Maria Gertrudis de la Peña was an enslaved Indigenous woman who sued for her freedom in 1785 in San Fernando de Béxar (now San Antonio, Texas), the provincial capital of Texas from 1773 to 1824. All of what historians know about De La Peña comes from the records of the Bexar County court proceedings. The documents show that, before the age of twenty-five, De La Peña was sold and then resold a number of times. One source, written in 1783, states that she was near twenty years old at the time of sale, which would make her birth year close to 1761. According to the records, she was first sold when she was a young child by José de Bocanegra, for fifty pesos, to Don Pedro José de la Peña. While Maria could not remember much about her life before she was sold to De la Peña, she recalled in her 1785 deposition that she was an Indigenous woman originally from Santa Ana de Camargo along the coast.
Documentation from the court case suggests that when Maria was around the age of twenty, Pedro José de la Peña sold her to Don Antonio Toledo y Oquilla Alferez, an officer in the Spanish cavalry. A stipulation of the 1782 contractual agreement between De la Peña and Oquilla stated that Oquilla would “see [Maria] as daughter, trying to dedicate himself to care for her most assiduous service to God our Lord and her religious life.” However, in testimony, Maria claimed the reason she was sold was to conceal that De la Peña had gotten her pregnant, and he had hoped to avoid public scandal in the villa of Saltillo where he was the second mayor.
Maria gave birth to the child, a girl, at the Presidio of Rio Grande where Oquilla was stationed. The baby died several days after birth. Following a number of years in service to Oquilla, Maria told him she wanted to leave, but Oquilla demanded she stay in order to compensate him for the fifty pesos he had paid De la Peña for her. Afterwards, Oquilla decided to house her with José Lopes, a neighbor. After a month of confinement she was unknowingly sold again to Don Ángel Navarro for fifty pesos. When her treatment failed to improve with Navarro, Maria opted to appeal to the governor of the province.
Indigenous people in New Spain were privy to some of the same rights as Spanish citizens, and enslavement was illegal, which made the transactions regarding Maria fraudulent. For that reason, Don Domingo Cabello, colonel of the royal armies, and governor and commander of the army of this province of Texas, ruled in Maria’s favor. On March 8, 1785, she was declared “completely free.” Cabello recommended she attempt to return to her relatives at the villa of Camargo, but the final decision was up to her. No other records on Maria Gertrudis de la Peña have been found.
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Bexar Archives, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin. Donald E. Chipman and Harriett Denise Joseph, Explorers and Settlers of Spanish Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001). Alan Gallay, ed., Indian Slavery in Colonial America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010). Jean A. Stuntz, Hers, His, and Theirs: Community Property Law in Spain and Early Texas (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2005).
Politics and Government
Court Cases and Controversies
Slaves, Freedmen, and Free Blacks
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.
“Peña, Maria Gertrudis de la,”
Handbook of Texas Online,
accessed June 28, 2022,
Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
Original Publication Date:
April 14, 2021
Most Recent Revision Date:
April 21, 2021
This entry belongs to the following Handbook Special Projects: