Santa Feans call for Truth in Public Celebration of Religious Conquest
Santa Fe New Mexico to many represents a unique icon of our nation's multicultural past. Little known to the thousands of tourists who visit the city each summer to buy original art and knock-off trinkets, local officials also harbor some deep, dark secrets. The secrets are not told at the iconic state-run Palace of Governors Museum, where Native American artisans sell hand-made jewelry under a covered walkway alongside one of the nation's most visited town squares.
The dark secret involves murder, religion and conquest. Each year, a city-funded celebration of a "peaceful reconquest" omits details of 70 prisoners executed by Conquistadors who captured the Plaza on Dec. 29, 1693. The prisoners had been seized during a daylong battle in which the band of starving colonists hoped to find a supply of food to get them through the winter. The murders, in the words of the conquistador's leader, were for the crime of apostasy against his deity.
The truth of the killings is told in first person by Don Diego De Vargas, who led the 1693 expedition back into New Mexico. De Vargas wrote in his now-translated journals (To the Royal Crown Restored, University of New Mexico Press, 1995) that "I told them I was having them killed”. He ordered his priests to attempt religious conversion of the condemned prisoners, that he ordered his officers to quickly execute the prisoners and wrote that "the number of Indians killed that day was 70." The book is available in the research section of the Santa Fe Public Library, just around the corner from the Plaza.
This week, an anonymous group of Santa Feans who fear retribution if their names become known called for an end, or at least a significant restructuring, of the publicly funded religious celebration set this year for Sept. 9 through Sept 12. Calling themselves Santa Feans for Truth and Reconciliation, the group in a press release questioned support for the Santa Fe Fiesta by Santa Fe Mayor David Coss and Gov. Bill Richardson.
"Santa Fe may well be the only city in the U.S. that allows one culture to openly and arrogantly celebrate its military conquest and subjugation of another culture whose descendants still make up a significant part of the local population," says a news release.
The anonymous group describes an annual parade around La Conquistadora -- a statue associated with the Spanish reconquest of what had been the capital of Spanish New Mexico until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 -- as a "barbaric display".
"The Catholic Church does not parade a version of the Virgin Mary with whips and shackles through the streets of Mobile, Alabama to celebrate the history of slavery," the press release states.
According to a press release, next week's Fiesta fosters "a climate of fear and retribution" that makes it untenable for local residents to speak openly about their town's history. A spokesman for the group reportedly told a local newspaper they are concerned that they or their children would be harassed if their names were made public.
To put this bit of history in context, consider the time. It was one year after the Salem witch trials resulted in the deaths of 20 Massachusetts residents by hanging and, in one case, crushing beneath a pile of stones. Today, the Salem witch trials and the public panic that prompted the official lynchings are part of our national history. The graves of victims are marked, and the State of Massachusetts in 2001 officially apologized for the injustice committed in the state's name in generations past. The History Channel and other networks retell the story.
Santa Fe's history of the same time is seldom recounted in popular media. To read an accurate account, one must visit libraries and often pore over original documents that only now are seeing the light of day.
European colonists swept through what is now southern New Mexico and into Santa Fe in what to this day is celebrated as a "peaceful reconquest 13 years after Pueblo natives of the area had violently evicted previous colonists. The Pueblo Uprising of 1680 followed an incident in which Roman Catholic priests had led the flogging and lynching of several Pueblo spiritual leaders at the site of what is now the Santa Fe Plaza.
The floggings and lynchings were retribution for Pueblo member's interest in their native religion. The Catholic conquistadors, by some accounts not readily available in state-run museums, believed the Pueblo native's belief in their native religion was responsible for a drought that left the Pueblos unable to share gifts of corn and other foods the colonists had demanded of them. Unlike Salem, Mass. where the graves of 17th century victims of state-sponsored murders are now marked, neither Santa Fe nor the State of New Mexico has made an effort to determine what happened to the bodies of victims.
When the city built a new convention center in recent years, a jumble of bones archeologists found dumped in what was to become a parking garage near the Plaza were left in place, entombed by concrete. Archeologists speculated that previous Pueblo residents of the Plaza had been haphazard in burying their dead. Officials did not consider at that time where the bodies of the 70 prisoners executed on Dec. 29, 1693 were buried. A state historian said those details might be found in journals of priests from that era, now in the custody of local Roman Catholic Archdiocese officials.
Their military leader, Po’pay, is now memorialized in the National Statutory Hall in the rotunda of the U.S. Congress, but the Pueblo Uprising of 1680 was not a peaceful event. The history of violence against religious colonists during the Pueblo uprising is well documented in Santa Fe. A cross erected on private land near downtown Santa Fe commemorates Catholic friars who were "martyred" during the Pueblo uprising. That cross has been painted red by persons unknown each of the past three years during the city's annual "Indian Market" art sales event.
Additional evidence of Santa Fe's uncomfortable relationship with a long history it otherwise proudly markets can be seen on a memorial obelisk in the center of the Plaza. Several years ago, someone -- unidentified in media, court records or historical accounts -- chiseled away the adjective "savage" from language in a memorial commemorating those who fought against the the area's original inhabitants.
When asked his view of Santa Fe's dark secret following a performance on the Plaza by a well-known Canadian Cree performer, Santa Fe Mayor David Coss said the city's upcoming celebration of a supposed 400th Anniversary would feature dual accounts of the city's history -- one as told by Hispanic leaders and another as told by Pueblo officials.
One Pueblo governor recently said his community prefers not to dwell on the past. Pueblo leaders in recent years have focused on building a local economy around casinos and resort hotels, one of which dwarf's Santa Fe's new convention center.
Native American veterans of the U.S. military interviewed at the Plaza about the famous town square's forgotten history said modern-day accounts of long ago events should accurately reflect information available in existing historical records.
According to De Vargas daily journal entries, as translated, the military reconquest of New Mexico continued after his lightly armed followers stormed the Plaza stronghold in 1693. De Vargas documents additional killings of Pueblo residents as the conquest swept into Northern New Mexico, in each case justifying the execution of prisoners in terms of their refusal to accept the conquistador's religion.
Heirs of the conquistador who oversee organization of the city-sponsored celebration say De Vargas' conquest of Santa Fe can be described as peaceful because in 1692 he had reached an agreement with Pueblo residents then living on the Plaza to allow him to return. Modern day accounts of that agreement as told by the heirs don't sort out whether the Pueblo residents agreed to share the Plaza or to allow themselves to be ruled by the European colonists.
Though the violent nature of the reconquest was noted in at least two 2007 stories printed under a staff byline in the local newspaper, the same newspaper has printed several accounts by recognized historians of European descent who omit the execution of prisoners in their versions of the battle for the Plaza. Following the two stories that mentioned the murders, another 2007 account by author Marc Simmons on the front page of that home-town newspaper detailed the hardships colonists faced in the winter of 1693 -- including their lack of food, which they had expected to obtain from local natives. Simmon's holiday-season account said one pueblo resident hanged himself rather than surrender after the battle for the Plaza, but did not mention the 70 captives who were executed on the day when European colonists established the current succession of governors in New Mexico.
Additional killings during the European "reconquest" of New Mexico occurred on the Plaza in Taos. Until recent years, an official plaque memorialized Pueblo members lynched there, but city officials have since removed the plaque. As in Santa Fe, an accurate account of violence during the European conquest is not readily available to tourists who flock to the serene mountainside village to enjoy a taste of American history.