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Governor Onate And The Exploring Of The Great Plains

by Robert Naranjo

FIESTA DEL VALLE DE ESPANOLA y DE ONATE  July 8-10.  Fun for the entire family! And learn a little about the fascinating history of the Espanola Valley. Here is just one example of New Mexico’s first Governor, Don Juan de Onate’s exploration deep into surrounding areas now Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Arizona, Baja California. He encountered “numerous” Plains Indians and Apache, among many others, some friendly and some warlike.

The Espanola Valley, once known as the “San Juan Valley” or Valle de San Juan  with New Mexico being referred to in old documents as Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico province in the Viceroyalty of New Spain.

New Mexico’s first governor, Capitan-General, Adelantado, y Gobernador Don Juan de Onate, is referred to as “The Last Conquistador” with a book on his life with that title already written.

Lost in modern-day accusations and pre-judgments about Governor Onate are the many fascinating adventures that he undertook during the 10 year period of 1598-1608. Gov. Onate is given credit by historians for exploring the Southwest, which belonged to Spain, and exploring into the Great Plains of which some parts Spain claimed, venturing further in where “no European” had ever seen. He encountered “indigineous” groups (Indians) that were warring against each other.

Onate was traveling with his own soldiers and a group of Plains Indians he call “Los Rayados”  which was one of several he discovered deep into the Plains. Grasses were as tall as the horses and he marveled at the richness of the soil.

When he and his scouting group consisting of Crown soldiers, and a group of Plains Indians he had secured as scouts, they came upon a band of Plains Indians that were getting handfuls of dirt and throwing them into the air. His guides told him that the gesture meant they were ready  for battle. Onate, his men and his Indian guides did engage in battles with the Plains, but eventually the Governor returned to New Mexico. Along the way he tasted the Pawpaw (America’s forgotton fruit) which he found to be very good, and likely the first or one of the first Europeans to try one of America’s now forgotton fruits. But it has gained appeal in the last 20-30 years and getting the attention it deserves with efforts to bring it to markets and farmer’s markets across the country.

Gov. Onate also ventured west and explored the Lower Colorado River. He also reached the Sea of Cortez or Baja California, calling it “El Mar del Sur” or the Southern Sea. Upon returning to New Mexico, in April of 1605, Onate wrote his name on Inscription Rock or El Morro telling of his discovery of “El Mar del Sur” and inscribing his entire title.

More to come.