A Forgotten Kingdom: The Spanish Frontier in Colorado and New Mexico, 1540-1821
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 29)
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Chapter I
New Mexico, 1536-1680

New Mexico was, from the first, a land of disappointment. Spaniards came to this hostile and barren terrain in the hope that the phenomenon of the Aztecs could be repeated. The stories and legends coming from the area to the north fired the imaginations of the crown. However, Spain was not to find another Mexico in the northern reaches. Rather she would discover death, starvation, rebellion, and finally entrapment in a place she soon had no desire to be.

The Northern Frontier

Legends regarding riches were in large part responsible for Spanish interest. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca returned in the 1530s to Mexico City, so recently looted by Spain, with rumors of riches northward. He had not seen these places but he had heard from "reliable natives" that there were cities of great wealth to the north and west. He also reported that "cows" with shaggy hair were on the plains. These were, of course, buffalo.

There was truth in Cabeza's stories. The explorer claimed that he had vaguely heard of Seven Cities of Gold where citizens dined on solid gold platters, the streets were paved in gold and the lowliest resident was covered with riches. There were equally persistent rumors of a civilization far to the south. This was, of course, the Inca civilization, which fellow Spaniards were in the process of looting by the middle 1530s. [1]

If Cabeza de Vaca stirred the interest of officials at Mexico City, the exploits of Fray Marcos de Niza were even more thrilling. While Cabeza de Vaca was interesting to Viceroy Mendoza, more information was needed. In 1537 the Bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga, brought to the viceroy's attention a priest named Marcos de Niza. Fray Marcos was an experienced traveller in "America" and, based on his knowledge, he was permitted to go. In 1538 he was given orders by the viceroy to move north and find out what was there. For this trip the Moorish slave, Estevan, was borrowed from Dorantes, a companion of Cabeza de Vaca's. It was not until 1539 that Marcos and his little group moved from Culiacan. Near the River Mayo, Estevan decided he wanted to go on faster than the rest of the group. Fray Marcos never heard from El Moro again. Indian tales later indicated that Estevan, a black, so fascinated Indian women that he was killed by jealous native men. Fray Marcos pushed on. He marched up the Sonora Valley into southern Arizona and then into the area of what was called "Cibola." Marcos had, by now, heard of Estevan's demise. Undaunted, he pushed on to "Cibola." He described the place only from a distance. However, he stated that it was larger than Mexico City and that it was "shimmering". He said the houses were of stone, with terraces and flat roofs. He also noted that he was told that Cibola was the smallest of the seven cities. Marcos returned to Mexico City and filed his report. It was Marcos' stories that caused Viceroy Mendoza to agree to a full scale expedition.

Marcos got to Arizona. This can be told from his geographic descriptions, but what he saw is another matter. Most likely, Fray Marcos did see the pueblos of Zuñi from a distance. They were in no way cities of gold but, in the shimmering summer heat they may have appeared so. [2]

The Spanish government was interested in the potential of what was then generally called 'the north' [el norte]. After the successes of Mexico and Peru, Spain felt that northern New Spain was ready to be added to the empire. On the basis of both Marcos de Niza's and Cabeza de Vaca's reports, Mendoza organized a major expedition into the northern lands. For one of the only times the crown, upon Mendoza's strong urging, gave limited aid to an expedition.

The Coronado excursion of 1540-1542 was the first officially authorized attempt to conquer the north. This enterprise consisted of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Governor of Nueva Galicia, 230 Spanish soldiers and 800 Indians who flanked them. Three women also went along. Coordinated with this overland expedition, Hernando de Alarcon proceeded by sea, up the coast of Mexico, to the mouth of the Colorado River where his fleet was supposed to rendezvous with Coronado. This meeting never took place.

Coronado marched north and ultimately into the Rio Grande valley where he found pueblos of relatively high civilization. He found Indians who could weave, were potters and farmers, and who had a well-organized government and religious system. However, there was no silver or gold, nor were there seven golden cities. Coronado and his men suffered through a very rough winter of 1540-1541 and, in doing so, demanded so much of the pueblos that they rebelled.

Winter was unbearable as the natives harrased the Spanish, while the elements did their best to finish off the expedition. The spring of 1541 found Coronado on his way across the plains of Colorado seeking Quivira. Led by a native called El Turco [the Turk], the Spanish tramped across southeastern Colorado into Kansas where there were no cities, only groups of buffalo hide houses. The Turk, having confessed that he had lied, was strangled by angry expedition members.

By the fall of 1541 the expedition was back in the Rio Grande area where they survived yet another winter. An accident caused Coronado to become seriously ill, and forced the group back to New Spain, where no doubt they were glad to be. Thus ended the first major effort to conquer New Mexico. The Spanish found that there was nothing of value in the land and the fact that they had covered an area from Arizona to Kansas confirmed this. But the desire for settlement was not ended.

The Coronado expedition answered one thing. There was no gold nor were there any major cities or civilizations in the north. Spain lost interest in a barren land of mud houses. Other expeditions were attempted in North America. Prior to the New Mexican expedition, Ponce de Leon attempted to settle Florida while Hernando de Soto explored the lower Mississippi. On the Pacific coast, explorers like Cabrillo, Ferrelo and others ranged up to and beyond the Monterey Bay area and then had quit. By 1543, Spain had seen enough of northern New Spain to leave it alone. [3]

In 1581 the Rodriguez-Chamuscado expedition worked its way into New Mexico and found nothing. A year later, 1582, another expedition set out for New Mexico. Antonio de Espejo and Bernaldino Beltran organized a party to explore the north and to try and make contact with missionaries who had remained from the expedition of 1581. The Espejo-Beltran expedition went north into Rio Grande valley and then onto Zuñi and into the Hopi lands. They returned to Zuñi from which point Espejo went to Pecos and then on to New Spain. Reports were filed and information that the expedition had gained stirred some interest at Mexico City.

Earlier stories were still prevalent and the tales of mines from the Espejo-Beltran expedition aroused the imagination of younger men, those who had forgotten about Coronado's eye-opening excursion into the region.

By the late 1500s, the Spanish government was under considerable pressure from the Church. Since there were large numbers of sedentary Indians in the Rio Grande valley, many church officials wondered why they were not being Christianized. The Franciscan order caused the government to give New Mexico a second look.

There were also rumors of mines and wealth in New Mexico. Espejo and Beltran, came back with information which still had great credence in official circles. The missions and possible mines were the strongest reasons, but Sir Francis Drake's California exploits were also in officials' minds.

In April of 1583 a cedula real ordered the viceroy to take steps to settle the lands in the north. A long line of applicants quickly formed but none of these men seemed to have either the wealth or the personality suited to such a massive undertaking. Years of official indecision prompted several expeditions to go out on their own.

In 1589 Gaspar Castaño de Sosa took about 170 men, women, and children north, but the group was arrested in New Mexico and returned to Mexico. In 1593 Francisco Leyva de Bonilla and Antonio Gutierres de Humana led a group into the plains of Kansas where they perished at the hands of each other and the natives. It was not until 1595 that someone was chosen to lead the proposed expedition north. Juan de Oñate, the son of a wealthy silver miner from Zacatecas was appointed. The expedition was to be financed by Oñate himself, and he agreed to recruit at least 200 men, to be fully equipped and to be paid by him. He also said that he would take 1,000 head of cattle, 2,000 sheep, 1,000 goats, 100 head of black cattle, 150 colts, 150 mares and quantities of flour, corn, jerked beef and sowing wheat along with other supplies. This too would be paid for by Oñate. The crown would support five Franciscan friars, a lay brother, and would furnish several pieces of artillery and would provide a six-year loan of 6,000 pesos. Also, the crown would grant Oñate the title of Governor, Captain-General and, once in the area, adelantado, which gave him power to grant encomienda rights. In this way he rewarded faithful servants. [4]

In one of few such cases of exploration in the New World, Oñate was to be directly responsible to the Council of the Indies rather than the viceroy. Despite his appointment in 1595 it was not until 1598 that the expedition got under way. At the time, Oñate technically had not fulfilled his end of the bargain. He had only 129 soldiers, but, he also had 7,000 head of stock. The Church seeing a great opportunity sent forth eleven Franciscans; eight priests, and three lay brothers. In July of 1598 Oñate's group reached the ford of the Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte where they stopped. The little party rested a few days and then pushed on across the dreaded Jornada del Muerto to the village of Caypa, which Oñate renamed San Juan de los Caballeros. Later San Gabriel became his headquarters. It was not until 1610 that a Spanish capital was finally founded. [5]

Oñate was generally successful in his entrada into New Mexico. He suffered setbacks including Indian revolts, mutiny among the soldiers and a lack of food, but in the end a colony was established. The colonists who came with him were not prepared for the hardships they suffered and, because of the constant agitation in the settlements, Oñate was soon in trouble.

His accusers spread rumors of incompetence. Oñate did what he could to counter the charges. However, New Mexico was in turmoil. As soon as the news reached New Spain that there was trouble in the settlement, potential settlers changed their minds. Oñate, suffered constant political pressure in New Mexico. He attempted to clear his name by organizing an expedition to "find the south sea." Oñate hoped that by finding a route to the Pacific he could regain his fortune and prestige.

In 1604 he set out with thirty men and marched to the mouth of the Colorado River and the Gulf of California where nothing but primitive natives were found. Oñate returned as desperate as he had left.

By 1606 the fate of New Mexico hung in the balance. The Council of the Indies tried to save the province. Oñate was recalled and a new governor was appointed. Hopefully the new man would be more interested in christianization programs. Only the friars were allowed to make further explorations and the number of soldiers would be reduced in order to cut expenses. In 1607 Oñate resigned his post, having lost more than 400,000 pesos in his venture. [6]

For the first time Spain actually tried to settle New Mexico. In the quest, the Spanish government was able to spend a minimum while letting Oñate lose a fortune. It is true that Spain did support the colony, but that was quite limited. The settlement of the province was hardly an unqualified success since many of the colonists who came expected far more than either the government or the land could give. New Mexico was a bad investment on the part of the Spanish, even if it was at little risk and Mexico City soon knew it. The new settlers had to be protected from ever-increasingly hostile natives, while the Church insisted that recent Indian converts could not be abandoned. The Church was a major factor in keeping Spain in the new colony, but so too were the pitful few settlers. Soldiers who had come to New Mexico were trapped too. They were given land as colonists and for the first time, some of these people became encomenderos, a prestigious step up in Spanish social hierarchy. To own land, especially an encomienda, was to reach the pinnacle of Spanish society. No longer were they commoners, but now they could claim to be hijos de algo, hidalgos; "sons of someone." New Mexico's land became the lure that kept settlers there.

To replace Oñate, the viceroy appointed Pedro de Peralta governor. Peralta was told that San Gabriel, the capital, was too far removed from the centers of population so in 1610 he founded Villa Nueva de Santa Fe. This was the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico and it became the focus of most activity during the seventeenth century. In founding Santa Fe, Spain signified that she intended to stay in New Mexico for good.

Prior to this time, the settlers and soldiers lived off the natives; eating their food, using their clothing, and dwelling in, or beside, their villages. Santa Fe was established as the first purely Spanish settlement. A governmental center was set up and a province was born.

New Mexico was slow to develop. There was little real progress in the peopling of the province during this period. By the 1630s, Santa Fe had a population of 250 Europeans. By the end of the century overall numbers of Spaniards increased to several thousand. While the Spanish engaged in cattle and sheep raising, along with subsistence agriculture, the Church was far busier. The Franciscans had placed in the field twelve missionaries who served 50,000 Indians. [7]

The Spanish in New Mexico were unable to make the colony prosper as expected. Any trade that New Mexico enjoyed was with Parral [Mexico] and was mainly in sheep, wool, and salt. Such weak trade was further complicated by the system of caravans that ran between Santa Fe and Chihuahua City. The Franciscans operated this trade up to mid-century and were the ones who decided what would be shipped to and from New Mexico. This was a major point of friction between Church officials and the government. [8]

Church-State struggle was continual up to the Revolt of 1680. The tensions that built gave the natives an excellent opportunity to arise. The pueblos, seeing internal Spanish battles, along with continual poverty which caused incessant demands on the natives, suggested to the Pueblo people that there was a good chance of getting rid of their unwanted guests. Divisions among the Spanish were deep enough that the natives could plan a revolt with relative safety. The Spanish, on the other hand, numbering some 2,800 in 1680, felt themselves rather secure.

It is commonly known that one of the key causes for the Revolt of 1680 was the repression of native religion. The friars saw these manifestations as signs of paganism, while the government rarely worried about heathenism. The Franciscans were frequently enraged by the lack of cooperation of officials which only caused more friction. Meanwhile, Pueblo medicine men, who lost their dominant position, worked secretly to regain influence. This continual clash of two vastly different cultures was bound to produce war. [9]

The New Mexican government had rumors of a possible uprising as early as 1675. A raid of the northern pueblos captured forty-seven hechiceros (medicine men) who were accused of plotting to get rid of the Spanish. However, Pope, from San Juan pueblo, escaped. He became the primary leader of rebellion. After the San Juan raid, where he agitated, Pope removed himself to Taos, a center of consistent resistance, where he plotted the expulsion of the Spanish.

Finally, in 1680 the fury burst upon New Mexico. On August 9, 1680 a chief from La Cienega sent word to maestre de campo Francisco Gomez Robledo that there would be a revolt throughout the province. Gomez ordered the arrest of two chieftains, Catua and Omtua, suspecting that they were deeply involved. Word of the arrests spread throughout the pueblos and on August 10th, Pope raised the banner of rebellion.

Indians struck from all directions. At Taos two friars were slaughtered in their church and articles of the Catholic faith were burned. The revolt moved south spreading death and destruction everywhere. Four hundred Spaniards lost their lives in the initial uprising. Survivors fled to Santa Fe hoping to find shelter in the capital. Indians surrounded the city and by August 15th all that remained of the glorious conquest of 1598 was the besieged town of Santa Fe.

Governor Antonio Otermin faced two courses of action. He could surrender or he could fight the thousands of Indians around him. The Indians cut off Santa Fe, first by breaking the water supply and then by preventing all food shipments into the town. As the Spaniards huddled in Santa Fe they suffered horribly under the brilliant August sun.

On August 20th the Spanish ventured forth in an attempt to escape. Luck was with them. The Indians were caught off guard, and the beleaguered people of Santa Fe were able to make good their escape. Thus began the long march south to the tiny village of El Paso del Norte. New Mexico was abandoned to the Indians. [10]

The natives gloried in their success. Their hatred of the Spanish caused every vestige of the foreign culture to be stamped out. Houses of settlers were looted and burned, horses and cattle were confiscated. Mission churches were sacked and then burned to the ground. At Isleta the charred remains of the chapel were turned into a corral. The official archives at Santa Fe were burned. Indians who had taken Christian Indian wives were expelled, and the names of God and the Holy Virgin were not mentioned.

The pueblos returned to their own culture. New estufas (underground meeting chambers) were built and "pagan" ceremonies openly resumed. However, the natives, not noted for their cooperation, soon quarreled over the spoils of war. The pueblos of Zia, Santa Ana, San Felipe, Cochiti, and Santo Domingo, along with Jemez, Taos and Pecos were reported to be at war with the Tewas and Picuries, according to Governor Domingo de Cruzate in 1689.

The Pueblos were at each others' throats within a matter of months. Realizing the situation, the Spanish thought it might be possible to recover their lost province. Early after the revolt, Governor Antonio Otermin organized an expedition to retake New Mexico. Once he had settled the refugees at El Paso and after he reported the loss to Mexico City, he prepared to recover the the land.

In El Paso many settlers were opposed to any plans for reconquest. They suggested that the place should be abandoned and all those driven from their homes be permitted to return to New Spain. Otermin eventually prevailed in his plan for revenge. He was able to raise only 146 of his own men and 112 Indian allies for the counterattack.

As he moved north up the Rio Grande valley he found abandoned pueblos until he reached Isleta. There he discovered 1,500 Indians who received the Spaniards, asked their pardon, and gave them food. Here Otermin split his forces. He left for Sandia, while Juan Dominguez de Mendoza went farther north. Dominguez, reached the Taos area where he found the Indians unwilling to submit, as he reported to the junta de guerra. Otermin, realizing that he could not take the pueblos by force, returned to El Paso in 1681 to await reinforcements. [11]

Otermin was replaced in 1683 by General Domingo Jironza Petriz de Cruzate, who strengthened the presidio at El Paso del Norte. Cruzate got little help from Mexico City, for rumors of French intrusions into Texas (the ill-fated La Salle Expedition of 1685) caused the viceroy to turn his attentions thither and not toward New Mexico.

Cruzate was temporarily replaced by Pedro Reneros de Posada in 1686, but returned to El Paso as governor of New Mexico in 1688. From that city he led an expedition against Zia where he engaged the natives of that pueblo and killed an unspecified number of them. However, he had insufficient manpower and, without reinforcements, he had to fall back to El Paso once again.

Cruzate's career was ended on June 18, 1688 when Diego de Vargas Zapata y Lujan Ponce de Leon was appointed governor of New Mexico. He held this position for two years before he was allowed to plan for a reconquest. In 1690 he gained the right to organize an expedition into New Mexico for the sole purpose of reconquering the province.

Antonio de Otermín
Antonio de Otermín


1 See: Fanny Bandelier, The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536 (New York, 1922) and Frederick W. Hodge, The Narrative of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, in Hodge and T. H. Lewis, Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States, 1528-1543. (New York, 1907).

2 Carl O. Sauer, Road to Cibola (Berkeley, 1932), and Lansing Bloom, "Who Discovered New Mexico?," New Mexico Historical Review, XV (April, 1940), 101-132. Also see: George J. Undreiner, "Fray Marcos de Niza and His Journey to Cibola," The Americas III (April, 1947), 416-486. For a personal account see: "Fray Marcos de Niza's Relacion," New Mexico Historical Review, I (April, 1926), 193-223.

3 For brief descriptions of these various expeditions see: John F. Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513-1821 (New York, 1970). The Coronado expedition is described in: George Winship, The Journey Of Coronado, 1542-1544 (New York, 1904); George Hammond and Agapito Rey, Narratives of the Coronado Expedition (Albuquerque, 1940); Herbert E. Bolton, Coronado, Knight of Pueblos and Plains (New York, 1949); A. Grove Day, Coronado's Quest (Berkeley, 1940); Frederic J. Athearn, Land of Contrast: A History of Southeast Colorado, (Denver, 1985) and James and Dolores Gunnerson, Ethnohistory of the High Plains, (Denver, 1988).

4 See: George P. Hammond, Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 (Albuquerque, 1953). 2 vols.

5 See: George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, The Rediscovery of New Mexico (Albuquerque, 1966).

6 For descriptions of the Oñate expedition, see: George P. Hammond, Don Juan de Oñate and the Founding of New Mexico (Santa Fe, 1927) and Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico.

7 See: Gaspar Perez de Villagras, History of New Mexico, trans. and ed. by Gilberto Espinosa (Los Angeles, 1933).

8 See: France V. Scholes, "The Supply System of the Early New Mexico Missions," New Mexico Historical Review, V (January, April and October, 1930).

9 Descriptions of New Mexico during the seventeenth century are to be found in the indicated volumes of the New Mexico Historical Review: France V. Scholes, "Problems in the Early Ecclesiastical History of New Mexico," VII (January, 1932), 32-74; "Civil Government and Society in New Mexico in the Seventeenth Century," X (January, 1935), 71-111; "Church and State in New Mexico, 1610-1650," XI (January, April, July, October, 1936), 4-76, 145-178, 283-294, 297-349, and XII (January, 1937), 78-108., "Troublous Times in New Mexico, 1659-1670," XII (April, October, 1937), 134-174, 380-452, and XIII (January, 1938), 63-84, and XV (July, October, 1940), 249-268, and XVI (January, July, October, 1941), 15-40, 184-205, 313-327. See also: "The First Decade of the Inquisition in New Mexico," X (July, 1935), 195-241.

10 See: Charles Wilson Hackett, "Retreat of the Spaniards from New Mexico in 1680 and the Beginnings of El Paso," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XVI (October, 1912), 137-168 and (January, 1913), 259-276. Also see: Anne E. Hughes, The Beginnings of Spanish Settlement at the El Paso District (Berkeley, 1914). For a description of the Revolt of 1680 see: Charles W. Hackett, "The Revolt of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico in 1680," Texas State Historical Association Quarterly, XV (October, 1911), 93-147; and Hackett, Revolt of the Pueblo Indians Of New Mexico and Otermin's Attempted Reconquest, 1680-1682 (2 vols., Albuquerque, 1942).

11 Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, pp. 85-87.

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Last Updated: 20-Nov-2008