The Tiguex War

A pueblo of adobe and rock with snow capped mountains in the background
Photo of modern Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico. The Tiguex Pueblo may have resembled this historic and active pueblo.

Photo: US National Archives

Looking Back 500 Years: The Tiguex War

by Ron Stewart - NPS Volunteer

In 1540, the indigenous Tiguex (tee-wish) lived in villages along the Rio Grande River. Some of their ancestors had lived there for thousands of years. They resided in multi-storied towns of up to a thousand people made of adobe, stone, and timber. Like most Native Americans of the Southwest, they raised several varieties of corn, along with squash, beans and other crops. They wove fine cotton cloth. They were generally peaceful, though warfare was not unknown between the Tiguex and the other tribes in the area. The Tiguex, now known as the Tewa, still live in this area, in the Ohkay Owingeh, Nambe, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara and Tequque Pueblos, vibrant towns that cherish their past, present and future roles in New Mexican culture.

In August of 1540, scouts of the Spanish Coronado Expedition arrived and established a camp. The full army of nearly 2,000 people (350 Spanish soldiers, 350 servants and camp followers, and 1300 Native American warriors from New Spain (Mexico)) with herds of horses, cattle, goats and sheep was in the Tiguex homeland by December.

The Expedition arrived in need of food, shelter, and warm clothing. They sometimes bartered for what they needed, but often just took it. They appropriated the village of Coafor, near modern Bernalillo, forcing its residents to leave. Their livestock grazed in the Tiguex fields, consuming dry corn stalks needed by the Tiguex for winter fuel. Inevitably, a Spanish soldier assaulted a Pueblo woman, wife to a Tiguex man. The Tiguex had been pushed to their limit and violence ensued.

For three months, winter weather permitting, the Spanish and Tiguex fought. Spanish tactics were to react to any provocation with immediate, fierce violence. The Tiguex barricaded themselves in their villages, firing arrows from loop holes or the roofs of their multi-storied dwellings. The Spanish and their Mexican Indian auxiliaries would attack, scaling the walls to reach the roof tops, setting fires to drive the Tiguex into the open, where they were easy prey for Spanish cavalry. The superior weapons, horses, and overwhelming numbers of the Spanish army preordained their victory. Many Tiguex men were killed in battle; women and children were enslaved.

By March of 1541, the warfare between Spanish and Tiguex known to historians as the Tiguex War was over. Hundreds of Tiguex had been killed, along with a smaller number of Spanish and Mexican soldiers. Many Tiguex villages had been burned or abandoned. Native resistance had accomplished little, the Spanish remained in control. The Tiguex, reduced in numbers, many living in the mountains away from their homes, now fully understood the implacable foe in their midst.

This was one of many conflicts between European and Native American groups during the exploration, conquest and settlement of the Western Hemisphere by Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch and English expeditions from Europe. The unfairness and violence meted out to the native population is appalling, deserving of condemnation. However, it was from these events that our current American societies emerged. The culture of the American Southwest is a fusion of native and European cultures: our language, food, philosophy, architecture, art, and religion came from both the American Indians and Europeans. For better or worse, the Tiguex War, 477 years ago this month, was part of the bloody birth of a New World.

Last updated: December 19, 2017

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