Recolonization of New Mexico

By Robert J. Torrez
Former New Mexico State Historian

Governor Antonio de Otermin and approximately 2000 Spanish refugees 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 Cuidad Juarez. Here Otermin established his base of operations and made plans for an early reconquest of the rebellious province.

On November 7, 1681, Otermin and 146 soldiers set out on the first attempt to reconquer New Mexico. They were accompanied by over a hundred Indian allies and the usual retinue of servants and priests. There are indications, however, that the expedition was poorly equipped for what was supposed to be a military operation.

Otermin advanced north along the Rio Grande Valley and reached the Pueblo of Isleta in early December. Isleta's surprised inhabitants, thinking they were being raided by Apache, rallied for a defense of their village, but they quickly realized their mistake and laid down their weapons. From here, messengers were dispatched throughout the province to inform the other Pueblos of the Spanish advance and to demand their surrender.

The bloodless skirmish at Isleta was to be the only battle of Otermin's attempt to reconquer New Mexico. However, the seeds of subsequent problems for Otermin's expedition were quickly sown. One of their first actions was to force Isleta to gather and burn all its native religious objects. Otermin had learned nothing about why the Pueblos had risen in revolt the previous year.

From Isleta, Governor Otermin sent Juan Diego de Mendoza with 70 men to scout and gather information about the northern Pueblos. As Mendoza marched north, he discovered that every village along the route had been abandoned. Finally, outside of Cochiti on December 14, Mendoza met with a large group of Pueblo warriors who agreed to begin peace talks. An agreement appeared to be within reach, but Mendoza learned the negotiations were merely a delaying tactic designed to allow the Pueblos time to gather their forces. Mendoza was only a few miles from Santa Fe, but he realized his small army was ill equipped to proceed and decided to withdraw in the face of a clearly superior force.

On December 18, Mendoza joined Otermin at his main camp near the Pueblo of Sandia. After assessing their situation, they all returned to Isleta, and on January 2, 1682, began their retreat from New Mexico. As they retreated, the Spanish burned the Pueblo of Isleta and took with them nearly 400 of its inhabitants who were resettled at what is today known as Isleta del Sur near El Paso.

Otermin's attempt at reconquest was a total failure. He approached the task thinking the Pueblos would be penitent for having revolted and, tired of Apache raids, would welcome the Spanish back. Their reception at Isleta and subsequent peace talks by Mendoza at Cochiti had given them some hope they would meet no resistance, but, by the time the expedition trudged backed to El Paso, the Pueblos had made it clear they would not easily give up their newfound freedom. When they reached El Paso, the Spanish settled down, planted crops, and took steps to maintain themselves indefinitely. Their stay at El Paso would not be temporary.

In 1690, Diego de Vargas Zapata Lujan Ponce de Leon was appointed Governor of New Mexico. When he assumed office at El Paso the following year, his assignment for the reconquest of New Mexico consisted of two parts. First, he was to make a preliminary entry to determine the condition of the province and obtain the surrender of the rebellious pueblos. He was to accomplish this peacefully, if possible, but by force if necessary. He was also to verify reports of quicksilver deposits in the Sierra Azul of eastern Arizona. Only after this was accomplished, was he was to colonize New Mexico's abandoned settlements and reestablish the destroyed missions.

Diego de Vargas began his task with fifty soldiers and three friars. Fifty additional troops were to reinforce the expedition at a later date. The small army left El Paso on August 17, 1692, and began an uneventful expedition north along the Rio Grande. In early September,  Vargas arrived at Santa Fe where he found the old Spanish capital fortified and its inhabitants defiant. Vargas, however, soon obtained their surrender utilizing a masterful mix of diplomacy and a not so subtle threat of a siege.

On September 14, 1692, Vargas proclaimed a formal act of possession. A few days later, the expected reinforcements arrived from El Paso, and by the end of 1692 most of New Mexico's Pueblos had been restored to the Spanish empire without a shot being fired or any bloodshed. This is the peaceful reconquest which is observed annually at the famous Fiesta de Santa Fe.

The second portion of the reconquest, however, was far from peaceful. In 1693, Vargas returned to El Paso and by October was on his way back with 70 families, 18 Franciscan friars, and a number of Tlaxlacan allies to begin the recolonization of New Mexico. But by this time, the Pueblos had experienced second thoughts, and when the colonists arrived at Santa Fe in December they found the city once again fortified.

For two weeks, the Spanish colonists camped outside the city while Vargas attempted to persuade the Indians to surrender. Finally, after several of the new colonists died of exposure, a decision was reached to take the capital by force. Santa Fe was recaptured after a fierce battle that lasted two days. Afterwards, seventy Pueblo defenders were executed and several hundred captured men, women, and children sentenced to ten years servitude with the Spanish colonists.

During this time, a few of the Pueblos remained true to the initial promise of peace they had made to Vargas in 1692. But most of them continued to resist, and for the next several years New Mexico suffered terribly from almost continual warfare. During this period, many pueblos were abandoned and their populations dispersed as their inhabitants sought refuge in the mountains and among the Navajo and Apache.

In June, 1694, 66 additional Spanish families arrived at Santa Fe. These reinforcements clearly strengthened the Spanish position, but they also placed a tremendous strain on the colony's ability to feed itself, further antagonizing relations with the Pueblos.

By the summer of 1696, the situation deteriorated into a general rebellion which is often called the Second Pueblo Revolt. But it was a futile effort. The Pueblos had become too dispersed and weakened by the past three years of warfare. As winter approached, they finally submitted permanently. Soon, the missions were securely established, Spanish settlements grew, and the Pueblos repopulated. A new era of New Mexico history—the real reconquest—could now begin.