Juan de Oñate - Spanish Explorer

Juan de Oñate - Spanish Explorer
Juan de Oñate - Spanish Explorer
On April 20, 1598, Spanish captain-general Don Juan de Oñate approached the Rio Grande, then known as the Río del Norte, the River of the North. Oñate led an expedition that represented the first determined attempt by Spain to colonize the region explored by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado more than 50 years before, in 1540–42.

Oñate led a large expedition consisting of more than 100 families, almost 300 single men, numerous wagons, and 7,000 cattle. An advance detachment was led by Oñate’s nephew, Captain Vicente de Zaldívar. Unlike many other explorers who were peninsulares, those who were born in Spain, Oñate himself was a criollo, a Spaniard born in the New World.

Oñate was born to Cristóbal de Oñate and Catalina de Salazar in about 1550. He made an important marriage, which certainly aided his rise to power and influence. His wife was a descendant of both the conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II. Oñate and his wife had a son and a daughter together.

On September 21, 1595, Oñate was awarded a contract by King Philip II of Spain to explore the region north to the Rio Grande and settle what became New Mexico, but numerous delays forced his departure to be held back until 1598. The cost of the expedition was entirely Oñate’s, with the king’s receiving a percentage of the wealth expected to be generated by the new colony.

So on April 30, 1598, Oñate in a formal ceremony took possession of the region in the name of King Philip II. The most important part of Oñate’s expedition was the military contingent, probably led by Capitan Zaldívar, since he held the position of sergeant-major of the Oñate forces.

The main weapon of the Spanish soldiers was the matchlock musket. Crossbows like the ones used by the Spanish in Cortés’s conquest of Mexico in 1519–21 were still in use by the Spanish but were apparently left behind in Mexico City when Oñate embarked on his march north.

However, in the heat of Mexico and the Southwest United States, many Spaniards wore cotton padded armor adopted from the Aztecs (Mexica), which gave good protection against the arrows the hostile Indians used against them. Curiously enough, Spanish troops carried heart-shaped shields called adargas well into the 18th century. Sidearms were long Spanish rapiers and for the cavalry, a pair of matchlock pistols.

Coronado had experienced some fierce fighting with the Pueblo Indian tribes of the Rio Grande valley, and Oñate was fully conscious that his entrance could be marked by combat with the native inhabitants.

Therefore, he followed strict military discipline throughout his expedition. After they reached the North Pass on the River (El Paso del Norte), they faced a trip of some 60 miles through a region so arid and hot that ever after the Spanish would call it El Jornado del Muerte (Route of Death).

Once among the Pueblo Indians Oñate used the feast of Saint John the Baptist on June 24 to stage a sham battle with the intention of intimidating them with his Spanish cavalry and infantry.

New Mexico Established

Apparently, Oñate’s show of force worked, because on July 28, without interference, he established New Mexico’s first capital at the pueblo of San Juan de los Caballeros of the Tewa tribe, which he named in honor of the men who had ridden north with Coronado years before.

Ultimately Oñate began the construction of San Gabriel as a more permanent capital, perhaps feeling uneasy about the dangers of a surprise attack at night if he remained in the Tewa village.

Although Christianization of the Indians was always noted as a reason for Spanish expeditions, the vast treasures that Cortés had found in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru guaranteed that the search for gold and silver would always be a paramount reason for any expedition, and Oñate’s was no different.

He was determined, however, to keep all exploration and mineral discovery under his own personal control and carried out severe punishments against those who disregarded his orders. With the nearest Spanish forces hundreds of miles to the south, such strict discipline would be the only thing that would keep such an expedition together and safe while surrounded by potentially hostile Indians.

Oñate’s grim emphasis on discipline soon proved to have been justified. In December, Juan de Zaldívar, Vicente’s brother, and some soldiers accepted the hospitality of Chief Zutucapan at the pueblo of Acoma. Once they were settled in their quarters, Zutucapan sprang a trap, and Zaldivar and some 10 Spanish were slaughtered.

In January 1599, Oñate sent Vicente on a punitive expedition against Acoma, his infantry and cavalry supported now by two pieces of Spanish artillery known as culverins. When the Acomans refused to submit, Zaldivar attacked. Although he was heavily outnumbered, his artillery slaughtered the Acomans. Captives were taken before Oñate, whose punishment was severe.

With the danger from hostile Indians behind him, Oñate spent more time in an illusory search for gold and silver mines. In December 1600, he embarked on a long expedition.

His search for riches took his attention from the settlement of the colony and many people who were disillusioned with his rule returned to Mexico, then called New Spain. Although his search for gold and silver proved fruitless, he became the first Spaniard since Coronado to explore as far north as Kansas to the settlement that Coronado knew as Quivera.

At some point, his love of exploration eclipsed his lust for gold. Even as disgruntled former colonists were spreading rumors of vice and brutality against him, Oñate undertook a final journey of exploration as far as the Gulf of California.

Although ordered back by the new king, Philip III, in 1607 to face charges, Oñate remained until Sante Fe was built. When in 1608 a new governor was sent to replace Oñate, he finally returned to Mexico City.

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