Caurtocentennial of Colonization of New Mexico
Delays, Waiting and More Delays
Imagine, if you will, standing on the deck of a wooden ship four hundred years ago. All that can be seen in any direction are miles and miles of water. There are no phones, fax machines, or even any telegraphs; however, despite the lack of modern technology, important messages still need to be delivered to the people waiting for them. During the 1500s, when the people sending and receiving these messages were on opposite sides of the Atlantic Ocean, delivery times were measured in weeks and months instead of minutes or days. The vast amount of time it took for messages to be sent and received helped contribute to the delays and problems faced by the colonization party lead by Don Juan Oñate in 1596.
When a messenger from Mexico City arrived in Oñate's camp on September 9, 1596, everyone involved with the expedition had little reason to expect anything other than King Philip II's final approval of their charter. After all, every preliminary step had been completed, and previous delays weathered. Even the inspector, sent by Viceroy Monterrey to make sure that Oñate truly provided all the men and supplies required by his contract, had arrived and expected the expedition to receive final approval. Indeed, even the messenger expected to be paid the traditional bonus when one delivered good news. What actually arrived was shocking.
Actually, two messages arrived; both bearing bad news. The first message was the King's orders to the viceroy to prevent the expedition from preceding into New Mexico; or if they had already begun to move, to halt the expedition. The second letter was addressed to Inspector Ulloa from Viceroy Monterrey. These orders stated that the inspector must himself restate the command to halt the expedition. Additionally, and what was the biggest blow to all those assembled, the document issued frightful threats if the order to halt was ignored. In other words, the inspector had to tell Oñate (whom he liked) that if he countermanded the orders he faced the permanent cancellation of his original contract with the King, and the revocation of all titles, patents, provisions and commissions previously granted him. The inspector also let it be known that any other member of the expedition caught disobeying the order faced even stiffer penalties. These punishments included "death and forfeiture of all their property, and of being considered disloyal vassals of his majesty." Finally, the document stated that no one involved with the expedition should further "heed nor obey Don Juan".
These unexpected dispatches were a hard slap in the face for Oñate. He suddenly faced personal and financial ruin. These orders meant he might not be able to carry out his ambitions; and worse yet, meant that he might lose the over 500,000 ducats he invested into this venture. The only explanation given by the King was that he had decided to consider an offer of another Spanish nobleman who wanted to explore New Mexico. The Spanish nobleman who now stood in between the colonists and New Mexico was Don Pedro Ponce de Leon.
Oñate did not know what had occurred prior to the dispatch of these injurious documents. While the colonists were sitting out months of delays, letters were being sent to and from Viceroy Monterrey and Philip II. The viceroy had been contacted many times by individuals who claimed that Oñate was a terrible choice to lead an expedition. They slandered his name and reputation by saying he was greatly in debt, could not meet the obligations outlined in his contract, and had chosen only thieves and hoodlums for the venture. The viceroy, wanting time to investigate these allegations, wrote to the King and suggested that Philip II withhold final approval of Oñate's contract until these accusations were proved or dispelled. At such time the viceroy could make any necessary modifications to the original contract, notify the King of the situation and final approval could be granted or revoked.
However, travel time for letters was slow. As was discussed before, Viceroy Monterrey altered some of the conditions to the original contract in December of 1595. These alterations came after the viceroy investigated the allegations against Oñate and his army. Although the viceroy did feel slight changes needed to be made to the contract, he did not feel that any of the accusations made against Oñate were true. In fact, after his investigation, Viceroy Monterrey suspected that the accusations against Onate were made as part of a conspiracy, lead by Juan Lomas y Colmenares, to destroy Oñate's plans. The reason suspected for him wanting to ruin Oñate was that Juan Lomas y Colmenares had been one of Oñate's rivals for the contract to explore New Mexico. He was very vocally upset when that contract was granted to Oñate and not himself.
Modern historians suspect that Lomas y Colmenares may have convinced Ponce de Leon to capitalize on the fame afforded him from his explorations of Florida in 1513 and make a bid for the contract to explore New Mexico. Once Ponce de Leon made his bid King Philip II put Oñate's contract on hold in order to have time to consider Ponce de Leon's bid. The King was intrigued by the idea of having a famous explorer lead the expedition into New Mexico. Additionally, Ponce de Leon, having used Oñate's contract as a model, offered more money, men and supplies for the journey than had Oñate. After reviewing the offer, Philip II accepted Ponce de Leon's terms and granted him the New Mexico contract. However, this proved to be an erroneous decision.
The King's advisors soon discovered that Ponce de Leon had lied about his financial ability to fund the expedition. He tried to sell his estate and secure a loan from the government in order to raise money. In light of this, and Ponce de Leon's failing health, the King began doubting Ponce de Leon's ability to provide the expedition with everything he promised in his contract.
Philip II then reviewed Viceroy Monterrey's increasingly favorable reports on Onate. He concluded that Oñate was the person who should lead the expedition into New Mexico and, shortly there after, issued the orders that Oñate's group could proceed. However, due to the slow pace of mail delivery, Oñate did not received the letter granting him permission to proceed until December, 1598. Oñate's group had patiently endured months of additional delays due to miscommunication, intrigue, and very slow mail delivery.
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