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When the Indians Won
The Pueblo Revolt, 1680 (Moments that Made America)
The explosion on Rio Grande had been a long time coming. Its origins lay in the entrada—invasion—of New Mexico by Coronado in the 1540s, which introduced the Spanish to the Pueblo people, and vice versa. The meeting wasn’t cordial: Coronado brutalized many of the Indians who failed to assist in his search for gold.
When he found no gold, he returned to Mexico, leaving bitter memories still felt a half-century later, when another entrada, led by Juan de Oñate, brought several hundred Spaniards and Mexicans, with thousands of cattle and horses, to the valley of the Rio Grande, where the river cuts a cleft in the mountains. El Paso del Río del Norte, Oñate called it, and as El Paso it became the gateway to New Mexico.
The rule Oñate imposed reminded the Puebloans what they had hated about Coronado. At Acoma, some sixty miles west of modern Albuquerque, residents of a village perched atop a steep mesa clashed with a company of Spanish soldiers led by Oñate’s nephew. The Spaniards had forced their way into the village demanding corn; by the Acoma accounts, they also assaulted some of the women of the village. In the fight a dozen Spaniards were killed, including Oñate’s nephew.
The Spanish commander ordered that an example be made of the Acomas. A much larger force moved against the pueblo, killing hundreds, enslaving hundreds more, and cutting off feet as a grisly sign of the price of resisting Spanish power.
Word of Oñate’s cruelty reached the Spanish government, and he was relieved of his command. His successors were somewhat milder, but the Spanish nonetheless governed in a manner the Puebloans found oppressive and finally intolerable.
The explosion occurred in 1680, when a carefully planned revolt against Spanish rule took place across the Pueblo lands. Its organizer was a holy man named Po’pay, who promised a return to the blessed days of the Pueblo elders once the Spanish were driven off and their false teachings cleansed from the country. Po’pay sent messengers to the various villages with knotted strings; those who intended to join the revolt should untie one knot per day. When the knots ran out, the revolt should begin.
It caught the Spanish off guard. Antonio de Otermin, the governor and captain-general of New Mexico, recalled seeking refuge in the center of Santa Fe during a long and sleepless night, as the insurgents approached. “When dawn came,” he reported afterward, “more than 2,500 Indians fell upon us in the villa, fortifying and intrenching themselves in all its houses and at the entrances of all the streets, and cutting off our water, which comes through the arroyo and the irrigation canal in front of the Casas Reales”—the governor’s house. “They burned the holy temple and many houses in the villa. We had several skirmishes over possession of the water, but, seeing that it was impossible to hold even this against them, and almost all the soldiers of the post being already wounded, I endeavored to fortify myself in the Casas Reales and to make a defense.” The insurgents set fire to several buildings, hoping to destroy them and flush Otermin and the Spanish into the streets.
But the fires didn’t catch hold, and the Spanish held out. Yet they suffered from lack of water and realized that if they didn’t die from flames or Indian arrows or bullets, they might die of thirst. Another long night, and the next day they were desperate.
The Indians attacked again. “They began at dawn to press us harder and more closely with gunshots, arrows, and stones, saying to us that now we should not escape them, and that, besides their own numbers, they were expecting help from the Apaches whom they had already summoned. They fatigued us greatly on this day, because all was fighting, and above all we suffered from thirst, as we were already oppressed by it.”
Yet Otermin and many of the other Spaniards survived the day. Their situation at the end was no better. “At nightfall, because of the evident peril in which we found ourselves by their gaining the two stations where the cannon were mounted, which we had at the doors of the Casas Reales, aimed at the entrances of the streets, in order to bring them inside it was necessary to assemble all the forces that I had with me, because we realized that this was their”—the Indians’—“intention. Instantly all the said Indian rebels began a chant of victory and raised war whoops, burning all the houses of the villa, and they kept us in this position the entire night, which I assure your reverence was the most horrible that could be thought of or imagined, because the whole villa was a torch and everywhere were war chants and shouts. What grieved us most were the dreadful flames from the church and the scoffing and ridicule which the wretched and miserable Indian rebels made of the sacred things.”
Eventually Otermin and the others managed to fight their way out of Santa Fe. They left the town to the rebels and began a long retreat down the Rio Grande. They didn’t stop until they reached El Paso, over two hundred miles away. Several hundred Spaniards had been killed in the revolt, and the province of New Mexico was restored to Pueblo control.
The new era Po’pay promised lasted a dozen years and was less Edenic than he promised. The Spanish capitalized on the dissatisfaction, and by a deft mix of diplomacy and force reestablished themselves above El Paso.
They remained there for more than a century, meanwhile expanding their reach into Texas to the east and California to the west. Yet there never many Spaniards on the ground, and the culture that developed in the region showed a much larger degree of indigenous influence than appeared in any other part of what would become the United States. Important strains of that culture persist in the American Southwest to the present day.