| The Heath Anthology of
American Literature, Fifth Edition
Don Antonio de Otermín
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.
California at Irvine
In the Heath Anthology
Letter on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680
Pueblo Pottery Exhibit:
Letter on the Pueblo Revolt of 1680
Would you like to add another Cultural Object?
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The Handbook of Texas
A biography of de Otermin by W. H. Timmons, with a helpful bibliography.
The Pueblo Revolt
An etext of a letter from Don Antonio de Otermin in the moment of the revolt, while surrounded by Indians.
David J. Weber, New Spain's Far Northern Frontier: Essays on Spain in the American West 1540-1821, 1979.