Saturday, January 24, 1998
History Unkind to Colonization Leader
Juan de Oñate came to New Mexico seeking honor; instead he lost his money and titles and was reviled by his followers
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
The man who colonized New Mexico has gone down in history as an insignificant footnote.
Lost in the sea of more daring adventurers -- true conquistadores like Cortez, De Soto, Coronado and Cabeza de Vaca -- Juan de Oñate is unknown in Spain, uncelebrated in Mexico and only a murky memory in the land he claimed for the crown.
When a sculptor set out to memorialize Oñate in a bronze that would sit in the northern New Mexico territory of Onate's first settlement, he was forced to go on instinct and paintings of Don Diego de Vargas, another more memorable emissary from Spain. No drawings or written descriptions of Oñate existed.
One of the explorer's direct descendants in Spain, Madrid lawyer Manuel Guillón y Oñate, remembers no mention of his ancestor in Spanish history classes and found precious little information available when he embarked on a personal quest as an adult. "History," his ancestor says, "does not treat Oñate very well."
And historian Marc Simmons, who chose Oñate as the subject of a biography in 1991, was stung by the indifference generated by the Oñate name. "It was a flop," Simmons admits. "It went nowhere."
Before he gave up lecturing about early New Mexico history to high school and college classes, Simmons used to make a point of polling students on their knowledge of Oñate.
"No one," he said, "had ever heard of him. And this is in New Mexico."
New World developer
Oñate was not a renegade risking his life for riches, nor a conquering soldier, nor an adventurer galloping toward the unknown. He was a businessman, a rich scion of a silver-mining family, whose primary quest was for honor and title -- the twin hungers he could quench only through service to the Spanish king.
Oñate came north to New Mexico years after the myth of glittering cities of gold had been discounted and after the Spanish government had ceased allowing pillaging expeditions by maverick conquistadores.
His arrangement with the Spanish crown was that of a contract developer. Using his own fortune and money he borrowed to fund the expedition, his job was to subdue native people through conversion to Catholicism and to give Spain a foothold for exploration in the New World. His reward, in addition to the coveted titles, would be a share of tax revenue the new kingdom would produce.
Ten years after the first wooden wagon wheel turned northward, Oñate was out of money and patience and took a quill to ink to write his resignation letter.
Historian Thomas A. Chávez, director of the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, sums up Oñate's decade as governor in terms most New Mexicans can understand. The governor, Chávez says, "did a pretty half-assed job."
Oñate and his wagon train arrived in the new lands nearly out of supplies and just in time for the end of a summer of drought followed by a long, cold winter.
At San Juan Pueblo, so named by Oñate and the Franciscans after St. John the Baptist, little remains of the original Spanish settlement. Colonists' quarters have been covered by centuries of river silt. The original church, put up within weeks of the Spaniards' arrival, is long gone.
Herman Agoyo, a member of the pueblo's tribal council, understands why the Spaniards chose to change history in this place. The view 400 years ago was not obscured by the cottonwoods and salt cedars that hug the riverbank today, and attackers would have to cross the river to reach the colonists.
When Agoyo pictures the moment Oñate and his lieutenants rode into the village, in velvet and armor and trailing horses and wagons, he does not imagine relief on the part of the Spaniards at completing their journey, only the fear that must have overcome the Indian villagers.
"You're looking at horses, armor and guns," says Agoyo, an employee of the tribe's real estate office. "It had to be overwhelming."
Eight friars, two lay brothers, 129 men and several dozen women and children made the trip in 80 wagons. Although the men arrived in fighting gear, the Indians mounted no defense.
Instead of a battle, the settlers were immediately distracted by disappointment. Although their stated mission was the arduous task of building a colony, the people who had thrown their lot with Oñate had expected to find more than dust and hard work at the end of the trail.
Only days after their arrival, Oñate faced down a mutiny attempt by about half the settlers.
Oñate explained the problem in a letter to the viceroy. The settlers, he said, "in anger at not finding bars of silver on the ground right away and resentful because I did not allow them to abuse the natives either in their persons or property, became dissatisfied with the land, or rather with me."
It took the execution of two of the mutiny's ringleaders to quell the uprising.
Desperate to justify his existence and pacify his party, he rode great distances east and west, from present-day Kansas to California, searching for silver, gold, pearls and salt. Oñate was not tilting at windmills: His father had explored similar territory in northern Mexico for the Spanish king and been rewarded with the richest silver mines in the new world.
But Oñate did not find silver on his travels. Instead, he ranged through Indian lands, demanding, as was his mission, their allegiance to his king. In battles with the Acomas, who refused subordination, he lost 11 soldiers and two servants, killed hundreds of Indians and punished 24 with amputation of a foot.
Three years after arriving, Oñate had this to show for his risk and investment: A church at San Juan Pueblo, a debilitated army, angry pueblo neighbors and about two dozen hungry, cold and disenchanted colonists. The rest had decided to put an end to their part of the miserable colonization effort and had headed back down the Camino Real.
In 1953, the University of New Mexico Press published a hefty two-volume collection of English translations of correspondence regarding the Oñate entrada. Although the reports are centuries old, they read like a modern tale of a crumbling political empire and a failing man desperate to hold it together.
From frustrated Franciscan priests to colonists worried about the welfare of their wives and children, the accounts all point the finger of blame at Oñate.
Fray Juan de Escalona wrote to the viceroy in New Spain, what is now Mexico, in 1601, to report on the sorry condition of the settlement. "The governor has oppressed his people so that they are all discontented and anxious to get away," he wrote.
The settlement, Capt. Gregorio Céssar echoed, "is lacking in everything essential to support human life."
Céssar had cause to worry. He had brought his wife and seven children along. Bedbugs, lice, snow and wind combined to sap the settlers of their enthusiasm. They hated New Mexico, describing it as "eight months of winter and four months of hell."
Not only the settlers were dissatisfied. The Franciscans found the pueblo people increasingly unwilling to consent to baptism by newcomers who continued to demand food, clothing and labor.
Even though he had spent months away from the settlement on forays into the New World, Oñate as the governor was held accountable for the manner in which the colony was subsisting on the backs of the natives.
"From the time he came here to the moment of this statement," Fray Francisco de San Miguel reported, "his conscience has ever been disturbed by the mistreatment of these natives. The fact is that in order to induce the Indians to furnish corn for food, it has been necessary to torture the chieftains, even hanging and killing them. We find ourselves in extreme need of food and see the natives starving to death, eating whatever filth there is in the fields, even the twigs from the trees, dirt, coal and ashes."
Escalon concluded that it was impossible to save souls under the circumstances: "We cannot preach the gospel now," he wrote, "for it is despised by these people on account of our great offenses and the harm we have done them."
Oñate did not resist the temptation to escape the increasingly troubled colony at San Juan and search for silver. He roamed as far as present-day Kansas, the Grand Canyon and the Gulf of California, weighing down his saddlebags with ore samples and describing in reports to New Spain the great promise of mineral wealth held by the mountains of Nuevo México and the abundant herds of buffalo on the great plains to the east.
"He was out exploring," says historian Chávez. "He wasn't taking care of the colony."
With most of the men -- 50 at a time -- gone from the small colony for months on end, there was no one to build houses, farm or gather firewood.
Colonists lived in houses abandoned by the Indians and fed themselves from the pueblo's stores of corn.
Oñate returned from each expedition to a poorer, more fractured community.
"When things started falling apart," says Chávez, "he kind of panicked. He became kind of brutal. He lost control."
Faith in crown
Oñate's considerable pride would have no doubt been wounded by the prospect of obscurity and defeat in the winter of 1597-1598 as he camped on the banks of the Rio Concho in what is now northern Mexico, awaiting permission to travel north.
Already delayed for two years by political wranglings and quickly losing his fortune to the upkeep of an army of stranded colonists, Oñate was 46 years old, a rich man, and accustomed to accomplishment, not frustration.
Although he had been born in New Spain and had never set foot on the European fatherland, Oñate was a true Spaniard, devoted to the church and king and the expansion of the empire.
Whatever else Oñate believed, he had unsinkable faith in the importance of his mission.
Upon embarking with 80 carts and several hundred people trailing him northward in January 1598, he penned a letter to the king.
"I trust to God," he wrote, "that what I am pursuing will be of great consequence."
His reports to the viceroy and the king continued to paint promising pictures even when his assaying turned up poor silver ore and his foray to the Gulf of California did not return pearls.
Four years after the colonists and priests sent their letters -- and seven years into the settlement -- support from above also eroded.
The viceroy in New Spain collected the reports of starvation and torture, weighed them with Oñate's predictions of imminent discoveries of great lands and great riches, and recommended to the king that Oñate be dismissed and the settlement be allowed to disband.
"I cannot help but to inform your majesty that this conquest is becoming a fairy tale," viceroy Marquis de Montesclaros told the king. "Less substance is being revealed every day."
In the return mail came the king's order to recall Oñate. Two years later followed the order to suspend the discovery and exploration of New Mexico.
Oñate took it upon himself to resign, and in his letter to the viceroy in 1607 he did not hide his feelings of betrayal by the crown he had pledged to serve:
"As far as I am concerned, matters have moved in such a way that my feelings have been greatly hurt, in view of the fact that those who fled from this camp have gone entirely unpunished."
Defeated, Oñate blamed "the devil" for his string of setbacks.
"Unable to overcome my zeal and good purpose," he wrote, "(the devil) has exhausted my resources and I find myself unable to explore any further at a moment when the reports are most promising and encouraging."
Spain did not abandon New Mexico when it abandoned Oñate. Buoyed by sudden reports from the priests that some 7,000 natives had been baptized, in 1609 Spain replaced Oñate with a new governor, Pedro de Peralta. New Mexico went on to become an important piece of Spanish real estate in the new world.
The foundation, however crumbling it seemed at the beginning of the 17th century, had been laid, and Oñate gets the credit -- or the blame -- for setting the ball in motion.
Put on trial and convicted of a number of charges, including cruelty at Acoma, he was stripped of his titles and ordered never to return to New Mexico. Oñate spent the rest of his life trying to rehabilitate his reputation and reclaim titles so he could pass them on to his grandson.
Saturday, January 31, 1998
Oñate Anniversary a Painful Event for Acomas
Some say the trials of colonization should be remembered, but
the pueblo will not take part in the observation
Spanish Chroniclers Tell Different Tales
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
ACOMA PUEBLO -- The wind blows on the top of the rock, and black ravens circle like sentinels. It seems in the silence of a winter day like a perfect fortress, high, steep and alone, hundreds of feet above the surrounding desert. It was not impenetrable, though.
Over there, Spanish soldiers sent by colonizer Juan de Oñate scrambled up a side and began to wage war. Here, on the steepest northern edge of the rock, Acomas fell to their deaths.
All around, blood soaked the yellowing sandstone.
Historians and Spanish and Indian descendants continue to debate whether it was a legitimate war among equals or a vengeful massacre of the weak by the strong. But by all accounts, the three-day battle at Acoma village in 1599 was a gory, smoky marathon of sword play, rage and cannon fire -- a fight to the finish 367 rocky feet above the desert floor.
And four centuries later, it is not forgotten.
Chris Garcia, a guide who takes tourists through the old Acoma village, known as Sky City, makes a point of showing visitors the steep cliff where some accounts of the battle describe Acoma men being gored and thrown off.
He tells of the trial held by the Spanish weeks later and the punishment of slavery and the amputation of a foot for each of 24 Acoma men.
"We should not commemorate a man," Garcia says, "who tried to destroy my people."
It is obvious, though, that Acoma was not destroyed. Men and women escaped from slavery and returned to the rock to start over. Evidence of their survival is in the pueblo's stone government buildings, in the school where children learn the Keresan language of their ancestors and in the shiny new buses that take tourists to the top of the old Acoma village.
Acoma is a traditional pueblo where decisions are still made by religious leaders inside the kiva, and tribal business is rarely discussed with outsiders. It faces unparalleled scrutiny this year, as New Mexicans mark the 400th year of European influence, and the attention is an unwelcome intrusion.
Pueblo officials today will not talk about the battle or the punishments of slavery and amputation, and the pueblo has no plans at this time to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the expedition that led to one of the darkest chapters in the pueblo's long history.
The pueblo's former governor, Ron Shutiva, wanted to use the 400th anniversary to call attention to the pueblo's survival. He proposed inviting President Clinton and the king and queen of Spain to the pueblo, not to complain about past events but to reaffirm that Acoma is alive and independent today.
While many tribal members liked the idea, others thought it would stir up painful memories or be misinterpreted as an acceptance of the events of 400 years ago. The idea was dropped last year. Shutiva, who served three years as governor before being replaced last
December by the pueblo's caciques, or religious leaders, still believes the pueblo should not sit silently this year.
"It needs to be known," says Shutiva. "There's no way to turn back that hand of time. You can't change what happened. Maybe we just need to acknowledge that those things did happen and that is it."
He has joined Albuquerque's committee coordinating events to honor the 400 years of Spanish presence in New Mexico.
Shutiva, a 44-year-old businessman and a kiva leader at the pueblo, remembers no mention of the battle or the amputation punishment when his elders told him stories when he was a child.
"Maybe we were too proud to talk about punishment and to talk about defeat," he says. "But it needs to be told so that my kids, my grandkids know their true origins, their history."
Legacy of pain
From the Spanish soldiers' perspective, the battle was a fair and declared war. They had claimed New Mexico for the king of Spain and, in their view, the Acomas sparked a war when they killed 13 members of a Spanish scouting party.
To the Acomas, it was a massacre, unjust retribution for the Acomas' refusal to hand over food and supplies to the invading Spanish.
Official correspondence of the expedition shows that Oñate used Acoma as an example to surrounding pueblos. He would raze and burn the Indians' greatest fortress and divide its people, teaching a lesson in obedience to the Indians.
At battle's end in 1599, the surviving woman and children were taken into slavery by the Spanish. The surviving 24 men were put on trial by the Spanish, found guilty of war crimes and each sentenced to 20 years slavery and the amputation of a foot.
The foot, 400 years later, has become a symbol of the brutality of the Spanish-Indian encounter. Late last year when vandals defaced New Mexico's only statue of Oñate, a large bronze at the Oñate Center in Alcalde, they cut off its foot. The preliminary design for an Oñate artwork that the city of Albuquerque is paying for includes pairs of moccasins, with one shoe symbolically missing.
Oñate's actions seem, in history's hindsight, to have been without conscience, although brutal punishment was the reality of 16th century Spain.
"I think we have to consider him in terms of what conditions were 400 years ago, not in terms of today," says Estevan Arellano, director of the Oñate Center. "I'm not defending what he did at Acoma, but it was different then."
'Need for reconciliation'
The issue is difficult for New Mexicans of Spanish descent as well as for Acomas.
Antonio Trujillo grew up in the village of San Rafael in Cibola County, less than 30 miles from the rock where his Spanish ancestors did battle with the ancestors of his Acoma friends and classmates. Today, he is 39 and the Catholic priest who serves the three churches at Acoma. He celebrates Mass every Wednesday in the big adobe church the Acomas were forced to build by the Spanish friars after they returned to Sky City.
"Of all of the pueblos, Acoma had the most atrocities against them," says Trujillo. "There's a lot of emotion, and it shows there is a need for reconciliation. When there isn't reconciliation, we become prisoners. We become caught in the past."
Before the idea of commemoration activities was dropped, Trujillo worked with former governor Shutiva to involve the church. He still feels the year should not pass without some gesture of apology by a representative of people of Spanish descent or the Catholic Church.
Standing around a bonfire with kiva leaders outside the church on Sky City last Christmas Eve, Trujillo began to think about the possibility of reconciling one person at a time.
"There were atrocities, and we should never forget those atrocities because they can always be repeated," Trujillo says. "We need to say we did do those things, and we're sorry and ask forgiveness. I would like to apologize, personally. I want this reconciliation. All cultures are here to stay, like it or not. What are we going to do to live together?"
As matriarch of the pueblo's antelope clan, 66-year-old Velma Chino is the tribe's chief religious woman, the mother of all Acomas.
Avoiding debate or blame this year, she prefers to retell the Acoma story of the creation of the world.
In the beginning, the story says, the creator made two women, sisters. One stood close to the rising sun and turned dark skinned. She would be the mother of the Indian people. The other was shielded from the sun's rays and stayed light skinned. She would be the mother of non-Indians. Chino remembers the story whenever history of the battle with the Spanish begins to cloud relationships today.
"I've got two Spanish son-in-laws, and I love them dearly," Chino says.
"We should not just look at the differences. We should just continue living in harmony and peace. We truly are brothers and sisters.
"I see some of what is happening this year, and I think we should not fight. Our mother would not like it."
Chino's son, television newsman Conroy Chino, is also a member of the antelope clan and a pueblo cacique. He has protested the use of public money to pay for a statue of Oñate, but in a speech at the Roundhouse last week to kick off the state's 400th anniversary activities, he counseled New Mexicans to remember Oñate's deeds but not to be bound by them.
"We should use this time to draw on one another for emotional support, bridge our worlds and replenish that spiritual bond between us," he said. "We may have been enemies 400 years ago, but now our only enemies should be racism, prejudice and ignorance."
The Journal is publishing a biweekly series of history articles to commemorate the settlement of New Mexico by Juan de Oñate in 1598. This one covers the expeditions of Espejo in 1582 and Castaño de Sosa in 1590.
By Miguel Encinias
For the Journal
Antonio de Espejo came to New Spain with Chief Inquisitor Pedro Moya de Contreras, who had come to the viceroyalty of Mexico to establish a separate Inquisition for the New World.
But Espejo and his brother Pedro de Espejo soon developed wanderlust and headed to the northern frontier, where they became fairly wealthy cattle ranchers.
After making their fortune, the Espejo brothers became implicated in a killing, after an argument with a cowboy employee. Pedro, who had actually done the killing in a gunfight, was jailed. Antonio was assessed a fine, which he refused to pay.
Instead he fled even further north to the remote mining outposts near San Bartolome.
There he met members of the returning Rodriguez-Chamuscado expedition, a small group of soldiers and friars that explored New Mexico in 1581.
The returning soldiers expressed concern about the friars who had stayed behind at a pueblo near Albuquerque.
The Franciscans at San Bartolome demanded a rescue mission. They became impatient with delays in such a mission being planned by the viceroy and attempted to get permission for one of their own from their superior in Durango.
Permission did not materialize, but a permit of sorts was obtained from an alcalde mayor of a small frontier town.
Espejo, who was helping organize the mission and paying expenses, became the leader, but without portfolio, because the expedition was illegal.
A small band accompanied by only one friar, Bernardino Beltran, left San Bartolome on Nov. 1, 1582. They followed what had by now become the usual route to the Conchos River, then headed on to the Rio Del Norte (Rio Grande).
After crossing the river, the group continued on northward to the Tiguex area, near present-day Bernalillo, where they looked for traces of friars Francisco Lopez and Agustin Rodriguez.
Not finding any trace, they visited the Keres Pueblos, then headed west to Zuni and Hopi lands, going as far as Oraibe. The group returned to the Galisteo basin, then headed to Pecos and finally entered Humano territory on the east slope of the Manzano Mountains.
After crossing the mountains back to the river, they headed home, reaching San Bartolomé on Sept. 10, 1583.
The quick, but thorough, exploration inspired a flurry of curiosity about the much-explored and still-intriguing north land, but it would be seven years before another group made the trek.
Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, lieutenant governor of Nuevo Leon, was the first to move when the governor Luis de Carbajal was arrested by the newly established Inquisition. Castaño, with the entire town of Almaden, his headquarters, started moving north.
Castaño had become discontented with Nuevo Leon because it had not produced the expected wealth.
This and the recurring dream of the great cities to the north moved him to action after a perfunctory attempt to get official permission.
The good-sized train composed of women and children left on July 27, 1590, intercepting the Rio del Norte in the general area of modern Del Rio, Mexico. They crossed the river and started looking for the Rio Salado (Pecos River).
They floundered in ravines, canyons and mountains in the unimaginably rough terrain until they found the river, but they could not get to it because it was in an inpenetrably deep canyon.
The travellers went on for three weeks with the river in sight before they were able to use its waters.
They followed along the east bank changing sides frequently, depending on the terrain.
Castaño sent his second-in-command, Cristobal de Heredia, ahead to look for the pueblos. When he returned, he reported having reached Pecos, where he received a good reception at first, but when the Spaniards got careless, they were attacked, and barely escaped with their lives.
When they returned half-starved, Castaño decided to go see for himself with 20 of his men. Upon his arrival Dec. 31, the natives refused to come out, so Castaño attacked, capturing some of them to use as guides. He went on to the vicinity of San Juan, then returned to the main body of the expedition, leading it to the Galisteo valley, where he left it while he went back to Pecos with 19 men. This time he was received in a friendlier fashion.
Having in his mind established Spanish authority, he rejoined the train and headed for Santo Domingo. He was planning to send some of his men back to New Spain for reinforcements, but a bad surprise awaited him, which would change his plans and his life.
Miguel Encinias is an Albuquerque historian. His novel, "Two Lives for Oñate," was published this year by the University of New Mexico Press.
Copyright © 1997, 1998 Albuquerque Journal
Sunday, June 21, 1998
The Journal is publishing a biweekly series
of history articles to commemorate the settlement of New Mexico
by Juan de Oñate in 1598. This one covers Oñate's
entrance into northern New Mexico in June and July 1598.
By Miguel Encinias
For the Journal
Juan de Oñate returned to his small group of scouts camped near what is now San Marcial in Socorro County after trying with limited results to settle discontent in the main body of the expedition, which was approaching from the south.
Oñate and his party -- his nephews Vicente and Juan de Zaldivar, Father Alonso Martinez and Capitán Diego de Zubia -- didn't wait and resumed the northward trek.
The light party arrived at the pueblo of Teypana on June 14, 1598, where they received a most gracious welcome.
Chief Letoc was not only very generous with his corn, but he also provided the Spaniards with valuable information about the land and people up ahead.
In gratitude they named the pueblo "Socorro," or "help," a name the village has today.
Four leagues of travel took them to a pueblo they baptized Nueva Sevilla. There, a halt was called while the Zaldivar brothers explored the area of Abo, to the northeast.
On June 21, after another short leg, they arrived at a newly built pueblo they named San Juan Bautista. The natives had abandoned it so quickly that they left behind a large store of maize and many art objects.
Oñate and his party camped at the pueblo, and for recreation conducted the "Moros y Cristianos" pageant.
Curiosity brought the natives back to watch the mock battle of "Moors and Christians." Among them was an Indian who went up to Oñate and recited the words "jueves, viernes, sabado, domingo" -- the Spanish words for Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
The Spaniards did not know what to make of it, feeling that perhaps the man was mocking them. The native said no more until he saw that the newcomers were getting angry.
Then he uttered two more words -- "Tomas, Cristobal" -- and pointed north.
The Spaniards soon understood from others who joined the strange conversation that the names referred to two Indians who had come from Mexico with Gaspar Castaño de Sosa and had stayed behind when the renegade explorer was taken back in chains by Juan de Morlete.
Oñate was so elated at the news -- which meant that he would have two good interpreters -- that he decided to hurry on to Puaray, a large pueblo in the area of modern Bernalillo hoping to find them there.
When he arrived at Puaray on the June 27, he was told the would-be interpreters were living at Guipui (Santo Domingo). When Captain Zubia found the two Mexican Indians they were in bed, but they went willingly to meet Oñate at Puaray, with a purpose.
They told the general that they were married, had children and were not willing to go back to New Spain.
The governor told them he had no intention to force them to go back, but only needed their help in getting to know the area natives better.
After visiting Zia and San Felipe pueblos, Oñate convoked a council at Santo Domingo of the seven chiefs he had already met so they could pledge allegiance to the Spanish king.
Next on the itinerary was Bove, which the Spanish named San Ildefonso, and San Marcos.
On July 11 the tiny troop reached Okhe, which Oñate would name San Juan de los Caballeros because of the gentlemen he encountered there. It was near San Juan that he would establish his capital.
As Gaspar de Villagrá says in his epic poem, "Historia de la Nueva Mexico": "At the end of adventures and events and times of sorrow, misadventures too, happy and in great pleasure (they) did arrive at a fine pueblo, well laid out, to which they gave the name San Juan, and 'de los caballeros.' ... Here all the Indians with pleasure did share their houses with our folk. And when, all lodged and settled down, we were endeavoring to be good neighbors."
Copyright ©1998 Albuquerque Journal