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Document Number: AJ-014
Author: Oņate, Juan de, 1549?-1624
Title: True Account of the Expedition of Oņate toward the East
Source: Bolton, Herbert Eugene (editor). Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916). Pages 250-267.
Pages/Illustrations: 20 / 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 June 23, 1601, Don Juan de Oņate and eighty to one-hundred men set out to explore the lands northeast of New Mexico into Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. They based their journey on the route taken by Humaņa and Leyva, guided by Jusepe, an Indian who accompanied Humaņa and survived the massacre of that party (see AJ-103). Loaded with a hundred carts of supplies, they passed through the Galisteo Pass and crossed the Pecos and the Galinas Rivers. The first tribe they met was the Apache, with whom they established peaceful contact. Oņate describes the abundant wild fruits and plentiful fish in the Canadian River valley, which they followed into lands in present-day San Miguel County, Texas. Here they encountered large herds of bison and elk. Their trek led along the sand dunes of the Canadian River near Antelope Hills, east of the Texas Panhandle, and toward the modern-day city of Wichita, Kansas.

After the Apache, Oņate encountered a tribe they called the Escanjaques, who at first seemed prepared to battle the Spaniards. Oņate, a priest, and thirty soldiers made peace with the tribe, which numbered more than five-thousand. The Escanjaques, at war with another nearby tribe, were visiting the region during their summer bison hunt. In the belief that Oņate’s company was seeking revenge for the deaths of Leyva and Humaņa, they offered to help Oņate to attack their enemies. With his Indian escort, Oņate traveled along the Arkansas River to the neighboring village of the Wichita. Instead of attacking them, Oņate sought peace with the Wichita but the Escanjaques began to burn down some of their huts until Oņate forbade them. Oņate recounted that the Wichita cultivated large fields of maize and gourds, and also used the abundant buffalo for meat and hides, suitable for trade.

Oņate decided that the party had achieved its goal of finding good land for settlement and made plans to return to New Mexico. However, the Wichita warned him that the Escanjagues planned to ambush the Spanish on their return, despite their initial friendliness. Oņate’s expedition was unable to avoid the Escanjaques on the return trip as his route passed through the highly-populated heart of their territory. The attack began when fifteen-hundred Escanjaques ignored Oņate’s peaceful greeting. He ordered his party to defend itself and the battle lasted until nightfall. Though the Spanish only suffered light injuries and killed hundreds of Indians, the Escanjaques showed no desire to retreat. At nightfall, the Spanish retreated taking a few young Indian boys to instruct in the Roman Catholic faith, and released some women they held. The Spanish were able to return to New Mexico without further attack, arriving on November 24, 1601.

Other Internet and Reference Sources Other

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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