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“Gaspar Villagrá and the Story of His Epic Adventure in the Upper Rio Grande”

by Marc Simmons

Historian Marc Simmons writes a newspaper column called “Trail Dust,” regularly published in the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper. In this column, he discusses Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá. Villagrá was a poet and military officer who served under Governor Juan de Oñate in his colonizing mission to Nuevo Mexico.

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Gaspar Pérez de Villagra“Gaspar Pérez de Villagra,” Unidentified (Artist)

Captain Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá published an epic poem in 1610. Written in classical style, it was fashioned in imitation of the Aeneid by the Roman poet Virgil. The poem bore the rather colorless name, Historia de la Nueva Mexico.

Villagrá is rated by historians as one of the chief military officers serving under Governor Juan de Oñate in the founding of New Mexico beginning in 1598. He played a major role in organizing the expedition, serving as supply master prior to its departure for the upper Rio Grande.

In some ways, Villagrá was typical of the Spanish conquistador class. He thirsted for adventure and was ambitious to acquire wealth. Most of all, he wanted to leave some personal mark on history.

“Born in Puebla, east of Mexico City, the young man attended Spain’s celebrated University of Salamanca.”

Born in Puebla, east of Mexico City, in 1555, the young man attended Spain’s celebrated University of Salamanca. Juan de Oñate’s twin brother, Cristóbal, was also a student there. We can’t help but wonder whether they became friends, leading years later to Villagrá’s participation in the colonization of New Mexico. In any case, by the time Juan de Oñate left central Mexico with soldiers and settlers, Villagrá already formed part of his inner circle.

The stirring, often violent events that occurred over the next two years gave the budding poet plenty of grist for his literary mill. He was usually in the thick of the action.

For example, in late 1598, Villagrá rode alone from Isleta to report to Oñate, who was then at Zuni. On the way, he narrowly missed being slain by the newly hostile Acomas.

“Villagrá wrote the most vivid description of the furious battle.”

The governor’s nephew and a dozen soldiers were later attacked at the pueblo and killed. In retaliation, the Spaniards destroyed Acoma. Villagrá wrote the most vivid description of the furious battle. In his poem, he gives details provided by no other account.

“n 1605, he left for Spain, hoping to persuade the king to grant him some royal favor for his service in New Mexico.”

In 1600, Oñate sent his trusted captain with an escort back to Mexico to seek more supplies and men. When the party was ready to return to New Mexico, the viceroy removed Villagrá from command and appointed another in his place. Angry, Villagrá took sanctuary in a church to avoid returning—in an inferior position—to Oñate’s colony. In 1605, he left for Spain, hoping to persuade the king to grant him some royal favor for his service in New Mexico.

Five years later, the captain was probably living in the university town of Alcalá de Henares east of Madrid, [Spain], where his long poem Historia de la Nueva Mexico was published as a book. It covered the first year of Oñate’s settlement.