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The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest

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The dramatic and tragic story of the only successful Native American uprising against the Spanish, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

With the conquest of New Mexico in 1598, Spanish governors, soldiers, and missionaries began their brutal subjugation of the Pueblo Indians in what is today the Southwestern United States. This oppression continued for decades, until, in the summer of 1680, led by a visionary shaman named Pope, the Puebloans revolted. In total secrecy they coordinated an attack, killing 401 settlers and soldiers and routing the rulers in Santa Fe. Every Spaniard was driven from the Pueblo homeland, the only time in North American history that conquering Europeans were thoroughly expelled from Indian territory.

Yet today, more than three centuries later, crucial questions about the Pueblo Revolt remain unanswered. How did Pope succeed in his brilliant plot? And what happened in the Pueblo world between 1680 and 1692, when a new Spanish force reconquered the Pueblo peoples with relative ease?

David Roberts set out to try to answer these questions and to bring this remarkable historical episode to life. He visited Pueblo villages, talked with Native American and Anglo historians, combed through archives, discovered backcountry ruins, sought out the vivid rock art panels carved and painted by Puebloans contemporary with the events, and pondered the existence of centuries-old Spanish documents never seen by Anglos.

ISBN-13: 9780743255172

Media Type: Paperback(Reprint)

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date: 09-02-2005

Pages: 288

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.44(h) x 0.90(d)

David Roberts (1943–2021) was the author of dozens of books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications.

Read an Excerpt

The Pueblo Revolt

The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest
By David Roberts

Simon & Schuster

Copyright © 2004 David Roberts
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-7432-5517-8


At dawn, frost silvered the yellow cottonwood leaves strewn in the dirt in front of the visitor center. The men had built a bonfire to warm their morning's play. A fusillade of sharp reports - stone knocking upon stone - rang echoless in the cold, clear air. I sat just outside the circle of men, witnessing a cultural paradox whose roots stretched more than five centuries into the past.

It was October 1994. Near the end of three years of research for a book about those prehistoric geniuses of the Southwest, the Anasazi, I had come to Jemez Pueblo in northern New Mexico. Nine of the ten men laboring before my eyes were from Jemez and its neighbor pueblo, Zia, ten miles to the south. As Puebloans, they were direct descendants of the Anasazi who had built such wondrous villages as Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde, Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon. The tenth man was an Anglo archaeologist named Bruce Bradley, who lives in Cortez, Colorado. The paradox lay in the fact that, at the moment, Bradley was teaching his protgs how to make arrowheads.

At the time of Coronado's landmark entrada into the Southwest, in A.D. 1540, every Zia and Jemez man knew how to flake and chip formless lumps of chertand obsidian into sleek points that - hafted to straight sticks that were fletched with bird feathers, sent winging from a well-flexed bow - could bring down a deer in the forest or an enemy on the trail. Gradually, however, during the decades after the Spanish conquest of New Mexico in 1598, under Don Juan de Onate, the Puebloans lost the art of arrowhead making. There was no reason to keep that craft alive, once the men had learned how to use harquebuses (the small-caliber muskets of the day) and, later, rifles.

Through twenty years of trial and error, Bradley had taught himself to flint-knap so well that he could turn a core of creamy chert into any kind of projectile point he wished, from the long, fluted Clovis point favored by Paleo-Indians 9,000 years ago to the tiny triangular arrowheads Puebloans reserved, in the years just before the Spanish came, for killing rabbits. On that chilly October morning, the Zia and Jemez men had assembled under Bradley's tutelage not out of some atavistic yearning for a golden age before the Europeans had come and changed everything, but simply because they had formed an archery club.

Beside me sat another Anglo, Bill Whatley, who was serving as official archaeologist for Jemez Pueblo. It was Whatley who had arranged my visit. Evidently the paradox before our eyes had set him musing, just as it had me, for now, out of the blue, he leaned close and whispered in my ear, "Do you know that these guys still have Spanish documents they seized during the Pueblo Revolt, which no Anglos have ever seen?"

Electrified in that moment by Whatley's revelation, I have been haunted by it through the ten years since that October morning in front of the visitor center. In 1994, despite all the research I had done for my Anasazi book, I possessed only a vague understanding of the Pueblo Revolt. In 1680, I knew, the various pueblos scattered along the Rio Grande and to the west had united, for the first and only time in their history, to make a lightning strike that drove all the Spaniards out of New Mexico. Inevitably, I knew, the Spaniards had returned and accomplished the reconquest, but not before the pueblos had enjoyed twelve years of freedom. Yet about how the Revolt had been organized and pulled off, about the eighty-two years of tribulation under the Spanish yoke that had preceded it, about how after 1680 Puebloan unity had fallen apart and allowed the reconquest, and above all about what had happened in New Mexico during those twelve years without the Spanish, I knew next to nothing.

Two years ago, I scratched the old itch and returned to the Pueblo Revolt, as I began work on this present book. The mild sense of guilt I felt about my ignorance was shared, as I soon learned, by many a Southwest savant. Archaeologists and anthropologists who had toiled in New Mexico for two or three decades confessed to me a kindred ignorance of the details of the great uprising of 1680. A handful of books purported to cover the Revolt, but to my mind they did so in an unsatisfying fashion, leaving the central questions unanswered. All kinds of myths had attached themselves to that stunning interlude in New Mexico history, but it seemed impossible to test the truths that lay at their core. Most surprisingly of all, I began to suspect that even among today's Puebloans, the living memory of the Revolt was dim.

This struck me as a strange state of affairs. As one historian justly observes, the Pueblo Revolt remains "the point of highest drama in New Mexico's long history." From the Indian point of view, the Revolt, in its complete eradication of the European oppressor from the people's homeland for more than a decade, far outmatches in terms of lasting impact the famous massacre of Custer's army by the Sioux and Cheyenne at Little Big Horn in 1876. In its tragic dimension, the Revolt and reconquest took a toll among the Puebloans every bit as dolorous as the better-known campaigns of the Cherokee Trail of Tears or the Navajo Long Walk to Bosque Redondo.

As I immersed myself in research on the Pueblo Revolt, I discovered that the Spanish record of that conflagration was voluminous and vivid. Yet the documents preserved in archives in Seville and Mexico City represent but a portion of the testimony recorded at the time by friars and governors, for great piles of those documents were burned by the Puebloans during the Revolt. And who knows how many pueblos today still hoard, in secret repositories, long-lost chronicles seized from the oppressor in 1680? What would a scholar not give to be able to peruse the documents Bill Whatley told me about that October morning at Jemez!

Watching the men strike flakes of chert free from their cores, I mused further - about just what value those hoarded documents must possess for the Jemez. As I would come to see, in struggling to fathom photocopies of records from the archives in Mexico City, the orthography of handwritten Spanish in the seventeenth century is so arcane that only experts in a field called paleography ("old writing") can read it. It seemed doubtful that anyone at Jemez could decipher the records seized in 1680 and guarded so zealously ever since. In Ladakh, I had seen Buddhist monks reverently curating ancient scrolls that they had no idea how to read. But that veneration could be explained by faith: the scrolls had the power of holy relics. Perhaps for the Jemez, the three-century-old scribblings that they kept hidden away from the eyes of prying scholars were relics in a reverse sense: talismans of the tyrannic power the Puebloans had wrested from the Spanish in 1680, charms against the oppression they had borne ever returning in full force.

In any event, all kinds of knowledge of what scholar France V. Scholes called "troublous times in New Mexico" vanished in the bonfires and seizures of 1680. Santa Fe, for instance, was founded in 1610, yet the earliest surviving map of the town was drawn only in 1767. Of course there were earlier maps, but they have disappeared. As a consequence, we do not know precisely where the climactic battle in August 1680 between the Puebloans and Spanish, culminating in the siege of Santa Fe, took place.

In another respect, the Spanish record is fundamentally unreliable. So sure were the officers and settlers in New Mexico that they carried a superior civilization into the midst of benighted savages, so arrogant were the friars in wielding the absolute truth of their Catholic faith to wipe out the "hideous apostasies" of the native religion, that it is frequently impossible to read between the lines of Spanish dogma to figure out just what was going on at Taos or Jemez or Acoma.

As for the Pueblo record of the Revolt, it looms for the Anglo scholar of today as a yawning void. An old truism of the Southwest has it that Spanish persecution in New Mexico was so severe that it drove the Pueblo religion (and indeed, the very culture) underground. Underground, it remains today. Yet the secrecy that lies at the heart of Puebloan life goes far deeper than a response to the Spanish. In basic ways, it long predates European contact, forming an intrinsic feature of the culture. In 2004, moreover, it has become harder for an outsider to learn anything new about the Pueblo belief system or Pueblo history than at any time since the 1870s, when Anglo ethnographers began working in the Southwest.

At the time of Coronado's entrada in 1540, Spain was at the height of its glory, the most powerful nation in Europe and perhaps in the world. Its monarch, Charles I, had been elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1519; as the Hapsburg Charles V, by 1540 he presided over a domain that stretched from the Netherlands to North Africa, from Austria to Mexico and Peru. Charles's reign provided the seedbed for an unprecedented florescence of Spanish culture, bringing forth in subsequent generations such writers as Cervantes and Lope de Vega, such painters as El Greco and Velzquez.

In contrast, by the 1670s, on the eve of the Pueblo Revolt, Spain had become a distinctly second-rate power. She had suffered not only the crushing decimation of her Armada by the British fleet in 1588, but had lost one war after another, in France, in Holland, in Italy, and elsewhere. Catalonia and Portugal had successfully revolted against Castilian rule. Under the feckless Charles II, Spain suffered an irreversible decline. The Venetian ambassador to Spain characterized Charles's reign as "an uninterrupted series of calamities." Thanks to warfare and the exodus of Spaniards to the colonies, the population of Castile itself declined from 6.5 million in 1600 to 5 million in 1680. Beginning in 1677, earthquakes, plague, and crop failures dealt further blows to the mother country. In cultural terms, the vaunted "Golden Century" had come to its close.

The decline of Spain had a bitter relevance for New Mexico. No part of the sprawling colonial empire of New Spain lay farther from its capital in Mexico City than the northern hinterland called Nuevo Mexico. By horse and cart, it was a journey of six months and 2,000 miles from Santa Fe to Mexico City. For a governor to send a message to the capital and receive his answer thus routinely took at least a year. To communicate with the king in Madrid took considerably longer.

As Castile preoccupied itself with threats and troubles nearer home, the remote colony luxuriated in an anarchic autonomy that spawned grotesque abuses. Settlers routinely ignored Spanish laws promulgated since the 1570s to protect natives from the excesses of the first conquistadors. More than one governor of New Mexico set himself up as an absolute despot, growing rich off the labor of Indians reduced to virtual slavery. More than one friar in the colony arrogated to himself the right to punish native "heresies" with torture and execution. Sexual exploitation of Puebloan women, including rape, was commonplace, even on the part of priests sworn to celibacy. As if all this were not burden enough for the Pueblos, for eighty-two years after the conquest church and state in New Mexico waged a relentless struggle against each other. There was no possible way for a "good Indian" to serve both masters.

It is not, perhaps, going too far to see New Mexico in the 1670s as a colony gone collectively mad. Freed by Spain's troubles at home from the corrective hand of humanizing civilization, the leading figures of Nuevo Mexico lived and ruled as they pleased. A stunning symptom of that madness is that the Spaniards never saw the Revolt coming. As the colony's governor complained in an official dispatch, written less than a month after he had lost Santa Fe, as he straggled south down the Rio Grande with his fellow survivors, the uprising was "wholly contrary to the existing peace and tranquility" of the colony. The "cunning and cleverness of the rebels," the governor ruefully confessed, was abetted by "a certain degree of negligence" on his own part, for he simply did not believe the first rumors of rebellion that reached his ears.

Pursuing my research on the Pueblo Revolt, I read everything I could get my hands on, from the eyewitness Spanish accounts to modern histories of New Mexico to archaeological site reports to the many scholarly articles about the Revolt, as well as a novel based upon it, published in 1973 under the by now very un-PC title, Red Power on the Rio Grande. I also visited today's pueblos, and spoke to as many Puebloans as I could - not very many, as I was hardly surprised to discover - who were willing to share their thoughts about the Revolt with an outsider.

From the start, however, I did not intend to write another quasi-objective history of the uprising, in the vein of Robert Silverberg's The Pueblo Revolt (1970) or Andrew L. Knaut's The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (1995). I wanted instead to undertake a journey through the landscape where the Revolt had unfurled. Just as I had found while researching my previous book about the Anasazi, hiking into the wilderness gave me at least as much insight into my subject as hours of interviewing or burrowing through stacks and archives. A petroglyph carved on an obscure basalt boulder sometime after 1540 captured the shock of first contact better than any number of firsthand accounts. A day spent contemplating the ruins of an ancestral village, all but lost in the forest on top of a high plateau, conveyed to me the integrity of Pueblo life before the Spanish came better than some dry ethnographic report.

Some readers may find my take on the Revolt one-sided - too sympathetic to the Puebloans, too hard on the Spanish. If so, so be it. My book, to repeat, is not meant to be an "objective" history, but rather a bearing of empathic witness to one of the great triumphs and tragedies of American history - not a disinterested recitation of events, but an engage account of what I found in New Mexico.

The easiest trap in such a work, of course, is to romanticize Native Americans, a la Dances with Wolves. I hope that I have retained a healthy skepticism about the pueblos, an awareness of the limitations of oral tradition, a clear-eyed appreciation of the ravages that acculturation has wrought upon today's inhabitants of Acoma or Hopi or Jemez. But I began and ended my effort in admiration of the culture of the pueblos, as of that of their Anasazi ancestors.

About the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Spaniards, I am far more ambivalent. For every Bartolom de las Casas, the Dominican friar who became the eloquent champion of the Indians in the New World, there were a dozen Pedro de Alvarados (the genocidal conqueror of highland Guatemala).

The central mystery of the Pueblo Revolt remains what happened between 1680 and 1692, during the years the Spanish were absent from New Mexico. Even for today's Puebloans, I suspect, those twelve years linger as something of a lacuna in the middle of their long past in the Southwest.

Yet of the scores of tantalizing hints as to what transpired during that Puebloan interregnum, I would hope that I have made a partial synthesis, one that previous commentators have not attempted. The ambiguities of that period do not prevent our forming an understanding of what is still one of the most astonishing chapters in North American history.

And I hope that my readers, as they accompany me on my rambles through New Mexico, can taste some of the joy I felt in lonely canyons and on lordly mesa tops, some of the curiosity that tantalized me as I talked with Puebloans who told me only what they thought it was safe for me to hear, some of the fussy pleasure I found in squeezing latent meanings out of old texts. This book is meant as a passionate personal journey into the heart of a mystery. I do not presume to have emerged, on the last page, with anything more than a key to the puzzle. But that key, if I have succeeded, at least fits into the lock. And a lock can be opened with a turn of the hand, or a twist of the mind....


Excerpted from The Pueblo Revolt by David Roberts Copyright © 2004 by David Roberts. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents



1 The Knotted Cord

2 The Coming of the Kachinas

3 Oñate

4 Troublous Times

5 Popé's Apotheosis

6 The Bloodless Reconquest

7 Diaspora



Annotated Bibliography