The Indian Who Defied Coronado
by Dennis Herrick
No one mentioned his real name until his Spanish archenemy angrily revealed it inside a jail cell in 1546. Then it was lost again for nearly four hundred years. Finally the Spaniard’s testimony was translated into English in a 1940 book, naming the earliest Native American hero: Xauían.
This Pueblo man, whose name is pronounced “Shah-WEE-on,” remains virtually unknown. The reasons are that many historians continue to use his nickname instead of his real name, and they also tend to downplay or not mention his role in fighting against Europeans.
But it was Xauían who led resistance in America’s first named Indian war: The Tiguex War. Even that war is so little remembered that it needs a pronouncer: “TEE-wesh.”
Eurocentric accounts of history immortalized the name of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, who invaded Pueblo country in 1540. But history has ignored Xauían, who confronted the Spaniard.
Coronado’s Tiguex War in New Mexico focused on one tribe of Puebloans, the Tiwa. He also fought the Zuni, Hopi and Towa nations, and he threatened or fought the Tewa and Keres peoples.
The Tiguex War has received little attention despite it being fought ninety-six years before the Pequot War and 135 years before King Philip’s War, both in New England.
Most historians have long discounted the war as a mere distraction in an expedition that resulted in Europeans’ first sightings of the Grand Canyon, the Rio Grande, the Rocky Mountains, and the Great Plains with its enormous bison herds.
The only eyewitness accounts are from xenophobic conquistador perspectives. Pedro Castañeda de Nájera, a horseman on the expedition, wrote about the Tiguex War in only twelve small pages of his eyewitness account. He distorted or never mentioned much of what happened.
Xauían deserves to become known, as does the war named for the old Tiguex Province around today’s Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Contemporaneous with Hernando de Soto’s 1539-43 rampage through the Southeast, Coronado’s expedition of 1540-42 was much larger in size.
Coronado and other Spaniards never referred to Xauían by his Tiwa name. Instead, they called him by the incongruous nickname of Juan Alemán, because they thought he resembled a German colonist in Mexico City. (Alemán is the Spanish word for German.) When he’s mentioned at all, books usually refer to him as Juan Alemán—literally, “John the German.”
This Pueblo leader’s Tiwa name would never have come to light if not for Coronado’s second-in-command, his maestre de campo (field master), García López de Cárdenas. Awaiting trial in Spain for war crimes he committed in the Tiguex War, Cárdenas was deposed in his jail cell. He stated, “An Indian named Xauían . . . . asked this witness to approach and embrace and seal their peace.” Spanish accounts had always identified that Tiwa leader as Juan Alemán.
That testimony is the only mention ever recorded for Xauían’s Tiwa name. He remains the only Puebloan known by his native name from the Tiguex War.
Xauían was a leader in the Tiwa village of Ghufoor. He would have been known then as a bow chief (war captain). He probably was born there in the late 1400s. Ghufoor was a two-story adobe complex built on the west side of the Rio Grande north of present-day Albuquerque.
Ghufoor was strategically located along the trading route that extended from Pecos on the edge of the Great Plains to Zuni, where branches led south to Mexico and west to the Pacific Ocean.
The twelve Tiguex Province villages faced nearly four hundred Europeans, mostly Spaniards from Castile. Puebloans called the Europeans metal people because of their weapons and armor. Coronado also had two thousand Aztecs and other Mexican Indian warriors as allies.
The expeditionaries converged on Ghufoor about two months after attacks against Zunis and Hopis farther west.
Vastly outnumbered, with only fifty or so warriors in a typical Tiwa village, Xauían hoped to avoid a confrontation. At first, he had the Tiwas of a dozen villages welcome the strangers with food and gifts.
Then the freezing winter of 1540-41 covered the river valley with snow and ice. Cárdenas’s advance party decided to commandeer Ghufoor as shelter before Coronado’s arrival with the rest of the expedition.
Spanish accounts claim the Tiwas left Ghufoor willingly to give the Spaniards better shelter.
However, Xauían’s initial response to Cárdenas’s demand must have been that Tiwas could not abandon their homes, their fields, and the graves of their ancestors.
The horseman Pedro de Castañeda hinted in his account written twenty years later that the Tiwas were forcibly evicted. He wrote that the Indians left Ghufoor and “they took with them nothing but themselves and the clothes they had on.”
Cárdenas’s advance force attacked despite Spanish accounts implying the contrary. Archaeologists at Ghufoor’s site in 1934 found crushed arquebus musket balls and crossbow points, proving a battle took place to evict the Tiwas. They also found a Tiwa warrior’s skeleton at Ghufoor with a crossbow point inside the rib cage—America’s earliest verified victim of European warfare against Indians.
After the expedition commandeered Ghufoor to be Coronado’s headquarters, Xauían convinced the Tiwas to unite against the expedition’s continuing demands for food and clothing. Each pueblo had its own leader in war, so allowing Xauían to lead them all was an extraordinary act of confidence in him. As Friar Antonio Tello wrote later, the Tiwas followed “the effort and good leadership of [Xauían] who always was understood to be the one who advised them.”
Xauían met frequently with Coronado after that battle, trying to smooth the relationship between the Tiwas and the expedition. Negotiations ended when Coronado demanded that Xauían order the Tiwa villages to turn over more blankets and buffalo robes to his expedition because of the harsh winter. By then the villagers had little clothing to spare. Xauían turned uncooperative.
The horseman Castañeda reported:
“[Coronado] had an Indian summoned, a principal of Tiguex with whom he was already well acquainted, and had much conversation with him. Our people called him Juan Alemán . . . . The general talked with this man, saying [Xauían] was to furnish him three hundred pieces of clothing or more. This he had need of to give to his people. [Xauían] said that was not for him to do, but rather for the governors, and that above all it was necessary to engage in consultation and to distribute [the burden] among the pueblos. Further, it was necessary to make the request individually to each pueblo.”
The expeditionaries reacted in typical conquistador fashion by seizing what they wanted from each village. They often stripped blankets and bison robes off the backs of even Tiwa elders and women. Then a Spaniard raped a Tiwa woman at a pueblo called Arenal, a Spanish word meaning “sandy ground.”
The rapist was Juan de Villegas. He never was punished. Some expeditionaries speculated that because Villegas was a member of Mexico City’s governing council, Coronado and his officers looked the other way.
The woman’s mate could not identify Villegas, saying all the Spaniards looked alike to him. But he identified Villegas’s peach-colored horse. Cárdenas refused to believe him, sending him away “without any satisfaction.”
Already made desperate by expedition members taking their food and clothing in the middle of December, the Tiwas retaliated for the rape. They killed about sixty of the expedition’s horses and mules. Coronado ordered retribution of “fire and blood,” a Spanish term for total war with no quarter given.
The Tiguex War had begun.
To protect Tiwa refugees fleeing to the mountains, Xauían stationed more than a hundred Tiwa warriors from several pueblos as a diversionary force at Arenal.
Other Tiwas escaped to their mountain sanctuary and would have a pivotal role in guerrilla warfare against the expedition in the second winter.
Even as Tiwa elders, women, and children were still fleeing to the mountains, Cárdenas led an attack against Arenal.
Arenal’s defenders never had a chance. They were overpowered by greater numbers of Spaniards, who used horses and far more devastating weapons of lances, swords, crossbows, and arquebus muskets. The Europeans also sent hundreds of Mexican Indian allies into the attack.
Many Tiwas were killed defending Arenal, and about a hundred warriors surrendered on the second day. They were disarmed and held them as captives in a large Spanish field tent outside Arenal.
Then, under Coronado’s orders, Cárdenas burned twenty to thirty captives alive at the stake.
The rest tried to escape from the tent and were killed with lance and sword thrusts. Cárdenas executed all the captives. Coronado sent two Indians taken prisoner earlier at Pecos to witness what happened to Indians who rebelled.
For atrocities including the stake burnings, Coronado would be charged but absolved of war crimes four years later by friendly judges on the Audiencia in Mexico City. Cárdenas would be convicted of the same charges by the Council of the Indies in Spain.
The stake burnings and slaughter were meant to terrorize remaining Tiwas. Instead, Arenal’s fate strengthened Tiwa resolve.
There would never be another Tiwa surrender.
Castañeda seemed appalled by the killing of all Arenal captives. Twenty years later, he wrote: “No man remained alive, except some who had remained hidden in the pueblo and fled that night. They spread the word throughout the land that [the Spaniards] did not keep the promise of peace that had been given to them.”
After Arenal, Xauían took hundreds of warriors and family members to a Tiwa stronghold atop a nearby mesa. The Tiwa name is unknown, but Spaniards called Xauían's stronghold Moho. That’s a Spanish word that meant lichen- or moss-covered rocks in sixteenth-century Spanish, referring to the appearance of rocks on mesa summits.
In early January 1541, Coronado’s forces found Moho. Most likely Xauían made sure Coronado would learn there was another pueblo defying him so he wouldn’t go after the Tiwas hiding in the mountains.
When Rodrigo de Maldonado went to Moho, he and his cavalrymen were attacked with a volley of arrows that wounded men and horses.
Then Cárdenas was sent to Moho with cavalry. He read the requerimiento to Xauían and others lining the tops of Moho’s walls. Spaniards used the legal document to order Indians to surrender, pledge allegiance to the king of Spain and to the pope, and allow friars to convert them to Catholicism.
The requerimiento always ended with a threat of what would happen if Indians failed to accept Spanish terms: “With the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their Highnesses; we shall take you and your wives and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their Highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can.”
Spaniards reported that Xauían always defied their threats and demands. In later legal proceedings against Coronado, they paraphrased Xauían’s response as saying the Tiwas “were not familiar with his majesty, nor did they want to be his subjects or serve him or any other Christian.”
Moho’s defenders knew how Cárdenas had butchered everyone at Arenal, so Xauían crafted a plan for revenge. After the ultimatum, Xauían emerged from Moho and invited Cárdenas to dismount and come forward without his weapons so they could talk. When the conquistador walked to him, two warriors with Xauían brought out concealed clubs and stunned Cárdenas with blows to his helmet. Trying to drag him into Moho as a captive failed, however, when Cárdenas pulled out a dagger he’d hidden and lancers raced to his rescue on horseback.
A few days later, Coronado led most of his expedition to Moho, mustering two thousand or more Europeans and Mexican Indian allies. Hoping to avoid a long siege on top of the wind-swept, snowy mesa during the brutal winter, he wanted to mount a large attack so victory would be swift and easy.
But Moho had been built years earlier as a last-stand fortress on the mesa’s edge. Instead of mud-adobe, like the river valley’s pueblos, Moho was made of basalt blocks and a palisade of logs impervious to battering rams or fire.
It shocked Coronado to see the first attack fail, like a wave crashing against a cliff. Moho had firing loopholes, a desert prairie in front of it that could be riddled with arrows, and defensive measures that exposed attackers who made it to the rooftops to a crossfire of arrows and to rocks thrown down from towers. Several Spaniards and Mexican Indians were killed in the first attack, and more than a hundred were wounded before Coronado called back the initial attack.
Unable to overwhelm Moho despite repeated assaults, Coronado besieged the stronghold for about eighty days. Probably his men spent their greatest effort obtaining firewood to survive winter atop the mesa, pulling beams and other wood from the abandoned pueblos in the high desert along the Rio Grande.
Thirst, rather than Spanish arms, finally ended the siege. Out of water, Xauían organized a night-time escape attempt in late March 1541. Spanish lancers on horseback killed Xauían as he and his warriors formed protective lines around their women and ran toward the river’s safety. The Spaniards enslaved the surviving women and children.
A Spanish historian, disturbed that Indians had held out against Spanish arms for nearly three months, criticized Coronado. He wrote, “And thus, one night, the besieged went forth in flight, leaving our people fooled and with no gain . . . . and the Indians went out valorously.”
Xauían had achieved strategic victory with his sacrifice. He had tied down the expedition all winter, preventing Coronado from attacking the rest of the Tiwa tribe during its most vulnerable period in the mountains.
In the spring, Coronado left to seek the gold he’d been told he could find on the other side of the Great Plains. He returned empty-handed to Ghufoor in the following October. During the second winter, that mountain remnant of Tiwas waged hit-and-run guerrilla warfare. With no Tiwa pueblo to mass their forces against this time, the Spaniards were unable to effectively respond. “[The expeditionaries] did not dare to go to the mountains for fear of their enemies and the deep snow,” one Spaniard recalled.
Encouraged by continuing Tiwa resistance, the Keres, Towa, and Tewa pueblos upriver that had remained neutral during the Tiguex War began refusing food and clothing to an expedition weakened by a second severe winter and guerrilla attacks.
In April 1542, with his men disheartened, and with both men and horses suffering from reduced rations and dying from disease and winter hardships, Coronado’s expedition retreated to Mexico.
Thanks to Xauían’s leadership in the Tiguex War, which inspired continued resistance through the second winter, the largest Spanish invasion of native land north of Mexico failed.
The Spaniards would not return to pueblo country for thirty-nine years.
(Xauían is a major historical character in the 2013 novel, Winter of the Metal People,. A version of this article was first published in the January/February 2014 issue of Native Peoples magazine.)
Dennis Herrick is best known for his writings about Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. He is the author of Winter of the Metal People, which tells for the first time the native point of view for the 1540–42 Coronado expedition, and the biography titled Esteban: The African Slave Who Explored America, about the first non-Indian to enter Arizona and New Mexico in 1539.
He spent most of his adult life in and around newspapers as a reporter, editor, publisher, and university journalism instructor. He is also the author of seven other books and numerous short stories. His author’s website is at dennisherrick.com