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Xauían and the Tiguex War

Xauían and the Tiguex War

Native Peoples magazine
January/February 2014
no longer on the magazine's website
Also available in longer version with endnotes as this site's e-article, "The Indian Who Defied Coronado"

by Dennis Herrick

No one mentioned his real name until his Spanish archenemy angrily spit it out inside a jail cell in 1546. Then it was lost again for nearly 400 years until a little-noticed book translated the embittered Spaniard’s testimony naming an all but forgotten American native hero—Xauían.

Pronounced ShaWEEon, this Tiwa Puebloan still remains virtually unknown. But it was Xauían whose resistance in the first named war between natives and Europeans in what is now the United States frustrated the advance of Spanish conquistadors.

Even the Tiguex War that Xauían waged against them is so little known that, like Xauían’s name, it needs a pronouncer: TEEwesh. A Eurocentric view of history has immortalized the name of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, who led the invasion of Pueblo country in 1540. But history has ignored the man most responsible for blocking the famous Spaniard.

The Tiguex War of the Southwest has received little attention from historians despite (or perhaps because of) its being fought 96 years before the Pequot War, and 135 years before King Philip’s War, both in New England. Pedro Castañeda de Nájera, a member of the expedition, wrote about the Tiguex War in only twelve small pages of his eyewitness account, and he omitted or distorted much of what happened. Until recently, historians had dismissed 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.

Xauían deserves to become known, as does the war named for the old Tiguex Province around today’s Albuquerque in 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. And in contrast to Soto’s battles against several tribes, Coronado’s Tiguex War focused on just one—the Puebloans still known as the Tiwas.

Coronado, Castañeda, and other Spaniards never referred to Xauían by his Tiwa name. Instead, oddly, they called him Juan Alemán, because he was said to resemble a German well known in Mexico City (alemán is Spanish for German). Spanish attempts to ignore this native leader’s real name were inadvertently thwarted by Xauían’s archenemy and Coronado’s maestre de campo (field master), García López de Cárdenas. Awaiting trial in Spain for war crimes he committed at Tiguex, Cárdenas was deposed in his jail cell and stated, “An Indian named Xauían, who knew this witness…asked this witness to approach and embrace and seal their peace.” Castañeda and Spanish historians had always identified the Tiwa in that incident only 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 war chief and Kachina religion priest of Ghufoor, the Tiwa village that Spaniards converged on two months after attacks against Zunis and Hopis farther to the west. Ghufoor’s two-story adobe walls had been erected on the west bank of the Rio Grande in present-day New Mexico. It 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 Puebloans called Spaniards the metal people for their weapons and armor. Xauían hoped to avoid a confrontation with the hundreds of pale-skinned, bearded men—and the estimated 2,000 Mexican Indian allies with them. With only fifty or so warriors in a typical village, the Tiwas of a dozen villages at first welcomed the strangers with food and gifts.

But as the winter of 1540-41 descended on the river valley with snow and frigid temperatures, Cárdenas’s advance party decided to commandeer Ghufoor as shelter before Coronado’s arrival with the rest of the expedition.

Cárdenas demanded the Tiwas vacate Ghufoor. When Xauían refused on behalf of the village, the expeditionaries attacked Ghufoor, despite Spanish claims the Tiwas left willingly. The 1934 discovery of a Tiwa warrior’s skeleton buried at Ghufoor with a crossbow point inside the rib cage became one of America’s earliest identified victims of European warfare.  Archaeological discoveries of crushed copper crossbow points and arquebus balls were further proof of a battle.

Xauían’s attempt to defend Ghufoor against overwhelming odds must have been impressive for two reasons: (1) The Spaniards never wanted to talk about it afterward; and (2) although Tiwa villages were autonomous with their own war chiefs, all decided to rally behind Xauían’s leadership in resisting the invaders.

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, trying to smooth the relationship between the metal people and the Tiwas. Negotiations ended, however, when Coronado demanded that Xauían order the Tiwa villages to turn over 300 blankets to expeditionaries because of the cold. Knowing the villagers had little clothing to spare, Xauían turned uncooperative.

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 (Alemán) was to furnish him 300 pieces of clothing or more. This he had need of to give to his people. [Alemán] 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 responded in typical conquistador fashion—they went as armed scavengers and took what they wanted from each village, often stripping blankets and bison robes off the backs of Tiwas they encountered, even elders and women. The pivotal moment came when an expeditionary raped a Tiwa woman at the place the Spaniards called Arenal, a Spanish word meaning “sandy ground.”

Cárdenas’s refusal to believe the Indian accuser, sending him away “without any satisfaction,” motivated the revolt. Already made desperate by expeditionaries taking their food and clothing in the middle of December, the Tiwas retaliated for the rape. They stole about forty of the expedition’s horses and mules and killed them. Coronado ordered retribution of “fire and blood”—a Spanish term for total war with no quarter given. The Tiguex War had begun.

Cárdenas led the attack against Arenal. More than a hundred Tiwa warriors had stayed to defend Arenal, thereby diverting expeditionaries from the pursuit of women, children, and elders whom Xauían had sent to the safety of nearby mountains. This mountain sanctuary group, with a cadre of warriors, would have a decisive role the next year.  Xauían also took several warriors and some family members to two Tiwa strongholds atop mesas to the north. The expeditionaries would not find them until later.

Arenal’s defenders never had a chance. Overpowered by greater numbers of Mexican Indian allies reinforcing Spaniards who used horses and far more devastating weapons of lances, swords, crossbows, and arquebus muskets, scores of Tiwas surrendered on the second day. Once the captives were disarmed, Cárdenas burned at least thirty of them alive at the stake, almost certainly under Coronado’s orders. The rest, gathered in a tent, were killed with lance and sword thrusts.

Castañeda seemed appalled by the killing of all 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.”

For that atrocity and others, Coronado would be charged but acquitted of war crimes by friendly judges in Mexico City two years later. Cárdenas would be convicted of the same charges in a less sympathetic court in Spain.

The stake burnings and slaughter were meant to terrorize remaining Tiwas, but Arenal’s fate strengthened their resolve. There would never be another Tiwa surrender.

In early January 1541, Coronado’s forces found Xauían’s stronghold. The Tiwa name is unknown, but Spaniards called it Moho, a word which meant lichen- or moss-covered rocks in sixteenth-century Spanish, referring to the common appearance of rocks on windswept mesa summits.

When Cárdenas arrived with cavalry, he read the requerimiento to Xauían and others lining the tops of Moho’s walls. Spaniards used the 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. It 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.”

After the ultimatum, Xauían emerged from a small entrance. Moho’s defenders knew how Cárdenas had butchered everyone at Arenal, and Xauían had crafted a bold plan for revenge. He invited Cárdenas to dismount and come forward without his weapons so they could talk. When the hated 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 the attack against Moho and the other nearby stronghold, mustering a thousand or more Europeans and Mexican Indian allies. Expecting an easy victory, he was shocked to see the first attack fail, like a wave crashing against a cliff. Although it looked as if it were built with mud-adobe walls, Moho had been fortified with a palisade of logs impervious to battering rams or fire. 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 enfilading fire and rocks thrown down from towers. Several Spaniards and Mexican Indian allies were killed in the first attack, and about a hundred were wounded.

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 decided the siege. Out of water, Xauían led a night-time escape attempt in late March 1541. The women were protected between lines of men. Hearing sounds, footmen with swords and horse-mounted lancers charged into the darkness. 

Xauían was killed trying to lead his people to safety, as were most of the men. The Spaniards enslaved the surviving women and children.

A Spanish historian noted, “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. As he’d planned, he’d tied down the expedition for nearly three months, preventing Coronado from attacking the rest of the Tiwa nation during its most vulnerable period in the mountains.

The following winter, after Coronado returned empty-handed from his search for riches across the Great Plains, that mountain remnant of Tiwas would wage hit-and-run guerilla 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 the Tiwas’ defiance, the Keres, Towa, and Tewa pueblos upriver that had remained neutral during the Tiguex War refused food and clothing to an expedition weakened by a second harsh winter and guerilla 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 back to Mexico.

Because of Xauían and determined Tiwa fighting spirit, the largest Spanish invasion of native land in what is now the United States failed. The Spaniards would not return in force to pueblo country for nearly half a century.


Dennis Herrick is author of the historical novel Winter of the Metal People: The untold story of America’s first Indian war. The novel presents a Puebloan view of the Coronado expedition and Tiguex War, featuring the historical figure of Xauían. Herrick is a former newspaper journalist and a member of the emeritus faculty at the Univerity of New Mexico.