Juan de onate

Juan de onate

(1550-1630)

More than any other figure in the era of Spanish colonization, Juan de Onate was per¬ sonally responsible for the introduction of Hispanic culture into the southwestern region of the present-day United States.

Onate was born to a wealthy mining family in Zacatecas, Mexico. He married the great-granddaughter of the Aztec emperor Montezuma. Like most Spanish colonizers, Onate had a hunger for exploration, fueled by a lust for riches.

In 1595, Onate was granted a charter from the Spanish king to explore and colonize the area in North America known as Nuevo Mexico (New Mexico). Eventually, the Spanish colony of New Spain would extend to encompass what is now the U.S. southwest, Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and the Philippines.

Three years later, Onate departed with more than four hundred men and their families. They traveled north along the valley of the Rio Grande River, establishing a minor post along the way, which later became El Paso, Texas. From El Paso, the group continued north into Pueblo Indian territory. They arrived at a place called Caypa and established a settlement there.

A statue ofJuan de Onate Onate renamed it San Juan de los Caballeros. It was the first town established by Europeans in the American Southwest.Onate served as the governor ofNew Mexico under the Spanish crown for several years, and his reign was very controversial. Many people claimed he was motivated primarily by a desire to discover riches, and he was also accused of severely brutalizing the Natives.

Still, Onate left an important legacy. After several failed jour¬ neys away from San Juan de los Caballeros in search of silver, Onate discovered a route through Zuni and Hopi Indian country to the Colorado and Gila Rivers and ultimately to the Gulf of California, then known as the South Sea.

Included in Onate’s original search party were ten Franciscans, who remained after Onate departed from the territory several years later. The Franciscans immediately began preaching to the Natives. They built a church, and by 1630, they had established twenty-five missions among the Pueblo Indians.

Onate’s party also brought with it over 11,000 head of stock to support the silver min¬ ing industry. The stock included more than 4,000 churros, or shaggy sheep, from the Old World, which easily accli¬ mated to the climate of the region. The sheep became an important part of the livestock industry that later developed in New Mexico and the neighboring Great Plains states.

In 1607, having spent all of his personal wealth colonizing New Mexico, Onate resigned his gover¬ norship and returned to Mexico. He was later convicted of charges of brutality against the Natives and colonizers. He spent much of the rest of his life trying to clear his name in Mexico and in Spain, where he died.