New Spain in North America


As the seventeenth century opened, Spain was the leading European colonial power in the Americas. Spain’s dominion in the New World was located primarily in Central and South America, where colonial authorities exploited the labor of an indigenous population that they supplemented with African slaves. As the Spanish continued their quest for gold, a passage to Asia, and the conversion of the Americas to the Catholic faith, they also sent expeditions northward, where they established smaller colonies in present-day Florida and New Mexico. Their success made Spain the only European power with an established colonial presence in North America.

Multistory Adobe Housing of the Southwestern Pueblos, Taos, New Mexico.From the Spanish word for “town,” the term pueblo (lowercase) now refers to the adobe-constructed villages. Pueblo (capitalized) Indians are native peoples from the Rio Grande Valley, as well as Zunis and Hopis. THE ESTABLISHMENT OF NEW MEXICO

By the last quarter of the sixteenth century, Spanish colonization in the Americas had taken a turn. After several decades of destructive conquest (see Chapter 1), the Spanish Crown reconsidered its policies in the New World. Facing severe internal criticism for the brutality of Spanish conduct in Mexico (especially in Bartolomé de Las Casas’s In Defense of the Indians, which appeared in 1550) and a powerful external challenge from the Protestant Reformation, King Philip II of Spain issued the Ordinances of Discovery in 1573, which renounced and prohibited the wanton massacre of Indians. “Discoveries are not to be called Conquests,” the law declared, and should be “carried out peacefully and charitably.” On this new model, missionaries would take the lead and direct the pace of all future settlement. Franciscan priests, members of a medieval religious order who had been laboring to convert Mexican Indians since 1524, now sought new

territory in which to save souls. Accordingly, in 1581, the Franciscans dispatched an expedition to learn more about the people and the terrain north of the Rio Grande.

On the basis of the Franciscan reports, King Philip authorized a prosperous miner named Juan de Oñate, who had been born in New Spain, to establish the colony of New Mexico. In the spirit of the 1573 Ordinances, the king instructed Oñate that “your main purpose shall be the service of God Our Lord [and] the spreading of His holy Catholic faith,” but he added that it would also be necessary to “reduce” and “pacify” the local population. Oñate set out from the Mexican city of Zacatecas in January 1598 with 129 soldiers, seven missionaries, more than 300 other colonists, and lots of sheep, goats, and cattle. He journeyed past long stretches of sparsely inhabited desert into the world of the Pueblos, the name that Spanish colonists coined to designate the diverse Indian peoples they encountered in the Southwest. These Indians descended from the southwestern civilizations that had dispersed after the fall of the major cities in the Four Corners region (see Chapter 1) and from other nomadic groups that had moved to the area around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Eager to secure the peaceful submission of the Indians he encountered, Oñate staged a series of theatrical ceremonies. His intent was to remind his audiences of the Spanish conquest of Mexico some seventy-five years earlier and to trumpet the benefits of Spanish Catholic rule. Everywhere he went, Oñate marched under a banner bearing the same religious image that Hernán Cortés had carried upon entering Tenochtitlán in 1519. As part of the ceremony establishing a new colonial capital in a town renamed San Juan de los Caballeros, Oñate gathered the local chiefs for a performance of a medieval play, The Christians and the Moors, set during the Spanish Reconquista (see Chapter 1). The play ends with the infidel Moors accepting Christ and submitting to Spanish rule. Oñate expected the Pueblos to get the not-so-subtle message.

Imperial Graffiti.Juan de Oñate left his mark in the sandstone of what is now known as Inscription Rock, El Morrow National Monument, New Mexico. The translation is, “Passed by here adelantado Juan de Oñate to the discovery of the sea of the south on the 16 April the year 1605.” The rock also bears much earlier petroglyphs (carvings on rock) by Pueblo Indians. Page 34

Though a number of chiefs pledged fealty to the invaders, tensions between the Spanish and the Indians surfaced quickly. In December 1598, Oñate’s nephew Juan de Zaldívar visited the pueblo of Acoma to trade

for food. Told that it would take several days to grind the quantity of corn he demanded, Zaldívar withdrew and returned three days later with a heavily armed entourage. Acoma residents killed Zaldívar and some of his party, to which the Spanish responded by launching an all-out attack. Oñate’s men razed the Acoma pueblo, killed eight hundred people, and dealt harshly with the survivors. All men and women between the ages of twelve and twenty-five were sentenced to twenty years of servitude. Older men had one foot amputated. Two Indians from other pueblos who had been visiting Acoma were sent back to their communities with their right hands cut off to warn neighboring peoples against resisting the Spanish. Clearly, peaceful missionaries were not calling the shots in New Mexico.

Oñate’s violent regime alarmed the Spanish viceroy. His brutality also alienated some of the colonists, who had grown disenchanted with the harsh terrain and were disappointed by the absence of gold. After a lengthy investigation, Spain ordered an end to the exploration of the region, rescinded Oñate’s license, and in 1608 threatened to dissolve the colony. But mindful of missionary appeals to the Crown on behalf of the Indians they claimed to have converted already, and concerned about the new English colony of Jamestown established a year earlier in Virginia (which lay much closer to New Mexico on Spanish maps than in reality), Spain elected not to abandon the project altogether, but instead to turn New Mexico into a royal colony controlled directly by the Spanish monarchy. By 1610, colonial authorities relocated the Spanish-speaking population to a new capital in Santa Fe, built mainly by Indian laborers. Henceforth New Mexico would be a marginal missionary outpost supported by a small royal subsidy.


After 1610, New Mexico became a theocracy run by Franciscan priests who had been instrumental to the missionary effort in central Mexico in the previous century. Moving north from Mexico, Franciscans established mission towns, with large churches in the center, throughout the Rio Grande Valley in what is now north central New Mexico. By 1626, twenty-six missions had been built, and half a century later, more than two thousand colonists occupied these towns. Pueblo Indians visited the missions, often receiving gifts in return for submission to baptism rituals and promises of Christian living.

From this base of operations, the Franciscans launched an attack on traditional Pueblo rites, which revolved around a culture of worship known as the katsina. Missionaries outlawed katsina dances and masks and imposed strict penalties for violations of the prohibition. More effectively, they superimposed Christian symbols and rituals onto established patterns of native worship and theology. Pueblo prayer-sticks, for example, became associated with the Christian cross, and landmarks in the Pueblo calendar, such as the winter solstice, acquired links with events in Jesus’s life. Although Indians adopted many of these Catholic practices, they resented and resisted Spanish attacks on their religious faith, which they continued to practice in underground structures called kivas.

Ansel Adams’s Photograph of the San Estevan Del Rey Mission Church, Acoma, New Mexico. This Spanish Colonial mission church was founded by Franciscans in 1629.

Franciscans also sought to subvert Pueblo gender roles and suppress Pueblo sexual culture. In Pueblo tradition, for example, weaving was men’s work, whereas housing construction belonged in the feminine domain. When the missionaries tried to impose a new division of labor, they encountered resistance. “If we compel any man to work on building a house,” one missionary noted, “the women laugh at him … and he runs away.” Spanish missionaries were even more shocked by the sexual practices of the Pueblo, which allegedly included polygamy, extramarital relations, homoeroticism, and the performance of sex acts in sacred rituals. Indeed, native attitudes toward sexuality posed major obstacles to the spread of Catholicism, which held out a model of spiritual life among priests devoid of sexual relations altogether. We have few surviving records of what Pueblo Indians thought of the Franciscans, but the Hopi word for a Spanish priest, Tota’tsi, denotes a “tyrant” or a “demanding person.”

Detail of the Earliest-Known Map of Santa Fe, New Mexico, from 1767.Spanish missionaries introduced new styles of urban design to North America, based on the 1573 “Royal Ordinances Concerning the Laying Out of Towns,” the earliest-known city planning legislation in the lands that became the United States. The original Santa Fe town plan of 1607 featured a central plaza flanked by the parish church (marked “A”) on one end and the governor’s palace (marked “B”) on the other. Question for Analysis: How does this plan of parallel and perpendicular streets around a central square differ from the grid plans of modern U.S. cities?

The encounter between Spanish missionaries and Pueblo Indians in seventeenth-century New Mexico bred conflict and animosity. Indians resented the onerous demands for corn and labor upon which the colony depended and chafed against restrictions on their religious worship. Although Spanish policies varied between more and less aggressive enforcement of laws that suppressed Pueblo culture, a general climate of hostility prevailed, punctuated by periodic local rebellions, executions of missionaries by angry Indians, and bloody reprisals by the Spanish. All of these conflicts took place against the larger backdrop of population loss. When Oñate arrived in 1581, more than eighty thousand Pueblo Indians lived in about one hundred villages.

. Fifty years later, the Indian population had been cut in half. Fifty years after that, only thirty villages survived, holding just seventeen thousand people. As elsewhere in the New World, smallpox and other European diseases accounted for most of the loss of life, but drought, crop failure, and Spanish rule contributed as well. Though many Pueblo had embraced the trappings of Christianity as a strategy for survival, by 1680 the strategy did not seem to be working. That year, Pueblo Indians throughout the Rio Grande Valley rose up in rebellion against Spanish rule, in what was the first successful war of independence against a European colonial power (see States of Emergency: The Pueblo Revolt). The Pueblo Revolt drove the Spanish governor south to El Paso and restored Pueblo autonomy in the Southwest for twelve years.


As in New Mexico, relatively few Spanish settlers lived in the colony of La Florida in the seventeenth century. Because of its strategic importance in battles with pirates and rival European colonies, Florida held many more Spanish soldiers than New Mexico, but the colony’s main business was still the spread of Catholicism. Franciscans established forty- four mission towns over a wide swath of land from Savannah all the way west past Tallahassee (see Map 2.1). By many measures their campaign was a great success. Some thirty-five thousand Indians from a range of nations and language groups entered the orbit of these missions, at least nominally embracing the Christian faith. How deeply the new religion entered native cultures and lives is harder to know. A 1612 confession manual, the oldest published text to use an indigenous North American language, instructed priests in how to ask probing questions to Timucuan Indians, designed to regulate their private lives. “Have you had intercourse with someone contrary to the ordinary manner?” one such question read. With so few priests administering confessions to so many Indians, however, the system probably had limited reach. Missionaries also tried to stamp out traditional ceremonial sports but ultimately were forced to abandon the effort.

Map 2.1 Spanish Settlements North of Mexico, ca. 1675.Although they were marginal components of Spain’s vast American empire, small Spanish settlements in New Mexico and La Florida stood at the vanguard of a century of European colonization efforts in the lands that became the United States. Page 36


On August 10, 1680, a Franciscan priest named Juan Pío visited the New Mexican village of Tesuque to perform Mass, as he did every Sunday. But on this day the village was empty. Pío found the townsmen a few miles away, armed and dressed for war. The native men he thought of as his flock promptly killed him. As reports of similar scenes streamed in to Santa Fe from across New Mexico, Spanish authorities understood that a massive rebellion was under way.

Indians had turned the tables on Spaniards in North America. About seventeen thousand men from more than twenty-five independent villages, speaking at least six different languages, managed to coalesce around a single plan of attack. The revolt was directed by a number of leaders, including a medicine man from the San Juan pueblo known as Popé. Five years earlier, when a new governor reinstated a ban on katsina ceremonies, Popé had been among forty-seven medicine men arrested and sentenced to death for violating the law. After the execution of three of the group, a party of Indians stormed the governor’s house, holding him hostage until the others were released. This incident might well have convinced Popé and others of the necessity and efficacy of organized violence.

To mobilize the force needed to overthrow the colonial regime, rebel leaders preached a powerful message of religious repentance and revival. If Indians would return to the ways of their ancestors and forsake the false gods of the Spanish, they would enjoy peace and plenty. Supporters of the movement spread their message in secret meetings that took place under the cover of Catholic saints’ day celebrations. Once a plan was in place, leaders of different villages communicated through a relay system of knotted cords carried from place to place to signify the number of days until the attack. Seizing a moment of Spanish vulnerability, when supplies were already low, the Pueblos hobbled the colony’s defenses by capturing or destroying horses and mules. Then the rebel forces divided the two halves of New Mexico, blocked the roads to Santa Fe, and began dismantling the mission system. In every Spanish outpost, bodies of priests were mutilated, Catholic icons were defaced with excrement, and settlements were razed. Those colonists who managed to escape took refuge in the governor’s home in the capital, but rebels besieged Santa Fe for nine days and cut off the city’s water supply. A final desperate counterattack by the trapped Spaniards succeeded in forcing the rebels to withdraw, but rather than wait for the next move, the settlers decided to flee the colony. Spain relocated its official base to El Paso, the first permanent Spanish settlement in modern Texas, but did not repossess the New Mexico colony until 1692.

Altar Screen, San Miguel Mission, Santa Fe, New Mexico. In the years 1610–1628, Tlaxcalan Indians under the direction of Franciscan friars constructed this church on the site of an ancient kiva of the Analco Indians. The chapel was damaged by fire during the Pueblo Revolt and rebuilt in 1710. Think About It

1. Why were the Spanish unprepared for a violent rebellion among an indigenous population that they had subjugated?

2. Why might the rebels have chosen to deface and defile Catholic religious symbols?

Florida’s Indians continued their hunting and farming practices, but the Spanish exacted heavy food and labor taxes to supply the colony’s garrisons and missions. These burdens, along with the expansion of Spanish cattle farming, put severe pressures on a population already diminished by European diseases. Indians rebelled against Spanish rule in 1645, 1647, and 1656, but Florida had the military resources to suppress them brutally and decisively. Nothing comparable to the Pueblo Revolt shook Spain’s rule in the Southeast.

View this related post: Visions of a New World.

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