Date January 14, 2008 at 11:00 PM
In 1598, Spaniards came north from Mexico to plant a permanent colony in what is today New Mexico in the heart of the American Southwest. Eight decades later, Pueblo Indians destroyed the colony and drove Spaniards out of their lands. The conquered became the conquerors. That turn of events was so unusual that it continues not only to intrigue us but to demand explanation. This site and the accompany book make it easy for students to compare the work of historians, to raise their own questions, and provide their own answers about the Pueblo Revolt and its causes.
In 1680, in a swift and bloody revolt, Pueblo Indians overthrew the Spaniards who had occupied their lands for more than eighty years. Since 1598, when Juan de Oñate brought a small group of colonists into the mesa and canyon country of northern New Mexico, Spain had asserted its sovereignty over the Pueblo peoples. Spanish officials had demanded that Pueblos pay tribute to the Spanish Crown by working for encomenderos, a small number of privileged Spaniards to whom Spanish officials entrusted the Pueblos and their labor. At the same time, Spanish priests established missions in the Pueblos' farming villages and demanded that the Indians abandon their religion in favor of Christianity. Pueblo Indians, who vastly outnumbered their Spanish overlords, tolerated this arrangement for several generations.
The Pueblos, whose own cultural tradition went back at least to the time that Europeans believed the son of their god, Jesus Christ, walked on the earth, seemed ideal subjects for conversion. Like the Iberians, the Pueblos lived in towns, farmed nearby fields, and wore what Spaniards recognized as clothing. Although they were not a homogeneous people and spoke several discrete languages, Spaniards named these Indians "Pueblos" because they lived in permanent towns (pueblos) of stone or adobe, in contrast to the nomads and seminomads whose lands Spaniards traversed to reach New Mexico. For Franciscans, who insisted that Indians lived like Spaniards and tried to congregate them into towns if they did not, the apartment-dwelling Pueblos seemed a godsend. Although Franciscans failed to plant missions among Apaches, Navajos, and other seminomads who surrounded the Pueblo country, they succeeded among the Pueblos.
Until 1680, Pueblos tolerated the outsiders. An agricultural people, rooted to fertile valleys in a high desert land of little rain, Pueblos had no other place to go. Some tried to rebel, but revolts remained isolated affairs easily quashed by Spaniards. The autonomous Pueblo towns, separated by several hundred miles and at least six different languages and countless dialects, had no central government to unify them. Moreover, Pueblos knew that rebellion invited hideous retaliations. How could Pueblos forget the burning of the Pueblo of ¡coma when it offered resistance in 1598 and the punishments meted out to the survivors by Spaniards with swords of steel? Treating Indian miscreants as brutally as they treated one another, Spaniards cut the right foot off every male ¡coman over twenty-five years of age.
Then, in a few weeks in the late summer of 1680, Pueblos destroyed the Spanish colony of New Mexico. Coordinating their efforts as they had never done before, Pueblos launched a well-planned surprise attack. From the kiva at Taos, Pueblo messengers secretly carried calendars in the form of knotted cords to participating pueblos. Each knot marked a day until the Pueblos would take up arms. The last knot was to be united on August 11, but the rebellion exploded a day early. Tipped off by sympathetic Pueblos, Spaniards had captured two of the rebel messengers on August 9. When leaders of the revolt learned that they had been betrayed, they moved the attack up a day. Despite the warning, the revolt caught Spaniards off guard. They could not imagine the magnitude of the planned assault. Scattered in isolated farms and ranches along the Rio Grande and its tributaries, Spaniards were easy prey for the rebels. Governor OtermÌn estimated that the Pueblos had killed more than four hundred of New Mexico's Hispanic residents, whose total numbers did not exceed three thousand. The rebels desecrated the churches and killed twenty-one of the province's thirty-three Franciscans, in many cases humiliating, tormenting, and beating them before taking their lives.
Although scholars of American history have slighted Pueblos and Spaniards, historians who study southwestern America or Latin America have long regarded the Pueblo Revolt as an important event: one of the most successful uprisings against Europeans in the New World. The Pueblo Revolt pales next to the more enduring victory of the Araucanians, who maintained autonomy for two centuries after destroying seven substantial Spanish towns in south-central Chile in 1598-1603, but the Pueblos' achievement was significant and unusual. It marked one of the rare moments in more than three hundred years of colonial rule in the Americas that Spaniards suffered a thorough defeat by natives whom they had long subjected. Moreover, most scholars believe that the Pueblos' act of defiance assured them of a measure of freedom from future Spanish efforts to eradicate their culture.