Carvajal y de la Cueva, Luis de (ca. 1540–1590)

By: Robert S. Weddle

Type: Biography

Published: December 1, 1994

Updated: May 12, 2016

Luis de Carvajal y de la Cueva, governor, adventurer, slave trader, and the first Spanish subject to enter Texas from Mexico across the lower Rio Grande, was born in Mogodorio, Portugal, about 1540, the son of Gaspar de Carvajal and Francisca De León, Jewish converts to the Christian faith. As a young man he spent three years at Cape Verde as the king's accountant and treasurer in the black slave trade. Then he emigrated to Spain, traded in grain and wines at Seville, and about 1565 married Guiomar de Ribera, daughter of a Portuguese royal slave factor and a native of Lisbon. Two years later, driven by financial losses and marital discord, Carvajal sailed for New Spain with his own ship as admiral (second in command) of the Spanish Indies fleet. Upon arrival he was accorded the viceroy's appointment as alcalde ordinario of Tampico.

In that capacity, in the fall of 1568, Carvajal rounded up seventy-seven defenseless Englishmen marooned on the Tamaulipas shore by master John Hawkins, who had lost some of his ships in a shootout with the Spanish fleet at Veracruz. Impressed by this deed, which seems to have grown with each telling, Viceroy Martín Enríquez de Almanza commissioned Carvajal a captain and sent him to open a road between Pánuco province and the Mazapil mines, then to chastise hostile Indian bands at the mouth of the Río Bravo (Rio Grande). In carrying out the latter assignment, Carvajal claimed to have punished the natives responsible for the massacre of 400 castaways from three ships wrecked on the coast while en route to Spain-doubtless the Padre Island Spanish shipwrecks of 1554. During the campaign, he crossed the lower Rio Grande into what is now Texas, thus becoming the first Spanish subject to do so.

In 1578 Carvajal was summoned to Mexico City to answer charges that such exploits were but a thin disguise of his traffic in Indian slaves. Witnesses at the hearing generally upheld his probity, but the affront hastened the plan that may have been in his mind from the beginning. He soon embarked for Spain, where in March 1579 he presented to the Council of the Indies one of the most sweeping proposals it had ever seen. He sought authority to develop all the ports from the Río Pánuco to Santa Elena on the Atlantic coast; to settle the area between Tampico and the mines of Mazapil and Zacatecas; and to extend exploration and settlement across Mexico "from sea to sea."

So fervently did the council recommend the plan that the king approved it, in substance, without consulting the viceroy. For his life and that of his heir, Carvajal was granted the title of governor and captain-general with authority to "discover, pacify, and settle" a new province to be called the Nuevo Reyno de León. The jurisdiction was defined as extending west from the port of Tampico to the borders of Nueva Galicia and Nueva Vizcaya and northward into undiscovered lands. Within five years Carvajal was to reconnoiter the interior, convert the Indians, and settle all the ports from Tampico to St. Joseph Bay, which bordered the Florida jurisdiction of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés. North of Nueva Galicia and Nueva Vizcaya, he might "discover" from sea to sea, but no farther than 200 leagues of latitude and the same of longitude, without infringing on prior rights. Implicit in such a description was the crown's profound ignorance of the territory it claimed; the distance from Tampico to St. Joseph Bay was far greater than 200 leagues.

After buying a ship and recruiting 100 families-many of them his wife's kin or his own-Carvajal again sailed for New Spain in June 1580, in the same fleet that carried a new viceroy, Conde de la Coruña. A bit heady over his success, the governor found Coruña an irritant. In a grave strategic blunder, he complained to the king.

Although no details are found, Carvajal claimed to have reconnoitered his grant, the northern limits of which extended almost to the site of Austin, Texas. Sixty leagues northwest of Tampico, by his estimate, he discovered silver mines and founded, at the site of present Cerralvo, Nuevo León, a village pretentiously called Ciudad de León. His claims consistently exceeded his accomplishments. He established a village called San Luis at the site of present Monterrey and another called Almadén at that of Monclova. But litigation in the next century discredits many of his purported achievements, establishing that virtually all the places he occupied had been settled previously under authority of the governor of Nueva Vizcaya.

Indeed, charges of usurpation were brought against Carvajal in his own time. To these were added allegations that the governor made a habit of slave raiding on the Río de las Palmas (present Soto la Marina) and the Río Bravo and was selling Indian captives into slavery by the hundreds. In January 1587 he was brought again before the royal audiencia in Mexico City to face an inquiry. His renewed complaint to the crown brought an order for his recall to Spain. Carvajal, however, had already disappeared into his wilderness jurisdiction to resume his slave raiding.

The viceroy's agent sent to arrest him found in the New Kingdom of León only two meager settlements of four or five huts each, distant from each other by fifteen to twenty days' march. Carvajal finally was overtaken at Almadén, which he had established with "renegades who acknowledged neither God nor king," to carry on his slaving operation among peaceful Indians. Arrested and taken to Mexico, Carvajal left Gaspar Castaño de Sosa in charge of the Almadén settlement.

While in prison awaiting disposition of the viceroy's charges, Carvajal was accused by the Inquisition of heresy. He remained Catholic, but members of his extended family had reverted to Judaism; notably, his niece, Isabel Rodríguez. It became apparent that the governor had known of Isabel's leanings and had failed in his obligation to denounce her. As a result, he was sentenced on February 23, 1590, to a six-year exile from New Spain. Before the year was out, while still awaiting execution of the sentence, Carvajal died in the Mexico prison.

In the years that followed, the Inquisition indicted other members of the family. In 1596 charges were brought against Luis de Carvajal the younger, the governor's nephew and heir. Luis broke under torture and implicated up to 120 other practicing Judaists among the Carvajal colonists, including his own mother, brothers, and sisters. Many of them were subjected to the rack and burned on Mexico City's main plaza on December 8, 1596.

Archivo General de Indias, Archivo General de Indias de Sevilla (Madrid, 1958). Carl L. Duaine, Caverns of Oblivion (Manchaca, Texas: Packrat, 1971). Alfonso Toro, La familia Carvajal: Estudio histórico sobre los judíos y la Inquisición de la Nueva España en el siglo XVI (2 vols., Mexico City: Patria, 1944). Robert S. Weddle, Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500–1685 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1985).

  • Peoples
  • Jews
  • Founders and Pioneers
  • Pioneers
Time Periods:
  • Spanish Texas

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

Robert S. Weddle, “Carvajal y de la Cueva, Luis de,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed May 20, 2022,

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

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:

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.

December 1, 1994
May 12, 2016

This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: