A lifelong lover of history, I enjoy writing articles about the past & interesting political topics, especially when the two intersect.
My Wife Wonders Why the Oldest House Isn't in the Oldest City
After visiting San Miguel Church on Old Santa Fe Trail in the historic district of Santa Fe, New Mexico, I decided to follow the sign by the church and walk down the street to check out what the sign claimed to be the Oldest House in the USA.
My wife, Bella, was a little perplexed by the fact that on a trip to Florida last year we had visited St. Augustine, which is the oldest city in the USA, and now we were headed toward the oldest house in the nation.
Her question was how can the oldest house be in Santa Fe, New Mexico, when St. Augustine, Florida, is the oldest city in the nation? Logically, if the oldest house in the nation is in Santa Fe, how come St. Augustine is the oldest city?
St. Augustine is actually the oldest continuously occupied European city in the United States.
However, there were earlier European settlements in the United States, including an earlier French fort in the vicinity of St. Augustine.
But these settlements were later abandoned and their structures have vanished as have most structures built by the original Indian inhabitants of what is now the United States.
Unlike other places like Europe, Asia, Mexico, Peru, etc. that still sport masonry structures thousands of years old, most structures in the United States are rarely more than three or four hundred years old.
The Indians in the New World Had the Same Interests as the Europeans From the Old World
The history of the United States and the rest of the New World is not so much a story of white European colonists vs the Indian inhabitants of the area as it is the story of the interaction between members of the various European nations with members of the various Indian tribes.
While England, France and Spain were the major European powers involved in the New World they were not the only ones.
Other colonial powers included Portugal (Brazil), Russia (Alaska), Holland (New York, West Indies and Surinam), Scotland (Darian colony in Columbia and attempts on East coast U.S.), Sweden (Delaware) and Denmark (Greenland and Virgin Islands)
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All of these nations, along with the big three - Spain, France and Great Britain - were all active at one time or another in attempts to colonize the New World.
In addition to forming shifting alliances and fighting among themselves in Europe, these powers were attracted to the New World in search of trade and access to new sources of resources.
Of course, a military presence in the New World was soon required both to protect the new trade routes and resource sources as well as to maintain their strategic advantages in world politics.
Like the Europeans, the native Indians were a collection of numerous tribes engaged in trade and war with each other.
The aims and politics of the Indians were really no different than those of the Europeans.
The arrival of the Europeans, while now viewed by many as a conquest of the native inhabitants, was generally looked upon by many of the native tribes at the time as both an opportunity for new trading opportunities as well as new allies in their wars with enemy tribes.
After all, the great French explorer, Samuel de Champlain and his company, after trading with the Huron tribe joined them in a battle against their traditional enemy the Iroquois.
It was by enlisting the aid of numerous tribes chafing under the harsh rule of the Aztecs, rather than his muskets and cannon, that enabled the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes to quickly subdue the Aztec Empire.
La Casa Vieja de Analco, located at 215 East de Vargas Street in Old Santa Fe is a perfect example of this mingling of native and European cultures in the New World.
The house was originally constructed as a part of the Pueblo de Analco, a Pueblo Indian community that existed in what is now Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Casa Vieja de Analco's Interios
While the exact date of the construction of the house itself is not known, it was probably constructed some time in the thirteenth or fourteenth century as the community itself existed from about 1200 AD to about 1435 AD.
The Pueblo was abandoned sometime around the year 1435 when the entire community left and moved further south.
It is not known why they left, but the exodus was probably in response to natural forces such as a decline in water supplies, agricultural productivity and/or game for hunting.
Whatever the reason, the Pueblo sat empty for over 160 years until the arrival in the area of a group, led by Don Juan de Oňate, of 950 newcomers from Mexico on July 11, 1598.
Oňate Names His New City "La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis"
Like their later English counterparts in the eastern part of what is now the United States, many of the residents of the Spanish colony of New Spain were lured to the frontier in search of a better life or fleeing persecution of some sort.
While little is known about the group following Oňate, we do know that 250 of them were Europeans from Mexico some of whom were soldiers who were accompanied by their wives and children, one or more Franciscan friars and settlers seeking a new home.
Some of the settlers may have been Conversos who were Spanish Jews who had been forcefully converted to Catholicism a generation or more earlier but who had secretly remained Jewish. Many of these migrated to Mexico to avoid the Inquisition and, as the grip of the Church and Spanish government tightened there, many of these people moved north to the frontier regions of New Spain. A number of them ended up in what is now New Mexico and, to this day, there are still a number of so called hidden Jews of New Mexico who are outwardly Catholic but secretly remain Jewish and, just as secretly, pass on their Jewish heritage to their children.
However, the largest group in the contingent were Tlaxcalan Indians from Mexico. Some were warriors assisting the Spanish soldiers with defense, but they also included many who were skilled craftsmen, laborers and servants. Like the Spanish, the Tlaxcalan were accompanied by their wives and children.
Onate's party chose to settle in what is now the City of Santa Fe, and named their settlement La Villa Real de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asis (which I believe translates to The Royal City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi). The two groups, European and Tlaxcalan Indians each settled in their own section of the city with the Tlaxcalans choosing to reside in the remains of the Pueblo de Analco. This was actually a good choice as this site not only contained some empty existing structures but was also located adjacent to the Santa Fe River which provided a good water supply.
The Old House Is Now a Museum and Gift Shop
Today, the house still sits part way down the narrow alley, known as East de Vargas Street, across from the rear of San Miguel Church, which has the distinction of being the oldest church building in the United States. The house is located at 215 East de Vargas St. and is missing its second floor, which was destroyed years ago, house an upscale gift shop in the front part with the rest of the house preserved as a museum to its past.
And a colorful past it was. Probably originally built to house one or more families of the Indians who built the original Pueblo, it later became the residence of Franciscan missionaries, served first as an infirmary for wounded during the Pueblo Rebellion of 1680 and then occupied by the temporarily victorious Pueblo warriors.
Following the reconquest of the area by the Spanish, the house was used for a time as a temporary residence of the Spanish governor, once used as a dormitory for college students, served as a home for various people of all classes of society, a home and workplace for various shopkeepers, renters and even, on occasion witches (with the last known witch residing there during the decade 1958 - 1968).
Today visitors can shop in the gift shop and, for a fee of one dollar, tour the adjoining museum that makes up the rest of what remains of this house. The dollar admission fee goes toward a fund to preserve the house, San Miguel Church and the surrounding historic neighborhood including the house at 215 E. de Vargas St.
Old Photos on Wall of Entry Way from Museum of New Mexico
A Soldier Falls in Love and Loses His Head
Like the headless ghost of Ft. Niagara, the oldest house comes complete with its own ghosts and other spirits as well as a tragic story of another young man, probably an officer in the Spanish Army, losing his head, literally, over a women.
In the late 1600s, following the failure of the Pueblo Rebellion and the re-taking of Santa Fe by Spanish troops a young man named Juan Espinoza, found himself in Santa Fe, more than likely as a part of the Spanish Army. In those days Santa Fe was simply a dumpy little village on the outskirts of New Spain. Like other towns on the fringes of civilization, it had little to offer in the way of young women who a young man with a promising career ahead of him could marry and proudly take home to his family in Mexico or Spain.
However, things changed with the arrival of a beautiful young woman, the daughter of a wealthy merchant or senior officer who had had his family leave Mexico or Spain and join him in Santa Fe. Upon being introduced to the daughter, Juan Espinoza immediately began courting her. Things appeared to be going well until April when Juan got up the courage to propose to her. However, instead of the expected reply of yes, she informed him that she was not ready to accept his proposal as she had also been seeing another wealthy young man and had decided to marry him.
On advice of an acquaintance, Juan paid a visit to the house at 215 East Vargas Street which at that time was occupied by two brujas (witches). Despite the fact that the Inquisition opposed witchcraft and one of the sparks that that had set off the earlier Pueblo Rebellion was the hanging of three Pueblo medicine men who had been accused of witchcraft as a result of their insisting on practicing their traditional religion, these two brujas managed to get away with openly practicing witchcraft and charging for their services.
Blinded by love and desperate win the hand of the young woman, young Juan Espinoza paid a visit to the brujas at 215 East Vargas St. requested their assistance. The two brujas readily agreed and brewed up a love potion that they guaranteed would make the beautiful young lady fall in love with Juan. As any man who has courted a woman will attest, winning the heart of their true love is not cheap and, in the case of young Juan Espinoza, the brujas demanded a hefty payment in gold before handing over the love potion.
Despite the brujas guarantee of success, the love potion failed to work and the young lady ended up marrying another man. Furious, Juan stormed back to the house and demanded that the brujas give him his money back.
When the brujas refused to refund his gold, Juan drew his sword and lunged at them.
But the brujas quickly ducked out of his way.
As Juan flew into the, now, empty space, one of the brujas shot out her leg causing him to lose his balance and crash to the floor.
In the fall, Juan's sword fell from his hand.
In a flash one of the brujas, grabbed the fallen sword and promptly cut off Juan's head.
The Ghost of Juan Still Wanders the Street Looking for His Head
Amazingly, the two witches were never prosecuted for either the murder of Juan Espinoza or for practicing the black arts. Actually, it is not so amazing as the governor had some romance problems of his own and was reputed to be seeking help from the two witches at this time. With the governor their charms seemed to have worked as they continued to reside in the home for a number of years and were never arrested for either crime.
As for Juan Espinoza, there have been claims that his headless ghost can be seen during the month of April, the month in which he was murdered, wandering the East Vargas St. searching for his missing head.
Additional Interior Views
Location in Old Santa Fe of the Oldest House in America
© 2009 Chuck Nugent