Skip to main content

Conquistadors And Saints

July 2024
3min read

The golden legend was watered down somewhat by the time it reached New Mexico. Men still believed in it, and pursued it with determination, and felt that beyond the rim of the next mesa they would see something that would make Montezuma’s fabled city in the lake look small and weak; but the substance of the dream was evasive, out in the great empty stretches of New Mexico, and they found before long that they had invaded a harsh and difficult land that offered little more than hard work, a bleak subsistence, and room for limitless visions. Tenochtitlan was real and the Seven Cities of Cibola were not, but the dawnlight still lay upon the land, and the Spaniard pushed on up to found cities like Santa Fe and Albuquerque, thereby—as is the way of pioneers—accomplishing much that he had not thought about when he made his start.

The talented writer Paul Horgan muses about this in his newest book, The Centuries of Santa Fe , and in it we see the materialistic yearnings of the conquistador giving way to the spiritual longings of the saint. Mexico had been won by men who believed that with their swords they could carve out an empire of wealth and material power; New Mexico, finally, was won by men who believed that with their spirits they could create a different sort of empire, concerned less with power in this world than with blessedness in the next. Like the men-at-arms who followed Cortes, they had their triumphs and their defeats, and the dream which they finally realized was not quite the dream they had begun with; no matter, they wrote their own epic, and what they achieved has helped to color a part of American life ever since.

The Centuries of Santa Fe , by Paul Horgan. E. P. Button and Co. 363 pp. $5.

Mr. Horgan tells the story of New Mexico in a series of loosely connected, partly fictionalized essays, and succeeds uncommonly well in giving a picture of the bitter, frequently abortive struggle to bring the southwestern plains and mountains under civilization.

New Mexico was a queer offshoot from New Spain. Like most of mankind’s ventures, its settlement had a double motivation: the hardhanded desire for easy wealth, and the noble belief that values beyond life could be attained by men who were willing to endure hardship and forget about self-interest. It found precious little in the way of transportable riches. The Indians of this area were dimly like the Indians of the Aztec Empire, but they were also dismayingly different. If they lacked temples where the unspeakable rites of human sacrifice were celebrated, they also lacked gold and precious stones, and their wealth was likely to consist of a bin of corn, a shelf of clay pots, and a bewildering ritual designed to placate the unseen gods of wind and rain and harvest. Instead of being a great new asset to the Crown’s possessions in the New World, the province became an unceasing drain; and its heroes, in time, were not the men in armor and the proud governors, but the humble priests and friars who willingly accepted martyrdom in order to carry the cross among Stone-Age tribes who had the greatest difficulty in understanding what they were talking about.

It is possible, indeed, to suspect that these Indians never quite did understand what was said to them. They could, however, on occasion, understand what the missionaries were—namely, dedicated and wholly devoted saints on earth—and when they did they reacted with human warmth. That they were usually betrayed in the end by the fact that the soldier and the politician could outtalk the saints in state councils was a profound tragedy, and much bloodshed came as a result of it—a good deal of it being shed by the saints themselves. Yet in the end it was somehow the legacy of the men of the spirit which survived.

What came of it all, in concrete terms? In a way, nothing much. New Mexico was the Cinderella colony, it went through generation after generation of most acute hardship and difficulty; it was equally a Cinderella after Mexico left Spain and set up in business as an independent republic, and when it became the terminus of the golden Santa Fe Trail from the United States it was still victimized, with the ethics of the mountain man and the Yankee trader coming in to supplant the ethics of the frustrated conquistador. Things did not improve too much, even after the American conquest; as late as the early iSyo’s, General William T. Sherman could seriously propose that the whole territory ought to be given back to Mexico, gratis, on the ground that it was worth nothing and would never be worth more.

Yet it is the thesis of Mr. Horgan’s account that nothing really was wasted. In this area was written the longest consecutive history in the annals of what is now the United States, and it is somehow a very good story to read. Great rewards can be won, indeed, by armed men who will dare any hardship in order to become rich and powerful; intrinsic in this tale is the theorem that equally great things can be won by men who will dare the worst life can do to them for no material gain whatever, even though they are often tripped up, along the road, by men who have itching palms and eyes eternally focused on the main chance.

The epic of the occupation and development of New Mexico is one of the noble chapters in the American story. From this place, as well as from New England and Virginia, come some of our basic legends, and the justification for some of our deepest beliefs. The failure story goes hand in hand with the success story, in our legend, and it needs just as much study. Each one has to do with the pursuit of a dream, and it is the pursuit that is really important. The dream itself is likely to remain elusive; it is what the dreamer hands down, to become a part of our national heritage, that is likely to be remembered.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.