Acoma Pueblo and the Spanish Arrival to New Mexico

The Spanish actions at Acoma Pueblo on January 22, 1599, heralded a new era of Spanish hegemony in the New Mexico region. The Acoma Massacre, as it would later be known, brutally established a Spanish presence that remained until the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.

The Acoma people have inhabited Acoma Pueblo, now called Sky City or Old Acoma, for at least a millenia. Oral history tells that the pueblo was originally located on the similarly sized mesa directly to the east, but that a tragedy led the Acoma people to move their pueblo to the mesa where it currently stands.

In 1595, Viceroy of New Spain Luis de Velasco gave Juan de Oñate royal permission to colonize the area that is now New Mexico. Five hundred colonists and 7,000 livestock animals accompanied him north. He declared to indigenous leaders of nearby Pueblos that they were all now subject to the King of Spain and the Catholic religion, and that he would be king’s representative. Acoma Pueblo, which was widely known to be the most defensible pueblo in New Mexico, had no delegates there. Oñate sent a small group under his nephew Juan de Zaldivar to receive Acoma’s submission. Accounts of what happened next differ but the Spanish conquistadors under Juan de Zaldivar quarrelled with the Acoma people and their leader Zutacapan, and most accounts also include the Spaniards attempting to forcefully take Acoma food and blankets. The Acoma refused, a fight ensued, and Acoma warriors killed most of the group, including Oñate’s nephew. Only a few Spaniards that jumped from the mesa survived.

Oñate arrived in January 21 with his army, and fighting raged all of the next day. Eventually, a concealed party of Spaniards armed with cannons and muskets attacked from another side of the mesa and overwhelmed Acoma’s defenses. The Spanish set the pueblo on fire and at the end of the day, 600-800 Acoman people were slain. As additional punishment, on February 12, Oñate decreed that every man over the age of twenty-five would have his right foot cut off and women and children were forced into slavery. While Oñate’s acts of barbarism won him New Mexico, they would later also be partially responsible for him losing it and being stripped of his titles by the Spanish Crown.

The first Spanish regime in New Mexico focused heavily on evangelizing the many Puebloan peoples, and Acoma was no exception. The friars forced them to drag ponderosa timbers from forty miles away at Mount Taylor in order to build the San Esteban del Rey Mission.

After the Pueblo Revolt, Acoma people continued to use the mission grounds for feast days and burials, but the friars never again held the power they once did. Only twenty to fifty people currently inhabit Sky City, the old Acoma hilltop Pueblo, but over five thousand Acoma people are spread out throughout the surrounding reservation lands. The roughly 250 dwellings of Sky City sit atop a massive sandstone mesa. The old pueblo’s population still fluctuates dramatically on weekends and holidays as Acoma people visit their relatives and return to their cultural heartland, while tourists meander on organized tours coming from the Sky City Cultural Center directly beneath the northern edge of the mesa.

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