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Document Number: AJ-011
Author: Oņate, Juan de, 1549?-1624
Title: Account of the Discovery of the Buffalo
Source: Bolton, Herbert Eugene (editor). Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916). Pages 223-232.
Pages/Illustrations: 12 / 0
Citable URL:

Author Note

Juan de Oñate (1549?-1624) was the son of wealthy conquistador and miner Cristóbal de Oñate. After the expeditions of Rodríguez and Espejo (see AJ-004 to AJ-008), interest in the mineral wealth of New Mexico convinced the Spanish viceroy to license further expeditions. Espejo applied for a license, proposing a four-hundred-man army to conquer and settle New Mexico, as did several other adventurers and investors. The bidding process was long and drawn out, and the lure of New Mexico was so strong that some parties embarked for the north without permission. In 1593, Francisco Leyva de Bonilla and Antonio Gutiérrez de Humaña led one such unauthorized expedition into New Mexico. They spent a year among the pueblos and journeyed east into Quivira as far as the Platte River in Kansas before Humaña murdered Leyva, and all but one survivor were killed by Indians (see AJ-103).

Finally in 1595, the Spanish viceroy named Juan de Oñate to be the governor of New Mexico, adelantado and captain-general of the new province. Oñate was the son of Cristóbal de Oñate, the conqueror of Nueva Galicia where he operated mines, and one of the founders of Zacatecas. His wife was the granddaughter of the famous conquistador Hernando Cortez and the great-granddaughter of the Aztec leader Montezuma.

Oņate’s Expeditions, 1598-1604

Although rivals impeded planning for the governor’s great expedition, Oņate recruited colonists by promising them privileges and exemptions. In the spring of 1596, four-hundred settlers, soldiers, their families, and servants assembled eighty-three carts and wagons for the trip north with seven-thousand head of livestock. After splitting up to traverse the great sand dunes south of El Paso, Oņate took formal possession of the “kingdoms and provinces of New Mexico for King Philip II of Spain” on April 30, 1596. Oņate took a party of sixty men north to subdue the pueblos. He established his first headquarters at the Caypa pueblo, which he renamed San Juan, on August 18, 1596. While a church was being built, Oņate met with chiefs of the surrounding pueblos and convened a general assembly of all the chiefs and representatives on September 9, 1596. At that convention the province of New Mexico was formally established.

Next Oņate turned his attention to exploit other nearby lands. He took sixty men to the Pecos River to hunt buffalo. He visited salt mines near the Jumano and Zuni pueblos. He sent Captain Marcos Farfán to explore Arizona near Moqui, finding abundant silver veins. On one such expedition, in November 1598, Juan de Zaldívar was killed at Acoma by the Hopi. Oņate retaliated by subduing Acoma in two days of hand-to-hand fighting in which “the Indians were punished by fire and bloodshed, and the pueblo was completely laid waste and burned.” In 1601, Oņate explored the route taken by Humaņa to the Platte River and Kansas eight years earlier. In 1604 he followed a route to the Gulf of California and retraced the expeditions made by Coronado, Espejo, and Humaņa during the previous decades.

Document Note

On September 15, 1598, Don Juan de Oņate sent Vicente de Zaldívar and sixty soldiers northeast past the province of Tamas to explore the bison herds of the lower Great Plains. Oņate consulted with the sole survivor of the Humaņa expedition, an Indian named Jusepe, for information about the route Humaņa traveled. The party’s first encounter with local inhabitants occurred as they fished on the Gallinas River, when a large group of Indians surrounded them. Oņate provided the Indians with food and presents, and in turn they provided the Spanish with a guide to explore the region.

The party continued for another week until they found their first bison, an older, solitary bull. The next day they came upon several hundred bison in large groups at various ponds near the Canadian River. A group of Indians on horseback crossed nearby, after returning from a trading trip to Taos and other populous pueblos on Northern New Mexico. The Spanish located their camp near an Indian ranchería comprised of several dozen tipis. The account describes how the Indians quickly packed up their tipis and transported their food from hunting expeditions by creating a litter using the tipi poles that was hauled by packs of dogs.

During October, Oņate relates how they tried and failed to corral the bison. In the process, the bison killed three horses and wounded forty more. The bison outwitted the Spanish who tried to build a huge enclosure to trap them, and the calves they captured died from exhaustion within a few days of separation from their mothers.

After Oņate discovered some of the camps abandoned by Humaņa and Leyva (before Humaņa killed him) the party observed herds of wild oxen that proved as impossible to capture as the bison. Oņate describes the native’s preference for mostly raw meat, their exceptional hunting skills, and their remarkable strength and endurance. The Oņate party returned to San Juan Baptista (his first capital of the New Mexico province) on November 8, 1598.

Other Internet and Reference Sources

For more information on Oņate, see the "Handbook of Texas Online" to read the biography and see more details about the expedition.

The standard biography is Marc Simmons' The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oņate and the Settling of the Far Southwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991). Also see George Hammond’s (ed.) Don Juan de Oņate and the Founding of New Mexico (Santa Fe: El Palacio Press, 1927). A wide selection of primary documents are printed in George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, eds., Don Juan de Oņate: Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953).

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