Oñate Expedition

By: W. H. Timmons

Type: General Entry

Published: May 1, 1995

Updated: July 28, 2017

Reports of great wealth and natives who would be responsive to conversion in the country to the far north in the 1580s brought responsive action from the monarchy of Philip II of Spain in the form of a royal decree authorizing the pacification and settlement of the new land. It was Philip's conviction that as Hernando Cortes had conquered Mexico in 1521, there existed on the northern frontier of the viceroyalty of New Spain a second rich kingdom-another Mexico. With its conquest and colonization, therefore, Spanish fortunes would be restored after the disastrous defeat of its armada by England in 1588. Thus the viceroy of New Spain was instructed to find a suitable leader to organize an expedition. The contest for the position of governor and captain general of New Mexico was spirited, despite the crown's requirement that the candidate chosen would have to bear most of the costs of the expedition. At length, in 1595 the viceroy awarded the contract to Don Juan de Oñate, a wealthy and distinguished man whose father had made a fortune from the silver mines of Zacatecas, and whose wife was the granddaughter of Hernando Cortes and the great-granddaughter of Montezuma. After many delays in getting the expedition assembled, in January 1598 the colony of 400 men (of whom 130 brought families), eighty-three wagons and carts to carry the baggage and provisions, and more than 7,000 head of stock began the march northward from Santa Barbara along the upper Río Conchos. Ten Franciscans joined later.

Unlike previous expeditions, which followed the Conchos to the Rio Grande, this one headed straight across the sand dunes of the Chihuahua desert. A vanguard, after four days without water, reached the Rio Grande on April 20, and six days later the colony was reunited. In celebration of its survival a great feast was held. The expedition then ascended the river a distance, and on April 30, 1598, a significant date in the history of the El Paso Southwest, Oñate in a formal ceremony took official possession of the entire territory drained by the Rio Grande for his monarch, Philip II of Spain. This event, which took place at a site near that of present-day San Elizario, Texas (the river at that time ran several miles north of its present channel), is called La Toma, "the taking possession of"; it laid the foundation for more than two centuries of Spanish rule in the American Southwest. Ascending the river, the expedition crossed the river to the east side on May 4, at a site just west of present downtown El Paso. Oñate called this operation "El Paso del Río del Norte," an early use of the name El Paso. Near the upper reaches of the river he established his headquarters, founded a church, and formally founded the province of New Mexico. During the next few years Oñate sent out exploring parties in all directions, but the results were extremely disappointing-New Mexico was a distinct contrast to the Mexico that Hernando Cortes conquered. Everywhere the picture was the same-a large Indian population living in adobe houses, some of which were two stories high, but there was no gold, no silver, only a few fertile farms, and tenacious Indian resistance in many areas.

Since the new land had failed to measure up to the high hopes and expectations of the colonists, quarreling and dissension increased, food was soon scarce, and desertions mounted. Charges were brought against the governor, accusing him of misconduct and mismanagement, of ignoring the complaints of the colonists, and of misinforming the crown about conditions in New Mexico. At length, in 1607 Oñate resigned his command, retired from the scene, and returned to Spain to defend himself against his alleged misdeeds. The Spanish crown, after some hesitation, decided to maintain its foothold in New Mexico, having received word that if it left it would be abandoning 7,000 converts. In 1609 a new governor, Pedro de Peralta, was appointed, and in the following year Santa Fe was founded as the new capital. With the exception of a twelve-year period from 1680 to 1692, when the Spaniards were driven out of New Mexico by the Pueblo Revolt, Spain maintained its control over the frontier province until 1821. See also SPANISH TEXAS.

John Francis Bannon, The Spanish Borderlands Frontier, 1513–1821 (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970). Herbert Eugene Bolton, ed., Spanish Exploration in the Southwest, 1542–1706 (New York: Scribner, 1908; rpt., New York: Barnes and Noble, 1959). George P. Hammond, "The Search for the Fabulous in the Settlement of the Southwest," in New Spain's Far Northern Frontier, ed. David J. Weber (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979). 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). David J. Weber, New Spain's Far Northern Frontier (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1979).


  • Exploration
  • Expeditions

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

W. H. Timmons, “Oñate Expedition,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed September 21, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/onate-expedition.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

May 1, 1995
July 28, 2017