Santa Fe and the Spanish City System

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In 1776, the Franciscan Spanish priest Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez visited the Villa of Santa Fe, which was founded in 1610 as a hub of power for the Spanish Crown and the capital of what was then the Kingdom of New Mexico. Spaniards intended Santa Fe to also be the center of evangelization for the conversion of the diverse Native groups of the region, whom they called the Pueblo people, a term meaning “town” as well as a reference to the multi-story adobe dwellings in which many Native people lived. Domínguez’s task as a canonical inspector for the Franciscan Order was to report the conditions of the almost two-hundred-year-old Kingdom, which had been colonized by the Spanish in the late sixteenth century. When he explored Santa Fe, Domínguez was disappointed and complained that despite both its scenic location and the splendid accounts of political power, Santa Fe’s “appearance, design, arrangement, and plan [did] not correspond to its status” as the capital of the Kingdom, and there were no “streets, well-planned houses, shops, [or] fountains.”[1]

In Domínguez’s eyes, Santa Fe did not follow the urbanistic principles of the rest of the Hispanic world. At the time of his arrival to Santa Fe, the town had a population of less than 2,000 people. Its inhabitants lived in clustered adobe buildings that lacked ornament and appeared bare to the Spanish priest. These structures had been laid out around a street grid and series of plazas—a practice that had become a standard for new Spanish settlements in the Americas and Asia—yet their irregular rather than orthogonal alignment seemed disorderly to Domínguez. Furthermore, just a century earlier Santa Fe had been destroyed by a group of Puebloans during the 1680 Revolt against Spanish authority, and construction of new buildings since then had been slow and practical, without much consideration to order or grandeur.[2]

By the eighteenth century the Hispanic Monarchy had established what historian Aurelio Espinosa refers to as an "Empire of Cities... a global commonwealth” based on autonomous municipalities.[3] This orderly network of prosperous cities stretched from Europe to the Americas and Asia, and the urban centers in this network often displayed their wealth in elegant works of architecture and urbanism. Therefore, the Hispanic Monarchy had majestic cities such as those found in the Mediterranean, the Philippines, Peru, and Central Mexico—the latter being where Domínguez was born. Clearly, Santa Fe was no Seville, Manila, Lima, or Mexico City, but it did share something with them. Even with its small population, peripheral location, and coarse appearance, the town had become a center of Spanish culture and administration, and, accordingly, it reflected the composite goals and values of the monarchy. On one hand, Santa Fe was consistent with European colonial ambitions as the nexus of Spanish control in the Southwest and the center of the region’s political and religious affairs. On the other hand, Santa Fe and its relationship with the Indigenous populations reveal that the Spanish city system in the New World was flexible and responsive to its context. The capital of New Mexico exemplifies how Spain successfully negotiated competing interests and adapted colonial planning conventions to differing regional realities, establishing the first global empire. 


The Crown’s grip on its overseas territories and its longevity in the New World owes much to the role that cities played within the Hispanic Monarchy. The Crown had one primary goal: to keep control of its European, enslaved African, and Indigenous populations, upon whose taxes, labor, and tribute it depended for revenue. Spain found a successful precedent in Ancient Rome's imperial expansion, especially its urban model, which it sought to replicate.[4] Just like their predecessors, Spanish monarchs could exert control over an area and impose their institutions through cities.

This empire-building process was possible because cities were direct representatives of the Crown in the New World. Those who founded them worked in symbiosis with the king: while citizens secured land and revenue for the Crown, the Crown promised fueros or protection and privileges, to them. Some of these fueros included encomiendas (the exploitation of Native labor), the right to cultivate the land, and the perpetual right to self-rule through a cabildo or city council.[5] Through cities, the king formed networks of loyal subjects who administered and adhered to his policies and taxation. In this system, a city then could be founded anywhere in the world by representatives who claimed loyalty to the King of Spain. This process facilitated global imperial expansion in ways that are exemplified by Santa Fe: when the city was established in 1610, its administrators vowed to back royal interests in the region.

This representative nature of cities also allowed the monarchy to delegate power to its New World subjects. As the Crown was geographically removed, it trusted city administrators to create legislation and govern its territories. Cabildos and royally-appointed officials were responsible for keeping order and ensuring stock of basic necessities within their jurisdictions. Depending on the status of the city, this authority extended beyond city limits. As the capital of New Mexico, Santa Fe exerted authority over the distant Native settlements throughout the region. Yet, Mexico City too—as capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain— had jurisdiction here. Many mandates and decrees on evangelization, trade, and settlement came from Mexico City, whose viceroy oversaw the defense, commerce, and administration of all of New Spain.[6] The viceroy also acted in direct communication with the officials in Madrid, including the king and Council of Indies, who appointed officials like the governor of New Mexico and who maintained the ultimate authority in any matter relating to what is often referred to as the “New World.”[7] The result was a decentralized but hierarchical system in which the organization of town jurisdictions and responsibilities facilitated the establishment and expansion of Spanish institutions in the New World.


Since Santa Fe was itself the capital of a kingdom, that tiered system of power extended from it to operate at various geographical levels in New Mexico. Santa Fe’s administrators could control the territory near the city, but power also filtered down and out locally. A good example of this system can be seen at the Barrio de San Miguel Analco, a ward outside of the Spanish city which exemplified the principles of Spanish urbanism and city planning. Ultimately, Santa Fe was the center of political activity in a much more complex network of minor Spanish settlements and major Puebloan towns. Because Santa Fe and El Paso were the only Spanish settlements in the region until the founding of Albuquerque in 1706, Spaniards who came to New Mexico lived in scattered rural holdings near the already-existing pueblos.[8] Control of the Kingdom thus relied as much on Santa Fe as on its relationship with these communities. Accordingly, the Spanish devised a system that incorporated Puebloan towns and practices into its administration.

This system resulted in a network of Puebloan towns with Santa Fe at its head. By the eighteenth century, there were six to eight settlements directly beneath the capital, each overseeing a jurisdiction that roughly corresponded to a Native language group.[9] Each of these towns had a Santa Fe–appointed alcalde mayor (magistrate) who “dispensed petty justice, heard land and water disputes, supervised Indian labor, rallied local militia and Pueblo auxiliaries, and kept an eye on missions,” but who had no real control over local affairs and policy.[10] That role fell upon gobernadores (governors), Pueblo chiefs elected by each Native community. Beneath each gobernador was a group of Native staff who, following Spanish municipal tradition, fulfilled secular roles and who were ostensibly elected by the community. Their role was more local, while gobernadores were charged with handling Pueblo–Spanish affairs and enforcing royal decrees and Santa Fe mandates. This clear political hierarchy embodied in the towns of New Mexico facilitated the governance and administration of the Kingdom.

The gobernadores and Native staff system of governance was new to the Puebloans, but it allowed them to continue their existing methods of governance. This system was successful because it was, in many ways, mutually beneficial for both Native people and Spaniards. In one way, it allowed pre-Hispanic political structures to remain almost intact. Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, systems of governance varied from Puebloan settlement to settlement, but they all had a common model of “corporate-based leadership” where power was derived from “group association or affiliation and ritual rather than being acquired through individual acts of personal glorification,” as anthropologist Tracy Brown has explained.[11] Power thus was not concentrated in a single leader, but rather in a group of rulers that formed a council, which consisted of heads of families and war priests with different roles. When the Puebloans had to adopt the Spanish system, the members of the existing councils became the gobernadores and Native staff of each settlement and they continued to govern in their traditional roles. For instance, the Zuni “bow priest” was the most likely candidate to be elected gobernador, since it was his traditional duty to deal with outsiders and outside forces, a role which the Spanish expected from gobernadores. The notion that the Spanish blindly erased Native practices is mostly false, as their system allowed the Puebloans to retain many of the practices and conventions that had evolved up to that point. Santa Fe itself embodies many urban and architectural elements employed by Native populations prior to European contact, and the Puebloan settlement of Arroyo Hondo Pueblo displays many similarities with Santa Fe.

Another advantage of the Spanish system is that it continued to give Native people the ability to self-rule without much Spanish interference. The lack of Spanish officials and the far distance between Santa Fe and the many Puebloan towns allowed them to keep their sovereignty. Together with their gobernadores, Puebloans actively participated in local decision-making, which frequently extended existing pre-Hispanic governmental or economic practices. The Native people also “became very adept at manipulating the Spanish system of justice— a system that provided them with rights and legal protections— to their own advantage.”[12] Therefore, the Puebloans often asked assistance from Spanish authorities to get involved in dealing with disruptive events or people in the case they were unable to face the issues themselves.

The Spanish also benefitted from this system because it facilitated contact with the Puebloans. The clear gobernador hierarchy allowed Santa Fe’s civil authorities to launch legal investigations in Pueblo communities and to organize them for taxation, tribute, labor, and defense purposes.[13] For the Spanish, it was easier to delegate administrative tasks and organize labor and resources with a reliable Puebloan representative like a gobernador rather than with a council of Puebloans, which had been the common model of governance in the region prior to Spanish contact. The Spanish city system thus allowed the Crown to incorporate Puebloan societies into the monarchy with limited political disruption and interference. Yet to fully be considered subjects of the Spanish Crown, Puebloans had to convert to Christianity, which meant evangelizing them.


While the Hispanic Monarchy had political ambitions in the New World, at the same time it aspired to convert Indigenous populations to Catholicism. This is because politics and religion were closely intertwined: the Crown’s claim to these lands had been guaranteed by Pope Alexander VI in his Inter Caetera (1493) on the condition that it pursued this evangelizing mission. The task was daunting, as in New Mexico alone thousands of Puebloans were scattered across the region, making it difficult to propagate the teachings of Christianity. To the Spanish and their missionaries, this pagan world was chaotic and without Christian morals. To bring order (reducción), they needed to become its policia—literally, “police” or “maintainer(s) of order.”[14] In this task, the Spanish looked back to their Roman predecessors, who intended to use cities as “propaganda vehicles, symbolizing and incarnating [their] civilization.”[15] It was through cities, then, that reducción could be achieved and Christianity spread among the region’s Indigenous inhabitants. For the Spanish missionaries, reducción meant purifying the Puebloans from what they considered to be unholy practices, creating an orderly world by helping them return to a condition that had not been seen since the time of Adam and Eve—free from sin.[16]

In much of the Hispanic Monarchy, the process of reducción involved the concentration of Indigenous populations to new towns. It would be easier for missionaries to teach Christian doctrine to a larger group of people who lived in denser towns rather than scattered rural dwellings, which was the population distribution of much of the Americas at the time.[17] Yet in New Mexico, the already concentrated population of Puebloan societies and settlements meant that reducción did not require construction of new towns and Puebloan relocation, but rather, the reorganization and adaptation of existing Indigenous settlements to Spanish civic expectations. Even though Spanish officials had the authority to relocate the Puebloans, there is limited evidence that the authorities directly and systematically put this decree into practice. As geographer Elinore M. Barrett argues, the pandemics of Old World diseases and the inability for agricultural production to sustain both Puebloans and Spanish settlers sped up the process of Puebloan amalgamation that had been developing since the 1200s.[18]  This process of population concentration thus helped friars reach more people with less effort. Now that more Puebloans were living in settlements and not the countryside meant that evangelization could be accelerated.

To convert the Puebloans, however, the missionaries required appropriate spaces for Christian teaching and to carry out religious services. The adaptation of Puebloan towns thus meant the construction of churches or missions and the retention of nearby outdoor spaces or plazas for religious rituals. While churches were integral to the performance of religious rituals, open spaces were as significant for the conversion of the pueblos’ inhabitants, as it was here that they were exposed to didactic Christian displays of music, dance, images, and colors.[19] For this reason, Pueblo mission churches typically have a large plaza in front of them so that the religious rituals can extend out into the public space. Once the church and the plaza were dedicated, a Puebloan town was considered part of the Hispanic Monarchy. These indoor and outdoor ritual spaces as well as the didactic Christian displays introduced by the missionaries had much in common with the religious practices of the pre-Hispanic Puebloans, which is often referred to as kachina religion. As historian John Kessel points out, ritual public dramas formed the heart of kachina religion, and were enacted in large public plazas and coincided with rites conducted in kivas, the round, partially subterranean Pueblo ceremonial chambers that contained a central fire pit surrounded by low benches.[20] Thus, even as the Puebloans were forced to convert, they continued common spiritual practices. In the first years of evangelization, some missionaries even taught and performed ceremonies in kivas, hoping to ease the transition from kachina practices to Christianity.[21] Some Pueblo mission churches also featured murals with combined Christian and Native iconography that resembled the colorful kiva murals.[22]

This continuation of kachina religious aspects, despite forced conversion, shows two elements that made the Spanish mission system flexible. First, Spanish missionaries adjusted their conventions to local Indigenous practices, and second, Puebloans continued many of their pre-Hispanic rituals like the dances and other outdoor public rituals they had practiced for centuries. In fact, the example of Pecos Pueblo, where the design and location of the mission church was likely negotiated between the Puebloans and Spanish missionaries, suggests that Indigenous communities determined the extent of Spanish influence and decided which spheres in their societies incorporated that Hispanic influence. The result was a hybrid system of beliefs and practices that was embodied in many of the urban and architectural elements of the towns of New Mexico.


The Hispanic Monarchy saw itself as a commonwealth of autonomous cities under whose control rested a network of other urban centers. It was through these central towns that the Crown was able to exert control over a vast territory with diverse people and spread its institutions to them. Santa Fe, as the capital of the Kingdom of New Mexico, was one such urban center that served as a hub for the diffusion of Hispanic ideas, laws, and customs. The practice of building settlements using grids and plazas, the establishment of a tiered hierarchical system of towns and gobernadores, and the emphasis on churches as centers of community life are urban and architectural elements that resulted from the Spanish presence in New Mexico and their city-building system. The employment of the grid in town layouts remained in use even when New Mexico became part of Mexico and the United States, only to be replaced by the cul-de-sac and other American suburban models of development since the 1950s.[23] The roles of gobernadores (now governors) as leaders and mediators between Puebloan communities and outsiders remains in place today, as does the significance of churches as centers of community interaction.

While these practices were developed in the Spanish period, they are the result of interaction with Puebloan peoples. As the Spanish recognized, Indigenous building and cultural practices, as well as community models, bore many affinities to Spanish customs and religion. It was thus intuitive to retain many pre-Hispanic Puebloan practices like the political systems of governance and outdoor religious rituals. As a result, New Mexico and Santa Fe are unique in that Spanish institutions and civic-urban models assimilated to and evolved with existing Puebloan practices, creating a hybrid culture that exists even today. While not the focus of this essay, it is also worth noting that while the discussion so far has been of the binary between Spaniards and Puebloans, the truth is that there were also many enslaved and free Africans who entered New Mexico during this period. Church records show that many Africans married Puebloan women, so the Pueblo experience during the Spanish period was also a hybrid one, likely containing elements from traditional Puebloan and African practices.[24] More research needs to be done to determine the extent of these interactions and their impact on the culture, but the truth is that African practices also played a part in the fusion of cultures in New Mexico.  

During his visit, Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez noted that Santa Fe was a minor settlement on the fringes of the Hispanic Monarchy. Unfortunately, this notion persists today. Yet New Mexico, and Santa Fe in particular, not only embodies the cultural, urban, and architectural elements present in all the Hispanic world, from Naples to Manila, but it does so in a very unique way: here the blend of Spanish-Native culture is perhaps the most conspicuous in all of what was then the Hispanic Monarchy. This mixture of cultures has given the region a distinct identity that is recognizable worldwide. Thus, Santa Fe and its network of Puebloan towns merit closer consideration as a key urban center in the Hispanic world.


[1] Francisco Atanasio Domínguez, The Missions of New Mexico, 1776; a Description, with Other Contemporary Documents (Albuquerque: New Mexico University Press, 1956), 39.

[2] Dora P. Crouch, Spanish City Planning in North America (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), 77.

[3] Aurelio Espinosa, The Empire of the Cities: Emperor Charles V, the Comunero Revolt, and the Transformation of the Spanish System, Studies in Medieval and Reformation Traditions (Boston: Brill, 2009), 15.

[4] Crouch, Spanish City Planning in North America, 41.

[5] Gilberto Rafael Cruz, Let There Be Towns: Spanish Municipal Origins in the American Southwest, 1610–1810 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1988), 5.

[6] Cruz, Let There Be Towns, 29.

[7] Colin MacLachlan and Jaime E. Rodríguez, The Forging of the Cosmic Race: A Reinterpretation of Colonial Mexico (University of California Press, 1990), 95, and Crouch, Spanish City Planning in North America, 74.

[8] Cruz, Let There Be Towns, 34, and Elinore M. Barrett, The Spanish Colonial Settlement Landscapes of New Mexico, 1598–1680 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012), 135.

[9] John L. Kessel, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 84.

 [10]Kessel, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico, 84.

[11] Tracy L. Brown, Pueblo Indians and Spanish Colonial Authority in Eighteenth-century New Mexico (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2013), 25.

[12] Brown, Pueblo Indians and Spanish Colonial Authority, 33.

[13] Brown, Pueblo Indians and Spanish Colonial Authority, 22.

[14] Richard Kagan, Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 1493–1793 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), 31; Angel Rama, The Lettered City (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996), 4.

[15] Crouch, Spanish City Planning in North America, xx.

[16] Kagan, Urban Images of the Hispanic World, 37–38.

[17] Crouch, Spanish City Planning in North America, 67.

[18] Elinore M. Barrett, Conquest and Catastrophe: Changing Rio Grande Pueblo Settlement Patterns in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009), 67–68.

[19] Rama, The Lettered City, 24.

[20] John L. Kessel, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 13–14.

[21] Kessel, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico, 61.

[22] Kessel, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico, 14.

[23] Crouch, Spanish City Planning in North America, 79–80.

[24] George Kubler, The Religious Architecture of New Mexico; in the Colonial Period and since the American Occupation (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973), 65–66.


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Writing Credits

Jose Miguel Jimenez Chavez

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