Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

North American Pueblo Indians rose up against early Spanish efforts to colonize their homeland. In a Spanish expedition flawed from the start, mistranslations and misunderstandings led to the revolt, which ended with the enslavement, torture, and slaughter of countless Puebloans and their pacification for nearly a century.

Summary of Event

Spanish intrusion into New Mexico began in the sixteenth century, after early explorers had reported that there were cities of great wealth there. The legend of these golden Seven Cities of Cíbola Seven Cities of Cíbola grew until Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored the territory between 1540 and 1542. After two years of fruitless searching, the disillusioned Coronado returned to Mexico, concluding that New Mexico was a barren land that would never yield much wealth and that any attempt to colonize would require constant financial support from the Spanish crown. Thus, New Mexico was protected for a time against any further large-scale Spanish invasion. Exploration and colonization;Spain of North America Oñate, Juan de Velasco, Luis de Martínez, Alonso Zaldívar Mendoza, Vicente Zaldívar, Juan de Coronado, Francisco Vásquez de

Eventually, however, rumors again arose of a fabulous mineral wealth in the territory. Economic opportunism, along with Franciscan desire to establish missions there, prompted Viceroy Luis de Velasco to award a contract for the colonization of New Mexico New Mexico to Juan de Oñate, a wealthy mine owner from Zacatecas. Oñate’s contract, issued on September 21, 1595, gave him the powers of a dictator, with the title of governor and captain general of New Mexico. He would be the highest judicial officer in the territory, with the right to award patronage to those who accompanied him.

Oñate’s intentions from the start, however, were counter to the spirit of the Law of 1573. This law had been enacted by King Philip II, who, concerned about some of the early conquistadores’s abuse of indigenous populations, intended to set guidelines for future exploration of the New World. The Law of 1573 replaced the idea of conquest with that of pacification, stating that American Indians were to be given the opportunity to become Christians and vassals of the king, with the same rights to property, freedom, and dignity enjoyed by all subjects of the Crown. Oñate, however, had insisted on the right to allot sections of the land and its indigenous residents to himself and his people and to levy tribute upon those whom he did not claim in servitude. Law;Spanish colonies

By January, 1598, Oñate had assembled an expedition of more than four hundred people, including settlers, soldiers, and seven Franciscan friars Franciscans;American Southwest and two lay brothers led by Fray Alonso Martínez, the father commissary. Eighty-three ox carts carried supplies, and a herd of animals provided meat. After crossing the Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte, Oñate took formal possession of New Mexico for the Crown and made his first demand for supplies from the Puebloans Puebloans , loading eighty pack animals with grain from Teypana pueblo. The expedition then traveled across the Jornada del Muerto (the Journey of Death), ninety miles of waterless desert, which they crossed with no casualties.

At one of the first pueblos he came to, Oñate discovered two Mexican Indians who had lived among the Puebloans for many years, and they became his interpreters. Proceeding up the Rio Grande Valley, Oñate visited the pueblos at Tiguex, San Felipe, and Santo Domingo. Although many Puebloans fled in terror before the invaders, those who remained received Oñate and his men hospitably. On July 7, 1598, Oñate met in council with Pueblo leaders at Santo Domingo pueblo. Declaring that he had come to protect the Puebloans and save their souls, Oñate demanded that they swear allegiance and vassalage to their new rulers, the Spanish king and the Catholic Church. Oñate explained the advantages to be gained if the Puebloans voluntarily submitted to the two majesties, while also informing them that disobedience of the law would result in severe punishment.

At this point, serious misunderstanding undoubtedly occurred on both sides. One of Oñate’s soldiers translated his Castilian into a Mexican Indian language understood by the two interpreters, who then translated the message into a Pueblo tongue. It is highly unlikely that this double translation communicated a complete understanding of the complex structure of vassalage to the Puebloans. Nevertheless, the Pueblo leaders, always courteous in council, indicated their acceptance.

On the other hand, Oñate completely misunderstood the system of government in the pueblos. He thought he was dealing with Pueblo chiefs who had authority to speak for all the people, when no such system of chieftainship existed. In all probability, the representatives from each pueblo were either war captains, delegates chosen by a council of elders to attend this one meeting, or leaders of small factions promoting peaceful coexistence with the Spaniards. In any case, what occurred was the acceptance of something that was little understood by a few people who had no authority to speak for anyone but themselves. Oñate, however, thought that he had achieved an agreement from all the Puebloans to render obedience and vassalage to Crown and Church.

Oñate next turned his attention to establishing permanent quarters for his colony. Requiring the Puebloans to vacate the pueblo of Ohke, he changed its name to San Juan de los Caballeros and moved his people in. When they needed more space, the Spaniards occupied the larger pueblo of Yunque, which they renamed San Gabriel. The Spaniards, having arrived too late in the year to plant crops, demanded food, blankets, skins, and firewood from the Puebloans, as their own supplies dwindled.

That autumn, Oñate traveled north up the Rio Grande Valley, convening councils with Pueblo leaders and administering the oath of vassalage as he went. The Franciscans accompanied him, building churches and establishing missions. Oñate then explored westward, looking for wealth to satisfy the demands of his colonists and to recoup his own fortune. In October, he reached Acoma pueblo, where, after the usual ceremony of swearing allegiance to king and church, the inhabitants were asked to give generously of their food, robes, and blankets. Oñate continued on to the Zuñi and Hopi pueblos. In early December, Juan de Zaldívar and thirty soldiers, following Oñate, arrived at Acoma and demanded provisions, ignoring pleas from the indigenous people that they had nothing left to spare. When the Spaniards insisted, the Puebloans attacked, killing Zaldívar and twelve of his men.

Oñate vowed to avenge this serious blow to Spanish authority. At San Juan, planning the punishment of Acoma, he consulted the Franciscans. They agreed this was a just war under Spanish law, because the Puebloans, having sworn obedience and vassalage to the Spanish crown, were now royal subjects who were guilty of treason. On January 21, 1599, Juan’s brother, Vicente Zaldívar Mendoza, and his forces reached Acoma, where they found the Puebloans ready to defend themselves. Fighting with arrows and stones, the Puebloans were no match for the Spanish, who were armed with guns. After two days of bitter fighting, Acoma was defeated, with more than eight hundred dead. The pueblo was destroyed, and some five hundred men, women, and children were captured. Those who did not surrender immediately were dragged from their hiding places and killed.

On February 12, Oñate himself decreed the punishment of the captives: All men more than twenty-five years of age had one foot cut off and served twenty years in slavery, all men between the ages of twelve and twenty-five years and all women over twelve years of age served twenty years in slavery, the old men and women were given to the Querechos (Plains Apaches) as slaves, and the children less than twelve years of age were given to Fray Martínez and to Vicente Zaldívar Mendoza. Two Hopi men who were visiting Acoma when the battle began had their right hands cut off and were sent back to the Hopi as an object lesson to those pueblos.


From the beginning, it was obvious that Oñate’s own intentions with regard to the colonization of New Mexico conflicted with the spirit of the Law of 1573. Instead of cooperating with the indigenous people and giving them the opportunity to convert to Christianity, as the Law mandated, and to accept the Spanish king as their ruler, he eventually punished them for rebelling against their own abuse.

To discourage future rebellions, the Spaniards carried out the sentences of mutilation in public at several different pueblos. Evidently, this was as effective as Oñate had planned; it would be eighty years before the Puebloans dared to organize another rebellion against Spanish rule.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Fergusson, Erna. New Mexico: A Pageant of Three Peoples. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973. Relies greatly on a work published in 1610 by Gaspar de Villagrá, a member of Oñate’s expedition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hendricks, Rick. “Juan de Oñate, Diego de Vargas, and Hispanic Beginnings in New Mexico.” In New Mexican Lives: Profiles and Historical Stories, edited by Richard W. Etulain. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2002. A chapter on Oñate’s expedition and its legacy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">John, Elizabeth A. Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds. College Station: Texas A&M Press, 1975. The most complete and detailed account of the expedition. Explains Oñate’s eventual fall from official favor.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Minge, Ward Alan. Acoma: Pueblo in the Sky. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1976. A less detailed account of the expedition than John’, above, but includes the transcript of Oñate’s sentence upon the Acoma survivors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sando, Joe S. The Pueblo Indians. San Francisco, Calif.: Indian Historian Press, 1976. Summarizes the facts of the expedition and explains the Spanish system of encomienda—a way of exacting labor from the Puebloans.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Simmons, Marc. The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Biography of Oñate and study of his expedition and interactions with American Indians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snow, David H. New Mexico’s First Colonists: The 1597-1600 Enlistments for New Mexico Under Juan de Oñate, Adelante and Gobernador. Albuquerque: Hispanic Genealogical Research Center of New Mexico, 1998. Provides a list of and commentary upon the members of the Oñate expedition. Includes maps and a portrait.

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

Feb. 23, 1540-Oct., 1542: Coronado’s Southwest Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

Categories: History