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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Don Antonio de Otermín
(fl. 1680)

At the end of the seventeenth century, the Kingdom of New Mexico, as it was called, was the jewel of the northern frontier of Spain’s American empire. It was also the central cog in the defensive line that held that frontier. To be governor of such a province was both a great honor and a tremendous responsibility. From 1678 to 1683 the honor fell to Don Antonio de Otermín, but it was his fate that that honor turned to shame when he became the first governor forced to surrender his province to native rebels.

In 1680 about 2,800 Spanish settlers lived in New Mexico, with many more Indians interacting with them in the colonial system. The settlements were located in the north-central area of the present state, in the upper valley of the Rio Grande. For a century, since the arrival of Oñate, the colony had been evolving a culture of its own, already distinct from that of New Spain far to the south. Agriculture, sheep herding, buffalo hunting, and some mining were staples of the economy. Franciscan missionaries still staffed the churches, although the long-standing settlement could no longer be considered a recently opened territory.

Yet the native population had not been incorporated well into the church, and the Franciscans continually pressured them to convert. As long as that pressure respected certain limits, the missionaries were tolerated, but toward the second half of the 1600s the missionaries’ zeal led them to interfere with the Indians’ private practices. They preached against the use of kiva ceremonies, and they attempted to destroy native symbolic objects, such as masks and kachina dolls. At the same time, the demands for forced labor from both the state and the church were leaving almost no time for the natives to cultivate their own lands. The situation was intolerable. As a result, the Indians, under the leadership of Popé, a Tewa religious leader known among his people as Tío Pepe, united in a well-organized, surprise attack that swept the Spaniards out of northern New Mexico. In the process, twenty-one of the thirty-two Franciscans were killed; many churches were destroyed (like the enormous structure at Pecos, the largest church built in the U.S. territory until St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City, centuries later); and the governor’s palace was taken over by the ruler of the coalition.

Otermín’s letter, like Cabeza de Vaca’s a century and a half before, is an attempt to justify failure. The governor had lost an entire province, miles of territory, a century of accumulated investments in land and livestock and buildings. Even more, he had allowed the “lowly” natives to defeat the representatives of the royal crown. In 1681 his attempt to retake the territory was beaten back, only proving the seriousness of the rebellion and the need for a large and concerted campaign of reconquest. The disgrace echoed throughout the empire, causing deep preoccupation lest the story spread and lead to more uprisings. Otermín’s tale of the irresistible forces allied against him, the confusion into which the Spaniards were thrown, and the flight for their lives might easily have been read as a judgment on the state of the empire itself, and the consequences could have been disastrous. Latin America in general was not that much different from New Mexico; the façade of control was precarious. Otermín’s defeat was the equivalent of Custer’s last stand two centuries later, a revelation of defeat which temporarily shocked the Spanish colonizers.

Juan Bruce-Novoa
University of California at Irvine



Texts
In the Heath Anthology
Letter on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 (1680)

Other Works



Cultural Objects
image file Pueblo Pottery Exhibit:
   Letter on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680

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Links

The Handbook of Texas
(http://www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/OO/fot1.html)
A biography of de Otermin by W. H. Timmons, with a helpful bibliography.

The Pueblo Revolt
(http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/one/pueblo.htm)
An etext of a letter from Don Antonio de Otermin in the moment of the revolt, while surrounded by Indians.

Secondary Sources

David J. Weber, New Spain's Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West 1540-1821, 1979.




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