On April 30, 1598, near present-day El Paso, Texas, Conquistador Juan de Oñate claimed all the land north of the Rio Grande for Spain. He founded the Province of Santa Fe de Nuevo México and was its first colonial governor from 1598 to 1610. His party included a royal notary, Juan Pérez de Donis.
Photo: Oñate Monument Center, Alcalde, NM
The Oñate expedition was before the failed English colony in Jamestown, Virginia in 1607, and before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Oñate Noble Blood
Juan de Oñate, born in 1550 in Zacatecas, Mexico, was the son of conquistador and silver baron Cristóbal de Oñate, a descendant of the noble house of Haro. Juan de Oñate married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés de Moctezuma, granddaughter of conquistador Hernán Cortés, and great-granddaughter of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma (Montezuma).
Coronado in New Mexico
Before Oñate, 48 years after Christopher Columbus landed in 1492, Coronado had explored New Mexico in 1540, including Indian pueblo villages near present-day Albuquerque and Taos. Coronado traveled west to the Hopi in northeast Arizona, and east to the Plains Indian tribes of central Kansas, along the Arkansas River.
Oñate Mission to Colonize New Mexico
King Philip II of Spain issued a royal decree authorizing Oñate to colonize the northern frontier of the Vice-royalty of New Spain, to search for gold and spread the Roman Catholic religion by establishing new missions in Nuevo México.
The 4-mile long oxen-drawn caravan from Zacatecas consisted of 83 wagons and carts, 400 soldiers, 130 settler families, 10 Franciscan missionaries, and 7,000 head of sheep, goats, pigs, cattle, mules, and horses. Scouts rode ahead, seeking water and pasture for the livestock.
They followed the trail known as Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of the Dead Man, (part of El Camino Real) due to the scarcity of water. Wagons, carts, and pack mules carried mining and blacksmithing tools, medicines, Indian trade goods, seeds, plows, and other necessities and 3 cannons from the royal arsenal.
One settler wrote about their Thanksgiving festival:
On 30 April 1598, day of the Ascension of our Lord, at this Rio del Norte, Governor Don Juan de Oñate took possession of all the kingdoms and provinces of New Mexico, in the name of King Felipe II, our lord, in the presence of Juan Pérez de Donis, royal notary and secretary of the jurisdiction and expedition.
There was a sermon, a great ecclesiastical and secular celebration, a great salute and rejoicing, and in the afternoon, a comedy. The royal standard was blessed and placed in charge of Francisco de Sosa Peñalosa, the royal ensign.
Other accounts say the Franciscans celebrated mass, and Father Martinez delivered a sermon. Then in a natural park, in a grove of cottonwood trees, Oñate read in a firm voice, the official act of possession from a long document, that was certified by the royal notary, making it a legal claim. It was witnessed by the priests and Oñate’s senior officers.
The army observed, drawn in formation on horseback, all suited in polished armor. When their commander and governor was done speaking, they fired musket shots into the air, while trumpets blew, and settlers cheered. Oñate then signed and sealed the official act, known as La Toma, while the royal ensign lifted and waved the royal banner. Oñate personally nailed a holy cross and the royal standard to a tree, kneeled and said a prayer. The site is known as the Robledo Campsite.
At a village near El Paso, near current day San Elizario, the expedition invited the local Indians, named Mansos, to be their guests at a feast of Thanksgiving for their safe passage across the Chihuahuan Desert. The last 4 days on the desert were without water. They ate cactus, roots, and weeds to survive. They celebrated and ate fish, duck, geese, and deer.
This First Thanksgiving, near El Paso in 1598, was over 20 years before the Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving in 1621 at Plymouth Colony. Before the English arrived at Jamestown Colony, Virginia, in 1607, the Spanish had already established hundreds of towns in the New World.
First Capital at San Gabriel
After crossing the Rio Grande in April 1598, Oñate continued up the Rio Grande Valley to present-day northern New Mexico, where he camped at an Indian Pueblo, renaming it San Juan Pueblo (now Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo).
He appropriated another pueblo to establish the first capital of New Mexico nearby, at San Gabriel, near Española, about 25 miles north of Santa Fe. The capital was moved to Santa Fe when it was founded in 1610.
At San Gabriel, the first church in New Mexico was built. On September 8, 1598, following the first Mass, royal notary Pérez read a proclamation from Governor Oñate at the dedication of the new church. The highest purpose of the expedition was “the conversion of the souls of these Indians, the exaltation of the Holy Catholic Church, and the preaching of the Holy Gospel.”
Oñate conceded New Mexico to the Franciscans, “from now for all time, especially the Reverend Father Alonso Martínez, apostolic commissary, with full faculty and license to build the churches and conventos they deem necessary for their residence and the better administration of Christian doctrine.“
After the signing of the proclamation, they celebrated with singing, dancing, gaming, and jousting. They performed a mock battle between the Moors on horseback, armed with lances and shields, and the Christians on foot, armed with arquebuses (muskets).
From each Indian settlement, Oñate demanded that Indian tribal leaders pledge obedience to him, the King of Spain, and a new God. The royal notary drew up their sworn statements, and then certified, endorsed and stamped the documents with the governor’s great seal.
In January 1599, Oñate retaliated with the Acoma War, which left 800 villagers dead, including men, women, and children. The remaining 80 men were enslaved by decree of Oñate. The Spaniards amputated one foot of each of the 80 Acoma men over the age of twenty-five.
Other Expeditions by Oñate
Oñate made other expeditions in the region. In 1601, he journeyed to central Kansas, in search of the fabled city of gold, Quivira. In 1605, he followed the Colorado River to its mouth in the Gulf of California, in search of a port to serve New Mexico.
Statues of Oñate
There are statues of Oñate, mounted on his Andalusian horse, at the Oñate Monument Visitors Center in Alcalde, New Mexico, northeast of Española, and in El Paso, Texas. In 2008, PBS produced a documentary film, The Last Conquistador, about the controversy surrounding the installation of the Oñate statue in El Paso. The new statue was protested by Acoma tribal members from New Mexico, due to the cruel treatment of their ancestors by Oñate.
Beginning with Columbus, royal notaries accompanied Spanish explorers and conquistadors in their conquest of the Americas. They recorded the land claims and treasures of gold and silver claimed for the King and Queen of Spain and recorded historic events as secretaries, legal officers, and historians.
Royal notary Juan Pérez de Donis was age 58, of medium stature, with a gray beard, a scar on his forehead, and rode in full armor for himself and his horse. He was a native of the municipality of Cangas de Onis in the principality of Asturias, near Oviedo, on the north coast of Spain, son of Francisco Perez Carreño. He was married with children and offered to take them along. Many noblemen lived in Asturias and were involved in colonizing America.
Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, (formerly San Juan Pueblo), 25 miles north of Santa Fe, 5 miles north of Española. Arts, crafts, pottery, weaving, woodcarving, paintings, OhKay Casino & Resort.
El Camino Real Historic Trail Site, 30 miles south of Socorro, NM, the museum commemorates the story of the first European settlements of North America and the road that made it possible, through exhibitions, trails, and programs. El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, the Royal Road of the Interior Lands, extended 1500 miles between Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh), north of Santa Fe.
1. Photo credit: Oñate Statue, By Advanced Source Productions [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
2. Photo credit: Book cover, By published: Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá (1555–1620) (New Mexico Tourism Department) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
3. Map: King Philip II realm 1598, By Trasamundo. [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
4. Photo credit: San Juan Pueblo, Ohkay Owengeh dancers, Carptrash at en.wikipedia [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
5. Image credit: soldier with arquebus, By Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons