Diego de Peñalosa’s intrigue

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Who today knows the name of Diego de Penalosa? Very few people, I suspect, even though he was one of the more fascinating of New Mexico’s Spanish colonial governors (1661-1664).

Other New Mexican governors, like Oñate, Vargas and Anza, are well remembered and theier names grace schools, streets and public buildings. But not Peñalosa. He has been all but buried in the ash can of history.

And, there is a pretty good reason for that. The man was an opportunist and a scoundrel, and he came to be regarded as a traitor by the Spanish government. He also excelled in the forging of documents.

All of these things make him an interesting historical figure. Therefore, it is to be regretted that we possess only sketchy details of his checkered career.

Born in Peru, Don Diego de Peñalosa must have come to New Spain (Mexico) sometime around the mid-17th century. He was said to have an attractive personality and the ability to charm people, especially those in high places.

But, he was also a troublemaker. In Peru, he had killed a man in a fight and the viceroy ordered his arrest. Don Diego, however, fled north and eventually landed in Mexico City.

After serving in several minor government jobs, he was given the post of governor of New Mexico. That was not exactly a plum. New Mexico in those days was poor, thinly populated and uncomfortable.

With an escort, Penalosa traveled up the Camino Real to assume his new job. At El Paso, he was met by citizens from the north who accompanied him to Santa Fe, which he reached in August 1661.

The capital was then a bleak place and Don Diego decided to spend his term feathering his own nest. Among other crimes, he enslaved scores of Apaches and marched them off to Chihuahua and Sonora to be sold in the mines. And he illegally squeezed labor and saleable goods out of the poor Pueblo Indians.

That brought him into conflict with the Franciscan missionaries. Indeed, Don Diego developed a running feud with the padres. That would later prove his downfall.

When his term ended in 1664, he rode back to Mexico City, taking the profits made from his corrupt administration. Within a few months, reckless spending left him broke. Then he was arrested by the Inquisition for crimes committed in New Mexico.

Held in the dungeons of the Inquisition for 23 months, Peñalosa was finally brought to trial and fond guilty on an assortment of charges. As punishment, he was given a stiff fine, forced to march as a penitent in a public procession carrying a green candle and exiled forever from Spain’s empire in America. In 1668, he bid goodbye to Mexico and took ship for Europe.

As near as we can tell, Don Diego nursed a desire for vengeance against Spain. The next year he turned up in England and tried to interest the government there in a bold plan to attack the Spanish colonies. After four fruitless years of devising schemes and lobbying British officials, he gave up and went to Paris in 1673.

Immediately, he began petitioning French King Louis IV to support him in leading an attack on New Mexico. What he proposed was to land on the Texas Gulf Coast with a French army and march overland to capture Santa Fe. With New Mexico as a base, he could afterward move south and seize the silver mines of Chihuahua.

It was a bold idea, if unrealistic and far-fetched in design. But it interested the king enough that he kept Don Diego dangling on a string for years.

Nothing happened until 1684 when the French explorer La Salle returned from the New World with his own proposal to colonize the mouth of the Mississippi River. Evidently, he and Peñalosa decided to unite their schemes.

In that year, Don Diego presented a document to the French government called “Relation of the Discovery of Quivira.” He represented it as being an account of an expedition he made in 1662, while governor of New Mexico. In it he claimed to have traveled with 80 Spanish soldiers from Santa Fe to Quivira on the Kansas plains where he found rich gold mines.

The document, of course, was a complete fraud, aimed at winning support from French officials. Peñalosa, as New Mexico history confirms, never made any such trip. Then he and La Salle parted company.

In 1687 Diego de Peñalosa died in Paris, leaving little more than a blackened reputation and a curious footnote in the history books.