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  • Missions of Colonial New Mexico
  • Charles J. G. M. Piette O.F.M.

AMONG the windfalls awaiting young historians who are rightly eager to evoke the spirit and the achievements of the apostolic laborers who spent their lives in bringing the Gospel to the New World, the territory formerly known as Nuevo México certainly deserves to be mentioned. For it is a fact that researchers have hitherto almost completely neglected this region.

To persons familiar only with the borders of the present State of New Mexico, it is necessary to explain the vastness which earned for the northern parts of the Spanish colonies the name of Nuevo México. Such was the title given to them early in the sixteenth century. They kept it until the end of the Spanish regime.

As late as 1787, Colonel Don Antonio de Alcedo, in his Diccionario Histórico Geográphico,1 outlines the frontiers of Nuevo México as follows: “It extends on the south to the provinces of Sinaloa, Nueva Viscaya, Nuevo Reino de León; on the southeast, to Florida; on the northeast, to Canada and New France; on the west, to the Californias, from north to south. Its northern limits are simply unknown. Its longitude is from 260° to 275°; its latitude, from 28° to 45°. From north to south it covers 350 leagues, and from east to west 150.”

Such is the area which placed this territory on the same footing as the kingdom that Cortés conquered, and which caused it to be termed a “New” Mexico. Thus it can be said that this country formerly exceeded even the Great Desert of Arizona and New Mexico.

But still more amazing than the vastness of ancient Nuevo México is the fact that the Franciscan missions, which were the only ones there and which flourished for over three centuries, have not yet been given their rightful place in the history of the Catholic Church in the Western Hemisphere.

Why is this so? Is it perhaps due to a lack of documents? They are to be found in overflowing abundance in the archives of Mexico, Madrid and Seville. We have examined thousands of them. If we expressed in a mathematical equation the proportion that exists between the manuscripts which have been lying undisturbed in dusty collections for centuries, and the several rare items about these missions which have been printed 2, [End Page 243] we would have the following formula: the manuscripts are to the published writings as one hundred to one. As a matter of fact, hardly one per cent of the documents has so far been used. These missions are the abandoned children, the orphans of Franciscan history and indeed of history itself.

Moreover, some historians who were not experts in that particular field, have unfortunately been guilty, as it were, of throwing the first stone at those missionary outposts and of condemning them as a unit. All their sources merely amount to a superficial reading of a few extracts which they quote, taken from two reports sent to the King of Spain by two Bishops of Durango in the eighteenth century. Disappointed at their inability to extend the limits of their diocese as far as New France and the North Pole, Bishops Crespo, in 1730 3 and Tamarón4, in 1765, [End Page 244] angrily drew up a list of complaints against the Franciscan Custody of the Conversion of St. Paul.

More than one or two documents must be used in the writing of history. A historian, like an impartial judge, is morally obliged to give all the witnesses a hearing and to check up on their testimony. It is impossible to attain to the truth that history requires without weighing the precise value of the various pieces of evidence and without comparing them among themselves. For instance, to bring up only a minor fact, which is nevertheless significant due to the circumstances: the Apostolic Notary, Don Miguel de Quintana, declared under oath on his death-bed that he solemnly retracted the calumnies he had been forced to write against the missionaries in order not to lose his position and salary5.

Ít is high...


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pp. 243-254
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