The Witches of Abiquiu

The Witches of Abiquiu: The Governor, the Priest, the Genizaro Indians, and the Devil” by M. Ebright & R. Hendricks, 344 pages, (2006), ISBN 978-0-8263-2032-2.

Abiquiu in Northern New Mexico is best known today for Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings of its serene landscapes. But the area was not always tranquil. Between 1756 & 1766, while the English colonists on the east coast of North America were beginning to get upset at their London rulers, Spanish colonists at the tail end of the Rocky Mountains had their own problems – including the largest outbreak of witchcraft on the continent since the Salem witchcraft trials of the 1690s, about 6 decades earlier.

Because the world of 18th Century Spanish possessions in the New World was rather complex and so different from today, the authors go into some detail setting the background. Pueblo Indians and Spanish settlers were repeatedly attacked by various nomadic Plains Indian tribes – Utes, Navajos, Comanches, Apaches. The efforts of Franciscan friars to Christianize the natives were stymied by the friars’ inability to speak native languages … and by conflicts with Jesuits and with ecclesiastical authorities back in Mexico City. Further complications came from the occasional French traders.

The hero of this tale was the Governor of the New Mexico territory, Tomas Velez Cachupin. He managed to accomplish something which had evaded his predecessors – he secured peace with the Plains Indians. His approach was almost Caesarian – at the Battle of San Diego Pond in 1751, he resoundingly defeated a war-party of 300 Comanches who had attacked Spanish settlers, and then was magnanimous in victory. He treated the Comanches as equals, returned captives, and negotiated a peace treaty – winning the respect of all the nomadic Indian tribes.

Cachupin then created a major land grant at Abiquiu for the Genizaro – a misfit group of former captives, renegades, and mixed-race/tribe people who were regarded as neither Indians nor Spanish. Cachupin’s aim was to create a buffer between Spanish settlements and the Plains Indians in case the peace treaty broke down.

The protagonist of the tale was the Franciscan priest sent to the Abiquiu land grant, Fray Juan Jose Toledo, who became obsessed that witchcraft and evil doings were happening there. There were incidents of sickness and death among the Genizaros, as might be expected in a frontier environment in an era when medical practices were primitive. In this unfamiliar environment with the related problem of language barriers, it was easy for the priest to ascribe such happenings to witchcraft. Yet the more exorcisms he performed, the wider the witchcraft seemed to spread. Eventually, even the Inquisition told him to stop sending in reports. The authors posit that much of the “witchcraft” was simply misunderstood traditional Native ceremonies, salted with what seem like the consequences of a fairly large number of love triangles among the Genizaros.

To re-establish calm, Governor Cachupin eventually took control and organized a series of trials of the large number of people accused of witchcraft, producing careful hand-written Spanish records which survive to the present day. Compared with Salem, where about 20 witches were hung, or European witch trials which ended in burnings at the stake, these Spanish witchcraft trials were astonishingly genteel. There was no torture of the accused, apart from one woman who was tied uncomfortably to a cart wheel until she “confessed”. The most serious punishment imposed in these trials was on a convicted witch who was subjected to public ridicule by being “honeyed & feathered” – which sounds a lot less drastic than being tarred & feathered. As Fray Toledo’s efforts at fighting the Devil wound down, the accusations of witchcraft faded away.

In a final twist in the tale, the Inquisition later accused Fray Toledo of heretical practices because he reportedly had said that fornication was not a sin. However, he died before investigation of the case could be completed.

This fascinating book is clearly a work of painstaking scholarship. There are several appendices and 60 pages of explanatory notes and source references. Yet, for all that, the book is surprisingly readable – and clear evidence that the past is indeed another country!


Wow. High point of my morning so far. And another book I need to make time to read.

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