Alfred Santistevan
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Alfred Santistevan: One man’s story, a fascinating trip through time and a grand family history

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Juan Ponce de Leon

One of Al’s male ancestors was one of the most famous Spaniards in history, Juan Ponce de Leon. Ponce de Leon was of noble birth and entered the Spanish military early in his life. He was three-times the Governor of Puerto Rico.

What stories, what histories there are that lie behind the people we meet in Trinidad. Meeting Alfred (Al to those he knows) Santistevan, a Trinidad native, has given me a chance to learn a few of one man’s stories.

Al Santistevan is a gregarious, friendly, warm-hearted man. In his youth he herded goats in the hills south of town. Today, he is known to many as the manager of the Peak Laundromat. When I asked about his background, Al said that his family lore claimed a long history in southern Colorado, preceded by time in New Mexico, Mexico, and ultimately Spain. And his ancestors weren’t just any Spaniards, they were aristocratic Spaniards.

I told Al that I had recently learned to do family trees, and that I would enjoy doing his tree. He gave me what is needed to start such a project — his mother and father’s places and dates of birth and death. Genealogy websites, like Ancestry.com, the one I used, allow investigators to piece together a family tree, starting with a married couple, by connecting information from birth records, marriage records and death records. It is a time consuming, but fascinating process.  You never know who might turn up. The paper trail might run out on a family line after only one or two generations, or lines might be confidently traced for hundreds of years.

In Al’s case some of his ancestors on his mother’s side could only be traced for a few generations, but some ancestors on both his mother’s and his father’s side could be traced back to the 1400s in Spain, and in a few cases back to the 1300s.

What I found is what genealogy experts say can be found in most, if not all of our family trees: people who made history, people who were part of history, and people who were caught up in the events of their times.    

Researching Al’s family tree has drawn me into the history of Spain, Mexico and New Mexico. It has reminded me that where we live was once home to Comanche, Ute, and Apache Native Americans. Later it was part of the Spanish Empire, then later part of the nation of Mexico. Only in recent times has it been part of the United States. And Al’s family, on both his mother’s and father’s sides, was on hand for all of that history.

Indeed, they were some of the principal players in that history. Al’s family lore proved right on the money.

A Spanish Conquistador

A Spanish Conquistador. Sepulcro de Pedro Fernández Cabeza de Vaca in Catedral de Burgos.

From Trinidad to Spain

His parents, though not born in Trinidad, were born in communities near here, Al’s father in Valdez and Al’s mother in Berwind. Al’s father’s line, the Santistevans, could be traced back eight generations in New Mexico and then to Mexico in the 1600s. His mother’s line, the Valdez’s, could be traced back eight generations in New Mexico, one in Mexico, and then to Spain in the 1600s. And the family history was right about another fact, both lines are sprinkled with titled families, and even one descended from the King of Leon y Castilla, who lived from 1171 to 1230.

Every family line that could be traced back before Mexico came from Spain, and especially the areas of Castile and Seville. Some of Al’s lines contain Basques, and others contain Jewish Spaniards.

Among Al’s direct ancestors (grandfathers and grandmothers, in the vernacular) is Diego Hurtado de Mendoza y Figueroa, the first Duke of Infantado, who was awarded that title by King Fernando II of Aragon and Isabel I in the 1400s.  

Another grandfather of Al’s is Don Pedro Fernandez Cabeza de Vaca, the Gran Maestre of Santiago in the 1400s and one of Al’s Spanish grandmothers was Dona Maria Beatriz, Mayor of Quinones y Diaz, in the 1500s.

Juan Ponce de Leon

One of Al’s male ancestors was one of the most famous Spaniards in history, Juan Ponce de Leon. Ponce de Leon was of noble birth and entered the Spanish military early in his life. He came to the New World as a “gentleman volunteer” on Christopher Columbus’s second voyage in 1493. He rose to become important in the expanding Spanish Empire. He was the first European to explore the island of Puerto Rico and was made Governor of that island by the Spanish crown. He battled Christopher Columbus’s son for control of the island, and when Columbus’s son won that battle, Ponce de Leon decided to explore new lands. He led the first expedition into Florida in 1513, and he gave Florida its name. Today we are often taught that he was searching for the fountain of youth, but modern historians tell us that is a myth.

After discovering and exploring Florida, which was presumed to be an island, he returned to Spain and was knighted by King Ferdinand. He returned to Florida to establish a Spanish colony in 1521, but was wounded in a battle with native people. He died of his wounds in Cuba and was buried in Puerto Rico.  

Today historians believe that 30 percent of the population of modern Puerto Rico can trace their descent back to Ponce de Leon and his wife, Leonora.

The Spanish explorers

The Spanish explorers came to the New World in search of adventure and riches. They left the generations of people who were to follow a wealth of tradition and wonderful family stories.

The Conquistadors

At least five of Al’s grandfathers were Conquistadors who were with Hernan Cortez when he conquered the Aztecs in 1521. One was an archer who participated in the assault on Tenochtitlan. All lived to fight another day, and most to have children another day. Some later brought wives from Spain, and some married Native American women. At least one of Al’s grandmothers is listed as Aztec. Cortez himself married the daughter of Montezuma, the leader of the Aztecs.  

Historians estimate that over 2,200 conquistadors served under Cortez, with about one-third dying in the conquest of Mexico. Some 90 percent of those who survived stayed in what was then called New Spain.

Among Al’s conquistador ancestors, one would play an infamous role. Captain General Gonzalo Salazar Fernandez de Guadalupe was among five captains who came to control what now was Mexico City after Cortez left the city three years after the conquest. History tells us that many of the Conquistadors were men of noble birth, but men in need of finances. They often expected a financial return for their efforts.  

This was true of Captain General Gonzalo Salazar Fernandez. Three years after the conquest of Mexico City Cortez left to go to Honduras. He placed three men in charge, not including Salazar.  Salazar felt that he should be included in that group and he persuaded Cortez to include him among those in charge. Salazar wanted more than that share, however, and wrested for control of the city with another official, Pedro Almindez Chirino. They ruled despotically, lied to everyone by saying that Cortez had died, and tried to confiscate his property. They tortured and then hanged the man left in charge of Cortez’ property.

A New Mexico connection

But Cortez eventually returned. Almindez and Salazar were arrested. As a man with connections, Salazar was released after a few months. He lived out his life in New Spain as a wealthy and powerful man. His grandson, Juan de Onate, explored what is today New Mexico and founded the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico, today the town of Espanola.  

But just as Salazar has maintained a sinister reputation up to the present, another of Al’s ancestors who made history, Juan Vazquez de Coronado, has maintained a sterling reputation.  Vaquez de Coronodo was born in Salamanca, Spain, in 1523. He was the illegitimate son of the sixth Lord of Coquilla, Gonzalo Vasquez de Coronado y Lujan. He came to America at the age of 17.  His competence was recognized early and he held a series of important posts. He was the Alcalde-Mayor of San Salvador in 1549. Then later was appointed to the same post in Honduras in 1556, Nicaragua in 1561, and Costa Rica in 1562.

While in Costa Rica, Vaquez de Coronodo acquired a reputation as fair-minded and respectful. He was liked by both the Native Americans and Spanish colonists. Eventually he was called back to Spain by King Philip II and granted a hereditary title of Governor of Costa Rica for life. But on his way back to Costa Rica his ship was lost in a storm south of Spain. However, his legacy had already been built. He remains remembered and respected in Costa Rica, and his progeny went on to become something of an elite, producing 29 out of 44 heads of state in Costa Rica, and more than 200 members of Parliament.

Another of Al’s direct male ancestors to make history was Conquistador Captain Don Juan Jose Cabezza de Vaca, born in Seville, Spain in 1537. Cabezza de Vaca was part of the famous Coronado Expedition, launched in 1540.Vasquez de Coronado, the governor of a northeast province of New Spain, had heard stories of a city with great wealth to the north, a golden city.  He mounted a large expedition with his own funds. It consisted of about 400 Europeans, mainly Spaniards, and over 1,000 Native Americans.

Long before Meriwether Lewis and William Clark mounted their expedition in 1804, the Coronado Expedition traveled through what today are Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Along the way they tried to convert Native Americans, killed quite a number, but never found that city of gold.

Since it was profit that primarily motivated the expedition, the enterprise was considered a massive failure, but it provided invaluable information about what lay to the north.  

When the expedition turned east a group of three men, among them Al’s direct ancestor, Conquistador Captain Don Juan Cabezza de Vaca, was sent north. These three men traveled north in what today is Arizona until they ran into the Grand Canyon. They had no notion that such a canyon existed. More than 300 years before John Wesley Powell set sail down the Colorado River in 1869, exploring the canyon, these three men were there. They were the first people of European descent to see that sight. Since their mission was to go north, they tried to find a way down into the canyon. Unable to find such a route they returned south.  

New Spain — New Mexico

By the 1600s many of Al’s ancestors were now living in the newly opened northern territory of New Spain, what today is called New Mexico. Some were in the Santa Fe area before the Mayflower landed at Plymouth in 1620.

One, Conquistador Captain Diego Jose de Trujillo y Marquez, born in 1613, became the mayor of the Zuni Pueblo in the late 1600s.

Another, Captain Francisco Montez Vigil, became Assistant Captain of the Santa Fe Presidio. He fought with Don Martinez, Governor of New Mexico in the Moqui campaign in the late 1600s.

Another, Captain Diego Geronimo Marquez Vasquez, was accused of participating in the assassination of Governor Rosas, Governor of Santa Fe in 1642. He was beheaded in the Plaza along with seven others. Yes, the very same plaza and tourist attraction in the center of Santa Fe today.

Many, many of Al’s ancestors lived in New Mexico in the 1600s. They lived in communities familiar to New Mexicans today: Espanola, Cochiti, Chimayo, Tesuque. An intriguing puzzle that needs to be solved is how they responded during the famous Pueblo Revolt of 1692. During the years of Spanish rule, the Native Americans had built up great resentment of the Spanish. The Spanish had attempted to eradicate Native American culture. The Catholic religion was forced on people on pain of death for refusal. Traditional dances and ceremonies were banned. Land was seized and many Native Americans were enslaved.  

After a number of years of severe drought and increasing attacks from Apaches from the north, the Pueblo Native Americans, from many tribes, were ready to revolt.  Some 46 different pueblos cooperated, keeping their plans secret from the Spanish. Then on the appointed day they rose up, stole the horses of the Spanish, surrounded Santa Fe, cut off its water supply, and began killing the Spanish in all the places they lived. Over 400 Spanish people were killed. Those remaining made a quick retreat and were allowed to leave.

Juan Pope, the leader of the revolt, tried his best to undo what the Spanish had done. He asked everyone to kill the livestock the Spanish had introduced, as well as fruit trees and wheat and barley. He forbade any Catholic worship or use of the Spanish language. His dictates were not entirely welcome by the Native Americans and he was deposed within a year. The Spanish re-conquered Santa Fe in 1692, but ruled in the future with less arrogance and control. Native Americans gained land rights and felt less oppressed.

What Al’s ancestors did during this time is not yet evident. At least one of his ancestors, Francisco Palomino Renden, married just before coming to Santa Fe after the re-conquest. But Al’s ancestors continue to live in New Mexico, especially around Espinosa, for the next 200. By the late 1800s some of them began migrating north into Colorado.

We often hear that we are all a mix of people from all over. And this is true of many people. But for Alfred Santistevan, all of his ancestors who have been identified so far, and that is over 600 direct ancestors, have come from New Mexico, Mexico, Spain, and a few other Spanish colonies.

Family Legacy

What does it mean, some might ask? Should we be proud of famous ancestors and embarrassed by those who did bad things? Does it matter who our ancestors were? Everyone can answer these questions for themselves. There are no “proper” interpretations.  

But those who specialize in doing genealogy make some important points. All of us have or had two parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents, 16 great-great grandparents, and so on.  If you go 20 generations back we all might have as many as a million direct ancestors. The number is always smaller than that because at some points in all our family trees the same people appear more than once. This is especially true in smaller, inbreeding populations, like colonists in a new land.  

So, no, we don’t all have a million ancestors 20 generations back, but we do have large numbers of ancestors. It isn’t unlikely at all that we have famous or notorious people in our family trees, especially when we go 300 or more years back.  

For many people who discover their family tree they identify people within that tree who they relate to, who they feel similar to, or who they admire. This often gives people a feeling of connection.

On a personal note, knowing about my own family tree makes me feel more connected to history. History isn’t just a series of long ago events; it was something my ancestors participated in. They were there, just like Al’s ancestors, and they were part of history. Knowing my own family tree also makes me humble. I think about some of the things some of my ancestors did, and it makes my own accomplishments seem small. Often, I think about the times my ancestors lived through, and it makes my own life seem impossibly soft and easy. Contemplating the fact that every one of my ancestors had to live and reproduce for my life to exist makes my life seem like a miracle, the kind of miracle that happens every day.

Alfred Santistevan’s family tree is remarkable. From Spanish nobility, to Conquistadors, to Spanish Empire governors, to New Mexico farmers, to Coloradans it spans the history of the Spanish in the New World. It is a story of exploration, of conquest, of intermarriage and assimilation, and a story of survival. And while Al’s story is remarkable, my guess is that it is not unusual. I suspect that many of the Hispanic residents of Trinidad share a similar story.  

Author’s note: If you are interested in discovering who is in your family tree, a local man with more than 30 years of experience researching family trees, is available to help. Mark Gash is an expert in genealogical searches. He can be contacted at 720-512-1492.

In light of this festive, holiday time of year, a time when families come together and celebrate Thanksgiving, we feel it is appropriate to share this story of local Trinidad native Alfred Santistevan and the fascinating lineage he represents.

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