El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter II:

From the pueblo of Cicuye (Pecos), 200 miles east of Zuni, an emissary of Indians departed for Zuni on an errand of peace and curiosity. A portion of their journey followed the Zuni-Cibola Trail, the pathway connecting the pueblos along the Rio Grande with the outposts of Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi. [21] This footpath dissected the malpais 13 miles west of Acoma Pueblo. Upon reaching Zuni, Bigotes, the chief spokesman from the Cicuye delegation met Coronado. Coronado probably still carried evidence of facial bruises received when he was pummelled in the face with stones during the battle for Hawikuh. Bigotes was tall but robust in appearance. The Spaniards gave Bigotes his sobriquet from the long mustached that embraced his face. He informed Coronado "they had come to serve him. . . .and that if the Spaniards planned to go to his land they would be welcomed." Bigotes exchanged gifts with the Spaniards, presenting them buffalo robes, shields, and headdresses. Coronado reciprocated with artificial pearls, glass vessels, and little bells. Coronado accepted Bigotes' invitation to visit Cicuye, no doubt hoping that it might be his Cibola. He ordered Captain of Artillery, Hernan de Alvarado, to take a squad of 20 men and visit Cicuye and report back to the captain-general within 80 days. On August 29, 1540, Alvarado bade farewell to Coronado and the Zuni encampment. [22]

Although Alvarado's precise route cannot be determined, his journey certainly threaded segments of the malpais. He was probably the first non-Indian to cast eyes on the malpais country. Although there is no mentioning of it in any of the Spanish chronicles, nor did they incise their names into its sandstone facing, the little cortege of Spanish and Pecos Indians probably passed El Morro in route to Pecos. [23] Beyond El Morro they skirted portions of modern-day State Highway 53 before dropping south of the main Acoma-Zuni Trail. Because the horses could not negotiate the rough lava terrain of the malpais, Alvarado's command did not cross the malpais. Alvarado's trajectory carried him south of the malpais into the extinct volcano region west and south of the malpais. Swinging east, the Spaniards crossed the southern extremity of the malpais to reach Acoma Pueblo, September 4. [24]

Alvarado's squad viewed the "Sky City" of Acoma, perched on a rocky monolith twice as high as the Giralda of Sevilla. Ascent could only be accomplished by negotiating a narrow stone staircase that terminated into "mere holes for the hands and feet." Initially, the Acomas exhibited hostility towards Alvarado, but relented when the Spaniards prepared for combat. The Spanish described the Acomas as being closely related to the Zunis in dress and culture. Alvardo did not linger at Acoma. Before he departed the Acomas presented his command with copious amounts of maize, beans, and turkeys. [25] Outfitted with provisions, Bigotes led the foreigners eastward. On September 7, eve of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin, the cavalcade reached the Rio Grande Valley. The Spaniards christened the river, Nuestra Señora, because of its discovery on the eve of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin. Alvarado advanced northward, up the valley, and entered the province of Tiguex near present-day Bernallilo. Impressed with this extensive province, its large population, and its abundant food supplies, Alvarado sent word back to Coronado, recommending the town for winter quarters. Alvarado proceeded to Cicuye apparently reaching the pueblo after detouring to Taos. [26]

Meanwhile, Coronado organized the balance of his army at Zuni into three detachments for the movement to join Alvarado at Tiguex. In late November or early December, Coronado departed Zuni with his small force, consisting of 30 men. Like Alvarado's route, Coronado's path cannot be precisely measured. However, given the facts that Coronado reached the Rio Grande Valley near the vicinity of Socorro and that he did not visit Acoma Pueblo, it seems likely that he detoured farther south than his artillery captain. His course carried him south of Cebolleta Mesa probably through lands now set aside as the National Conservation Area. The column entered the Rio Grande Valley near Socorro. Tristan Arellano, who had commanded the main army from the outset of the expedition, followed the trail of Alvarado. Of the fourth division of Coronado's army under Garcia López de Cardenas, nothing is known of his course. It is believed that Cardenas pursued the path of Alvarado and Arellano. At least three of the four groups passed El Morro or in proximity to it. All four columns experienced portions of the lava flows.

In April 1542 Coronado passed the lava flows again, this time on his return trip to Culiacan. He was not the same haughty, energetic Spaniard who had triumphantly trudged through the region two years before. The fire of conquest and vision of riches had vanished from his eyes. Disillusionment and poor health characterized his countenance. Two years of wandering over the Southwest and portions of the Midwest had sapped his ardor. Moreover, the failure to discover precious metals stamped him a failure by his peers.

Although Coronado's expedition failed to reap fabulous riches from the region, it did succeed in providing the first detailed information about Spain's northernmost province. Viewed and interpreted in today's context, Coronado's sojourn into New Mexico is significant for its wealth of information concerning the area and its first inhabitants. Although most of the routes traversed are based on conjecture, El Malpais region figured prominently in Spanish movements. Unfortunately, Spanish authorities were not interested in acquiring descriptive accounts of squalid Indian pueblos. Coronado's lackluster performance went unnoticed as Spaniards turned their attention to Indian revolts in Mexico. [27]

It would be 40 years before Spain again attempted to explore New Mexico. In the summer of 1581, Frayles Agustín Rodríquez, Francisco López, Juan de Santa María, and Captain Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado, with 8 soldiers and 19 Indians servants initiated an exploratory expedition into New Mexico. Ostensibly, their mission served to convert Indians to Catholicism but also to develop silver and gold mining interest. Starting from Santa Bárbara, the cavalcade trekked northward down the Rio Conchos to present-day Presidio, Texas. Reaching that point, the Spaniards turned northward following the Rio Grande. They visited the pueblos of Tiguex and Pecos, the same seen by Coronado 40 years earlier. Angling west the entourage halted at the pueblos of Jemez and Acoma. Moving west, they passed the malpais en route to Zuni. The expedition proved disastrous. One of the priests was murdered. Two other priests ventured out alone, giving rise to speculation that Indians had martyred them. To make matters worse, Captain Chamuscado took ill and died before the expedition returned to Mexico, April 15, 1582. [28]

The Rodriguez expedition was not in vain for it spurred Spanish authorities to attempt to rescue the two priests. Antonio de Espejo organized a relief party. On November 10, 1582, Espejo and crew departed San Bartolomé. Retracing Rodriguez's footsteps, Espejo ascertained at the pueblo of Puara, part of the Tiguex complex, that the two friars had been slain. Before returning to Mexico the expedition explored the region. Writing in his journal, Diego Pérez de Luxán recorded the first official penetration of El Malpais. Luxan wrote: "March 7, to Acomita; March 8, another four leagues past a marsh [probably McCartys]; March 9, another 4 leagues in waterless malpais; March 10, 7 leagues, pine forest waterless mountain; March 11, three leagues, stopped at a water hole at the foot of a rock." [29] The reference to the "waterless malpais" represented the first historic notation of the lava beds.

The explorations of Rodriguez and Espejo reawakened Spain's interest in New Mexico. With renewed vigor Spain traveled a path devoted to expansionism and missionary work in New Mexico. An abortive and illegal endeavor to colonize New Mexico in 1590 and again 1594 went astray. Spurred by illegal colonization efforts, Spain in 1595, granted permission for a permanent settlement. Don Juan de Oñate with a colony of 130 families, 270 unattached men, and 7000 head of livestock comprised the enterprise. Northward, they plodded to El Paso establishing the Chihuahua Trail that acted as an umbilical cord between Mexico and the northern frontier of New Mexico.

Oñate established the first colony in New Mexico at San Juan Pueblo (Chamita, New Mexico). Oñate quickly explored his domain and announced to the Indian populace that they were now subject to the laws and dictates of the Spanish crown. Zutacapán, an Acoma warrior, heard of Oñate's proclamation and hurriedly returned to the mesa top to incite his tribe to resist Spanish authority. Over council fires the elders debated their course of action. Should it be war or peace? Support for peace came from an unlikely source, Zutacapan's son, Zutancalpo. When the venerable statesmen, Chumpo interceded on behalf of the peace advocates, the Acomas sided with Zutancalpo.

On October 27, 1598, Oñate arrived at Acoma as part of a goodwill tour with exploration plans to reach the Pacific Ocean. From an accommodating host, the Spaniards received an abundance of provisions. When invited by the hospitable Zutacapan to enter the pitch-black ceremonial kiva, Oñate declined, fearing entrapment. Oñate departed the pueblo and took his entourage to Zuni skirting the usual Zuni-Acoma highway leading through the malpais via modern-day Grants and San Rafael. Reaching Hawikuh, Oñate rested to await the concentration of his command still stationed at San Juan. [30]

Meanwhile emotions reached the boiling point at Acoma. Spanish captain, Gaspar Villagra, on a mission to round up deserters, was ambushed near the Acoma citadel. The Acomas accomplished the killing of Villagra's mount but nothing else. Alone and on foot, Villagra traveled westward towards Zuni. A sudden snowstorm in the malpais impeded his progress. An exhausted Villagra, suffering from exposure, managed to reach El Morro. Three Spanish soldiers searching for loose livestock found his half-frozen body and transported him safely to Hawikuh. [31]

Oñate's nephew, Juan de Zaldívar, with 30 soldiers departed San Juan in late November to join his uncle. Zaldivar approached the Acoma pueblo on December 1 and pitched camp at the base of the Acoma citadel. Conferring with the Acomas under Zutacapan, the Spaniards made it known that they desired fresh provisions. Having just supplied Oñate's party barely a month before, the Acomas reacted less than favorably to the request. Nevertheless, the Acomas consented to the demand but requested a few days to gather the food and prepare the corn. On December 4, Zaldivar and half his command ascended the "Sky City" to receive the offerings. Without warning the Acomas pounced on the scattered column. Recounting of traditional Acoma oral histories infer that some of the soldiers attacked their woman, precipitating the fight. Spanish documents, however, are mute on the issue. [32]

In the initial outburst, Zaldivar fell, clubbed to death. Overall 14 soldiers were slain. Five Spaniards leaped from the cliff--one died in the plunge, but the other four escaped. They joined the stunned soldiers camped on the valley floor. The excited Spanish scattered, some joining Oñate to inform him of the disaster. The remainder returned to San Juan to warn the remaining colonists of the trouble. Oñate was compelled to abandoned his friendship tour and Pacific exploration. He returned to San Juan, reaching that pueblo on December 21. [33] Quickly Oñate organized a punitive expedition to avenge the death of his nephew and teach the Acomas a lesson. On January 12, 1599, he ordered Captain Vicente de Zaldivar, brother of Juan, to take 70 men and sack the Acoma fort. The Spanish reached the base of Acoma mesa on January 21 and pitched tents. Reduction of the Acoma stronghold would be difficult. Indians effectively blocked the only access to the summit. On the 23rd, Zaldivar feigned scaling the north wall at the foot of the stairs. The ruse worked as Acomas collapsed on the threatened sector. Meanwhile, the night before, Zaldivar had concealed a dozen soldiers at the southern exposure. While the Acomas engaged the main force, the 12 rock climbers accomplished the impossible. They scaled the precipitous cliff without detection. Once on top of the 400-foot mesa, they attacked with impetuosity the rear of the startled Indians, forcing them to relinquish their position. Zaldivar's command then joined the Spaniards on top and began a movement toward the pueblo itself. [34]

The mesa top is divided into two distinct sections separated by a ravine. The Indians sought refuge along the narrow ravine, but were forced to retreat into their rock fort. The persistent Spanish continued to press the Acomas. The Spaniards even managed to haul a cannon up the narrow stairway to the summit. Aiming the piece at point-blank range, they reduced the adobe and stone structures to a rubble. The Acomas surrendered about noon January 24, 1599. [35] According to Spanish historians, Acoma casualties numbered in the hundreds. They reported the death of one Spaniard in the three-day battle. Rather than submit to the invaders, some of the Acomas elected to jump from the cliff. Out of a total population of approximately 6,000, about 600 surrendered. [36] Many of the Acomas were imprisoned in the kivas. Later, the Spaniards took their prisoners, marched them to the edge of the cliff, murdered them, and tossed their corpses over the side. [37]

The surviving Acomas were escorted under guard to Santo Domingo Pueblo to await trial. Under sixteenth-century Spanish law, as interpreted and applied by Juan de Oñate, "all Acoma males over 25 years of age were condemned to have one foot cut off and to give 20 years of personal service; all males between the ages of 12 and 25 were to give 20 years of personal service. All females above the age of 12 were sentenced to give 20 years of personal service. Two Indian men who had been captured while visiting Acoma were sentenced to have their right hands cut off and to be sent back to their own Pueblos as a warning of what could be expected if Spanish authority was flaunted." [38] On February 12 the guilty Acomas received their punishment. In all, some 60-70 Acoma women and children were transported to Mexico and turned over to the viceroy for final disposition. Many of the displaced Acoma found homes in convents scattered throughout Mexico. [39]

The pueblo itself was in ruins. Chumpo and his peace proponents were brandished to the plains below the rock fort. Other Acomas not so friendly towards the Spanish returned to the mesa top and began the slow process of rebuilding their city and lives. The Spanish sacking of Acoma, however, had successfully fragmented the Acomas into pro-and anti-Spanish factions. "The pride and strength of the valiant Acomenses were broken forever." [40]

Following the destruction of Acoma, Oñate spent several years consolidating and strengthening his tenuous grip in New Mexico. In 1604, Oñate realized his dream of completing an overland expedition to the western seas. He left San Juan and marched west crossing the malpais in the process. Oñate's trip advanced him beyond Zuni land to the eastern shores of the Sea of Cortez. On his return, Oñate stopped at El Morro and carved his name in the rock marking the earliest known inscription. Oñate wrote: "Passed by here the Adelantado Don Juan de Oñate, from the discovery of the Sea of the South, the 16th of April of 1605." [41]

Oñate's rule in New Mexico proved to be short-lived. He fell into disfavor with authorities in Mexico. In addition, the colonists became disenchanted with his administration. Oñate resigned in 1607, supplanted with Don Pedro de Peralta. In either 1609 or 1610, the new governor transferred the capital from San Juan to Santa Fe.

New Mexico's early pioneers diverted their attention from seeking mineral wealth to domestic activities. Farming and livestock industries assumed high priority. Mexico City provided minimal direction. Bitter feuds between civil and ecclesiastical officials highlighted seventeenth-century New Mexico. Political upheaval and constant quarreling stymied any chance of development of the region's natural and human resources. The province was constantly in turmoil. [42] Despite the chaos missionaries established a foothold in the pueblos and began in earnest the tedious task of winning converts. The influx of Spanish missionaries in the first quarter of the seventeenth century enabled a battery of friars to swell the role of Christianity to the outlying pueblos. To the east the Salinas pueblos of "Los Humanus," Abo, and Quarei were established. At Acoma, a bevy of priests arrived to assist in the rebuilding the mesa-top pueblo. The conversion of lost souls fell to Fray Andrés Corchado. His sphere of influence included the pueblos of Acoma, Zia, Zuni, and Hopi. Because of the expanse of territory, Fray Andres could not devote the time, or the energy required to each pueblo.

A steady diet of priests at the pueblos, however, eventually cultivated the desired response. The chief cultivator at Acoma, Father Gerónimo de Zárate Salmerón, arrived at the Sky City in 1620. Salmeron reported he succeeded in pacifying the natives, but he cautioned his superiors that the Acomas possessed a nasty history of hostile feelings towards the Spanish. But the primary settling force on the Acomas came from Fray Juan Ramírez, who arrived on the scene around July 1629. Fray Juan initiated construction of San Estevan del Rey Mission, which is still in use. Fray Ramirez gained widespread acceptance from tribal members for two miracles he allegedly performed. An eight-year-old girl had fallen off the cliff and Ramirez restored her unconscious form to the conscience world. In the second miracle recorded, he baptized an infant while on her death bed. When she recovered the Indians credited Father Ramirez with her miraculous turnaround. [43] Ramirez spent more than 20 years among the Acoma people. He assisted the Indians in cultivating their natural resources. Fray Ramirez instilled in the tribe the value of planting gardens, growing fruit orchards, and raising livestock.

Westward, friars penetrated the Zuni and Hopi pueblos. The Zunis and Hopis did not react favorably to the Franciscans either. The priest at Awatovi, a Hopi mission, died through poisoning. At Hawikuh Indians put to death two priests. True to form, the Spanish launched retaliatory raids on the Indians. Spanish soldiers marched via the Acoma-Zuni Trail, intersecting with the lava flows and Inscription Rock. One such carving in El Morro mentioned the killing of the priests: "They passed on March 23, 1632, to the avenging of the death of Father Letrado.-Lujan." [44]

Spain's primary seventeenth-century role in New Mexico focused on converting the Indians to Catholicism, especially along the heavily populated Rio Grande corridor. Economically, Spain found New Mexico a drain on the Spanish treasure. Despite New Mexico's unprofitability Spanish authorities maintained a presence on the northern frontier. To abandon the unproductive province was tantamount to relinquishing the territory to Spain's bitter New World competitors, France and England. Therefore, conversion of New Mexico's Indian population assumed Spain's chief thrust and guaranteed its foothold in the region. Peace with the Indians remained at best, tentative. Spain maintained law and order through intimidating, coercing, and mollifying the Indians. Spanish authorities continued the practice of enslaving Indians or employing them as a cheap labor force. Pueblo Indians resented the foreign intruders into their homes and the displacement of cultural values. Pent-up frustrations exploded in 1680. Rising in revolt, the Indians threw off the mantle of oppression and struck viciously at their conquerors. Priests were murdered; missions torched. San Estevan del Rey Mission at Acoma miraculously survived the uprising. Resident priest, Fray Lucas Maldonado, was not so lucky. He perished in the revolt. Some accounts infer that Indians tossed him off the mesa top. All Spaniards not killed in the initial attack rallied at Santa Fe for a last stand. The attackers stormed the capital and forced its abandonment. Approximately 400 Spaniards died in the holocaust. The survivors, led by Governor Antonio de Otermín, fled down the Rio Grande to El Paso. For the next 12 years New Mexico belonged to the Indians. [45]

The man selected to reconquer New Mexico for Spain was Don Diego de Vargas. In 1691, Vargas arrived in El Paso where the remnants of the New Mexico colony had collected. Vargas found that morale problems, foul weather, and attacks by neighboring bands of Indians exacerbated the refugees. A determined De Vargas spent from his own purse in preparation for a reconquest. In August 1692, De Vargas led a minuscule band of 60 Spaniards and 100 friendly Indians into New Mexico. He discovered the takeover easier than envisioned.

Following the expulsion of the Spanish in 1680, Pueblo Indians encountered difficulty in divorcing themselves from more than 100 years of Spanish culture and influence. The Pueblo Revolt disintegrated when the Indians fragmented into warring factions, thus allowing De Vargas to overrun all opposition. [46] Initially, Santa Fe was reoccupied without bloodshed.

Capitalizing on his success, De Vargas embarked on a four-month tour to the Pueblos to show the Indians that Spain had officially returned to New Mexico. De Vargas followed the customary Spanish route through the malpais en route to Zuni and Hopi. On his return trip he encamped at Inscription Rock where he carved into the soft sandstone: "Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas who conquered for our Holy Faith, and for the Royal Crown, all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692." [47] De Vargas did not return to Santa Fe. Instead he veered southeast striking the Rio Grande at Socorro. Traveling to El Paso, he readied a second expedition designed for resettlement of New Mexico.

The reconquest by De Vargas did not terminate Indian resistance. Bloodshed punctuated his return in 1693. The Tano Indians occupied Santa Fe following the overthrow of the Spaniards. De Vargas had to storm the city in order to retake the capital, further proof that the capitulation of New Mexico's Pueblo Indians had been symbolic rather than reality. De Vargas began a six-year sweep in re-establishing Spanish dominion over the natives. [48]

Spain had learned much about her northern province in a century and a half. Coronado and his successors roamed an uncharted wilderness. They had discovered a semi-desert region, poor in precious metals, but rich in human resources. In laying claim to the land and subjugating the inhabitants, Spain stamped an indelible mark on the region that reflects that country's socio-economic contributions.

While the Spanish influenced the people of the region, the Spaniards, in turn, succumbed to the country's dominate geographical patternings. This was self-evident in the case of the malpais. Strategically situated, the malpais lay astride the Spanish travel route linking the Rio Grande Pueblos with the western outposts of the Zunis and Hopis. Despite the indomitable features of the lava beds, the malpais were a veritable oasis. Refreshing waters trapped in the lava, and thick stands of trees offered relief to the weary travelers. The malpais became a favorite resting place for Spanish wayfarers. The malpais springs and caves also attracted local Indians on their travels. Other Indians, such as Navajos and Apaches, who, like the Spanish were interlopers, utilized the malpais resources for their advantage.

At the close of the seventeenth century Spain had not altered its perception of New Mexico. The territory possessed few redeeming characteristics except for the salvation of native souls. Its inhabitants were poor. Spanish settlers were sparse. Economically, New Mexico offered few assets to the homeland. In return, New Mexicans received scant attention from the motherland.

Noted Southwest historian, Adolph F. A. Bandelier, maintained that, "The New Mexico colony was an imperfect lightning-rod for the more renumbered Spanish possessions in Chihuahua and Coahuila." [49] Its pivotal role would be played in protecting the lucrative mines of northern New Spain. New Mexico drained the royal treasury of Spain, but it was a cavity that had to be filled.

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001