Cuartocentennial of Colonization of New Mexico



January 5, 1998 marks the four hundredth anniversary of the expedition, authorized by the King of Spain, that set out to colonize New Mexico by way of what is known as the Camino Real (the King's Highway). This was not a spontaneous foray into unknown territory, but rather a complicated process that took more than three years to organize. The political situation at the time was complicated and what seemed like a simple process became difficult. Even four hundred years ago people who dealt with the government could get tangled in red tape.

     The New Mexico territory was not an unexplored region. Several other explorations of New Mexico had occurred in the earlier years of the sixteenth century. Two men who explored the New Mexico Territory were Cabeza de Vacca, in 1536, and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who followed in 1540. Both men reported contact with Indians in New Mexico. These reports sparked the Spanish crown's desire to explore New Mexico. Rumors of native civilizations and gold mines brought to mind images of vast civilizations with significant treasures.

     The Spanish government was tired of dealing with explorers who had taken advantage of their position and abused native populations; therefore, in 1573 the crown enacted the Colonization Laws of Spain. This legislation required explorers to conform to specific guidelines when embarking on expeditions. It also required a contract between the leader of a caravan and the crown to reduce the abuses against native people and more importantly to guard against overambitious, power-hungry explorers and to make them yield to the power of the crown. These laws greatly decreased the number of men qualified to embark on new expeditions. In 1583, King Phillip II issued a decree telling Viceroy Luis de Velasco, of New Spain, to find a wealthy man capable of leading an expedition to explore New Mexico.

     Men by the dozens petitioned the viceroy for the privilege of leading the expedition. However, one man, Don Juan de Oñate, had an advantage over the other applicants. One of Oñate's assets was his birth in Zacatecas, New Spain, in 1552 to a wealthy and politically influential father, Cristobal de Oñate. Don Juan de Oñate's father, having spent many years in service to the king, was well respected and trusted by the crown. The viceroy had appointed Cristobal to several political offices and the elder Oñate used his power for the benefit of others rather than for his personal benefit. In addition, Viceroy Velasco held Juan de Oñate in high esteem due the son's merits as well as those of his illustrious father. Therefore, Velasco eagerly supported Oñate in his bid to lead the expedition; and indeed, Oñate seemed to be the perfect candidate. He had money, political power, and just as important, the confidence in his ability to succeed.

     However, Oñate did not seek the position of leader of the expedition out of the goodness of his heart or his devotion to the crown. Oñate was not content to simply live his life, no matter how comfortable, in Zacatecas. He envisioned a future in which his exploration of New Mexico would lead to a glorious Oñate legacy. He wanted the prestige of numerous titles, and the benefits that accompanied those titles, he could pass on to his children. At this time, explorers bore the risks of ventures such as this and had to fund their own expeditions. The crown did not supply money, troops, colonists, or equipment. The only thing the crown provided was the permission to go forth and risk one's life and fortune. An unsuccessful expedition could mean personal and financial ruin. On the other hand, a successful expedition could bring fame, fortune, and political power over the conquered area. That possibility of power, fame and gold fueled Oñate's desire to go forth and explore new territory.

     Viceroy Velasco accepted Oñate's petition for permission to lead the expedition into New Mexico on August 24, 1595 and they signed the official contract on September 21. Then Oñate received the permission to colonize the far northern frontier of New Spain. He did not want to be remembered as the son of a governor of a province of New Spain. He wanted to be remembered for his own accomplishments not for his parentage. However, Oñate knew he had a great deal of work ahead of him before he would be ready to lead an expedition on such a long journey. He had to raise money, purchase equipment, and recruit and organize an expeditionary force. Although Oñate was the leader of the expedition, he could not do it alone.

     An event three days after Oñate and Viceroy Velasco signed their contract almost ruined Oñate's dreams of a glorious future. On that day, Viceroy Velasco was transferred to Peru and Don Gaspar de Zuñiga y Acevedo, the Count of Monterey, replaced Velasco as the Viceroy of New Spain. Unlike Velasco, Acevedo did not have personal or political ties to Oñate or his family. The new viceroy believed that Oñate's contract was not appropriate for the task at hand. Therefore, Acevedo modified Oñate's contract in December. The minor modifications did not bother Oñate so he did not complain. Once again Oñate had permission to begin to organize the expedition to explore New Mexico.

     Oñate began this daunting task by organizing a group of men, from prominent families in New Spain, who would be his key advisors during the expedition. The first men to pledge their lives and fortunes to Oñate were Cristóbal and Francisco Zaldívar, Lequetio and Don Antonio Figeroa, Vincente de Zaldívar (Oñate's nephew), Bañuelos, Ruidiaz de Mendoza, Don Juan Cortes, Juan de Guevara, Juan de Zaldivar, and perhaps two of the most influential men in New Spain, Juan de Tolosa and Salas. Don Juan de Oñate illustrated how important family was to him by appointing Cristóbal, his young son, as one of his lieutenants. Don Juan hoped that if his son accompanied him on this expedition the younger Oñate would learn about the art of war and get used to the hard life of a soldier.

     Once Oñate organized his advisors, he had to organize a large body of soldiers and colonists to accompany them. Although this would seem like a difficult task, it proved to be easier than Don Juan had anticipated. Once Oñate and the viceroy announced the expedition people flocked to enroll in Oñate's colonizing force. People in New Spain held Oñate and his father in high esteem and were therefore willing to risk their lives to follow Oñate into unknown territory. Oñate enlisted 170 families and 230 single men to join him on the expedition to New Mexico. In addition to these colonists Oñate had 500 soldiers join his ranks. The expedition consisted of people from diverse backgrounds. Oñate wanted to include the Catholic Church in the expedition therefore he recruited religious men to accompany him the expedition. He wanted men who were not only religious, but also wanted men who had proved their loyalty to the crown. The first religious man he asked to join him was Fray Rodrigo Duran who brought several other friars with him.

     Oñate assembled his expeditionary forces, raised money, and purchased the equipment necessary to carry out a successful colonizing campaign and by early 1596, the viceroy accepted all aspects of his plan. Oñate and all the men, women, children, and clerics who decided to follow him, faced what seemed to be a bright future. All seemed to be going smoothly until May 1596 when the King of Spain suddenly revoked the expedition's permission to proceed and all plans to go forth came to a screeching halt.

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