A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
The First American Revolution
Exploring the legacy of the New World’s most successful native rebellion
An isolated volcanic outcropping, Black Mesa rises high above the floodplain of northern New Mexico’s Rio Grande Valley. The land it’s on belongs to the people of San Ildefonso Pueblo, whose ancestors have farmed near the base of the mesa since at least A.D. 1300. A natural fortress, Black Mesa was the scene of dramatic events in 1694, when Pueblo warriors encamped on its summit withstood a months-long Spanish siege. That conflict was the culmination of what is known today as the Pueblo Revolt, an indigenous uprising that began on August 10, 1680. On that date, Pueblo warriors from 19 separate villages carried out a coordinated attack on Spanish missionaries and colonists across New Mexico. Within a few days, they had driven virtually all Spaniards out of the province. For the next decade, apart from occasional Spanish military expeditions, the Native American peoples of New Mexico enjoyed total independence. “The Revolt period is still so important to Pueblo identity,” says University of Pennsylvania archaeologist Joseph Aguilar, a member of San Ildefonso Pueblo. “In many ways it shaped the world we live in today.”
Historians have relied primarily on Spanish accounts to understand the period, but recently, archaeologists have begun to uncover a richer picture of Pueblo life in the aftermath of what some scholars call the “first American revolution.” Working closely with Pueblo communities to study sites established after the Revolt, archaeologists have found evidence for tremendous change in Pueblo society as well as widespread revival of traditions that had been suppressed by the Spanish. A major focus of this recent research has been on defensive villages built on mesa tops during the 14 years of Pueblo independence. Aguilar is the latest archaeologist to explore one of these sites and is now working at Black Mesa, mapping the Revolt-era settlement there and seeking to understand the role the site played when Spanish forces eventually returned to New Mexico. “We’re finding the Spanish accounts don’t always match up with what we see on the ground,” says Aguilar. “The historical documents are an important resource, but archaeology can help give us the native perspective on what happened.”
The Pueblo Revolt came after nearly 100 years of Spanish rule in the Southwest. Spaniards first colonized New Mexico in 1591, when a group led by Governor Juan de Oñate established settlements among the Pueblo farmers living in the northern Rio Grande Valley. The Pueblo peoples shared an agricultural way of life, but were linguistically and culturally diverse. They inhabited upward of 90 villages, known as pueblos.
In New Mexico, as they did elsewhere in the New World, Spanish authorities introduced the encomienda and repartimiento systems, in which Native Americans paid heavy taxes to the government and were obligated to work for Spanish colonists. Franciscan missionaries were among those who initially settled the province, and they cracked down on traditional religious practices, ordering the Pueblo people to build churches in their villages and installing bells that became a hated symbol of colonialism. Their presence was intended to impose a Spanish and Christian conception of time. In some cases natives were also forced into new villages that were organized into European-style grids, rather than the contiguous groupings of rooms known as room blocks of a traditional pueblo.
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