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.