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Juan de Oņate

[O nyah' tA] founder of the first permanent European settlement in New Mexico

statue of Juan de Onate, in Santa Fe, New Mexico

Juan de Oņate was born around 1550, probably in the frontier town of Zacatecas, Mexico, the son of a prominent mine owner. By his early twenties he had led campaigns against the Chichimec Indians, prospected for silver, and aided in the establishment of missions in the territory. He married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés Moctezuma, a descendant of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma, with whom he had a son and a daughter.

On September 21, 1595, Oņate was awarded a contract by King Philip II of Spain to settle what is now New Mexico. Although the primary objective was the spreading of Catholicism, many colonists enlisted in hopes of finding new silver lodes. Oņate had little experience as a colonial leader or missionary, but he was persistent and wealthy. Spanish leaders selected him primarily because he was the first to seek official permission to establish a colony in New Mexico. It also didn't hurt that Oņate had enough money to finance the expedition himself. After many delays Oņate finally departed in early 1598, and in July he established the headquarters of the New Mexico colony at San Juan Pueblo. While awaiting the caravan of colonists he explored the surrounding area and solidified his position. Some of his men explored east beyond Pecos Pueblo towards the Texas border, making it to within 25 miles of present-day Amarillo. Oņate himself explored to the west, and at least one party went as far as the San Francisco mountains in Arizona.

The silver lodes many colonists had staked their lives on proved elusive, and dissent became an increasing problem with which Oņate had to deal. The colony was reinforced in late 1600, but hardships, including cold weather and short food supplies, continued. On June 23, 1601, Oņate began an expedition to Quivira in search of wealth and an outlet to the sea. He followed the Canadian River across the Texas Panhandle and encountered the Quivira somewhere in what is now central Kansas. Finding the Quivira's wealth to be far less than expected, Oņate returned to New Mexico with a party of very disappointed men.

While Oņate was seeking Quivira, conditions continued to deteriorate in New Mexico. By the time he returned many of the colonists had returned to Mexico, where they spread the news of conditions in the colony. The Spanish government subsequently launched an inquiry into the situation in New Mexico and Oņate's treatment of the Indians. Meanwhile, Oņate launched his last major expedition, from the Zuni pueblos to the Colorado River and down it to the Gulf of California.

In 1606 King Philip III ordered Oņate to Mexico City until allegations against him could be investigated. Unaware of the order, Oņate resigned his office in 1607 because of the condition of the colony and financial problems, but remained in New Mexico to see the town of Santa Fe established. A new governor was subsequently appointed, and in 1608 Oņate was again summoned to Mexico City. In 1613 he was found guilty of using excessive force to supress an Acoma rebellion, hanging two Indians, executing mutineers and deserters, and adultery. He was fined, banished from Mexico City for four years, and banished from New Mexico permanently. After spending several years trying to clear his name he eventually went to Spain, where the king gave him the position of mining inspector. He died in Spain in early June, 1626.


New Mexico History from the Albuquerque Journal

See Also

Hernán Cortés
New Mexico
Acoma Rebellion

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The Robinson Library >> New Mexico

This page was last updated on January 24, 2019.