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Early Settlement of the Southwest by Spain

Early Settlement of the Southwest by Spain


Explorations by Land. Persistent rumors of rich silver lodes north of Mexico set in motion the Spanish exploration of the American West. In 1539 Fray Marcos de Niza set out to search the region, and he heard stories of seven cities of gold and silver, named Cíbola. Between 1540 and 1542 Francisco Vásquez de Coronado followed up Nizas effort, and his men traveled throughout the West in search of the elusive cities and the treasure they were reputed to contain. In the meantime Coronado also heard of another magical city, Quivira, that lay to the east, so he roamed into present-day Kansas and Arkansas, where he found several villages of semisedentary Indians but no gold and silver. The Coronado expedition was based among the Pueblo Indians, and relations between the two groups were initially peaceful, but the Spaniards exorbitant demands for food and land turned the local population against them. The Pueblos lack of gold and silver, however, may have saved them from further depredations because Coronado retreated into Mexico and reported to his superiors that the region did not possess enough wealth to justify its colonization. For missionaries in search of souls rather than ores, however, the West remained an enticing destination. In the early 1580s two Franciscan friars, Agustín Rodríguez and Antonio Espejo, visited Pueblo country to lay the groundwork for later missionary efforts. The favorable reports

they circulated upon their return to Mexico revived official interest in settling the Southwest.

Explorations by Sea. In 1542, when Hernando de Soto died and Coronado returned to Mexico, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed up the California coast, made the first maps of what the Spanish called Alta California, and may have made contact with the Archaic Chumash Indians living in the area. For the next fifty years, however, no one followed up on Cabrillos findings. Not until 1578, when the English pirate Sir Francis Drake touched ground at the thirty-eighth parallel near present-day San Francisco and claimed California for his sovereign, Queen Elizabeth I, did the Spanish redouble their efforts to establish a claim to the Pacific coast. Over the next few years a series of expeditions carried the Lion and Castle standard of Spain further and further north up the coast, ending with Juan de Fucas landing among the Nootkas of Vancouver Island. The charts the navigators made were important, but their efforts failed to start the colonization of Alta California.

Colonization of the Southwest. Because of the glowing reports circulated by the Franciscan priests, in 1595 Juan de Oñate asked for and received permission from King Philip II to colonize the Pueblos that Coronado had visited. In 1598 he and his party of 129 soldiers and their wives and children reached the Pueblos, who had developed a resentment of the Spanish after their experiences with Coronado. Relations between the Spaniards and Indians were tense, and because the Spanish were ill equipped to produce enough food for themselves, they imposed themselves on the local population as Coronados men had done. The Pueblos, however, barely managed to store enough surplus corn to last them through the famines that were common in the arid Southwest. Oñate and his soldiers ruled with an iron fist, and revolts, starvation, and distrust came to characterize life in early San Juan de Yunque.

Conflict. Within the first year of colonization the Acoma pueblo revolted and killed several Spanish soldiers. In retaliation Oñate dispatched a small party of soldiers who made their way atop the mesa and into Acoma. In three days they destroyed the pueblo and executed nearly eight hundred men, women, and children. They also captured nearly six hundred people who were tried and found guilty of murder. Oñate sentenced all captives between the ages of twelve and twenty-five to twenty-five years of servitude, and he ordered his soldiers to sever one foot of each man older than twenty-five years. The brutal tactics temporarily repressed native discontent, but the puny Spanish force was never able to cower entirely the other Pueblo Indians.

Mission Indians. The small contingent of Franciscan friars who had accompanied Oñate to New Mexico immediately set about building churches and doctrinas. Moving slowly up the Rio Grande, the missionaries met with relatively little resistance, and their efforts produced many converts. The number of new Catholics, however, were misleading. Whereas the Jesuits accepted converts only after they had mastered the intricacies of Christian theology, the Franciscans were content to give the Indians only the barest outlines of their faith before immersing them in water. Indians who learned to sing hymns, who received a rudimentary education, who mastered Castillian Spanish, and who accepted the new Hispanic

way of life were counted among the members of the new republic of Indians. With the priests help the Pueblos learned how to raise sheep and how to cultivate new crops such as wheat, peach trees, and watermelon. Priests also challenged the powers of native healers and shamans and managed to persuade many Pueblos that they and not the indigenous spiritualists had access to the wondrous powers of the heavens.


David Hurst Thomas, ed., Columbian Consequences, Volume One: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on the Spanish Borderlands West (Washington, d.c.: Smithsonian Institution, 1989);

David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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