Revolt In The Pueblos

Few episodes in the long, bloody chronicle of the subjugation of the Indian were more violent than the Pueblo uprising of 1680. Organized and led by the mysterious medicine man, Popé, the New Mexico Indians drove an entire Spanish colony from their land- the one completely successful revolt against the rule of the white man in American history. The story of Popé and the struggle of his people Is taken from Alvln M. Josephy, Jr.’s book on great Indian chiefs, due this fall from Viking.

--The Editors

In the year 1598, two decades before the English Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, an expedition of several hundred Spanish colonists—led by Don Juan de Ofiate, and complete with eleven Franciscan friars, a herd of seven thousand bawling cattle, a column of helmeted troops in metal and leather armor, and a long, creaking line of supply carts—lumbered north across the burning deserts of Mexico to the fabled Rio Grande. On the banks of that river, on April 30, slightly south of the future townsite of El Paso, they paused in a sheltering grove of dusty cottonwoods, and before a cross and the royal standard of the king of Spain took possession “once, twice, and thrice,” of all the “lands, pueblos, cities, villas, of whatsoever nature now founded in the kingdom and province of New Mexico … and all its native Indians.”

For eighty-two years thereafter, in that remote and curtained part of the continent far beyond the horizon of the European colonies being created on the Atlantic seaboard, successive generations of Spanish governors, priests, troops, and settlers extended their reign over a beautiful but harsh wilderness of mesas, plateaus, and river valleys, forcing Indians to submit to the two majesties of church and state, and impressing thousands of them into a cruel encomienda system of serfdom. Then, suddenly, in 1680, it was all over. In one of the most dramatic uprisings in American Indian history, the oppressed natives struck furiously for their freedom. Streaming from pueblos and cornfields in every part of the province, they slew 400 Spaniards, drove 2,500 others in shock and terror back to Mexico, and in a few weeks swept their country clean of the white man’s rule.

Their stunning triumph, never again matched by natives in the New World, was organized and led by a shadowy Pueblo Indian medicine doctor called Popé, who is still little known to history. To the battered Spaniards, who spent the next twelve years trying to regain the province, defeat was humiliating enough. But it was added gall that an idolatrous medicine man, obviously an agent of the powers of darkness, had been the instrument by which the might and power of the Spanish Crown and the True Faith had been overthrown and chased in ignominious flight from the land.

During their long rule, the Spaniards thought they had come to understand the Pueblo people. There were more than sixteen thousand of these Indians, occupying about seventy different sites, some widely separated, on the tops of steepwalled mesas and in the plains and valleys from present-day Arizona to the mountains east of the Rio Grande. Each settlement, originally something of an independent city-state, was gathered around a single communal hive of apartment-like rooms, made of adobe and joined together in a sprawling building that rose several stories high and looked like reddish-brown cubes set back on terraces, one above the other. Despite the similarity of their homes, not all the natives were alike in customs, backgrounds, or languages. In the chromatic, rocky desert of the West were Zunis and Hopis, and along the Rio Grande were Keres, Tewas, and others among whom the Spaniards settled, calling all of the Indians Pueblos (the word in Spanish means town, or village) for the city-like aspect of their terraced buildings.


All of them, as they sometimes demonstrated, could fight fiercely in defense of their homes, but generally they were a peaceful and mild-natured people, sometimes superstitious and troublesome to their Spanish masters, but more often docile and obedient. It was inconceivable to the conquerors that so pacific a subject nation, which had never waged a war of aggression against other Indians, would seriously rise against a colony of Spain, whose armies of conquistadors had crushed the empires of powerful caciques and sun gods everywhere south of the Rio Grande; and even as they fled back to the safety of Mexico after the revolt, the refugees from Santa Fe blamed it all on the single satanic instrument, Popé, who in some terrible way had been able to stir up the gentle Pueblos and under his spell “had made them crazy.”

Who Popé was in the secret and awesome scheme of native life, and how he had managed to arouse his people in such a sudden and concerted uprising throughout the province, was beyond the comprehension of the desperate Spaniards, who asked every friendly Indian along their escape road, “What was the reason for it?” Even when one old native, whom they dragged from his horse, told them that the Indians resented what the Spaniards had taken away from them—their ancestral ways of life and the right to their own beliefs—they thought he was bewitched. Like other white men in generations still to come, they shrugged off as savage stubbornness man’s longing to be free, and the patriotic motive behind the hatred and terror of Popé and his wildly screaming Indians eluded them entirely. The uprising was a simple struggle to restore the past, but the Spaniards could not understand it because they could not abide what had been.