A depiction of the Pueblo uprising from a Spanish perspective.
On August 21, 1680 the embattled Spanish at Santa Fe, New Mexico broke a week long siege by members of several Pueblos and fled south to El Paso del Norte abandoning the northern province of New Spain to the native residents. Despite repeated efforts the Spanish were not able to retake control of the district for twelve years. It was the first successful expulsion of Europeans by a native people in North America and only one of a handful of instances it was ever accomplished even briefly.
Spanish settlement of New Mexico dated to 1598 when several hundred Europeans established the settlement of San Gabriel across the Rio Grande from San Juan Pueblo. About 1608, they moved their capital 25 miles north to Santa Fe. Although there were frictions between the peace loving Pueblos and their new neighbors, relations were generally amiable until the Spanish began to treat the people as peons—virtual property of the Church, state, and those holding royal land grants.
By the mid-17th Century the dual systems of encomienda—a tax on food and other resources to support the Church, military, and civil institutions that was so high it frequently caused great want in the Pueblos—and repartimiento—the compulsion of set numbers of days per year of forced labor in the service of the Church, the state, and as field laborers and domestics on the haciendas caused rising resentment. Still, the Pueblos remained peaceful, grateful at least to the Spanish for protection from raids by their traditional enemies the Apache and the Navaho. They also adopted some Spanish agricultural practices.
This Pueblo Kachina dance in the early 20th Century was little changed from the practice that drew the wrath of Catholic priests.
When Padre Alonzo de Posada arrived about 1760 to become the chief Priest in New Mexico, he made open war on traditional Pueblo culture, particularly the kachina dances that were at the center of communal life. He ordered his priests to seize and destroy all of the elaborate kachina masks they could find and forbid the practice.
In 1675, Governor Juan de Trevino arrested 47 Pueblo men and charged them with sorcery. Four were condemned to death, three were hanged and the fourth committed suicide. The rest were publicly whipped in the plaza in Santa Fe and sentenced to slave labor. When much of Trevino’s garrison left to pursue Apache raiders, members of near-by Pueblos descended on the capital and feed the prisoners including Popé, a shaman of the San Juan Pueblo.
Popé began a slow, methodical organization of the Pueblos to rise against the Spanish. It took five years of secret meetings at dozens of Pueblos and persuading those with closer ties to the Spanish or who had more deeply adopted Catholicism to join him. A prolonged drought during this period aided him because the Spanish refused to let up on the demands of encomienda even as crops failed.
The drought also affected the more nomadic Apache and Navaho whose game became scarce bringing increasing raids against the Pueblos and Spanish alike. The small Spanish garrison, far from the capital at Mexico City, received scant reinforcements from the Viceroy and were spread thin over thousands of square miles. The inability of the Spanish to protect the Pueblos removed one of the few continuing reasons to remain under their yoke and the tattered veneer of military power made even the un-warlike Pueblo believe that they could rise up.
The knotted ropes that were sent to the Pueblos to coordinate the time of the insurrection.
After a final meeting at Tesuque on August 8, 1680 Popé, dispatched two messengers carrying knotted ropes showing the number of days before the revolt would begin to the Pueblos. The chief of each Pueblo was to untie a knot each day and when the last knots were untied rise up against the local priests and haciendas making a coordinated attack across the province. It was a brilliant plan, but the Spanish got wind of it and Governor Antonio de Otermin had the messengers arrested.
When the people of Tesuque found out, they rose up and attacked the local church, expelling the priest and killing one Spaniard. Padre Cristobal de Herrera returned the next day with one soldier to find the pueblo deserted. He tracked the people into the hills where they found and murdered him. The soldier fled to Santa Fe with news of an uprising.
The rebels prepare to burn the body of a priest hung from a rafter of his destroyed church.
Within days the Rio Arriba area north of White Rock Canyon was devastated and depopulated. Churches and haciendas were burned, any Spaniards who could be found—Priests (23 of who were put to death as their churches burned), men, women, and children were—were killed. Survivors fled to El Paso del Norte or to the fortified governor’s palace at Santa Fe.
The Santa Fe Pueblo and others near-by invaded the capital on August 13. The Spanish—heavily armed with harquebuses (an early heavy matchlock musket), soldiers sheathed in armor plate and armed with steel swords—were able to hold off the lightly armed Pueblo who had only bows and arrows, clubs, knives, and stones. The Pueblo, who were mainly used to defensive fighting around their towns against Apache raiders, were not used to being on the offensive, fighting in large groups or laying a siege.
The Taos Pueblo, one of the largest in the uprising, as it appeared in a 1930's era post card and much the same as during the Revolt.
They persisted, but after a few days members of some Pueblos began to melt away. But they were reinforced by others from Cochiti and Santo Domingo, led by Alonzo Catiti of Santo Domingo. The Spanish reported later to being besieged by as many as 2,500 warriors, surely a wild exaggeration.
The attackers damned the stream that brought water into Casa Reales, the governor’s palace. Within a few days the Spanish began losing their horses and pack animals. Gov. Otermin decided that they would have to make a run for it while the still could. After executing 47 warriors who had been captured in fighting that morning, he led the break-out on the night of August 21.
Over the next 12 years, Governor Otermin and his successor, Domingo Jironza Petriz de Cruzate, struck periodically at Pueblo country and once Santa Fe was briefly re-occupied. But they could not regain control.
Over time internal dissention wracked Pueblo unity. Exactly what happened is unclear. There are conflicting oral traditions and no Europeans were left alive to record the events. We know that pressure from the Apache and Navaho, as well as from the Spanish continued.
Some accounts claim that Popé became a brutal dictator, inflamed to uproot any vestige of Spanish religion or culture. These stories say that not only did he order all crosses, Bibles, and other Christian artifacts burned, but he ordered that men who had been married by the Padres to abandon their wives and take new ones by Pueblo custom. He also supposedly banned cultivation of European crops, adding to starvation. These stories were, of course, circulated by the Spanish and by the few Pueblo who remained loyal to the Church.
Other accounts have Popé retiring to his San Juan Pueblo to live in obscurity. A third story has him disappearing into the mists of time but ready to return when his people need him, a variation of many hero legends.
The Spanish--and some modern New Mexicans--honored Governor Diego de Vargas as a hero for his re-conquest of Santa Fe.
By 1692 the Pueblo were as dispirited as they were disunited. A new governor, Diego de Vargas with only six Spanish soldiers, one cannon and a number of native allies from the Piro tribes of the lower Rio Grande and some loyal Catholic Pueblo were able to bloodlessly retake Santa Fe.
There were more battles, some furious and bloody, followed by a general persecution. New Mexico was firmly back under Spanish rule within a year.
But the Pueblo did, in the long run, win a lot. The Spanish never again tried to impose encomienda or repartimiento. Priests allowed traditional cultural practices and tried to find ways to adapt them to Catholic worship instead of crushing them. The Spanish recognized the land claims of the Pueblo and their local self-government.
A statue of Pope in the New Mexico state museum.
As a result to this day of all of the tribes in what is now the United States, only the Pueblo have been able to retain most of their own land while maintaining their rich culture and much of their religious identity.
There were two other long lasting side effects of the uprising and its aftermath. The agricultural Pueblo traded the many Spanish horses that came into their possession to the north enabling the flourishing of the Plains Indian culture that developed in the 18th Century. Secondly, many Pueblo forced to flee the Spanish and the raiding Apache eventually went to join another ancient enemy the Navaho, whose culture was greatly affected by the infusion.