Juan de Oñate gained fame for leading a mission that “rediscovered” New Mexico and established a lasting Spanish presence in the Southwest through the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Like previous conquistadors, Oñate could be ambitious and brutal, but he also presaged a new era of Spanish government, one that would be characterized more by rules and regulations than by brute force.
Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar was born to Cristóbal de Oñate and Doña Catalina de Salazar in Zacatecas, Mexico, probably in 1552. His father, an ethnic Basque, had arrived in the Americas in 1524, in time to participate in the round of conquests that followed the fall of Tenochtitlán. He received several valuable encomiendas (grants of people and land), participated in the founding of Zacatecas, and rose to the post of lieutenant governor of Nueva Galicia. The elder Oñate maintained diverse holdings in mines, stock ranches, farms, and a sugar refinery, and he displayed his military prowess during the Mixton War (1540–1542). His elite status called for frequent trips between the mining city of Zacatecas and the colonial capital at Mexico City. His son Juan was exposed to the world of colonial officials, as well as to the more feudal world of the conquistadors.
In the 1570s, Oñate began to participate in the ongoing conflict with the Zacateco and Chichimeca. (“Chichimeca” was a generic term the Spanish applied to many northern tribes they perceived as uncivilized.) The young conquistador led expeditions around Zacatecas, and he also accumulated a sizable fortune through running the family mines and making new silver strikes in the area. His marriage to Isabel de Tolosa Cortéz Montezuma, who was descended from the conquistador Hernando Cortéz and the penultimate Aztec emperor, further improved his position.
Juan de Oñate, the last of the Spanish conquistadors to explore the New World, followed the Colorado River to the Gulf of California in 1604. On the way back, he left an inscription on a sandstone bluff at El Morro in western New Mexico. (© North Wind Picture Archives) In 1595, Oñate signed a contract for the exploration of New Mexico with Viceroy Luis de Velasco of New Spain. The main goal of the expedition was to discover a route to the ocean, either Atlantic or Pacific, and good ports. Also, special care was to be taken to convert, not harm, native peoples in the process, as stipulated by the Orders for New Discoveries enacted in 1573. As reflected in these regulations, missionary orders, especially the Franciscans, had gained new power over the process of colonization in the second half of the sixteenth century.
The expedition of around 500 people, including 130 Spanish soldiers, finally left for New Mexico in 1598. After establishing a base of operations at San Juan (in northern New Mexico), Oñate immediately set out to find the Pacific coast. In 1601, he tried for the Atlantic. Vastly underestimating the size of North America, he made it to present-day south central Kansas before turning back. Finally, in 1604–1605, Oñate made his way down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California. On the return voyage, he signed the massive El Morro rock outcropping. (In addition to Puebloan petroglyphs and signatures left by American settlers and soldiers, Oñate’s inscription is a popular attraction today at El Morro National Monument.)
Juan de Oñate’s reputation as an explorer was beyond reproach, but his tactics as governor offended his Pueblo hosts and the viceregal government in Mexico City. Hungry Spanish soldiers began to press the Pueblos for corn and clothing, and the people of Acoma fought back, killing several soldiers, including Oñate’s nephew. Oñate decided to make an example of the Acoma Pueblos; a retaliatory raid killed 800 Pueblos, and those who survived were enslaved or mutilated. The surviving children of Acoma were placed in the custody of the Franciscans, a slight nod to the Orders for New Discoveries. These brutal actions put a temporary halt to Pueblo resistance, but it picked up again in the years that followed. Further compounding Oñate’s problems was the fact that he had spent most of his money on far-reaching expeditions, hoping to get rich quickly, and had failed to set up a workable base of operations.
Oñate’s actions led to his replacement in New Mexico. He spent his remaining years, and what was left of his personal fortune, trying to rebuild his damaged reputation, first in Mexico City, and later in Spain. He succeeded to some extent and earned appointment as the king’s mine inspector, although he was permanently banished from New Mexico due to his abuse of the native peoples. Don Juan de Oñate died while inspecting a mine back in Spain in 1626. Matthew Jennings See also: Exploration; New Mexico; New Spain; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Simmons, Marc. The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.