The City Historical

Astride his horse, Don Diego de Vargas solemnly rides down the street toward the Plaza, with a train of conquistadors behind him, just as he did more than 300 years ago at the first Fiesta de Santa Fe.

Well, not quite.

Conquistadors of today

Conquistadors of today


in Santa Fe

The good don was eight years departed from this earth when the first fiesta was held. And the modern-day de Vargas I was watching will put aside his costume and horse at the day’s end. But the real de Vargas was the inspiration for the procession that paraded by me.

He had promised to honor the Virgin Mary as represented by a wooden statue called La Conquistadora, which had been brought to Santa Fe in 1625. It was her blessing, de Vargas thought, that enabled him to take back Santa Fe in 1692-94, after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 had driven the Spanish from northern New Mexico (you can read more about the revolt and the reconquest in previous posts). While de Vargas was not able to carry out his pledge to build a new throne for the statue, one of his captains suggested the idea of a fiesta to mark the restoration of Spanish rule and the beneficence of La Conquistadora.

As a historian by trade if not by academic degrees, I’m always appreciative of living in a state, and particularly this part of it, that is steeped in history, and which the people with deep familial roots consistently celebrate. And some Santa Feans and Pueblo Indians who surround the city have roots that few Americans today can match. It’s not uncommon to hear the former talk about being the 14th, 17th, 20th generation of their family in the area, and of course the Pueblos go back even further.


One conjecture about how a two-story Palace looked.

To mark Fiesta week, the sponsoring council holds an annual history lecture. I attended this year’s and the hall was packed. Dedie Thomas Snow, an archaeologist who has participated in digs at Santa Fe’s Palace of the Governors (built in 1609), spoke about the palace’s history from 1660-1720, when it often was, as her talk’s title spelled out, “A Palace in Need of Repair.” The one-story building that dominates the plaza today went through structural changes during those years, including gaining additional stories during the years the Pueblos controlled it.

Along with the history of the building, Snow talked a bit about the early social history of Santa Fe and the region. Original settlers who received land grants took part in the encomienda system—they also received Indian labor or tribute in return for military service in the colony, defending mission pueblos. The Spanish colonists established estates near the missions, and many of the villages that eventually grew up around them still exist today.

The Palace today, festooned for Fiesta

The Palace today, festooned for Fiesta

The founding landowners, by law, also spent time in Santa Fe, and the leading citizens lived on small farms near the Plaza, north of the Santa Fe River. On some of the farms, the colonists raised peaches, which Spanish missionaries had earlier brought to North America. South of the river, the Barrio de Analco sprung up to house working-class settlers and Indian laborers.

Much of the Barrio de Analco was destroyed during the Pueblo revolt, though a church built on the foundation of one of the oldest churches in the United States, dating back to the barrio’s founding in 1620, still stands. The barrio is also the site of Santa Fe’s oldest existing house, which dates from the mid-18th century.

Hmm, 1620—I seem to recall some other settlers making news that year about 2,000 miles away. Something about a rock…

The talk was a little slow in places, but I always enjoy learning a little bit more about my adopted home. And I know there will be another talk next year, just as there will be another Fiesta celebration. Tradition and history cling to the City Different, but in a way not stifling, but invigorating. Que viva La Fiesta!