Revolt In The Pueblos


Shortly before Christmas, Donate returned home, disillusioned at having found nothing but a harsh and empty wilderness, and aroused by the sudden threat to the future of his colony. Determined to punish the offending Indians, and by a swift and terrible example frighten any other pueblos that might be planning a challenge to his authority, he proclaimed “war by blood and fire” against Acoma, and sent a force of seventy men, heavily armed with hand weapons and two cannons, against the people of the mesa-top city. Reaching their goal, the avenging troops divided their forces, a part of them pretending to attack up one side of the cliff, while another stole unobserved up the opposite side.

The battle raged fiercely for three days, and at last the Spaniards got their whole force on top of the mesa and dragged their cannons into position against the pueblo. Loading the guns with two hundred balls apiece, they fired them point-blank into the natives’ ranks, piling up masses of Indian dead and wounded. Other soldiers set fire to the pueblos, and in the confusion and smoke of their burning village, the Indians gradually gave up the fight, throwing themselves from the cliffs or retreating to their fiery apartments to hang themselves. Almost a thousand Indians perished in the fight, and the Spaniards dragged a host of burned and wounded prisoners back with them to San Juan. Two of the captives managed to cheat their conquerors. In the Spanish capital they fastened nooses around their necks in a gesture that awed the colonists, and scrambling to the top of a tree, cried bitterly to the Spaniards, “Our towns, our things, our lands are yours,” and hanged themselves. The other prisoners were not so fortunate. The Spaniards herded them into a mock trial that found them guilty, then cut off the hands and feet of many of the adult male captives, and sentenced the women to “personal service” in the colony, a polite term for slavery.

Soon afterward, the Spaniards sacked two more pueblos that made a show of resistance, killing nine hundred Indians in one of them and returning to San Juan with a string of two hundred more captives whom they tortured or sentenced to slavery. At length, the savage destruction of the native villages and the harsh fate of the defenders cowed the rest of the pueblos, as Onate intended, and peace, enforced by Spanish arms, settled over the Rio Grande Valley, lasting uneasily under the oppressor’s hand for more than eighty years.

The governors who succeeded Onate abandoned all hope of finding treasure cities in the province, and, establishing a permanent Spanish capital city which they built of adobe in 1610 and called Santa Fe, they turned their energies to grinding profits from the only source of wealth available to them in the country, the enforced labor of the subjugated natives. To favored men around them, the governors granted encomiendas , bodies of land that they seized from the Indians, and to which they bound the native inhabitants as serfs. In addition, they ordered every native in each pueblo to pay annual tributes of cloth, maize, and personal labor to the colony, and Indians were soon working the white men’s fields, tending their goats and cattle, and manufacturing, as slave laborers, cotton shirts and numerous articles of cloth, wood, and hides which the colonists sold for themselves in the markets of Mexico.

The most relentless exploiter was the governor himself, who used his autocratic powers to amass a personal fortune before his term in office ended. With the help of a retinue of spies and assistants who encouraged graft and corruption on every hand, he demanded a share of each encomendero ’s profits, imported goods from Mexico which he forced Indians and colonists alike to buy from him at high prices, and sent back to the south long pack trains of Indianmade products which his agents sold for his personal account.

When they were not working for the governor and settlers, the natives were busy paying tribute in goods and services to the Franciscan friars whom they were forced to accept and support in their pueblos. Guarded by soldiers, the priests had courageously returned to the villages after the Acoma revolt and had stood with their wooden crosses among the Indians, preaching boldly to them about Christ. Gradually, their dedication and bravery stirred the Pueblos and gained respect and safety for them, and as the Indians moved closer about them and listened with hushed attention to their dramatic tales and heavenly promises, the friars’ faith seized the natives’ imaginations.

Despite the angry opposition of the medicine doctors, large numbers of Pueblos knelt for conversion in the sunlight, accepting, with more curiosity and expectancy than understanding, the strange ideas and rituals of the white men, and in time grafting them onto their own ancient beliefs and ceremonies in a bizarre mixture of Christianity and spirit worship. As the priest became one with his converts, the natives eagerly accepted everything else he taught them, using the new tools he gave them, learning music, crafts, and Spanish methods of agriculture, and feeling strength and pride in their new knowledge and possessions. Eventually, at the edge of each pueblo, they helped the friars rear a village church, fitting for the awesome processions, ceremonies, and worship of their new faith and symbolic of the power and wealth of their new life.