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Texas | Columns | Notes From Over Here

Don Antonio de Espejo

by Byron Browne
He was only trying to return home, to New Spain, by a short cut. However, Don Antonio de Espejo’s venture through Texas has warranted his inclusion within the history books (the Texas ones in particular) alongside other explorers and conquistadors such as Coronado and Cabeza de Vaca.

Antonio de Espejo
Artist: Tom Lee
Courtesy Carl Hertzog Collection, El Paso, 1947

As every schoolboy knows the Spanish and French had set longing eyes and hearts along the Gulf coast in the sixteenth century. The desire for “souls and gold” burned hot with the Spanish in particular. Cabeza de Vaca’s determination to continue exploring after shipwreck and years of imprisonment was so successful that, by journey’s end, he was being followed everywhere he went by, literally, thousands of Native Americans. While the stories of he and his small company’s divine, almost apostle-like healing powers may be slightly exaggerated (long ago a friend, now a professor of ancient Greek, informed me that the art of history writing, from Herodotus to Churchill, involves the enhancement or overstatement of figures. The over-valuing of numbers of men, armies, size of countries, amount of land seized, etc. is as integral a component of the genre as a good topic sentence.) there is no doubt that his expedition achieved much more than anyone had hoped and brought himself and his family well deserved rewards.

Coronado’s entrada was equally successful but more brutal in its execution. It seems whatever Coronado wanted, Coronado, Caesar-like, took. In fact, as Espejo ventured west from the Rio Grande into New Mexico, the inhabitants of many pueblos withdrew into the surrounding mountains as he and his party approached. The Indians remembered what had happened the last time, forty years previous, a Spaniard entered their lives and they weren’t eager to witness another such event.

Antonio de Espejo (Espejo is ‘mirror’ or ‘looking glass’ in Spanish) came to Mexico, or New Spain, in 1571 as part of a contingent of a new arm of the Inquisition. Espejo accompanied chief Inquisitor Pedro Moyas y Contreras and through his and the King’s influence, soon became wealthy buying land and stocking it with cattle. However sometime in early 1581 Espejo and his brother Pedro were involved in the killing of one of their employees. Some accounts identify the victim as a “vaquero”, others call him a “servant” and one article describes how the brothers, “killed a man in a brawl”. Whatever the circumstances and whoever the victim, both Espejo brothers were convicted-Pedro to imprisonment and Antonio to pay a hefty fine. Rather than pay the damages Antonio de Espejo decided to leave the territory and head a little farther north to Nueva Vizcaya; the present day states of Chihuahua and Durango. While there Espejo met the remainder of the Rodriguez-Sanchez expedition. This party had been on a converso (conversion) mission and had had two of its members decide to remain in the New Mexican territory after the group returned to their base in Santa Barbara. Upon their arrival the expedition determined to return for the two brothers, Fray Lopez and Fray Rodriguez, unaware that the very Indians that they had wanted to convert had already killed them. A new expedition led by another Franciscan brother, Fray Bernardino Beltran, gathered for the rescue effort. To assist in this, and certainly seeing an opportunity for gaining wealth, notoriety in Spain and distance between himself and his legal troubles, Antonio de Espejo joined the group and paid for the inclusion of soldiers, horses, cattle and supplies. They set out for New Mexico on November 10, 1582.

The expedition first followed the Rio Conchos downstream to the Rio Grande. Next the group headed west, along the Rio Grande, to New Mexico. Even though Espejo later would write about the ten months the group spent on this entrada, his accounting was directed to the Spanish king and therefore an epistle of obsequious, anemic facts dripping with pleas for more opportunity (for himself) in the region and more financing of further expeditions.

Another man however wrote a different accounting of the trip. Diego Perez de Luxan covered the journey with a manuscript entitled, Expedition into New Mexico made by Antonio de Espejo 1581-1582. Luxan’s writing is a day-by-day accounting that lists, of course, the different pueblos and tribe names but also describes, more fully than Espejo’s, the countryside and the activities of the party. When remembering that most of these Spanish conquistadors employed scribes, reporters as it were, (Bernal Diaz’s brilliant journal of Cortez’s conquest of Mexico is a fine example of this) one can easily imagine that Espejo had hired Luxan for just such a purpose. I have always marveled at these men’s wise and prescient behaviors; realizing at the present that their future would warrant close observation and chronicling, that what they were embarking upon could be of use or simple interest for the distant future. Maybe there’s a certain degree of hubris involved, maybe the seed of greed germinates well in the black soil of conquest and control. But it would be a rare man who could resist the temptation for relatively easy subjugation coupled with the subsequent tribute.

Espejo’s entrada was, by standards, a pretty calm affair. By his own account the only violence or, the few times that flared tempers produced loaded guns and drawn bows, was when particular Indian tribes killed some of the party’s horses. Apparently a few different tribes at varying times did this either as a show of force or an act of subdued aggression. According to Espejo envoys sent by himself usually mollified the situations and the opposing parties became amicable. One contemporary writer, on the other hand, describes events after Espejo discovers the tribe of Indians responsible for the Franciscan brother’s deaths. He writes that during this portion of the journey, “Espejo’s expedition is marked by his violent attacks on Indians at Puaray and Tiguex in which dozens of inhabitants were executed and their pueblos burned.” The message was clear: personally, there is room for negotiation and compromise, religiously, the rules are absolute and enforced.

The Texas portion of Espejo’s trek begins after he and the party have a disagreement about whether to continue the journey or return home. The Franciscans, after learning of their comrades’ deaths, saw no reason to keep on. Espejo, never truly concerned with anything other than exploring for gold and silver and, ostensibly, for the Crown, kept on the march until he came to an area near what is now Flagstaff, Arizona. According to his report to the king in 1583, Espejo did in fact discover several mines that produced silver ore and even a couple of small gold mines. Most of the Indians however were not interested in metals and subsequently simply kept pointing Espejo and what was left of his train, west.

Just under the ten month mark Espejo began his return to Mexico. He followed the same path as that they had entered the territory until he reached what is the New Mexican-Texas border. Somewhere near the Pecos River Espejo came upon a few Indians hunting and “by signs” allowed the Indians to understand what he was doing and where he was headed. These Indians told Espejo of a short cut back to the Rio Grande through the desert and over mountains. He took it. At this point the Indians led the Spanish past Toyahvale, down Wild Rose Pass and through Limpia Canyon; the same trail that every cattleman, cavalryman and original settler of the Fort Davis area would take in the coming centuries. According to the records of Espejo and Luxan the group even camped one night in exactly the site where Fort Davis would be established two hundred and seventy two years later.

Fort Davis historic photo
Fort Davis and its Buildings c. 1950
Photo Courtesy TXDoT

The Indians guided the Spanish group back towards the Rio Grande. There they parted ways. Espejo followed the river to the Conchos and then back home where they rejoined the others arriving on September 10, 1583, exactly ten months after they had set out.

The expedition, as far as Espejo was concerned, was a success. He had explored the area he had intended and come away with those items he had hoped to find: silver and gold ore and established, permanent pueblo settlements that converso missions could work with. In his letter to the king of Spain Espejo was also able to describe things heretofore unheard of. Turkey, tamales, maize and blankets created from agave plant fibers would brightened the interest of several other Spanish explorers in the coming decades. These discoveries would also ensure Espejo’s place within the new territories. Sadly, he died at Havana, Cuba in 1585 as he was trying to return to Spain to gather new materials (the king’s permission and financing chief among them) for his conquest. What is interesting is that the short cut he took on the return paved the way for most future exploration and settlement in the area; a route and result that would have great effect for future generations, of which Espejo would never know.

© Byron Browne July 27, 2011 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com
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