Pueblo Revolt of 1680

By Robert Torrez
Former New Mexico State Historian


The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was one of the most significant events in New Mexico history. But 1680 was not the first time New Mexico's Pueblos had attempted to rebel against the Spanish government. Beginning with the Acoma Revolt of 1599, Spanish intolerance of Pueblo religious practices and a persistent abuse of Pueblo labor had prompted several revolts against the Spanish in the seventeenth century. These uprisings, however, were discovered and ruthlessly crushed before they could grow into broader action.

Systematic destruction of Pueblo kivas and the suppression of dances and other ceremonial practices so important to the belief system through which the Pueblos maintain their relationship between man and nature reached a critical point in the 1670s. For nearly a decade, New Mexico had experienced a devastating drought. Threatened by famine and crippled by raids from the region's Apache tribes, the Pueblos placed the blame for their plight on the Spanish disruption of their religious practices.

In 1675, 47 Pueblo caciques, or priests, were convicted of practicing sorcery and plotting to rebel against the Spanish. Four of these religious leaders were hanged. The others were whipped, reprimanded, and released. Among the caciques who felt the sting of the lash was the enigmatic Popay (also known as Popé), from San Juan Pueblo. Popay is generally believed to be the principal figure in the 1680 revolt, and he is said to have spent the years following his release traveling among the Pueblos organizing the uprising.

Antonio de Otermin was governor of New Mexico in 1680. After the capital was established in Santa Fe in 1610, a string of Spanish settlements were established along the Rio Grande between Socorro in the south and the Taos Valley in the north. Yet, nearly a century after the colony was established, there were less than 3000 Spanish inhabitants in New Mexico.

From a base of operations at Taos, Popay and his confederates laid out an extraordinary plan to expel the Spanish from New Mexico. 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 an isolated capital.

The plan demanded the unprecedented cooperation and participation of all of New Mexico's Pueblos. It would be an extraordinary accomplishment considering the cultural and linguistic differences among the various Pueblos. Ironically, the very people they sought to overthrow may have provided the Pueblos with the instrument that helped them overcome this problem—by 1680 nearly all the Pueblos spoke Spanish.

August 11, 1680, was set as the date for the uprising. Runners were dispatched to all the Pueblos carrying knotted cords which signified the number of days remaining until the appointed day. Each morning the Pueblo leadership untied one knot from the cord; when the last knot was untied, it was the signal for them to rise in unison. On August 9, however, two runners were captured at Tesuque, north of Santa Fe. Their plan now compromised, Pueblo leaders decided to start the revolt a day earlier than originally planned. Runners were sent out with new instructions that the revolt would commence the morning of 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 received word of the change in plans too late, and, subsequently, many 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 Otermin marshaled the city's resources for a defense of the capital. By August 13, Otermin became fully aware of the seriousness of the survivors’ situation and began sending out heavily armed relief parties that escorted them to the relative safety of Santa Fe. Soon, nearly a thousand refugees gathered at the capital. In the meantime, over 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 to the fortified city. Unable to dislodge the Spanish from the Palace grounds, the Pueblos cut off their water supply, a ditch that ran through the sprawling compound. After two days without water, the Spanish decided to take the offensive and launched a desperate surprise attack which drove the Pueblos from the city.

Santa Fe, however, remained cut off from the outside world. Faced with dwindling food supplies and unaware anyone else had survived, Governor Otermin decided it was time to abandon New Mexico. On August 21, the Spanish 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 settlements. Twenty-one Franciscans and more than 400 colonists lay dead.

In the meantime, Lt. Governor Garcia and the group at Isleta also had decided 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 reach him. Together, they then slowly retreated to El Paso del Norte, the southernmost settlement in the province.

The Spanish remained at El Paso until 1692. For a while it appeared that the revolt had indeed succeeded. Popay and the other Pueblo leaders began a systematic eradication of all signs of Christianity and Spanish material culture. Everyone was to bathe in a ritual which washed away any trace of baptism, and Christian marriages were invalidated until reconfirmed by native tradition.

But it was easier to order the eradication of all vestiges of the Spanish presence than to accomplish it. Many items of material culture which had been introduced by the Spanish—iron tools, sheep, cattle, and fruit trees, for example—had become an integral part of Pueblo life. A few individuals, deeply influenced by the teachings of the Franciscans, rescued and hid the sacred objects of their adopted religion to await the eventual return of the Spanish friars.