The Pueblo revolt of 1680

August 17, 2011

History demonstrates that colonial subjugation, no matter how brutal its methods, inevitably breeds resistance, according to Christine Darosa.

IN AUGUST of 1680, the indigenous Pueblo nations of the Southwest accomplished something almost unique in the history of the European conquest of North America: they expelled their colonizers completely from their land and returned to self-rule.

In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led the northward expansion of New Spain into what is now the American Southwest, followed by Don Juan de Oñate, who established the first Spanish colony in the region in 1598. With the colony came both Spanish soldiers to subjugate the indigenous populations to the Crown and Franciscan friars to convert them to Catholicism.

The indigenous population of the region was made up of a diverse and widely dispersed group of autonomous nations. When the Spanish arrived, they divided the peoples they found into two categories: "bárbaros" and "pueblos."

While the word "barbarian" is thankfully long gone from the language used to discuss the nomadic nations of the Southwest--the Apaches, Comanches, Navajo, Paiutes and Utes--the Spanish word for village, "pueblo," has survived into the present day to collectively describe the many nations in the region that traditionally built three- and four-story adobe homes, apartment block-style, and practiced agriculture.

An artists' portrayal of the Pueblo Revolt
An artists' portrayal of the Pueblo Revolt

At the time of Spanish colonization, there were 110 Pueblo communities spread over hundreds of miles, in which nearly 100,000 people lived. The Spanish lumped all these communities together, but in reality, they were very diverse, from social structure to language, speaking eight different and mutually unintelligible languages.

The process of Spanish settlement was as merciless in the new province of Nuevo México as it was everywhere else in New Spain. The provincial government declared all that existed to be the property of King Philip II--and all the people his subjects.

"Tribute" to crown and church were demanded in the form of the "encomiendo"--the forced requisition of 10 percent or more of Pueblo crops to support the colony--and the "repartimiento"--forced labor tending the colony's crops or building mission churches, which were usually constructed directly on top of the underground chambers Puebloans used in practicing their religion.

Native resistance was met with a brutal response. During a battle with Spanish soldiers in 1598 at the pueblo of Acoma, up to 800 Acomans were killed by the better-armed Spanish. The conflict was likely sparked by a Spanish soldier stealing turkeys while the troops were waiting for corn they were there to requisition. Afterwards, the remaining 600 Acomans were put on trial for the revolt.

The 80 men in the group were sentenced to having their right foot cut off, plus 20 years of slavery. Women and men under 25 were likewise sentenced to 20 years of slavery. Girls and boys under 12 were forced to work as servants in Spanish households, although at least 60 of the girls ended up in slavery in Mexico.

Various revolts had been planned during the 17th century, but none got enough support from across the Pueblos to go forward. In 1675, in recognition of growing unrest among the Pueblos, Gov. Juan Francisco Treviño ordered 47 shamans arrested and brought to Santa Fe on charges of witchcraft.

Three were hanged in different pueblos as a lesson, another committed suicide, and the rest were publicly whipped and imprisoned. Enraged, a large group of Puebloans marched on Santa Fe to demand the release of the shamans. Caught unprepared, Treviño let them go. Among them was the man who would lead the Revolt in 1680: Popé.

Through the combined effects of the brutality of Spanish rule and Franciscan conversion, the introduction of European diseases, slaving raids that regularly sent Puebloans south to be sold in Mexico City, and a long drought and famine that had begun in the 1670s, the indigenous population was smaller in 1680 than it had been when colonization began.

The moment had come, however, when the majority of the population across the remaining 40 or so Pueblos would unite and rout the better-armed Spanish in the course of just three weeks.

THE REVOLT began when Popé and the other leaders sent two runners out to the participating pueblos, carrying sets of cords with knots tied in them, representing the number of days before the Pueblos were to rise up together against the Spanish. Not all the Pueblos were in alliance, and in fact, some leaders went to Santa Fe to warn Gov. Antonio de Otermín of the coming rebellion. Otermín, in his arrogance and disdain for the Puebloans, didn't believe that a revolt was afoot until it was too late.

On August 10, the rebelling Pueblos rose and destroyed the mission churches and, joined by Apaches, laid siege to Santa Fe. Knowing that they couldn't match the firepower of the 1,000 Spanish soldiers and colonists inside the fort at the center of the city--even though they outnumbered them by possibly as many as 2 to 1--the Puebloans just diverted the stream supplying the city and waited.

On the morning of August 20, Otermín and the cavalry burst out of the fort to burn the buildings the Puebloans were living in and take captives, as well as find barrels of water. Taken completely by surprise, 300 Puebloans were killed, the heaviest casualties the indigenous resisters took during the revolt.

The 47 prisoners Otermín questioned all told the same story: Every Spaniard not inside the fort had been killed in the uprising. Otermín had the prisoners all executed, and that night the Puebloans burned every other building that was still standing outside the fort.

On August 21, Otermín and the 1,000 other colonists and soldiers opened the gates and began a retreat south to El Paso. Everyone expected to be slaughtered after the events of the day before, and the stories they had heard from the 47 prisoners. Instead, the Puebloans let them go.

Having accomplished their goal of getting the Spanish out, there was no point in engaging in more battle with a force that, though retreating, was better-armed and could still cause them serious casualties. The Puebloans followed them from a distance for a time, just to make sure they were really going, but there was no further conflict after this point.

In the end, 21 of the 40 missionaries in Nuevo México had been killed, along with up to 400 other Spaniards.

Among those who study the Pueblo Revolt, there has been some debate about whether the killing of 400 Spaniards can be justified. Setting aside the thousands of Puebloans killed during the 140 years of conquest and settlement since Coronado, it should be acknowledged that there is a difference between the violence of the oppressor and the violence of the oppressed.

As Leon Trostky wrote in his pamphlet Their Morals and Ours:

The question lies not even in which of the warring camps caused or itself suffered the greatest number of victims. History has different yardsticks for the cruelty of the Northerners and the cruelty of the Southerners in the Civil War. A slaveowner who through cunning and violence shackles a slave in chains, and a slave who through cunning or violence breaks the chains--let not the contemptible eunuchs tell us that they are equals before a court of morality!

OTERMÍN ATTEMPTED a re-conquest of Nuevo México in 1682, but failed. The Puebloans maintained self-rule for 12 years. But it was a difficult period, characterized by the continuing drought and famine, internal discord and increasing clashes with the nomadic nations. There are many conflicting stories about Popé and how he led after the revolt--all that's certain is that he died in 1688, knowing that the Spanish would be back.

In 1692, Don Diego de Vargas began what has been called the "Bloodless Reconquest." The first year of re-conquest, when Vargas went from pueblo to pueblo "forgiving" the King's "children" for their insubordination, may have been bloodless--but beginning with the reintroduction of Spanish colonization and Franciscan conversion in earnest in the second year, both resistance and brutal repression inevitably resumed.

Fourteen Pueblos attempted another revolt in 1696, but ultimately, being in a weakened state after the challenges of the previous 12 years, they were not in a position to win. By the end of 1696, the re-conquest was complete.

The Pueblo Revolt had taught the Spanish a lesson, however. Realizing that ruling in the same way as before would only provoke more resistance and revolts, Vargas and the governors that came after him eliminated the encomiendo and repartimiento, granted freedom of religion and cultural autonomy, and allowed the Pueblos to self-govern.

Many people consider the revolt and its impact on Spanish rule to be a key factor in Puebloan maintenance of language, culture and religion to this day, among the 21 Pueblos stretching across Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

More broadly, the story of the Pueblo Revolt, with its lessons of unity across divisions and determination against steep odds in the name of justice, can lend activists today inspiration as we work to change our world for the better.

Further Reading

From the archives