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Chronicles of Oklahoma
Volume 9, No. 3
September, 1931

Paul Nesbitt

Page 287

Some thirty-five miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, is the southern extremity of the Black Mesa, a stately plateau rises preciptiously several hundred feet above the valleys which surround it. It has the appearance of a huge wedge projected into the basin of the rivers which converge in that vicinity. From the point of this terrestrial wedge it extends northward for many miles, widening, and rising gently in elevation. Its nearly level surface is capped by some fifty feet of lava which was laid down by a succession of flows from a giant crater to the north. Destructive elements have eroded its steep aides of soft material, undergutting the lava capping which, yielding to the same elements has broken off in huge boulders and tumbled down the slopes; and these boulders have split and broken into lesser ones which completely cover its sides from cap-rock to river banks. From this black covering it received its name from the Spaniards—Mesa Negra. The name has been anglicised in recent years by an English-Spanish compromise—Black Mesa.

High mountains flank the sides of this mesa, separated from the latter by valleys. On the western side are the Jemez peaks; on the east are the snow-clad Sangre de Cristo. Barren, ragged with erosions and escarpments, are the foothills which lie between the river valleys and the mountains.

The Rio del Norte as it was first called by the Spaniards; Rio Grande del Norte as it later was christened, rises in the Colorado mountains. Tumbling through deep canyons and rocky gorges it emerges into a narrow valley that lies between the Sangre de Cristo mountains and the eastern side of the Black Mesa where it sweeps majestically along the foot of that elevation. As it approaches the southern extremity of the mesa, it bears away from the wedge-point, to the left, into a wide valley which extends westward to admit the Rio Chama on the opposite side of the mesa.

The Rio Chama also rises in the mountains of Colorado west of the Rio Grande. Plunging through sinuous

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canyons and deep-cut red beds it swings at last against the western side of the Black Mesa about a mile above the wedge point. Just before it touches the toe of the mesa slope, it receives the waters of the Ojo Caliente, a stream that flows down the western side of the mesa for several miles. After receiving the waters of the Ojo Caliente, the Chama sweeps around the western point of the mesa's southern extremity and, following the general course of the Rio Grande, empties its murky flood into that river some two miles below. Thus there is formed a huge triangle the base of which is the Black Mesa, the apex the confluence of the Rios Grande and Chama.

In this valley about midway between the confluence of the streams and the southern extremity of the Black Mesa, Spaniards effected the first successful settlement west of the Mississippi river in what is now the United States and second only to St. Augustine, Florida. It was already settled by the Indians when the Spaniards arrived there July, 1598. Various cultures of primitive people have lived there, and on the surrounding mesas, for thousands of years, how long is not known. It is known, however, that, since the appearance of men in this section, geologic changes have occurred which altered the nature of the surroundings to such an extent whole communities were compelled to abandon elaborate dwellings and seek other habitat offering sustenance.

This valley is neither seductive nor enchanting to one seeing it for the first time. There is something repellant about the barren hills on the western side rising abruptly to high mesas which stretch away to the very shoulders of the Jemez mountains; something uninviting about the erosions and escarpments which mar the landscape of hills buttrassing the lordly Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east.

One must live in this valley and witness the unfolding of its marvels, must see the brilliant sunshine at midday, and feel its energizing warmth; watch the shadows creeping down the western slopes bringing the evening's cool; witness the cerulean hues envelop the mountains through which the snowy peaks of Sangre de Cristo react roseate hues to the sunset's glow; see the Black Mesa cloud-crowned; patches of turquoise sky glimpsing low on the

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horizon. One must see the orchards and the fields of grain; the adobe houses, when the valley is flooded with purple mist; shimmering waters romping along the ditches and out over the fields to give succor and life to vegetation.

Only when we have seen these does the valley's lure hold us; and we do not wonder that it has held men and women for ages in the spell of its magic.


For half a century before settlement in this valley by Spaniards, the country had been a land of golden dreams and blasted hopes. Descendants of bold conquistadores, daring as their fathers, sought new worlds to conquer. Twice-told tales of fabulous wealth; of populous cities where the doors of its houses "were studded with turquoise's as if feathers from the blue sky had dropped down and clung there; within whose walls were whole streets of goldsmiths offering their wares for sale;" a land where a lake of gold waited the coming of those who knew what to do with it. These tales beckoned them on.

Notwithstanding Coronado's march half across a continent; his search for the golden cities; his failure and disappointment, and his return to tell of desert plains; of poverty-stricken pueblos and half-naked savages, yet the golden cities re-appeared in dreams of conquest; Coronado's failure forgot; his hardships and disappointments not even a memory.

Joined to the adventurers who dreamed of conquest and wealth were the adventurers of the church; those who were seeking hosts to whom the message of salvation never had been delivered. Hand in hand these votaries of war and religion marched across desert wastes in search of their objects; the first to plunder and if need be, to kill. The other to bind up the wounds and salvage souls.

In Spain the conquests of Mexico and Peru were the Nation's glory, attested by tangible things not soon forgot. There it was believed that all unconquered territories were potential fields for wealth, for glory—and, as a saving clause, for the salvation of souls. The spread of ocean between Spain and the western continent was a buffer which greatly reduced the shock of expeditionary failures; and

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besides, Spain bore little of the cost of conquest; her contractural relations with such adventures affected her only in case of success. What she gave to conquistadors were letters of authority, titles, honors and land. What she received if success crowned their efforts were empire, gold and silver.

Little disturbed by former failures the king authorized the viceroy of New Spain to execute a contract with someone who would raise an army at his own expense, enlist colonists, equip them for settlement, provision all, and make conquest of the territory on the north. That was the year 1583. Then followed years of attempts on the part of individuals to comply. It was not until the year 1595 that Don Juan de *Onate, one of a wealthy family in Mexico, came forward with a proposition to accept the king's offer; and with evidence of ability to organize and finance the expedition.


It was well that Don Juan de Ornate was a brave, patient and loyal subject of the king. Only a strong heart could have held on; only a patient soul could have endured all the intriguing and plotting that envious and unscrupulous marplots could devise for his undoing. Much less than truth would put a strain upon credulity.

His petition met favor with the viceroy who wrote the king that Onate was probably the only man in New Spain who could successfully conduct the conquest and colonization. In September, 1595 a contract was drawn up setting out the terms and conditions upon which Onate would operate. He would bear all expenses; raise an army and enlist colonists with families; he would take with the expedition provisions for all, and enough to last until the colony was established.

Luis de Velasco, the viceroy, was friendly to Onate. He studied carefully the conditions of the contract and gave them his approval with a few alterations. Onate was to receive the titles of governor and captain-general; and when he had established his colony he was to receive the title of adalantado—governor of the province. He was to

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have complete control of the army organization and appointment of his lieutenants.

It is possible that Onate fared as well as anyone attempting conquests in those days; for those were days of conflicting interests, jealousies without number, and from the king down, officials who did not scruple to seek selfish advantages in every undertaking. To add to the difficulties a change of viceroys occurred at the very time the contract was being considered—before it was approved by the one to whom it was first submitted. Gasper de Zunica y Acavedo, Count of Monterey, who succeeded Velasco may have been a very honest man, but that intrigues and plots flourished under his administration cannot be doubted. He never heartily supported Onate, and threw many obstacles in his way.

It was three years after he raised his army before the captain general was permitted to set out upon the conquest; three years he was compelled to hold together his organization, keep up equipment and provision it, while king and viceroy countenanced intriguing to destroy him. Once he was suspended as captain-general — prohibited from conducting the conquest, although he had equipped the army and enlisted the colonists at his own expense. However, Onate held his organization together. He refused to be destroyed. He kissed the kings letter of suspension, placed it on his head in token of obedience, but told his sodiers he had received orders to make entrada to the Land of Pueblos.

When the intriguing failed; when no one was able to finance the expedition, the king was forced to the necessity of approving Onate's contract, and he was at liberty to proceed—if he could pass the inspection. The viceroy was very particular to know if every condition of the contract had been fulfilled. He never seemed to worry about the cost of providing for an army through three years of waiting, but his conscience was tender upon the point of the fulfilment of the terms.

It is proof of Onate's ability and resourcefulness that he was able to meet the conditions after these years of harrassing and waiting. He had spent more than a hundred thousand ducats at the time he was suspended. His

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family's wealth was sufficient to carry him through. With the begrudging consent of the viceroy he crossed the Conchos river and began his long march to the pueblo country.

He began the march with 400 men; 130 were colonists as well as soldiers—on paper. It does not appear that any achieved immortal fame as colonists. These colonists took with them their families. There were 7000 head of cattle, sheep, goats, mares, and colts. There were 83 carts, and oxen to draw them. There were tools, and iron for horse shoes—and blacksmiths. There were provisions and seed for planting; and there were medicines.

We should know about these carts which were the means of transportation. They were not quite up to present day standards. The wheels were made of solid wood, usually transverse sections of logs, cut some two feet in thickness at the hub where holes were bored for admission of axles. From the hub the thickness of the wheel was reduced towards the rim which was about six inches wide. Around this wheel a heavy iron tire was shrunk deep into the wood. Some of these wheels may be seen in the museum at Santa Fe. Axles were heavy and made from wood of tough fibre. Midway between the wheels a tongue was attached to the axle. A frame some three or three and a half feet in width and six or seven feet long was fastened to the axle and tongue. Inserted in this frame were upright staves or poles which were three feet or so in height and these were fastened to another frame which formed the top of the bed, or box, or body. In this bed was packed the load to be transported—supplies, provisions—and families.

No grease or lubricant was used on the axles, probably because there was none to be had. As these cumbersome vehicles were dragged along by slow-going ox teams, creaking and groaning of wheels were constant accompaniment. It must be left to the imagination what multiple noises accompanied the caravan of 83 carts as they wound along uncharted deserts cut by arroyos and covered with mesquite, greasewood and sage brush.


It was February 7, 1598 that Onate broke camp in Mexico and started for the Land of Pueblos. Instead of

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following down the Conchos river as his predecessors had done, he decided to take a more direct course by going north until he reached the Rio Grande near where El Paso is now located. After three day's march he arrived at the Rio San Pedro where he made camp and sent a detachment of cavalry ahead to find the most practicable route. While in camp here a band of Franciscans joined him, missionaries who were to take the gospel to the Indians.

The scouting party reached the Rio Grande, February 28 and returned to camp on the Rio San Pedro March 10. Onate set out that day on the path laid out by this party. The country was barren and much of it over a sandy waste. Water was scarce and it was necessary to divide the caravan into sections separated by miles in order to find grass and water to supply the animals. We are told that when no water could be found; when there was suffering and distress, one of those miracles which so often rescued those old conquistadors occurred. A heavy rain filled the ground sinks with water.

It was April 30 when the caravan was united on the Rio Grande. A pleasant camp site was selected, for on this day Onate planned to officially take over the country for God, King Phillip and himself. A fiesta was proclaimed. It was a custom then, as it is today among Spanish people that upon all occasions there must be a fiesta when the finest clothes are worn; when there are feasting and dancing. It is a delightful custom, too, even in these days. Amid the rejoicing, and as part of the ceremonies Fray Alonso Martinez preached a sermon; the royal standard was blessed. The proclamation issued—and the land of the pueblos was once again the property of Spain. As all former expeditions had formally taken the land over, there seems to have resulted no terrestrial disturbance upon this occasion.

For four months the caravan crept up the Rio Grande valley. Onate with part of the army went on ahead visiting pueblos and presenting the Indians with the purpose of the expedition. He did not wish to make war. He explained that the land in which they dwelt belonged to Spain; that the king expected obedience from them, but he would also protect them from their enemies and permit

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them to live in peace. He visited many outlying pueblos which would never be seen by the caravan.

*At Santo Domingo, July 7, Onate brought together in council seven chiefs. He explained to them the purposes of his expedition as he had done to the pueblos further south. He also explained the Christian religion and how all would be blessed who accepted. He must have been very impressive in proselyting, for it is said that the chiefs accepted, kneeled and kissed the hands of the father commissary and the captain-general.


A few miles above Santo Domingo the Rio Grande courses through a narrow gorge of lava, so that the valley section of Santo Domingo is separated from that of the Black Mesa valley by a rough and uninhabitable country of perhaps thirty miles. Onate proceeded over this section into the valley above—probably passing over the present site of Santa Fe—arriving at San Ildefonso about July 10. From there he pushed up the valley to the junction of the Rios Grande and Chama, and it was in that vicinity that he decided to establish his capital. He named the pueblo where he located, San Juan. There is some dispute as to where this pueblo was located—on which side of the Rio Grande—but authorities now say that it was on the east side of the river. Sometime during the year he moved to the west side, and located his permanent capital between the rivers, and named it San Gabriel.

While waiting for the caravan Onate made excursions to outlying pueblos. He visited Picuries and Taos. These pueblos are in the upper river country and can only be reached through the narrow valley that lies between the Black Mesa and the Sangre de Cristo mountains. He did not proceed further and we find him back in San Juan, July 19. He then went down the river to San Ildefonso, thence to San Marcos, near which is located the old turquoise mines. He then went to Galisteo and Pecos, which were large and thriving pueblos. From Pecos he returned to Santo Domingo where the caravan was met and a season

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of rejoicing had, and many the tales of wonder seen—and of no gold or silver found.

Only a few days rest and the caravan started on the last lap of its journey. Onate, with the army went west of Santo Domingo where he came upon the Jemez group of pueblos. Some of them were in almost inaccessible locations. These Indians differed in no particular from any others; the same conditions prevailed as in all others he had visited. Turning about he struck out for his capital which he reached August 10. He had devoted the entire month since his arrival at San Juan to exploring surrounding country. He had found nothing but half naked Indians and poor pueblos.

The caravan arrived at San Juan August 18. It was a discontented and discouraged colony that rested at last in the valley at foot of the Black Mesa. It had been a long, tedious trip; six months creeping along a barren country, starvation ever a day ahead. They had cattle and sheep, but they were dependent upon pueblos for bread. This they made from the maize taken from the Indians. Dreams of riches, of silver and gold; of ease and comfort in a land of plenty, had dissipated like the mists that draped the mountains at eventide. Now at last in the valley at the foot of the Mesa, bleak and barren hills walled them in as a prison. It was too late in the season to plant; another year must pass before they could produce crops; and even then they must irrigate the soil.

The best remedy for discontent is work. Onate immediately began construction of a church. Religion was ever to the fore; only that took root in the soil. We do not know where this church was located. Had it been preserved it would now be the oldest in the United States with the exception perhaps of one other. By September 8, the work had so far progressed that dedication exercises could be held. This was done in the usual manner—fiesta and amusements interspersed with more serious affairs. A sham battle was staged for the benefit, no doubt of the Indians who had come from many pueblos upon invitation; to witness the ceremonies. We may well believe that Onate neglected nothing in the way of finery, ostentation and force when playing to such an audience.

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When the ceremonies were concluded the captain-general assembled the Indians—it is said in the kiva; but it must have been a restricted assembly that could be accommodated in a kiva; for these were jug-like chambers in the ground, entered from the top, and usually some twenty to twenty-five feet in diameter, where Indian priests and chiefs met to council, and in which ceremonies were held. The missionaries expounded the doctrines of Christian religion, which, from all accounts moved the Indians, for we are told that they accepted and vowed allegiance to God, King Phillip and Onate. It was rather a large contract but no doubt the Indians were glad to accept any religion before such an imposing force as they witnessed that day.


The fiesta over, the colony sank again into the vale of discontent. Onate discovered a plot on the part of a third of the company to escape and flee to Mexico. In his report of this affair Onate said that the whole trouble arose because gold and silver were not found lying about on the ground. In his wrath he arrested the leaders and would have sentenced them to death but the missionaries and soldiers softened the heart of the captain-general and he released them. Even this did not quell the discontent, for only a few days following four soldiers, taking with them a number of horses, stole away for Mexico. These were pursued for two weeks and caught as they were nearing their destination. They were hanged as might be supposed.

After all explorations; long marches and distressing hardships, nothing had been discovered that promised fulfilment of the dreams of conquest. However, Onate contented himself with the thought that little of that vast territory had been explored. His operations had been confined to the valley of the Rio Grande del Norte. In what lay beyond the valley might be the riches sought. With this in mind he sent his sargento mayor, Vincente de Zaldivar on an excursion to the plains country east of Pecos. Owing to the unrest and discontent Onate remained at the capital.

There ever was discontent in the colony. The first year all provisions were forced from the Indians. This

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naturally caused resentment in the pueblos. Missionaries found it next to impossible to make headway in religious work because of the plundering of the Indians. Finally, during Onate's absence on an expedition, the greater part of the colony revolted. Taking with them such equipment as needed, they returned to Mexico. In this they were supported by a majoritjy of the missionaries who were discouraged because,, as they declared, the confidence and friendship of the Indians could not be gained while they were being pillaged. On the other hand, loyal colonists declared the missionaries made no effort to convert the Indians, refusing to go to their appointments in other pueblos. Be it said to their everylasting credit that enough men and women were loyal to Onate to preserve the colony.

Before these events the colony had been removed to San Gabriel on the west side of the Rio Grande, between that river and the Chama. A pueblo was vacated by Indians and given them, the Indians taking up their abode at San Juan. Little planting had been done. The colonists, having by terms of Onate's contract been ennobled for services, were now hidalgos, and who ever heard of hidalgos doing menial work? They could starve; they could revolt and abscond, or they could plunder Indians, but they could not degrade themselves by tilling the soil.

Nevertheless some start had been made in an agricultural way. Indians had been enslaved and put to work. Irrigating ditches were constructed. Some grain and vegetables planted. The soil was rich and produced abundantly. It would have been so easy to have provided for all the necessities of the colony; but it was more in keeping with the traditions of hidalgos to take from the Indians.

Thus they struggled on for years. Onate made expeditions in every direction; went out on the plains as far east as Wichita, Kansas; as far west as the Grand Canyon; and south to the Gulf of California. He battled with the Indains at Acoma where a detachment of soldiers were massacred while visiting the pueblo; slew their leaders, burned the pueblo and made slaves of the living.

Many complaints and charges were lodged against Onate by those who fled the colony; and we may well believe that these charges were eagerly seized upon by

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his enemies and those who plotted against him in the beginning. At last he was recalled and order made for disbanding his soldiers. For a year or so after order was made for Onate's recall nothing was done. He was not relieved, and could not depart without his successor arrived. At last one of his lieutenants was chosen temporarily, but the colony refused to accept the appointment electing Onate's son instead. The settlement would have been abandoned had it not been for the missionaries. Credit for the permanency of the colony is due the church which felt that the field could not be abandoned.

In the early part of the year 1609, Don Pedro Peralta was chosen to succeed Onate. He was directed to go at once to San Gabriel, and "before everything else carry out the foundling of a villa." This he did and founded Santa Fe, which has ever since remained the Capital of the New Mexico country. Just when the colony was removed to Santa Fe is not known, but it was sometime before the close of 1609.

For eleven years the little colony of the valley had existed. Before its eyes and under its feet was wealth enough to have made all happy—all elements necessary to make life worth living. There was abundance of pure water, and lands fertile for productions of all fruits and crops raised in the temperate zone. The climate healthful with almost eternal sunshine. All that was needful for that happiness which comes from plenty was application—intelligence directing a reasonable amount of toil; and that they would not have. They suffered where they might have found pleasure and happiness; they were poor where they could have produced wealth. And yet, all was not lost; they acquired title to the land which has come down to their heirs from that day to this.

They made it possible for the Martinezes, the Gallegoses, the Vigils and the Salazars; the Garcias, the Montoyas, the Ortegas and Rodriguizes who live there now, happy as those any where in the United States; whose orchards bend with fruit, whose fields and meadows adorn the valley; who go every year to the pueblo of San Juan to see the Indians dance their ancestral dances—as they were

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danced more than three hundred years ago when the Conquistadors arrived there; who still cling to the faith of their fathers and respond to call of chapel bells. Who sit before their casas and watch the gathering mists on mountain side settle into the valley; see the Black Mesa cloud-crowned through which are seen glimpses of turquoise sky; see the sunset's glow glorify the snowy peaks of Sangre de Cristo.


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