Battle of Acoma

January 22nd, 1599

~ The Vincente de Zaldivar affair.

Note:  This is the text of a “Standard of California” publication – no copyright, circa 1950.  The subject of the material is Acoma, The Sky City.  This material is posted under the date associated with the greatest calamity of the communities (estimated) 1,000 year history.  The text represents a point of view and a version of history favorable to both the Spanish descendants and to those that are inclined to demean and stereotype the various peoples known as the American Indian.  There are other histories and other versions of the events in and of Acoma, including of course, the narrative of the ‘Akomi’ themselves who still inhabit and live upon and at and near this special place.

This material is presented in the spirit of educational purposes.  In that spirit there is a presentation of questions at the end of the text.  By answering or researching on the web it is hoped that one may more fully appreciate the complexity of history and how different things were or seemed to be a half century or more ago.

Facts about Acoma, The Sky City

ONE of the oldest continuously occupied villages in the United States, Acoma is in west central New Mexico about 65 miles from Albuquerque.  The fortress-like village is located on Acoma Rock, a high, broad, and flat table-land whose sides all around are perpendicular cliffs.  Covering 70 acres, it is about 375 feet above the surrounding plain.  From a distance the buildings appear to be part of the natural cliff and are not readily distinguishable as habitations.  The outer walls of the dwellings blend naturally with the Mesa itself.

Through the Ages

Acoma pueblo (village) is much the same today as it was when it was discovered by Captain Hernando de Alvarado of Coronado’s Army in 1540.  He called it Acuro.  The Acoma Indians called their own people Akomi, which has been translated as “People of the White Rock.”  It was appropriately called “the Sky City” by Charles F. Lummis, author of several popular works about New Mexico.

In 1598 the pueblo voluntarily submitted to the authority of the Spanish Crown represented by Don Juan de Onate.  The Indians had planned to trick him but Onate refused to be lured into a room by the Chief, escaping the fate of Don Juan de Zaldivar, who, with a detachment of 18 men, was attacked without warning on December 4, 1598.  All soldiers were killed but four who leaped off the high cliff, miraculously escaping death.

To punish Acoma, Onate sent Vincente de Zaldivar, brother of the murdered Juan, with a picked force to recapture the pueblo.  The battle began January 22, 1599 and raged until January 24 when the Spaniards gained the mesa top and were victorious.  Most of the Indians were killed, and the pueblo was badly damaged and burned.

The First Church

In 1629 Father Fray Juan Ramirez established the first church at Acoma.  Father Ramirez, according to legend, was attempting the ascent of their stronghold when he was suddenly pelted by rocks and arrows sufficient to kill several men, but not one pierced his body.  At the same time, in the confusion at the top, the Indians accidentally pushed off a girl who fell 60 feet to the pointed rocks below.  Father Ramirez prayed at her side and carried her unharmed to her astounded relatives and neighbors.  The Acoma Indians then received the good Franciscan as one more than human and soon became his followers.

It is believed that the San Esteban Rey Mission was the church established by Father Ramirez in 1629, with additions made after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680.  The present church, which was remodeled in 1699 and repaired in 1923 by the Museum of New Mexico, is today one of the finest of all the old pueblo missions.

Foot Trails

Ascending to the Acoma pueblo are well-defined foot trails, still used by the Indians today.  Believed to be the oldest trail, existing before 1629, is the trail on the north-western side.  This trail was known as “Camino Del Padre” after the famous ascent of Father Ramirez.  It is a combination of ladder, toe- and finger-holes cut in the solid rock and worn deep through the ages.  The principal trail today used by visitors is one to the right of the Ladder Trail, which leads over a wind-deposited sand elevation to a short ascent by stone steps.


The structures are built in the usual pueblo style and cover several acres.  Many consist of three stories.  The first story is about 15 feet high.  Originally, this first story was used for a storage room with no openings except a trap door at the top.  The second story is reached by ladder and the third story by steep, narrow outside steps.  Division walls completely separate each family.

Natural Reservoirs

On the northern side of the mesa, Acoma has two natural reservoirs – depressions in the rock which catch and hold the rain water – one of which is shown in our picture.  From these reservoirs the women carry all the water needed for every purpose in three- to five-gallon containers.  Occasionally the reservoirs are scrubbed out after which the rain fills them afresh.

The Enchanted Mesa

About 3 miles from Acoma, the Enchanted Mesa is called by the Indians, Katzimo.  Believed to have been the home of the Acoma ancestors, it is a sandstone mesa about 430 feet high whose sides are also perpendicular.  According to legend the tortuous trail to the top was closed by a storm which resulted in death by starvation for the people caught on the summit.  The Indians tending their fields below were unable to regain the mesa top and were forced to turn elsewhere for a new home.

El Morro National Monument

Established in 1906 to preserve Inscription Rock, a camping place on the old Acoma-Zuni trail.  It comprises a tract of about 240 acres.  The rock itself covers about 12 acres.  On this rock are historical dates carved by the Spaniards and others.  The earliest legible date is 1605, which was inscribed by the first colonizer of New Mexico, Governor Onate.  It is believed that Coronado passed this point 65 years before Governor Onate but no record of inscription has been found.  A brief record is found carved on the rock by General Don Diego de Vargas, who reconquered the Pueblos after the rebellion of 1680.  The rock contains more than 500 deciphered inscriptions and names.

Two pueblos on the top of Inscription Rock are said to be the remains of an early Zuni habitation.

Questions for thought and study:

1.  Is Acoma really best thought of as a “fortress”?  Was the city located on the top of a mesa for defense, or are other considerations perhaps more important?  What might those other considerations be?

2.  Compare Acoma to other “high place” “fortress” locations like Mount Moriah in Jerusalem where Solomon built his temple and where the Dome of the Rock is located.  How many churches are built on low “mountain tops”?  How often does one find the religious structures of other religions located upon high places?

3.  What were the first religious structures at Acoma called?  What did the Spaniards do to these structures?  Are there any Kivas that still survive at Acoma?  Was the San Esteban Rey Mission “church” built over a Kiva in an effort to symbolically overpower the religion of the Akomi?

4.  Why was it “appropriate” that Lummis called the Acoma site a city, much less “Sky City” when the real description was “white rock”?

5.  Did Coronado really discover Acoma or did thousands if not millions of people on the planet already know that the place existed, even if Coronado was not that knowledgeable?  What was the military rank of Coronado?  Did Coronado attack or destroy any Indian villages during his military invasion of this “Indian” homeland?

6.  What event caused the Spanish Crown to order the conversion of Indians rather than to allow and promote their use as slaves?  Did the Spanish buy and sell Indians as slaves in New Mexico?  When did the practice of people being sold as a chattel of the land end in New Mexico?

7.  What is the Akomi version of the “trickster” legend?  Was the room mentioned, a Kiva?  Who really started the murders that day at the top of the white rock?

8.  This account of the “Battle of Acoma” suggests that most of the Indians were killed.  Why does it not mention that Onate ordered the feet be cut off of the Indians?  Were surviving Indian children kidnapped from their parents and sent away to be Catholic slaves for service in Mexico City?  Does this type of information change how you might view Coronado and Onate?

9.  What is the best way for the wounds of history to be healed?  Should Spain or the Spanish descendants admit their wrongs and apologize to the Akomi people?  Should the Akomi people be grateful for the honor of being introduced to the Catholic faith, even if the cost was violence, occupation, and bloodshed?

10.  Is the Catholic religion best served when it is spread with the power of the sword like it is said the Islam religion was spread?

11.  Do you think that one of the problems that Onate had with Acoma was that Acoma was a fundamentally matriarchal society?

12.  The events described occurred over four hundred years ago.  Is it possible that blown sand once built up against the cliffs so that the distances of falls and walls were much different then than now?  How high did the sand once grow against the Sphinx and other places in Egypt?  Are there cities buried beneath the sand in northern Africa?

13.  Do you believe in all the “miracles” at Acoma, or do you believe that far too often the Catholic account of things is overburdened with a continuous claim of the miraculous with little regard to science or other facts?

14.  Have you been to Acoma?  How has Acoma changed from the description written here?  Do you believe that pick-up trucks, big screen TV’s, gasoline driven electric generators, plastic sani-huts, and Indian Casinos are the best way to preserve and promote an important world cultural site?  If not, why do you think you have the right to criticize?

15.  Do you find thinking about things useful?

[1599.01.22 / day – Battle of Acoma]