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Pueblo Revolt of 1680

America's First Revolution

The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was one of the most significant events in New Mexico’s history. Though the revolt wasn’t successful in terms of permanently driving the Spanish from New Mexico, it was successful in terms of curtailing the cruelty and exploitation exhibited by the Spanish prior to the revolution. It was not the first act of resistance. There were constant uprisings in the northern pueblos in response to Spanish exploitation, abuse and oppression, with the Coronado expedition establishing a precedent for the atrocities that would follow.


The Coronado expedition was dispatched to the region in 1540 to look for gold, silver, the silk and spice routes of the Indies, and land that could be used for forced-labor encomienda estates, a common and profitable practice in the Spanish controlled provinces of Mexico. The expedition was a commercial enterprise, privately funded by Viceroy Mendoza in Mexico City and Coronado’s wife. 2000 troops, a mix of Spanish soldiers and their Indian allies from Mexico, traveled to the Zuni community of Hawikuh, attacking and seizing the city, despite the obvious lack of gold.


Coronado hadn’t anticipated the harsh conditions. Marching across the arid terrain of southern New Mexico depleted their food supplies. By the time he reached Hawikuh Coronado’s troops were starving, and increasingly mutinous as they realized the reports of wealth and abundance in the northern lands were lies.


The Zuni were already aware of Spanish exploits in Mexico. The trade routes connecting Mexico to other regions were well established, with those engaged in trade serving as the news outlets of their day. By the time Coronado arrived at Hawikuh, the Zuni had relocated their women and children to their impregnable mesa top sanctuary atop Dowa Yalanne. The warriors of Zuni stood ready to defend their communities, but the Spanish prevailed, through a combination of greater numbers and weapon superiority.


For the next several months Coronado occupied Hawikuh, putting an enormous strain on the Zuni’s food supply. Representatives from Pecos Pueblo traveled to Zuni to meet with the Spanish, offering to guide them to wealthy tribes to the east. Pecos, as a large community, heavily reliant on trade with both pueblos and plains, had ongoing conflict with raiding parties from eastern tribes. Dispatching the Spanish to deal with them, while allying with a new trading partner, probably seemed like a good idea at the time. While traveling to Pecos, Coronado’s emissary encountered the Tiguex communities farming the fertile flood plains of the Rio Grande near present day Bernalillo. Given the rapidly dwindling food supply in Zuni, Coronado decided to set up his winter camp in one of the Tiguex pueblos, advancing with his troops to seize the community in the fall of 1540.


The residents were summarily evicted, with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Whereas many accounts imply that the inhabitants of the pueblo complied peacefully, archaeological evidence discovered in the 1930s suggests there was a battle. That seems logical. Peacefully yielding your town to an invader seems unlikely; however, these communities were comprised of farmers, ill-equipped to defend themselves against a large army.


Coronado used the village as a military base, demanding supplies from the Tiwa pueblos, as well as the Keres and Tewa pueblos north of Tiguex. For the first couple of months the Spanish traded with the neighboring pueblos, but as provisions became scarce the pueblos refused to give up more of their food. They needed it to survive the winter.


Coronado ordered his men to take what they needed by force. The post-harvest cornstalks, normally saved for cooking and heating fuel during the winter, was fed to the Spanish livestock, leaving the pueblos both hungry and cold. Women of the pueblo were raped by the Spanish soldiers. By December the Tiwas retaliated, killing some of the expedition’s horses and mules. Coronado responded by declaring a war of “fire and blood,” which we now call the Tiguex War. He dispatched a large force of soldiers to attack a neighboring Tiwa village, Arenal. All of Arenal’s defenders were killed, including 30 men burned alive at the stake. The Tiwas abandoned their community on the river banks, retreating to a mesa-top stronghold. Coronado couldn’t breach their defenses so he laid siege from January – March of 1541 until the Tiwa ran out of food and water. They tried to escape, but were captured, with the Spanish killing almost all of the men and most of the women. The women who remained were enslaved for the duration of Coronado’s occupation. Though Coronado left in 1541, and it would be 39 years before the Spanish returned, he devastated the Tiguex communities. They never fully recovered.


The Sandia Pueblo land grant was created in 1748 for several Puebloan refugees who had fled Spanish occupation by living with the Hopi in western Arizona. Sandia Pueblo is currently the only Tiwa community remaining in the area that Coronado attacked, although 15 other Tiwa, Keres, Tewa, and Towa pueblos still remain on or near the same sites where Coronado found them in 1540.

When Juan de Oñate returned to colonize the region in 1598, he brought both settlers and a pack of Franciscan padres. Though the purported purpose of ecclesiastical involvement was to ‘save souls,’ the underlying motives were control, subjugation and exploitation of the indigenous people; deliberate cultural genocide, borne of a sense of manifest destiny imbued by extreme ethnocentrism.


Oñate divided the territory into 7 provinces, dispatching priests to each one. The process involved reducing the number of pueblos through consolidation so the population would be easier to control, convert and tax, a policy refered to as reducciones de indios. This empire building policy also provided a larger, more concentrated, labor force for both the civil authorities and clergy to exploit.


A few of the Franciscan priests initially tolerated manifestations of the old religious practices as long as the Puebloans attended mass and maintained a public veneer of Catholicism. Others weren’t as tolerant, establishing totalitarian theocracies in their designated provinces, characterized by ruthless suppression of religious practices and persistent abuse of Pueblo labor. Kivas were destroyed, ceremonial practices were forbidden, sacred objects were desecrated or destroyed. The policy of encomiendas, which authorized demands of fealty, tribute and labor from the natives, created a strain on civilizations that already struggled to survive the winter months without starving. In response, the pueblos frequently rose against their oppressors, but the uprisings usually involved a handful of pueblos, with insufficient warriors and weapons to be successful. Often plots were discovered and ruthlessly crushed before they could organize effectively, with dissidents killed or sold into slavery.


In 1598, Acoma refused to pay the “food tax” demanded by the Spanish. The Acoma leader, Zutacapan, found out that the Spanish intended to invade Acoma. He was aware of the brutal and extreme retaliation experienced by other villages. Initially, Acoma tried to negotiate. Oñate sent his nephew, Captain Juan de Zaldívar, to the pueblo to consult with Zutacapan. When Zaldivar arrived on December 4, 1598, he took 16 of his men up the mesa and demanded food. After being denied, the Spaniards assaulted some of Acoma’s women, provoking a confrontation with the warriors of the village. A fight ensued, leaving Zaldivar and eleven of his men dead. When Oñate learned of the incident, he ordered Juan de Zaldivar's brother, Vicente de Zaldívar, to punish the Acoma. With about 70 soldiers, Vincente de Zaldivar left San Juan Pueblo in late December, arriving at Acoma Pueblo on January 21, 1599.


The battle began the following morning, January 22, 1599. It lasted three days. On the third day, Zalvidar and twelve of his men ascended the mesa and opened fire on the pueblo with a cannon. The conquistadors stormed the village. Out of the estimated 6,000 people living at or around Acoma Pueblo in 1599, at least 2,000 were warriors. Of the 2,000, about 500 were killed in the battle, along with about 300 women and children. Approximately 500 people were captured and sentenced to a variety of punishments. Every male over the age of 25 would have his right foot cut off and be enslaved for a period of 20 years (this sentence was carried out on 24 warriors). Males between the ages of 12 - 25 were enslaved for 20 years along with all females over the age of 12. 60 of the youngest women were deemed not guilty and sent to Mexico City where they were "parceled out among Catholic convents,” though some historians believe they were eventually sold into slavery. Two Hopi men were taken prisoner at the pueblo, each had one of his hands severed. They were released to provide a warning to other pueblos about the cost associated with defying Spanish rule.


Oñate’s actions in Acoma were not only traumatizing to Acoma, but shocking and appalling to the other indigenous communities as well. Despite cultural and linguistic differences, the pueblos and tribes in this region were not strangers to one another. Through commerce, alliances, peace and war, they had interacted for centuries. News of conflict, uprisings, Spanish misdeeds, battles and war traveled fast up and down the Rio Grande, with localized frustration and anger congealing into regional ambivalence and animosity towards the invaders. Things didn’t improve in the 1600s.

Backed by armed force and not reticent to use the whip to force the local population to comply, Catholic missionaries attempted to eradicate the ancestral Pueblo world in every respect, dictating what people could believe and how they could marry, work, live their lives, and pray. The Spanish civil authorities, clergy and military vied for the tribute and labor of the local population, leading to persistent conflict between church and state, with the inhabitants of the pueblo caught in the crossfire. Tensions increased among the Spanish soldiers seeking wealth, the priests needing wealth to build churches, and the Indians whose labor and resources were exploited by both.


By 1626, the Spanish had established the inquisition in Abo, one of the Salinas pueblos. Bernardo López de Mendizábal served as governor of New Mexico between 1659–1660. He attempted to curtail the powers of the priests, prohibiting them from forcing the native population to work for free and acknowledging the right of the indigenous people to worship according to their traditions, including performing the sacred dances banned by the Franciscans. In 1660 he was convicted of heresy and condemned to prison by the Inquisition based on 33 counts of malfeasance and the practice of Judaism. The priests won and the policy of religious intolerance resumed. From 1645 on there were several abortive revolts, after each of which medicine men were singled out for reprisals.


The 1660s and 1670s were characterized by drought and unusually high temperatures, making life increasingly difficult for both the Indians and Spaniards. Fray Alonso de Benavides wrote multiple letters to the King of Spain, noting "the Spanish inhabitants and Indians alike are forced to eat hides and straps of carts.” All of the indigenous people, from the Puebloans to the Apache, Navajo and Comanche were starving. Apache, Comanche and Navajo raiding parties became a frequent and persistent problem for the pueblos, ravaging communities already beset by famine. With no food in the villages, and little in the way of commodities to steal, the raiders took people, selling them into slavery in exchange for food. The Spanish soldiers and Pueblo warriors couldn’t quell the attacks. The Spanish exacerbated the tension by seizing crops and possessions, leaving the Pueblos with nothing. The Pueblos attributed their hardships, and the prolonged drought, on the disruption of their religious practices. A population estimated to be 40,000-80,000 in the mid-1500s was reduced to an estimated 15,000 by the late 1600s due the impact of violence, forced labor, European diseases and famine.

The unrest among the Pueblos came to a head in 1675. Governor Juan Francisco Treviño ordered the arrest of 47 Pueblo caciques, a Spanish term for indigenous leaders or medicine men. The men were accused of sorcery and plotting a rebellion. Four were sentenced to hanging, with three executions carried out. The fourth man committed suicide. The remaining prisoners were publically whipped and sentenced to slavery. When news of the arrests reached Pueblo leaders, 70 warriors descended on the Governor’s office in Santa Fe demanding the release of the remaining prisoners. Governor Treviño was forced to accede to their demand, because his troops were far away fighting the Apache. With the Apache and Navajo becoming increasingly aggressive throughout the region, putting a strain on limited military resources, he wanted to avoid provoking additional uprisings. One of those released was Po’pay (Popé) from San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh).


Little is known about Po’pay prior to his arrest in 1675. It is estimated that he was born in 1630, which means he came of age during a period of enormous strife and hardship. Famine and attacks were decimating the pueblos. The Spanish were unable to protect them and, instead, were aggressively eradicating their way of life. Po’pay was described as a “fierce and dynamic individual…who inspired respect bordering on fear in those who dealt with him.”


After his release from prison, Po'pay retreated to Taos Pueblo, the northernmost outpost of the Spanish Empire. The residents of Taos had a reputation for aggressively resisting the Spanish. Po’pay began to organize and plan the rebellion. His objectives were focused and clear: drive the Spanish from ancestral land, eradicate their influence and return to the traditional ways of life. He began secret negotiations with leaders from all other pueblos. The extent of the animosity towards the Spanish is reflected in the fact that Po’pay was able to travel to over 45 pueblo towns over a 5-year period of time, meeting with the leaders of each community, without the Spanish finding out. Even the Apache and Navajo, who were traditionally perceived as enemies, participated, though little is known about their level of involvement in pre-revolt planning. Po'pay was so committed to the revolution that he murdered his son-in-law, Nicolas Bua, based on fears that he would betray the plot to the Spanish.


He gained the support of the Northern Tiwa, Tewa, Towa, Tano and Keres-speaking Pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley. Pecos Pueblo, 50 miles east of the Rio Grande, pledged its participation in the revolt, as did the Zuni and Hopi, 120 and 200 miles west of the Rio Grande respectively. The Pueblos not joining the revolt were the four southern Tiwa (Tiguex) towns near Santa Fe and the Piro Pueblos near present day Socorro. The southern Tiwa and the Piro were more thoroughly assimilated into Spanish culture than the other communities. Po’pay couldn’t risk confiding in them due to concerns about their allegiance to the Spaniards.


Prior to the arrival of the Spanish, there was no precedent for political unity among the pueblos. They were separated by distance, culture and language, interacting to trade, but otherwise maintaining their independence and autonomy. Inadvertently the Spaniards had provided the key element necessary for cooperative action…a common language. By 1680 all of the pueblos spoke Spanish.


From his base of operations at Taos Pueblo, Po’pay and his confederates laid out their plan and coordinated their attack. The date set for the uprising was August 11, 1680. Runners were dispatched to all the Pueblos carrying knotted cords. Each morning the Pueblo leadership was to untie one knot from the cord, and when the last knot was untied, that would be the signal for them to rise against the Spaniards in unison. Each Pueblo was to raze its mission church, then kill the resident priest and neighboring Spanish settlers. Once the outlying Spanish settlements were destroyed, the Pueblo forces would converge on the capital to kill or expel the remaining Spanish.


On August 9, 1680 the Spanish were warned about the impending revolt by southern Tiwa leaders and intercepted two of the runners. The runners were tortured until they revealed the significance of the knotted cord. The Spanish population of about 2,400, including mixed-blood mestizos, and Indian servants and retainers, was scattered throughout the provinces. Santa Fe was the only significant town, with a mere 170 soldiers available for defense.


When the Pueblo leaders found out that the runners had been captured and their plan had been compromised, they decided to start the revolt a day earlier. Runners were sent out with new instructions that the uprising would commence the morning of August 10th. Due to the vast distance between Taos and the western pueblos of the Acoma, Zuni and Hopi, those communities didn’t get the memo regarding changes. They followed the original timeline.


On August 10, 1680, Tewa, Tiwa, and other Keresan-speaking pueblos, and even the non-pueblo Apaches simultaneously rose up against the Spanish. The Zuni, Hopi and Acoma were a day late. In Santa Fe, Governor Otermin marshaled the city's resources to defend the capital. By August 13, all the Spanish settlements in New Mexico had been destroyed and Santa Fe was under siege. Otermin began sending out heavily armed relief parties to escort stranded colonists to the relative safety of Santa Fe. By August 15 almost 1000 people were crowded in the Governor’s Palace, surrounded by an army of 2500 Indian warriors, with no water and limited food. In the meantime, over 1000 additional survivors from the Rio Abajo, under the command of Lt. Governor Alonso Garcia, had gathered in Isleta, 70 miles south of Santa Fe. Neither group was aware of the other.


On August 21 the Spanish broke out of the Governor’s Palace, launching a costly counter attack to drive the warriors from the city, allowing the refugees time to flee. They began the long trek south. The refugees in Isleta were also heading south when they got word about the other survivors. They paused in Socorro, waiting for the refugees from Santa Fe to arrive and then traveling together on September 27th to El Paso. The Puebloan warriors shadowed them the entire way, essentially escorting them to the border, but they didn’t attack. The goal was not wholesale slaughter, because it would have been easy to eradicate the remaining Spanish as they traveled south. The goal was expulsion; a violent rejection of Spanish oppression. The revolt cost 400 Spanish lives, including 21 of the 33 priests in New Mexico; however, 2000 Spaniards survived.


After the revolt Po'pay became the leader of the Pueblo Alliance for a brief period of time. Popé and his two lieutenants, Alonso Catiti from Santo Domingo and Luis Tupatu from Picuris, traveled from town to town ordering a return "to the state of their antiquity." All crosses, churches, and Christian images were to be destroyed. The kivas were restored. The people were ordered to cleanse themselves in ritual baths, to use their Pueblo names, and to destroy all vestiges of the Roman Catholic religion and Spanish culture, including Spanish livestock and fruit trees. Popé, it was said, forbade the planting of wheat and barley and commanded those married in the Catholic church to dismiss their wives and to take others based on native traditions.


Many of the pueblos, unaccustomed to cooperative political action, and accustomed to autonomy, ignored his orders. His effort to rule all the Pueblos was resented and he was considered a tyrant by many. Additionally, there were Puebloans who had become sincere Christians, with ties of family and friendship with the Spanish.


Po’pay was deposed as the leader of the Pueblos about a year after the revolt, though he was reelected in 1688, shortly before his death. After his death the de facto confederation of the pueblos fell apart. Opposition to Spanish rule had given the Pueblos the incentive to unite, but not the means to remain united once their common enemy was vanquished.


For 12 years, the Pueblos prevented the Spanish from returning, successfully repelling attempts in 1681 and 1687. However, the prosperity Po’pay had promised didn’t materialize. Expulsion of the Spanish forces did nothing to end the drought. Ongoing crop failure and famine, absent the Spanish military presence, led to increasingly frequent and aggressive attacks by Apache, Navajo, Comanche and Ute raiding parties. Furthermore, eradicating all traces of Spanish colonialism proved to be more challenging than anticipated. Many Spanish commodities, like iron tools, sheep, cattle, and fruit trees, had become an integral part of Pueblo life. A few individuals, influenced by the teachings of the Franciscans, rescued and hid the sacred objects of their adopted religion, awaiting the eventual return of the Spanish friars.


In 1692 Diego de Vargas Zapata y Luján Ponce de Leó launched a successful military and political campaign to reclaim the territory. In August 1692, Vargas marched to Santa Fe unopposed. He stopped in Pecos Pueblo expecting a battle and was surprised to be warmly received. Pecos provided 140 additional warriors to help him retake Santa Fe. He was accompanied by a converted Zia war captain, Bartolomé de Ojeda, 60 Spanish soldiers, 100 Indian auxiliaries, 7 cannons and 1 Franciscan priest. They arrived in Santa Fe on September 13 where he met with 1000 Puebloans, promising clemency and protection if they would swear an oath of allegiance to the King of Spain and return to the Christian faith. They didn’t go for it right away. Vargas had to negotiate for several days, but after enduring a decade of endless raids, the Spanish were no longer viewed as the worst enemy. The Spanish finally wrangled a peace treaty. On September 14, 1692 Vargas proclaimed a formal act of repossession. Over the following month he visited other Pueblos, forcing acquiescence to Spanish rule, sometimes encountering resistance, often receiving a warm reception.


Though the 1692 peace accord was achieved relatively peacefully, it did not lead to a full restoration of Spanish authority, due in part to changes in Spanish attitudes and policy. New Mexico was no longer perceived as mission country, but as a buffer zone, protecting the precious silver mines in the south from the French and British who were rapidly advancing their colonial footprint in the Mississippi valley. The inhabitants of New Mexico were seen as potential allies in the game of transcontinental empire building, with each of the Euopean powers vying to claim as much of the continent as possible. This resulted in a different approach. The native population was to be courted rather than conquered. The zealotry of 17th century Franciscan “Conquistadors of the Spirit”  approach abated.


However, that doesn’t mean there was no further conflict. Vargas exerted increasingly severe control in the 1690s, again provoking ambivalence and open defiance. When Vargas returned to Mexico in 1693 to gather additional colonists and troops, he returned to Santa Fe to find 70 Pueblo warriors and 400 of their family members opposing his entry. He ordered his troops to attack, resulting in a quick, bloody recapture. The 70 warriors were executed and their families were sentenced to 10 years of slavery.


In 1696 the Indians of 14 pueblos attempted a second organized revolt, launched with the murders of 5 missionaries and 34 settlers, using weapons procured from the Spanish. Vargas' retribution was prolonged and unmerciful. By the end of the 1600s he secured the surrender of the last Pueblo town in the region. Many Puebloans fled, joining Apache or Navajo groups. Some of the pueblos were never convinced to rejoin the Spanish Empire and were far enough away to make attempts at re-conquest impractical. For example, the Hopi remained free of any Spanish attempt at re-conquest; though the Spanish did launch several unsuccessful attempts to secure a peace treaty or a trade deal. In that regard, for some pueblos, the Revolt successfully diminished the European influence on their way of life.


The 1680 uprising was not an isolated event. The 17th century was punctuated by unrest and rebellion. Many of the region’s people had been conquered and abused, but they understood that despite greater numbers, their foe was ruthless, organized, and well-armed. The Spanish possessed firearms and steel weapons superior to anything the Natives could muster. But despite the odds against successful resistance, Spanish records reflect a pattern of persistent plots and rebellion among native tribes who supposedly had been “reduced” to Christianity and Spanish ways.


While the independence of many pueblos from the Spaniards was short-lived, the Pueblo Revolt gained the Pueblo Indians a measure of freedom from future Spanish efforts to eradicate their culture and religion. Both the Spanish and the Pueblos were decimated by the revolt and its aftermath. The Spanish adapted their outlook and policies, which may have spared additional atrocities as they expanded their empire west into California. Forced labor and tributes were prohibited in New Mexico. Furthermore, the Spanish issued substantial land grants to each Pueblo and appointed a public defender to protect the rights of the Indians and argue their legal cases in the Spanish courts. The Franciscan priests returning to New Mexico altered their approach as well, becoming more tolerant of indigenous religious expression. Pueblo warriors and Spanish soldiers became allies in the fight against their common enemies; the Apaches, Navajo, Utes, and Comanche. Over the centuries of conflict and cooperation, New Mexico became a blend of all of these cultures.


Coronado's legendary Cibola was actually the Zuni village of Hawikuh. Coronado arrived on their doorstep based on the lies of a Spanish priest, who insisted that the streets were paved with gold.

After Coronado sacked Hawikuh and pillaged the Zuni food reserves, the Zuni pointed him towards Kuaua, a community of farmers on the Rio Grande. He set up his winter camp with disastrous results.


A slave of a Spanish conquistador was the first to make contact with the native inhabitants of New Mexico. After surviving the attempt to establish a Florida colony, he was killed in Zuni.

New Mexico Nomad

New Mexico Nomad