The Last Conquistador
Juan de Oñate is known as the last of the conquistadors because he was the last Spanish knight sent forth by the Crown to seek glory and fortune in a new land, according to biographer Marc Simmons.
Oñate was born about 1550 in Zacatecas, New Spain — now Mexico — the son of a Basque nobleman.
Among historians, he is known chiefly as the founder and first governor of the Spanish colony of New Mexico. He is less known for his journey, in 1601, across the Plains to the legendary settlement of Etzanoa, a town of 20,000 ancestral Wichita Indians at the confluence of two rivers in south-central Kansas.
In 1595, Oñate was appointed by the Spanish viceroy in Mexico City to lead a group of soldiers, settlers, their families, servants, and Franciscan missionaries north to the proposed kingdom of New Mexico.
He finally departed on the northward journey in January 1598. He followed the Camino Real, and continued north along the Rio Grande Valley, extending the Royal Highway more than 600 miles.
He led the colonists on a journey that lasted about three months before arriving at the threshold of New Mexico on April 30, 1598, and declaring the land for Spain.
Within a few months after their arrival, the Spanish settlers were dismayed to find that the cold, dry climate of the new colony was not conducive to raising crops. And the natives, who were too often brutally treated by the Spaniards, rebelled against the interlopers who demanded food and supplies from them.
In June 1601, Oñate set out from his headquarters near Santa Fe toward a fabled land to the northeast, that the Spanish named Quivira. It perhaps wasn’t a wise move since the grumblings of his colonists and soldiers had intensified and the seeds of rebellion among the natives had been planted.
Oñate purportedly set out on his journey to find two renegade Spaniards and their supporters who had traveled to Kansas without the permission of the Spanish Crown. But he also hoped to find the riches of the fabled “Seven Cities of Cibola.”
Sixty years earlier, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had encountered the ancient Wichita tribe in a cluster of settlements near the Great Bend of the Arkansas River in central Kansas.
Oñate initially must have heard of Quivira from his knowledge of Coronado’s wanderings. But he received first-hand information about that faraway land from a Mexican Indian named Jusepe, who became Oñate’s guide on the 1601 excursion.
Oñate led 70 soldiers, their servants and numerous livestock and horses on the eastward journey. They departed from their headquarters near present-day Santa Fe and traveled east until they reached the present-day Canadian River and followed its course.
Near the now Texas-Oklahoma boundary, Oñate decided to change course, and led the troops in a northeasterly direction, into flat plains country. There they encountered large herds of American bison that the Spaniards called “monstrous cattle.”
Farther on, they encountered Apache Indians encamped along their path, and later crossed the North Canadian River and Cimarron River. They were headed toward the now Oklahoma-Kansas border.
There they met up with another nomadic nation that they called “Escanjaques”. About 6,000 members of the tribe lived in the encampment.
Since the crafty Escanjaques were enemies of the Etzanoans, they decided to make up a story that their enemies had attacked and destroyed the renegade Spaniards who were being sought by Oñate. They said that the Etzanoans possibly were still holding a Spaniard captive.
The Escanjaques offered to accompany Oñate and his men to Etzanoa. Oñate tried to discourage them from coming along, but they followed the Spaniards anyway.
Finally, the group reached the outskirts of the “gran poblacion” — great settlement. The Spaniards first sighted Etzanoa and many of its inhabitants from their camp on a hill above the Arkansas River.
From their vantage point, the Etzanoans observed that the Spanish troops were accompanied by their enemies, and they made warlike gestures to the foreigners. Eventually, however, both sides indicated they wanted peace.
But the next day that peaceful atmosphere disappeared after Oñate, prompted by the Escanjaques, seized several Etzanoans, including a chief, to hold as hostages. Seeing this, the people of Etzanoa fled from their homes to the north. The native interpreters on the expedition told the Spaniards that the Etzanoans had run away to gather additional tribal members to make war.
Meanwhile, Oñate ordered 12 of his men to explore the vast settlement, now abandoned by its inhabitants. They set out to the north and the east, covering about 5 miles along a river, and an additional 2 leagues beyond the end of the town.
The scouts presented their report to the main body of the Spanish group, Oñate and his men. By then, the troops had become dispirited because their supplies were dwindling and winter was approaching. They also realized that they were in danger of conflict with the Etzanoans if they returned with reinforcements.
Oñate gave the order to his troops to prepare for a return to the colony in New Mexico. On their way back to the camp, however, they met a large group of hostile Escanjaques.
In the ensuing battle, lasting about three hours, the 70 troops faced a reported 2500 Escanjaques. But the greatly outnumbered Spaniards were well armed with muskets and cannons they had brought along on the expedition.
Many of the Escanjaques were killed and wounded. The Spaniards also suffered extensive injuries but no deaths. They took some women and children as captives, including a Wichita native named Miguel.
The end of the battle resulted in a stalemate and the Spaniards returned to their campsite to treat their wounded men. The following day, they began their trip back to New Mexico. The return trip took 59 days. They arrived at their headquarters near Santa Fe on November 24, 1601.
On his arrival, Oñate was disturbed to find out that many of the colonists had conspired against him while he was on his quest to Quivira. About two-thirds of the settlers had left the colony, returned to Mexico, and presented reports to the Spanish authorities that Oñate’s administration was inept and his kingdom devoid of riches.
Oñate considered those who had abandoned the colony as treasonous, disloyal cowards. His supporters traveled to Mexico City and filed reports backing the governor.
Even though his authority had been undermined by the deserters, Oñate continued in his role of governor of New Mexico for a decade after his expedition to Kansas. He continued to explore other areas, making the last of his major expeditions west to the lower valley of the Colorado River.
But Oñate ran short of supplies and men and had exhausted his own resources. He wrote the Spanish authorities asking for more support but they sent none. Finally, Oñate submitted a letter to the authorities stating his intention of resigning his position as governor.
Meanwhile, the king of Spain already had ordered the viceroy of Mexico City to relieve Oñate of the governorship. But the viceroy had been a friend of Oñate and was reluctant to recall him. He was relieved of that unpleasant duty when he received Oñate’s letter of resignation. He replied to his friend, accepting the resignation.
Oñate returned to Mexico City and then on to Spain to clear his name.
In June 1626, he died in Spain. His last few years were spent as mining inspector of Spain, a post he had been offered by the king.