by Don Bullis
New Mexico’s Old Times & Old Timers
“The Pueblo Revolt of 1680”
By 1680 it had been 140 years since the first Spanish explorers led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado spent the winters of 1540-41 and 1541-42 near the present day town of Bernalillo, New Mexico. That had not been a happy event for the Pueblo Indian people. They were the victims of a war Coronado waged against them—the Tiguex War—which took many Indian lives.
It had also been more than 80 years since New Mexico was colonized by Juan de Oñate in 1598. That was likewise not a happy event for the native people because within a matter of a few months, Spanish soldiers were at war with the Pueblo of Acoma. The people of Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) also rebelled against the Spanish in 1599, only to be quickly defeated.
The Spanish goal in their new colony was the discovery of mineral wealth such as that had been found in Mexico and South America, and the conversion of the Indian population to Christianity. The Spanish soon learned that New Mexico was not rich. Mineral wealth was not found, and the land would not produce adequate crops on a regular basis. A few converts to Christianity were made, but the converts became virtual slaves, forced to toil for both the priests and the civil/military governors, as well as for their own sustenance.
Life was hard for everyone on the Spanish colonial frontier, and most difficult of all for the Pueblo people. Some of them were frequent victims of raids by nomadic Indians who stole crops and livestock. It was also a common practice by some Spanish governors to enslave Pueblo men and women who were sold to work in mines far to the south.
Worst of all, Pueblo medicine men were no longer allowed to practice the ancient rites of their religion. Some of those caught doing so were summarily executed and others were flogged.
Beginning about 1650 plots to overthrow the Spaniards began to take shape. A group identified as Tehuas conspired to “kill the soldiers and friars” during Holy Week (between Good Friday and Easter), but the plot was discovered and its leaders were captured and hanged. Another cabal, led by Estaban Clemente of Abó, was planned for Holy Week in 1670, but it, too, was discovered and Clemente was hanged.
By 1680, the Indians had had enough and the time seemed right for a change. For one thing, Spanish Governor Antonio Otermín was at odds with church leadership, and his garrison at Santa Fe was undermanned and poorly maintained. For another, an Ohkay Owingeh man named Po’pay was poised for leadership. And he had an ax to grind: he’d been flogged for practicing “black magic.” He took refuge in a kiva at Taos Pueblo where he planned a rebellion against his tormentors.
The major problem he faced was that the various pueblos did not have a common language and therefore no unified method of communication. Legend holds that Po’pay overcame that by using runners to reach each outlying pueblo with a knotted rope that specified the number of days until the revolt would take place. Probably more important was the fact that a few people at each pueblo had learned to speak at least some Spanish, so while the Indian people from the various tribes could not converse with each other in their native tongues, they could, and did, communicate in Spanish. The other problem that Po’pay and his associates had was that the Pueblos had never been really unified. Their mutual hatred of the Spanish fixed that.
Po’pay’s plan worked. On August 10, 1680, el Día de San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence Day), the Indians rebelled. Assisted by Lipan Apaches, Utes, and Navajos, the rebels killed more than 400 settlers and priests as they converged on Santa Fe. The routed Spanish retreated to the south, first to Isleta Pueblo then on to Socorro and finally to what is now the El Paso/Juarez area.
While Po’Pay’s plan had succeeded, it did not go beyond the act of driving out the Spaniards. He did not, for example, set up defensive parameters to keep the Spanish away. He hoped that without the Spanish presence, life among the Pueblos would return to the way it been more than 80 years earlier. One of the Indian rebels said this:
“[Po’Pay] commanded all the Indians to break the lands and enlarge their cultivated fields, saying that now they were as they had been in ancient times, free from the labor they had performed for the religious and the Spaniards… He said that this is the legitimate cause and the reason they had for rebelling.”
Perhaps so, but the historical disunity among the tribes returned and quarrels and feuds became problems. Po’pay became something of a tyrant and is said to have killed those who disagreed with his leadership. There was a drought, again, and not enough food to go around. The Pueblos were again plagued by Apaches, Navajos and Utes. Po’pay was deposed, perhaps only one year after the revolt, and died in 1688 or 1690, depending on the source.
While Po’pay’s stated goal was a return to Pueblo life as it had been before the Spanish arrived, there were some things of Spanish origin that the Indian people had adopted. Historian Ramón A. Gutiérrez wrote, “Iron tools had become common currency. European seeds such as winter wheat had extended the growing season. Cattle, pigs, and chickens had become the dominant source of meat for the Indians. Horses were now essential for war.”
Spaniards under the command of don Diego de Vargas returned in 1692. The reconquest was initially bloodless but the Pueblos were not completely subdued until around the turn of the century in 1701 and much blood was shed along the way. Relations between the Pueblo people and Spaniards were considerably more amiable in 18th century New Mexico.