Revolt of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Otermín’s Attempted Reconquest

“The rebellious traitors burned the church and shouted in loud voices, ‘Now the God of the Spaniards, who was their father, is dead, and Santa María, who was their mother, and the saints, who were pieces of rotten wood,’ saying that only their own god lived.”

Summary Overview

On August 10, 1680, Pueblo Indians throughout northern New Mexico mounted a coordinated offensive to drive out the Spanish, who had established a colonial presence in the region more than eighty years earlier. Though the plot was revealed to the Spanish governor, Antonio de Otermín, the Pueblos were still successful in routing Spanish resistance, killing hundreds and driving the survivors hundreds of miles south toward Mexico. Fifteen months later, Otermín led an expeditionary force back to northern New Mexico to recapture the territory; however, his efforts were thwarted and he was forced to return to the survivors’ encampment at the site of present-day El Paso, Texas. As a result, the Pueblo tribes were able to live free of Spanish domination for more than a decade.

Defining Moment

In 1680, the Pueblo population of northern New Mexico was suffering from a decade-long drought that made it nearly impossible to grow crops. Adding to their burden, these agrarian town dwellers saw meager supplies of food snatched away by nomadic tribes that frequently raided their villages. Neither of these adverse circumstances inspired any special consideration from Spanish officials, who expected Pueblos to work for Spanish masters and to provide a portion of their crops to Spanish overlords. To make matters worse, during the same period, Spanish authorities and Franciscan friars, intent on converting the Pueblos to Christianity, renewed efforts to stamp out all vestiges of American Indian religion.

Although there had been previous attempts by individual Pueblo tribes to free themselves of Spanish domination, which had begun in 1598, none had been effective, largely because each Pueblo village was an autonomous unit that rarely acted in concert with other groups to achieve larger political or economic goals. That situation began to change in 1675, when individual tribal leaders decided the time had come to unite in resisting Spanish oppression.

The Pueblo leader most responsible for organizing the revolt was Popé (sometimes spelled Popáy or Po’pay). Long recognized as an important spiritual leader among his people, Popé had been one of forty-seven caciques, or medicine men, arrested in 1675 in a crackdown on native religious practices. Operating from the pueblo in Taos, over several years, Popé managed to persuade disparate Pueblo tribes to stage a coordinated offensive against the Spanish. The ruthlessness with which Popé acted to enforce secrecy during the planning stages of the revolt is evident in his treatment of his son-in-law, Nicolás Bua, Indian governor of San Juan and a known Spanish sympathizer. Popé had Bua killed so he would not reveal details of the plot to Spanish authorities.

The plan was scheduled to be executed on August 11 or 13 (scholars are not certain of the date), but on August 9, Indians sympathetic to the Spanish notified Governor Otermín of the impending attacks. Pueblo leaders moved up the start of hostilities to August 10, catching most of the Spanish residents of the region by surprise. Otermín’s hastily organized defense proved ineffectual against superior Indian forces, many of whom were riding horses and armed with weapons taken from slain settlers. By the end of August, Otermín had led survivors south from Pueblo lands to a safe haven in northern Mexico.

Author Biography

Although he did not write most of the documents that constitute the historical record of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Otermín was instrumental in their creation. Details about Otermín’s life are scant, however. Some scholars suggest he was born in Spain and immigrated to Mexico to take up posts in the colonial government there. By 1677, he had established a reputation sufficient to warrant appointment as governor of New Mexico, the northernmost province of New Spain. Otermín replaced Juan Francisco Treviño, whose harsh treatment of the Pueblo Indians in the province exacerbated already strained relationships between Spanish overlords and their American Indian subjects.

In August 1680, Otermín was at the provincial capital Santa Fe when the Pueblos of New Mexico launched a coordinated attack against Spanish settlers in the region. During a ten-day offensive the Indians killed some four hundred settlers and their servants and twenty-one Franciscan friars. After a ten-day siege at Santa Fe, Otermín was forced to withdraw, leading survivors southward more than three hundred miles to El Paso del Norte. During the ensuing months, Otermín regrouped his forces and launched a counteroffensive in November 1681. His efforts were unsuccessful, however, and northern New Mexico remained free of Spaniards for a decade.

Intent on discovering the causes of the rebellion and determining how to reclaim lands from which Spanish settlers had been ousted, Otermín directed officials working for him to interview dozens of Indians captured immediately after the uprising and during his unsuccessful counteroffensive in late 1681. Surviving Spanish settlers and soldiers involved in these offensives were also interviewed. The written records provide eyewitness accounts of what happened and why. Unfortunately, little is known about most of the subjects interviewed at Otermín’s direction during the period 1680–82. Most of the Indians are identified by first names only, and few biographical details are provided about them. Their narratives do provide some details about the leaders of the revolt, especially Popé, the acknowledged catalyst for the uprising.

In 1682, Otermín asked to be relieved of the governorship, as he was in poor health. In 1683, he was replaced by Domingo Gironza Petriz Cruzate. Otermín stayed in Mexico City, presumably filling other administrative posts within the government. In 1692, he consulted with the newly appointed governor, Diego de Vargas, about plans for another attempt at reestablishing Spanish presence in New Mexico but took no part in Vargas’s successful operation.

Document Analysis

The testimonies of Josephe and Lucas, members of Pueblo tribes that rose up against Spanish settlers in New Mexico in 1680, and the description of the appointment of the soldier Raphael Téllez Jirón, who served as interpreter for Lucas’s testimony, are part of a large cache of official documents about the Pueblo revolt. Spanish governor Otermín directed that these be compiled to provide a record of the insurgency in order that the central colonial government in Mexico City might understand the causes for the Pueblos’ actions and develop plans for restoring Spanish rule at a later date. The collection includes reports of various skirmishes written by Otermín’s chief lieutenants, missives from the governor himself, and a number of firsthand accounts from Spanish soldiers. Also included are records of testimony by Pueblo Indians captured during the initial conflict and in the ensuing months when Otermín launched an unsuccessful attempt to reestablish control of the region.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of these documents is their formality. Each is introduced with formulaic language that specifies the place, date, and purpose for the inquiry being conducted. The statements make clear that a judicial proceeding is being conducted, suggesting that the rule of law will govern both the taking of testimony and the disposition of anyone accused during these proceedings. Each statement is witnessed by a number of Spanish officials who attest to its accuracy and, by implication, to the fairness of the proceedings in which testimony has been taken. The questions asked of Josephe are used in other inquiries: what role the individual being interviewed played during the uprising, the motivations for the Indians’ actions, and the plans being developed by the Pueblos to deal with a return of the Spanish to the region.

When one looks beyond the veneer of this dispassionate legal framework, however, and examines both the history of the revolt and the language used to describe it in these documents, one can discern some rather disturbing clues that the Spaniards were hardly fair and impartial in dealing with the Pueblos. The narrative accounts of these two interrogations reveal their prejudices. The Pueblos are described as “apostate traitors and rebels” and “treacherous Indian apostates.” Sometimes the words appear in the interrogator’s questions, at other times in Josephe’s response. Whether Josephe actually used terms such as “apostate” and “rebel” is open to debate. He claims to be a Christian, which would make his use of such descriptive attributes plausible. On the other hand, these words easily could have been inserted by the interpreter or the person transcribing the testimony. It is worth noting also that Josephe and Lucas were interrogated in December 1681, during Otermín’s return to the Pueblos’ territory in New Mexico. It is highly likely that both knew what had happened to the first group of captives interrogated by the Spanish on the day the revolt began: Forty-seven Indians were questioned, and, after their testimony was recorded, all were summarily executed. That fact alone could easily persuade Indians brought before Otermín’s tribunals to be circumspect in explaining their role in the revolt, and perhaps to provide answers they thought the Spanish might wish to hear.

While Lucas provides little useful information, Josephe is a key witness in explaining how the revolution began, who its leaders were, and why the Indians chose to rise up against the Spanish at this time. Josephe is asked to explain causes the “Indian rebels” had for “renouncing the law of God and obedience to his Majesty.” The underlying assumptions are that the Christian religion is the only true one; adherence to any other religion is inherently evil. The Spanish believe rebellion against those who represent Christ in the New World—the king of Spain, his appointed ministers, and the Franciscans—is both a political crime and a sin. There is also a hint of naïveté in the Spanish officials’ pursuit of reasons why the Indians might have chosen to throw out the colonists and reject their religion. Certain of the truth of their faith and of the need to propagate it around the globe, the Spanish seem at a loss to understand why anyone would reject the “true” God in favor of pagan deities.

Josephe may have had firsthand knowledge of the planning that led to the revolt, but he was not a participant. Rather than fighting with fellow Pueblos, he accompanied his “master,” an officer in the Spanish army, and other survivors to the El Paso area in August 1680. Several months later, however, he slipped away from the Spanish encampment there and returned to the Pueblo-controlled regions of New Mexico. He claims that a lack of food in the camp prompted him to flee. Josephe tells his interrogators he intended for the return to be only temporary, and that he rejoined the Pueblo community in order to “find out how matters stood with the Indians and to give warning to the Spaniards of any treason” he might uncover there. He insists he did not go there “with the intention of remaining always with the apostate traitors and rebels.” He gives no evidence, however, that such a mission was sanctioned by anyone in authority among the Spanish exiles at El Paso, nor does testimony from Spanish officials suggest that anyone knew of his plan. On the other hand, evidence from others indicates that Josephe did warn the Spanish of a planned ambush on Otermín’s forces in December 1681, so it is possible that he is sincere in saying that he remained loyal to the Spanish even though he chose to leave El Paso months earlier.

Despite the possibility that Josephe’s testimony is influenced by the circumstances in which he found himself in December 1681, he provides important information about the Pueblos’ actions in planning the revolt and the causes that led them to take up arms against the Spanish that is corroborated by other accounts. He identifies the leaders of the revolt and explains how these men provided justification to the Pueblo people for rising up and driving the Spanish from their region. The causes that Josephe reports as having sparked the rebellion can be classified broadly into two categories: personal and religious.

Josephe reports that ill-treatment of Pueblo leaders and other Indians at the hands of several Spanish officials prompted retaliation: “The present secretary, Francisco Xavier,” and the “sargentos mayores, Luis de Quintana and Diego López” “beat them, took away what they had, and made them work without pay.” Though it is unlikely that these men alone were responsible for punishments inflicted on the Pueblos, there is evidence from other documents that Spanish treatment of the Indians in New Mexico was consistently exploitative. Pueblos across the region were required to provide a portion of their crops to the Spanish and many were forced to work for the monasteries or the government for little or no compensation. Although Josephe does not reference larger economic conditions directly, in 1680, the Pueblo Indians were suffering through a prolonged drought that made raising crops difficult; having to supply the Spanish from their meager stores left little for themselves.

Even under the best conditions, this arrangement led to impoverishment and demeaned the dignity of the native peoples. To make matters worse, some Spaniards treated the Indians as subhuman (despite papal and regal directives to deal with them fairly). Francisco Xavier, the secretary for government and war in New Mexico, systematically persecuted Indians for their religious practices, first under Governor Juan Francisco Treviño and later under Governor Otermín. Xavier took special interest in attacking Popé, which undoubtedly precipitated Josephe’s secondhand observation regarding the role Xavier played in sparking the revolt. Xavier was apparently unrepentant in his attitude toward the Indians. Accompanying Otermín’s forces on their march from El Paso into New Mexico, he continued to inflict physical punishment on Indians selected at random.

The second reason Josephe gives for the rebellion is one that has caused considerable debate for centuries: the suppression of the Pueblos’ religious practices. Asked why the “apostates” destroyed churches, killed priests, and burned implements of worship, Josephe again provides hearsay evidence that points to the Indians’ motives. “While they were besieging the villa the rebellious traitors burned the church,” shouting, “Now the God of the Spaniards, who was their father, is dead, and Santa Maria, who was their mother, and the saints, who were pieces of rotten wood.” The Pueblos did not stop at church-burning, however; in a kind of reversal of the Christian baptismal ritual, they “wash[ed] away the water of baptism” in the river. The Indians banned people from speaking the names of Jesus and Mary, renounced their baptismal (Spanish) names, and even told men they were no longer bound to the wives they had married in Christian ceremonies. They rebuilt their estufas, the kivas where they practiced their native religion.

Although Josephe does not ascribe motives for his fellow Pueblos’ actions, it seems that the excessive vitriol displayed toward the symbols of Christianity revealed the pent-up hatred many Indians had for having a foreign religion imposed on them. Clearly, some Pueblo Indians accepted Christianity and willingly abandoned indigenous religions. Others were not so eager to give up their old ways. Some accounts of Spanish rule in New Mexico indicate that, for a time at least, Indians were allowed to continue staging traditional religious ceremonies even though they had officially converted to Christianity. The religious purges that began in 1675 under Governor Treviño had made continuance of such practices virtually impossible. Hence, it is not surprising that, when given the chance, those Indians who still clung to traditional beliefs would respond vehemently against the symbols of a faith they found offensive.

When asked how he thought the Indians would react to a return of the Spanish to their territory, Josephe is again careful to distance himself from the opinions he offers. He says sentiment among his fellow Pueblos is divided. “Most” believed “they would have to fight to the death with the said Spaniards”; on the other hand, some would probably welcome the Spanish, especially if the foreigners could once again provide protection from the Apaches. In his much shorter testimony, the Indian Lucas makes a similar complaint about the effect of Apache raids. Asked to explain why no Indians came forward to support Otermín’s attempted reconquest, Josephe suggests that many Indians continued to resist reinstatement of Spanish rule simply because they “stood in very great fear” of tribal leaders. Implied in his assessment is an argument that the population at large should not be blamed for the actions of rash leaders who have compelled them to stand against the Spanish. Following that argument to its logical conclusion, Josephe’s Spanish interrogators might decide that the rank-and-file in the pueblos would be happy to return to Spanish rule if rebel leaders could somehow be neutralized.

Josephe’s testimony about the specifics of the revolt, and his repeated admonitions that the Spanish should be on their guard against surprise attacks, suggests that he is a credible witness on whose loyalty the Spanish can rely. Nevertheless, only two months after he provided this account to his captors, Josephe once again escaped from the Spanish camp and returned to his own people. That act alone calls into question the veracity of his narrative.

The example of Josephe’s testimony weighed against his prior and subsequent actions provides one of the most important lessons to be learned from an analysis of the Spanish records documenting the Pueblo Revolt of 1680: the need to read the historical record skeptically. As the account of Josephe’s testimony reveals, the cultural assumptions of the interrogators can lead an unsuspecting reader to draw unwarranted conclusions from a casual reading of a text. Too often, those who control the narrative are able to paint themselves in a favorable light while casting aspersions on those who oppose them. Sometimes the tactics employed are calculated and blatant; more often, however, the tendency to bias the interpretation of events arises from the cultural blindness of those telling the story to the legitimate differences in outlook and values of peoples with whom they come into conflict.

Essential Themes

Despite the biased nature of many of the accounts of the rebellion, which paint Spaniards as the wronged party and Pueblos as ungrateful aggressors, the story of the Pueblo revolt reveals the tragic consequences that a clash of cultures can produce. On the surface, the Pueblo rebellion against colonial masters has many parallels to the American Revolution that occurred a century later: An oppressed people, unable to tolerate any longer the injustices inflicted upon them by those in power, rises up to claim the freedom that had been denied them. The Pueblo Indians who found themselves subjected to intolerable injustices were ready to heed the calls of leaders such as Popé to rebel against the Spaniards. In reality, however, the Pueblo’s uprising has closer parallels to other Indian revolts and slave rebellions, such as the uprising in New England begun in 1675 by the Wampanoag chieftain Metacomet (known as King Philip) or the nineteenth-century slave uprisings in Virginia led by Gabriel (also known as Gabriel Prosser) and Nat Turner. Like other American Indian and slave rebellions in the New World, the freedoms enjoyed by the New Mexico Pueblos were short-lived. In 1692, the Spanish reentered the territories and reestablished mastery within the region. The tragedy of the Pueblo Revolt demonstrates how a world power like Spain, possessing superior organization and advanced technology, can wreak havoc on another nation when political and military action is divorced from moral concerns about others.


  • Folsom, Franklin. Indian Uprising on the Rio Grande: The Pueblo Revolt of 1680. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1996. Rpt. of Red Power on the Rio Grande: The Native American Revolution of 1680. 1973. Print.
  • Hackett, Charles Wilson. Introduction. Revolt of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Otermín’s Attempted Reconquest, 1680–1682. 2 vols. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 1942. Print.
  • Knaut, Andrew L. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680: Conquest and Resistance in Seventeenth-Century New Mexico. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1995. Print.
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  • Ponce, Pedro. “The Pueblo Revolt of 1680.” Humanities 23.6 (2002): 20–24. Print.
  • Riley, Carroll. The Kachina and the Cross: Indians and Spaniards in the Southwest. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1999. Print.
  • Roberts, David. The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards out of the Southwest. New York: Simon, 2004. Print.
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Additional Reading

  • Anderson, Gary Clayton. The Indian Southwest, 1580–1830. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1999. Print.
  • Barrett, Elinore M. The Spanish Colonial Settlement Landscapes of New Mexico, 1598–1680. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2012. Print.
  • Espinosa, J. Manuel. The Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1696 and the Franciscan Missions in Mexico: Letters of the Missionaries and Related Documents. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1988. Print.
  • —. “The Recapture of Santa Fe, New Mexico, by the Spaniards, December 29–30, 1693.” Hispanic American Historical Review 19.4 (1939): 443–63. Print.
  • John, Elizabeth. Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540–1795. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1975. Print.
  • Naylor, Thomas, et al., eds. The Presidio and Militia on the Northern Frontier of New Spain. 2 vols. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1986–97. Print.
  • Norris, Jim. After “The Year Eighty”: The Demise of Franciscan Power in Spanish New Mexico. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2000. Print.
  • Riley, Carroll. Rio del Norte: People of the Upper Rio Grande from Earliest Times to the Pueblo Revolt. Salt Lake City: U of Utah P, 1995. Print.
  • Salisbury, Neal. “Embracing Ambiguity: Native Peoples and Christianity in Seventeenth-Century North America.” Ethnohistory 50.2 (2003): 247–59. Print.
  • Salmón, Roberto Mario. Indian Revolts in Northern New Spain: A Synthesis of Resistance, 1680–1786. Lanham, MD: UP of America, 1991. Print.
  • Sando, Joe. Pueblo Nations: Eight Centuries of Pueblo Indian History. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light, 1992. Print.