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The Spanish Frontier Legacy in Southwest America Essay

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Updated: Jul 7th, 2021

The Spanish in the Southwest and Mexico

The Spanish presence in what is now known as the American Southwest is notably different from that in the Valley of Mexico. The colonists maintained a well-organized and robust presence in the former Aztec empire, subduing and nearly exterminating the native people. However, in the Southwest, they coexisted with aboriginals, although they still assumed a position of superiority and oppressed the Indian population. The Native Americans were afforded a significant degree of freedom, which allowed them to form their own communities and even to revolt against Spanish rule. This post will discuss the reasons behind the difference in the presence of the European settlers in the two locations.

The variance in wealth between the two locations may be the primary reason behind the amounts of attention devoted to the two areas. The lands of the Aztecs were extremely rich in terms of gold and silver, while the Southwest failed to live up to the expectations of the Spanish (Anderson and Chamberlain 2008, 28-31). The lands still had significant resources that could be claimed and used, but the lack of the massive wealth displayed in the Mexico Valley turned people off. They preferred to take the opportunity to become reach exploiting the yet-unclaimed resources of the Aztec territories, leading to massively disproportionate migration rates.

However, the Southwest had its own resources, and the Spanish who lived there were concerned over other matters. The initial expedition by de Coronado was a failure that met with significant hostility from the Native Americans due to the behavior of its members (de Nájera et al. 1904, 236). Furthermore, the opposition continued after the Spanish conquered the tribes, culminating in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (Boyer et al. 2016, 79). Even in times of peace, the colonists did not dominate the natives entirely, and the two groups became interlinked instead of fostering a one-sided relationship (Brown 2004, 490-491). The constant danger kept the numbers of willing emigrants low enough that they could never feel safe.

The culture of the Valley of Mexico was dominated by the Spanish because they were interested in its wealth and had mostly conquered or eliminated the resident Aztecs. However, the situation was different in the Southwest, as the territory attracted significantly fewer colonists due to its worse prospects. While the migrants subjugated the resident Native Americans, they remained in large numbers and harbored hostile sentiments. In addition, the threat of invasion by other tribes from yet-unexplored territories beyond the Southwest kept the Europeans concerned. As such, their hold on the area was considerably looser, and the natives of the land had significantly more freedom as long as they did not openly antagonize the Spanish.

Catholic Christianity and Native Americans

The adoption of Catholic Christianity by Native Americans was characterized by a significant degree of mutation and adaptation. Indians accepted the religion but incorporated many of the elements of their old beliefs into the rituals. The missionaries did not approve of the practice or follow the example of the aboriginals, but they accepted this alteration of their doctrine. The situation presents a logical inconsistency with the history of intolerance that characterizes European Christianity. This post attempts to explain the reasons why Native Americans refused to accept Catholicism in a more than superficial manner as well as why the European priests tolerated such technical heresies.

The primary reason why Christianity was not accepted by the Indians in its entirety is the inability of the missionaries to convey it to everyone. There were too many different ethnic groups in New Spain and too few ministers to address them all, and some groups had not been visited until the eighteenth century (Griffiths 2017, 114). The priests did not have enough human resources and time to convince every tribe of Native Americans to convert fully, especially in light of the overall negative relationship between their people and the Pueblos. As such, they had to accept that the Indians would practice a flawed version of the religion and keep exercising their rites alongside it.

Some orders, such as the Jesuits, chose to limit the scope of their missionary work and to concentrate on creating sustainable missions in the new land. They believed that the creation of a stable community with abundant food and advanced knowledge would attract natives, who would learn about Christianity alongside matters of more immediate importance. However, the cultural divide led to misunderstandings, which limited the ability of the missionaries to enact changes in the nearby communities (Truett 2004, 311-312). Native Americans used a practical approach and incorporated the new knowledge into their traditional lifestyles while paying lip service to the religious conceptions by observing them alongside old customs.

Ultimately, the low adoption rate of Christianity was caused by insufficient efforts to promote it among the natives. There were not enough priests to convince the Indians to abandon their original religions, and the two groups often refused to try to understand each other. In addition, the difficulties of living in a new land often reflected on the ability of the missionaries to utilize their superior knowledge adversely or to accept the emergence of new ideas. As such, Native Americans used the new crops and animals provided by the Christians for their own purposes and adopted a semblance of Christianity to maintain good relationships with their benefactors without significantly changing their traditions.


Anderson, Gary Clayton, and Kathleen P. Chamberlain. 2008. Power and promise: The changing American West. New York: Pearson Longman.

Boyer, Paul S., Clifford E. Clark Jr., Karen Halttunen, Joseph E. Kett, Neal Salisbury, Harvard Sitkoff, Nancy Woloch, and Andrew Rieser. 2016. The enduring vision: A history of the American people. Boston: Cengage Learning.

Brown, Tracy. 2004. Tradition and change in eighteenth-century Pueblo Indian communities. Journal of the Southwest 46, no. 3: 463-500.

de Nájera, Pedro de C., George P. Winship, Francisco V. de Coronado, Antonio de Mendoza, and Juan Camilo Jaramillo. 1904. The Journey of Coronado, 1540-1542: From the City of Mexico to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas and Nebraska. New York, A. S. Barnes & Co.

Griffith, Nicholas. 2017. Sacred Dialogues: Christianity and native religions in the Colonial Americas 1492-1700. Nicholas Griffiths.

Truett, Samuel. 2004. The ghosts of frontiers past: Making and unmaking space in the borderlands. Journal of the Southwest 46, no. 2: 309-50.

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