| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Don Diego de Vargas
(? - 1704)
Diego de Vargas Zapata y Luján Ponce de León y Contreras was
appointed captain-general and governor of New Mexico in 1691, charged with a
territorial reconquest that was already in progress, as Vargas’s comments on
his predecessor’s violent battles indicate. Eleven years before, the Indians
had organized under the Tewa religious leader Popé to drive out the Spaniards.
For a decade, the colonists and some loyal natives waited in northern Mexico
for the territory to be reclaimed. The project, however, was slow in advancing,
for the Indians held the fortress-like mesa and resisted fiercely. By the time
Vargas took command, few Christian colonists remained in El Paso. Fewer still
wanted to return; they required forceful convincing by Vargas.
the French had designs on the northern provinces of the Spanish empire. In
1681, Count de Peñalosa, a Peruvian-born ex-governor of New Mexico, had
presented to the French government a project for the conquest of territory
lying east of New Mexico and another proposal to conquer the Mexican province
of New Biscaya with its rich mineral wealth. Peñalosa’s plan proposed the
taking of the territory from the mouth of the Rio Grande to San Diego on the
Pacific coast, and including the Mines in Parral and the city of Durango. At
the same time, the French were cultivating alliances with Plains Indians,
especially the Pawnees, and moving into the heartland from their bases in the
Great Lakes area. All of this made it imperative to Spain that New Mexico be
retaken and settled as part of the defense of the empire. The Conde de Galve,
viceroy of New Spain, meant to fortify the entire northern frontier. To carry
out this plan, New Mexico was essential.
Vargas achieved his
assignment with deliberate professionalism. On September 14, 1692, with the
theatricality of European ceremony, he officially reclaimed the Plaza of Santa
Fe. By 1693 he could compose the report that appears in the Heath Anthology. His discourse is that of
the panoptic ruler, viewing his kingdom as a great circle fanning out from the
center, which he occupies with the authority of his royal commission. At the
same time, his projection of settlements and numbers of colonizers are veiled
pleas for support, reprising a tradition initiated by Menéndez de Avilés a
century earlier. Yet there is a security, even a calmness in his tone—perhaps
the arrogance his countrymen would accuse him of when he stood trial a few
years later for allegedly abusing his authority. There are no flights of
literary fancy here, just the description of the lay of the land. Vargas,
having carried out his charge, surveyed his holdings, apparently secure in the
power of his government to reclaim all they saw, although in truth unconquered
tribes surrounded him. The reconquest was so important to the empire that the
viceroy commissioned one of Mexico’s best writers, Carlos Sigüenza y Góngora,
to write a tract celebrating the victory. Mercurio Volante recounted in
stirring literary style Vargas’s success. The empire had been restored.
Yet, by 1695, Vargas
ordered a careful questioning of a band of Apaches who had arrived to trade
stories about the large number of French who were moving into the plains of
Cíbola. The menace was so convincing that Vargas wrote the central government in
Mexico to request artillery to prepare his defenses before the French arrived.
In 1696, the Pueblos rebelled again, killing priests and settlers, but not all
of the tribes joined, and Vargas, with great personal bravery, was able to quell
the rebellion. Next he faced accusations of abuse, house arrest, and a bitter
power struggle—yet once again he survived to regain authority.
The French never reached New Mexico in Vargas’s lifetime, but no governor of New Mexico would
ever again be able to write a letter as calm and secure as the letter that
appears in the Heath Anthology. The reconquest was more than the end of an Indian revolt, it was
the beginning of the end of New Mexico’s isolation at the edge of the Spanish
empire. New Mexico would not fall to a foreign power for another century and a
half, but its position at the end of the seventeenth century was already
shifting to that of an international crossroads. Vargas’s letter can be read as
a calm before the storm.
California at Irvine
In the Heath Anthology
from Letter on The Reconquest of New Mexico, 1692
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Exploring the Southwest: Don Diego de Vargas
A site about Don Diego de Vargas and the reconquest of New Mexico. It provides the scans and an etext of de Vargas' Last Will and Testament.
The Spanish ReConquest of New Mexico and the Pueblo Revolt of 1696
An essay on the Pueblo Revolt, with a scanned portrait of de Vargas.
Jessie B. Bailey, Diego Vargas and the Reconquest of New Mexico, 1940
J. Manuel Espinosa, Crusaders of the Rio Grande: The Story of Don Diego de Vargas and the Reconquest and Refounding of New Mexico, 1942
Henry Folmer, Franco-Spanish Rivalry in North America, 1524-1763, 1953
John L. Kessell, Remote Beyond Compare, Letters of Don Diego de Vargas to His Family, 1989
David J. Weber, New Spain's Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West, 1540-1821, 1979