Juan de Oñate is with us once again

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Recent arguments about Juan de Oñate have been long on emotion and short on historical perspective. Sadly, Marc Simmons, one of New Mexico’s most respected historians, died last month, but it’s still possible to have a balanced discussion guided by Simmons’ words.

So let’s return to 1598. Spain was the most powerful nation in Europe, and it was the Age of Discovery. After brutal exploration and conquest, Spain controlled the Americas from Peru to Mexico and began to look northward. The king had a choice of candidates who wanted to lead and finance the journey of a caravan of soldiers and settlers into the largely unknown north. The reward for his investment was a title and the opportunity to get rich.

The chosen one was Juan de Oñate, son of a wealthy mining family in Zacatecas, who had proven himself as a soldier in wars with Mexico’s indigenous people. However, Spanish bureaucracy and local jealousies and intrigues ensnared Oñate and his 500 recruits for 28 months. It was financially and emotionally draining.

Making their way slowly up the Rio Grande Valley, the lumbering mass had peaceful interactions with pueblos all the way to San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh), where they stopped and took up residence inside the pueblo. At each village the Spaniards held a ceremony in which the local people pledged their loyalty to the crown although the natives may not have understood what they were signing up for.

Acoma Pueblo, untouchable on its lofty rock perch, resisted. After a clash at the pueblo that cost the lives of Oñate’s beloved nephew and 12 other men, we might expect Oñate to lash out, but he didn’t. He prayed and consulted with priests and officers. They worried that if they didn’t punish Acoma severely, the other pueblos might rise up against them. The consensus was that under Spanish law it would be a just war.

The outnumbered Spanish, using stealth and superior weaponry, killed hundreds, destroyed the pueblo, and took 500 captives. At Santo Domingo (Kewa) Pueblo, Oñate ordered decades of servitude for all, and 24 men would have one foot cut off. This was a typical punishment among Europeans of the time – not something Oñate dreamed up to torment the Acomas.

Did the amputations take place? Simmons wrote in his 1991 book, “The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest,” that they did. But as he continued to research, Simmons came to have his doubts. So did historian John Kessell. Both had seen a document describing Oñate’s plan to order severe punishments but then allow the priests to argue against it so the priests would look like heroes. Kessell wrote that “the historical record makes no mention of a one-footed Acoma slave. Cutting off a foot, after all, rendered a potential worker all but useless.”

Bottom line: Nobody knows. The surviving records are thin. A year or so later, the Acomas, footless or not, escaped, returned home, and within three years rebuilt their pueblo. Oñate was later tried for that and other violent acts and given a light sentence. He later cleared his name, recovered his fortune, and died a successful man in Spain.

Now we’re debating Oñate’s statue. Again. His modern critics wonder why he’s “honored” with a statue. The answer is, it’s more a recognition. History is objective. It records Oñate’s entrada, the difficult journey, privations in a remote outpost, rebellions by settlers, war on Acoma, and his resignation as governor. History also sees Oñate extending the Camino Real by 700 miles, founding a new Spanish province and the first municipality (Santa Fe), and launching mining and livestock industries.

Española and Albuquerque should bring Don Juan indoors and tell his story.

In 2011 Kessell wrote, “No matter how Oñate’s brutal sentence played out, is it not time, four hundred years later, to forgive? Put bluntly, to get over it? Unforgiveness – enshrining one’s victimhood – does provide a satisfying power over the accused. By claiming moral high ground, unforgivers also grab attention. But they do so at a price.”

Activists are staying angry but to what end? Pueblo governments have stayed out of this fight. It’s not 1599 anymore. Their concerns are for the people of today.

This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: Juan de Oñate is with us once again