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The Pueblo Revolt Quashed Spanish Influence in New Mexico

The 1680 rebellion drove the Spaniards out of the province for 12 years.

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  • "The indigenous people of northern New Mexico" by Balduin Möllhausen, 1861.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was a large-scale uprising orchestrated by the Indigenous inhabitants of permanent pueblo towns across the Spanish-occupied province of Nuevo México. A stunning display of unity among communities that had never united before, the revolt lasted just 11 days, but succeeded in purging Spanish influence for 12 years. 

From 1540’s very first Spanish entrada (incursion) into what is now New Mexico, encounters between Spanish conquistadors and Puebloans always seemed to end in conflict. The conquistadors even ignored the provisions put in place by the Spanish crown to guarantee humane treatment of Indigenous peoples. The eventual colonization of the pueblo world, undertaken in 1598 by Juan de Oñate, was achieved through brutal violence. After members of the Acoma Pueblo discovered that Oñate intended to seize their land, move them elsewhere, and force them into servitude, anger prevailed. The Acomans killed 12 of Oñate’s men, with the leader Zutacapan himself delivering the fatal blow to Oñate’s nephew Juan de Zaldívar.

Oñate responded with a punitive expedition. On January 21, 1599, his army arrived at the walls of the Acoma Pueblo. The ensuing siege lasted two days, but the Spanish had a distinct advantage in the form of gunpowder. Spanish cannons breached the walls, and Oñate and his men massacred as many as 800 Puebloans indiscriminately.

Even that wasn’t enough for Oñate, who rounded up the survivors and hauled them to court. They were all sentenced to 20 years of slavery, and every man over the age of 25 had his right foot severed. Upon hearing of Oñate's cruelty, King Philip had him banished from Nuevo México.

Related: The Mapuche People's Centuries-Long Resistance Against the Spanish

But Oñate was just the beginning. Even after he departed the region, he left behind oppressive policies that allowed Spanish settlers to demand tribute, in the form of goods or labor, from the Puebloans whose land they occupied. Franciscan friars repressed the Kachina religion, often calling for churches to be built directly on top of underground places of worship. Prideful conquistadors carved their names into rocks over Puebloan petroglyphs. Governors staged terrifying show trials in which they called for Puebloans to be executed over some perceived transgression, but were “persuaded” into clemency at the last minute by the friars’ pleas. Despite their facade of mercy, the friars were loyal students of the Inquisition, and nonbelievers were punished cruelly. 

But despite promises of paradise from the missionaries, the perennial problems of pueblo life persisted, and sometimes worsened, under Spanish rule. Drought ravaged the land, leading to famine and widespread hunger (and now with more mouths to feed). Apache raids had always been common, but the Spanish conducted retaliatory efforts, capturing and enslaving raiders. This only served to further anger Apache leaders, who intensified their attacks. The Puebloans who participated in these slave raids were kept at a disadvantage, being prohibited from using Spanish horses, armor, and weapons.

The final straw came in 1675. Shortly after taking office, the paranoid governor Juan Francisco Treviño ordered 47 Puebloan religious leaders arrested, believing them to be responsible for the growing unrest. Four he sentenced to death by hanging, and the other 43 to public torture and imprisonment at Santa Fe, the new capital of Nuevo México.

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  • Taos Pueblo, a base for Popé during the revolt.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Puebloans marched en masse to the city of Santa Fe, where they demanded the prisoners’ release. Since much of the city’s defensive force had joined a slave raid, Treviño found himself at a disadvantage and capitulated. One of the freed prisoners was a man from Ohkay Owingeh by the name of Popé.

Rather than return home, Popé moved to the Taos Pueblo, where he spent the next five years hatching a plan. In the summer of 1680, he sent envoys to a number of allied pueblos. They carried knotted cords, and a message: one knot was to be untied each day. When there were no knots remaining, attack the settlers. Should a pueblo refuse to participate, the others would attack them, too.

Most of the pueblos chose to side with Popé, with the exception of a handful to the south that were more integrated into Spanish life. The new governor of Nuevo México, Antonio de Otermín, first learned of the impending rebellion from the leader of a southern Tiwa-speaking pueblo.

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Otermín ordered two of the runners captured; they revealed the plot under duress. But Popé had far flung allies as well, and when he learned of this new development, he sent out another set of envoys with a new message: begin a day early. 

So on August 10, 1680, Puebloans across Nuevo México woke up, stole Spanish horses, and blockaded the roads to Santa Fe. They ransacked settler homes and destroyed churches, forcing colonists to flee. The cruelest punishments, though, were reserved for the friars. At Santo Domingo, the church’s headquarters in the region, three friars were killed and their bodies piled up before the church altar. An estimated 400 settlers, including 21 of Nuevo México’s 33 Franciscan friars, were killed on that first day of the revolt.

When word of the attacks reached Santa Fe, Otermín began dispatching regiments to defend the settlers. But it was too late; the Puebloans had established control, and the Spaniards were greatly outnumbered. So Otermín gathered as many settlers as he could in the Palace of the Governors, awaiting an inevitable attack.

The revolt came to Santa Fe on August 16. The Puebloans cut off the water supply and sent one of their leaders, a man whose name Otermín’s own account gives simply as Juan, to parley with the settlers. Juan approached on horseback, wearing Spanish armor and carrying a Spanish gun. He gave Otermín a choice: leave peacefully or die. Otermín didn’t seem to understand the severity of the situation. He reminded Juan that he had been baptized, and begged him to reaffirm his loyalty, promising that God and country would forgive him.

Related: The Spanish Reconquista: Real Military Campaign or National Myth?

Juan did no such thing. The rebel force at Santa Fe continued to grow as more men arrived from distant pueblos. They began setting fire to the homes and the church. Meanwhile, the water supply was running out. Settlers and their livestock were beginning to die of thirst. 

Otermín’s resolve solidified; he would launch an all-out assault. On the evening of August 19, he instructed all the survivors huddled in the palace to pray through the night. The next morning, he set forth. He could only mobilize a meager 100 men, and they had no horses, but they took the Puebloans by surprise. This single charge forced the rebels to retreat.

But Otermín’s men had also taken to burning down buildings to flush out the rebels. As he surveyed the carnage around him, he reached a difficult conclusion: the city of Santa Fe was lost. With so much of the city in ashes, it was no longer a viable place to live. So he packed up a caravan and headed south along the Rio Grande, towards El Paso. Puebloans closely watched the retreat from the cliffs along the river.

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  • Statue of Popé by Cliff Fragua.

    Photo Credit: Architect of the Capitol

The Pueblo Revolt was, at least for a time, a complete success. After years of strife, Popé and his army rid the entire pueblo world of Spanish settlers in just 11 days. They would stay away (barring a thoroughly unsuccessful incursion by Otermín himself) for the next 12 years. 

What actually happened in the pueblos during those 12 years is unclear. Some accounts have Popé riding from one pueblo to another, demanding the destruction of any remaining vestiges of Spanish influence. While some did renounce their baptismal names, divorce the spouses they had married in the church, and destroy the crops and livestock that had been introduced by the Spanish, others apparently did not. The Spanish reconquistadors who visited the pueblos in 1692 found evidence that some pueblos still raised pigs and cattle and grew fruit trees.

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When reconquest eventually came to Nuevo México, it was only in response to a threat from the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. La Salle swore in 1684 to take northern Mexico from the Spanish, and so the crown decided to preventatively reestablish control north of El Paso. (La Salle would get hopelessly lost on the way there and eventually be murdered during an ambush—possibly by one of his own disgruntled men—but the Spanish didn’t know that.) 

The 1692 reconquest was led by Diego de Vargas. He managed to persuade the Puebloans to acquiesce to Spanish rule without any bloodshed. Smaller revolts over the ensuing years were unsuccessful and quickly stamped out.

But even after Spanish control had been reinstated, things were different. There was no longer a policy of forced labor. The Kachina religion was no longer suppressed. The Spanish even established the office of a public defender to represent Puebloan interests in the courts. The Puebloans had demonstrated their strength in unity, and as a direct result the Spanish would take their interests seriously.