Oñate & Initial Spanish Colonization

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The King’s 1583 decree for the settlement of New Mexico was a call for a wealthy individual to step up and finance the enterprise. Juan de Oñate was not the only nobleman to put in a bid for the position of colonizer, but he was one of the best connected. By the 1580s, his family had a strong reputation in the northern frontier of New Spain. His father, Cristóbal, had been a partner of Diego de Ibarra and two other Basques in the foundation of the prosperous Zacatecas mines. Additionally, Juan established his own reputation as an able leader during the costly Chichimeca Wars of the 1550s through the 1580s. In that capacity Oñate also displayed a pronounced aptitude for violence against the various nomadic peoples who refused to recognize Spanish dominance.

Juan de Oñate atop his horse
Equestrian statue of Juan de Oñate, First Governor of New Mexico. Statues of Oñate in New Mexico and Texas have been a source of controversy in recent years due to his highly contested historical legacy.
Courtesy of Advanced Source Productions

Viceroy Luís de Velasco had campaigned alongside Oñate in several skirmishes during the long years of conflict with indigenous peoples. Due to that prior connection, in 1592 Velasco called on him to step in as the official founder of San Luís Potosí because the actual founder was not a man of nobility. Oñate’s marriage to Isabel de Tolosa Cortés Moctezuma also enhanced his political, economic, and social standing. She was the granddaughter of Hernán Cortés and Isabel Moctezuma, a daughter of the last Aztec emperor. Thus, Oñate’s family and experiences as a young man attuned him to all of the complexities and paradoxes created by the Spanish conquest of New Spain and made him an excellent candidate to lead a new colonizing expedition.

Finally, in September of 1595, Oñate formalized a contract with Viceroy Velasco that authorized him to take control of New Mexico in the name of the King and the Catholic Church. The contract designated him as Governor and adelantado (a title left over from the Iberian Reconquista of an earlier generation). As was typically the case in such arrangements, Oñate agreed to bear the venture’s economic costs. In this way, Spanish Kings had expanded the size of their empire with minimal investment and risk. Oñate willingly took on the burden in exchange for the promised titles, concessions, and honors that would come with the governorship. Additionally, he agreed to lead exploration missions to locate coasts and ports, as well as the fabled Strait of Anián, rumored to be a water passage that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Such missions were intended to complete the geographic picture of North America and to discover whether New Mexico was near enough the Pacific to be a trade station for Asian spices. Success would enhance the prestige of Oñate’s yet-to-be-colonized province.

In order to comply with the 1573 Colonization Laws, ten Franciscans were assigned to the entrada as well. Their presence highlighted the close ties between the Spanish government and the Catholic Church, as well as the idea that missionary work promoted pacification of indigenous peoples and that it prevented the violent excesses that had been a hallmark of the Coronado expedition, among others.

Oñate agreed to provision and arm two-hundred soldier-colonists and their families, and he proposed to set out for Santa Bárbara the following spring. Due to administrative delays and other setbacks, however, the group’s supplies dwindled while they waited for official authorization to initiate the journey. Under such circumstances, some of the would-be colonists abandoned the mission. When the entrada finally set out from the small mining outpost in the spring of 1598 it was probably composed of about five hundred people (including women and children), but due to unclear documentation estimates vary.

In the unknown north they hoped to gain status and wealth. By remaining with the colony the men were guaranteed hidalgo status (the most humble of noble titles) and they stood to gain exemption from certain taxes, forgiveness of debts, and encomienda grants. Encomienda was as an allotment of native labor, although its legal definition rarely matched its implementation in frontier areas. For the colonists, encomienda promised the ability to require others to perform labor for them. By 1598 most of them recognized that New Mexico did not offer quick wealth—it was not another Aztec or Inca Empire as Antonio de Mendoza, Marcos de Niza, or Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (among many others) had imagined. Instead, the “wealth” of New Mexico was the Pueblo people themselves. Pueblos would provide encomenderos (those who held encomienda grants and formed the regional aristocracy) with the fruits of their labor, and they presented a promising missionary opportunity for the Franciscans. All colonists, whatever their background, considered the Pueblos to be their subjects.  

Oñate’s Route, 1598
This map outlines the route followed by Oñate’s colonizing party in 1598. At a site on the Rio Grande that became known as El Paso del Norte, the group read the “requerimiento,” and performed other official actions of possession of the New Mexico territory.

Despite the realities of the far northern frontier, many of these settlers viewed Oñate as an old-time conquistador, cut from the mold of Cortés. Indeed, Oñate believed himself heir to the fame and honor that came with conquest. Yet, his was a different historical moment in which the Crown looked to temper the excesses of military conquest. Oñate’s mission pitted the Spanish culture of nobility and conquest against the impulse to abandon violence and instead pacify indigenous peoples. As one of his biographers has asserted, Oñate may well have been “the last conquistador.”3 Unfortunately for him, during his lifetime the actions of conquistadores were no longer warranted. Instead, pacific colonization was the ideal. The existence of these two, conflicting ideals helps us in part to understand (although not justify) Oñate’s violent actions as governor. Cultural conflict and the fluidity of ethnic identity on both the European and native side of the equation are other pieces of the puzzle.

The ethnic backgrounds of the various “Spaniards” involved in the colonization venture was quite varied. As historians of this period have noted, the term could include people from the Iberian Peninsula (the present-day nations of Spain and Portugal), as well as people from places like Greece, Belgium, and the Italian provinces. In the sixteenth century, none of the European nations of today existed in their present form. Spain itself was a new geopolitical entity, which meant that most of its people had yet to develop a sense of shared identity based on “Spanish” culture or history. Figures like Cortés, Coronado, or Oñate identified instead with their families’ regions of origin (Extremadura, Salamanca, or the Basque provinces, for example) rather than as “Spaniards,” although we tend to remember them as such. Adding to this complexity was the reality of interracial marriages and sexual liaisons in the Americas following initial conquests. Many of those who accompanied Oñate were mestizos. Indigenous allies from north-central New Spain, as well as several African slaves also accompanied the expedition. Social, cultural, and ethnic diversity made the northern frontier a place of constant exchange, conflict, misunderstanding, and accommodation.

From Santa Bárbara, the Oñate party blazed a new, more direct trail to the Rio Grande. The governor called a halt on April 30, 1598, just before crossing the river at a point that became known as El Paso del Norte. It was there that Oñate performed the official Spanish ceremonies of possession which had a long precedent in earlier conquests. As was the case for all new acquisitions of indigenous lands, he read the requerimiento. This official document, written and read in Spanish, stated that inhabitants of the vaguely defined region of New Mexico were now subject to the Spanish Crown and under the jurisdiction of the Catholic Church. They were promised protection, peace, and everlasting bliss through conversion. A group of Manso people made friendly contact with the colonizers while they were there, although it is not at all clear that they welcomed the idea of subjugation to Crown and Church.

During the day of thanksgiving and ceremony, the colonists enacted a new play written by prominent expedition member Marcos de Farfán. Although the performance of dramas was typical of Spanish colonizing ventures, this play was specific to the concerns of the New Mexico colonization attempt. No copies of the play itself remain, but Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, a soldier in Oñate’s contingent, recounted briefly its subject matter and tenor in his Historia de Nuevo México. It depicted a peaceful encounter between friars and indigenous peoples. Those portraying indigenous people humbly knelt before benevolent priests to receive the benefits of the Christian faith. Pérez de Villagrá referred to the scene as promising that “many barbarians” would be purified through Catholic baptism. As with so many other aspects of Spanish colonial culture, ceremonies and performances were formalities that reminded people of their roles and obligations within society. In this case, the performance reminded Oñate’s party of their responsibility to peacefully and respectfully pacify the indigenous peoples they were to encounter. The play also emphasized the Spaniards’ deep sense of superiority relative to the indigenous “barbarians.”

“If you do not do this…we warn you, we will enter your land against you with force and will make war in every place and by every means we can and are able, and we will then subject you to the yoke and authority of the Church and Their Highnesses.” 

– excerpt from El Requerimiento

As the group continued northward, they encountered several abandoned pueblos. On the edge of the inhospitable stretch of the Camino Real later dubbed the Jornada del Muerto (dead man’s journey), the pueblo of Qualacu lay vacant. Its inhabitants apparently feared the Europeans’ intentions and had fled to join others. Much further to the north the party also found Puaray vacant. At other pueblos, such as Kewa (later renamed Santo Domingo by the Spaniards), the Spaniards were received peacefully but cautiously. Speaking through indigenous interpreters, Oñate called a council at Kewa that united the leaders of seven surrounding Keres-speaking pueblos. He explained to those present at the council the Spaniards’ intention to establish a permanent colony in the region. He also informed them that they were now subject to the King of Spain and the Catholic Church. Once each indigenous leader pledged loyalty to the Crown, Oñate considered the matter closed. Following the council, he announced that Santo Domingo (now renamed) was to be the site of a Franciscan abbey. Without further consideration of the Pueblos’ feeling about the new order he had imposed upon them, Oñate pushed further northward to locate a suitable site to headquarter the colony.

On July 4, 1598, Oñate’s advance party reached the meeting point of the Rio Chama and the Rio Grande. Not far away was the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh, renamed San Juan de los Caballeros when Oñate decided to make it the site of the first Spanish settlement in New Mexico. Repeated public performances in San Juan and the surrounding areas illustrate the reality that the Spaniards relied on military force and intimidation to assert their dominance over Pueblo peoples, regardless of the 1573 Colonization Laws. During the summer of 1598, the colonists staged carefully laid out reenactments of the Spanish victory over the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula, as well as dramatized scenes from the conquest of the Aztec people—an event with which Pueblo peoples were well-acquainted by that point in time. Each play involved the use of artillery, horses, and harquebuses. The message to the native people was straightforward: any act of resistance to Spanish rule would be quashed with military might. To the Spaniards, such measures were crucial because they were vastly outnumbered. By best estimates, the overall indigenous population of the New Mexico colony was somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 people in 1598.

Back to: The History of New Mexico > Chapter 4: Spanish Colonization of New Mexico, 1598-1700