Hernando Arias de Saavedra: Hernandarias

Hernando Arias de Saavedra commonly known as Hernandarias, was a soldier and politician of Criollo ancestry and was the first person born in the Americas to become a governor of a European colony.

As Governor, Hernandarias served two terms as governor of Governorate of the Río de la Plata between 1597-1599 and 1602–1609, and one term of the Governorate of Paraguay between 1615-1617.


Hernandarias was born in Asunción, colonial Paraguay as the second son of María de Sanabria and Martín Suárez, an officer under Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. He had a sister, Juana de Saavedra, who later married Juan de Garay, the father of Jerónima de Contreras. His maternal grandparents were Diego de Sanabria and Mencia Calderón de Sanabria, who were wealthy from their holdings in Paraguay.

He entered the military at an early age, participating in the exploration and conquest of the territory of what is now Paraguay and Argentina. His talents as an officer and administrator led to his being named lieutenant-governor of Asunción in 1592 by Juan Ramírez Velasco in which he served three terms. While claiming most officials from Spain or Peru were lazy or corrupt, the new governor Diego Rodríguez Valdés Vanda y Lugarteniente wrote about Hernandarias:

“Only in Hernan Darias has virtue triumphed. Although the Spanish fault him as being inclined always toward the criollos and mestizos, he is an honourable gentleman, for in every rule there is an exception.”

In the same period, Hernandarias’ half-brother, Hernando de Trejo, was named bishop of the Roman Catholic see of Asunción.

Governor of Rio de la Plata

In 1596 Hernandarias was elected as Lieutenant-Governor of the Rio de la Plata province, including Buenos Aires. In 1597, upon the death of governor Valdés Vanda, King Phillip II ordered captain Francisco de Barraza to name a new governor of the province of Rio de la Plata. Hernandarias was elected unanimously by the caudillo in Asunción as the governor of Rio de la Plata province, including Buenos Aires.

Hernandarias would go on to serve three terms as governor: 1597-1599, 1602–1609, and 1615-1617. As governor, he enacted a number of policies to stimulate the growth of what was at that time a small port town. These included the creation of the first primary schools, kilns for creating bricks and tiles to replace adobe as a construction material, and the rebuilding of a fortress to protect the city from pirates. Following the capture of two anchored ships by English privateers on March 18, 1607, he ordered the construction of a larger fort at the mouth of the Matanza River, in what is now the neighbourhood of Vuelta de Rocha. He also enacted measures against smuggling caused by prohibitions on import, export and the African slave trade. During his term as governor of Buenos Aires, Hernandarias started several expeditions, including ones to Uruguay and Brazil to rein in the Portuguese bandeirantes, explore the Patagonia, survey the navigability of rivers and to find the mythical City of the Caesars.

In 1603, Hernandarias changed the rules on Amerindian workers, ending the mita and encomienda labor systems. The Spanish had essentially depended on native labour in exchange for nominally converting them to Christianity. He gained approval for this reform from King Phillip III.

Eventually in 1604, he was captured by the native Mapuche around 1,000 km south of Buenos Aires, however Hernandarias escaped and survived.

In 1608 he arranged the creation of the Jesuit and Franciscan reductions in the region of Guayrá (modern Paraguay). While it relocated many natives, compared to the previous system, it protected them from the ranchers and the encomienda. In 1611, visiting judge Francisco de Alfaro ordered the emancipation of all natives working on encomiendas who had been converted by the Jesuits. His proclamation is known as the Ordenanzas de Alfaro.

As Governor of the Governorate of the Río de la Plata, Hernandarias at the beginning of the 17th century opposed the burgeoning mate industry. He thought it was an unhealthy bad habit, and that too much of the Indian workforce was consumed the drink. He ordered an end to the production in the Governorate of the Río de la Plata, while seeking approval from the Crown. It rejected his ban, as did the people involved in production, who never complied with the order.

Cathedral of Buenos Aires

Hernandarias was directly involved in the relocation of the church in Buenos Aires in 1603. In 1616 craftsmen determined that the church’s roof was deteriorating, and, in the course of repairs, the church collapsed and Hernandarias led the effort to construct the Cathedral of Buenos Aires.

Working with carpenter Pascual Ramírez, Hernandarias secured a supply of lumber from Paraguay as well as labour from Spanish colonists and converted natives. On the construction of the Cathedral, Hernandarias wrote in a letter about the construction of the Cathedral:

“… my deeds demolished and rebuilt (…) and on this temple, and all the rest of the province, from Indian towns to the cities, to the Cathedral, I can say that I have built them not just with my work and perseverance, but at the expense of my estate.”



After dying in Santa Fe, Argentina in 1634 aged 74, the Hernandarias District of Paraguay was named for him, as were the city of Hernandarias, Argentina in Paraná District, and the Hernandarias Subfluvial Tunnel in Argentina.

However, whilst these physical attributions in his name are noteworthy, his true achievements lay in helping the region boycott items which had been created using Slavery in the manufacturing process; whether they were foreign slaves in the Atlantic slave trade, or domestic slaves who were being forced to work in exchange of being Christians. Furthermore, by establishing the first primary schools in the region, Hernandarias helped to establish the local community as a self-sufficient enterprise in the future- as future leaders could come from the area and not only by being ordained under order of the Spanish crown.