In April 1602, Vicente de Zaldívar, a nephew of Juan de Oñate and one of his principal officers, appeared before the authorities in Mexico City to plead for the New Mexico campaign. The colonization effort of this part of the northern frontier of New Spain found itself in dire straits as many of the colonists, disillusioned with the state of affairs, had abandoned the fledgling capital of San Gabriel2 while Oñate and company were exploring the land of Quivira from June to November 1601 (see below). Although Zaldívar was sent to apprehend the traitors before they reached the safety of New Spain, he was unsuccessful and was thus sent to Mexico City to do damage control. He had to defend Oñate’s actions against the accusation of the deserters and, at the same time, petition for more troops in order to more successfully control and explore the territory.
The Probanza de méritos was assembled as part of the bureaucratic process to prove the worthiness of the enterprise and of its principal players. The text can be divided into four parts, each containing a separate interrogatory with witness responses regarding the services and merits of Vicente de Zaldívar in the posts he occupied. Part 3 represents witness responses to a series of twelve questions posed by Zaldívar relating mainly to his services as maestre de campo, or second in command under Oñate.3 A significant number of the questions of Part 3 (Questions 6–10) deal with the journey to Quivira.4 It would therefore be beneficial to outline the principal events of the expedition.5
Oñate learned of Quivira from Jusepe, a Mexican Indian and survivor of the Leyva-Humaña expedition of 1593 who presented himself in the then-capital of San Juan sometime before February 1599. More than two years elapsed before Oñate and his men finally departed for Quivira. [End Page 295] In the intervening time, the Spaniards had more local troubles to deal with in the form of Indian unrest and uprisings—there was serious fighting with the Acomans in late 1598 and early 1599 and conflicts with the Jumanos of Abó in late 1600 and early 1601.6 The colonists certainly must have felt uncomfortable with the idea of a prolonged absence of a significant contingent of the colony, as would occur on an expedition. The battles with the native groups underscored the need for reinforcements for the New Mexico enterprise. These finally arrived on Christmas Eve 1600. If not the colony as a whole, Oñate, at least, felt that the time was right for the much-anticipated trip to Quivira.
Oñate and his party embarked on the journey on June 23, 1601. They traveled more than 200 leagues in a northeasterly direction to what is present-day Kansas, south of Wichita. Before reaching the great settlement (gran población) of Quivira, the Spaniards came upon a nomadic group living in rancherías, or tepee camps, whom they named the Escanxaques. The Escanxaques were enemies of the Quivirans and accompanied Oñate on what remained of the journey to the first settled community of the latter group.7 Having been told that the Oñate party was investigating the fate of the Leyva-Humaña camp, the Escanxaques believed that the Spaniards were seeking revenge on the Quivirans and were hoping to capitalize on the ensuing conflict.
Spaniards, Escanxaques, and Quivirans came into contact on the outskirts of the first Quiviran settlement. At first the encounter was peaceful, but Oñate, informed by the Escanxaques that the Quivirans had killed members of the Leyva-Humaña expedition and were holding one member captive, proceeded to take hostages to serve as guides, among them the apparent chieftain of the Quiviran village. When the Spaniards and their escorts finally arrived in the first settlement, they found that it had been abandoned. The inhabitants had ostensibly been warned of the Spaniards’ approach and had fled to safety, perhaps with the...