While our physical offices are closed until further notice in accordance with Austin's COVID-19 "stay home-work safe" order, the Handbook of Texas will remain available at no-cost for you, your fellow history enthusiasts, and all Texas students currently mandated to study from home. If you have the capacity to help us maintain our online Texas history resources during these uncertain times, please consider making a 100% tax-deductible contribution today. Thank you for your support of TSHA and Texas history. Donate Today »


Gerald F. Kozlowski

OÑATE, JUAN DE (ca. 1550–1626). Juan de Oñate, explorer and founder of the first European settlements in the upper Rio Grande valley of New Mexico, son of Cristóbal de Oñate and Catalina de Salazar, was born around 1550, most likely in the frontier settlement of Zacatecas, Mexico. His father was a prominent Zacatecas mine owner and encomendero. In his early twenties Oñate was leading campaigns against the unsubdued Chichimec Indians along the turbulent northern frontier around Zacatecas and prospecting for silver. He aided the establishment of missions in the newly conquered territory. He married Isabel de Tolosa Cortés Moctezuma, a descendant of the famous conquistador Hernán Cortés and the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. They had a son and a daughter.

On September 21, 1595, Oñate was awarded a contract by King Philip II of Spain to settle New Mexico. Spreading Catholicism was a primary objective, but many colonists enlisted in hopes of finding a new silver strike. After many delays Oñate began the entrada in early 1598. He forded the Rio Grande at the famous crossing point of El Paso del Norte, which he discovered in May 1598, after making a formal declaration of possession of New Mexico on April 30 of that year. By late May he had made contact with the first of the many pueblos of the northern Rio Grande valley. In July 1598 he established the headquarters of the New Mexico colony at San Juan pueblo, thus effectively extending the Camino Real by more than 600 miles. It was the longest road in North America for several subsequent centuries. While awaiting the slow-moving main caravan of colonists, Oñate explored the surrounding area and solidified his position. Construction of the mission at San Francisco and a mission for the Indians of San Juan soon began. Mutiny, desertion, and dissent plagued the new colony when riches were not instantly found. Oñate dealt with these problems with a firm hand. Some of his men explored east beyond Pecos pueblo towards the Texas border in search of buffalo; they probably reached the headwaters of the Canadian River, twenty-five miles northwest of the site of present Amarillo. Oñate visited Acoma pueblos as well as the Hopi and Zuni pueblos far to the west; one party in his group went as far as the San Francisco mountains in Arizona, finding silver ore and staking claims. Upon Oñate's return to Acoma he put down a revolt that left eleven colonists dead. He severely punished the rebellious Indians.

Prospecting expeditions continued in an attempt to bring prosperity to the colony. The colony was reinforced in late 1600, but hardships, including cold weather and short food supplies, continued. On June 23, 1601, Oñate began an expedition to Quivira in search of wealth and an outlet to the sea. He followed the Canadian River across the Texas Panhandle and near the Oklahoma border headed northeast. Probably in the central part of what is now Kansas, Oñate's expedition arrived at the first of the Quivira villages. The great settlements of Quivira proved to be a disappointment to men who had come looking for easy wealth, however, and they soon turned back. While Oñate was on this expedition, conditions deteriorated in the New Mexico colony because the land was poor, the Indians were troublesome, and there were no silver strikes. The colony was subsequently abandoned except for some of Oñate's most devoted followers. The deserters spread the news of conditions in the colony when they returned to New Spain, and the government soon initiated an inquiry into the situation in New Mexico and Oñate's treatment of the Indians. At the same time Oñate launched his last major expedition, from the Zuni pueblos to the Colorado River and down it to the Gulf of California.

In 1606 King Philip III ordered Oñate to Mexico City until allegations against him could be investigated. Unaware of the order, Oñate resigned his office in 1607 because of the condition of the colony and financial problems. He remained in New Mexico to see the town of Santa Fe established. King Philip III decided to continue supporting the colony. A new governor was appointed, and Oñate was summoned to Mexico City in 1608. In 1613 he finally faced charges of using excessive force during the Acoma rebellion, hanging two Indians, executing mutineers and deserters, and adultery. He was fined, banished from New Mexico permanently, and banished from Mexico City for four years. He spent much of the rest of his life trying to clear his name, with some evident success. Eventually he went to Spain, where the king gave him the position of mining inspector. He died in Spain on or around June 3, 1626.


Herbert Eugene Bolton, ed., Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542–1706 (New York: Scribner, 1908; rpt., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1959). Carlos E. Castañeda, Our Catholic Heritage in Texas (7 vols., Austin: Von Boeckmann-Jones, 1936–58; rpt., New York: Arno, 1976). George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, eds., Don Juan de Oñate: Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595–1628 (Santa Fe: Patalacio, 1927; rpt., Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1953). Marc Simmons, The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991).

Image Use Disclaimer

All copyrighted materials included within the Handbook of Texas Online are in accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107 related to Copyright and “Fair Use” for Non-Profit educational institutions, which permits the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), to utilize copyrighted materials to further scholarship, education, and inform the public. The TSHA makes every effort to conform to the principles of fair use and to comply with copyright law.

For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

Handbook of Texas Online, Gerald F. Kozlowski, "OÑATE, JUAN DE," accessed August 09, 2020, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fon02.

Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on August 3, 2017. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.
visit the mytsha forums to participate

View these posts and more when you register your free MyTSHA account.

Call for Papers: Texas Center for Working-Class Studies Events, Symposia, and Workshops
Hi all! You may be interested in this call for papers I received from the Texas Center for Working-Class Studies at Collin College...

Katy Jennings' Ride Scholarly Research Request
I'm doing research on Catherine Jennings Lockwood, specifically the incident known as "Katy Jennings' Ride." Her father was Gordon C. Jennings, the oldest man to die at the Alamo...

Texas Constitution of 1836 Co-Author- Elisha Pease? Ask a Historian
The TSHA profile of Elisha Marshall Pease states that he wrote part of the Texas Constitution although he was only a 24 year-old assistant secretary (not elected). I cannot find any other mention of this authorship work by Pease in other credible research about the credited Constution authors...