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El Pas del Norte

The flow of power and authority along the northernmost section of the Camino Real was reversed following the success of the 1680 Pueblo Revolt. Unified Pueblo warriors forced Spanish colonists into refuge at El Paso del Norte (present day Ciudad Juárez). As if the defeat endured in 1680 was not enough, the next two decades were marked by other indigenous revolts, and threats of uprising, all across the far-northern frontier of New Spain. The Spaniards referred to this time period as the Great Northern Rebellion. Unlike the case of the Pueblo Revolt, however, Spanish forces acted quickly and brutally to quash other potential uprisings.

Although a mission congregation of Manso and Suma peoples had been established in 1659 at the mission called Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe del Paso del Norte and a few Spanish families inhabited the area, the creation of the villa of El Paso del Norte did not take place until 1680 when Governor Antonio de Otermín arrived there with the refugees from New Mexico. The people settled in several different temporary camps until permanent homes were constructed. In 1683 a presidio was established to defend the settlement against attacks of nomadic natives in the region. It was initially built eighteen miles to the south of the mission, but relocated the following year to the mission itself due to a general uprising that occurred among various indigenous peoples in Nueva Vizcaya.

1850s painting by A. de. Vauducourt of the Guadalupe Mission church at El Paso del Norte–today’s Ciudad Juárez. The mission had been founded in 1659 for Mansos people. In 1680, it was the center of the community of El Paso del Norte–the site of New Mexico colonists’ refuge during the Pueblo Revolt.
Courtesy of A. de Vauducourt/U.S. Department of the Interior

Other groups of refugees settled at a site called San Lorenzo, situated four miles downstream along the Rio Grande at the Pueblo of the same name. Additionally, two small groups of Piro Indians had relocated to the area from New Mexico. Isleta people fled with the lieutenant governor when hostilities broke out in August 1680. Their descendants continue to inhabit the area of Ysleta, Texas, near present-day El Paso. Despite the resolve of most of the refugees from New Mexico, a large number of them abandoned the colony after the Pueblo Revolt. 

In evaluating the settlers’ decision of whether or not to abandon the colony, we must consider the fact that by 1680 most Spanish, Pueblo, and mestizo residents of New Mexico had grown up under the Spanish-colonial system. No matter their ethnic or cultural affiliation, they had lived their lives together. Most of the refugees at El Paso considered New Mexican properties to be the legacy of their families, as did, of course, Pueblo and mestizo peoples who remained behind. At least twelve families of Spanish descent remained among the Pueblo peoples after 1680, indicating the extent to which accommodations had defined the seventeenth century in the colony.

To understand the successful reconquest of New Mexico, orchestrated by Diego de Vargas, knowledge of the larger context of events that were taking place throughout the northern frontier of New Spain is crucial. In 1697, the mission of Nombre de Dios was established about 265 miles south of El Paso del Norte. The mission was initially founded to serve a congregation of Conchos people that inhabited the areas surrounding it, but in subsequent years more and more people of Spanish descent arrived in the area due to the prospect of mining. By the early eighteenth century, Ciudad Chihuahua developed on the site immediately surrounding the mission due to the discovery of nearby silver deposits. The city was important to the reinvigorated New Mexico colony as a way station for trade along the Camino Real. Miners and farmers filtered slowly into the settlement throughout the 1700s.

Prior to the founding of Ciudad Chihuahua, however, the region of northern Nueva Vizcaya was the scene of general unrest in the wake of the Pueblo Revolt. Understandably, in the years following the revolt, Spanish inhabitants of Nueva Vizcaya feared that the desire for revenge had spread to virtually every native group in the northern section of New Spain. For the first time, the Concho, Janos, Jocome, Manso, and Suma peoples confederated. By and large, most indigenous peoples had maintained their independent identities even in the face of Spanish colonization. Now, various groups came together, through negotiated alliances and intermarriage, to stand against the colonizers—at least such was the conclusion of Spanish officials. In the context of the Pueblo Revolt—the only successful indigenous rebellion against a European power—it is easy to understand why Spanish suspicion reached a crescendo.

Spanish colonists never forgot that native peoples were the first inhabitants of northern New Spain. The refugees at El Paso certainly could not neglect that fact. As seemingly consistent reports of native unrest filtered into El Paso del Norte, Spanish settlers lived in constant fear of retribution for the conquest. Rumors filtered in that a group of natives had attacked and burned to the ground the chapel at Janos. Sumas attacked Santa Gertrudís, mines were ruined, haciendas set ablaze, cattle and horses driven off.

Calamities that beset the region’s indigenous peoples only intensified their hostility toward the Spanish and continued the cycle of suspicion and rumors. The drought and famine that had plagued the New Mexico colony since the late 1660s also affected people in Nueva Vizcaya. To make matters worse, epidemics of smallpox, measles, and dysentery devastated indigenous communities. Such contagions hit newly established Jesuit missions particularly hard. By some estimates, approximately one-third of the entire native population died due to famine and disease.

New Spain This 1768 map shows the limits of settlement in the New Mexico colony. Due to the dominance of Apache, Ute, Navajo, and Comanche people, the colony did not expand very far beyond the Rio Grande corridor.
Courtesy of the U.S. Department of the Interior, housed at the Woodson Research Center, Rice University

With all of these factors multiplying, Spanish inhabitants of the area in and around El Paso del Norte heard a terrifying rumor that a knotted rope had been distributed among local native peoples. They fired off alarmed and desperate pleas to Mexico City for reinforcements and arms, but distance meant that such aid would not be quickly forthcoming. By the long, hot summer of 1699, colonists believed that a full-scale rebellion might break out any day. Their fears were not merely the product of rumor and apprehension.

The Tarahumara people had a history of turning against friars at mission settlements in Nueva Vizcaya that dated back to the early 1600s. In 1652, for example, a widespread Tarahumara uprising ground Jesuit missionary work to a halt in the Sierra Madres. Their political cooperation with other tribes was a product of the crises of the era, as well as the growing practice of intermarriage between their peoples.

In what some historians termed the Great Northern Revolt, raids led by nomadic peoples intensified across the entire northern frontier. From the Spanish perspective, the Pueblo Revolt had created a drive for rebellion among all indigenous peoples in the north. There is some evidence that Pueblo peoples had been in contact with native groups in Nueva Vizcaya, but the fact also remains that raiding typically intensified during times of climatic and ecological crisis. Tarahumara groups orchestrated much of the cooperation between themselves and the other native groups of Nueva Vizcaya. Although no single, coordinated insurrection came together, several successful skirmishes against Spanish outposts and missions resulted. At Yepómera and Tutuaca, warriors killed Jesuit missionaries.

Throughout the 1690s, military officials made routine inspections of missions and indigenous settlements in the Sierra Madres in order to take preemptive action against potential uprisings. Such inspections involved the taking of a census in order to determine the movements of the native peoples. Generally, the Spanish were pleased that their presence seemed to generate the desired level of intimidation. They interrogated many of the prominent members of each community or band, and then admonished the people to live upright Catholic lives before moving on to the next settlement. In a few cases, however, inspectors found Tarahumara people guilty of treasonous actions and hung them on the spot.

Following this pattern, Spanish generals smothered a larger revolt near Casas Grandes that seemed to threaten Spain’s grip on the entire region. Summary executions, combined with violent military campaigns, quelled the specter of further revolution on the heels of the Pueblo Revolt. Intensified violence was the Spanish method of restoring peace to the northern frontier. Such a peace was always uneasy, however, because of its foundation in brutality and the Spanish drive for domination. Additionally, the rising prominence of Apache, and then Comanche, bands during the eighteenth century provided regular reminders of the tenuous position in which the colonists found themselves.

As in 1607-1608 at the time of Juan de Oñate’s resignation, the New Mexico colony once again found itself at a crossroads between 1680 and 1692. Royal officials again debated the viability of maintaining the isolated settlement, and some even considered abandoning the Rio Grande corridor altogether. Many of the New Mexico settlers deserted the colony after the harrowing and narrow escape from Santa Fe in late 1680. Only seventy families accompanied Governor Diego de Vargas when Santa Fe was resettled at the end of December 1693. For those that remained, the desire to reclaim their families’ homes and properties was strong. Most of the refugees had known no other life than that of the New Mexico colony.

Only a few months after the colonists’ flight from Santa Fe and the Rio Abajo settlements near Isleta Pueblo, Governor Antonio de Otermín attempted a reconquest. He had the added impetus of salvaging his reputation for leadership and strength. His return to New Mexico, however, was far from successful. Otermín’s party witnessed destruction at every site they visited. Piro peoples had completely abandoned the southern Pueblos and churches and kivas alike lay in ruin, suggesting that Apache attacks were to blame. Otermín forced the remaining Isletas to pledge their allegiance once again to Spain (many of the Isleta people had fled with Otermín’s lieutenant governor at the height of the uprising), and his troops engaged warriors at Sandia, Cochiti, Santo Domingo, and Santa Ana Pueblos. After destroying many Pueblo homes and inflicting casualties, Otermín’s forces returned to El Paso del Norte essentially empty handed.

While at Sandia, the group had conducted a small-scale investigation of the Pueblos’ motives for rising against them. Most of the survivors could not comprehend how and why the Pueblos had defeated them. Some, such as the surviving Franciscans, thought the Pueblo peoples were ungrateful. From their vantage point, they had only offered salvation and goodness. How could they reject such valuable gifts? Others among the refugees believed that the Pueblo Revolt was God’s punishment for the sins they had committed against the indigenous people. These colonists recognized their own excesses, and, at some level, seemingly wished to atone for them. The viceroy in Mexico City shared this opinion. Another group reached the exact opposite conclusion—that the revolt was the work of the devil who had possessed Pueblo leaders in order to thwart the work of God that the Spaniards had effected in New Mexico. Such people were unwilling to take responsibility for the misdeeds of late-seventeenth-century New Mexican society.

Pueblo peoples recall the interrogations somewhat differently in their collective memory. Jemez historian Joe S. Sando has suggested that their responses to the Spaniards are still considered a “legendary joke.” When Otermín demanded that a group of captive Pueblo men tell him who had orchestrated the revolt, one Keresan man replied, “Oh it was Payastiamo.” The governor persisted, asking more information about Payastiamo. The same man told Otermín that he lived “Over that way,” indicating a path toward the mountains. When asked the same set of questions, a Tewa prisoner recounted, “The leader’s name is Poheyemo. He lives up that way,” pointing to a separate mountain chain further to the north. A Towa man responded similarly, “His name is Payastiabo and he lives up that way.” The three names, Payastiamo, Poheyemo, and Payastiabo, are those of Pueblo deities who act as intermediaries between the people and the “One above the clouds.” He is generally said to live toward the north in the highest mountain peak or in the clouds. The joke was lost on the Spaniards, who believed that “Poheyemo must have been the revolt’s leader.”

Whatever the perceptions of those involved, the King of Spain ultimately wanted New Mexico to remain as part of the empire due to geopolitical concerns. Carlos II issued the official order to resettle the colony in 1683, a full century following the initial settlement decree issued by Felipe II. Due to increased Apache raiding, Spanish officials believed that a buffer colony in the far north was more important than ever in order to protect the silver mines of Nueva Vizcaya and Zacatecas. Also, in 1682 French explorer René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle successfully navigated the Mississippi River and laid claim to the delta region in the name of Louis XIV. The new French claim effectively drove a wedge between Spanish Florida and New Mexico, the two northernmost colonies of New Spain. Formerly imagined threats to Spain’s territorial claims all of a sudden became a reality, especially because La Salle pitched to Louis XIV the prospect of using the Mississippi River Valley as a springboard from which to invade New Spain. According to the French explorer, local native peoples would back the French due to their “deadly hatred for the Spaniards because they enslave them.”


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