The Brotherhood Of The Mountains

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The next seven decades were a period of extraordinary squabbling among a succession of Spanish governors and Franciscan friars, each of whom fought to exercise control over the hapless Pueblo Indians. In this contest the Indians themselves grew increasingly uncertain and, in the end, surly. In 1680, after five years of drought and many more years of debilitating European diseases and oppression, the Indians of the various pueblos formed a confederation, rose up, and started killing Spaniards. “Streaming from pueblos and cornfields in every part of the province,” Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., wrote in The Patriot Chiefs , “they slew 400 Spaniards, drove 2,500 others in shock and terror back to Mexico, and in a few weeks swept their country clean of the white man’s rule.”

But the Spanish needed their northern outpost as a buffer between Mexico and expanding French and British interests in North America. In 1692, by which time the Pueblo confederation had dissipated, they sent north a new governor, Don Diego de Vargas, with two hundred soldiers. With the cross of conciliation and, by New World standards, a minimum of bloodshed, Vargas set about restoring the regency of Spain.

New settlers moved into the province, many filtering out from Santa Fe into the little river and creek valleys that pocketed the ragged foothills of the Sangre de Cristo, pasturing their herds of sheep and cattle, scratching out minuscule farms, slowly coalescing into tiny communities—Nambé, Cundiyo, Chimayo, Espanola, Santa Cruz, Cordova, Truchas, Penasco, Trampas, Talpa, Ranchos de Taos, and Taos. With the Pueblos and, after a military alliance formed in 1797, the Comanches of the north, they fought off Navaho and Apache raids. And under the shadow of the biblical mountains, they built a life that survived with astonishingly few changes through the remaining years of Spanish rule, as well as the Mexican revolution of 1821, the two decades of American traders and trappers that followed, the American occupation of 1846, the Mexican War, and more than a century under the governance of the United States.

It was a profoundly simple life, and an even more profoundly isolated one, largely cut off even from the religion that lay at the heart of its culture. This land was, as a priest described it in 1851, “a country of ancient Catholicity,” and the people stubbornly built their tiny churches and chapels; but Catholic officialdom, with its headquarters for the province tucked fifteen hundred miles away in Durango, Mexico, sent them few priests. “Spiritual administration in New Mexico is in a truly doleful condition,” Antonio Barreiro, a church emissary from Durango, complained in 1832. “Nothing is more common than to see an infinite number of the sick die without confession or extreme unction. … Corpses remain unburied for many days, and children are baptized at the cost of a thousand hardships. A great many unfortunate people spend most of the Sundays of the year without hearing mass. Churches are in a state of near ruin, and most of them are unworthy of being called the temple of God.” When people are denied the rituals that give form and meaning to their lives, they will contrive or adapt their own. And so it was that out of a great well of loneliness Los Hermanos Penitentes , the Brotherhood, came to be.