Tag Archives: Spanish in America

Cochise’s war

Written April 8, 2016


The Apache Wars are well-known as the context behind Geronimo’s fame, and are often thought of as a continuous series of battles between Apaches and the United States. This is not wholly incorrect, but it presents an incomplete understanding of the events. In fact, the Apaches Wars might be more accurately thought of as two distinct wars, separated by a brittle two-year peace. The second – the one which made Geronimo famous in Anglo-American culture – spanned the decade between 1876 and 1886. The first, from 1861 to 1872, was Cochise’s War.

Cochise was born sometime between 1800 and 1810,[1] to the Chokonen, one of four bands of Chiricahua Apaches.[2] That was a time of relative peace; the Spanish had ended their war of extermination against the Apaches, and made peace by offering rations in exchange for an end to the Apache practice of raiding.[3] The Chokonen, like other Apaches, returned to raiding for sustenance when the Spanish hold over the region – and their rationing system with it – began to fail. Typically, Chokonen and other Apaches would raid in Sonora and Chihuahua, then return to their homes farther north, where there was nobody to raid from,[4] in what would become Arizona and New Mexico.[5]

After Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, the new government abandoned the rationing system, leading to a sharp increase in raids by Apaches.[6] This change happened at approximately the same time Cochise reached adulthood and began participating in raids.[7] The increased raids were a nuisance to the young Mexican government; profitable mining settlements, like Santa Rita del Cobre, were vacated due to the lack of security.[8] In September 1835, the Mexican government in Sonora and Chihuahua began offering money in exchange for Apache scalps.[9] The resulting scalp-hunters served primarily to increase the animosity between Apaches and Mexicans. Apaches, previously unfamiliar with the practice of scalping, saw the act as a desecration of the dead, and began copying the practice as an act of retaliation.[10] Mexico’s scalps-for-money policy inflamed the violence in the region, which continued through the two and a half decades that Mexico controlled the area, despite occasional attempts at peace. In August of 1846, just months after the border dispute that started the Mexican-American War,[11] one event cemented Apache hatred for Mexicans: the massacre of 130 Chiricahua Apaches, including Cochise’s parents, by a scalp hunter.[12]

When the United States Army came to Apacheria early in the Mexican-American War, Chiricahua Apaches greeted them with offers of an alliance against their common enemies.[13] General Stephen Kearny was in charge of the invading force, and, upon entering Apacheria, he met with Mangas Coloradas, a well-connected chief of the Bedonkohe Chiricahua Apache.[14] Mangas Coloradas’ offer of friendship was not taken seriously by Kearny or the US government, and through the combination of racism and political expediency, Apaches were targeted by the rhetoric of the invading force. In his campaign across the Southwest, Kearny told Mexican inhabitants they would be protected from “Indian raiding”[15] – mostly Apaches – by his government. The Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War in 1848, included Article Eleven, which “enjoined the United States to protect Mexican borders against marauding Indians, which meant, mainly, Apaches, … to repatriate any captured Mexicans whom U.S. troops or officials might recapture, and to make it illegal for an American citizen to buy from the Indians any stolen Mexican property of any kind.”[16] The Chiricahua Apaches’ home, though, was still south of the American-Mexican border, and would remain so until 1854, when the Gasden Purchase placed the border in its modern location. Thus the U.S. Army was positioned to attempt to control the Apaches’ movements, even before the Chiricahua’s lands came into U.S. jurisdiction.[17]

Up until the mid-1850s, the Apaches’ territory had been largely untroubled by Anglo settlements. According to historian Eric Meeks, “When the region that would become Arizona was acquired by the United States, most of its territory remained under indigenous control. After decades of neglect by the newly independent nation of Mexico and renewed raids and resistance from the Apaches, only about one thousand Mexicans remained in the area.”[18] Cochise had grown up in a time when his people were undisputedly in control of their land, but following the Gasden Purchase, miners flooded the area.[19]

The influx of Anglos was a mixed blessing for the Chiricahua Apaches, including Cochise’s band. While the miners provided an eager outlet for the Apaches’ stolen goods, their settlements encroached on Apache lands and represented the threat of the United States’ westward expansion. The Chiricahua Apaches continued to focus their raiding in Sonora and Chihuahua, Mexico, but raids provided a means of discouraging Anglo settlements north of the new border, too. By 1860, Cochise had earned a reputation in the region as a formidable Apache chief. When the Butterfield Overland Mail Company wanted to establish a route through Chokonen territory, Indian Agent Michael Steck sought out Cochise for an agreement to allow it.[20]

It’s no wonder, then, that Cochise’s name was the first on the settler John Ward’s lips when his son was kidnapped by Apaches. Cochise’s reputation made it understandable, if not reasonable, for the settler to believe that Cochise’s band was to blame. John Ward was a rancher who had settled in the Sonoita Valley, about twelve miles from Fort Buchanan. In January 1861, his ranch was raided by Coyotero Apaches.[21] The Coyoteros were a separate tribe from the Chiricahua, but although they lived north and west of Sonoita Valley,[22] their withdrawing tracks led eastward, toward the more infamous Cochise’s Chokonen territory. Ward reported the kidnapping to the garrison at Fort Buchanan, where Post Commander Lieutenant Colonel Morrison put the untried Second Lieutenant George Bascom in charge of recovering the boy. This was Bascom’s first command. He took fifty-four soldiers and John Ward with him to Apache Pass, where he hoped to intercept Cochise’s band. It’s worth noting that Bascom did not take with him anyone who could track the raiders. While he may have initially followed the tracks eastward, he persisted toward Apache Pass past the end of the visible trail.[23] Later, Bascom’s contemporaries and critics would remark on the “treachery”[24] that started the war; they would not be referring to Cochise.

Bascom took his soldiers to the Apache Pass Butterfield Overland Mail station, where he employed two local women, and then a Butterfield employee, to send invitations to Cochise. He indicated that his company was just passing through on their way to El Paso, and they wanted to simply meet with Cochise. When Cochise came to meet with Lieutenant Bascom, he was accompanied by women and children and clearly not expecting a fight. Bascom welcomed Cochise into his tent to talk, then accosted Cochise with the accusation of kidnapping. Cochise denied having taken the child but offered to help locate the band who had. The young lieutenant, perhaps thinking to show no weakness, escalated the situation by condemning Cochise’s assertions and attempting to take Cochise and his family members hostage until the Ward boy was returned. Cochise is famously said to have cut his way out of that tent with his knife and run for his life under a volley of bullets.

Cochise escaped that day, but his family members did not; thus ended the ‘Bascom Affair,’ and began the Apache Wars. That was February 1861. By March 1861, the Butterfield Overland Mail station at Apache Pass was abandoned.[25] In April 1861, the Army was called back east. It must have appeared to Cochise and the Chiricahuas as though they had won. But the Butterfield line was abandoned because Congress had decided it was untenable financially, and the Army was not retreating, but shifting to a more pressing matter, the Civil War. Only a year later, a Union Army unit returned to the Chiricahua’s territory, defeated Cochise’s band, and built Fort Bowie at Apache Pass. “There followed ten-plus years of war between the white settlers and the army on one side and the Chiricahuas on the other.”[26]

Captain Joseph Alton Sladen accompanied General Howard, who signed the 1872 treaty with Cochise and effectively ended Cochise’s War.[27] Captain Sladen kept notes of the peace talk proceedings, including his journey to find Cochise and his stay with the band, which lasted a few weeks. From Sladen’s notes, we learn that both General Howard and Cochise were prepared to go to some risk to achieve peace. The warrior and the soldier had had enough. In order to negotiate with Cochise, General Howard, a one-armed veteran of the Civil War,[28] had to leave the safety of his army and travel a significant distance with only his aide-de-camp (Captain Sladen), a guide named Jeffords who was already well known to Cochise, and two members of the Chiricahua tribe, Ponce and Chie.[29] The small group – particularly the two soldiers – were completely at Cochise’s mercy, as they were relatively alone and unarmed in the heart of Chiricahua territory. Sladen, concerned for their safety, asked General Howard why he put himself at such risk, putting himself at Cochise’s mercy as he did. Howard replied, “I can never see him [Cochise], unless I go where he is, and it is the only change to stop these murders and outrages, and I must take the chance.”[30]

The US Army had been fighting Cochise for over a decade and had made no real gains; they could not flush Cochise from his home with the resources they had, so their only hope was to make peace. It was a surrender of the United States Army and a victory for Cochise and his warriors. When the two soldiers finally met Cochise and stated their purpose – to negotiate peace – Cochise replied, “Nobody wants peace more than I do.”[31] General Howard, encouraged by this opening, pursued negotiations to move the Chiricahua tribe to a reservation in New Mexico. Cochise refused to move, saying instead that he would “protect the road to Tucson” in exchange for remaining in Apaches Pass in peace.[32] Eventually, General Howard backed down and agreed to Cochise’s terms.

The Apache War appeared to be over. Cochise’s War, as it turned out, certainly was over. The peace agreed to by Cochise and General Howard lasted until after Cochise’s death in 1874, only two years after their agreement. The peace brokered by these two men was brittle and eventually proved unequal to the economic and political forces that pushed the United States ever westward. Yet, Cochise can rightly be remembered as “arguably the only Native American leader to actually win his war with the United States of America.”[33]





Aleshire, Peter. Cochise: The Life and Times of the Great Apache Chief. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2005.

Blythe, Lance R. Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

DeJong, David H. “’Advantageous to the Indians?’ The Overland Mail Routes and the Establishment of the Pima Indian Reservation, 1852-1860.” Journal of the West 45, no. 3 (Summer 2006): 17-33.

Dobyns, Henry F. Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1976.

Lamar, Howard R. The Far Southwest 1846-1912: A Territorial History. Revised edition. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Meeks, Eric V. Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007.

Mort, Terry. The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars. New York: Pegasus Books, 2013.

Sheridan, Thomas E. Arizona: A History. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012.

Sladen, Joseph Alton. Making Peace with Cochise, Chief of Chiricaua Indians: 1872. Compiled by J. A. Cranston. Vancouver Barracks, WA, 1896.



[1] Peter Aleshire, Cochise: The Life and Times of the Great Apache Chief (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 2005), ix.

[2] Aleshire, Cochise, 13.

[3] Henry F. Dobyns, Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 98.

[4] Thomas E. Sheridan, Arizona: A History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2012), 64 & 69.

[5] Aleshire, Cochise, 39.

[6] Lance R. Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 116.

[7] Aleshire, Cochise, 38. Indeed, Cochise would have been between 11 and 21 years old in 1821, and Chiricahua Apache boys began participating in raids at age 15, as a rite of passage into manhood; Terry Mort, The Wrath of Cochise: The Bascom Affair and the Origins of the Apache Wars (New York: Pegasus Books, 2013), 99.

[8] Sheridan, Arizona, 20.

[9] Aleshire, Cochise, 46.

[10] Ibid., 46.

[11] Sheridan, Arizona, 18.

[12] Aleshire, Cochise, 62; Sheridan, Arizona, 67-68.

[13] Sheridan, Arizona, 68.

[14] Mangas Coloradas was a strong strategist and politician; historian Thomas Sheridan notes that, “Like a European monarch, Mangas Coloradas wove a web of marital alliances from northern Arizona to Chihuahua” (67). One of these alliances was with the Chokonen Chiricahua Apaches, through the marriage of one of Mangas Coloradas’ daughters to Cochise, who would later become the Chokonen chief. Ibid., 67-68.

[15] Ibid., 20.

[16] Sheridan, Arizona, 25.

[17] The Gasden Purchase also nullified Article Eleven of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, which had proven unenforceable. Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 54.

[18] Eric V. Meeks, Border Citizens: The Making of Indians, Mexicans, and Anglos in Arizona (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2007), 18.

[19] Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 55.

[20] The agreement between Steck and Cochise is mentioned by Howard R. Lamar, in The Far Southwest, 381. Lamar seems to imply that there was an official agreement; Howard R. Lamar, The Far Southwest, 1846-1912: A Territorial History, Revised edition (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2000): 381. Further detail on this agreement is discussed by Terry Mort, in Wrath of Cochise, who asserts that the agreement was “probably tacit;” Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 10-12.

[21] Mort 2013, 229.

[22] Ibid., 33.

[23] Ibid., 230-235.

[24] Captain Sladen, a contemporary of Bascom, wrote an account of the peace talks between General Howard and Cochise which would happen in 1872; in his account, he repeatedly refers to Bascom’s “treachery” and “treacherous behavior,” clearly indicating a distaste for the young officer’s miscalculations; Joseph Alton Sladen, Making Peace with Cochise, Chief of Chiricaua Indians: 1872, compiled by J.A. Cranston (Vancouver Barracks, WA, 1896). Mort also discusses the common view by historians of Bascom as a bit – or more – of a fool; Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 9.

[25] David H. DeJong, “’Advantageous to the Indians?’ The Overland Mail Routes and the Establishment of the Pima Indian Reservation, 1852-1860,” Journal of the West 45, no. 3 (Summer 2006), 21.

[26] Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 292.

[27] Sladen, Making Peace, 1.

[28] Mort, Wrath of Cochise, 292.

[29] The edition of Captain Sladen’s account used in the research for this essay is a facsimile of the 1896 printing, which is illegible in select areas; the word “Chie” was consistently marred, and may be a misspelling. The name could also have been Ohio, Chio, or Ohie; Sladen, Making Peace, 5.

[30] Ibid., 21.

[31] Sladen, Making Peace, 28; this is a translation. Sladen notes that Cochise could speak Spanish, but was perhaps uncomfortable with his fluency. Cochise would speak Apache to his interpreter, who would then repeat the chief’s words in Spanish. Cochise would make any corrections to the Spanish translation, then the interpreter would translate that into English.

[32] Ibid., 29; “Pass” is the most likely word that Sladen used in his quotation of Cochise. The account reads “’Give me,’ said he [Cochise], ‘Apache [illegible – four letters] for my people and I will protect the road to Tucson.’” The conventional name for the area in question is Apache Pass.

[33] Aleshire, Cochise, ix.

Rations and social control in Spanish New Mexico

Written February 29, 2016


The reentry of the Spaniards into New Mexico in the 1690s was violent and expensive, despite the Spaniards’ alliance with certain Puebloan groups.[1] A hundred years later, the Spanish colonization of the Apaches and Comanches began with violence, too, but after high death tolls, that violence gave way to a less costly means of securing peace: the rationing system. Gift-giving was hardly a new form of peace-making, but the rationing system established a routine of gift-giving: the gifts would come in predictable quantities, and on a schedule. Native American leaders could rely on the availability of certain goods, and use that information to their advantage. It was a twist in the colonial model that we don’t see other places. When the Spanish came to the American Southwest, many of their skirmishes with the native inhabitants revolved around the Puebloans’ inability to provide the Spaniards with demanded goods,[2] and while the circumstances were not the same in the rationing system, it is notable that the flow of goods shifted, in some circumstances, from a Native-to-Spanish model, to the reverse.

The Spanish government recognized the importance of alliances with Native Americans,[3] yet they couldn’t quite make it happen with the Plains Indians. The colony had been plagued by raids from Comanches and Apaches, who accepted Spanish gifts but did not reciprocate with peace.[4] Spanish attempts to annihilate, or even punish, the raiding Comanches and Apaches had failed entirely; New Spain had “thrown everything they had at the Comanches and their allies,”[5] and lost both lives and dignity. That changed in 1786, when New Mexican governor Don Juan Bautista de Anza, through brilliant military and diplomatic strategy, succeeded in making peace with and between the Comanches, Apaches, Utes, and Navajo.

In the case of the Comanches, this worked “in part because it was in the Comanches’ own best interests. New Mexico was a mother lode of trade, a place where they could sell their horses and captives.”[6] Trade was alluring, but it wasn’t the only thing the parties sought. The conditions of peace between the Comanches and the Spanish included Comanche settlements near Santa Fe, and an alliance against the Apaches.[7] Utes joined the Spanish-Comanche alliance with similar motivations; “Both [Comanches and Utes] could easily agree that Apaches to the south were their greatest problem, and they could extend their alliance with the Spanish to address the Apache threat.”[8] The Spanish, likewise, sought “Apache extermination,”[9] seeing no other way to halt Apache raids.

The war Spanish-Ute-Comanche war on the Apaches continued for some years. Wunder notes that “just when it seemed Apaches might cease to be a major factor in the Southwest, Spain switched its policy of all-out genocide on Apaches to making available establicimentos de paz (peace zones) for them.”[10] It was a complete change of policy, explained perhaps as a Spanish reaction to Apache behavior: bands of Apaches began coming to Spanish posts, suing for peace as early as 1786.[11] In response, Spanish commanders began providing rations and protection for those bands that settled near the Spanish posts in order to ensure the satisfaction of those bands with their decision to remain peaceful. Rations became the method of peace between Spanish officials and these Apache bands, and the “beef and sugar peace” lasted for as long as the Spanish officials were able to provide rations to the bands.[12]

Not all Apache bands sued for peace; raids and counter-raids continued between Apaches and Spanish forces, which included Spanish-allied Native American bands, but the overall effect of the rationing concept was strong. Expeditions in the early 1800s were laden with supplies that were intended only as gifts for the bands of Native Americans European explorers might encounter. The Spanish government “considered Indian allies to be the key element to establish effective control and eventual domination of a vast region.”[13] Gifts, and promises of rations either implicit or explicit, were a key strategy in that diplomatic objective. The imperialist exploitation of the American Southwest was an underlying strategic mission throughout Spanish contact with native North Americans. Efforts to control or annihilate the Indian people, while they varied in the intensity of their physical hostility, continually supported the strategic policy of expanding Spanish dominion over North American lands and people. Whether the Spanish were exterminating Apaches or exploiting them with gifts, they were exerting control over their frontier through its inhabitants. The rationing system was essentially an effective mechanism of social control, and was arguably less expensive than the attempted annihilation had been.

Rations were not evenly distributed among the Native Americans. Leaders were issued greater rations than non-leaders, and the leaders used their greater access to rations to bolster their status within the tribe.[14] This assured the continuation of the leadership of the same individuals who had made peace agreements with the Spaniards. For the individual leaders, the rations were an integral part of retaining their position. Rations were a source and a symbol of wealth, and were multiplied for those who were already wealthy. Comanches[15] and Apaches[16] were polygamous societies, and rations were granted according to the number of family members the head of household had.[17] So, men with multiple wives received more rations than those who were bachelors or had fewer wives, and their wealth was increased, which effectively solidified their status within their tribe. Stable leadership, along with the subsidization provided by the rationing system, meant that the tribes were less likely to vacillate in their agreements with the Spanish.

In January of 1818, the Spanish settlement of Janos provided rations of corn, salt, beef, and cigars for more than 400 Apaches,[18] but the rationing system of the Spanish colony was in its final days. By October of the same year, the rations from Janos consisted of nothing more than corn. The Spanish government was losing its hold on the region. When rations were reduced in the last years of Spanish control over the colony, Indian leaders who had used rations to support their position were weakened politically, and were forced to allow an increase in raiding in order to maintain their status.[19] Weakened by the lack of rations, tribes and their leaders became suspicious of each other,[20] and raids became necessary to supplement their diet.[21] In 1821, the newly independent Mexican government, unable to continue the Spanish rationing system, inherited the territory, but not the alliance of the territory’s Comanche and Apache inhabitants.

There was an economy behind the cycles of violence depicted in the histories of the Southwest. The Apaches’ culture of raiding was encouraged by scarcity long before the Spanish came to the Southwest, and was again after the rationing system ended. The change from Spanish extermination of Apaches to the controlled exploitation of the same was not really a change in policy, it was a change in tactics. Both strategies were exploitative, and differed only in the level of brutality manifested in the execution.





Blyth, Lance R. Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwestern Borderlands, 1680-1880. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012.

Brooks, James. Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill, NC: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Dobyns, Henry F. Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1976. http://www.library.arizona.edu/exhibits/swetc/spct/index.html.

Geronimo, and S. M. Barrett. Geronimo, My Life. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005.

Gwynne, S. C. Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History. New York: Scribner, 2010.

Kessell, John L. Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

Oliva, Leo E. “Enemies and Friends: Montgomery Zebulon Pike and Facundo Melgares in the Competition for the Great Plains, 1806-1807.” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 29 (Spring 2006): 34-47.

Wunder, John R. “’That No Thorn Will Pierce Our Friendship’: The Ute-Comanche Treaty of 1786.” Western Historical Quarterly 42 (Spring 2011): 5-27.



[1] The first two years of resettlement were marked by violent battles between the Spanish forces and the resisting Puebloans. The Spanish soldiers were too few to have completed this task on their own, though; Puebloans made up more of the Spanish military forces than Spaniards did. John L. Kessell, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 150-166.

[2] Ibid., 35.

[3] Leo E. Oliva, “Enemies and Friends: Zebulon Montgomery Pike and Facundo Melgares in the Competition for the Great Plains, 1806-1807,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 29 (Spring 2006): 36.

[4] The acceptance of gifts even precipitated at least one attack, in the case of the ill-fated San Saba, where the Apaches lured the Spaniards into establishing a mission in Comanche territory, instigating the massacre of the missionaries by the Comanche. The war leader of the Comanche in that incident accepted gifts immediately before slaughtering the residents of the mission. S. C. Gwynne, Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American History (New York, NY: Scribner, 2010), 66.

[5] Gwynne, Summer Moon, 69.

[6] Ibid., 71-72.

[7] John R. Wunder, “’That No Thorn Will Pierce Our Friendship’: The Ute-Comanche Treaty of 1786,” Western Historical Quarterly 42 (Spring 2011): 11.

[8] Ibid., 13.

[9] Ibid., 17.

[10] Ibid., 18.

[11] Henry F. Dobyns, Spanish Colonial Tucson: A Demographic History (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1976), 98.

[12] Ibid., 99.

[13] Alliances with the Native American tribes in the region were particularly valuable to the Spanish government because it was thought that the presence of armed bands of Native Americans would slow or halt the progress of an invasion by the United States – a real concern at the time, especially given the two countries’ disagreement over the validity of the United States’ Louisiana Purchase. Oliva, Enemies and Friends, 36.

[14] Lance R. Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos: Communities of Violence in the Southwest Borderlands, 1680-1880 (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 2012), 97, 113.

[15] James Brooks, Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Chapel Hill, NC: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 178.

[16] Geronimo and S. M. Barrett, Geronimo: My Life (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2005), 40.

[17] Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos, 98.

[18] Ibid., 113.

[19] Blythe, Chiricahua and Janos, 116.

[20] Ibid., 87.

[21] Ibid., 116.

The Pueblo Revolt: Individuals in Context

Written January 31, 2016

The early Spanish period in the Southwest is often characterized as a struggle between the Pueblo people and the Spanish people, as though the Spaniards were of one mind in the colonization of New Mexico. Also, it is popular to blame the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 – and the rebellious acts preceding it – on the religious oppression of the Pueblo people by the Catholic Spanish missionaries.[1] Pointing to religious oppression as the single cause ignores the secular lives of both the Pueblos and the Spanish colonists, and thereby ignores too the pervasive and persistent tension between the colony’s government and their missionaries. The interplay between the indigenous Puebloan and Spanish cultures was punctuated by the struggle between the evangelist goals of the Franciscans and the financial and political goals of the colonial government. It would be more accurate to say that oppression of Puebloan people by the Spaniards led to the Pueblo Indians’ revolutionary actions and finally to the 1680 Revolt, and that religion was one of several means of oppression.

One cannot, however, dismiss the importance of religion in the Spanish occupation the subsequent revolt. Conversion of the Puebloans to Catholicism was the primary – and perhaps entire – goal of the Franciscan missionaries that accompanied the Spanish colonists into Pueblo lands. As such, religion played a central role in the history of the colony of New Mexico, but the colony’s governors cared little for converting the Puebloan people. Where conversion of the indigenous population competed with the financial or political success of the individuals governing the colony, there rose tension between government and missionaries. One friar complained that “the governor acts as if [the Indians] were his slaves, that do not belong to the religious, but are his.”[2] In either case, the Puebloan people were seen as property of the Spaniards and not as autonomous beings. The question for the Spanish colonists and the missionaries was which Spanish institution had proprietorship of the Puebloan people.

By some accounts, the Puebloans were treated less harshly by the Franciscans than they were by the colonial government.[3] Such a subjective assertion functions best in pointing out that the Puebloans were, at least, treated differently by the two groups of Spaniards. The political misalignment of the colonists and the missionaries, evidenced in the variable treatment of Puebloan people, resulted in a repercussive power struggle that carried on over the course of the colony’s pre-Revolt history. On an interpersonal level, Puebloans and colonists alike found they could not be aligned with both the colony’s government and the missionaries; to be aligned with one was to be an enemy of the other. Individuals must have found themselves pushed and pulled in the series of events that led inevitably to revolution.

Yet the Puebloan culture and the Spanish culture were not opposed in all ways. The two religious systems – the kachina-worship of the Puebloans and the Catholicism of the Spaniards – were more similar in structure and function than they were different.[4] Both cultures were tremendously superstitious. That is, they demonstrated a tendency to credit supernatural causes for natural and human phenomena. For the Puebloans, kachinas ruled the natural world, determining weather, crop productivity and other ecological events. The sphere of divine power was greater for the Spaniards, who believed the natural world and human behavior were ruled by God and his adversary, Satan. Both cultures regulated their perception of divinity through careful rituals, though the Puebloans may have placed more emphasis on the importance of those rituals than the Spaniards did: when drought and famine struck the colony of New Mexico, the Puebloans blamed the suppression of kachina rituals, while the Spaniards blamed Satan.

Famine wasn’t new to the Puebloans. Their land had never been easily farmed, and their economy[5] and their bodies[6] had evolved to allow for the years of poor agricultural returns. The poverty of the New Mexican land made sharing resources a vital cultural artefact for the Pueblo Indians’ survival; they would have been long enculturated to an assumption of shared resources.[7] The Spanish culture did not have the same evolutionary circumstances of a resource-poor land. Rather, their culture evolved in a more readily arable land, and was constantly required to defend itself against invaders (with varying success). The Spaniards’ cultural history of military competition and relatively bountiful agriculture shows in their treatment of the Southwest’s resources and people. The colonizers expected the Indigenous peoples to be able to consistently produce tributes, even beyond the capacity of the land to yield the crops demanded. The 1598 uprising in Acoma Pueblo that sparked the Jumano War was triggered by exactly that, when Juan de Zaldívar Oñate demanded food from the starving Pueblo.[8] The Jumano War set a precedent for the way the colony and the colonized would interact over the next eighty years.

Revolt was a consistent concern for the colony’s administrators, secular and religious. When revolution finally came, it faltered before succeeding. The way it did so highlighted the several directions individuals were pulled by the social and political tensions in the colony.
Esteban Clemente, a Puebloan, led a failed attempt at revolt in the 1660s. He wasn’t the first to do so, but he was notable as a counterpoint to the Puebloan who succeeded in leading a revolution: Popay. Their names might tell readers the most important difference in these two men. Both men were Puebloan; Clemente is known only by his Spanish name while Popay is known only by his Tewa name. This is hardly an insignificant detail. Rather, the etymology of their names is indicative of their relative integration in the Spanish colonial administration.

Clemente was raised by the Franciscans and was employed by the colony’s administration to govern his pueblo. His doings were visible to both groups of Spaniards and, because of his ties to both groups and the tension between them, each group had an interest in Clemente’s activities. The friars watching were upset by Clemente’s involvement with an administrative official they disagreed with,[9] involvement that was necessitated by Clemente’s position. The colonial governors watched Clemente because of the official position he held as the Native governor of his pueblo. Historian John Kessell said that “Among Pueblo Indians who adopted Spanish ways, none stood taller than the man they called Esteban Clemente.”[10] The problem with standing taller than others is that it’s much harder to hide. Clemente’s plan to stir revolt was discovered, and he was executed.[11] Popay, on the other hand, wasn’t known to the Spaniards at all. He was relatively free from the influential pulls of both secular and religious Spanish mechanisms. His lack of entanglement in Spanish politics was undoubtedly an advantage that supported the success of his revolt.

Clemente’s and Popay’s revolts shared a common motivation: the oppression of the Puebloan peoples by the Spaniards. Neither religious nor secular forms of subjugation can be given full responsibility for the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. The two were surely symbiotically entwined. Most Spanish subsequent investigations into the cause of the Revolt blamed Satan for fomenting unrest among the Pueblos. Today, it is still common to simply describe the religious persecution the Puebloans endured in the Spanish colony as the cause of the uprising. When this is done at the expense of describing, too, the barbaric treatment of the Puebloans by the Spaniards in secular contexts, we continue the legacy of negating Puebloans’ value as human beings. The Puebloan Revolt was not just about religion; its story is one of individuals, pulled into circumstances that forced them to choose between multiple but equally exploitative sides.



Galgano, Robert C. Feast of Souls: Indians and Spaniards in the Seventeenth-Century Missions of Florida and New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.
Kanter, John. Ancient Puebloan Southwest. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Kessell, John L. Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.
Matsumoto, David, and Linda Juang. Culture & Psychology. 5th ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013.
Ortiz, Alfonso. “Popay’s Leadership: A Pueblo Perspective.” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 18-22.
Simmons, Marc. “The Pueblo Revolt: Why Did It Happen?” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 11-15.



[1] Marc Simmons, “The Pueblo Revolt: Why Did It Happen?” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 11.

[2] Robert Galgano, Feast of Souls: Indians and Spaniards in the Seventeenth-Century Missions of Florida and New Mexico (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005), 89.

[3] Alfonso Ortiz, “Popay’s Leadership: A Pueblo Perspective,” El Palacio 86, no. 4 (Winter 1980-81): 18.

[4] John L. Kessell, Pueblos, Spaniards, and the Kingdom of New Mexico (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008), 16.

[5] John Kanter, Ancient Puebloan Southwest (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 69.

[6] Kessell, Pueblos, 45.

[7] David Matsumoto and Linda Juang, Culture & Psychology, 5th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2013), 8-9.

[8] Kessell, Pueblos, 35.

[9] Ibid, 101.

[10] Ibid, 97.

[11] Ibid, 106. Continue reading