Juan Morlete, Gaspar Castaņo de Sosa and the Province of Nuevo Leon
Juan Morlete, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa and the Province of Nuevo Leon
By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint
When, in March 1591, Captain Juan Morlete arrested Lieutenant Governor Castaño de Sosa at Santo Domingo Pueblo, they were not strangers to each other. This was not the first run-in between the two men. Their association had begun about 1579, when both were members of an expedition organized by Juan de Carvajal de la Cueva to reconnoiter and take control, on behalf of the king of Spain, of much of what is now northeastern Mexico, then called the province of Nuevo León.
The leader of that expedition and governor of the new province was Luis de Carvajal de la Cueva. Two of his ambitious followers were Morlete and Castaño de Sosa. Castaño de Sosa was appointed lieutenant governor of the province and moved northward with its advancing frontier, while Morlete remained in the south at the town of Mazapil.
According to the Marqués de Villamanrique, viceroy of New Spain from 1585-1589, Carvajal and his colonists were inveterate Indian slavers. They repeatedly rode "northward to the Río Bravo [Rio Grande] and Río de Palmas, where the Indians had never seen any Spaniards nor committed any crimes. Then, like someone hunting rabbits or deer, the soldiers would seize each time from eight hundred to a thousand Indians and sell them in Mexico [City]." Predictably, this precipitated retaliatory violence from the Indians of the northern frontier. The region, as a result, was in nearly continuous turmoil.
The viceroy issued a formal order to Carvajal to cease his slaving activity. When he did not, Villamanrique summoned the governor to Mexico City for investigation of his refusal to desist. When Carvajal arrived in the viceregal capital, he was instructed not to leave it until his case was decided. In flagrant disregard of that prohibition, he abandoned his residence in Mexico City and returned to Nuevo León. Adding insult to injury, Carvajal resumed his slaving expeditions.
The governor further insulted the viceroy by removing officials the viceroy had appointed and installing in their place his own associates. Such behavior could not be countenanced by the viceroy, who dispatched a captain with a detachment of soldiers to arrest Carvajal and return him to Mexico City. The arresting captain caught up with the governor and took him into custody at the new town of Almadén [now Monclova], where the lieutenant governor, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa was in residence. Carvajal was unceremoniously taken back to Mexico City in chains, leaving Castaño de Sosa in charge of the province.
While Carvajal was awaiting a decision in the resulting investigation, the Holy Office of the Inquisition also charged him with committing heresy. The former governor did not live to see the result of the inquisition's investigation, dying in February 1591. As Villamanrique's successor, Luis de Velasco II, summarized the situation, "the difficulties stemming from his ambitions and official status have presumably come to an end."
During Carvajal's absence from Nuevo León, Castaño de Sosa, now fully disillusioned with the potential for mineral wealth in the province, turned his attention toward New Mexico. News of that long-neglected region had been plentiful since the return of the Chamuscado-Rodríguez and Espejo expeditions in the early 1580s. Stories of people who wore cotton clothing, lived in stone buildings, and had access to nearby mineral deposits were very enticing.
Castaño de Sosa's interest in New Mexico was no secret in the viceregal court. Nor was the lieutenant governor unaware that he would need formal license from the viceroy in order to mount an expedition to settle and exploit the Pueblo world. Accordingly, Castaño de Sosa sent a representative to Mexico City to seek the viceroy's permission to move the population of the settlement of Almadén to New Mexico. In June 1590, with preparations for an expedition well under way, Juan Morlete arrived in Almadén with the viceroy's reply.
The new viceroy, Luis de Velasco II, informed Castaño de Sosa, through Morlete, that the taking of Indian slaves was strictly forbidden and, furthermore, that permission to travel to New Mexico was denied. Castaño de Sosa dutifully made public announcement of the absolute ban on Indian slaving. But on the subject of the proposed expedition to New Mexico, he and Morlete had intense discussions. In the course of those discussions, Morlete suggested that Castaño de Sosa go to Mexico City to consult directly with Velasco. Initially, Castaño de Sosa expressed a willingness to do that, but he was later dissuaded by other settlers of Almadén from making the trip in person. Instead, he designated a member of Morlete's company, one Alonso Ruiz, to serve as his messenger to the viceroy on this subject. Even before that, Castaño de Sosa had appointed four others from among his own people to plead his case before Velasco.
Although he was angered by Castaño de Sosa's refusal to go in person to Mexico City, Morlete had discharged his assignment, so he returned to Mazapil. Hardly had he returned to his home when news arrived that Castaño de Sosa and the rest of the people of Almadén had packed up their goods and departed for New Mexico in late July without viceregal license. That news was relayed on to Mexico City, where viceroy Velasco was furious. In two month's time, he consulted with his advisors and drafted instructions to Morlete to pursue and overtake Castaño de Sosa, arrest him, and carry him, a prisoner, to Mexico City. Morlete was the appropriate person to be entrusted with this charge because he was, in the words of Velasco, "considered to be a trustworthy and judicious person."
Morlete, bearing the title Protector de Indios, was to raise a force of 40 men, plus a friar, and then set off on the trail of the renegades. Additionally, he was to seek out Indians who might have been carried against their will to Nuevo León. These he would take with him on his way north to "leave them along the route at the spots they recognize as their places of origin." Furthermore, he was to punish those colonists who had abused and enslaved Indians.
Beyond his principal mission, Morlete was also to record information on the native people he would encounter and the lands they occupied, including any signs of mineral resources. With the viceroy's instructions in hand, Morlete and his punitive expedition left Mazapil in the fall of 1590. Traveling by way of the Rio Grande through the winter of 1590-1591, Morlete and his men reached Santo Domingo Pueblo, where Castaño de Sosa had recently established his headquarters, in late March 1591. Castaño de Sosa himself was not at Santo Domingo, having left days before on a trip to inspect some supposed mineral sources in the Ortiz and San Pedro Mountains.
Men from among his own colonists rode out in search of Castaño de Sosa. When they located the captain general of the expedition, Castaño de Sosa hurried back to Santo Domingo. There, he and Morlete met once again. They greeted each other with public cordiality, and then Morlete read aloud his orders from the viceroy and immediately took Castaño de Sosa prisoner. The renegade lieutenant governor, not willing to risk armed confrontation, submitted to the viceroy's warrant for his arrest without resistance. Morlete, taking no chances, however, had the prisoner put in chains. And thus he remained until his delivery into the viceroy's control in Mexico City.
Obeying his charge to report on the people and land of New Mexico, Morlete remained there for 40 days, conducting his own tour of the pueblos. He was able to locate goods that had belonged to the two friars who had been left in New Mexico by the Chamuscado-Rodríguez expedition in 1582 and were subsequently killed by Indians there. But he learned nothing more of their fate. Finally, Morlete began the return south, taking with him the entire colony from Almadén.
All evidence suggests that the Mexico City-bound cavalcade followed a route along the Rio Grande. As the troop of hundreds of people made its way southward, Morlete took and recorded testimony from members of Castaño de Sosa's abortive expedition for consideration by the high court, or audiencia, and viceroy in Mexico City. As twentieth-century historians George Hammond and Agapito Rey put it, the body of testimony taken by Morlete reveals "how independent of authority in Mexico City, whether of viceroy or audiencia, these captains felt themselves to be, and how they were looked on as powerful and irresponsible entrepreneurs, dangerous to the viceroyalty itself."
For many years, the Spanish king, the Council of the Indies, and royal officials throughout the empire had attempted to exert control over men like Castaño de Sosa, who, in their eyes, posed a dangerous threat to peace between Native Americans and the king's Old World vassals. In the case of Castaño de Sosa's attempt to circumvent official protocol, Juan Morlete served as agent of imperial power. Whether motives of loyalty and obedience were mixed, in this instance, with envy and bitter rivalry between Castaño de Sosa and Morlete, is impossible to judge from the meager surviving documentary record.
Faced with Morlete's overwhelming authority and the fact of a brutally cold winter in New Mexico, where only hints of mineral sources had been found, Castaño de Sosa wrote a contrite letter to the king at one of the stops along the southward journey. At the same time Morlete was formulating charges against the imprisoned lieutenant governor. Upon reaching Mexico City, Castaño de Sosa faced those charges, was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to banishment. Morlete, meanwhile, returned to Mazapil and disappeared from the annals of history.
Hammond, George H. and Agapito Rey, eds. and trs. The Rediscovery of New Mexico, 1580-1594: The Explorations of Chamuscado, Espejo, Castaño de Sosa, Morlete, and Leyva de Bonilla and Humaña. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1966.
Kessell, John L. Kiva, Cross, and Crown: the Pecos Indians and New Mexico, 1540-1840.Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
Schroeder, Albert H. and Dan S. Matson. A Colony on the Move: Gaspar Castaño de Sosa's journal, 1590-1591. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 1965.
Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1992.
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