Preferred Citation: Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.

Conversion Efforts

Conversion Efforts

Eight additional friars arrived in New Mexico in 1600, but within a year two-thirds of them had departed disheartened by the poverty of the land, leaving only a handful of Franciscans to tend the province. The mission effort was tottering in 1608, but at the eleventh hour a report reached Mexico that there were now seven thousand converts, not four hundred, as had been previously reported. The missionary project would continue, and additional Franciscans were dispatched north. Eight years later the churches numbered eleven, with fourteen thousand Indian converts.[24] Although a quota of sixty-six priests had been established for the efforts in New Mexico, it was rarely filled because negative factors usually outweighed religious zeal.

In 1617 Fray Estevan de Perea was chosen as the first custos of the Conversion of Saint Paul;[25] as such, he headed the missionary program in New Mexico. The province was divided into a series of governances, each of which might include several pueblos, and was placed in the custody of friars. They were charged to bring the word of the Catholic God to the heathen, to build a fitting church, and to civilize and improve the material lot of the Indians. Their concerns mixed religious and humanitarian intentions, seen as coincident in Franciscan doctrine.

At the close of the 1620s major church structures were being built in the southeastern part of the Salinas district skirting the Manzano Mountains: Abo, Las Humanas (Gran Quivira), and Quarai [Plate 4]. Fray Francisco de Acevedo assumed direction of missionary work in 1629, and the pueblos and their missions were thriving on the edge of the arid plains. Although serving as the first administrative center for this mission group, Pecos proved too distant for effective governance; Salinas was reorganized as its own jurisdiction with Abo as its headquarters.

No less impressive than the structures of the Salinas group was the church of San José de Giusewa in the Jemez Mountains west of Santa Fe, a major stone structure built and abandoned by the 1630s. At Acoma to the west, Fray Jerónimo de Zárate Salmerón assumed his post in 1623; within twenty years a voluminous stone structure had been substantially completed on the most difficult of sites. Along the Rio Grande itself a string of mud-built mission churches of varying sizes and sophistication arose bearing witness to the dedication and determination of the Franciscans. By 1630, according to estimates, twenty-five missions had been sent to ninety pueblos containing sixty thousand Indians.[26]

The friars' efforts were not unqualified successes, however, as they confronted constant resistance to conversion paired with frequent backsliding. Whipping, head shaving, and intimidation by the missionaries undermined their attempts to convert the Indians, and the rotation of the friars precluded any substantive bonds with converts, potential or otherwise.[27] Caught between civilian exploitation of the native peoples and their own religious duties, the Franciscans made no accommodation to the native religion, destroying masks, fetishes, and kivas and forbidding dances. All this in spite of Saint Francis's admonition: "Devotion to an ideal can never be had by repression and reprisal."[28]

From Spain's point of view, the New Mexican enterprise seemed to progress satisfactorily notwith-


standing the difficulties and its distance from central Mexican administration. The standard of living was marginal, but the colony managed to survive. Reports of mass conversions, which often arrived just as the mission program was on the brink of collapse, strengthened flagging interest in this land that offered so little and required so much. When Zárate Salmerón recorded his visit to the province in 1626, he listed all the missions, ranking them as "ordinary," "fair," "good," "very good," "excellent" or "splendid," "handsome," and "most handsome." Acoma was most handsome; Isleta, very fine; and Jemez, splendid.

Four years later, Fray Alonso de Benavides of the Order of Saint Francis, Commissary General of the Indies, provided a description of the mission program that would be a worthy competitor for the claims made by modern advertising:

[The Pueblos] have a notable affection for them [the Franciscans] and for the things of the church which they attend with notable love and devotion. As all the churches and monasteries they have made fully testify. Of all the which it will seem an enchantment to state that sumptuous and beautiful as they are, they were built solely by the women and by the boys and girls of the curacy.[29]

Despite these favorable descriptions of the missions, problems escalated during the 1630s: a governor was murdered although not by Indians, clergy and civil authorities argued over Indian labor, and soldiers at one point occupied Santo Domingo, charging that the pueblo had become a fortress against the governor and the king. The clergy, fearful for their lives, stayed close to the pueblo that served as administrative center for the mission program.

Problems reached crisis proportions. At Jemez Springs the San José de Giusewa mission had to be abandoned around 1630. Pestilence, drought, famine, and attacks by Plains Indians on the eastern pueblos severely undermined their survival. European communicable diseases continually plagued the densely settled pueblos, doubly frightful as an enemy that could neither be seen nor resisted. In 1640 alone, three thousand Indians died of smallpox, 10 percent of the entire population.[30] The Salinas missions, which had been tottering on the edge of disaster since their inception, buckled under various economic and medical pressures and attacks by the Apache and Comanche, who had been granted added mobility by the Spanish importation of the horse. By the end of the 1670s all these missions lay deserted.

Although conditions deteriorated rapidly, the Spanish continued to apply new means to extort production from the Indians. Any fairness that might have been intended under the encomienda system was rarely practiced. The chafing relations between the native peoples and the Europeans increased, as conflicts between the military and the clergy demonstrated to the Pueblo peoples that little unanimity joined the various Spanish factions.

Conversion Efforts

Preferred Citation: Treib, Marc. Sanctuaries of Spanish New Mexico. Berkeley:  University of California Press,  c1993 1993.