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“Juan de Oñate & His Expedition of 1598-1604”

Southwest Crossroads Spotlight

During the 1500s, the Spanish Crown sent a series of expeditions into New Mexico. Towards the end of that century, the king decided to allow colonists to settle in the region under the governorship of Juan de Oñate (1550-1626). Oñate was the son of a wealthy mining baron from the northern mining town of Zacatecas in New Spain. In spite of a two-year delay, Oñate finally departed from Santa Bárbara in northern Mexico on January 26, 1598. He took with him 400 men. Of these, 130 brought wives and children, and 129 were soldiers. Ten Franciscan friars went along, as the first duty of the expedition was to spread the Catholic faith. The caravan included 7,000 head of livestock and 83 carts.

Previous expeditions into New Mexico had followed the Conchos River to the Rio Grande. Oñate took a more direct overland route. When the colonists arrived at the Rio Grande twenty-five miles south of El Paso, they stopped to perform a ceremonial play and take possession of the new lands for the Spanish Crown. Then they proceeded upriver where they held a ceremony in the kiva at Santo Domingo. The Pueblo Indians pledged allegiance to the Spanish Crown. The Spaniards held similar ceremonies in almost every pueblo as the Pueblos swore allegiance to the Crown and a Christian God.

Oñate then established the first capital in New Mexico. San Juan de los Caballeros was situated at the juncture of the Rio Grande and the Chama River. Soon afterwards, they moved the capital across the river to higher ground and named it San Gabriel. There the Spaniards built their first church, San Juan Bautista. They settled in their first colony and began to explore the surrounding regions.

Vicente de Zaldívar, Oñate's nephew and one of his most trusted soldiers, led the first exploration. The small group headed east to the plains of the buffalo. They tried to bring some of the calves back to the colony, but the calves died of fright. Instead, the Spaniards slaughtered some of the animals to use the meat and hides.

Meanwhile, Oñate and a small group traveled to the provinces of the salines including Abó and other pueblos to the south. Then they turned west and visited Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi. Onate sent Captain Marcos Farfán de Godos and eight companions farther west in search of gold and silver mines. By Christmas, everyone had returned to San Gabriel-all but those who encountered trouble at Acoma.

Juan de Zaldívar, Vicente's brother, and a group of thirty men, were heading across the plain towards Zuni. They crossed the path of some Acoma and asked them for supplies. The Pueblos objected and in the conflict they killed Juan de Zaldívar, ten other Spaniards, and two servants. Those who escaped warned Oñate of the outbreak. He immediately sent Vicente de Zaldívar with seventy men back to Acoma to suppress the insurrection. The Spaniards' retribution against the Acoma for the death of their companions was swift and terrible.

In March of 1599, Oñate sent a report describing New Mexico and the new colony to the Viceroy of New Spain. He asked permission for much needed reinforcements in order to conquer additional kingdoms in the region. The reinforcements arrived in San Gabriel on Christmas Eve, 1600. Oñate and one hundred men immediately left to explore Quivira, the lands to the east that Coronado had visited sixty years before. After five months, Oñate and his men arrived back at San Gabriel empty-handed; they had found no riches. In his absence, many of the colonists had left San Gabriel and returned to Santa Bárbara. The hardships of colonizing under Onãte's strict rule, had prompted their desertion. Although some colonists remained loyal to Oñate, he was never able to recover his authority or reputation. The ruling authorities for the region, the Council of the Indies, chose to investigate Oñate and recall him to Mexico. He resigned as governor in August, 1607.

The colonists rejected the Viceroy's new choice of a governor, Juan Martínez de Montoya, who had arrived at San Gabriel as one of the reinforcements. Instead, they hoped to replace Oñate with his son, Cristóbal de Oñate, but the Viceroy named Don Pedro de Peralta as the new governor. The King of Spain was dismayed by the lack of success with the first colony and considered giving up on New Mexico. But because the Franciscans reported about 8,000 Indian converts in the region, the king made New Mexico a royal colony in November, 1609.

Peralta moved the capital to Santa Fe in 1610 and began the next phase of Spanish colonization in New Mexico. Today, some New Mexicans trace their family ancestry to these early colonists.

In 1610, Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, a soldier and one of Oñate's trusted advisors, wrote La Historia de Nueva Mexico. In this long, epic poem, Villagrá described the events of the expedition, including the battle of Acoma.