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Trouble for the Spanish

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680

By Pedro Ponce | HUMANITIES, November/December 2002 | Volume 23, Number 6

Three centuries before Thomas Jefferson sent expeditions westward to explore the unknown continent, the Spanish had secured territory in the Americas. Beginning with Columbus’s arrival in the West Indies, the Spanish Empire encouraged explorers to seek land and wealth in the western hemisphere. By the 1530s Cabeza de Vaca’s reports of rich Indian cities in the American Southwest had captivated gold-hunters and missionaries.

On the Feast Day of San Lorenzo, August 10, 1680, the Franciscan priest Fray Juan Pío left early from Santa Fe to say Mass in the nearby pueblo of Tesuque. A Spanish settler living in Tesuque had been murdered the day before and Pío was preoccupied with reports of an imminent Indian uprising.

Before the day was over, Pío would disappear, his bloodstained shield found, and four hundred Spaniards, among them twenty other Franciscan priests, would be killed. After more than 140 years of submission to Spanish colonial rule, the Pueblos had united with other Indian tribes to revolt against their colonizers. Led by a medicine man known as Popé, they plundered homes and demolished churches and other signs of the Spanish empire, including government documents. The Pueblo Revolt had begun.

Spanish survivors were driven as far south as present-day El Paso. For the next twelve years, New Mexico would remain free of Spanish rule.

Today the incident offers a view of the first contact between Europeans and native peoples of the Americas. Scholars are exploring the records of colonial New Mexico, including rare Indian testimony as recorded by the Spanish and included in the government’s archives of the reconquista.

“These were not intended for publication, so there’s very little censorship,” says Jerry Craddock, director of the Cíbola project at the University of California, Berkeley. The Cíbola project is producing Spanish editions of documents related to the settlement of New Mexico. Scrutiny of the documents with an eye to linguistics and anthropology is yielding insight into the life and language of the colonial Southwest, and correcting errors that have been perpetuated through second-hand translations.

This year, under the auspices of Berkeley’s Research Center for Romance Studies, the project has published the diary of a seventeenthcentury expedition in Texas, and monographs are in the works regarding four topics: the records of the Pueblo conflict in Acoma of 1598-1599; the trial of Teresa de Aguilera y Roche, wife of a New Mexican governor, on charges that she was a secret Jew; and two volumes devoted to Pueblo Revolt documents, one of which is being edited by scholar Barbara De Marco, project manager of Cíbola.

The exploration and settlement of New Mexico began more than four centuries ago, but for De Marco, questions resulting from the clash of European and Indian cultures are still relevant. She is studying the original testimony the Spanish took from Indian witnesses to the revolt. “The testimonies of the Indians presented here are among the first written attestations of the cultural history of the present-day United States, the first fruits of the difficult grafting that we now term ethnic diversity,” she writes.

The rebellion of the Pueblo Indians--so named for the adobe or stone “pueblos,” or towns they inhabited--was the culmination of tensions that had begun the previous century with the first Spanish explorations of the Southwest. Spain profited from Mexico’s gold and silver, and ambition eventually led the empire further north. In 1540 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led a party of European explorers in search of the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola, the mythical place from which the Berkeley project’s name derives. They found that the “golden cities” were in reality the Zuñi pueblos of New Mexico, possibly perceived to be made of gold because of the way the adobe shone in the sun.

Coronado’s expedition did not discover the rumored treasure, but it set the tone for future relations in the province. Spanish explorers routinely forced Pueblos Indians to supply food and clothing for their journeys, which the Indians resented.

The Pueblos may have outnumbered the Spanish, but they submitted themselves to the tribute and Christian conversion required by the crown. Juan de Oñate established New Mexico as a Spanish colony in 1598.

But the transfer of institutions from one culture to another was not simple. Spain had an extensive legal system and throughout the colonial period, much debate focused on how to treat the peoples that explorers encountered. While Indians were seen as debased and undeserving of full citizenship, it was considered important to include them as much as possible within colonial society. A protector was appointed by the Spanish government to represent Indian legal interests. The exploitation of Indians by laity and clergy undermined the work of the protector in New Mexico, however, and added fuel to an already simmering situation.

Tensions came to a head in 1599 when Pueblos in Acoma attacked a party of Spaniards that had demanded provisions. The Spaniards burned the town and severed a foot from each Acoman male over the age of twenty-five.

The Spanish court system routinely punished disobedience with hanging, flogging, and dismemberment. The years leading up to the 1680 revolt were marked with many such instances of brutal retribution, as well as the institution of exploitative labor. Indians were forced to convert to Catholicism and native religious practices were suppressed. Masks and kivas, or underground ceremonial spaces, were destroyed, and medicine men were punished for attempted rebellions. In 1675 Governor Juan Francisco Treviño ordered forty-seven medicine men arrested after Pueblos were accused of practicing witchcraft. All were whipped and imprisoned; four were sentenced to death by hanging. Three of these sentences were carried out; the fourth prisoner committed suicide.

Religious persecution continued under Governor Antonio de Otermín, who retained Francisco Xavier, a veteran of Treviño’s administration.

Popé was one of the medicine men rounded up in 1675, and was eventually released the same year, after a group of Pueblo warriors threatened violence and revolt. Claiming he was influenced by kachinas, or divine ancestral spirits, Popé went into hiding and organized a rebellion to reestablish Pueblo traditions.

Some accounts of the uprising suggest that there was a clear line separating the conflict’s antagonists. But a look at documents of the period reveals a more complex situation. According to testimony De Marco transcribed, Popé reportedly went as far as killing his son-in-law, Nicolás Bua, to keep him from tipping off the Spanish.

A Tewa Indian identified as Juan would later state that the revolt was inspired in part by fear of Popé: “He said that what he knows concerning this question is that not everyone joined the rebellion willingly, that the principal leader is an Indian called Popé, born in the pueblo of San Juan, and that through fear of this aforesaid Indian they all joined the conspiracy that they carried out.”

In his zeal to eliminate Spanish influence, Popé ordered that the rebel pueblos renounce the language, religion, and even the crops of the Spaniards: they were to plant corn and beans instead of wheat and barley. Some, however, continued to plant the forbidden seeds “because they had a lingering affection for the Spaniards,” according to Pueblo testimony transcribed by De Marco.

The Pueblos were not unanimous in supporting the revolt. On August 9, 1680, Pueblo representatives from San Marcos, San Cristóbal, and La Ciénega warned Otermín that a revolt was imminent. In a statement by Otermín made on that day, the governor records an ominous realization “that the Christian Indians of this kingdom are convoked, allied, and confederated for the purpose of rebelling, forsaking obedience to His majesty, and apostatizing from the holy faith; and that they desire to kill the ecclesiastical ministers and all the Spaniards, women, and children, destroying the whole population of this kingdom.”

The Pueblo Revolt has been considered a moment of unprecedented unity among the Indian population of the time. The Apaches, who were traditionally the Pueblos’ enemies, lent their support to defeat the Spanish. But De Marco says the documentary record shows that allegiances were not entirely solid. “In that testimony, you get the clear idea that there was not a unanimous front. Not all the pueblos were taking an active part,” says De Marco. “This is not a monolithic uprising, one against another.” She adds that Piro Indians from pueblos at Senecu, Socorro, Alamillo, and Sevilleta did not participate in the revolt.

Otermín attempted to reclaim the territory on behalf of Spain in the winter of 1681. But his reconquista was foiled by Pueblo fears of Spanish vengeance. Francisco Xavier, who had done much to persecute Pueblos before the revolt, was rumored to be returning to New Mexico. Xavier nearly ruined Spanish efforts in Isleta, where he assaulted an Indian upon arriving--but the Spaniards were eventually welcomed by the village, which was being threatened by a coalition of rival Indians at the time.

Isleta’s acceptance of the reconquista was the exception, however; other pueblos fled before the Spanish advance. By January 1, 1682, it looked like Pueblo forces were amassing against Otermín’s group. Poorly armed and threatened with attack, the Spanish retreated to El Paso.

It was not until ten years later that Spain reclaimed New Mexico. Without the protection of the Spanish government, the Pueblos had been vulnerable to attack by Navajos and Apaches. Dissension within pueblos and between tribes, combined with Pedro de Vargas’s more diplomatic approach, helped win back leaders in twenty-three pueblos by the end of 1692.

The drama of Otermín’s attempted reconquista is only part of the story, says De Marco. For even as Otermín and his followers battled illness, the cold, and Indian resistance, a sophisticated bureaucracy was at work. As was the custom of the time, copies of Spanish documents were preserved in Mexico City and Seville, which meant that all archives were not necessarily lost in the Pueblo Revolt. And Otermín would add to this extensive record.

“Every step of the way is documented,” says De Marco. The documents surrounding Otermín’s expedition are part of a much larger corpus of Spanish colonial records of great value to historians, linguists, and anthropologists.

De Marco points out that some accounts of the Pueblo Revolt have relied on potentially problematic versions of original documents. In 1942, editor Charles Wilson Hackett and translator Charmion Shelby published Revolt of the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and Otermín’s Attempted Reconquest 1680-1682. The work included translations of numerous documents into English, totaling more than 650 pages. But, De Marco says, the authors used copies dating from the eighteenth century for their research instead of the originals. In one instance, they translated copies found at the University of Texas rather than consulting the originals located in an archive in Seville.

The errors that can result from relying on inaccurate transcriptions can produce substantial misunderstandings in later scholarship. When Craddock compared Hernán Gallegos’s original narrative of a 1581 expedition into New Mexico with an English translation published in 1966, he discovered that Gallegos is rendered as saying of a group of Indians, “they are a very intelligent people and willing to serve.” According to Craddock, this translation is based on misreading an abbreviated word as “servicio.” Had the translators consulted the original, they would have found the abbreviation was for “juycio,” or judgment. In Craddock’s direct translation from the original, Gallegos is quoted as saying, “they are a very intelligent people and with fine judgment.”

In addition to print editions of documents, the Cíbola project staff also plans to publish editions online and on CD-ROM, where facsimiles and transcriptions of original texts will be linked electronically to information about the vocabulary and history of the period.

The language in which colonial documents were recorded can yield new information about the culture of the past. For example, the Pueblos who participated in the rebellion kept a secret count of the days left until the attack by using knotted cords: the number of knots equaled the number of days remaining before the revolt. In the Otermín reconquista testimony this device is referred to as a mecate de palmilla. Hackett interprets this phrase to mean a cord fashioned from plant fiber.

De Marco says the definition for the term does not appear in any standard Spanish dictionary. If language is the key to a culture, she says, “We need to make use of that key.” She hopes the Cíbola project will fill in some of the lacunae in contemporary understanding of the Spanish colonial period.

About the Author

Pedro Ponce is a writer in Denver, Colorado.

Funding Information

The Research Center for Romance Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, has received $200,053 to support the editions of Spanish documents of the exploration and settlement of New Mexico.