223 Years of Colonial Mail in New Mexico

BY HENRIETTA MARTINEZ CHRISTMAS

If not for the colonial postal system, communications with Mexico and Spain would not have been sustained in the vast frontier we know as New Mexico. The governmental system of transporting mail, loyalty to the Spanish Crown, and the yearning for news beyond what was happening at a local level helped to sustain the colonial towns and villages of New Mexico. What could have been a complicated system worked quite well and improved with time as mail moved over the camino real.

 

Communications in the northern frontiers of New Mexico were vital in the colonial period (1598 –1821) not only for survival but also for maintaining governmental control, improving the economy, and defense. Correspondence also provided New Mexicans with a connection to the king, which helped to maintain rule of law and social continuity.

Period documents outlining the types of mail dispatches; lists of names, departures, and arrivals; and carriers’ names are rare, but the flow of information throughout the Spanish Empire is well established in thousands of pages of documentation over the long colonial period. We know that local authorities communicated with their superiors; we just do not know many specific details about how the mail system functioned. One reason for this is that few envelopes with franking (such as postage or other official authorization), addresses, or other routing information have survived in New Mexico archives. We do know that the mail from New Mexico traveled hundreds of miles by foot, horseback, and caravan between Santa Fe and the closest contact centers—El Paso, Chihuahua, and further south to Mexico City. Mail departed from and came to New Mexico in three ways: special courier, caravan, and military escort.

Collection and local delivery in New Mexico relied heavily on the governors, who received and acted upon governmental orders, new laws, missives, and royal announcements, as they did throughout the New World. Upon receiving any type of governmental decree or edict, the governor disseminated the information throughout the province under his control as he saw fit.

All across the New World, town criers were used to circulate information that came from a governor or higher official. Evidently paper was available to the governors, although at times they mentioned the lack of paper with a seal; regardless, official business continued to be conducted. In Santa Fe, a number of town criers, or pregoneros, were Spanish-speaking Indians. The criers often had set schedules, but they also proclaimed special events or decrees. The most famous crier in New Mexico was Sebastián Rodríguez, a native of Luanda, in present-day Angola, and Don Diego de Vargas’s black pregonero. Antonio de Ulibarrí, the alcalde mayor of Santa Fe in 1736, issued a bando (edict) to be read to the residents of Santa Fe, which specified that it be read in a clear and intelligible voice at the sound of the drum in the plaza of the capital and posted at the doors of the casas reales (royal headquarters). After the correo (mail) arrived in Santa Fe, official notices were distributed throughout the alcaldías (jurisdictions) if the governor felt it was necessary.

From the earliest days of the colony, couriers made special deliveries of mail. Initially, these men were chosen by the governors, and we know little about how they were selected or carried out their tasks. Mounted couriers averaged twenty-five miles a day but occasionally covered exceptionally long distances at a faster pace.

In 1713 Bartolomé Garduño, a soldier of the presidio of Santa Fe, was sent to Mexico City to deliver some special and personal mail. Garduño talked another soldier, Carlos López, into taking the trip with him, although without official permission. Upon their return to Santa Fe, they were found to be lying about the specifics of the trip, and both men fled back to Mexico City. The governor sent a letter to the viceroy about the two soldiers, insinuating that they would lie if questioned or tell more false stories. Apparently this episode didn’t hurt Garduño’s military career, since his name appears in the 1717 Santa Fe muster.

By the eighteenth century, it was common for civil-military officers and Church officials to send circular letters that followed a routing sequence from town to town. In each location the local official wrote in the date, signed the document, and sent it on. In one such document, dated April 1786, the bishop of Durango called for the removal from the roadsides throughout the province of all crosses (descansos), which were memorials to people who had been killed by Indians. The governor was asked to circulate this request throughout his jurisdiction. In addition, any soldiers on the frontier who found crosses were directed to remove them. This missive is the first time we see any mention of descansos in New Mexico.

The mission supply caravans from Mexico City, which theoretically ran every three years, provided another opportunity to carry the mail in and out of New Mexico. Prior to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, caravans departed Mexico City for New Mexico to provide most of the supplies for the Franciscan missions in the colony. The regularity of the delivery of supplies and protection provided for the caravans attracted the attention of merchants, who added their wagons to the caravan. Yet another way to get mail to and from New Mexico was by traders, especially men operating out of Parral, who carried on business with New Mexican merchants on a fairly regular basis in the seventeenth century, since most of them were part of a larger trade network linking the principal towns in New Spain.

In the eyes of Spanish authorities, there were two kinds of mail: urgent or official mail, and personal mail. Official mail consisted of items such as an order dated June 25, 1748, demanding the return to El Paso of more than seventy men and some of their families, who had made a trip to Santa Fe. Another dispatch, dated September 1786, brought news of the marriage of the infanta (princess) Doña Carolina Joaquina, who married Carlos IV of Spain in May 1785. Governor Juan Bautista de Anza received the communication and made the proclamation. Interestingly, Anza’s announcement took place sixteen months after the event, giving us some insight into the time it took for information to reach the colonies from Spain.

New Mexicans also wrote and sent personal mail. Bernardo Miera y Pacheco wrote to the king in 1777 seeking “preferment,” such as a title. María Rosa Villalpando, from Taos, was captured by Comanches in 1760 and ransomed to a man from St. Louis, whom she eventually married. For a dozen years, she corresponded with her only New Mexico son, Julián Jáquez, who later paid her a visit. Later, Jáquez’s second wife, Francisca Rafaela Pacheco, wrote to the governor of San Antonio de Béxar looking for her wayward spouse, who eventually returned to New Mexico.

From the time of Carlos V, positions with the postal service had been salable offices. Bourbon administrators enacted a partial reform of the mail delivery system in Spain and the Americas in 1706. Philip V placed postal officials under the jurisdiction of the crown. At mid-century, the system was further reorganized; the Royal Post Office was created, and officials were assigned fixed salaries. A mail junta was formed in 1764, and yet another version of the postal system, with more formal postage fees, was put into effect in November 1765.

The new mail system was made up of cartas (letters); pliegos (sealed orders and more important papers); and the valija, a leather satchel type of mail bag with a lock or sometimes chains. Each post office had an emblem of a presidio, where mail in the outlying areas was delivered. As for the official estafeta (post office), New Mexico had only one that we know of, in Santa Fe. Postillones carried the mail on horseback, and carteros delivered local mail, most likely in larger cities such as Mexico City. To date no record has been found of emblems, if any, used in New Mexico.

A copy of a royal order dated May 22, 1768, addressed the security of the mail—“la seguridad del la correspondencia del público.” Improper carrying of the mail, such as having it outside of the valija, was unlawful and subject to fines of 100 ducats and ten years of work in the presidio.

New regulations went into effect with the new postal system. Withholding the mail was forbidden, and officials were required to state the hours the post office would be open. When the mail arrived, it had to be opened in the administrator’s presence, and in case he was ill, a backup person, known as a mozo de oficio, had to be in attendance. Logs and books were to be kept, and fees were to be charged. Money or jewels could not be sent. Only legal employees could work at the post office, and a deceased person’s mail would be delivered only to their heirs.

The maestro de postas, or postmaster, was a local resident; there was one at each major stop. Maestros helped the postillones, used arms to defend themselves, and helped deal with the horses used to carry the mail.

The most enthusiastic reformer of the mails was Teodoro de Croix. In 1779 he put into place measures that led to the establishment of an effective mail route from Texas to Arizpe, in present-day Sonora. He employed seventy soldiers, sixteen Indians, and six residents, all living in northern New Spain along the presidio line. A spur from El Paso to Santa Fe connected New Mexico to this new network. On December 30, 1779, Croix sent Anza a letter about the new mail system, outlining how it would work. In the space of about three and a half days, couriers would travel from El Paso to Chihuahua by way of the presidios in San Elizario and Carrizal. With the establishment of this line of communication, Santa Fe was connected not only to all the other presidios from Texas to Sonora, but also to points south.

Apaches who carried the mail were ordered to wear distinctive badges identifying them as correos conductores (mailmen) so they would not be bothered as they made their rounds.

Felipe Neve, from Chihuahua, wrote to Governor Anza on December 28, 1783, and thereafter every few months, about the postage and administration of the mail and the protection of mail detachments between Santa Fe and El Paso. On December 9, 1789, Governor Fernando de la Concha acknowledged receipt of correspondence consisting of thirty-seven letters. He sent a report and update on the mail on January 11, 1790. The letters themselves were mostly administrative correspondence regarding missionaries, the presidio, the census, and the good conduct of the Apache captains.

One document tells us that on July 14, 1790, a contingent of one corporal and six men left for El Paso with official mail because of the threat of Apache raids. Another, dated October 29, 1791, mentions that a delivery of mail would leave on October 30, but the correspondence was detained. The governor asked the lieutenant governor of El Paso, Francisco Javier de Uranga, to send the mail with some residents on their way to Sonora who were scouting because of Indian attacks at the paraje (campsite) on the Jornada del Muerto. The typical makeup of presidial escorts for the mail is revealed in a missive dated October 1784, which states that a corporal, three soldiers, and one servant carried mail destined for Governor Fernando Chacón.

We know that Indians also served as couriers and received payments as auxiliaries of the mail system. In 1803 Jicarilla Apaches were the mail couriers. And a document dated January 1805 states that two Apache warriors came in the afternoon and left on the morning of January 29, carrying the mail. Apaches who carried the mail were ordered to wear distinctive badges identifying them as correos conductores (mailmen) so they would not be bothered as they made their rounds.

By 1805 Croix’s system seems to have thoroughly broken down in New Mexico. Governor Joaquín del Real Alencaster noted in a letter to the Audiencia of Guadalajara that there were only four annual mail deliveries to New Mexico, suggesting that he had to return to the use of special couriers. In 1819, as the Spanish period in New Mexico was drawing to a close, letters sent from Santa Fe to San Elizario bore franking indicating that postage of three reales had been paid, so it is clear that the mail was still being delivered.

Much has been said over the years about New Mexico’s remoteness and its distance from Mexico City, but the mail system worked, one way or another, during the colonial period in spite of the many threats and challenges that it had to endure. Its importance in maintaining communications between provincial and viceregal capitals kept New Mexicans abreast of important developments in the Spanish Empire, however late the news arrived.

Sources

Bexar Archives, University of Texas, Austin.

John Kessell, Rick Hendricks, and Meredith Dodge. To the Royal Crown Restored. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995.

The Spanish Archives of New Mexico, Series II (microfilm).

Acknowledgments to Robert Torrez, former New Mexico state historian, for his support and sharing of documents pertaining to the mail; and to Rick Hendricks, the state historian.

Henrietta Martinez Christmas is a family historian, lecturer, and researcher. She is the 2015–2016 president of the New Mexico Genealogical Society and a member of Los Compadres, a support group of the Palace of the Governors, her favorite museum.

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