The Spanish Frontier in Colorado and New Mexico, 1540-1821 (Chapter 1) (2023)

A Forgotten Kingdom: The Spanish Frontier in Colorado and New Mexico, 1540-1821
BLM Cultural Resources Series (Colorado: No. 29)
The Spanish Frontier in Colorado and New Mexico, 1540-1821 (Chapter 1) (1)

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 thatthe phenomenon of the Aztecs could be repeated. The stories and legendscoming 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 finallyentrapment in a place she soon had no desire to be.

The Spanish Frontier in Colorado and New Mexico, 1540-1821 (Chapter 1) (2)
The Northern Frontier

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

There was truth in Cabeza's stories. The explorerclaimed that he had vaguely heard of Seven Cities of Gold where citizensdined on solid gold platters, the streets were paved in gold and thelowliest resident was covered with riches. There were equally persistentrumors of a civilization far to the south. This was, of course, the Incacivilization, which fellow Spaniards were in the process of looting bythe middle 1530s. [1]

If Cabeza de Vaca stirred the interest of officialsat Mexico City, the exploits of Fray Marcos de Niza were even morethrilling. While Cabeza de Vaca was interesting to Viceroy Mendoza, moreinformation was needed. In 1537 the Bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumarraga,brought to the viceroy's attention a priest named Marcos de Niza. FrayMarcos was an experienced traveller in "America" and, based on hisknowledge, he was permitted to go. In 1538 he was given orders by theviceroy to move north and find out what was there. For this trip theMoorish slave, Estevan, was borrowed from Dorantes, a companion ofCabeza de Vaca's. It was not until 1539 that Marcos and his little groupmoved from Culiacan. Near the River Mayo, Estevan decided he wanted togo on faster than the rest of the group. Fray Marcos never heard fromEl Moro again. Indian tales later indicated that Estevan, a black, sofascinated Indian women that he was killed by jealous native men. FrayMarcos pushed on. He marched up the Sonora Valley into southern Arizonaand then into the area of what was called "Cibola." Marcos had, by now,heard of Estevan's demise. Undaunted, he pushed on to "Cibola." Hedescribed the place only from a distance. However, he stated that it waslarger than Mexico City and that it was "shimmering". He said the houseswere of stone, with terraces and flat roofs. He also noted that he wastold that Cibola was the smallest of the seven cities. Marcos returnedto Mexico City and filed his report. It was Marcos' stories that causedViceroy Mendoza to agree to a full scale expedition.

Marcos got to Arizona. This can be told from hisgeographic descriptions, but what he saw is another matter. Most likely,Fray Marcos did see the pueblos of Zuñi from a distance. They were in noway cities of gold but, in the shimmering summer heat they may haveappeared so. [2]

The Spanish government was interested in thepotential of what was then generally called 'the north' [elnorte]. After the successes of Mexico and Peru, Spain felt thatnorthern New Spain was ready to be added to the empire. On the basis ofboth Marcos de Niza's and Cabeza de Vaca's reports, Mendoza organized amajor expedition into the northern lands. For one of the only times thecrown, upon Mendoza's strong urging, gave limited aid to anexpedition.

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

Coronado marched north and ultimately into the RioGrande valley where he found pueblos of relatively high civilization. Hefound Indians who could weave, were potters and farmers, and who had awell-organized government and religious system. However, there was nosilver or gold, nor were there seven golden cities. Coronado and his mensuffered through a very rough winter of 1540-1541 and, in doingso, demanded so much of the pueblos that they rebelled.

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

By the fall of 1541 the expedition was back in theRio Grande area where they survived yet another winter. An accidentcaused Coronado to become seriously ill, and forced the group back toNew Spain, where no doubt they were glad to be. Thus ended the firstmajor effort to conquer New Mexico. The Spanish found that there wasnothing of value in the land and the fact that they had covered an areafrom Arizona to Kansas confirmed this. But the desire for settlement wasnot ended.

The Coronado expedition answered one thing. There wasno gold nor were there any major cities or civilizations in the north.Spain lost interest in a barren land of mud houses. Other expeditionswere attempted in North America. Prior to the New Mexican expedition,Ponce de Leon attempted to settle Florida while Hernando de Sotoexplored the lower Mississippi. On the Pacific coast, explorers likeCabrillo, Ferrelo and others ranged up to and beyond the Monterey Bayarea and then had quit. By 1543, Spain had seen enough of northern NewSpain to leave it alone. [3]

In 1581 the Rodriguez-Chamuscado expedition workedits way into New Mexico and found nothing. A year later, 1582, anotherexpedition set out for New Mexico. Antonio de Espejo and BernaldinoBeltran organized a party to explore the north and to try and makecontact with missionaries who had remained from the expedition of 1581.The Espejo-Beltran expedition went north into Rio Grande valley and thenonto Zuñi and into the Hopi lands. They returned to Zuñi from which point Espejowent to Pecos and then on to New Spain. Reports were filed andinformation that the expedition had gained stirred some interest atMexico City.

Earlier stories were still prevalent and the tales ofmines from the Espejo-Beltran expedition aroused the imagination ofyounger men, those who had forgotten about Coronado's eye-openingexcursion into the region.

By the late 1500s, the Spanish government was underconsiderable pressure from the Church. Since there were large numbers ofsedentary Indians in the Rio Grande valley, many church officialswondered why they were not being Christianized. The Franciscan ordercaused the government to give New Mexico a second look.

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

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

In 1589 Gaspar Castaño de Sosa took about 170 men,women, and children north, but the group was arrested in New Mexico andreturned to Mexico. In 1593 Francisco Leyva de Bonilla and AntonioGutierres de Humana led a group into the plains of Kansas where theyperished at the hands of each other and the natives. It was not until1595 that someone was chosen to lead the proposed expedition north. Juande Oñate, the son of a wealthy silver miner from Zacatecas wasappointed. The expedition was to be financed by Oñate himself, and heagreed to recruit at least 200 men, to be fully equipped and to be paidby him. He also said that he would take 1,000 head of cattle, 2,000sheep, 1,000 goats, 100 head of black cattle, 150 colts, 150 mares andquantities of flour, corn, jerked beef and sowing wheat along with othersupplies. This too would be paid for by Oñate. The crown would supportfive Franciscan friars, a lay brother, and would furnish severalpieces of artillery and would provide a six-year loan of 6,000 pesos.Also, the crown would grant Oñate the title of Governor, Captain-Generaland, once in the area, adelantado, which gave him power to grantencomienda rights. In this way he rewarded faithfulservants. [4]

In one of few such cases of exploration in the NewWorld, Oñate was to be directly responsible to the Council of the Indiesrather than the viceroy. Despite his appointment in 1595 it was notuntil 1598 that the expedition got under way. At the time, Oñatetechnically had not fulfilled his end of the bargain. He had only 129soldiers, but, he also had 7,000 head of stock. The Church seeing agreat opportunity sent forth eleven Franciscans; eight priests, andthree lay brothers. In July of 1598 Oñate's group reached the ford ofthe Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte where they stopped. The little partyrested a few days and then pushed on across the dreaded Jornada delMuerto to the village of Caypa, which Oñate renamed San Juan de losCaballeros. Later San Gabriel became his headquarters. It was not until1610 that a Spanish capital was finally founded. [5]

Oñate was generally successful in his entradainto New Mexico. He suffered setbacks including Indian revolts, mutinyamong the soldiers and a lack of food, but in the end a colony wasestablished. The colonists who came with him were not prepared for thehardships they suffered and, because of the constant agitation in thesettlements, Oñate was soon in trouble.

His accusers spread rumors of incompetence. Oñatedid what he could to counter the charges. However, New Mexico was inturmoil. As soon as the news reached New Spain that there was trouble inthe settlement, potential settlers changed their minds. Oñate, sufferedconstant political pressure in New Mexico. He attempted to clear hisname by organizing an expedition to "find the south sea." Oñate hopedthat by finding a route to the Pacific he could regain his fortune andprestige.

In 1604 he set out with thirty men and marched to themouth of the Colorado River and the Gulf of California where nothing butprimitive natives were found. Oñate returned as desperate as he hadleft.

By 1606 the fate of New Mexico hung in the balance.The Council of the Indies tried to save the province. Oñate was recalledand a new governor was appointed. Hopefully the new man would be moreinterested in christianization programs. Only the friars wereallowed to make further explorations and the number of soldiers would bereduced 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 NewMexico. In the quest, the Spanish government was able to spend a minimumwhile letting Oñate lose a fortune. It is true that Spain did supportthe colony, but that was quite limited. The settlement of the provincewas hardly an unqualified success since many of the colonists who cameexpected far more than either the government or the land could give. NewMexico was a bad investment on the part of the Spanish, even if it wasat little risk and Mexico City soon knew it. The new settlers had to beprotected from ever-increasingly hostile natives, while the Churchinsisted that recent Indian converts could not be abandoned. The Churchwas a major factor in keeping Spain in the new colony, but so too werethe pitful few settlers. Soldiers who had come to New Mexico weretrapped too. They were given land as colonists and for the first time,some of these people became encomenderos, a prestigious step upin Spanish social hierarchy. To own land, especially anencomienda, was to reach the pinnacle of Spanish society. Nolonger were they commoners, but now they could claim to be hijos dealgo, hidalgos; "sons of someone." New Mexico's land became the lurethat kept settlers there.

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

Prior to this time, the settlers and soldiers livedoff the natives; eating their food, using their clothing, and dwellingin, or beside, their villages. Santa Fe was established as the firstpurely Spanish settlement. A governmental center was set up and aprovince was born.

New Mexico was slow to develop. There was little realprogress in the peopling of the province during this period. By the1630s, Santa Fe had a population of 250 Europeans. By the end of thecentury overall numbers of Spaniards increased to several thousand. While theSpanish engaged in cattle and sheep raising, along with subsistenceagriculture, the Church was far busier. The Franciscans had placed inthe field twelve missionaries who served 50,000 Indians. [7]

The Spanish in New Mexico were unable to make thecolony prosper as expected. Any trade that New Mexico enjoyed was withParral [Mexico] and was mainly in sheep, wool, and salt. Such weak tradewas further complicated by the system of caravans that ran between SantaFe and Chihuahua City. The Franciscans operated this trade up tomid-century and were the ones who decided what would be shipped to andfrom New Mexico. This was a major point of friction between Churchofficials and the government. [8]

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

It is commonly known that one of the key causes forthe Revolt of 1680 was the repression of native religion. The friars sawthese manifestations as signs of paganism, while the government rarelyworried about heathenism. The Franciscans were frequently enraged by thelack of cooperation of officials which only caused more friction.Meanwhile, Pueblo medicine men, who lost their dominant position, workedsecretly to regain influence. This continual clash of two vastlydifferent cultures was bound to produce war. [9]

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

Finally, in 1680 the fury burst upon New Mexico. OnAugust 9, 1680 a chief from La Cienega sent word tomaestre de campo Francisco Gomez Robledo that therewould be a revolt throughout the province. Gomez ordered the arrest oftwo chieftains, Catua and Omtua, suspecting that they were deeplyinvolved. Word of the arrests spread throughout the pueblos and onAugust 10th, Pope raised the banner of rebellion.

Indians struck from all directions. At Taos twofriars were slaughtered in their church and articles of the Catholicfaith were burned. The revolt moved south spreading death anddestruction everywhere. Four hundred Spaniards lost their lives in theinitial uprising. Survivors fled to Santa Fe hoping to find shelter inthe capital. Indians surrounded the city and by August 15th all thatremained of the glorious conquest of 1598 was the besieged town of SantaFe.

Governor Antonio Otermin faced two courses of action.He could surrender or he could fight the thousands of Indians aroundhim. The Indians cut off Santa Fe, first by breaking the water supplyand then by preventing all food shipments into the town. As theSpaniards huddled in Santa Fe they suffered horribly under the brilliantAugust sun.

On August 20th the Spanish ventured forth in anattempt to escape. Luck was with them. The Indians were caught offguard, and the beleaguered people of Santa Fe were able to make goodtheir escape. Thus began the long march south to the tiny village of ElPaso del Norte. New Mexico was abandoned to the Indians. [10]

The natives gloried in their success. Their hatred ofthe Spanish caused every vestige of the foreign culture to be stampedout. Houses of settlers were looted and burned, horses and cattle wereconfiscated. 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 takenChristian Indian wives were expelled, and the names of God and the HolyVirgin were not mentioned.

The pueblos returned to their own culture. Newestufas (underground meeting chambers) were built and "pagan"ceremonies openly resumed. However, the natives, not noted for theircooperation, 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 amatter of months. Realizing the situation, the Spanish thought it mightbe 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 theloss to Mexico City, he prepared to recover the the land.

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

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

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

Cruzate was temporarily replaced by Pedro Reneros dePosada in 1686, but returned to El Paso as governor of New Mexico in1688. From that city he led an expedition against Zia where he engagedthe natives of that pueblo and killed an unspecified number of them.However, he had insufficient manpower and, without reinforcements, hehad to fall back to El Paso once again.

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

The Spanish Frontier in Colorado and New Mexico, 1540-1821 (Chapter 1) (3)
Antonio de Otermín


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

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

3 For brief descriptions of thesevarious expeditions see: John F. Bannon, The Spanish BorderlandsFrontier, 1513-1821 (New York, 1970). The Coronado expedition isdescribed in: George Winship, The Journey Of Coronado, 1542-1544(New York, 1904); George Hammond and Agapito Rey, Narratives of theCoronado Expedition (Albuquerque, 1940); Herbert E. Bolton,Coronado, Knight of Pueblos and Plains (New York, 1949); A. GroveDay, 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 Juande Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 (Albuquerque,1953). 2 vols.

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

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

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

8 See: France V. Scholes, "The SupplySystem of the Early New Mexico Missions," New Mexico HistoricalReview, V (January, April and October, 1930).

9 Descriptions of New Mexico duringthe seventeenth century are to be found in the indicated volumes of theNew Mexico Historical Review: France V. Scholes, "Problems in theEarly 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 NewMexico, 1659-1670," XII (April, October, 1937), 134-174, 380-452, andXIII (January, 1938), 63-84, and XV (July, October, 1940), 249-268, andXVI (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 ofEl Paso," Southwestern Historical Quarterly, XVI (October, 1912),137-168 and (January, 1913), 259-276. Also see: Anne E. Hughes, TheBeginnings 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 StateHistorical Association Quarterly, XV (October, 1911), 93-147; andHackett, Revolt of the Pueblo Indians Of New Mexico and Otermin'sAttempted Reconquest, 1680-1682 (2 vols., Albuquerque, 1942).

11 Bannon, The SpanishBorderlands Frontier, pp. 85-87.

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