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2010 marks
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The New Mexico Genealogical Society, founded in 1960, is composed entirely of volunteers. 2010 will be our 50th year of providing research materials and networking opportunities for family historians.

Early Spanish Exploration of the Southwest Two

A Cuarto Centennial History of New Mexico
by Robert J. Torrez

NMGS Chapter Two: The Settlement of New Mexico

In 1595, the contract for this ambitious undertaking was awarded to Juan de Oñate, whose father, Don Cristobal, had helped Cortes conquer Mexico earlier that century. While Oñate's family connections were undoubtedly a factor in being awarded the contract, their wealth was equally important. The colonization of New Mexico was to be a privately financed venture, and establishing a colony hundreds of miles from the nearest Spanish settlement was a costly undertaking.

Oñate's contract with the Spanish government specified in great detail the number of settlers, livestock and other provisions and equipment he was to provide. In return, he was awarded titles which gave him civil and military authority over the colony. He was also to be the primary beneficiary of any riches they may discover.

After numerous delays, an enormous caravan assembled at Compostela, Mexico, in January, 1598. The expedition, which consisted of nearly two hundred soldier-colonists, many with wives and families, nine Franciscan priests, several hundred Indian servants and allies, as well as thousands of head of livestock, advanced slowly towards the Rio Grande. In April, 1598, they paused near present-day Ciudad Juarez, where Oñate took formal possession of the province in the name of King Felipe of Spain. As they traveled north along the Rio Grande Valley, Oñate paused at each Indian settlement and obtained the inhabitants' formal allegiance to their new king and a new God.

On July 11, 1598, an advance party of the expedition arrived at the northern New Mexico Tewa village of Ohkay Owingeh, located near the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama. Here the Spanish decided to stop, renamed the village San Juan de Los Caballeros and established the first Spanish capital of New Mexico. It is this event which New Mexico examines and commemorates during its Cuarto Centennial in 1998.

A few months later, the Spanish relocated their settlement to the west bank of the Rio Grande at the village of Yunque, which they renamed San Gabriel. San Gabriel served as the capital of New Mexico until the new villa of Santa Fe was established and the seat of government moved there in 1610. During the next several decades, a thin string of Spanish settlements was established along the Rio Grande, from Socorro in the south to the Taos Valley in the north. But New Mexico grew slowly, and by 1680, nearly a century after the colony was established, there were fewer than 3000 Spanish inhabitants in the entire province.

The seventeenth century presented a series of challenges to Spanish rule in New Mexico. Spanish intolerance of Pueblo religious practices and a persistent abuse of Indian labor prompted several unsuccessful revolts against the Spanish during this period. Systematic destruction of Pueblo kivas and the suppression of dances and other ceremonial practices important to the Pueblo's belief system reached a critical point in the 1670's. Their crops devastated by a persistent drought and harried by Apache raids, the Pueblos placed the blame for their plight on the Spanish disruption of their religious practices.

The crisis reached its peak in 1675, when forty-seven Pueblo caciques, or priests, were arrested and charged with practicing sorcery and plotting to rebel against the Spanish. Four of these religious leaders were hanged, and the others whipped, reprimanded, and released. Among the caciques who felt the sting of the lash was Popay (also known as Popé), from San Juan Pueblo. Popay is generally believed to have spent the years following his release traveling among the pueblos and organizing an uprising which eventually expelled the Spanish from New Mexico.

From a base of operations at Taos, Popay and his confederates laid out a plan which demanded the unprecedented cooperation and participation of all of New Mexico's Pueblos. At a prearranged signal, each Pueblo was to raze its mission church, then kill the resident priest and neighboring Spanish settlers. Once the outlying Spanish settlements were destroyed, the Pueblo forces would converge on the isolated capital of Santa Fe.

August 11, 1680 was set as the date for the uprising. Runners were dispatched to all the Pueblos carrying cords with knots which signified the number of days remaining until the appointed day. Each morning the Pueblo leadership untied one knot from the cord, and when the last knot was untied, it was the signal for them to rise in unison. A few days before the scheduled day, however, two runners were captured. Concerned that their plan had been compromised, the Pueblo leadership decided to begin the revolt one day earlier than originally planned. Runners were sent out with new instructions to begin the revolt on August 10.

That morning, from the northern Tiwa Pueblo of Taos to the Tewa villages north of Santa Fe, the attacks began. It quickly became apparent, however, that the capture of the runners at Tesuque had disrupted the carefully crafted plan for a coordinated uprising. Some outlying Pueblos apparently received word of the change in plans too late, and a few not at all. Consequently, most Spanish settlers were able to escape the initial onslaught.

Throughout the province, groups of survivors gathered for protection and prayed for help. In Santa Fe, Governor Antonio de Otermin marshaled the city's resources for a defense of the capital and sent out heavily armed relief parties which escorted several hundred survivors to the relative safety of Santa Fe's fortified casas reales. In the meantime, more than a thousand additional survivors from the Rio Abajo, under the command of Lt. Governor Alonso Garcia, managed to gather and fortify themselves at Isleta, seventy miles south of Santa Fe. Neither group, however, was aware of the other.

By August 15, thousands of Pueblo warriors converged on Santa Fe and laid siege on the fortified city. Unable to dislodge the Spanish from the palace grounds, the Pueblos cut off their water supply, a ditch which ran through the sprawling compound. After two days without water, their food supplies dwindling, and unaware anyone else had survived, Governor Otermin decided it was time to abandon New Mexico. On August 21, a column of nearly one thousand refugees cautiously withdrew from the capital. As they made their way south, columns of smoke could be seen rising from the ruins of destroyed churches and Spanish settlements. Twenty one Franciscans and more than 400 colonists lay dead.

In the meantime, Lt. Governor Garcia and the group at Isleta had reached their own decision to abandon New Mexico. When news from Santa Fe finally reached Garcia, he halted his retreat and waited for Otermin and the refugees from Santa Fe to catch up. Together, they slowly retreated to El Paso del Norte, the southernmost settlement in the province.

Governor Otermin and approximately 2000 Spanish refugees, including a significant number of widows and orphans, spent the winter following their expulsion from New Mexico at what was supposed to be a temporary camp near El Paso de Norte, present-day Ciudad Juarez. Here Otermin made plans for an early reconquest of the rebellious province.

But Otermin approached the task badly prepared and under the impression the Pueblos would be penitent for having revolted, and tired of Apache raids, would welcome the Spanish back. Instead, he discovered the Pueblos would not easily give up their newfound freedom. As Otermin's expedition retreated, the Spanish burned the Pueblo of Isleta and took with them nearly four hundred of its inhabitants, who were resettled at what is today known as Isleta del Sur, near El Paso. The Spanish settled down, planted crops, and took steps to maintain themselves indefinitely.

By all appearances the revolt had apparently succeeded. Popay and the other Pueblo leaders began a systematic eradication of all signs of Christianity and Spanish material culture. But it was easier to order the eradication of all vestiges of Spanish presence than to accomplish it. Many items of material culture which had been introduced by the Spanish such as iron tools, sheep, cattle, and fruit trees, had become an integral part of Pueblo life.

graphic   Introduction
graphic 1. Early Spanish Exploration of the Southwest
graphic 2. Settlement of New Mexico
graphic 3. The Reconquista of New Mexico
graphic 4. New Mexico in the 18th Century
graphic 5. A Spanish Province Becomes Part of the United States
graphic 6. The Territorial Period
graphic 7. The Quest for Statehood

This article, by New Mexico State Historian Robert J. Torrez, appeared in the Official New Mexico Blue Book, Cuarto Centennial Edition, 1598-1998. It has been reprinted here with permission of the author. The New Mexico Blue Book is free, published by the Office of the New Mexico Secretary of State, and may be ordered by calling 1-800-477-3632.

For a detailed account of the founding of New Mexico, we recommend The Last Conquistador: Don Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest, by Marc Simmons, University of Oklahoma Press.

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