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Roster of El Paso Area Tribal Leaders
Native American Water Use Chronology
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Early Accounts & Bibliography
Tigua Participation at Texas State Fair
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Ysleta Land Grant Chronology
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Spiritual Heritage

The First Missionaries - Observers and Martyrs

From 1535 to 1591, a small number of Franciscan missionaries, reinforced by faith, penetrated the vast lands of the Southwest to convert the native people. Some returned after brief reconnaissance, but the few who vowed to live and preach among the native people became martyrs.

The propagation of the faith demanded commitment, patience and sacrifice. The missionaries, despite their good intentions, were emissaries of an imperialistic system that promoted and financed conquest and settlement, as well as the subordination of the inhabitants. The objectives of civil authorities, prospectors, settlers and soldiers, were often at odds with with those of the missionaries, who had taken vows of poverty. During the early Spanish colonial period (1535-1680), the reform laws of the Crown, which mandated the protection of the indigenous people, were ignored on the northern frontier.

The Franciscans, to gain the trust of the aboriginal population, had to be knowledgeable of their languages and cultures. This confidence could only be achieved by living among the people for a prolonged period of time. Missionary efforts were often compromised or imperiled by the actions of civil and military authorities and settlers, who encroached on Indian lands and imposed coercive and exploitive measures among the inhabitants. The situation was exacerbated by forced labor, pillage, relocation, the taking of slaves and other abuses.

The totally different cultures of the padres and Native Americans generated incompatibility and confusion. The two groups lived in close proximity to one another and shared the same resources, which sometimes produced misunderstanding, bewilderment and intolerance. These conditions, if not mitigated or resolved, created hatred and violence.

The success and survival of a pioneering missionary was largely determined by his ability to deal with problems, many of which were unanticipated or ambiguous. The friar frequently was the advocate of the people he served, and yet concurrently, he was expected to answer to Spanish ecclesiastical and civil authorities. This precarious situation, representing opposing agendas, mixed loyalties. Franciscan curates were consulted by the conquistadors and other military leaders (Coronado, Oñate, etc) in matters concerning "Just War". On occasion, priests participated in sham rescues of Indians, who had been captured by Spanish military authorities, judged guilty and to be summarily executed. In the final minutes, the padres intervened and pleaded for mercy of the captives, which impressed the officials who freed their wards. Such events were staged to demonstrate to the native people the merciful nature of the robed curates.

Many missionaries defended the rights of the Indians; some acted in contradiction to those interests. Most missionaries related to the neophytes in a paternalistic manner. The friars and other representatives of Spanish colonial society were products of European feudalism that had been introduced into the New Spain.

Semi-Nomadic Bands and Sedentary Pueblos

The aboriginal people of the Southwest primarily included two cultural groups - (1) semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers and (2) sedentary agriculturalist. The former consisted of small bands of hunters and gatherers, with little or no agriculture, who seasonally exploited a broad territory by sharing labor and resources. Each band, integrated by family kinship ties, was organized within an elementary communal system without hereditary leaders or social stratification. The band shared common linguistic and cultural elements with related bands. These semi-nomadic people included the Apache, Shoshone, Paiute and other tribal groups.

The Pueblo people occupied sedentary villages. Their economy, although sustained by farming, was augmented by hunting and gathering, which was crucial to survival in times of crop failure. The Pueblos possessed complex social organizations that were maintained by clan and religious associations. Each pueblo was an independent and autonomous entity. The Pueblos did not constitute a tribal or nation state with rigid class lines (divisions of labor). Hence, there were no chiefs of royal linage, nobility, or priestly class, which were dependent upon the labor of a large class of serfs and slaves. A Pueblo village shared a common language and cultural affiliations with other like Pueblos. The Pueblo people included the Tigua, Tewa, Towa, Tompiro, Piro and other related cultural groups.

To relinquish the autonomy and independence of the tribal band or a Pueblo village to a foreign invader and occupier was indeed difficult and humiliating to the native people, and often resulted in resistance and rebellion. It was much easier for semi-nomadic people, such as the Apache, to refuse to be subordinate to Spanish authority and to vanish into the recesses of the mountains and vastness of the plains, than for the Pueblo people, who occupied fixed settlements. The latter, for the sake of survival, as vassals of the Spanish sovereign, made compromises, overtly complying, while secretly maintaining their religion and sacred societies.

Balance and Harmony Between Native Religions and Christianity

The native people, who readily embraced or involuntarily accepted the missionaries, experienced conflict with Spanish civil and religious authorities, as well as with adherents of traditional religious system. Christianity was sometimes introduced by cohesion and force, which generated violence.

The ancient religious practices of the Native Americans, made no distinction between the real and sacred world. Their religion is and was an integral part of the social system, and was predicated on the oneness and inseparability of man to nature. Thus, it was vital to maintain a balance between Man and Mother Earth.

In some cases, a spiritual balance was gradually achieved in which the traditional religion and Christianity was generally accommodated by tribal members and missionares. In many cases, native peoples accepted all or some aspects of Christianity which were synchronized with traditional belief systems. Many Pueblo Indians compartmentalize the two distinct religions as mutually exclusive but not as contradictory.

The missionaries and indigenous practitioners of the 16th century soon became aware that native religions and Christianity shared some universals, which could serve as a basis for religious tolerance. However, some zealous padres viewed these seemingly inexplicable commonalities as the work of Satan, who intended to sow confusion and doubt among the neophytes.  

The champions of human rights in New Spain were priests. Principal among them, Fray Bartolom de las Casas, the ardent spokesman of Indian rights, who denounced the cruelty of Nuño de Guzmán, the shameful slave-raider of the northern frontier. La Casas and other men of conscience were instrumental in shaping the reforms of the New Laws of 1542 which sought to curb the injustices and barbarity of Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro and other exploiters. This law stated that Indians were "free persons and vassals of the Crown". Subsequent laws protected Indian land and water rights.

Today, the cultural accommodation of both religious traditions has resulted in a harmonious, spiritual bond of mutual love, tolerance and unity. This is reflected in many Southwestern missions. In Ysleta Mission (El Paso, Texas), corn and squash and native textiles adorn the church. The former symbolizes fertility and rebirth and the latter reflects an appreciation of Indian arts and tradition. During several Tigua ceremonial observances, the indigenous religious leader (cacique) and the Franciscan padre jointly bless the tribal congregation.

This cultural and religious accommodation is evident in many other Southwestern missions. San Xavier Mission, near Tucson, Arizona, contains a bear's skeleton that is buried at an outside corner to protect the sanctuary from lightning. The congregation periodically cleanse the temple with small branches, a traditional method of purification. Medicine men among the Apache and other tribes, respect the sacred cross and other beliefs and symbols held by both religious traditions.    

 Prelude to Missionaries - The Children of the Sun (1535-1536)

Christianity was first introduced to the native people of the Southwest by the four survivors of the ill-fated Pámfilo Narváez expedition. In April 1528, the Spanish conquistadors landed in  Sarasota Bay, Florida. Governor Narváez, a vain and cruel man with a bright red beard, intended to conquer Florida - a vast and unknown region north of Mexico. He separated his land force of 300 men from the naval fleet, which heralded disaster as his infantry and cavalry advanced inland with their meager supplies. Their number was soon reduced by disease, Indian attacks and other calamities.

In September 1528, the survivors set-up a temporary camp, devoured the last of their horses, and began to construct primitive barges, in order to escape to Mexico. At last, they launched five flimsy vessels. For months, they drifted across the Gulf of Mexico and on November 6, 1528, were tossed-up on the beaches near Galveston, Texas. Their pompous leader, with forty men, refused to beach his barge and during the night his craft floated-out-to-sea, never to be seen again.

The survival of the would-be conquistadors depended on the mercy of coastal Indians whose bleak hunting and gathering existence was characterized by frequent hunger, especially during the winter months. The natives considered the bearded strangers, who lacked skills to harvest oysters, clams and mussels, spear fish or dig roots, a serious burden on their limited survival economy. The castaways were mistreated as slaves to collect firewood and tend the campfires.  

Some Spaniards were slain by the natives, while many succumbed to illness, starvation and inclement conditions. Within a few years, the expedition was reduced to only four survivors - Alonso de Castillo, Andrés de Dorantes, and Estebanico the Black, who were under the command of Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The latter had been commissioned as the expedition's treasurer.

In 1535-1536, the four, naked castaways walked across the vast region from Galveston, Texas, traversed the Mexican states Coahila and Chihuahua to the Big Bend country in far west Texas. During the long trek, they were warmly greeted by the tribal people. Near the modern-day town of Presidio, Texas, they crossed the Río Grande, and traveled up the Río Conchos over the Sierra Madres to Culiacán, Mexico near the Pacific Coast. This was the first recorded trans-continental crossing of North America.

The eight-year odyssey among the native people had a profound effect on the three would-be conquerors, including Estebanico, the slave of Dorantes. This experience, living as equals among the Indians had a profound affect upon the four survivors, who now viewed the natives (and all mankind) as brothers and sisters.

The four Old World travelers, in order to sustain themselves, sought power and comfort in Christianity. Reluctantly, at the behest of the Indians, they became healers, and prayed for those in ill-health and blessed the multitudes who greeted them. Their astonishing success as medicine men generated a deep religious commitment, as well as a profound sense of humanity. The natives revered the four reluctant healers as "Children of the Sun". They journey on foot across the breadth of continent, introducing the rudiments of Christianity from one tribal group to the other. This legacy of love and healing endured for centuries in native oral tradition.

In March 1536, the Children of the Sun descended the eastern slope of the Sierra Madres and prematurely rejoiced when they encountered the first "Christians" they had seen in eight years. But these men on horseback, with sharp swords and pointed lances, were slave raiders under the command of Nuño de Guzmán. They reeked havoc among the Soutern Pima, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo and other tribal groups. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions later testified against Guzmán's atrocities, which led to his arrest and imprisonment by Spanish authorities.

Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, in his legendary Relación, the descriptive account of that long trek, noted that the native people near the Sinaloa River refused to believe the four naked healers were related in any manner to the cruel mounted men who killed, captured and enslaved their people. Cabeza de Vaca wrote that they emphatically rejected that notion and stated the following: We  had healed the sick, they killed the sound: We came naked and barefoot, they clothed, horsed, and lanced: We coveted nothing but gave whatever we were given, while they robbed whomever they found and bestowed nothing on anyone (Covey 1988: 128).

Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions arrived in Mexico City where the Viceroy greeted them and anxiously wanted to be informed about the vast, unknown territory that they had traversed. The news of their discovery, compounded by exaggerated rumors of mysterious cities of gold, quickly spread across the Spanish domain. These hyped revelations accelerated the interest to explore and conquer great provinces that rivaled the Aztecs and Incas. But Guzmán's bloody deeds, and those of subsequent slave hunters, would ferment hatred and mistrust among the natives of northern Mexico. These vicious blunders would result in the Mixton War (1541-1542), a full-scale Indian revolt that spread across the northern frontier, which for a short period threatened the white man's domination of Mexico.

Fray Marcos de Niza - First Reconnaissance to the Pueblos (1539)

In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza, departed from Mexico City on foot accompanied by several priests with a contingent of Indian burden bearers. On February 1539, he Culiacán in Sinaloa, Mexico, and later crossed the State of Arizona and entered the western border of New Mexico near the Zuni Pueblos, which soon would become associated with the mythical name -- "The Seven Cities of Cibola".

Estebanico the Black, a native of Azemmour, Morocco, who three years earlier had crossed the continent with Cabeza de Vaca, guided the friar's little expedition. Fray Marcos and the viceroy had selected Estebanico because of his knowledge of the north and its inhabitants, as well as for his linguistic and diplomatic skills.

The tall, energetic black man traveled far ahead of the friar. In mid-April of 1539, he arrived at Hawiku Pueblo, a Zuni Pueblo, where the tribal leaders detained him outside the Pueblo's walls. He was slain because he was mistakenly associated with Guzmán's slave raids and a menacing giant of Zuni legend. Fray Marcos, was subsequently informed of the tragedy by the natives who had accompanied Estebanico.

Fray Marcos, viewed the Pueblo from afar and hurried back to Mexico. He wrote the following fanciful description of Zuni, which would wet the appetite of many Spanish conquistadors: The settlement is larger than the city of Mexico. At times I was tempted to go to it, because I knew that I risked only my life, and this I had offered to God the day I began the expedition. But the fact that I was afraid, realizing my peril, and that I should die it would not be possible to have an account of this land, which, in my opinion, is the largest and best of all those discovered (Bolton 1949:36). 

Fray Marcos's wondrous account of his journey would excite others to venture northward. They would include dedicated missionaries as well as cruel adventurers. The objective of the former was to harvest the souls and that of the latter was to seize gold and slaves.

Francisco Váquez de Coronado Expedition (1540-1541)

This quest to pillage the Seven Cities of Cíbola spawned the brutal expedition of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1540-1541), whose army obliterated several Rio Grande Pueblos and murdered their residents. This bloody episode, coupled with the recent, notorious slave-raiding expedition of Nuño de Guzmán, created a sense of fear and loathing among the Pueblos towards the bearded men mounted on strange beasts.

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, Governor of the Nueva Galicia was charged by Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza regarding the expedition as a missionary effort, as well as a business enterprise. He initially had desired to send friars ahead of the expedition without arms so that the conquest may be Christian and apostolic and not by "butchery".

Viceroy Mendoza recruited Fray Marcos as a guide. The friar was to lead the first reconnaissance over the Cabeza de Vaca trail. He was elevated to the post of provincial of the Franciscan Order with the objective to establish the great missionary effort in Cíbola. Fray Marcos was accompanied by several other Franciscans, one including Fray Juan de Padilla, the "fighting friar" who had been a soldier. The latter, a native of Andalusia, Spain, who in 1529, had served as a priest in Nueva Galicia with the notorious Guzmán. Fray Antonio de Victoria, served as army chaplain and participated in the councils of war. Among this Franciscan contingent, were two Indian oblates - Sebastían and Lucas, from Zapotlán.

Coronado's expedition included 336 men, some of their wives and children and several hundred Indians servants and herders. The party also included a large number of armed Indian allies. The entourage included many carts and wagons loaded with clothing, tools and provisions. The lumbering caravan included 1,500 animals, at least 500 horses, not to mention mules, burros, and livestock comprising cattle and sheep.

Coronado's advance party, under command of Melchoir Díaz, went north from Culiacán, and along the way north of the Sinaloa River, he imitated Fray Marcos and Estebanico by sending ahead messengers with a large cross, a symbol which all the Indians venerated.

The Franciscan missionaries, who, if they tried, failed to tame the insatiable appetite of the greedy conquistadors. The cruel deeds of Nuño de Guzmán, Francisco Coronado and other Spanish adventurers, for over a century, would impede missionary effort in the Southwest.

Rodriguez-Chamuscado Expedition - First Christian Martyrs (1581-1582)

In June 1581, the small expedition of Rodriquez-Chamuscado departed from the frontier mining community of Santa Bárbara (in Southern Chihuahua) and headed northward. Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado, the commander, was a veteran soldier. The expedition's purpose was to explore the unknown lands in search of minerals and to convert the native people.

Chamuscado was accompanied by nine soldiers, and the following three missionaries -Fray Agustín Rodríquez, Fray Francisco López, and Fray Juan de Santa María. The party traveled northward where the Conchos River empties into the Rio Grande. Here, the natives told them of the four Children of the Sun who trekked through their region of forty years ago. The Rodriguez-Chuscado party continued northward. They were the first Spaniards to arrive at the Pass of the North (modern-day El Paso, Texas and Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua). They reached the Pass in August 1581, but found the area uninhabited.

The mounted party later arrived near modern-day Albuquerque, New Mexico. In September 1581, Fray Santa María was tragically martyred by the Indians on the slopes of the Sandia Mountains near modern-day Albuquerque. He was first missionary in the Southwest to make that supreme sacrifice. Fray Rodriquez and Fray López subsequently decided to permanently minister to the resident of the Tigua Pueblo of Puaray near modern-day Bernalillo, New Mexico.

On the long ride, within 30 leagues from his destination, Santa Barbara, Chamuscado, the old soldier, became ill and died. His remaining force rode into Santa Bárbara on April 15, 1582 bringing news of this strange land to the north, which would encourage others to explore the vast unknown land rumored to have great cities, gold and silver.

Antonio de Espejo Expedition (1582-1583)

In November 1582, Antonio de Espejo, a wealthy resident of Santa Bárbara, led an expedition of 13 soldiers and one Franciscan padre, Fray Bernardino Beltrán to rescue the two friars, who had been left in New Mexico by the Rodriquez-Chamusado party. Like the Chamuscado party, they traveled northward up to the confluence of the Conchos and Rio Grande rivers, where they met the native people of this region of cultivated corns, gourds and melons. The people told them of the Children of the Sun who visited them some years ago.

In January of 1583, the Espejo party reached the Pass of the North where they set-up a temporary camp in The Canyon of the Ox-bows (La Barranca de los Vueltos), which was uninhabited.

Later, they arrived at Puaray Pueblo north of Albuquerque, where they discovered that the missionaries had indeed been martyred. The reasons for this tragedy are unknown, but no doubt some of the the dark stains previously left by several brutal adventurers, namely Nuño de Guzmán and Francisco Coronado, was a contributing factor. The friars were seriously handicapped by lack of knowledge of the language and culture of the Indians. Therefore, coupled with the brutality of Guzmán and Coroando, it is not surprising that these priests became the first martyrs in the American Southwest.

Espejo's men explored the region for valuable minerals but returned to Santa Bárbara without riches, but their stories of that land to the north and its hidden wealth would spur-on others.

De Sosa's Colonizing Expedition Fails (1590-1591)

In 1590, Gaspar Castaño de Sosa, a Portguese citizen by birth, led an unlicensed expedition to colonize New Mexico. He was the Lieutenant Governor and Captain General of Nuevo León. His party consisted of colonists, soldiers and a small contingent of priests. The caravan of mounted men and women and wheeled carts, left Santa Bárbara in southern Chihuahua, crossed the Rio Grande at the confluence of the Rio Conchos and headed north to Pecos Pueblo (east of Santa Fe, New Mexico).

The expedition's disappointed members, short on supplies, failed to find the fabled veins of gold and silver and the Indian kingdoms of unparallel wealth. The homesick expeditionaries sought a new route or short-cut for the return to Mexico. They traveled down the Rio Grande to the Pass of the North, modern day Cd. Juárez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas. De Sosa introduced the first wheeled vehicles and the first missionaries to the El Paso region. The padres of this short-lived expedition did little to convert the native population, but they ministered to the would-be colonists.

Captain Juan de Morlete, with a military escort, was asked by the Spanish authorities to go northward to arrest de Sosa for illegal entry. In view of the contemporary controversy concerning the crossing of undocumented workers into the United States, de Sosa deserves the dubious title -- "the first illegal alien." After his "unlawful entry", to the consternation of the Native Americans, more "aliens" or "invaders" would immigrate to the Southwest from the south and north.

Spiritual Heritage of the Pass of the North

In 1598, the colonizing expedition of Don Juan de Oñate left Santa Bárbara with ten Franciscans priests, accompanied by several lay brothers and entered the province of Nuevo Mexico with some 400 Spanish colonists. They established the community of San Gabriel (north of present-day Santa Fe adjacent to San Juan Pueblo).

The First Thanksgiving - April 30, 1598

On the long trek north to New Mexico, Oñate's party crossed the parched deserts of northern Chihuahua and finally arrived on April 20, 1598, at the banks of the Rio Grande near modern-day San Elizario, Texas. Here, they camped several days to rest, water the livestock and replenish supplies. On April 30th, they gave thanks with a solemn mass followed by a thanksgiving feast, complete with ducks, geese, fish and wild game from the lush river valley. This event, our nation's First Thanksgiving, took place 23 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. On May 4th, the Oñate expedition crossed the river at the Pass of the North and advanced northward.

Franciscan Contributions

Stages of Development of the Mission Grape,
Sketch by William Pierson, 1873
U.S. Consul, El Paso del Norte, Mexico
Courtesy of the U.S. National Archives


The Franciscans left an enduring legacy in the American Southwest. Within a short period, they established missions among the Indian pueblos.

They lived among the Native Americans and became acquainted with their languages and customs.

The missionaries founded schools for religious instruction and taught basic reading and writing. They introduced European technologies, including carpentry, blacksmithing and European construction techniques. The missionaries introduced European crops - wheat, grapes, barley, oats, onions, garlic, lettuce, and fruit trees (apples, pears, pomegranates and peaches).

The Franciscans introduced the Spanish acequia system (irrigation canal network), livestock raising (horse, mule, burro, sheep, goats), and farm animals (chickens and pigs). The Franciscans and the Pueblo Indian converts soon became renowned for their bountiful fields of wheat, barely, and for the fine products of their fertile vineyards - lush grapes, tasty raisins and succulent wines

Cultural and Technological Exchanges

Learning was not "a one-way street", but a cultural exchange of customs, skills and technologies. The Franciscans and Spanish settlers accepted native plants (corn, tomatoes, chilies, pumpkins, squash and herbal medicinal plants), as well as native irrigation practices and construction techniques. Pueblo architectural styles soon influenced missions and homes. Today the cultural and social life of the people of the American Southwest reflect this rich blend of Native American and Spanish traditions.