The Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate (ca. 1549-ca. 1624), although considered a failure by his monarch, deserves to be called the founder of New Mexico. The colony he established eventually became one of Spain's most important northern outposts.
Juan de Oñate was born in Mexico. His father, Don Cristóbal de Oñate, was one of the discoverers and developers of the rich Zacatecan mines and a wealthy and influential citizen. Little is known of Juan de Oñate's early life, although he claimed to have helped develop the mines in the San Luis Potosi district and to have served with Viceroy Luis de Velasco in wars against the hostile Indians of northern Mexico. He married Doña Isabel de Tolosa, granddaughter of Hernán Cortés and great-granddaughter of the last Aztec ruler, Montezuma II.
In 1583 the combined effects of the voyage of Sir Francis Drake to California and continual pleas of the Church to establish missions among the Pueblo Indians led Philip II of Spain to issue a royal order for the "discovery, pacification and settlement of the province of New Mexico." Revived stories of rich mineral deposits in the north excited great interest, and many applied to lead the expedition, hoping to gain wealth and fame. Finally, in 1595, Oñate received the contract on the provision that he raise a force of 200 men and undertake most of the expenses of colonization. In return the King named Oñate governor and adelantado of New Mexico.
After numerous delays, the expedition, consisting of about 400 persons, left Santa Bárbara in January 1598. In May the party crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso and moved north along the trail known as the Jornada del Muerto to a point above present-day Santa Fe where they established San Juan de los Caballeros. During the next few years the tiny colony struggled for existence. Oñate and his captains undertook several expeditions, including one north into Kansas and another west to the Gulf of California, but they discovered no new civilizations, nor were they able to find the elusive mineral wealth of the region.
Meanwhile, the Indians became increasingly hostile. The Á coma Pueblo rose in a revolt which Oñate suppressed only with great bloodshed. Despite Oñate's best efforts, the colony did not prosper, and the people blamed the governor for all their troubles. In 1607 Oñate, noting that he had already spent 400,000 pesos on New Mexico, asked to be relieved of the governorship. He returned to Mexico about 1609 to answer charges of maladministration. Convicted of disobedience of orders and mistreatment of the Indians and colonists, Oñate appealed the verdict and may have been successful in obtaining a pardon before his death.
The best books on Oñate are George P. Hammond, Don Juan de Oñate and the Founding of New Mexico (1927), and Don Juan de Oñate: Colonizer of New Mexico, edited and translated by George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey (2 vols., 1953). Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, History of New Mexico (1933), is an interesting contemporary account by one of the New Mexican colonists. See also Paul Horgan, The Habit of Empire (1939).
Simmons, Marc., The last conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the settling of the far Southwest, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991. □