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OÑATE, JUAN DE (ca.1550-1626)

Explorer Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar was born around 1550, most likely in Zacatecas, Mexico. After the 1588 defeat of his Armada, Spain's King Philip II, eager to reestablish his country's prestige and hoping to repeat the exploits of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, ordered the viceroy of New Spain to organize an expedition to seek and colonize a rich civilization thought to lie north of Mexico. In 1595 the viceroy selected Oñate to lead and finance the expedition. Seemingly the ideal choice, Oñate was the son of a wealthy Zacatecas mine owner, and he was married to Isabel de Tolosa Cortés y Moctezuma, Cortés's granddaughter and great-granddaughter of the last Aztec emperor, Moctezuma.

Despite Coronado's failure to find golden cities half a century earlier, Oñate believed that he would find Gran Quivira. His entrada into the present United States came at El Paso del Norte on the Rio Grande in May 1598. Two months later he established Spanish New Mexico at the San Juan Pueblo in the northern Rio Grande Valley. Soon he sent exploring parties westward to the vicinity of present Flagstaff, Arizona, and eastward to the vicinity of present Amarillo, Texas.

In 1601 Oñate himself led an exploration to find Quivira. In June his party followed the Canadian River eastward across the Texas Panhandle, entering present Oklahoma north of Cheyenne and passing through Woodward and Woods counties. He then led his group northeast toward the Wichita villages at the junction of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas rivers, near present Wichita, Kansas. Like Coronado, he found only mud huts and hostile American Indians, and his disappointed troupe returned to New Mexico.

Oñate made his most ambitious expedition in 1605, following the Colorado River from near the Grand Canyon to the Gulf of California. By his return to New Mexico the colony was in disarray. In 1607 continuing problems and mounting debt caused Oñate to resign as leader of colony. In 1609 he witnessed the founding of Santa Fe but traveled to Mexico City in 1613 to defend himself against long-standing charges of mismanagement. At length he was fined and was banished from New Mexico for life and from Mexico City for four years. Shortly, he returned to Spain to clear his name. By 1620 he was the royal mining inspector. "The Last Conquistador" died on June 3, 1626, in Spain.


BIBLIOGRAPHY: Herbert E. Bolton, ed., Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542-1706 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1916). George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, eds., Don Juan de Oñate: Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595-1628 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953). Marc Simmons, The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

Carl N. Tyson

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