Colonization of New Mexico in the 16th Century

By Robert Torrez

For nearly fifty years following the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, New Mexico was forgotten. Coronado had found none of the treasures promised by the stories of Cabeza de Vaca and Fray Marcos de Niza. As the sixteenth century progressed, Spanish settlement advanced slowly but steadily through northern Mexico.

In present day Chihuahua, Franciscan missionaries found that Indians of the region traded regularly with other peoples who lived further north. The missionaries heard stories of large villages whose inhabitants farmed extensive fields. In 1581, Fray Agustin Rodrigues obtained permission to venture north and determine the truth of these reports. Late that year, Fray Agustin, two fellow Franciscans, Francisco Lopez and Juan de Santa Maria, several servants, and a small military escort led by Francisco Sanchez Chamuscado left Mexico and spent nearly a year exploring the same region that Coronado had traversed. The expedition, however, did not fare well. Fray Juan was killed by Indians, and later, when Chamuscado prepared to return to Mexico, Fathers Agustin and Francisco decided to stay behind and begin the process of bringing Christianity to the Indians of the region. Chamuscado himself became ill and died before they reached home.

In November, 1582, an expedition led by Fray Bernardo Beltran and Antonio de Espejo returned to search for the priests who had stayed behind. They soon learned that the priests had been killed, but, instead of returning with the news, they proceeded to spend several months exploring. Espejo's report is credited with the first official use of the term "La Nueva Mejico" to describe the region we now call New Mexico.

In the meantime, Spanish officials had received reports of the earlier Rodriguez Chamuscado exploration and, encouraged by news of the many potential converts to Christianity, authorized the conquest and colonization of this "new" Mexico.

In 1595, the contract for this ambitious undertaking was awarded to Juan de Oñate. Oñate came from a distinguished family. His father, Don Cristobal, had helped Cortes conquer Mexico. 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 specifies in detail the number of men, livestock, and other provisions and equipment he agreed to provide. In return, Oñate was named both Governor and Captain General, which gave him civil and military authority over New Mexico. He also was to be the primary beneficiary of any riches they might discover.

After numerous delays, the expedition finally assembled at Compostela, Mexico, in January 1598, for final muster. One-hundred and twenty-nine soldier colonists, several with wives and families, along with nine Franciscans, answered the roll. Once under way, the enormous caravan 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 Philip of Spain. As they traveled north along the Rio Grande Valley, Oñate carefully stopped at each Indian settlement and obtained the inhabitants' formal allegiance to their new God and King.

On July 11, 1598, an advance party of the expedition arrived at the Tewa villages located where the Rio Grande and Rio Chama meet. The Spanish stopped at Okhe, re named it San Juan de Los Caballeros, and moved in with their hosts (or possibly displaced them). Here they established the first Spanish capital of New Mexico. A few months later, the Spanish moved to the west bank of the Rio Grande to the village of Yunque, which they renamed San Gabriel. San Gabriel served as the Spanish capital until 1610, when Santa Fe was established.

Oñate immediately launched scouting parties in various directions to determine the extent and resources of the province. During one of these early forays, the Spanish encountered the first serious challenge to their precarious hold on this remote frontier.

In late fall of 1598, Oñate was leading a large expedition westward in search of a route to the Pacific Ocean. In early December, he paused at Zuni to wait for his nephew, Captain Juan de Zaldivar, to arrive with provisions for the expedition. Along the way, however, Zaldivar stopped at Acoma and, leaving several soldiers at the foot of the mesa to tend the horses proceeded on foot to the hilltop settlement where he demanded food and blankets.

The proud and defiant Acomas refused. Instead, they attacked Zaldivar and his men. Thirteen Spaniards, including the Captain, fell as they fought their way to the cliff's edge. Unable to retreat further, several of them leaped over the edge. Amazingly, three survived the fall and, shaken and dazed, joined their waiting companions and rode off to warn Oñate.

Oñate immediately returned to San Juan and began preparing for war. In mid-January 1599, seventy Spanish troops led by Vicente Zaldivar, brother of the slain Juan, arrived at Acoma. The Acomas must have laughed at Zaldivar and his tiny army as he stood at the foot of the imposing mesa and formally demanded their surrender. Secure atop the walls of their impregnable fortress, they responded with a hail of arrows and stones. But the Acomas tragically underestimated the Spanish will and ability to wage war. Zaldivar and his men not only succeeded in reaching the top of mesa but killed hundreds of determined Acoma defenders during three days of furious combat.

Afterwards, the Spanish went through the formality of trials for the Acomas. The sentences Oñate imposed on them were unquestionably the most barbaric in the annals of New Mexico history. All the Acoma men over age 25 were sentenced to have one foot cut off and to 20 years of personal servitude (a form of slavery). Males under 25 and females over 12 were spared the cruelty of a severed foot, but still were sentenced to 20 years servitude. The Acoma children, although declared innocent of any part in the uprising, were placed with Spanish families. All the elders of the village were dispersed to the care of various surrounding pueblos. For a generation, Acoma literally ceased to exist.

Over the next few years, the Spanish colony at San Gabriel barely managed to survive. Despite an infusion of new colonists in 1600, conditions remained bleak. Internal bickering persisted, relations with the pueblos were strained, and, for a time, it appeared the colony might be abandoned. Ultimately, however, it was the missionary work of the Franciscans that saved the colony. The thousands of Indians they had baptized made it unthinkable that New Mexico would be abandoned.

The Spanish were here to stay, at least for a while.

Colonization in New Mexico in the eighteenth century;

The initial Spanish exploration of New Mexico, including Spanish-Indian relations, was a perilous and costly undertaking, but opened the way for later colonization and missionary work.

(c) Robert Torrez. All rights reserved.

Juan de Oñate