Like the wars waged by the Powhatans and Wampanoags in the East, the 1680 Pueblo insurrection was at once an act of self-preservation, cultural revitalization, and spatial reimagination. Attesting to strong intergroup attachments that transcended Spanish-imposed boundaries, many Apaches and Navajos fought alongside the Pueblos. The allied Indians killed nearly four hundred colonists and twenty-one friars, and they routed a thousand Spanish soldiers, sending them to El Paso, the colony’s southernmost town. The leaders of the rebellion set out to restore the physical and sacral landscape of the pre-Spanish era. Churches were to be demolished, their bells were to be shattered, and images of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary were to be destroyed. Alien crops were to be torched, and corn and beans planted in their stead. Not one Spanish word would violate the restored Indigenous soundscape. Even horses began to vanish from the Rio Grande valley. Repulsed by horses’ tendency to trample cornfields and by their elevated power, which symbolized Spanish might, the Pueblos embarked on vigorous horse trade with the outlying nomads and pastoralists. It had to be as though Spanish colonialism had never happened.
DESPITE THE PUEBLOS’ DESIRE to erase Spanish colonialism from their memory, it had, of course, happened, and its legacy proved sticky. As frail as Spanish dominance over the Pueblo world had been, Spanish colonists had profoundly altered Indigenous life in the Rio Grande valley. To reinstate the old cultural order—to turn back time—the Pueblo leaders issued sweeping decrees that bound all Pueblos. In order to purge Spanish influences, the Native leaders claimed all-encompassing dominion over the Pueblo world. But a single Pueblo world was a foreign fiction. Before the Spanish invasion, the Pueblos had lived in more than 150 communities that shared a general cultural outlook but possessed no central governing structures. When the colonial edifice dissolved, local identities resurfaced. In the 1680s, the Spanish built a buffer region of presidios and missions to keep European rivals away from the abandoned colony. They called it Tejas, a Spanish spelling of the Caddo word taysha, meaning “friend.”
Four generations of colonial presence had left a deep imprint on Pueblo life, and many had grown to see certain Spanish imports as natural. Renouncing the Franciscans and colonists roused little controversy; pigs, sheep, woolen textiles, metal tools, and spouses taken in matrimony were another matter. When droughts spoiled harvests, the already delicate Pueblo coalition began to disintegrate. Civic leaders, medicine men, and soldiers competed for authority within communities that soon descended into civil wars. Towns fought over diminishing resources and raided one another for grain. The Apaches, incensed by the collapse of trade relations, took what they needed through force.
While the Pueblo people struggled with lingering colonial legacies, the Spanish struggled with the legacy of Pueblo resistance. The Pueblo uprising had proved contagious, triggering a series of rebellions against Spanish rule from Coahuila to Sonora and Nueva Vizcaya. Janos, Sumas, Conchos, Tobosos, Julimes, and Pimas attacked colonists and destroyed missions, towns, and farms, rolling back Spanish colonialism across a vast area. The Spanish seemed paralyzed in the face of this explosion of Indigenous hatred and power. Colonial officials sentenced four hundred Native rebels to ten years of forced labor.
Vargas extinguished the second rebellion with a focused war of attrition, but the rebellion proved crucial for the future prospects of the Pueblo people. Vargas reinstated colonial rule in New Mexico, but it was not the colonial rule of old. Traumatized and exhausted by the latest rebellion, the Spanish accepted smaller landholdings than before, and they replaced the slavery-like encomienda labor system with the repartimiento system, under which the amount of required work was regulated. They appointed a public defender to protect the Pueblos against Spanish abuse, and Franciscans turned a blind eye to the previously banned Pueblo ceremonies—a concession that was made easier by the Pueblos’ token acceptance of Catholic sacraments. The colony had shrunk conspicuously.
The administrative apparatus of the Spanish colonial state remained in place, but the social distance between the Spanish and the Pueblos narrowed through intermarriages, quasi-kinship institutions such as compadrazgo—co-godparenthood—and multiethnic towns. The Spanish and the Pueblos remained distinct people separated by sharp disparities in power and privilege, but unwavering Pueblo resistance had forced the Spanish to enter a shared world where the colonists were allowed to reestablish only a drastically reduced version of their grandiose imperial project. Like Juan de Oñate a century earlier, Vargas had tried to create a bounded colonial state with carefully regulated commercial channels, and like his predecessors, he had encountered an Indigenous world that refused to bend to a rigid imperial logic. The Pueblo resistance proved contagious, igniting a series of rebellions that spread across northern New Spain. The terrified governor of Nueva Vizcaya insisted that all captured Indian rebels should be sentenced to ten years of enslavement.
The Pueblo Revolt—also known as the Great Southwestern Rebellion for its virulence and scale—changed the history of the region irrevocably. It cut the Spanish colonists down to size and emboldened the Indians—not just the Pueblos but also many other Indigenous nations—to challenge Spain’s imperial claims. During the decade after the rebellion, numerous uprisings and wars broke out between the Spanish and the Indians: Tarahumaras, Conchos, Pimas, Sobaipuris, Sumas, Jocomes, Janos, Opatas, Apaches, and many others fought to contain, punish, and kill the Spanish, and keep their territories inviolate. Their systematic mobile guerrilla war had confined the Spanish to their northwestern frontier.
By shaking up ancient traditions and practices, the war changed the Pueblo world from within by giving Pueblo women new avenues to express their religious ideas and spirituality; they began to explore Catholicism more deeply and to question ancient traditions. The most important geopolitical change came when the Pueblos started selling Spanish horses to neighboring nomads in the plains and the surrounding mountains. The horse trade ignited a technological revolution that reconfigured several Indigenous worlds within a generation. An ancient trade corridor in the Rocky Mountains became a conduit for the spread of horses far to the north. The Shoshones acquired horses in about 1690 and, emboldened by their suddenly supercharged capacity to move about, hunt, and fight, they pushed into the bison-rich northern plains. Others even farther away traced the flow of horses back to the source in the upper Rio Grande valley. In 1706 the residents of Taos Pueblo in the northeastern corner of New Mexico reported the arrival of strange people from the north. These newcomers, Nu–mu–nu–u–—“the people”—were rumored to be preparing an attack on the town. The Comanches had entered the Spanish consciousness as a shadowy frontier menace.