From the time the first Spanish colony, San Juan de los Caballeros, was established at the San Juan Pueblo (now called Ohkay Owingeh) in 1598, New Mexico became a Franciscan enclave dedicated to converting the region’s Native Americans to Christianity. Conquistador Juan de Onate named the pueblo San Juan de los Caballeros after his patron saint, John the Baptist.
Juan de Onate and his men forced the Native Americans from their homes and soon established the capitol of new Spanish colony of New Mexico across the river at another pueblo called Yunque, naming it San Gabriel de Yunque. Onate then became the governor of the new province. The Spaniards cut windows and doors into the blank adobe walls of the first-floor rooms and changed the pueblo to fit their European standards. Almost immediately, the soldiers also began to raid area pueblos taking anything of value.
Oñate’s main purpose in colonizing New Mexico was to discover gold and silver, but the missionaries who traveled with him were determined to Christianize the Native Americans. In the decades that followed the Pueblo Indians suffered under an oppressive Spanish rule in which they were forced to labor, required to pay demanding taxes in goods, and their religious activities were suppressed. The first to rebel were the Acoma tribe. In December, 1598, a party of Spanish soldiers seeking food arrived at Acoma. Initially, they were welcomed and treated in a friendly manner until the soldiers turned aggressive and began to demand grain from the Acoma storehouses, which was needed for the tribe to survive the winter. Provoking a furious reaction, the Acoma attacked the soldiers, killing 13 of them, including their commander, Juan de Zaldivar, who was a nephew of Juan de Oñate.
In response, Oñate resolved to make an example of Acoma, and dispatched 70 of his best men, under the command of Vicente de Zaldivar, to attack the Acoma Pueblo. On January 21, 1599, the Spanish troops came into view of the pueblo and the tribe fanned out from their village to guard the edge of the mesa. As the Spaniards drew closer, the defenders unleashed a barrage of rocks and arrows down on them. Despite the defensive barrage coming from atop the mesa, the soldiers fought their way to the top over the next three days. During the battle, the Spaniards brought a small cannon up the back of the mesa and began firing into the village. The battle then became a massacre and when it was over, as many as 800 Acoma people were dead and their pueblo in ruins. Oñate was later tried, convicted of cruelty to Indians and colonists, and was banished from New Mexico. However, he appealed the ruling and was later cleared of all charges. He lived out the rest of his life in Spain. A later governor, Pedro de Peralta, established the settlement of Santa Fe in 1609 as the seat of government. Peralta built the Palace of the Governors in 1610.
The Acoma rebellion was not forgotten and tensions increased between the Spanish and the Pueblo Indians as the Spanish continued to demand food, clothing and labor. Additionally, the Spanish attempted to prohibit their traditional religion and disrupted their economy. The disappointed Franciscans also found the pueblo people increasingly unwilling to consent to baptism, despite the number of missions that they founded.
For the next several decades, most of the Puebloans lived in relative peace with the Spanish, primarily due to the protection the Spanish provided against Navajo and Apache raiding parties. However, some repeatedly rebelled against the better-armed and better-organized Spaniards, but, these uprisings were quickly suppressed.
In the 1670’s, drought swept the region, which caused famine among the pueblos and provoked increased attacks from neighboring nomadic tribes. Due to the number of attacks, the Spanish soldiers were not always able to defend the pueblos. At about the same time, European-introduced diseases were ravaging the pueblos and greatly decreasing their numbers. Becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the Spanish, the Puebloans turned to their old religions, provoking a wave of repression from the Franciscan missionaries. While the missionaries had previously tended to ignore the occasional pueblo ceremonies as long as the people made some effort to attend mass, the Puebloans renewed vigor towards their religions caused the Fray Alonso de Posada to forbid Kachina dances by the Pueblo Indians and ordered the missionaries to seize every mask, prayer stick, and effigy they could lay their hands on and burn them.
Furthermore, the Indians were forbidden, on pain of death, to practice their native religions. When some Spanish officials tried to curb the power of the Franciscans, they were charged with heresy and tried before the Inquisition.
In 1675, the tension came to a head when Governor Juan Francisco Treviño ordered the arrest of 47 medicine men and accused them of practicing witchcraft. Four of the men were sentenced to be hanged – three of those sentences were carried out, while the fourth prisoner committed suicide. The remaining men were publicly whipped and sentenced to prison. When this news reached the Pueblo leaders, they moved in force to Santa Fe, where the prisoners were held. Because a large number of Spanish soldiers were away fighting the Apache, Governor Treviño released the prisoners. Among those who were released was a medicine man from the San Juan Pueblo (now known as Ohkay Owingeh), named Popé, who would soon become the leader of the Pueblo Rebellion. Popé then moved to Taos Pueblo and began plotting with men from other pueblos to drive out the Spaniards.
Before long, a well-coordinated effort of several pueblo villages was established in August, 1680. Throughout the upper Rio Grande basin north of El Paso to Taos, the Tewa, Tiwa, Hopi, Zuni and other Keresan-speaking pueblos, and even the non-pueblo Apaches, planned to simultaneously rise up against the Spanish.