Acoma Revolt (1599)PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Acoma Indians vs. Spanish Empire
PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): American Southwest
MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Acoma were resisting Spanish conquest and enslavement; the Spanish wished to make an example of the Acoma.
OUTCOME: The Acoma were defeated and brutally punished.
APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Spain, 400; Indians, approximately 200–300
CASUALTIES: Spanish, fewer than 50 killed or wounded; Indians, 100–150 killed or wounded, approximately 80 intentionally maimed
The history of Spain in the New World is deeply colored by popular myth, and one of the most pervasive of those myths paints the Spanish as unceasingly avaricious and aggressive in conquest. In truth, by the second half of the 16th century, Spain was so deeply embroiled in European wars that it largely neglected its New World interests. In 1579 the English seafarer Sir Francis Drake (1540[?]–96) entered a California bay and laid claim to a land he called “New Albion.” Though nothing came of this singular act, it was enough to prompt the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City to warn the royal court in Madrid that the Spanish colonies might soon be imperiled. Even then the Crown did nothing to protect the northern frontier of its New World holdings for almost two decades.
It was not until 1598 that an expedition was dispatched north from Mexico. On April 30 Don Juan de Oñate (1550–1630) reached present-day El Paso, Texas, and laid claim to what he called “New Mexico,” a province stretching from Texas to California. Oñate brought with him the seeds of a colony: 400 men, women, and children, 7,000 head of livestock, and some 80 wagons. With his meager forces, Oñate pressed farther north, aggressively colonizing the pueblo country.
The Indians of the pueblos were not traditionally warriors, and, therefore, Oñate met no resistance—except at Acoma, in western New Mexico. As he had in the case of the other pueblos, Oñate sent squads of conquistadores to inform the Indians that they were now subjects of the Spanish Crown and that they had to renounce their pagan religion and abide by Spanish law. Whereas the other pueblos had meekly consented, the people of Acoma responded by killing 13 soldiers of the advance party, including three officers of noble blood. Oñate could not let this resistance go unpunished, but, situated atop a steep-walled mesa, the Acoma pueblo was a very formidable objective. Nevertheless, in January 1599 Oñate’s troops fought their way to the top of the mesa, stormed the pueblo, and killed most of Acoma’s warriors.
The conquistadores took captive 500 women and children. About 80 noncombatant men over the age of 25 were sentenced to amputation of one foot and enslavement for a period of 20 years. Women as well as children over the age of 12 were not maimed but were likewise sentenced to long terms of slavery. Children under 12 were turned over to priests to be raised as Catholics. Oñate’s men also seized two Hopis, basically innocent bystanders who had the misfortune to be visiting Acoma during the siege, and amputated their right hands. He sent them to their home pueblo in this condition as a warning about the consequences of rebellion.
In and of itself, the Acoma Revolt was short lived, but it had disproportionate historical consequences, creating a precedent of chronic hostility between whites and Indians in the Southwest. The Spanish Crown advanced much of its colonization effort by granting individuals the authority to possess and govern huge tracts of territory, provided that they financed the necessary military and commercial expeditions. Oñate, moved by visions of New World gold and silver, invested his personal fortune in the pueblo country. Unfortunately for Oñate, and even more so for the Native Americans who fell under his jurisdiction, in the months and years following the Acoma Revolt, the country yielded neither gold nor silver, and it failed even to produce sufficient food for the colonists. Ever more desperate, Oñate worked “his” Indians harder and with greater cruelty. His brutal policies toward them were finally too much even for colonial authorities, who, 15 years after he had first marched into the province, called on him to face charges of brutality and poor governance.He was assessed heavy fines.
Further reading: Alan Axelrod, Chronicle of the Indian Wars: From Colonial Times to Wounded Knee (New York: Prentice Hall General Reference, 1993); Alan Gallay, ed., Colonial; Wars of North America 1512–1763 (New York: Garland, 1996); David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North American (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).