Thomas E. Sheridan and Thomas H. Naylor

FERNÁNDEZ DE RETANA, JUAN (1652–1708). Juan Fernández de Retana, Spanish military commander on the frontier of northern New Spain and son of Juan Fernández de Retana and María Martínez de Mendivil, was born in the village of Nanclares de Gamboa in the province of Alava in northern Spain, where he was baptized on February 27, 1652. His parents were poor Basque pastoralists who apparently did not have much of an estate. Fernández married María Ruiz Lucuriaga in Nanclares in 1670. According to baptismal registers there, the couple had two sons and four daughters between 1672 and 1683, which would have been unremarkable if Fernández had not migrated to the viceroyalty of New Spain sometime before May 1676, when his signature appears in Mexico City records. Between 1676 and 1684 he was a merchant-freighter hauling goods between Mexico City and the northern silver-mining communities of Zacatecas and Parral. In New Spain he always claimed he was single and had no family, and there is no record of his returning to Spain before his wife's death in 1684.

By 1678 Fernández was living in Parral, the most important mining center in the province of Nueva Vizcaya and the unofficial residence of the governors of Nueva Vizcaya in the seventeenth century. He had established ties with the merchant-freighting Urrutia family of Mexico City, who loaned him money to go into freighting himself. Fernández also engaged in mining and became an influential citizen, holding the positions of diputado de minería (mining deputy) and alcalde mayor (chief executive officer) of Parral. By 1681 he was being addressed as capitán and was apparently protecting supply trains as well. Three years later the merchants' guild of Parral petitioned the governor of Nueva Vizcaya to make the title official and appoint Fernández a regular military officer in charge of a squad of soldiers escorting wagon trains on the road between Parral and the mining center of Cuencamé to the southeast. Governor José de Neyra y Quiroga did so in 1684, thus paving the way for Fernández's appointment as captain of the new presidio of San Francisco de Conchos in 1685. Before that appointment Fernández campaigned against the Conchos and Julime Indians in 1684.

He remained captain of the strategic frontier garrison of Conchos, located in a beautiful valley of the Conchos River northeast of Parral, until his death. As commander of fifty soldiers, he campaigned against the numerous Indian groups in the region, including the Tobosos, Chizos, and Cocoyames of Chihuahua and Coahuila. In 1689 Fernández also led an expedition to the region of La Junta de los Ríos, where the Conchos flows into the Rio Grande, to investigate reports of the Sieur de La Salle's men and other French traders and soldiers among the Hasinai Indians in East Texas. He subsequently embarked on a journey eastward toward Espíritu Santo Bay in search of La Salle, but turned back at the Pecos River upon meeting Indians returning from a trading expedition with the Hasinais, who brought news of the Fort St. Louis massacre. Fernández won his greatest notoriety suppressing the rebellions of the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre in 1690 and 1697–98. After the last revolt, the largest in the history of the Tarahumaras, he carried out the orders of Governor Gabriel de Castillo and executed more than thirty Tarahumara leaders by arquebus firing squads. He was consequently accused of cruelty and mistreatment of the Indians, and Carlos II, the aging last Hapsburg king of Spain, ordered the viceroy to remove him from office and banish him from New Spain.

Fernández acknowledged the order but refused to comply. For the next five years he remained captain of the presidio while pleading his case, arguing that he was just carrying out orders and that the harsh punishments were merited. It was a time of great political confusion; Carlos II died in 1700, and the Bourbon dynasty of France acceded to the Spanish throne. Finally, after mustering support from fellow military commanders, Jesuit missionaries, loyal Tarahumara leaders, and influential miners, Fernández was absolved of the charges against him by King Felipe V in 1704. He was also appointed teniente de gobernador (lieutenant governor) of Nueva Vizcaya (1704) and alcalde mayor (1708) of the new mining community of Santa Eulalia, fifteen miles east of another mining community that developed into the city of Chihuahua. When he died at Conchos on February 24, 1708, he left most of his estate to the Jesuit college of Parral, claiming, once again, to be single and heirless. See also SPANISH TEXAS.


Oakah L. Jones, Nueva Vizcaya: Heartland of the Spanish Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988). Thomas H. Naylor and Charles W. Polzer, comps. and eds., Pedro de Rivera and the Military Regulations for Northern New Spain, 1724–1729 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1988). Thomas H. Naylor and Charles W. Polzer, S.J., The Presidio and Militia on the Northern Frontier of New Spain, 1570–1700 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1986).

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Thomas E. Sheridan and Thomas H. Naylor, "FERNANDEZ DE RETANA, JUAN," accessed February 26, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/ffe25.

Uploaded on June 12, 2010. Modified on October 2, 2019. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...