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
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
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
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.