Juan de Onate

Juan de Onate

(c. 1550-C.1624)

Juan de Onate was the son of a wealthy and prominent Spanish Basque family in the colony of Nueva Espana (New Spain), or Mexico. Onate added to his status by marrying Dona Isabel de Tolosa, the granddaughter of Cortes and his Indian princess, and the great-granddaughter of Montezuma, the Aztec ruler.

Onate served as a soldier on the northern frontier of New Spain for 20 years. The Spanish were interested in further exploring and exploiting this territory north of Mexico, and Onate made a contract with the viceroy of Mexico in 1595.

At his own expense, Onate organized a party of 500 Spanish-Mexicans—supplied with 80 wagons loaded with provisions and 7,000 head of livestock—to search for the rich mines rumored to exist in the region and to settle there.

This great expedition set out from Mexico in February 1598, and by May, it crossed the Rio Grande River at modern-day El Paso, Texas. The group moved slowly up the river valley and into the territory of the Pueblo Indians. In July, the settlers arrived at their first major pueblo, the Okhe Pueblo in the Esanola Valley.

Onate decided to call this place San Juan de los Caballeros, and designated it as the capital of the Spanish colony.Onate tried to conquer as many neighboring Indian pueblos as possible, and he showed almost no compassion or tolerance for the Native Americans. He raided the pueblos, robbed the men, and raped their women.

The worst example of Onate’s cruelty occurred at the Acoma Pueblo. His party so abused the inhabitants that some of them rose up and killed 13 of the Spaniards. Onate Pueblo in New Mexico decided to punish the Indians, so he used his cannon to demolish the pueblo. Many Native Americans were killed; more than 500 men, women, and children were placed in captivity.

Onate had been sending back glowing reports about life in the new colony — New Mexico—and that attracted many new settlers from Mexico. However, in fact, life in the colony was difficult. Onate was coming under increasing criticism for his mismanagement of the colony, while he complained that he was spending too much of his personal fortune.

Finally, in August, 1608, Onate renounced his official positions.Back in Mexico City, Onate was formally accused of mismanagement, cruelty to the Indians and his fellow colonists, and of making false reports. His punishment included fines, the loss of his titles, and permanent banishment from New Mexico.

In the years that followed, Onate worked to clear his name and had some success before he died. However, history still remembers him as a terrible Spanish colonial leader in the New World.