Cuartocentennial of the Colonization of New Mexico
May 21-May 28, 1598
The expedition had weathered the storm of the commuted death sentence for Captain Pablo de Aguilar and his scouting party. Tensions were high, but the leaders of the expedition knew that they had set out, under a royal charter, to settle New Mexico and the mission could not fail because of friction between group members. May 21st was a sad day for the expedition. Pedro Robledo died. Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá's diary contains the simple entry "May 21st: we buried Pedro Robledo." The campsite near where the expedition buried Robledo bore his name for the next three hundred years. The mountain on the opposite side of the river from the camp is still known as Robledo Mountain. This area is not only significant because they buried Robledo here, but also because the Rio Grande takes a westward bend through a channel at this spot. The area is too narrow for a wagon to pass through so the leaders of the expedition had to devise an alternate route.
The most feasible route northward was around a small mountain called the Sierra de San Diego. This would lead the expedition across land separated from the Rio Grande by two mountain ranges, the Caballo and the Frey Cristobal. This meant that the caravan would no longer have ready access to the water of the Rio Grande. However, the expedition had little choice but to brave this ninety-mile stretch of mostly water-less, rocky land called the Jornada del Muerto. Once they traversed this very rough terrain they once again traveled along the banks of the Rio Grande as it continues it northward path.
On May 22nd Oñate and several other men set off ahead of the main group of colonists so that any settlement of Indians they might encounter would not be frightened by the sight of a massive column of settlers descending upon their village. After traveling all day, Oñate and his advanced group had to spend the night without water. On the morning of May 23rd the lead group left their campsite but they were very concerned about the lack of water. If they did not find a source of water not only would their lives be in danger, but so would the lives of the colonists following about six miles behind them. Later that day, the group encountered a strange messenger who lead them to much needed water.
When they made camp that afternoon a stray dog wandered into the advance group's camp. This does not seem like an extraordinary event; what made the episode noteworthy was that the dog had muddy paws. Mud on the dog's paws meant that there had to be a water source nearby. Several men went off in different directions to search for the source of the dog's muddy paws. Both Captain Villagrá and Cristóbal Sánchez found watering holes. The lead group drank from the water holes and marked their location so the colonists following behind them would find them when they reached the area. In honor of the dog, who saved them from dehydration, the advance party named the area El Perrillo (the little dog).
The scouting party had to ensure that the water holes would have enough water for the main group of colonists. Therefore, they did not take much water with them when they left El Perrillo. So, the men traveled without much water. That night the advance party made camp near very small pools of water near some grinding stones. The party of colonists who followed the main group had difficulties of its own. The rough terrain made travel difficult, especially for the wagons. Another problem arose on May 23rd. Three people, Juan del Casso, Elena, and her husband, got lost. It took several days, but the they kept heading north and eventually found the caravan. The next few days entailed more difficult travel.
Late on May 27th, the lead group arrived near present day San Marcial and camped there overnight. The next morning, the priest who accompanied the lead group held Mass and gave the men communion. This was supposed to bring the group luck in finding a settlement. The next day the group found the village of Qualacu, the southernmost Piro Indian settlement. When they arrived the settlement was empty. The inhabitants had seen the Spaniards coming and had fled in fright. Oñate had hoped to avoid scaring the Indians. However, the sight of men in armor on horseback, regardless of their number, must have frightened the Piro. The lead group did not enter Qualacu, but instead camped outside the village while they decided how to establish friendly contact with the Piro.
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