For my cousins, growing up in New England, American history began with the Pilgrims and settlement at Jamestown. But for me, growing up in New Mexico, history began with the 16th century Spanish Conquest and the drive up into New Mexico territory followed, a century later, by the Pueblo Revolt. The history of the United States is not only the history of the English and French colonists but also of the 16th century Spanish incursions into Mexico and the American southwest and their engagements with the native peoples already inhabiting these regions. All of this has been brought to my mind since during the fall we commemorate National Hispanic Heritage Month and National Indian American Heritage Month.
The Spanish conquistadors first arrived in what became New Mexico territory in 1540 led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. However, the first permanent Spanish settlements in New Mexico did not occur until the end of the 16th century. In 1595 King Philip II of Spain granted Juan de Onate permission to settle and explore the New Mexico region. In 1598, Juan de Onate proceeded from Mexico to the land that would become New Mexico and attempted to establish a permanent settlement. Onate, like many of the Spanish conquistadors, was mainly interested in finding mineral wealth. However, Franciscan missionaries accompanied him and began to establish missions and churches and to convert the Pueblo Indians. The importance of continuing this work led the Spanish crown to continue funding the New Mexico settlements even after it was clear there were no fabulous mines or cities of gold to be found. In 1607, the governor of the province, Don Pedro de Peralta, established La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís, more commonly known as Santa Fe, and in 1610 it was designated the capitol of the region.
But Spanish rule in the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México was heavy handed. In 1599, a group of soldiers under Juan de Onate was sent to the Acoma Pueblo to punish them for the killing of 12 Spanish soldiers. Over 600 Acoma dwellers were captured and many of them mutilated as punishment. Onate was disciplined for this overly cruel behavior, but the Spanish still exploited the Pueblos. Under the system of encomienda, the Pueblos were forced to contribute a portion of their crops each year to the Spanish government and religious missions while under repartimiento, the Pueblo people were forced to work in Spanish households without pay. However, the greatest tension between the Spanish and the Pueblo Indians was the forcible conversion to Christianity and the supression of native religious practices. Add to these several years of drought and famine in the 1660s and 1670s and stir in a charismatic leader, Po’Pay, and in 1680 the Pueblos rose up and successfully pushed the Spanish out of New Mexico for over a decade.
Not much is known about the leader of the revolt, Po’Pay, known to the Spanish as Popé. The book, Po’Pay: Leader of the First American Revolution, identifies him as an Indian from Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo). He is first heard of during the 1670s when the Spanish rounded up a group of local religious leaders and brought them to Santa Fe for trial. Several of those arrested were hanged and the others whipped. Tension between the Spanish and Pueblos grew stronger after this incident and the Tewa leaders, including Po’Pay, made plans for a general uprising of the Pueblos against the Spanish.
The Revolt was scheduled to begin on August 11. The Spanish learned of the plot on August 9th but despite this setback, the Pueblos advanced their plans and launched attacks against the Spanish on August 10, 1680. The Indians laid siege to Santa Fe, which held out until September 21, 1680 when the Indians allowed the colonists to retreat south into Mexico. A letter from the then governor of the province, Don Antonio de Otermin, written on September 8, 1680, details the first part of the revolt.
The letter provides the Spanish perspective on the uprising with the governor stating such an event was wholly unexpected given the existing peaceful conditions:
I received information that a plot for a general uprising of the Christian Indians was being formed and was spreading rapidly. This was wholly contrary to the existing peace and tranquility in this miserable kingdom, not only among the Spaniards and natives, but even on the part of the heathen enemy, for it had been a long time since they had done us any considerable damage. This letter also makes it clear that despite the advance warning the Spanish had of the uprising, their response was inept.
By September 21, the governor was forced to withdraw from Santa Fe to El Paso:
Because we now found ourselves with very few provisions for so many people, and without hope of human aid, considering that our not having heard in so many days from the people on the lower river would be because of their all having been killed, like the others in the kingdom, or at least of their being or having been in dire straits, with the view of aiding them and joining with them into one body, so as to make the decisions most conducive to his Majesty’s service, on the morning of the next day, Monday, I set out for La Isleta, where I judged the said comrades on the lower river would be … we went as far as the pueblo of La Alameda, where we learned from an old Indian whom we found in a maizefield that the lieutenant general with all the residents of his jurisdictions had left some fourteen or fifteen days before to return to El Paso to meet the wagons.
It took 12 years before the Spanish were able to reoccupy Santa Fe and the surrounding territory. During those 12 years there were several punitive expeditions against the Pueblos as well as offers to negotiate – in 1683 the Picuris Pueblo sent an emissary to Governor Otermin offering aid in the Spanish reentry in exchange for peace and an agreement not to kill the natives or burn their homes. However, the Spanish continued to launch punitive expeditions against the Pueblos – attacking Santa Ana in 1687 and Zia in 1689. Finally in 1692, a new governor, Diego de Vargas left El Paso on route to Santa Fe. After surrounding the town with his army and two cannons, the Indians agreed to negotiate and De Vargas was able to reclaim Santa Fe without a fight. Despite this, there were two subsequent revolts against Spanish rule in 1694 and 1696 – both of which were crushed by De Vargas. Moreover, although the friars had returned with De Vagas, the forced labor practices and aggressive suppression of native religion did not. During the 1700s, the Spanish and Pueblo peoples began to live together in greater harmony and in 1820, the Pueblos were granted equal citizenship in the province. The leader of the 1680 rebellion, Po’Pay is commemorated in the Capitol’s National Statutory Hall – the second statute given by New Mexico.