Don Juan de Oñate

Date January 14, 2008 at 11:00 PM

Categories Culture

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The causes for intermittent but continued Spanish contact with the Indians of New Mexico prior to 1598 were due to wealth and religion. The Spanish government wanted to spread Christianity to the Indians and sent missionaries for this purpose. The leaders of these expeditions were after wealth. Previously, Chichimecas Indians blocked expansion to the North, but in 1548-48, silver was found in Central Mexico and the Indians’ resistance ended. Captured Indians became slaves in the mines and slave raiders crossed into New Mexico to capture other slaves to sell them to the mine owners.

Franciscan lay brother Agustin Rodriguez, two other Franciscans, and Francisco Sanchez Chamuscado traveled North looking for an advanced civilization. They were killed near the Rio Grande River, but rumors concerning the expedition included the discovery of 11 silver mines. Bernardino Beltran, a Durangan Priest, received authorization for rescuing the party. This expedition traded with the Indians, found traces of copper, and located salt deposits.

While men of wealth were trying to obtain permission to enter New Mexico, two illegal entries were made. In 1590, Gaspar Castano de Sosa traveled with his expedition to Santo Domingo, found no riches, and settled in the area. Juan Morlete, a Spanish government official and soldier, brought the party back to New Spain. In 1593, Francisco Leyva de Bonilla took a doomed party that stayed one year at San Ildefonso Pueblo.

Finally, in 1598, Juan de Oñate entered New Mexico and established a settlement with the priority of pacification and Christianization of the Indians. The majority of the intermittent Spanish contact with the Indians in New Mexico was centered around it hidden resources. Although the missionaries were attempting to convert the Indians, the Spanish settler came to New Mexico with the idea of converting the Indians wealth into their own wealth.

Juan de Oñate’s was selected to lead a Spanish expedition of settlers into New Mexico because he was persistent and wealthy. He was not the best man for the position. The journey was a result of his own urgings. Spanish leaders selected Oñate because he was pleading to lead the first authorized group of settlers into New Mexico.

A primary reason that he was selected to become the leader of Spain's colonization effort in New Mexico was because of his prominence and wealth. Also, New Mexico's first governor supposedly had a commitment to the duties centered around the Christianization of the Indians living in New Mexico. Official conquest of undiscovered areas was authorized to the wealthy because these trips had to be financed by private parties due to Spain's unwillingness to finance expeditions into the unknown without first knowing that they would be benefited by these excursions.

Oñate would have to bear all the financial costs of the expedition. This included recruiting and supplying 200 soldiers and their families, assembling the livestock, and providing the supplies necessary for building homes on the Rio Grande. After accepting this responsibility, Oñate was authorized to make the journey.

Oñate financed the group with the intent that New Mexico would reward him with more wealth. His dream would later be shattered. Oñate was not selected because he possessed the qualities of a civic minded leader. His searches for wealth while he neglected his political commitments proved his true intentions for leading the expedition. When the Spanish government became aware of his dereliction of duties as governor of New Mexico, Oñate was removed from office.

The Juan de Oñate’s party arrived at the Tewa pueblo of San Juan near the Rio Grande. The Indians shared their homes and food with the settlers. Oñate instructed everyone to move to the west bank of the Rio Grande to built San Gabriel, New Mexico's first capital. San Juan de los Caballeros was the first headquarters for Oñate until San Gabriel was built.

Juan de Oñate was charged by the Spanish government with mismanagement and false reporting.

Juan de Oñate had few achievements and many problems during his inept reign as the first governor of New Mexico. Instead of using his power for the welfare of San Gabriel, Oñate neglected the needs of the community while trying to fulfill his needs.

Establishing San Gabriel and becoming New Mexico's founding father were the governor's only significant achievements in this state. His arrival started the first lasting settlement and ended the pattern of exploration in New Mexico followed by subsequent abandonment.

The expedition arrived at the Tewa pueblo of San Juan near the Rio Grande. The Indians shared their homes and food with the settlers. The Spanish were going to build a town next to the pueblo, but Oñate instructed everyone to move to the west bank of the Rio Grande to built San Gabriel, New Mexico's first capital.

His main purpose as governor was the pacification and Christianization of the Indians. Instead, personal greed was his hidden agenda for the expedition. Among his supplies, he brought heavy mining tools and supplies necessary for extracting silver. Oñate visited pueblos searching for signs of silver. With no riches to be found, some of his men considered mutiny. Lieutenant Villagra had to pursue four people who stole horses and headed south. After catching two of the thieves, he cut off their heads.

More problems developed for Oñate. When he decided to go west to find the seacoast, he sent for his Juan de Zaldivar and other reinforcements. Zaldivar’s party was attacked by Acoma Indians. Zaldivar and ten men died in the battle and several others were injured. Juan Zaldivar’s brother Vincente was selected to lead the retaliation attack. During the middle of January in 1599, seventy men left for the Acoma Pueblo. After reaching the pueblo, they slaughtered most of its inhabitants. Captives were brought to San Gabriel for trial.

The punishments given by Oñate were extreme. Some men had one foot cut off and served 20 years in servitude. Other captives, including women and children were all sentenced to servitude or sent to the convent. Two Hopi Indians, sentenced to have their right hands cut off, were released to tell others about the Spanish's revenge tactics.

During December in 1600, Oñate went in search of new mines, the Strait of Anian, and harbors on the South Sea. When he returned, San Gabriel was almost deserted because most of its residents had returned to Mexico City. Oñate still continued his search for silver into the Southwest. In 1607, the crown removed him from office and selected Don Pedro de Peralta as the new governor. The future of the settlement was secured.

Oñate is important to New Mexico history because he established the first community in the state. His few achievements while in office led to the growth of New Mexico. The majority of his problems while being the first governor, and his removal from office, were results of his greed. The same greed many future governors would bring to the office.

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