The Taos and Santa Fe area of north-central New Mexico is steeped in history. This southernmost spur of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains has witnessed a rich and romantic pageant of peoples that rivals any place in the New World. The landscape contributes much to this atmosphere of romance. The area east of the Rio Grande River is dominated by the Sangre de Cristo Mountains which, in Spanish, means "Blood of Christ". The name may be derived from the reddish glow that the mountains seem to take on during some sunsets. (This phenomenon is analogous to the "alpenglow" of the Swiss). To the west of the Rio Grande River lies the southern extension of Colorado's San Juan Mountains. Interspersed throughout the mountains are a series of parks, basins, or "holes" that provide ideal locations for settlement. The Taos Valley is an excellent example. This fact was recognized very early on by the Indians and later by the mountain men. In fact, the Taos area was considered by Kit Carson (and many other mountain men) to be unrivaled by any other location in the Rocky Mountains. The famous novelist D.H Lawrence wrote that "Taos Valley in New Mexico is backed by the most beautiful skyline in the world!" Superimposed upon this surreal landscape is a rich history stretching back many centuries.
The first Europeans to reach the land that would eventually become New Mexico were the refugee survivors of the 1528 expedition of Florida Governor Panfilo de Narvaez. In 1535, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, Andres Dorantes de Carranca, Alonso del Castillo Maldanado, and a black slave named Esteban appeared on the eastern border of what is now New Mexico. They were met by one of Nunez de Guzman's lieutenants near the Sinaloa River in northwest Mexico and were escorted first to Culiacan (where they were guests of Melchior Diaz) and then to Mexico City where they were treated by Don Antonio de Mendoza and the famous conquistador Don Hernan Cortez. Although they did not visit the upper Rio Grande pueblos, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions had heard rumors of cities far to the north composed of multi-storied buildings. The cities were inhabited by Indians who wove cotton cloth on looms and possessed emeralds in abundance. Such a story was sure to whet the appetite of any self-respecting Spanish conquistador. In 1539, an expedition was equipped to investigate de Vaca's story. The expedition consisted of a Franciscan friar, Fray Marcos de Niza, and the black slave Esteban, who had accompanied de Vaca in 1536. During this "entrada" Marcos de Niza permitted Esteban to travel several miles ahead of the main party - eventually this distance increased until Esteban's advance party was several days ahead of de Niza. Then disaster struck at the Zuni Indian pueblo known as Hawikuh. Here, Esteban was killed. Marcos de Niza turned back toward Mexico (probably without ever seeing Hawikuh) although he reported that "the city is larger than the city of Mexico!" As a result of his report, a full-scale expedition led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was organized in 1540. The expedition journeyed north to Hawikuh where the Spaniards were dismayed to find nothing resembling de Niza's "great city". Moreover, the Zunis were as hostile as before and Coronado was forced to take the city by storm. He renamed it Granada after his birthplace in Spain. It is here that Coronado learned of the existence of more pueblos to the east. When a delegation of Indians from Cicuye (Pecos Pueblo) arrived in "Granada" shortly after its capture Coronado dispatched a reconnaissance expedition eastward led by one of his most reliable lieutenants - Hernando de Alvarado. The purpose of this expedition was to explore the area to the east and of course keep an eye out for mineral riches. Along the way, the Spaniards visited Tiguex (which was made up of several Tiwa pueblos) and the majestic Keresan pueblo known as Acoma, the "Sky City". Alvarado's party was also the first group of white men to cross the continental divide north of Mexico. The Spaniards reached the Rio Grande River in the vicinity of present-day Bernalillo, New Mexico, then turned north as far as Taos Pueblo (which Alvarado named Braba). Alvarado continued east, across La Glorieta Pass, to Cicuye (Pecos Pueblo) where the Spaniards encountered a captive Plains Indian from Quivira known as the "Turk". The "Turk" boasted that his home country possessed a surfeit of rich gold deposits and to prove it he claimed that two of the Cicuye leaders had taken a gold ornament from him during his capture. The Spaniard's interest was immediately aroused and, although the Cicuye headmen protested their innocence, the suspicious conquistadores chose to believe the "Turk" and placed the Pueblo Indians in irons. Alvarado then took the "Turk" to Tiguex to meet with Coronado. It was here that the Spaniards forced the Tiwa of the Alcanfor pueblo to move out of their homes so that the Spaniards could move in for the winter. As a result of these Spanish excesses, incidents of violence began to occur among the Pueblo Indians at Arenal and Moho Pueblos. The Spaniards ruthlessly put down these rebellions; indeed, after the fall of the largest of the Tiguex pueblos (Moho), all the pueblos of Tiguex were subsequently deserted until the departure of Coronado from New Mexico in 1542. In the spring of 1541, Coronado and his entire force followed the "Turk" out onto the plains in a fruitless search for the riches of Quivira. The expedition proved to be a failure as far as finding gold was concerned - they should have followed the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north instead! How different the history of our Southwest would have been if the Spaniards under Coronado had stumbled upon the great mining districts of Elizabethtown, Leadville, Cripple Creek, and Clear Creek instead of marching eastward onto the
plains. In 1542, Coronado returned to Mexico, leaving behind the first missionaries in the American Southwest. (Fray Juan de Padilla remained in Quivira but was slain by an Indian war party; Fray Juan de la Cruz was stationed in Puaray Pueblo but was also killed; Fray Luis de Escalona was stationed in Pecos Pueblo but was never seen again.)
Meanwhile, the Spanish search for mineral riches had resulted in one of the greatest silver strikes of all time in Zacatecas, Mexico in 1546. Interest in the northern provinces was piqued. In 1567, another great strike was made at Santa Barbara, near the Florida River, in Chihuahua, Mexico. Prospectors poured northward.
In 1581, the Franciscan friars Augustine Rodriguez, Francisco Lopez, and Juan de Santa Maria journeyed into what is now New Mexico. Near the confluence of the Rio Grande and Conchos rivers, the friars encountered Apache Indians who still remembered Cabeza de Vaca's passage back in 1536. During their journey north, the Spaniards encountered abundant evidence of mineral wealth. The Tewa Indians of Malpartida Pueblo showed the Spaniards samples of a "coppery, steel-like ore" and indicated that part of the ore had come from the rugged country to the north. After establishing a missionary station at Puaray, the Spaniards discovered six mineral deposits in the immediate area. (It was probably the Magdalena Mountains that the Spaniards prospected. These mountains are the source of an exquisite blue-green smithsonite known as the Kelly Mine smithsonite. It is highly prized by mineral collectors today!) Rumors of other mines in the area quickly spread south, resulting in the Espejo expedition of 1582-1583. This expedition encountered rich veins of silver in Piro territory along a mountainous stretch of the Rio Grande River. (Shortly thereafter, Espejo received the sad news that all three friars had been killed and that Puaray was deserted). While visiting the Hopi Pueblos, Espejo was told that "great riches of gold were to be found to the southwest" - the Spaniards immediately procured a guide who led them to a "black peak" just west of the Verde River in Arizona. Here, the Spaniards found rich deposits of copper and silver ore. (These were the famous mines of Jerome, Arizona). Espejo then traveled east to the Rio Grande pueblos, eventually reaching Pecos Pueblo where he turned south to Old Mexico.
It wasn't until 1590 that another group of Spaniards entered the upper Rio Grande area. This expedition was led by Gaspar Castano de Sosa who attempted to colonize the region west of Cicuye and as always, search for promising mineral deposits. The attempt was a failure; Castano de Sosa was arrested by Captain Juan Morlete from Nuevo Leon in Mexico and escorted from the province. (Castano de Sosa was later killed in a revolt of galley slaves while in exile in the Philippines.)
In 1593, Captain Francisco Leyda de Bonilla and Captain Antonio Gutierrez de Humana journeyed north to New Mexico in search of silver deposits. While in the Tewa pueblo of San Ildefonso, the Spaniards heard the same stories of gold in Quivira that Coronado had heard in 1541. The Spaniards immediately departed for Quivira. In eastern New Mexico they disappeared into the vastness of the prairie. Shortly thereafter, Leyda was murdered by Gutierrez during a quarrel. The expedition lacked a priest, so Gutierrez was unable to do penance for his crime. Just north of Raton Pass, the remaining Spaniards were massacred by Apaches near the future site of Trinidad, Colorado. (Interestingly, a cache of Spanish weapons and armor was found in a cottonwood grove near the site of El Cuartelejo some years later). Because Gutierrez died unabsolved of the murder of his friend Leyda, the stream where the massacre took place came to be known as El Rio de las Animas Perdidas en Purgatorio (The River of Lost Souls in Purgatory) - the Purgatoire River.
In 1598, Don Juan de Onate marched north into New Mexico accompanied by Vincente and Juan de Zaldivar, two friars named Fray Alonso Martinez and Fray Cristobal de Salazar, and an army of soldiers and colonists. Juan de Onate, distinguished Indian fighter, was destined to become the first legitimate colonizer of New Mexico. The Spaniards forced the inhabitants of Ohke Pueblo to evacuate their homes (much like Coronado had done to the Tiwa of Alcanfor Pueblo), and renamed the city San Juan de los Caballeros. Shortly thereafter, the Spaniards took over another pueblo known as Yunque near the confluence of the Rio Grande and Chama Rivers. Yunque Pueblo thus became New Mexico's first capital and was renamed San Gabriel. Problems with the Pueblo Indians erupted almost immediately. Juan de Zaldivar and twelve Spaniards were treacherously massacred by the inhabitants of Acoma Pueblo. This action resulted in a punitive expedition led by Juan's brother Vincente. Early in 1599, Vincente de Zaldivar ruthlessly destroyed Acoma Pueblo, killing 600-1000 Indians of all ages and sexes. The survivors were forced to rebuild their homes at the foot of the mesa. But Indian troubles were not over. In 1601, insurrections at Agualagu and Abo resulted in further punitive actions led by Vincente de Zaldivar. Meanwhile, internal troubles began to arise in the San Gabriel colony. In 1607, Juan de Onate resigned as civil governor of New Mexico. In 1608, he was recalled to Mexico. For the disgraced governor the dream of colonial power in New Mexico was over, but the final blow was yet to come. In the desert wastes of south-central New Mexico, not far from the famous “Trinity Test Site”, he lost his only son.