Juan de Oñate

Juan Oñate

Oñate Monument Center, Alcalde, NM
1st Spanish Governor of New Mexico
In office
November 1598  18 April 1608
Succeeded by Cristóbal de Oñate (son)
Personal details
Born 1550
Zacatecas in modern-day Mexico
Died "on or about June 3" 1626 (aged 76) [1]
Guadalcanal, Seville, Spain
Occupation explorer and governor of New Mexico
Texas Historical Marker for Don Juan De Onate and El Paso Del Rio Norte

Juan de Oñate y Salazar (1550–1626) was a conquistador from New Spain, explorer, and colonial governor of the Santa Fe de Nuevo México province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. He led early Spanish expeditions to the Great Plains and Lower Colorado River Valley, encountering numerous indigenous tribes in their homelands there. Oñate founded settlements in the province, now part of the present-day American Southwest.


Early years

Oñate was born either in 1550 or 1552, at Zacatecas in New Spain (colonial México) to a family of Spanish-Basque colonists and silver mine owners. His father was the conquistador and silver baron Cristóbal de Oñate, a descendant of the noble house of Haro. His mother was Doña Catalina Salazar y de la Cadena who was a descendant by her maternal line of a famous Jewish converso family, the Ha-Levi's.[2] His ancestor Cadena fought in the 1212 Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in Al-Andalus, and was the first to break through the line of defense protecting Mohammad Ben Yacub. The family was granted a coat of arms, and thereafter were known as "Cadenas".[3]

Juan de Oñate married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, granddaughter of Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of the Triple Alliance, and the great-granddaughter of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma Xocoyotzin.[4]

Governship and 1598 New Mexico expedition

In response to a bid by Juan Bautista de Lomas y Colmenares, and subsequently rejected by the King, in 1595 Philip II's Viceroy /Luis de Velasco selected Oñate from two other candidates to organize the resources of the newly acquired territory.[5]

The agreement with Viceroy Velasco tasked Oñate with two goals; the better-known aim was to explore and colonize the unknown lands annexed into the New Kingdom of León y Castilla (present day New Mexico) and the Viceroyalty of New Spain. His second goal was to capture Capt. Francisco Leyva de Bonilla (a traitor to the crown known to be in the region) as he already was transporting other criminals. His stated objective otherwise was to spread Catholicism by establishing new missions in Nuevo México. Oñate is credited with founding the Province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México, and was the province's first colonial governor, acting from 1598 to 1610. He held his colonial government at Ohkay Owingeh, and renamed the pueblo there 'San Juan de los Caballeros'.

In late 1595, the Viceroy de Zúñiga, followed his predecessor's advice and in the summer of 1596 delayed Oñate's expedition in order to review the terms of the original agreement signed, before the previous Viceroy had left office. In March 1598, Oñate's expedition moved out and forged the Rio Grande (Río del Norte) south of present-day El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in late April.

On the Catholic calendar day of Ascension, April 30, 1598, the exploration party assembled on the south bank of the Rio Grande. In an Ascension Day ceremony, Oñate led the party in prayer, as he claimed all of the territory across the river for the Spanish Empire. Oñate's original terms would have make this land a separate viceroyalty to the crown in New Spain; this move failed to stand after de Zúñiga reviewed the agreement.

All summer, Oñate's expedition party followed the middle Rio Grande Valley to present day northern New Mexico, where he engaged with Pueblo Indians. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, a captain of the expedition, chronicled Oñate’s conquest of New Mexico’s indigenous peoples in his epic Historia de la Nueva México, published in 1610.[6]

Acoma War

A great mistrust had been fostered amongst the Pueblo peoples before Oñate arrived. He himself would soon gain a reputation among the Spanish colonists and indigenous people as stern, if not dangerous. In October 1598, a skirmish erupted when a squad of Oñate's men demanded supplies from Acoma Pueblo. Trade had failed over provisions that the Acoma themselves needed to survive the oncoming winter. The Acoma resisted and 11 Spaniards were killed including Onate's nephew, Juan de Zaldívar.[7]

In January 1599, Oñate retaliated for the loss of his nephew by sending Juan's brother, Vicente de Zaldívar, on an offensive known as the Battle of Acoma Pueblo. The retaliatory strike killed hundreds and ended with the capture of about 500 villagers, mostly women and children.[8] The captives were put on trial, found guilty and summarily sentenced by Onate. All men and women older than 12 were to be enslaved for 20 years. In addition, men older than 25 (24 individuals) had one foot amputated.[9][10]

Great Plains Expedition

In 1601, Oñate undertook a large expedition east to the Great Plains region of central North America. The expedition party included 130 Spanish soldiers and twelve Franciscan priests - similar to the expedition of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire - and a retinue of 130 Indian soldiers and servants. The expedition possessed 350 horses and mules. Oñate journeyed across the plains eastward from New Mexico in a renewed search for Quivira, the fabled "city of gold." As had the earlier Coronado Expedition in the 1540s, Oñate encountered Apaches in the Texas Panhandle region.

Oñate proceeded eastward, following the Canadian River into the modern state of Oklahoma. Leaving the river behind in a sandy area where his ox carts could not pass, he went across country, and the land became greener, with more water and groves of Black walnut (Juglans nigra) and bur oak (Quercus macrocarpa) trees.[11]

Escanjaque people

Jusepe probably led the Oñate party on the same route he had taken on the Umana and Leyba expedition six years earlier. They found an encampment of native people that Oñate called the Escanjaques. He estimated the population at more than 5,000 living in 600 houses.[12] The Escanjaques lived in round houses as large as 90 feet (27 m) in diameter and covered with tanned buffalo robes. They were hunters, according to Oñate, depending upon the buffalo for their subsistence and planting no crops.

The Escanjaques told Oñate that a large settlement of their enemies, the Rayado Indians, was located only about twenty miles away in a region called Etzanoa. It seems possible that the Escanjaques had gathered together in large numbers either out of fear of the Rayados or to undertake a war against them. They attempted to enlist the assistance of the Spanish and their firearms, alleging that the Rayados were responsible for the deaths of Humana and Leyva a few years before.

The Escanjaques guided Oñate to a large river a few miles away and he became the first European to describe the tallgrass prairie. He spoke of fertile land, much better than that through which he had previously passed, and pastures "so good that in many places the grass was high enough to conceal a horse."[13] He found and tasted a fruit of good flavor, possibly the pawpaw.

Rayado people

Near the river, Oñate's expedition party and their numerous Escanjaque guides saw three or four hundred Rayados on a hill. The Rayados advanced, throwing dirt into the air as a sign that they were ready for war. Oñate quickly indicated that he did not wish to fight and made peace with this group of Rayados, who proved to be friendly and generous. Oñate liked the Rayados more than he did the Escanjaques. They were "united, peaceful, and settled." They showed deference to their chief, named Caratax, whom Oñate detained as a guide and hostage, although "treating him well."[14]

Caratax led Oñate and the Escanjaques across the river to a settlement on the eastern bank, one or two miles from the river. The settlement was deserted, the inhabitants having fled. It contained "about twelve hundred houses, all established along the bank of another good-sized river which flowed into the large one [the Arkansas].... the settlement of the Rayados seemed typical of those seen by Coronado in Quivira in the 1540s. The homesteads were dispersed; the houses round, thatched with grass, large enough to sleep ten persons each, and surrounded by large granaries to store the corn, beans, and squash they grew in their fields." With difficulty Oñate restrained the Escanjaques from looting the town and sent them home.

The next day the Oñate expedition proceeded onward for another eight miles through heavily populated territory, although without seeing many Rayados. At this point, the Spaniards' courage deserted them. There were obviously many Rayados nearby and soon Oñate's men were warned that the Rayados were assembling an army. Discretion seemed the better part of valor. Oñate estimated that three hundred Spanish soldiers would be needed to confront the Rayados, and he turned his soldiers around to return to New Mexico.

Return to Nuevo México

Oñate had worried about the Rayados hurting or attacking his expedition party, but it was instead the Escanjaques who repelled his men on their return to New Mexico. Oñate described a pitched battle with 1,500 Escanjaques, probably an exaggeration, but many Spaniards were wounded and many natives killed. After more than two hours of fighting, Oñate himself retired from the battlefield. The hostage Rayado chief Caratax was freed by a raid on Oñate and Oñate freed several women captives, but he retained several boys at the request of the Spanish priests for instruction in the Catholic faith. The attack may have arisen from Oñate's kidnapping of Caratax and the women and children.[15]

Oñate and his men returned to San Juan de los Caballeros, arriving there on November 24, 1601[16] without any further incidents of note.

Contemporary studies

The path of Oñate's expedition and the identity of the Escanjaques and the Rayados are much debated. Most authorities believe his route led down the Canadian River from Texas to Oklahoma, cross-country to the Salt Fork, where he found the Escanjaque encampment, and then to the Arkansas River and its tributary, the Walnut River at Arkansas City, Kansas where the Rayado settlement was located. A minority view would be that the Escanjaque encampment was on the Ninnescah River and the Rayado village was on the site of present-day Wichita, Kansas.[17] Archaeological evidence favors the Walnut River site.[18]

Authorities have speculated that the Escanjaques were Apache, Tonkawa, Jumano, Quapaw, Kaw, or other tribes. Most likely they were Caddoan and spoke a Wichita dialect. We can be virtually certain that the Rayados were Caddoan Wichitas. Their grass houses, dispersed mode of settlement, a chief named Catarax (Caddi was a Wichita title for a chief),[19] the description of their granaries, and their location all are in accord with Coronado's earlier description of the Quivirans. However, they were probably not the same people Coronado met. Coronado found Quivira 120 miles north of Oñate's Rayados. The Rayados spoke of large settlements called Tancoa — perhaps the real name of Quivira — in an area to the north.[20] Thus, the Rayados were related culturally and linguistically to the Quivirans but not part of the same political entity. The Wichita at this time were not unified, but rather a large number of related tribes scattered over most of Kansas and Oklahoma, so it is not implausible that the Rayados and Escanjaques spoke the same language, but were nevertheless enemies.

Oñate's 1605 "signature grafitti" on Inscription Rock,
in El Morro National Monument.

Colorado River Expedition

Oñate’s last major expedition went to the west, from New Mexico to the lower valley of the Colorado River.[21] The party of about three dozen men set out from the Rio Grande valley in October 1604. They traveled by way of Zuñi, the Hopi pueblos, and the Bill Williams River to the Colorado River, and descended that river to its mouth in the Gulf of California in January 1605, before returning along the same route to New Mexico. The evident purpose of the expedition was to locate a port by which New Mexico could be supplied, as an alternative to the laborious overland route from New Spain.

The expedition to the lower Colorado River was important as the only recorded European incursion into that region between the expeditions of Hernando de Alarcón and Melchior Díaz in 1540, and the visits of Eusebio Francisco Kino beginning in 1701. The explorers did not see evidence of prehistoric Lake Cahuilla, which must have arisen shortly afterwards in the Salton Sink.

They mistakenly thought that the Gulf of California continued indefinitely to the northwest, giving rise to a belief that was common in the 17th century that the western coasts of an Island of California were what was seen by sailing expeditions in the Pacific.

Native peoples

Native groups observed living on the lower Colorado River, were, from north to south, the Amacava (Mohave), Bahacecha, Osera (Pima), at the confluence of the Gila River with the Colorado, in a location later occupied by the Quechan, Alebdoma.

Seen by Oñate below the Gila junction but subsequently reported upstream from there, in the area where Oñate had encountered the Coguana, or Kahwans, Agalle, and Agalecquamaya, or Halyikwamai, and the Cocopah.

Concerning areas that the explorers had not observed directly, they gave fantastic reports about races of human monsters and areas said to be rich in gold, silver, and pearls.

Later life

In 1606, Oñate was recalled to Mexico City for a hearing into his conduct. After finishing plans for the founding of the town of Santa Fé, he resigned his post and was tried and convicted of cruelty to both natives and colonists. He was banished from Nuevo México, but on appeal was cleared of all charges.

Eventually Oñate went to Spain, where the king appointed him head of all mining inspectors in Spain. He died in Spain in 1626. He is sometimes referred to as "the Last Conquistador."[22]

Historic Marker at "Paraje de Fra Cristobal" Rio Grande crossing.


Oñate is honored by some for his exploratory ventures, but is vilified by others for his cruelty to the Keres people of Acoma Pueblo.

New Mexico

In the Oñate Monument Visitors Center northeast of Española is a 1991 bronze statue dedicated to the man. In 1998 New Mexico celebrated the 400th anniversary of his arrival. That same year someone cut off the statue's right foot[23] and left a note saying, "Fair is fair." Sculptor Reynaldo Rivera recast the foot, but a seam is still visible. Some commentators suggested leaving the statue maimed as a symbolic reminder of the foot-amputating Acoma Massacre.

Oñate High School in Las Cruces, New Mexico and Oñate Elementary School in Gallup, New Mexico are named after Juan de Oñate. The historic central business district of Española, New Mexico is named Paseo de Oñate, also known as Oñate Street.

In 1614, Oñate was exiled from what is now New Mexico and charged with mismanagement and excessive cruelty, especially at Acoma Pueblo in 1599, where he ordered the right foot chopped off of 24 Acoma warriors. Males between the ages of 12 and 25 were also enslaved for 20 years, along with all of the females above the age of 12. When King Phillip of Spain heard the news of the massacre and punishments, Oñate was brought on 30 charges of mismanagement and excessive cruelty in suppressing Indian uprisings. He was found guilty of cruelty, immorality and false reporting and returned to Spain to live out the remainder of his life. 2014 marked the 400th anniversary of Juan de Oñate’s exile from New Mexico. Despite his atrocities, Oñate is still celebrated today at the Española Valley Fiestas. [24]


In 1997, the City of El Paso hired a sculptor, John Sherrill Houser, to create a statue of the conquistador. In reaction to protests, two city councilmembers retracted their support for the project;[23] The $2,000,000 statue took nearly nine years to build and was stationed in the sculptor's Mexico City warehouse. The statue was completed in early 2006. In pieces and transported on flatbed trailers, it was brought to El Paso during the summer and was installed in October. The controversy over the statue prior to its installation was the subject of the documentary film The Last Conquistador, presented in 2008 as part of PBS' P.O.V. television series.[25]

The City of El Paso unveiled the eighteen ton, 34-foot-tall (10 m) statue in a ceremony on April 21, 2007. Oñate is mounted atop his Andalusian horse while holding the La Toma declaration in his right hand. The statue was welcomed by segments of the local population and also by the Spanish Ambassador to the United States, Carlos Westendorp. According to Houser, it is the largest and heaviest (bronze) equestrian statue in the world. Acoma tribal members from New Mexico were present and protested the statue.

See also


  1. Simmons, Marc, ‘’The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest’’, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1991 p.193-94
  2. Simmons, Marc, The Last Conquistador:Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1991, p. 30
  3. La Calle de Cadena en Mexico," pps. 1—46, Guillermo Porras Munoz
  4. L. Thrapp, Dan Encyclopedia of Frontier Biography: G-O, University of Nebraska Press, 1991, p. 1083
  5. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/kcc/chap3.htm
  6. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá (1992). Miguel Encinias; Alfred Rodríguez; Joseph P. Sánchez, eds. Historia de la Nueva México, 1610 : a critical and annotated Spanish/English edition. Paso Por Aqui Series on the Nuevomexicano Literary Heritage. Translated by Joseph P. Sánchez. UNM Press. ISBN 0826313922 via Google Books.
  7. "San Gabriel de Yunque-Ouinge: San Juan Pueblo, New Mexico". Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary: American Latino Heritage. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior.
  8. Simmons, p. 143
  9. Simmons, p. 145
  10. Ramon A. Gutierrez (February 1, 1991). When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846. Stanford University Press. p. 53.
  11. Bolton, Herbert Eugene, ed. Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916, 250-267
  12. Bolton, 257
  13. Bolton, 253
  14. Vehik, Susan C. "Wichita Culture History," Plains Anthropologist,Vol 37, No. 141, 1992, 327
  15. Bolton, 264
  16. http://www.ghosttowns.com/states/nm/yunqueyunque.html
  17. Vehik, Susan C. (1986). "Onate's Expedition to the Southern Plains: Routes, Destinations, and Implications for Late Prehistoric Cultural Adaptations". Plains Anthropologist. 31 (111): 13–33.
  18. Hawle, Marlin F. European-contact and Southwestern Artifacts in the lower Walnut Focus Sites at Arkansas City Kansas, Plains Anthropologists, Vol. 45, No. 173, Aug 2000
  19. The Pawnee Indians. George E. Hyde 1951. New edition in The Civilization of the American Indian Series, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1974. ISBN 0-8061-2094-0, page 19
  20. Vehik, 22-23
  21. Hammond, George P., and Agapito Rey, Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1953; Laylander, Don, "Geographies of Fact and Fantasy: Oñate on the Lower Colorado River, 1604-1605," Southern California Quarterly, Vol. 86, No. 4, 2004, 309-324.
  22. Simmons, Marc, The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1991, book title
  23. 1 2 Ginger Thompson. "As a Sculpture Takes Shape in Mexico, Opposition Takes Shape in the U.S.," The New York Times, January 17, 2002. Retrieved 2008-07-15.
  24. Matthew J. Martinez. "Remembering 400 Years of Exile".
  25. POV - The Last Conquistador

External links

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 12/1/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.