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Many people from New Mexico are familiar with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and how it drove the Spanish and mestizo population out of the region for several years. What many people do not know is that the Pueblo Revolt was actually part of a larger regional rebellion against Spanish rule.

The Great Northern Revolt of the 1680s

While actions of the Pueblos in New Mexico may have been the catalyst that ignited the revolt, it has become known by many historians as The Great Northern Revolt of the Pueblos, Salineros, Conchos, Tobosos and Tarahumaras. This revolt, lasting from 1680 into the 1690s was waged in New Mexico, Northeastern Durango, Southern and Western Chihuahua, and also affected parts of Sonora, Coahuila and Texas.

The Pope Rebellion

In 1680, Pope, a Pueblo Indian medicine man, having assembled a unified Pueblo nation, led a successful revolt against Spanish colonists in New Mexico. Beginning at dawn on August 11, 1680, the insurgents killed twenty-one Franciscan missionaries serving in the various pueblos. At least 400 Spanish colonists were murdered in the first days of the rebellion.

On August 15, Indian warriors converged on Santa Fe. They cut off the water supply to the 2,000 men, women and children there, and they sang, “The Christian god is dead, but our sun god will never die.” The Spaniards counterattacked, causing the Pueblos to pull back momentarily. Then, on August 21 the Spaniards and mestizos trapped inside of Santa Fe fled, making their way southward down the Rio Grande to El Paso al Norte Mission, which had been built in 1659.

Once the Spaniards had been expelled, Pope initiated a campaign to eradicate Spanish cultural elements, disallowing the use of the Spanish language, and insisting that Indians baptized as Christians be bathed in water to negate their baptisms. Religious ceremonies of the Catholic Church were banned and the Indians were stopped from verbally using the names of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Saints.

The Pope Revolt, in addition to driving the Spaniards from the Santa Fe-Albuquerque region for more than a decade, also provided the Pueblo Indians with three to five thousand horses. Almost immediately, they started breeding larger herds, with the intention of selling horses to the Apache and Comanche Indians. As a result, the widespread use of the horse revolutionized Indian life. While mounted Indians found that buffalo were much easier to kill, some tribes – such as the Comanche – met with great success when they used the horse for warfare.

The Rebellion Spreads

The revolt in New Mexico jostled many of the indigenous tribes of Nueva Vizcaya (Chihuahua, Durango, Sonora) into action. The indigenous people of northern Chihuahua experienced widespread famine in the winter of 1683-1684, caused by the strain that the influx of people to the area had put on local resources.

Then, in 1684, as the Spaniards nursed their wounds at their new headquarters in El Paso, even more rebellions popped up across all of northern Chihuahua. From Casas Grandes to El Paso, many of the Conchos, Sumas, Chinarras, Mansos, Janos, and Apachean Jocomes all took up arms in Chihuahua. Soon after, the Pimas, Seri, Tepocas and other Sonora tribes also joined the revolt.  Only a few indigenous groups — including the Piros, Tiguas, and a small number of Mansos —remained loyal to the Spanish, even as some Christian Indians began deserting their missions to join the rebels.

The Spaniards Caught Off-Guard

As the rebellion spread, hundreds were killed but the Spanish military, caught woefully off-guard, could only muster small squads for the defense of the settlements in Chihuahua and Sonora. During the power vacuum in New Mexico and Nueva Vizcaya following the 1680 revolt, the Apache Indians started to push far to the southwest, arriving at the gates of Sonora to attack Spanish and Opata settlements. In November 1684, Governor Joseph de Neyra of Nueva Vizcaya reported that the indigenous rebels had taken 40,000 head of livestock from the northern frontier area.

The Spanish Presidio System

Starting in the 1570s and continuing into the seventeenth century, the Spaniards had begun the development of the presidio system of New Spain. The word “presidio” was taken from the Latin “praesidium,” meaning a garrisoned place, and by implication, a garrison presiding over a military district. As new presidios were established in Nueva Vizcaya, their troop strength increased to an average of twenty-five to thirty men for each post. These small garrisons recruited friendly Indian allies to assist them in protecting and advancing the frontier. 

Max L. Moorhead, in his work The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands (1975), discussed the development and maintenance of the Spanish presidios in the colonial frontier region. Wherever they were established, the presidios, noted Professor Max Moorhead, “spawned the rudiments of Spanish civilization… In their isolated outposts the troops were joined at first by their wives, children, and other kinsmen and in time by civilian families who gathered in the vicinity for greater protection from hostile tribesmen.

As the garrison itself was reinforced and its royal payroll increased correspondingly, the presidio became especially attracted to merchants, stockmen, and farmers.”  Indians who preferred peace and served as military scouts and domestic servants also settled in the area, and, as Moorhead notes, “the Spanish presidio evolved from a simple garrisoned fort with a purely military mission into the nucleus of a civilian town, a market for produce of neighboring farms and ranches, and an agency for an Indian reservation.”

Preparing for a New Kind of War

The Revolts of the late Seventeenth Century led the Spaniards to design a more mobile force that could wage war against swift, fast-moving Indian raiders. Because of their losses in the Great Northern Revolt of 1680, the Spanish military had to reevaluate its defensive policy in the frontier regions. They began to increase the number of presidios and the number of soldiers guarding the roads. Some of the new presidios were assigned fifty men, rather than the usual garrison of 25 to 30 soldiers of the early seventeenth century.

The Spaniards had first established a presidio at El Paso del Norte in response to the revolt, but as the revolt spread southward, more presidios were established in the war zone, including one at San Francisco de Conchos, some fifty miles north of Parral. In 1686, a fifty-man presidio – San Antonio de Casas Grandes – was established. However, in July 1688, the Janos and Jocome Indians attacked Casas Grandes. But, in a retaliatory raid a month later, a large Spanish force defeated the Janos, Jocomes, and Sumas, killing 200 warriors and capturing many women and children. Eventually the rebellion was put down, resulting in the execution of fifty-two Indians at Casas Grandes and twenty-five more in the Sonora mission area.

The Tarahumara Join the Revolt

A general uprising of the Tarahumara and other tribes in 1690 and 1691 also took place in Chihuahua, who were joined by the Conchos, Tobosos and Jovas.  The Tarahumara Indians at the northern mission of Tepomera rebelled and killed their missionaries. The Indians participating were led to believe that their leaders had the power to make Spanish guns useless. In addition, the Tarahumara were told that any of their warriors killed in battle would rise again after three days. However, within months, Spanish troops arrived from Parral and were able to kill the primary leader, ending the Tarahumara rebellion.

Epidemics of measles and smallpox broke out among the Tarahumara in 1693 and 1695. During this time, a belief developed that the ringing of church bells spread measles and smallpox. This may have contributed to two more uprisings in 1696 and 1698. The Tarahumara country from Sisoguichic in the south to Yepomera in the north was in open revolt. Units from several presidios were utilized in bringing the rebellious Tarahumara under control one more time.

The Reconquest of New Mexico (1692-1694). The Pueblos lived as a free and independent people for twelve years. However, in 1692, missionaries and Spanish government officials focused on working together to invade New Mexico once again. By this time, Pope had died and the Pueblos had disbanded and returned to their old ways, which included each pueblo being autonomous from the others. Governor Diego de Vargas saw that the time was ripe for the Spaniards to return to New Mexico.

Pulling together a re-colonizing expedition of one hundred soldiers, seventy families, and eighteen Franciscan friars, together with some Indian allies, de Vargas left El Paso for Santa Fe on October 4, 1693. Pledging an end to the abuse that the Spaniards had inflicted on the Pueblo Indians up to 1680, the Spaniards surrounded Santa Fe and then cut off the water supply. By 1694, Vargas had ended all effective resistance in New Mexico.

The Pueblo Revolt of 1696

On June 4, 1696, the Pueblo Indians attempted another revolt that resulted in the killing of five missionaries and twenty-one settlers. After a few churches were burned down, Spanish forces defeated the insurgents. Unlike the Revolt of 1680, this rebellion had been poorly planned and lasted only six months.

Lessons Learned

The Pueblo Revolt represents an important event in New Mexico’s history, but the regional implications of this revolt are equally important. With the indigenous groups now specializing in warfare on horseback, the Spaniards decided that they would have to develop fast-moving mobile troops to defend themselves and mount offensive operations.

The Flying Companies

It was the Great Northern Revolt that encouraged the concept of the Compañia Volante (Flying Company), battalions which were developed as specialized fast-moving light cavalry to combat the nomadic, warlike tribes that dominated Chihuahua, Texas and other frontier areas. Because frontier life made skilled horsemen of many young men in Chihuahua, these native sons were encouraged to join the Flying Company where their skills would be a special asset.

The men of the light cavalry were trained to fight in small, offensive units, specially designed to chase after Apache and Comanche raiding parties. The advantage of light cavalries was that they could move easily and provide the fighters with long-range reconnaissance. The cavalry was able to make shock attacks by either riding straight through an enemy infantry or surrounding it on all sides.

One of the first flying companies developed was the Compañia Volante, developed in San Bartolomé (in southern Chihuahua) from 1688-1752. So successful was this strategy in helping small numbers win big struggles that it flourished throughout the frontier, especially in Texas, well in the nineteenth century.


Cramaussel, Chantal. “La Compañía Volante de Campaña del Valle de San Bartolomé, 1688-1752,” Región y Sociedad, Vol. 28, No. 67 (June 2016).

Forbes, Jack D. Apache, Navajo, and Spaniard. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994 (2nd edition).

Griffen, William B. Indian Assimilation in the Franciscan Area of Nueva Vizcaya. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1979.

Moorhead, Max L. The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975,

Jones, Oakah L., Los Paisanos: Spanish Settlers on the Northern Frontier of New Spain. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979.

Salmon, Robert Mario. Indian Revolts in Northern New Spain: A Synthesis of Resistance (1680-1786). Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.

Spicer, Edward H. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

Texas beyond History, “El Paso Missions: Indians, Missionaries, Soldiers, and Settlers: History of the El Paso Valley.” Online:

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