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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

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.

Meanwhile, however, 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.

Juan Bruce-Novoa
University of California at Irvine

In the Heath Anthology
from Letter on The Reconquest of New Mexico, 1692 (1693)

Other Works

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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.

Secondary Sources

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