oil on canvas 18″ x 28″

In a misguided effort to bolster his failing enterprise with discoveries of gold, Oñate led a westward expedition in 1604 – 1605, crossing present day Arizona and following the Colorado River to the Sea of Cortez.

The futility of the expedition led many of the remaining soldier-settlers, once again, to ask permission to abandon New Mexico. Moreover, Oñate had lost the confidence of the Viceroy who wrote to King Felipe III that Oñate soon would exhaust his family’s finances and the Crown would have to fund the colony if it were to survive. In 1607, Oñate finally reached the same conclusion.

He wrote to Felipe that on the last day of June 1608, he would release the soldier-settlers and surrender his proprietary colony to the Crown.

Geronimo - Chiricahua Apache Indian
Geronimo – Chiricahua Apache Indian, c. 1880 cabinet card photograph 6.5″ x 4.25″

Now the fate of New Mexico rested with Felipe III who had to decide whether the colony was worth the drain on his royal treasury. His Council on the Indies formally recommended abandonment even though it was in Spain’s interest to maintain a presence throughout the territories they had claimed, and new mineral discoveries in the vast territory still were possible.

What finally convinced the King to spare the colony, however, were the hundreds of Pueblo Indians who had been baptized. The Franciscan friars had been vociferous about not allowing their “converts” to slip back into heathen idolatry as they surely would without the support of the missionaries.

The missionaries, of course, could not survive without the support and protection of the soldier-citizens. In 1608, Felipe III decreed that he would support New Mexico for the protection of nuestra sancta fe católica, “our Holy Catholic Faith.”

William Henry Dethlef Koerner (1878-1938)
William Henry Dethlef Koerner (1878-1938), Pair of Drawings for ‘Lucky Devil’ c. 1920, charcoal on paper, 19″ x 27″ each

At the time of the King’s decree, only about fifty Spanish households remained in New Mexico. It is difficult to know what made them want to stay on in the grim little colony.

Perhaps it was fierce loyalty to Oñate, or lingering hope of finding gold, or a sincere belief in the friars’ argument for sticking with the Christian Indians, some of whom were their kin. It is more of a stretch to think that they saw New Mexico as the best opportunity for their futures and their families. Whatever the case, these amazingly perseverant individuals must have been relieved to learn that the Spanish Crown now was supporting their enterprise.

Geronimo’s Daughter Lenna
Geronimo’s Daughter Lenna c. 1900 Albumen Photograph 5.625″ x 3.875″

The first tangible sign of a new order for the colony was the arrival in January 1610 of a new governor, Pedro de Peralta.  Among the various orders he carried from the Viceroy was the charge to establish a villa or legally sanctioned municipality in New Mexico. San Gabriel del Yunque was the capital of the province, but was not destined to become its first villa.

In 1608, Oñate (who stayed on until Peralta arrived) had written to the Viceroy indicating that he planned to move the settlers forty miles south to the valley of the Santa Fe River. There were no occupied Pueblos in the valley, giving settlers plenty of room to expand their farms. Oñate also felt a location at the mouth of the river canyon was more defensible than San Gabriel.

Officialdom agreed and ordered Peralta to locate the villa at the site of an existing military camp named Santa Fe.

Greg Campbell    Acacia and Lapis
Greg Campbell, Acacia and Lapis Wooden Vessel 9.25″ x 11″

The exact purpose of the camp and its date of origin are unknown. Recently discovered Spanish documents confirm its existence by 1607. However, sworn testimony by some of Santa Fe’s founders indicates that children were born at the camp as early as 1604.

Juan Griego, son of one of the soldier-settlers that had arrived by 1601, gave his birthplace as Santa Fe, and his stated age indicates a birth date of 1604 or 1605. A member of Oñate’s original contingent, Hernán Martín Serrano, fathered a son with an acculturated Tano Indian, Dona Inez, who gave birth at Santa Fe in 1606 or 1607.

Clearly, Santa Fe was settled several years before its official birth date of 1610.

Sioux Beaded Blanket Strip with American Flags
Sioux Beaded Blanket Strip with American Flags c. 1890 3.25″ x 63″

Peralta quickly set about turning the military camp into a proper villa as defined by Spanish law. He and his surveyors demarcated municipal boundaries, selected a site for a plaza and government buildings, laid out irrigation canals, and allocated house and farm lots to individual householders who agreed to remain in the colony for ten years.

Peralta further had the duty to create a municipal government, and arranging for the election of councilmen or regidores who would then elect two civil magistrates, alcaldes ordinaries, from among them to hear civil and criminal cases. The regidores also elected their successors and had the authority, with the governor’s approval, to elect an alguacil mayor or high sheriff.

By law, Peralta had the right to name the new villa as he chose, but he continued to use its original name. Throughout the seventeenth century, it was officially called la villa real de Santa Fe, the royal town of (our) Holy Faith.

Pablita Velarde (1918-2006)    Flower and Bees
Pablita Velarde (1918-2006) Flower and Bees c. 1960 Earth Pigments 24 x 12

With Santa Fe as their new base, the settlers spread out by establishing estancias in outlying regions. These ranches were granted by the Crown to individuals for some type of exemplary service, usually military. Many grant holders kept homes both in Santa Fe and at their estancias and stationed family members, servants, and sometimes Pueblo Indians at the ranch to care for the animals and work arable land.

Over the next few decades, the colony expanded in this way across most of the Pueblo provinces from the Salinas Pueblos southeast of present day Albuquerque to Taos in the north, and from Pecos in the east to Zuni in the west. The Franciscans, who expanded their numbers in New Mexico after the royal decree, also aggressively expanded their reach, building missions at many of the Pueblos.

To maintain his authority throughout the territory, the governor appointed alcaldes mayores or district officers to oversee sub-jurisdictions which roughly corresponded to Pueblo language groupings.

Fremont Ellis (1897-1985)   Seascape
Fremont Ellis (1897-1985) Seascape c. 1960 oil on canvas 25″ x 30″

The ability to expand flocks and fields, combined with the colony’s Royal backing and a triennial supply train from Mexico City, brought New Mexico a degree of stability, if not prosperity. Drought, raids by nomadic tribes, and tensions with the Pueblos still made for a tenuous existence on the frontier.

In 1612, several soldier-citizens again asked permission to leave; a request denied by Peralta because losing their military services would increase the danger for those who remained. Reports sent back to Mexico City about conditions in the province did little to encourage new settlers to emigrate north.

From 1608 into the 1640s, the number of Spanish households in New Mexico continued to hover around fifty.

Arapaho Ceremonial Moccasins
Arapaho Ceremonial Moccasins c. 1890 10″ x 4″ x 4″ each


If conditions largely beyond the colonists control kept them in relative poverty, it was relations among them that kept New Mexico in turmoil for the next seventy years. After Felipe III decided to support the colony, the Franciscans believed their missionary work had become the true purpose of the settlement so they should have greater control over its affairs.

This sentiment was put into action in 1612 with the arrival of a new prelate, Fray Isidro Ordoñez. The aggressive Ordoñez quickly put Peralta on the defensive by countermanding his orders and making decisions far beyond the authority of the church. He meted out harsh punishments to both settlers and Indians for whatever he decided was an infraction of religious or civil law.

His most audacious act was to have Peralta arrested in 1613 and imprisoned for more than a year during which he had nearly exclusive authority over the colony. One observer later wrote, “existence in the villa was a hell” during Ordoñez’s tenure.

Luken   Apache Basket Maker    Roosevelt, AZ    Photograph     c. 1905    8.125 x 10.375
Luken, Apache Basket Maker Roosevelt, AZ, photograph c. 1905 8.125″ x 10.375″


Subsequent prelates were not as dictatorial and subsequent governors were not challenged quite as forcefully, yet tensions remained and frequent disputes occasionally flared into acts of aggression.

Naturally, the divide between civil and religious authorities spilled into the rest of the colony causing the settlers to divide themselves into two factions, supporting either the governor or the friars. Each group found occasion to use the authority of the institution they supported to gain economic, social, or legal advantage over members of the opposing faction.

The church in Mexico City raised the stakes in 1626 when it established an agency of the Inquisition in Santa Fe. Several local prelates used this terrible power with abandon, eventually earning a rebuke from headquarters asking the friars to stop making every petty disagreement a matter for the Inquisition.

Apache Figurative Basket
Apache Figurative Basket c. 1900 4.5″ x 20″

Apache Figurative Basket c. 1900 4.5 x 20

Although factionalism was disruptive and resulted in significant harm to many individuals, it never really threatened the colony’s existence. Rather, the seeds of its eventual destruction were sown and cultivated by both the civil and religious authorities. Those seeds were policies toward the Pueblo Indians.

Kiowa Beaded Moccasins
Kiowa Beaded Moccasins c. 1910 10″ x 4″ x 2.25″ each


To help lure settlers to New Mexico, Juan de Oñate had promised them income in the form of tribute from the Pueblo Indians. Landed families were granted encomiendas which were required payments of goods-usually one Pueblo-made blanket and one fanega (two to three bushels) of corn per year-from each Pueblo household “assigned” to that family.

Repartimiento similarly granted tribute in the form of forced labor. In a drought-stricken country where Pueblo families could barely support themselves, these practices represented genuine hardship. Spain actually had outlawed both practices, but Viceregal officials looked the other way and payment of tribute became entrenched in New Mexico.

Gerard Delano (1890-1972) Grazing Sheep, Navajo in the Lonesome Land  c. 1958 Watercolor  9 x 15
Gerard Delano (1890-1972) Grazing Sheep, Navajo in the Lonesome Land c. 1958 watercolor 9″ x 15″


Those colonists without rights to repartimiento were required to pay Indian laborers a small, fixed sum per day. However, the friars refused to pay the Pueblos anything for their labor building churches and friar’s residences (conventos), tending animals and fields, and acting as personal servants. (Indeed, an attempt by Governor Bernardo López de Mendizábal around 1660 to force Franciscans to pay for Indian labor led to his death in the Inquisition’s Mexico City prison).

Early on, the friars had been somewhat cautious about restricting Pueblo religious ceremonies. By mid-century, however, they openly and repeatedly attempted to abolish Pueblo rituals, destroy ritual objects, and punish (sometimes brutally) those who resisted.

Mistakenly believing that the Indians’ baptism and attendance at mass were evidence of conversion, the Franciscans merely drove Native religious practice underground where resentments grew and festered out of sight.

Edward Curtis (1868-1952)    Ti'mu - Cochiti
Edward Curtis (1868-1952) Ti’mu – Cochiti c. 1925 photogravure on Van Gelder 17.5″ x 13″


The provincial governors’ policies toward the Pueblos were, at best, erratic. The supply train brought a new governor to New Mexico every three years giving them insufficient time to become familiar with Pueblo thought and practice (even if they were inclined to do so). Some ordered extreme punishments for Indian misdeeds, real or imagined.

Governor Arguello Carvajál had forty Indians whipped for “sedition” when they tried to revive their religious practice in the 1640s. Governor Juan Francisco Treviño in the 1670s had forty-seven discontented Tewas whipped and three of them hanged for being “sorcerers.” Most of these acts were meant to maintain the governor’s authority by making examples of uncooperative Indians.

The Spanish crown required governors to pay for their appointments and then paid them salaries that would not cover their expenses. The expectation was that each governor would find ways to profit from his office. Some set up obrajes or textile workshops paying both Indians and settlers meager wages to make goods he would sell down the Camino Real.

Another business practice by many governors was slave trading.  Occasionally they would sell Pueblo orphans to traders in New Spain, but mostly they organized slave raids on Apaches and Navajos, primarily taking women and children. Of course, this would incite retaliatory raids not only against the Spaniards but also against their Pueblo allies, a fact not lost on the Indians.

Glen Crandall     Oak, Holly, and Walnut Wooden Vessel with Fishtale Design     7.5 x 8.25
Glen Crandall, Oak, Holly, and Walnut Wooden Vessel with Fishtale Design 7.5″ x 8.25″

While giving ever more reasons for the Pueblos to become resistant and resentful, the Spaniards also unwittingly gave them knowledge and resources they would use when allies became enemies.

Among the reasons the Pueblos accommodated the settlers were Spanish weapons and fighting ability. Over the decades, the Pueblos became intimately familiar with the colonists’ military strategies and tactics. They also learned horsemanship which had been one of the Spaniards’ most important military advantages over the Indians.

The 1670s saw another period of drought and famine in New Mexico which also brought on more raids by Navajos and Apaches. This misery, combined with years of abuse, finally brought Pueblo resentments to the boiling point.

In August of 1680, they unleashed an organized attack which drove every settler out of New Mexico. More than 380 colonists were killed and about 1950 were allowed to escape south down the Camino Real. Those who did not return to New Spain huddled at El Paso, comprising the New Mexico colony in exile for the next thirteen years.

The Pueblo Indians had wiped the Spanish colony clean from their provinces yet, curiously, Santa Fe survived. Although the Pueblos had not lived in the Santa Fe valley for more than 200 years, Pueblo families (mostly from Galisteo and San Cristobal Pueblos south of Santa Fe) decided to occupy the deserted town.

They destroyed many buildings, including the church, but quickly added rooms to the Casas Reales (now called Palace of the Governors) remaking it as a traditional Pueblo.

La Villa Real de Santa Fe seemed to remain at the heart of the exiled colonists’ hopes and memories.  When Diego de Vargas led a military contingent back north in late summer 1692, his first priority was to re-take the twelve year old pueblo and resurrect the villa.

He quickly negotiated peace at Santa Fe and then made a peace-making tour of several pueblos, giving rise to the still-repeated but half-truthful story that Vargas reclaimed Santa Fe without firing a shot.

Attu Purse
Attu Purse c. 1900 8.5 x 2.75

Late in 1693 when he led the thousand remaining colonists up the Camino Real to resettle New Mexico, Vargas found the occupants of Santa Fe unwilling to surrender their pueblo.

After several days, the Spaniards blockaded then stormed the dwellings. After the fighting, Vargas ordered the execution of all the adult male resisters.  By his own account, “seventy were shot; nine died from the skirmishes; and two, without hope at the thought of defeat, hanged themselves.”

Although Santa Fe was secured by the last day of 1693, it took three more years of occasional bloodshed to secure the whole colony. As the fighting subsided, the Spaniards and Pueblos gradually fell back into much the same interdependence-at-arm’s-length type of co-existence they had experienced before the revolt.

The Spanish gave up their harshest practices such as forced tribute, and the Franciscans once again turned a blind eye to Native religious practice so long as it did not interfere with conversions. Perhaps most important for internal stability, the Franciscans no longer attempted to rule the colony.Once again, the Spanish crown elevated protection of the kingdom over salvation of souls as the primary reason for his support of New Mexico.

In 1712, leading citizens of Santa Fe petitioned the governor to proclaim the first Fiestas de Santa Fe, giving thanks for Vargas’ re-entry twenty years earlier.  The governor’s proclamation specified vespers, sermon, and mass to be celebrated every September 14th. Fiestas remained a religion-centered event until the 1920s when its “revival” made it primarily a secular, community celebration with religious components.

Fiestas has become the enduring symbol of the enduring little town on the Spanish frontier. True to Santa Fe’s history, it incites controversy as past injustices on all sides are revisited and re-debated. That is Santa Fe, still contentious and still here at 400.


  • John L. Kessel, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico, University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
  • El Palacio, New Mexico’s Magazine of Art, History and Culture of the Southwest,
  • La Herencia Magazine,
  • New Mexico Office of the State Historian,
This article was excerpted from Canyon Road Arts: The Complete Visitors Guide to Arts, Dining and Santa Fe Lifestyle, Vol 5, 2009-2010, pages 44-57. Canyon Road Arts is published by Medicine Man Gallery. All rights reserved.
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