Po’pay organized a revolt without a smart phone

August 21, 1680

On this day more than three centuries ago, Pueblo spiritual leader Po’pay, pulled off the most successful Native American revolt in Old West history using an inventive version of social media. 

 Po’pay sometimes written as Popé ,(close-up of statue), successfully united a number of independent native communities.  Without a common language, he communicated a timetable for his rebellion by sending runners to all the pueblos using knots on a rope.  As the knots were untied each day it told his allies when to strike their Spanish overseers.    

The attacks were originally set for August 10.   But the Spanish managed to crack the code by capturing several of the runners.   Po’pay  was forced to go to Plan B.  Leading an estimated 2,000 warriors down on the scantily manned settlement of Sante Fe, Popé’s forces killed as many as 400 soldiers and civilians along with 21 Franciscan friars.   The few remaining survivors escaped to El Paso, successfully breaking the back of Spanish control in New Mexico.

By the time the Spanish arrived in the Rio Grande Valley in 1598, the area was inhabited by an estimated 40,000 Pueblo who put up little resistance to their arrival.  During the next 80 years, however, the total population of their communities had fallen to just 15,000.  Hundreds of Native Americans had been killed or enslaved.  A minor revolt in the Acoma Pueblo had been put down with a reign of terror designed to cow any future rebels into submission.

Historic photo of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo

Thought to be from the San Juan Pueblo now called Ohkay Owingeh, Po’pay’s success was largely due to Spanish attempts to destroy the native religion.  Banning traditional ceremonies and icons such as kachina dolls,  47 medicine men had been arrested.  A decade long drought, the resulting famine and increased pressure from the neighboring warlike Comanche and Apache only increased Pueblo discontent.

Promising the people all would be well again if the Spanish were driven out, Po’pay did his enemies one better.  He attempted to eradicate all traces of Spanish culture and Christianity, ordering the destruction of churches, forbidding the speaking of Spanish, the use of Spanish surnames, even disallowing the use of Spanish tools such as the plow.

Apparently his followers became as tired of Po’pay’s overbearing rule as they had been of the Spanish and his alliance began to weaken.  Not long after Po’pay’s death in 1688, the Spanish governor, Don Diego de Vargas, (right) cake walked back into to New Mexico, cementing Spanish rule until Mexico won independence more than a century later in 1821.

At the time of de Vargas’ second conquest, however, Spain had become less worried about Christianizing the native people than protecting Mexico’s northern border from French encroachment.  As a result the native people gained back ownership of much of their land and the right to practice their traditional religion.  In some cases, they were given arms to help defend against agressive Apache, Ute and Comanche raiders.

The relative calm of the era that followed led to a more peaceful co-existance.  The region became a blend of European and native culture and preservation of the Pueblo lifestyle as it exists today.  Po’Pay probably would not have approved. 

Barrio de Analco Historic District, East De Vargas St. and the Old Santa Fe Trail,  Santa Fe, New Mexico, includes the San Miguel mission and other historic structures, all on the National Register of Historic Buildings. 

Barrio de Analco Historic District,  Santa Fe

San Miguel, considered the oldest church in America, was founded before 1626,  Partially destroyed in Po’pay’s 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the church was rebuilt in in 1710.   The Oldest House Museum and the 1878 St. Michael’s Dormitory are also located in the district.  For more information go to sanmiguelchapel.org or call 505-983-3974.

© Text Only – 2018 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.