Onate the Terrible
With Coronado’s disappointment, the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola diminished, and Spain’s interest in the American Southwest likewise dimmed. Then, in 1579, the English sea dog Sir Francis Drake landed on the central California coast and laid claim to what he christened “New Albion,” using the old poetic name for England. This spurred the Spanish viceroy at Mexico City to alert the royal court in Madrid that Spain’s New World monopoly was imperiled. Embroiled in costly European wars, the Spanish crown did nothing to reinforce the apparently worthless northern frontier of its colonies for another twenty years. Finally, in 1598, an expedition was launched northward from Mexico under the ambitious Don Juan de Onate. When he reached the site of present-day El Paso, Texas, Onate claimed for Spain-and his own governance-all of “New Mexico,” by which he meant a region extending from Texas to California.
With 400 men, women, and children in tow—plus 7,000 heads of cattle—Onate colonized deep into pueblo country, depositing settlers at various sites. In no place, except at the Acoma pueblo, in western New Mexico, did he meet resistance. At Acoma, as usual, he sent an advance squad of conquistadors to tell the Indians that they were hereafter to consider themselves subjects of the Spanish crown. In response, the Indians killed 13 of the Spanish soldiers. Perched atop a high-walled mesa, the defenders of the pueblo believed their position was impregnable. But in January 1599, Onate’s troops fought their way to the top of the mesa, killed most of the pueblo warriors, then took captive 500 women, children, and noncombatant men. Of the latter, 80 over the age of 25 were condemned to the amputation of one foot and a period of 20 years’ enslavement. (Whether or not Onate considered the usefulness of 80 one-footed slaves is not recorded.) The women—as well as children over age 12—were permitted to retain their extremities, but were likewise enslaved. Children under 12 were considered ripe for conversion to Christianity and were committed to the care of priests. A pair of Hopis who had the ill fortune to be visiting Acoma at this time were seized. The governor caused their right bands to be severed, and he sent the maimed Hopis back to their own pueblo as a bloody warning of the consequences of rebellion.