A shrewd governor

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On April 6, 1749, young Tomás Veléz Cachupín, newly arrived in New Mexico, took the oath of office to become governor of the province. The document he signed on that occasion is still preserved in our state archives.

As he was settling into his official residence, the aging adobe palacio facing Santa Fe’s plaza, the fledgling governor took stock of his orders given him by the viceroy before leaving Mexico City.

Although still in his 20s, Veléz Cachupín had a distinguished record of military service behind him. Upon appointment as governor, he had also been promoted to captain-general over all provincial armed forces.

His central task was to deal with the alarming rise in hostile attacks by Comanches, Utes and Apaches. Of the three, the powerful Comanches posed the greatest threat.

Initially, he worked toward extending the olive branch in an attempt to build trust with that tribe. In July 1751, he met with tribal leaders who had came under a truce to trade at Taos. After he showered them with gifts, they all solemnly promised to keep the peace.

Not convinced of the Comanches’ sincerity, the governor posted a squad of 10 soldiers at both Pecos and Galisteo pueblos. As it turned out, his foresight saved the two villages from destruction.

As he reported to the viceroy, more than 300 Comanches without warning attacked Pecos on Nov. 4, 1751, intending to enter and sack it. The native residents barely repulsed the assault with aid of the soldiers.

The Comanches next moved against Galisteo, but with the same result. Upon learning of this, an angry Veléz Cachupín organized a pursuit with 54 presidial soldiers, 30 citizen militiamen from Santa Fe and Santa Cruz, and eight Pueblo scouts.

Following a clear Comanche track leading southeast from Galisteo, he soon discovered the war party had split into two parts. He elected to follow the main body of Indians numbering 145.

Days later the scouts reported that the Comanches had camped at a spring on the edge of a pond. As the Spaniards approached it, a contingent of feathered warriors dashed out to challenge them.

When the Comanches, however, got close enough to gauge the size of the troop, they hastily retired to the spring and there “formed a wall with their horses and their large shields that protected their whole bodies.”

Veléz Cachupín arrived and had his men pour a withering fire into their ranks. By sundown, the bold Indians had suffered heavy losses.

In the dark, they retreated into the pond where water was waist deep and tried to hide in a thick stand of tall reeds. Soldiers surrounded the pond so that none could escape and the governor had bonfires built to illuminate the area. The men continued firing their muskets.

At midnight, as the battle raged, a 16-year-old boy, badly wounded, came out of the pond carrying a cross made of reeds.

Soaked and shivering from the November cold, he asked for mercy and it was granted.

When those still in the icy water observed the good treatment the youth received, they were astonished, having expected him to be promptly slain. Soon one by one, most of the holdouts emerged from hiding and surrendered.

Among them were six women, half of them wounded and one nursing a baby. Only the head chief and several close followers refused to give in and they were shortly killed by gunfire.

The 44 Indian survivors out of 145 were afterward released and sent back to their home range. They carried to the tribe their firsthand report of the hardy “boy captain” who had thrashed them soundly and then showed himself merciful.

New Mexicans received news of the victory with unbounded joy. They remembered all too well that 500 Spaniards and Pueblo Indians had died at the hands of Comanches during the past decade.

Gov. Vélez Cachupín’s achievement gave them an interlude of peace that lasted to the end of his term. The brutal drubbing he had delivered at the spring did the trick.