Spanish Colonies: 1492–1763

Colonization of New Mexico in the 16th Century

Pueblo Indian Life and Culture

The Pueblo Indians farmed and lived along the banks of the Rio Grande River in the Southwest.

Among the indigenous peoples of the Southwest were the Pueblos, the Apache, and the Navajo. Their ancestors had arrived in the arid southwestern corner of North America thousands of years earlier, around 7000 BCE. The Apache and Navajo moved from place to place, as their livelihood depended on hunting and gathering. The Pueblos were a diverse group that included the Zunis and the Hopis, who lived in the mountainous areas farther to the west.

The eastern Pueblos built a string of 70 permanent settlements along the Rio Grande, which today forms part of the border between the United States and Mexico. These villages, or pueblos (pueblo means "village" or "town" in Spanish), were a series of high-rise-like structures constructed from stone and adobe bricks atop flat-topped hills, or mesas. A pueblo had up to six levels, each stacked on top of the other. For security, the bottom floor had no windows or doors. Residents reached different levels by climbing ladders. Each pueblo was and is still named for its resident clan.

At the center of every Pueblo community is its kiva, an underground chamber used for religious ceremonies. One of the traditional Pueblo rituals performed in the kiva was the rain ceremony to bring needed rain to the fields. In arid periods, Pueblos used irrigation to water their crops. The Pueblos grew corn, squash, beans, sunflowers, and cotton and raised sheep for wool. They were and still are master craftspeople, creating fine weavings and unique pottery.

Despite living in relatively unprotected areas, the Pueblo people had never been occupied. This changed in 1598.

Colonization of New Mexico

In search of legendary cities of gold, Spanish explorers pushed north from Mexico into what is now the American Southwest, claiming the Rio Grande Valley for New Spain and declaring its natives subjects of Spain.

In 1539, the same year Juan Ponce de León claimed Florida, a Franciscan friar named Marcos de Niza claimed New Mexico for Spain. In 1540 the explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado passed through the area while looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola, fabled sources of gold and treasure. Juan de Oñate was a conquistador who in 1598 led several hundred settlers north from New Mexico through a mountain pass, a site he named El Paso de Norte ("The Pass of the North"). Soon after, Franciscans built a mission there. To secure Spain's claim on New Mexico, Oñate founded its first settlement and became the province's first governor. In 1610 Santa Fe was founded. It would become the headquarters of the province and eventually the capital city of New Mexico.

Colonization brought a drastic change to the Pueblo way of life. The Pueblos' undefended settlements and their farmland made them prime targets for Spanish colonizers. As governor, Oñate demanded the Pueblos pay taxes—a form of payment similar to the tribute exacted under encomienda in Florida—in the form of food and labor. At the same time, missionaries began a brutal campaign to convert the Pueblos to Christianity. While they often beat, tortured, and even killed Pueblos who continued to practice their native rituals, they occasionally incorporated indigenous rituals into Catholic practices.

The Acoma Pueblo was the site of the first Pueblo rebellion against the Spanish in 1598. Juan de Oñate officially declared all Pueblo people were now subjects of Spain. In response the Keres Indians of the Acoma Pueblo killed several Spanish soldiers. Oñate sent more troops to put down the revolt. Hundreds of Pueblos were massacred. Afterward, Oñate publicly sentenced the survivors. All women and teenage boys were enslaved, children were handed over to the missionaries, and every Acoman man over 25 had one foot cut off. Oñate's brutality sent a clear message to the other pueblos that resistance would not be tolerated.

After nearly a century of living with the Spanish, the Pueblo people rose up again. The Pueblo Rebellion was an uprising in which the members of many pueblos joined together in a coordinated attack against the Spanish on August 11, 1680. Hundreds of Pueblo warriors lay siege to Spanish missions and forts, killing 400 priests and colonizers. The Spanish retreated to the mission in El Paso and did not return until 1692. By 1694, however, the Pueblo Indians were again made subjects of Spain and would remain so until 1821, when Mexico declared independence from Spain.

Hopi Pueblo of Walpi, Arizona

Walpi was built in 1680 atop a rocky cliff so its inhabitants could defend themselves against Spanish attacks. The pueblo features multileveled adobe structures with open doorways and windows. Stairs and ladders lead between levels.
Credit: University of Southern California Libraries/California Historical Society/USC Digital Library