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  • Franciscans on the Silver Frontier of Old Mexico
  • Philip Wayne Powell

To the English-speaking world the conquest of Mexico was the achievement of Hernán Cortés, thanks largely to the entertaining account by William Hickling Prescott. The brilliance of the Cortesian exploits, plus Prescott’s popularity, have combined to cause this historical distortion by overshadowing the fact that there were many conquests of Mexico, just as there were, and are, “many Mexicos.”1 Hernán Cortés merely began the subjugation of Mexico by his victory over the Nahua Confederacy. Some later conquests were more difficult, more expensive in lives and money, and far more time-consuming than that of Cortés, but they lack their Prescotts.

One of the most significant of these conquests in Mexico began just as the career of the great Cortés was coming to a close in 1547. Mid-century ushered in an epoch of frontier conflict north of Mexico City which was to be vital in the formation of an American nation, the Mexico as it came to be.

The five decades of this frontier, beginning around 1550, saw the discovery and exploitation of enormous mineral resources which were eventually to make Old Mexico, or New Spain, the brightest jewel in the Spanish crown. They also witnessed a new expansion, this time under Spanish auspices, of the old “empire” of Montezuma, subjugating and absorbing nomadic peoples to determine the indigenous texture of Mexican society from that day to this. It was a half-century which brought into being a social stratification and a way of lifelong enduring, with bonanza barons, cattle kings, and hacendados at one pole, slave or peón labor at the other. And, of more immediate pertinence to my present story, these years of the Mexican silver frontier saw the formulation of an American pattern of conquest far different than that of Cortés; a system of empire expansion which was long to characterize Spanish growth on this continent.

If one were to examine this frontier saga in some detail, there could be discerned interesting parallels with the more famous Anglo-American frontiers of a much later day. The story of this Mexican frontier is packed with the same type of material used by historians, biographers, novelists, and troubadours in describing our own westward movement. Thus, after the first great silver strike in 1546, the leagues northward from Mexico City, between the two great [End Page 295] sierras, became the stage for dramatic mining rushes, with boom towns and ghost towns, overnight fortunes, claim-jumping, and “forty-niners”;2 long trains of covered wagons carrying silver one way and merchandise the other, with settlers, traders, and soldier escorts fighting off vigorous Indian attacks; Indian warriors raiding at first on foot and later on horseback,3 torturing and scalping those who fell into their hands; miraculous escapes with the “redskins” in hot pursuit; Indian alliances, or confederations, to exterminate the white man and prevent his permanent occupation of the aboriginal hunting grounds;4 blockhouses and stockades for defense, hard-riding cavalry patrols and larger expeditions to combat the native tribes; great livestock ranches, “long drives,” and cattle rustling. All these things and more would be familiar to the North American whose childhood heroes were Daniel Boone, Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, “Wild Bill” Hickock, and General Custer.

But if there were striking similarities there were also significant differences. One of the most distinctive features of Spanish frontier life in America, in contrast with that of Anglo-America, was the dominant role played by the missionary. The Spanish dream of overseas empire was strongly colored by the desire to embrace and convert heathen souls. In keeping with this ideal, one of the compelling motives for Spanish expansion on the continent was the spread of Christianity to the nomadic, elusive, hostile natives of the silver frontier. From 1546 to the end of the century and beyond, this took the form of ever closer co-operation between religious, [End Page 296] civil, and military authorities to evolve into the famous mission system of frontier pacification. And the greatest of the early friar-frontiersmen in North America, missionaries and martyrs entre infieles, were...


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