The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 was a rebellion more than a hundred years in the making. The persecution of the Puebloan Indians is traceable to 1541 and the misguided expedition of Francisco Coronado. En route to the fabled golden city of Cibola and ill-equipped for the stark New Mexico deserts, Coronado and his army promptly began requisitioning food and supplies from the native people – brutalizing all those that resisted.
Fifty-seven years later Don Juan de Oñate and 200-some Spanish soldiers marched northward into New Mexico with orders to colonize the territory and Catholicize its inhabitants. A half-legal form of Spain’s barbarous encomienda system was introduced that forced natives to pay tributes from the crops they yielded and in some cases subjected them to slavery. During his tenure as New Mexico’s first governor Oñate would oversee numerous atrocities against the Puebloans, including the infamous 1599 massacre, dismemberment, and enslavement of the Acoma tribe as extreme retribution for their insurrection.
While the violence persisted, so too did Spain’s war on the native religion. Puebloans were imprisoned and oftentimes executed for their resistance to Catholic beliefs and for clinging to their own. In 1675, New Mexico Governor Juan Trevino arrested 47 such Puebloan “hold-outs,” and deemed them witches. Three of these prisoners were hanged and the others severely whipped before Trevino, under intense pressure by the natives, finally released them. Unfortunately for Trevino and the other Spanish settlers living in the territory, one of those recently-freed was the fearsome leader Popé.
Most of what is known of Popé (pronounced Po’pay) and his personality come from oral tradition or reports made by the Spaniards who encountered him. He has been described as “fierce,” “charismatic,” “scheming,” and “intelligent,” all of which must have been true for Popé to unite so many different tribes that spoke so many different languages and then lead them to a decisive victory over the militarily-superior Spaniards. It is also safe to say Popé held a well-rounded hatred for the Spanish and all their customs. This hatred was undoubtedly honed while Popé and his 46 fellow Puebloans endured the torment of their Spanish captors.
Prohibited by the Spanish from using guns or horses, in early August of 1680, Popé sent runners carrying deerskin strips tied with knots to the distant pueblos. At every sunrise each pueblo was to untie one knot until, with the untying of the last knot, the revolt could begin. The Spaniards learned of the plot, but the tribes preserved their element of surprise by attacking two days early. The Puebloans swarmed Santa Fe and, with their occupiers huddled inside the Palace of the Governors, Popé banished the Spanish back into Mexico.
Popé exhibited a staunch opposition to Christianity and European custom. After expelling the Spaniards to El Paso, he declared, “The God of the Christians is dead. He was made of rotten wood.” Unfortunately for him however, not all of his people had remained devout to the old ways, and after more than a century of interaction with the Franciscans many had converted to Christianity. It was Christian Puebloans such as these that, in the twelve years following the 1680 Revolt, came to yearn for the return of the Spanish and the Church.
Following their successful revolt of 1680, the Puebloan people of New Mexico found themselves suddenly in power of a vast and changed territory. Normally separated by language, religion, ideology, and geographic distance, never before had these tribes been so united as they were while fighting their mutual enemy the Spanish. More than that, never before had they known a more unifying and charismatic leader than that of Popé.
But with the Spanish vacated, abruptly the Puebloans lost their source of unity. Fierce infighting promptly ensued amongst the tribes as to who would remain in Santa Fe and rule New Mexico. On top of this, there occurred a surge in raids by nomadic bands like the Navajo. Then there were the frequent attempts made by those fuming Spaniards huddled in El Paso to exact revenge over their insurgents and regain the northern territory. On the nine-year anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt, Spaniards stalked up the Rio Grande and attacked the Zia Pueblo, killing some 600 Zias before retreating back to El Paso. Finally, a severe drought fell over the southwest, and did not leave for seven years.
The details of Popé’s life during this time vary. Some accounts claim he attempted to assert himself as something of a dictatorial leader of all the Puebloan people, striving to eradicate all Spanish influence from Pueblo society through sometimes severe punishment until finally the Puebloans rejected their former leader. Conversely, other oral traditions describe Popé retreating from politics and leading a quiet life incognito in Taos before dying anonymous. Whichever the case, without a common enemy and devoid of their once-leader, the Puebloan people soon enough divided, and despite thwarting a couple prior campaigns the Puebloans eventually relented to Spanish reclamation in 1692.
In 2005, a statue of Popé was placed inside the National Statuary Hall in Washington D.C. as one of two profiles picked to represent New Mexico (the other being the late senator Dennis Chavez). Sculpted by Cliff Fragua of the Jemez Pueblo, the seven and a half foot marble rendition depicts the Puebloan leader gripping the knotted strip of deerskin in one hand and a bear fetish in the other to symbolize Puebloan religion. Popé is the earliest American figure to be featured in the collection, and also the 100th and final one to be submitted.