For years I gave tours of Granada for students and faculty at the old University of Mobile campus in San Marcos. I used to begin a walk around the plaza sitting in the shade on the balcony of the Alhambra Hotel. The Alhambra is not a colonial hotel, but it is well situated and a good vantage point to take in the center of history of Granada. And so I begin this tour of the plaza at the Alhambra.
First, the plaza itself. Sometime in 1524 Francisco Hernandez and some of his men hacked away at the brush, and according to law, laid out the plaza, in an oblong form, longer north south than east west, about a third longer than wide. The form itself was taken originally in the form of a royal cedula carried by Pedrarias when he sailed for Panama in 1514.
That cedula, or royal law, was then used for the establishment of the colony of Nicaragua, including the laying out of the cities of Leon and Granada. While the law comes directly from the establishment of Ciudad Real, Spain, established in the last of the reconquista by the dynamic duo of Fernando and his cousin-wife, Isabel. The concept of the central plaza, with the basilica, or main church located on the east side of the plaza dates back to the classic architecture work of Vitrubius, about 50 A.D, who suggested that the basilica be on the east side of the plaza so that the rising sun could illuminate the statues of the gods. And so it has been ever since. Whether the Leon plaza or Granada plaza were laid out first probably cannot be determined, and does not matter, this discussion being one between pedants of Leon and Granada advocating their home town. It has nothing to do with history.
Once the plaza was laid out, the town was laid out, according to law, and life began in Granada. It was law that new Spanish towns were to be established close to but not next to bodies of water, in and close to already existing Indian villages, so there would be adequate labor to support the new Spanish town, or villa. That is why Jalteva is found near to Granada´s plaza. Jalteva was a bustling town of perhaps 8,000 persons, probably Chorotegas. Somewhere Granada ended and Jalteva began. Colleague Mario Molina has suggested that there is a crooked street about half way between the plaza of Granada and Jalteva, and that may have been the dividing line between Spanish Granada and indigenous Jalteva.
The Contreras Rebellion And Massacre Of Spanish Loyalists, 1550
One of the popular conceptions of the colonial period is that after the conquest things were pretty boring, at least to students studying the period. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The colonial period in the first 30 years more resembled a fight between competing gangs than the establishment of Hispanic institutions on Nicaraguan soil.
Pedrarias, no matter what can be said of him, used a strong hand and kept the competing factions under control. When he died in 1531, things got interesting. The Indians whipped the Spanish in the northern mountains, and mining stopped for 15 years. Nicaragua´s government developed into a state of low level warfare between Pedrarias´ family, led by his son in law, Rodrigo de Contreras, his wife, Maria de Peñalosa, their two assassin sons, Pedro and Hernan, and the husband of their daughter, Pedro de los Rios, that was probably as old as Rodrigo, and a reformist group, led by Pedro de Mendavia, acting bishop, until he was sent to Spain in chains, Judge Diego de Herrera, who prosecuted Contreras and had his career ruined, Bishop Antonio de Valdivieso, who was stabbed to death by Hernan Contreras, and reformist Antonio de Lopez appointed personally by Prince Felipe, and who detested Bishop Valdivieso.
The major issue of contention was who had rights to the Indians legally granted by encomienda. The Indians were dying pretty quickly and so their production, and labor became an increasingly valuable commodity. Charles V tried to fix the problem by taking over the assignment and management of encomienda. That caused enormous unrest and a revolt in Peru that lasted 10 years and the destruction of Spanish local government when the Spanish governor was murdered.
That mess was finally cleaned up by one Licenciado de la Gasca, sent by the Crown, who reconquered Peru and killed ringleader Francisco Pizarro. Some of the surviving rebels fled to Nicaragua and there were welcomed by the Contreras brothers, and probably their mother Maria de Peñalosa.
A major plot was developed for Nicaragua to get early independence from the Crown, and so in February,1550, Hernan Contreras stabbed to death Bishop Valdivieso in his house just behind the main cathedral in Leon, killed all other Crown loyalists, stole all the Crown treasury, and rode off to Granada. Word got back to Royal loyalists and the rebel Contreras faction at about the same time. A major battle took place in the plaza of Granada, and all 120 Loyalists were killed. Ships docked at Granada were sunk, with one exception, which had its poop deck dismantled.
The Contreras brothers attacked Panama City, sacked it, and were finally defeated outside Panama on a close by hill. Fate of the Contreras brothers is unknown. De la Gasca, who wrote an extensive report, thought they had escaped and were wanted. Later historians assumed they were killed, though the identification of Hernan was doubtful. De la Gasca felt Maria de Peñalosa was the intellectual author of the revolt and recommended she be tried for treason. She somehow wiggled out of that, and traveled to Lima with a one legged Rodrigo de Contreras. There they were received into the highest levels of society. Rodrigo died in 1558, and Maria died in 1573. They were both buried in the La Merced monastery in Lima. Sometimes crime does pay.
After the Contreras rebellion, civil government in Nicaragua was destroyed, and nothing much happened in Granada for considerable time. There were 58 colonial governors of Nicaragua, and by the time the unrest of independence rolled around, Granada was ready for another set to.
Rebellion For Independence in The Plaza Of Granada, 1812.
Nicaragua did not experience a large scale revolt as did Mexico, but had a few rebels, who resided in Granada. In April, 1812, two cousins, Manuel de la Cerda, and Juan Arguello, leaders of the criollo class in Granada, rose up in revolt against the Spanish Crown. They barricaded themselves in the plaza of Granada, and awaited an attack by Royalist forces from Masaya.
The rebels were well armed, and had at their disposal, a dozen cannon. They shot it out with the Royalists, and killed 25 of them. The royalists retreated towards Jalteva, and negotiations got underway with the Bishop of Nicaragua, Bishop Jerez Garcia, doing the talking. A deal was struck and sent to the Captain General of Central America, General Jose de Bustamante, for his approval. He rejected the deal, saying that the Crown would not contract with rebels, and probably tricked the rebels into surrendering the plaza and their arms.
After the rebels were disarmed, they found out they had been had, were imprisoned, and the ringleaders sentenced to death and with prison for the rest. Arguello and de la Cerda walked in chains to Guatemala City, and there found out they would not be shot, but sent to prison, in Cadiz, for life. Ferdinand VII, one of the more incompetent Spanish kings, changed his mind in 1817 and granted the Granada duo amnesty.
They both traveled back to Nicaragua and took up politics where they left off. Independence of Central America finally occurred in 1821 when a group of criollos met in the city hall of Guatemala City, rejected the liberal Spanish Constitution of 1820, and declared independence from Spain. De la Cerda and Arguello kept fighting among themselves and precipitated a civil war. The conflicts ended in 1827 when Arguello stood De La Cerda against a church wall in Rivas, bare foot, and had him shot.
Fruto Chamorro, His Civil War with the Liberals, And William Walker
Though much ink has been spent on William Walker, he was the third act of a power play that began with Conservative President Fruto Chamorro taking power without the consent of the Liberals, led by Francisco Castellon and Maximo Jerez.
Chamorro provoked a war that he began losing almost immediately, since his government only controlled the plaza of Granada and a little bit of the town. Chamorro had the good sense to get sick and die and so not get blamed for the civil war that brought on William Walker. He is buried in a fancy tomb in the cemetery of Granada.
The Conservatives began having successes; General Ponciano Corral fought a battle on the lake and opened up shipping to the beleaguered Granada. The Conservatives attacked the Liberal stronghold of Masaya, shot a bunch of the soldiers, and now the Liberals were on the run. Franciso Castellon and Maximo Jerrez got the hot idea of hiring mercenary William Walker, who had just got defeated in Sonora and kicked out of Mexico.
Walker arrived in Nicaragua in May of 1855 and lost the first battle of Rivas. Nothing much happened for several months, and Corral, head of the Conservative forces pursued Walker who was in Rivas, and separated his army from the defense of Granada. Walker hijacked a side wheeler boat from Cornelius Vanderbilt, and in October 1855 steamed toward Granada. The government was celebrating a victory over the Liberals and most got drunk. Walker attacked before dawn and controlled the town by dawn.
There was a firefight at the San Francisco Church and convent, and after winning Walker walked across the street and took a snooze where Kathy’s Wafflehouse is located. Walker did not mince words and said he had the entire of Granada captured, and he would do what he had to do to get the Conservatives to make peace.
To emphasize the point he took the Conservative Minister of State, Minister Mateo Mayorga, who was his prisoner, sat him in a chair in front of the Parroquia church, and shot him. The idea came through clearly and the Nicaraguan government decided to make a quick fusion government with Walker. When the Conservative army arrived in Granada there was a big parade in the plaza of Granada, and a solemn Te Deum mass said in the Parroquia. Hugs and kisses everywhere. Or so Walker thought.
In reality Ponciano Corral was conspiring to get rid of Walker. He sent a letter to allies in Honduras saying Walker threatened everything and he had to be defeated at all costs. Unfortunately, the Corral letters were delivered to a messenger who delivered them to Walker. A cabinet session was called and Corral was arrested. There was a court marshal, and Corral was found guilty.
The recommendation was for clemency. Walker denied clemency and decreed Corral would be shot the next day at noon. At this point Corral´s mother and his two young daughters contacted Walker to ask for clemency. A drawing of the scene shows Corral´s mother with a gold ring in her nose, and she may have been an ex slave, as one distinguished historian commented to me.
His oldest daughter was 12 years old, and both daughters pled for his life. Walker´s response was that justice for the few was injustice for the many. But Corral would not be shot at noon the next day, he would be shot at 2 p.m. thus granting the daughters some sort of brief clemency.
Corral attended a last mass at la Parroquia, said confession, was marched out perhaps 50 meters in front of the church, sat in a chair and shot at point blank range. We know this because the American charge d affairs, John Wheeler, attended the execution and made a drawing that was later printed in Frank Leslie’s Weekly Magazine.
As the center of Nicaraguan government, an election for president was held at least in Granada, and Walker counted the votes. He won. He gave his inaugural address on July 12, 1856 in the plaza of Granada where the gazebo is located. Historian Alejandro Bolaños reprinted his speech. The rest of 1856 was not good for Walker. In September, 1856 his forces were defeated when they tried to attack the San Jacinto cattle farm.
In October Walker attacked the allies who were bunched up in the Masaya plaza. He may have won but Salvadoran General Belloso made a side attack on Granada by way of Jalteva and took over much of Granada. It was not a good place to be an American. One Baptist minister objected to being bayoneted by the wall of the old convent at Jalteva. He grabbed the rifle with the bayonet and did a sort of macabre dance, when someone came and began hacking at his head with a sabre and killed him. Walker attacked later that day and shot his way back into Granada.
Things were quiet the rest of the month, but in November Walker made another attempt to defeat the allies, by attacking them in the plaza of Masaya. That was the biggest battle of the war, lasting four days. Walker literally shot up all his bullets, returned to Granada, put out one last issue of his newspaper, el Nicaraguense, and decided Granada did not deserve to exist.
His men got drunk and did a sort of snake dance in the plaza, reportedly carrying a religious statue with them. Walker then gave the order to burn the town down, which was carried out. When the fires burned out, he ordered them to be restarted, and almost all of the city was burned.
Knowing that the allies would be coming soon, Walker decided to leave by way of the lake, ordered his chief mercenary General Henningsen to keep the fires burning, and had his excess gunpowder, perhaps a half ton, placed in one of the church towers of the Parroquia, and ordered that the church should be blown up when the allies came into the plaza.
Henningsen got caught by the allies and holed up in the Guadalupe church. There he fought a siege battle from November 21 to December 13, 1856. He entered the church with 401 men, women, and children, and left with 170 survivors. The rest are probably buried in the church. The allies used the house of former President Jose Leon Saldoval, about a kilometer away as their headquarters, with General Paredes as allied chief. He soon died of cholera, and the allies made several human wave assaults on the Guadalupe church. Henningsen held them off with grapeshot at close range. Central American casualties probably surpassed 1,500 dead.
In the end, the allied armies started fighting among themselves, and the ring of steel around Walker´s men was lifted and they left Granada for the last time by way of the dock, sailing peacefully away. Henningsen left a message on a lance, This Was Granada¨.
Walker left Granada completely destroyed, Rivas destroyed, and at least 6,000 of his men, including his brother Norbert, buried in Nicaragaua. The winner of this war was General Tomas Martinez, who ruled Nicaragua for another 10 years.
He then rose up against the Nicaraguan government with old enemy Maximo Jerez, got beat at Niquinohomo, went to Salvador, backed a losing side there, was imprisoned, and was finally let out of jail to return to Nicaragua where he died. He is buried in the old San Pedro cemetery in Managua. Walker got captured and shot in Honduras, where he was shot by General Xatruch in 1860. The entire archives of his government were delivered to his favorite admiral Fayssoux, and his granddaughter delivered them to Tulane university in 1935, where they are available for study. Walker´s government house is located on the southwest corner of the plaza, and is now owned by the Pellas family. It was a jail during the Contra War.
I do not know if ghosts exist, but if they do, there must be many of them standing guard on the plaza of Granada.
This peaceful church was the site of a state of siege from November 21 to December 13, 1856. General Henningsen led 401 filibusterers into the church, and on December 13, 170 survived, when Walker attacked the allies surrounding the church and environs and broke the ring of steel around the filibusterers.
The allies attacked with about 1,500 soldiers, got reinforcements, and ended the battle with about 1,500 soldiers. Base of operations for the allies was the house of former president Jose Leon Sandoval,now a chicken coop. Commanding general was former president General Paredes of Guatemala. He died of cholera during the siege. Henningsen used grape shot to combat the human wave attacks of the allies.
It was a pretty bloody battle. The surviving filibusterers finally sailed away, leaving from the municipal dock, heading toward San Jorge. General Henningsen left at the dock a lance with the message, “This was Granada.” The present church was constructed in 1945. Most or all of the dead of the battle are probably still buried under the church.
Walker shot it out with the Conservatives outside and inside the San Francisco convent in October, 1855. The convent was subject to a state archaeological dig in 1990, and three large mass graves were found under the floor, along with over a hundred colonial burials, some less than two feet below the floor.
A contemporary magazine, Frank Leslie´s Weekly, identified the seat of Walker’s government as the house located on the southwest corner of the plaza. A drawing of the house very much resembles the present Casa Pellas on the southwest corner of the plaza. During the war it was a prison and later became a branch of BAC. Now it is in private hands. There is a flowing staircase inside the house that was described as being in the Walker house. The former jail cells were in the basement.
View of inside the bell tower a la the movie Vertigo, Hitchcock’s masterpiece
This is more or less where the podium was where William Walker gave his inaugural address as president of Nicaragua, July 1856. He also counted the votes.
Mrs. Werner standing in the place where Ponciano Corral was shot. American Ambassador John Wheeler attended the execution and drew a picture of the execution. Probable place where Minister Mateo Mayorga, captured by Walker, was shot before the government surrendered to Walker.
When Walker’s men left the plaza of Granada they loaded the left bell tower with gunpowder, and set it off when the allies entered the plaza chasing after Walker’s men.
About the Author:
Born in Michigan in 1948, Werner received his education at Michigan State University and Wayne State University. He began working in a gun shop at the age of 14, and began competitive shooting at 16. He worked as a friend of the court in family law matters, assistant prosecutor, and entered private practice, specializing in family law and bankruptcy. In the intermountain west, he became involved in ranch management, began gold prospecting as a hobby, and got post graduate education in handling green broke horses.
Werner moved to Nicaragua at the later part of the Contra War, and was engaged by various news agencies, including Izvestia and the Los Angeles Times, taking reporters into various places in the northern mountains, and the Miskito Coast. He had the opportunity to wander the northern mountains and Miskito coast, and worked exporting fish from the Miskito Coast to Costa Rica in 1989. He worked at the American School and later began work at the University of Mobile, San Marcos campus. He continued to work at the campus in various positions, including professor and Academic Dean at Keiser University, retiring in December 2014. He served for several years on the board of the CCNN of the American Embassy.
His scholarly interests include Nicaraguan archaeology and anthropology, ethno-botany, Hispanic colonial law and Nicaraguan history. He has published seven books, including the first guide to Nicaraguan orchids in English and has also written 10 manuscripts, and presented 60 papers at international conferences on botany, archaeology, anthropology, and Hispanic colonial law.
This article is being presented by Darrell Bushnell. Darrell has the popular Nicaragua website www.nicaragua-guide.com in English for those wanting to know more about Nicaragua. He also has the community newsletter Nica Nuggets published from www.nicaragua-community.com where this article was first published. There are many fine authors and historians in Nicaragua and he is trying to bring their articles to everyone’s attention.