The Pima Revolt, also known as the O’odham Uprising or the Pima Outbreak, was a revolt of O’odham Indians against Spanish colonial forces in Arizona that occurred in 1751. This tribe, called Pima by the Spaniards, had suffered at the hands of missionaries and Spanish settlers for decades. Finally, after years of abuse, they rose against their oppressors, resulting in one of the major northern frontier conflicts in early New Spain.
From 1687 to 1711, Jesuit explorer and mapmaker Eusebio Francisco Kino set out from Mexico City as a missionary to establish missions in Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona. This area was primarily inhabited by the O’odham tribe, which the Spaniards called Pima.
Here, the Spaniards established missions in New Spain in an attempt to Christianize and control the native peoples in the area. The Indians initially welcomed the gifts and new technologies. Kino established the Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori in 1691. Nearby was the small Piman village of Tubac, which soon became a mission farm and ranch.
Missionaries forced natives into new villages where they could be controlled and converted. Father Kino and his associates had established such missions in northern Sonora, and native people had rebelled, but the missionaries stuck to their plans, backed by military garrisons. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 expelled the colonizers from the Southwest for 12 years, and the missionaries wanted to make up for lost time.
Settlements were often built on top of indigenous villages, with churches built over traditional kivas to assert their dominance. The O’odham built the adobe structures as slaves, without pay, and with punishment.
In 1692 Kino established San Xavier del Bac Mission near Tuscon. The combination of economic planning and broad tolerance for Indian customs was the basis of Kino’s success in his campaign of peaceful conquest. The charismatic and energetic Jesuit brought the Tohono O’odham grain seeds, livestock, fruit trees, and vegetables. These crops joined the corn, beans, and squash that the Indians had grown in the desert for thousands of years.
The colonizers also brought a deadly combination of fear and power. In March 1694, when soldiers saw a group of Indians drying meat, they assumed it came from recently-stolen horses. They killed three men and captured two others. The meat turned out to be venison. Rape of native women by soldiers was common.
The Europeans also brought diseases against which the O’odham had no immunity. At Tumacacori Mission, the native population was reduced from 200 to just 30 by measles, influenza, and smallpox. There are estimates that European diseases killed more than 95 percent of the tens of millions of indigenous Americans on both continents. Baptism and church bells became associated with misery and death rather than salvation.
Despite such incidents, the O’odham joined the Spaniards in fighting the Apache. Even as allies, however, O’odham, who spoke out against Spanish control, were punished. In 1695 a beating led to a rebellion along the Altar River. Soldiers hunted down the rebels, killing women and children. Father Kino negotiated to spare O’odhams, who had not revolted, if they would help identify the rebels, and an O’odham delegation of 50 people met in the army’s camp on June 9, 1695. Rebels were pointed out and bound as Spanish soldiers on horseback encircled the group. When the informers tried to leave, the soldiers killed them. La Matanza, The slaughter, claimed 48 O’odham lives.
Many of the native peoples in the region were unhappy with their gradual loss of autonomy and territory. In addition, several treaties that allowed the Spanish to mine and herd on Native lands led to an influx of new settlers by the 1730s. By 1730 mission records showed only 1200 converts to Christianity. The Spaniards then sent more missionaries in the 1730s and 1740s. The new arrivals, unhappy with the slow conversion pace, whipped the Indians to enforce compliance. Missionaries took the best land and forced the Indians to work it for their benefit.
Minor uprisings in 1732 and 1748 contributed to colonialist hostility against the native peoples. Still, the two groups fought against the Apache, and Spanish officers honored Luis Oacpicagigua as the leader of the O’odham warriors. Luis thought that meant he had authority over traditional O’odham lands, but the missionaries opposed him.
Many Spanish colonists settling in the Tubac area also irrigated and farmed the lands along the Santa Cruz River and raised livestock. In time, tension increased between the settlers and the Indians, which sometimes turned violent.
As a result, O’odham chief Luis Oacpicagigua, stirred by many grievances, led a bloody uprising known as the Pima Revolt in November 1751, destroying the small settlement at Tubac.
Luis secretly planned to expel the Europeans and their Indian converts from O’odham land. On November 20, 1751, O’odham rebels made a coordinated attack on Spanish missions and settlements. The Spanish were caught completely unaware. Groups of a thousand Indians attacked missions with arrows and fire. Missions at Arivaca, Sonoita, Guevavi, and others were attacked, and the conquerors were in retreat. Churches were burned, and more than 100 people were killed. Sonora Governor Parrilla assembled his troops and marched north.
Two hundred soldiers were prepared to battle with 3,000 O’odham warriors in the Baboquivari Mountains. The Baboquivaris was a sacred and familiar place to the rebels, and military leaders understood their disadvantage. Jesuit missionaries, led by the hated Father Keller, argued for immediate military action, but negotiating feelers were extended. Luis sent word that if Keller were sent away, he would surrender. Father Keller was ordered to leave, and Luis gave himself up, blaming Jesuit land theft and brutality for the uprising. Instead of responding to the O’odham grievances, the Spaniards began constructing a military presidio at Tubac, and a new governor had Luis Oacpicagigua arrested. He died in prison.
Resistance and raiding continued, but there were no more battles. Though a new fort was established in the Santa Cruz Valley in June 1752, the troops spent their time hunting down pockets of rebels who had created a hideout in the center of sacred O’odham country. Eventually, the rebellion would end, and life would continue in the missions.
The Pima Revolt led to the abandonment of many European settlements for several decades. Political intrigues in Spain led to the expulsion of Jesuit priests from New Spain in 1767, with Franciscan missionaries replacing them. Disease continued to claim native lives, killing an estimated half of the O’odham population. Revolts against enslavement, rape, and abuse were not limited to the Southwest. Further west, missions were attacked at San Diego, San Luis Obispo, and San Juan Bautista in the 1700s and Santa Barbara in 1824.
Today, the Sonoran desert on both sides of the international border is dotted with the remains of these missions.
“When they do seem quiet and peaceful, it is like a live flame covered with ashes, but alas, when exposed to the slightest breeze, its true nature is seen.” – Jesuit Father Ignacio Lizassoain
© Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated December 2022.
Eusebio Francisco Kino – Jesuit Priest
List of Missions & Presidios in the United States
Mission San Cayetano de Tumacácori