Zuñi Rebellion Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Upon completion of a missionary church in the Zuñi village of Hawikuh, site of the first Spanish massacre of the Zuñi almost a century earlier, the people of the village murdered a Christian priest and then fled from their homes. Although the colonial government retaliated quickly and brutally, the incident succeeded in eliminating missionaries from Zuñi territories for the next three decades.

Summary of Event

Zuñi Indian contact with Spanish explorers began in violence. The Zuñi lived in six pueblos widely scattered across what is now western New Mexico. They occupied communities of apartment houses built on the sides or tops of mesas. They had no central government, and each pueblo spoke a distinct language. Spaniards first entered this territory in 1539. They came north from Mexico, hunting for great cities of gold reported to be in the area. [kw]Zuñi Rebellion (Feb. 22-27, 1632) [kw]Rebellion, Zuñi (Feb. 22-27, 1632) Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Feb. 22-27, 1632: Zuñi Rebellion[1180] Colonization;Feb. 22-27, 1632: Zuñi Rebellion[1180] American Southwest;Feb. 22-27, 1632: Zuñi Rebellion[1180] Zuñi Rebellion (1632)

The legend of the Seven Cities of Gold, called Cíbola, had spread through Spanish possessions in the New World three years earlier, when Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca—a sailor who had spent eight years wandering through Texas and the Southwest after a shipwreck on the Gulf Coast—brought to Mexico City the story he had been told by native peoples. The governor of New Spain sent an expedition led by a Franciscan priest, Marcos de Niza, and a former slave named Estevanico (also known as Esteván) into the region to verify the story. Estevanico reached a Zuñi pueblo a few days before the priest. By the time Fray Marcos arrived, the Zuñi had killed Estevanico, reportedly for taking liberties with Zuñi women. The priest returned south and, contrary to all evidence, told the governor what the latter wanted to hear, that the Seven Cities of Cíbola did exist and were as magnificent as legend had held.

In the summer of 1540, the Spanish launched an expedition of more than a hundred men, including several priests, led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, the governor of Nueva Galicia, a state in western Mexico. After six months of travel, the explorers reached the Zuñi villages previously visited by Fray Marcos and were greatly disappointed by the poverty they discovered. The Zuñi, fearing that the invaders were looking for slaves, met the Spaniards in front of their village and warned that trying to enter their homes meant death. Coronado explained through an interpreter that he had come on a sacred mission to save souls for Christ. A priest then read the requerimiento, a statement read by a priest before all battles, warning the Zuñi that if they did not accept Spain’s king, Charles V, as their ruler, and if they did not embrace Christianity, they would be killed or enslaved.

The Zuñi responded with arrows, killing several Spaniards, but Spanish muskets and steel swords proved far superior to native weapons, and Coronado’s forces quickly destroyed much of the village. The Zuñi fled, leaving behind large quantities of corn, beans, turkeys, and salt, but no gold. Coronado, who had traveled much of the way in full armor, received several wounds during the battle but survived. He concluded that Cíbola must be somewhere else. Before continuing his search, however, he destroyed the village, called Hawikuh by the Zuñi. Despite the victory, no Spaniard returned to Zuñi territory until 1629.

By 1629, Franciscan Franciscans;New Mexico missionaries had more than fifty churches in the area of New Mexico. Their headquarters in Santa Fe had been built by Pueblo Indian laborers in 1610. Most of the mission churches had been constructed by native labor, with women building the walls and men doing the carpentry. The priests decided to reestablish contact with peoples living farther to the west. In 1629, eight priests traveled to Acoma, a village built on top of a 400-foot (122-meter) mesa, where they erected a church. The next year, Fray Esteván de Pereá Pereá, Esteván de , sixty-four years of age, was sent to Hawikuh, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of Acoma. He found a village of eight hundred people, who greeted him peacefully. An interpreter told the Zuñi that the expedition had come to free them from slavery and the “darkness of idolatry.” This was the same message brought to them a hundred years before by Coronado, and it had led to bloodshed. This time, however, the Zuñi allowed the Spanish to remain and build a church. Catholicism;American Southwest Three years later, the church was completed.

Zuñi religious leaders, called sorcerers by the Christian fathers, fought the new religion from the very beginning. In their religion, there were many gods, not just one, who lived on the earth in trees, mountains, plants, and various animals. The Zuñi worshiped water gods, according to Coronado, because water made the corn grow and sustained life in a very harsh climate. Water seemed almost as valuable to them as gold did to the Spaniards, something the Spaniards could not understand. Zuñi priests taught that people should live in harmony with the earth and learn to live with nature, not conquer it as Christians seemed to believe.

Zuñi sought harmony in every aspect of their lives, which to them meant compromise and getting along with everything. They did fight wars, especially with Apache raiders, but violence and aggression were to be avoided when possible. The Spaniards found little of value in these teachings and believed their God had chosen them to conquer the heathens, bring light to those living in darkness—which meant anyone who was not Christian—and then grow rich, as God meant them to do. Compromise meant weakness to the Spanish; conquest was the highest good. These conflicting values would finally lead the Zuñi to rebellion and violence.

Another source of conflict between Zuñi and Spaniards was the system of labor that developed under the Europeans. Zuñi and other native peoples did most of the manual labor on construction projects; they also worked in mines and in the fields. Spanish nobles, government officials, and settlers simply did not perform this type of work; hard labor was considered beneath their dignity. Native Americans Native Americans;encomienda and were forcibly recruited for this backbreaking labor. Under the encomienda Encomienda system, wealthy Spanish landlords were entitled to tribute from all Indians living on “their” land. This tribute, in theory, could take the form of money, goods, or labor—in practice, the encomienda system evolved into a system of slavery and forced labor. The landlords did, however, also receive tributary goods from all the families on their extensive properties, usually 1.6 bushels (56 liters) of maize (corn) and a cotton blanket or deer or buffalo hide each year. In times of drought, these payments were especially onerous and deeply resented.

Native peoples also hated the compulsory labor demanded of them by Spanish authorities. Thousands of Pueblo Indians, including the Zuñi, had built Santa Fe under this system. They were supposed to be paid for their work, but many were not. In other places, the native peoples were used largely as pack animals to carry logs and heavy mining equipment across the desert. Many mines Mining;American Southwest used slaves captured on frequent slaving expeditions into tribal territory. Slavery and economic exploitation added to Native American resentment of the Europeans. Slavery;American Southwest

On February 22, 1632, according to Spanish government records, Zuñi warriors killed Fray Francisco Letrado, Letrado, Francisco the missionary at Hawikuh, during a mass he was celebrating to honor the completion of his church. The Zuñi then abandoned the pueblo and did not return for several years. Upon hearing of the killing, Governor Francisco de la Mora Ceballas sent a party of soldiers after the Zuñi. The soldiers found the Zuñi’s hiding place and took revenge on the population, killing some and enslaving others. Five days after the murder of Fray Letrado, the Zuñi killed another priest, Fray Martín de Arvide, Arvide, Martín de at a pueblo fifty miles west of Hawikuh. Two soldiers in Fray Martín’s party also were killed. The governor sent another military expedition to avenge these deaths. Several Zuñi were killed in battle, and at least one was later executed for participating in the murders.


As with the first encounter between the Zuñi and the Spanish, the latter seemed to achieve the clear victory, but they then left the Zuñi alone for a number of years. Thus, while the Zuñi Rebellion spread no further than the murder of two priests and two soldiers, Christian missionaries did not return to the Zuñi pueblos until 1660. Those missionaries would remain among the Zuñi until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 Pueblo Revolt (1680) , when violence between Spaniards and Zuñi again broke out and the Zuñi mission churches again were destroyed.

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