Toward New Mexico

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During the four decades between the Coronado expedition and King Felipe II’s 1583 directive to explore and colonize the territory then imagined as Nuevo México, very few Spaniards trekked into the region. Pueblo peoples retained the memory of Spanish violence and atrocities, dreading the day in which Europeans returned to their homelands. Indeed, when Juan de Oñate’s colonizing entrada neared the Pueblo heartland in the late-spring of 1598, Piro peoples fled their river-valley homes to find refuge in higher elevations. Oñate’s group also later encountered natives whom they called the “Crossed Ones.”2 It was rumored that these people had long before been instructed by a Franciscan priest that the symbol of the cross would protect them from the violence of Spanish explorers and colonizers.

Following the Zacatecas mining bonanza of the 1550s and the creation of Nueva Vizcaya, the official colonization of New Mexico seemed to be a matter of time. Miners in New Spain’s northern frontier hoped to become the beneficiaries of the next mother lode in lands they had not yet explored. Additionally, Franciscan missionaries hoped to continue the work of spiritual conquest among the indigenous peoples of the upper Rio Grande. For them, memories of the Coronado excursion signaled an untapped missionary field in the far north. These types of motivations dovetailed with Felipe II’s renewed interest in further settlement.

Prior to the official, Crown-sponsored colonization mission of the late-1590s, a few other forays into New Mexico renewed Spanish contact with Pueblo peoples. In the summer of 1580, Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado and Fray Agustín Rodríguez became the first Spaniards with the viceroy’s official sanction to return to Pueblo lands since the days of Coronado. The Chamuscado-Rodríguez Expedition traveled a direct route from the mining outpost of Santa Bárbara (located in present-day southern Chihuahua, about 400 miles north of Zacatecas) to the Rio Grande, and then as far north as the Galisteo basin south of present-day Santa Fe. Along the way, they encountered and reported on various groups of people who, from the explorers’ perspective, held similar customs and traditions. Chamuscado made his headquarters at Puaray, a Tiwa pueblo in the Galisteo valley. From there, he and the Friars oversaw a handful of journeys into the surrounding region. The Spaniards learned of mines in the Sandia Mountains, although the Pueblos hastily told them of even greater mineral wealth on the plains far to the east.

Chamuscado-Rodriguez Expedition Route
Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado and Fray Agustín Rodríguez led an expedition along this route to the Rio Grande Valley in 1580.

During the expedition’s short tenure in New Mexico, its members observed some of the Pueblo peoples’ basic patterns of life. Many aspects of Pueblo lifeways were familiar to them, including their sedentary, village lifestyle; their consumption of corn, beans, and squash; and their production of pottery and blankets. Pueblo religious practices, patterns of dress, and gender relationships based on matrilineal descent, however, they deemed inferior. Despite the general overtones of a peaceful encounter, the Pueblos’ desire to send the expedition quickly away to the plains hints at their continued misgivings about the Europeans’ presence.

When the expedition returned to Santa Bárbara in the spring of 1581, Fray Francisco López and Fray Rodríquez determined to stay behind among the Tiwa people in spite of their lack of missionary success. In November of 1582, Antonio de Espejo led another officially sanctioned venture into the Rio Grande valley to discover the fate of the Franciscans and perhaps offer them assistance. Espejo’s group reported new details about the Piro peoples, including the first description of the pueblo’s central plaza and several kivas, which the Spaniards referred to as estufas, or stoves. Upon arrival at Puaray the group learned that the two Franciscans had been killed, although apparently not by the local Tiwas.

Saddened by the news of the Friars’ demise and painfully aware of the lingering legacy of Coronado’s violence against Pueblo peoples, Espejo led his men on a trading mission that passed through Cochiti, Zia, Jemez, and Acoma prior to ending up in Zuni. In the several Zuni towns the party found wooden crosses, books, and other artifacts left behind by the Coronado expedition. Notably, they also encountered natives originally from central Mexico that had been part of Coronado’s entrada. Although unpracticed for decades in Spanish, the former native allies translated for Espejo and his men. When the group returned to Puaray they found its residents up in arms. After a bloody skirmish, the party moved on to Pecos. By the time they arrived in Santa Bárbara in the late fall of 1584, the soldiers and explorers counted themselves lucky to have returned alive. Their tales of the Pueblo peoples’ exotic cultures, however, appealed to others that hoped to make their own fortunes in the north.

The 1590 journey to the Pueblo homeland by Gaspar Castaño de Sosa is notable in that it never received the endorsement of the Crown. As lieutenant governor of Nuevo León, Sosa hoped to relocate his colony to a more prosperous location. When his group arrived at Pecos, they found its people unwilling to receive them. Following a six-hour negotiation, Sosa realized that his party would suffer in the freezing winter unless he took action. His group set up their camp at Pecos only after a battle that ended in the deaths of several Pecos warriors. There the Spaniards remained until mid-1592 when agents of the viceroy arrived and arrested Sosa for heading the illegal New Mexico expedition.

These failed ventures illustrate the state of affairs in New Mexico when Juan de Oñate’s colonization party arrived in 1598. Pueblo peoples were willing to trade and make some pragmatic accommodations to the Spaniards, but they remained deeply distrustful of the newcomers’ intentions. They never forgot the Spaniards’ proclivity to use violence, and they were willing to use force to resist Spanish encroachments. Although details can easily be lost in historical surveys of the distant past, Pueblos and Spaniards alike recognized the complexities of their relationships to one another. As already pointed out in a previous chapter, the terms “Spaniard” and “Pueblo” themselves are generalizations that we use to make the past more intelligible to us today. European people on the northern frontier in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries appreciated the lack of social and cultural unity among the different Pueblo groups, as well as the important distinctions between Franciscans, governors, and settlers on the European side. Additionally, a new population of mestizos (people of mixed indigenous and European heritage) had already taken hold in New Spain by the mid-1500s.

Oñate’s colonization efforts were tempered by such realities. On a larger scale, King Felipe II advocated the official colonization of New Mexico to address global geopolitical concerns. Principally, he was concerned by recent English incursions into North America that could potentially pose a threat to the Spanish Empire. Sir Francis Drake entered the Pacific Ocean in late 1578 and initiated raids of Spanish fleets and settlements along New Spain’s western shores. Roanoke, although failed, was established in the 1580s on the Atlantic coast of North America. At that moment in time, European officials, explorers, and colonists had very general, and often incorrect, ideas about the geography of the Western Hemisphere. Such issues persisted even on the regional level, as the case of Francisco de Ibarra illustrates. For Felipe II, this lack of geographic accuracy meant that he could not be sure how far removed from New Spain, and specifically from the mining wealth of Zacatecas and Nueva Vizcaya, French and English explorers on the eastern seaboard actually were. In his geographic imagination, he conceptualized the future New Mexico colony as a buffer zone that would hold off Spain’s European rivals and nomadic natives.

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