The Española Valley, Part 1, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo

Written on 09/10/2020
Jeane George Weigel

Photo: Bob Peach

I first thought about writing this post because I had to go down to the hospital in Española to get my first Covid test. I’m fine, I’m just having a procedure next week that requires I be checked first.

So I thought I’d swing by Chimayó Rocks to take a few photos that I didn’t get the other day when I was there, to give you all a better sense of the place. See post:

There it is in photos below, the route to the shop I described in the post, crossing the Rio Grande, passing Cooks Hardware and taking the turn to the hospital. But the thing is, in looking at the town with an eye for taking photos, I was dismayed. I’ve come to really like Española, possibly even love her, but I have to admit what’s been done to her isn’t very pretty, nor does the town represent its history overly much or terribly well. And that got me wondering more about its heritage. So little of it remains.

I soon learned the way to begin to understand Española’s past was to start with some of the valley’s first people, the Tewa of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, meaning “place of the strong people” (formerly named San Juan Pueblo by the Spanish), who have been living in this valley since the 1200s.

My first lead about Española’s old days was stated in a Wikipedia entry: “Founded as a capital for Nuevo México in 1598 as San Juan de los Caballeros, it was renamed Española in 1880 when it became a railroad village… ” But the thing is, that’s not true. That first capital of the United States was, in fact, established at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo. This detail required some untangling, as several different modern-day places have claimed the first capital as their own. But I think each of them are referring to it as a place in the Española Valley that they all share.

The Pueblo is located at the confluence of the Rio Grande and the Rio Chama, about four miles north of Española, which literally means “Spanish town.” The Tewa call it Butsa”bi’i, or new town. Without the Pueblo, Española might not even exist today and most probably would not have been established at so early a date in New Mexico’s history. Because it was the arrival of these Spanish, those that landed in San Juan, that ultimately led to Española’s birth.

Like all of US history, well, human history really, there is a dark side to the Pueblo’s story. In 1540-1542, the Spanish, led by Coronado, landed in the valley and stayed for just two years. The Tewa originally hoped that they could partner with them to help protect the settlement from the Plains Indians that regularly invaded.

However that was not to be. Coronado’s party left, but in 1598 the Spanish returned under the leadership of Don Juan de Oñate, with 1,000 soldiers and a planned invasion. The people still welcomed them and Oñate set up “… his headquarters there [Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo], christening the village San Juan Bautista. It was later renamed San Juan de los Caballeros. The settlers introduced new crops, like wheat and apples, and animals, like cattle and new breeds of dogs. It became the first European capital of New Mexico…”

“… After living at Ohkay Owingeh for a short time, Oñate decided to make Yungé Owingeh, across the river less than a half a mile away, the current capital of the new Spanish colony of New Mexico, naming it San Gabriel de Yungé. He then forced or convinced the inhabitants of Yungé to relocate to Ohkay, and the settlers and soldiers from Mexico moved into their former homes, a Pueblo house block of about 400 apartments. They also built new houses, a garrison, and a church named San Miguel.” Making it the second European capital of New Mexico.

Oñate brought 600 people north from Mexico to colonize the region and he granted land to them, empowering them to enslave and demand tribute from Native Americans, creating a sort of serf system. And Oñate himself forced the people to mine for gold and silver and to pay taxes.

Twelve Franciscan missionaries accompanied him as well, whose job it was to spread the “holy Catholic faith,” despite the fact the Pueblos all already had a sophisticated religion and elaborate social structures.

After 11 years of his ruthless reign, Oñate was called back to Mexico for his failed leadership and his reported mistreatment of the Natives. He was stripped of his lands and sent back to Spain.  

For several reasons, among them Oñate having found nothing of “value” to pilfer surrounding Ohkay Owingeh, Don Pedro de Peralta was appointed the new Governor-General of San Gabriel de Yungé in 1609 and a year later, he moved the capital to present-day Santa Fe, near to existing Tano villages.

Although the Spanish settlement moved, some Franciscan priests stayed at San Juan and built a new rectory sometime between 1640-1660. Members of both the San Juan and Yungé pueblos used the San Miguel church at Yungé until a new church was built at San Juan in 1642 and dedicated to San Juan Bautista.

With the pressure of continued and protracted religious persecution, the people suffered under an oppressive Spanish rule in which they were conscripted into forced labor and required to pay demanding taxes in goods. So the Pueblo people joined together and revolted against Spanish rule in 1680.

This successful rebellion was led by the Ohkay Owingeh religious leader, Po’pay, who was living on the Taos Pueblo at the time. He managed to unite twenty Pueblos that spoke six different languages and were spread out over hundreds of miles in order to concur the Spanish. In fact only the Ohkay Owingeh could call all the Pueblos to battle.

The Spanish were thrown out of New Mexico and Don Juan de Oñate’s “capitol city,” San Gabriel was completely destroyed, although it has been identified, subsequently, by archaeologists and a marker stands there today.

After twelve years of exile, in 1692, the Spanish led by Diego de Vargas re-conquered the Pueblos. Brutal military battles between Spanish soldiers and Pueblo warriors occurred. Santa Clara and other Tewa Pueblos took refuge on Black Mesa but, after a 9 month hold off, they had to surrender in 1694.

Colonization was different this time around however. Perhaps the Spanish had learned something from the Pueblo revolt. They no longer persecuted the Pueblo peoples’ religion as much and the peoples’ lands were protected in the form of Spanish and Mexican land granted to the Pueblos (not that it was really theirs to grant). Then the Pueblo lands were further protected in 1848 under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, when New Mexico came under United States rule.

The city of Española website says this, “When Oñate and the first Hispano families arrived in Nuevo Mexico in 1598, the world of the first Americans changed forever. The next four hundred years of cultural conflict, compromise, intermarriage, and peaceful co-existence have forged a unique Indo-Hispano character and culture that defines the Nuevo Mexicana today…

“… The true history of New Mexico is embodied in the daily struggles for existence of the countless and often nameless men, women and children who came to this isolated part of the world and clung tenaciously to it for four centuries.”

I think that’s perfect.

Braiding corn, Palace of the Governors Photo Archive

Española was born as a frontier outpost and a farming community when many Spanish and Mexican settlers returned throughout the valley. It was this subsistence farming, connecting the settlers to the land, that also knitted bonds between the town and the Pueblo. They traded goods, supported each others’ economies and intermarried.

Santa Fe New Mexican

Through the centuries, Ohkay-Owingeh Pueblo has continued its traditions and celebrations, its oral histories, its arts, its way of living. It is currently home to the headquarters of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council and the Oke-Oweenge Crafts Cooperative, which exhibits the pottery, weaving and paintings of the eight Northern Pueblos.

Evenso the Pueblo faced ongoing struggle and felt its spiritual center was being lost. In 2005 an award winning multimillion-dollar preservation project was begun and families began coming back to the 700 year old homes. Here is a wonderful article about it from the Santa Fe New Mexican:

“The village is home to many artisans who excel in pottery, weaving, embroidery, jewelry and sculpture. The main plaza features two churches, several tourist shops and the Governor’s Office. Admission is free, but photography is not allowed.

Ceremonial dances open to visitors include Christmas events, King’s Day on Jan. 6 and San Juan Feast Day on June 24.” (Please check any possible differences due to Covid)

Rio Grande Sun: County removes sculpture honoring Oñate

The Española Valley, Part 2, Española, will be posted soon…

Love to you all,