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Document Number: AJ-015
Author: Zárate Salmerķn, Geronimo de
Title: Journey of Oņate to California by Land
Source: Bolton, Herbert Eugene (editor). Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916). Pages 268-280.
Pages/Illustrations: 15 / 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.

Oņate’s Expedition to California

During the years of Oņate’s service as governor of New Mexico, he promised to establish a trail to the South Sea (Gulf of California), but events and responsibilities prevented his journey. Finally, October 7, 1604, Oņate, language specialist Fray Francisco de Escobar, and thirty young soldiers set out from the capital at San Gabriel. They traveled west to Cibola, a group of six scattered pueblos. The party proceeded to Moqui in Arizona, passing through Zuni Province that Oņate described as having high-quality silver deposits. From Moqui they crossed the Colorado and visited the Yavapai Indians on the San Antonio River.

Oņate and his party continued from village to village, first among the Amacavas Indians, then among the Mohave or Huallapais living in the river arroyos of Arizona. The Mohave led Oņate’s group to another Indian nation, the Maricopa, living on the Gila River. The Maricopa populated the river valley, raising cotton and harvesting river shells that they crafted into jewelry. Continuing his journey Oņate passed through other Indian villages including the Alchedoma Yumas, the Yumas, the Halliquamaya, and the Cocopas, the final tribe they met before reaching the sea.

Oņate arrived at the Gulf of California on January 25, 1605, and after spending a few days there, the group followed their same course back to New Mexico. They reached San Gabriel on April 25, 1605.

Document Note

This account was first published by Zárate Salmerón in Relaciones de . . . Nuevo Mexico in 1626.

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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