Spanish Conquistadors

In the sixteenth century, the Spaniards appeared in the Southwest, and from that moment the cultural face of this region was dramatically transformed forever. It should be noted however, that many indigenous communities in the North American Southwest survived this period of contact and conquest, and to this day maintain many of their traditions, beliefs, and identities. Native Americans of the Southwest had contact with the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries as early as in the 1530s and 40s, although these relations were not constant during the sixteenth century and it seems that not all native societies of the area were involved to the same extent, at least in the beginning. Permanent settlement of the Spaniards in the Southwest was only recorded from 1598, when Juan de Oñate established one in the northern Rio Grande Valley region of what is now New Mexico.

During this first period, the Spaniards seem to have made the most frequent contact with various Pueblos living in the Rio Grande Valley, in western New Mexico and to some extent in northern Arizona. From the seventeenth century onwards, Apache, Navajos, Utes, and other communities of the Southwest appear more frequently in written Spanish sources. The period of Spanish domination (New Spain, as a part of the Spanish Crown with its capital in Mexico City) lasted in the Southwest until 1821, and from then until 1846/48, when Mexico gained independence. After the revolution, it was controlled by Mexico. In 1848, after the war won by the United States against Mexico, the areas of today’s states of Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Nevada, and Texas fell under the US rule, and this has been the status quo until today.

First Spanish expeditions arrived in the Southwest in the first half of the sixteenth century. These quests were drawn by tales from the Spanish conquistador Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca who had survived the shipwreck of a 1528 expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez to explore the south and southeast of North America. Cabeza de Vaca brought with him to Mexico the legend of the mysterious seven golden cities of Cíbola and Quivira, which were thought to be wealthy native cities somewhere north of Mexico. His information fueled fantastic tales that were already circulating and encouraged Antonio de Mendoza, viceroy of New Spain, to organize further expeditions. An expedition led by the Franciscan Marcos de Niza in 1539 confirmed the revelations brought by Cabeza de Vaca, and yet another exploration led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado followed in 1540–1542. These expeditions set out from the territory of central Mexico along the Sierra Madre Occidental and reached the territory of present-day New Mexico and Arizona and as far as Kansas in the case of the Coronado expedition. These explorers encountered various native settlements along the way, including the Hopi and Zuni pueblos, and possibly the Apacheans in the Great Plains.

De Niza’s short expedition was primarily aimed at describing indigenous peoples, including in terms of their economy and ways of life, their approximate number and organisation (very important information when it came to planning a possible later conquest), as well as at obtaining information about the topography of those areas, and flora and fauna along with the samples obtained being brought back to Mexico. De Niza’s companion on this trip was, among others Estevan, a black man, one of the three surviving companions of Cabeza de Vaca from the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition, but he was killed by the Zuni Indians during Marcos de Niza’s expedition. The most famous information that de Niza brought with him to Mexico was the entirely misrepresentative news of “cities larger than Mexico City” and gold, which was even claimed to be “used for making utensils”, and gems used as “ear ornaments and parts of objects for wiping sweat from the brow”. To this day, it is not known where de Niza obtained this sensational information.

Inspired by Marcos de Niza’s travels, the Coronado expedition had more lasting significance than that of de Vaca’s due to the descriptions and chronicles recorded throughout as well as the influence it had on the native cultures of this region. In February 1540 Coronado set out north from the city of Compostela in Mexico.  His journey may have followed trade routes that had existed during the pre-Hispanic period and which were still largely functioning after the arrival of the Spaniards.

It was a very large expedition, probably numbering over 2,000 people. Earlier data had indicated 287 people, because this appears on the official list compiled by a writer from Compostela, Juan de Cuevas. However, these figures did not take into account the much larger composition of the expedition, known today from an analysis of other written sources from this period, because in addition to the conquistadors, the expedition also included black slaves (women and men); virtually every conquistador, even low-ranking, had two or more slaves (Coronado alone had at least seven, including four men and three women). Family members or even distant relatives or friends should also be added; sources also mention six missionaries who, inter alia, were charged with ensuring a “Catholic and Christian conquest, not slaughter”.

Another very large group consisted of Indian warriors, mercenaries from central and western Mexico (e.g., the Taraskans), numbering over 1,300 people, who seemed to have constituted an additional fighting squad in battles with local Indians, mainly Pueblos, but they were also emissaries and they performed a lot of other camp work, such as tending cattle, hunting, building shelters, etc. This proves that the conquest of the Southwest, as well as many other parts of the New World, was largely carried by the Spaniards via the hands of its indigenous peoples, as was the practice of other empires at the time. The armament of the Coronado expedition also differed from the usual images and was very poor in comparison with the stereotypical imagination of conquistadors in armour. The Spaniards, as they themselves declared in the records, mostly used mixed types of weapons (European and local Indian varieties, with a predominance of the latter); few had metal armour, and only 45 percent wore helmets, so characteristic of the iconography of the conquistadors of that period.

These first expeditions gave the Spanish in Mexico numerous descriptions of newly “discovered” territories, including depictions of nature, rivers and mountain ranges, and other geographical features, as well as the first and quite extensive characterization of individual native societies of the Southwest. These accounts were made primarily by chroniclers accompanying the expeditions, generally missionaries or officers. Chronicles Pedro Castañeda and Juan Jaramillo accompanied Coronado and created detailed records of many sites and native societies from the Grand Canyon to the Kansas plains. For the part of the Southwest within US borders, these descriptions referred to the agricultural Pueblo groups that lived along the Rio Grande Valley, and those to the west, such as Acoma, Zuni, and Hopi. The conquistadors also mentioned peoples with a different type of economy, hunters who, unlike the Pueblo people, did not live in permanent settlements; identified today as the Apache and Navajo, these communities were collectively referred to by the Spaniards as Querechos.

After the Coronado expedition, there were no other Spanish entradas to the Southwest for nearly 40 years. It was only in the years 1581–1591 that three more rather small expeditions to the Southwest set out, including three Franciscans headed by Father Agustín Rodríguez and a small army unit led by Francisco Sánchez Chamuscada that traveled along the Rio Grande River and reached some Pueblo groups in New Mexico in 1581. The following year (1582), another expedition set out under the leadership of Antonio de Espejo. The 1598 expedition led to the establishment of first permanent Spanish settlement in the Southwest under the command of Juan de Oñate, sometimes known as the “last conquistador”; de Oñate was a Mexican aristocrat who married the granddaughter of Hernán Cortés. This settlement, San Juan de los Caballeros, was established near the community of Ohkay Owingeh (San Juan Pueblo) at mouth of the Chama River, a major tributary to the Rio Grande in northern New Mexico. The de Oñate expedition numbered at least 400 soldiers, colonists, missionaries, and Mexican Indians. After establishing the settlement, de Oñate and his nephew Vincent de Zaldívare, organized six expeditions lasting until 1605 that explored areas from the Great Plains to the mouth of the Colorado River in the Gulf of California (albeit incorrectly describing California as an island).

Descriptions and written sources from this period act as a kind of “window” through which one might glimpse a fragment of native peoples’ history at the moment of their first contact with Europeans. Subjected to appropriate criticism and research, these records are an invaluable source of information about Native American cultures and a foundation for analogies and comparisons to historical and modern native societies from the Southwest. Chronicles and other records from the period also tell a great deal about the reasons for different Spanish expeditions, establishing frameworks of relations and the beginning of the deep cultural, social and demographic changes that affected the Native American communities of this region and which have made a lasting impression on the cultural face of the Southwest region.

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