One German’s fate along El Camino Real


It was Christmas morning, 1667. As Fray Francisco de Salazar said Christmas Mass in the crowded mission church at Quarai pueblo, two men climbed the choir loft ladder and mingled with members of the parish choir. One of the two, Bernardo Gruber, offered choir members little pieces of paper (papelitos) on which he and his companion, Juan Martin Serrano, had written “+ABNA+ADNA+.”

Submitted photo: A 1758 map shows Aleman, a campsite on the Jornada del Muerto. From John L. Kessell’s “Kiva, Cross and King” (1979), p. 215.

Gruber whispered that whoever ate one of the slips of paper would from that hour until the same hour of the next day “be free from any harm,” whether it be caused by knives or swords or bullets or Apache arrows.
A 19-year-old resident of Quarai named Juan Nieto accepted Gruber’s offer, although he did not eat the strange paper until Mass had ended and he had entered a kiva, or sacred Indian center, elsewhere in the pueblo. As older Indians looked on, Nieto swallowed a piece of Gruber’s paper and proceeded to stab himself in the hand and wrist with the sharp point of an awl. Amazingly, no blood flowed and he showed no sign of pain.
Later, in another part of the pueblo, Nieto swallowed another of Gruber’s papelitos and began to stab his legs with a knife. Many watched in amazement. It appeared that Nieto was indeed “free from any harm” and showed no sign of bleeding.
But then Nieto admitted that he did not really believe that Gruber’s papelitos had saved him from the pain of self-mutilation. He said that he had only pretended to stab himself in his hand, wrist and legs. Urged by his wife, who saw no humor in her husband’s hoax, Nieto reported the entire incident to Fray Jose de Paredes of the San Buenaventura mission at Las Humanas (now known as Gran Quivira).

A German merchant
Who was the strange man who instigated the hoax to which Juan Nieto confessed? Bernardo Gruber was a German merchant who had come to New Mexico from Sonora, Mexico, to trade goods and raise livestock. Arriving in Quarai with a large pack train in 1667, his merchandise included stockings, gloves, cloth, skins, tools and weapons.
Compared to most of his neighbors, Gruber was quite prosperous, with an estate that included 10 mules, 18 horses, three oxen, two female Apache slaves and one male Apache slave, about 15 years of age. Gruber wore a doublet (short-waist jacket), pantaloons (with woolen stockings) and an elk skin coat. He owned a sword, a harquebus, a knife and a small ax. Several people, including his paper-writing companion Juan Martin Serrano, owed him considerable amounts of money.
So what would motivate such a man to offer strange powers to people who ate his papelitos on the holiest day of the Catholic calendar?
One explanation was that he had learned the custom (or his confused version of it) in his native Germany and simply practiced what he had always done at Christmas, without knowing what it actually meant. If he had known, Gruber would have realized that writing symbols on small bits of paper was a tradition in Germany dating back hundreds of years.
According to tradition, different letters (known as runes) and different actions on different days had different meanings. For example, writing the letters “C+M+B” on your doorway on Christmas Eve meant “Christ, bless this home.”
The Catholic Church had banned runes in 1639 but, like many ancient customs, their use had continued in the hands of many traditional Germans, including Bernardo Gruber.
Gruber may have also used this German custom to help protect his neighbors in Quarai. The foreigner might have known that the runes he wrote and the paper he urged others to eat were used in Germany to shield soldiers going into battle.
The pueblo Indian and Spanish residents of Quarai, Abo and Las Humanas were under increasingly heavy attack by Apache raiders in the 1660s and 1670s. These attacks, plus droughts and epidemics, became so prevalent in the 1670s that Quarai, Abo, Las Humanas and three smaller pueblos would be completely abandoned by 1680.
Could Gruber have simply attempted to aid his neighbors in their defense against the Apaches?
But the Franciscan friars of New Mexico had little patience with Gruber and whatever cultural defense he might offer. To the priests, Gruber’s mysterious papelitos, strange words and impossible promises of protection bordered on supernatural sorcery and witchcraft.
Gruber’s case was definitely in the realm of the Mexican Inquisition, a Catholic Church institution created to eliminate just such behavior, even if it required long periods of imprisonment and torture to reveal guilt. Of the 20-odd cases brought before the Inquisition from New Mexico, most had to do with witchcraft.
Thus began one of the earliest, most bizarre cases of the Inquisition in all of New Mexico history.

Arrest and incarceration
Fray Juan de Paz, chief agent of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in New Mexico, left Abo to arrest Bernardo Gruber. Fray Paz was accompanied by Fray Gabriel Torija of Abo, Captain Jose Nieto, Jose Martin Serrano and Juan Martin Serrano, the same man who had accompanied Gruber to the choir loft and owed the German money.
The five riders arrived in Quarai and found Gruber quite easily. Gruber was arrested without incident, peacefully surrendering his harquebus, sword and knife. Mounting their horses, the men and their prisoner rode in the dark, getting to Abo after midnight.
Gruber was placed in a small room, which was to become his cell for the next month. Guards watched the room’s door and single window 24 hours a day; they were threatened with excommunication if the prisoner escaped. Captain Francisco de Ortega eventually offered a larger, better secured cell (with a barred window) at his estancia (landed estate) near Sandia Pueblo. Guards transported Gruber to Oterga’s home in April 1668.
Although Gruber requested that he be taken to Mexico City to clear his name as soon as possible, he remained a shackled prisoner for more than two years. His captors explained to their superiors that Apache raids, drought and bureaucratic complications had prevented them from moving Gruber south to face trial before the Inquisition.
While incarcerated, Gruber lost much of his livestock and his Apache slave, Atanasio, had run away. The German grew increasingly desperate.

Daring escape
Rather than languish in his cell forever, Gruber began to plot his escape. Two unlikely accomplices came to his aid: Juan Martin Serrano and Atanasio. Serrano may have helped Gruber as a means to pay off the debt he still owed the German. Atanasio may have helped for fear of the strange powers Gruber once possessed.
Gruber planned carefully. On Sunday, June 22, 1670, he feigned illness and convinced his guards to remove his shackles. Juan Martin Serrano assisted by sneaking in supplies, including a harquebus at the last moment. Atanasio provided several horses for Gruber’s dash to freedom.
Gruber’s daring escape took place at midnight. A negligent guard slept as Gruber and Atanasio removed a wooden bar from his window, a difficult job that took far longer than expected. With the bar gone, Gruber climbed through the window and made his escape by horse, accompanied by his Apache slave and three spare mounts. The fugitive and his slave rode south down the Rio Grande Valley.
As the sun rose over the Manzano Mountains, the pair suddenly encountered a lone rider coming toward them from the south. The rider was Francisco Dominguez de Mendoza, the son of Thome Dominguez de Mendoza, one of the most powerful men of the Rio Abajo.
Fearing that his escape would be foiled, Gruber asked Francisco not to tell anyone that their paths had crossed. Francisco agreed and, in fact, offered fresh horses, if Gruber and his slave needed them. They refused the kind gesture.
So far it was as if Gruber had swallowed his own papelitos. No harm had come his way. But whatever magical power the papelitos had was good for only one day. Gruber seemed to know this as he hurried south on the Camino Real, or Royal Road, toward New Spain (today’s Mexico).

The pursuit
Meanwhile, Captain Francisco de Ortega had awoken at his estancia, only to find that the bar on Gruber’s window had been removed and his prisoner had broken out in the night.
Galloping south, Ortega picked up Gruber and Atanasio’s trail. The captain made good progress and soon approached Thome Dominguez de Mendoza’s house, in today’s Tomé. Ortega asked for assistance in his pursuit, but Dominguez de Mendoza refused to help, asserting that Gruber had suffered enough for his seemingly small indiscretion.
Dominguez de Mendoza had undoubtedly shared this opinion with his son, leading to Francisco’s vow of secrecy and generous offer to provide fresh horses for the fugitive earlier that day.
Only members of a powerful family could defy a Spanish officer in hot pursuit of an escaped prisoner. The Dominguez de Mendoza family’s power was based not only on wealth, but also on military prowess. Thome’s ambitious, controversial son, Juan, was considered the strongest military leader of his day. Both feared and respected, Spanish governors relied on Juan’s fighting skills, while his enemies testified that his reputation was “worse than the devil’s.”
Tired and with no aid from Thome Dominguez de Mendoza, Ortega went no further. It took another nine days before a search party was organized and on the road. New Mexico Gov. Juan de Medrano y Mesia ordered Captain Cristobal de Anaya Almazan, accompanied by eight Spanish soldiers and 40 Indian allies, to pursue Gruber as far south as El Paso del Norte (today’s El Paso), if necessary.
Captain Anaya and his party got as far as the pueblo of Senecu, near today’s Socorro, before they learned of Gruber’s fate. Their source was none other than Gruber’s Apache slave, Atanasio.

Trail’s end
Atanasio described Gruber’s escape in some detail. After leaving Francisco Dominguez de Mendoza, the German and his slave had passed Senecu and had camped at a paraje (campsite) on the north end of the worst 90-mile stretch of the Camino Real in New Mexico. The date was Tuesday, June 24, just two days into their journey.
The pair traveled the next day, but had found no water by late afternoon. Exhausted, Gruber sent Atanasio to search for whatever water he could find. After several mishaps, the slave finally returned to where he had left his German master. But Gruber was gone. It was now Friday, June 27. Unless Gruber had found water on his own, he had gone thirsty for more than 2 1/2 days.
Atanasio had returned to Senecu to report Gruber’s disappearance. After being questioned in Senecu and, later, in Sandia, Atanasio wisely disappeared. Some said that he ran as far away as Sonora, where Gruber had originally purchased him as a slave. Many said that Atanasio had made the whole story up and that he had killed Gruber in the desert wilderness.
Search parties sent from Senecu were unable to find any trace of the missing German. Then, about three weeks after Gruber’s escape, five Spanish merchants heading south to Chihuahua came across a dead horse, scattered clothes and bones that had been gnawed on by animals.
One of the Spaniards, who had known Gruber earlier, thought he recognized the rather expensive clothes as the German’s. The travelers erected a descanso (roadside cross) to mark the spot. The date was July 13, 1670.
Gruber’s remains were taken to El Paso del Norte where they were buried by a mission priest. Nine years later, all charges against Gruber were officially dropped. His belongings in Quarai were auctioned off, with the proceeds used to say a Mass for the German’s departed soul.
Bernardo Gruber is not remembered in Quarai, where he lived, or in Sandia, where he was held captive for over two years. Instead, a paraje, or campsite, near where his body was found was named Aleman, which is Spanish for “German.”
Aleman is located about half way through a treacherous 90-mile stretch of the Camino Real, originally known as El Despoblado, or the Desperate Trail, and later known as the Jornada del Muerto, or the Journey of the Dead Man. Gruber was one of many unfortunate men and women who perished on this road and gave the route its eerie name.
In an odd twist of fate, New Mexico’s wilderness, not the Mexican Inquisition, Spanish soldiers, Apache raiders or his former slave, had killed Bernardo Gruber, finally administering whatever justice he may or may not have deserved for his strange behavior on Christmas, 1667.