A Church Growth Study of the Zuni IndiansRalph Bruce Terry
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Chapter 3




This chapter contains a summary of the history of the different Christian missions among the Zuni Indians in order to provide the data for the analysis in Chapter 4. The information in this chapter comes from library research, personal conversation, and mission records research. First the history of the Catholic endeavors up until about 1870 is presented. Then the works by the different Protestant groups, especially the Christian Reformed Church, and by the Catholics after 1870 are presented.


In 1539 Fray Marcos de Niza pushed northward from Mexico with his Negro slave and guide, Estevan. Niza sent Estevan ahead to find a trail that would lead to wealth and then to wait up for him. Estevan heard rumors and pushed on toward the cities of Cibola. Niza followed his trail. When Estevan reached the southernmost city, Hawikuh, the Zunis who were living there killed him. Whether Niza ever reached the land of Cibola and gated upon Hawikuh in the distant sunset is not known, for although this was the report he brought back, he also spoke of Cibola as having "Seven Cities of Gold." This caused no small stir in Mexico, and Coronado lead an expedition to Cibola. On July 7, 1540 Coronado's troops engaged the Zunis in Hawikuh and defeated them. The Zunis fled to Towa Yalanne and the Spaniards greedily collected their loot of food. There was no gold to be found.1

Coronado reported that there were seven villages of the Zunis at the time; however, as shown in Figure 5, only six of the villages have been identified Hawikuh, Kechibawan, Halona, Kwakina, K'yakima, and Matsaki. Probably Hawikuh and Matsaki were the largest. The population at that time was three thousand to thirty-five hundred.2

When Antonio de Espejo visited Cibola in 1583, he left Father Bernardino Beltran in Hawikuh for a few days, but the first real mission effort among the Zunis did not come until 1629. When Governor Silva Nieto visited Cibola in July of that year, he left three Franciscan friars and three soldiers behind. The friars were Father Fray Roque de Figueredo, Fray Agustin de Cuellar, priest, and Fray Francisco de la Madre de Dios, lay religious. Within a week or so he had to return to Hawikuh to quiet a small stir. Apparently Cuellar worked with the Zunis at Halona. Although Figueredo was well qualified for working with Indians, having preached many years in the Mexican (Aztec) tongue, he had trouble at first with the Zunis at Hawikuh. One night, however, two caciques (from Matsaki and K'yakima) dressed as warriors came to him; instead of killing him as he thought they would, they tried to get him to come to their village. When he would not, they persuaded the leaders of Hawikuh to apologize and say that the whole village wanted to be baptized. On August 28, 1629, after a week or two of instruction, he baptized the two caciques, several leaders of Hawiku, and eight infants. When the village saw that they did not die, the whole village wanted to be baptized.3 Figueredo and his two co-workers learned the Zuni language "in a short time," and at once taught the boys and the best voices organ chants which enhanced the ceremonies greatly. Churches were built in Hawikuh and Halona and perhaps at Kechibawan; however, "after they had converted almost all the people, the native priests again caused them to revolt."4

Fig. 5 The Land of Cibola in the Sixteenth Century - Click to enlarge.

In February 1632, the three friars were joined by Fray Francisco Letrado. On Sunday, February 22, 1632 at Hawikuh, the Zunis apparently delayed in attending mass. Francisco, probably of a fiery and zealous nature, became impatient and went out to urge them to attend mass. He met some idolaters and began to chide them. It became apparent at once that they were going to kill him, so he knelt down, and while holding a small crucifix in his hands, he continued the remonstrance. The Indians shot and killed him with arrows and scalped the body. Five days later Fray Martin de Arvide, who had just passed through Zuni on his way to the Zipia (Hopi?) nation, was overtaken by five Zunis who killed his escort and tortured him. He was killed by one of the Indians in his party. Apparently the three friars left sometime immediately afterwards. The Zunis fled to the safety of Towa Yalanne and remained there until 1635.5

No further mission work was attempted among the Zunis until 1642 and little is known of this. In the period from 1663 to 1666 one friar priest served Halona, plus Matsaki, Hawikuh, and Kechibawan.6 In speaking of the Indian Missions in the 1660's, Hodge says the following:

So long as the missions could make a strong appeal to the Indians by furnishing food in time of disaster, the Indians maintained a certain loyalty to the Church, but now, with food scarce, the missions could no longer make the same appeal.7

On October 7, 1672,8 Fray Pedro de Avila y Ayala was stationed at the mission in Hawikuh. Suddenly a band of Apaches9 swept down on the village, and dragging the friar out of the church, they beat his head in with the mission bell. The mission named "La Concepcion" was burned. Fray Juan do Galdo took the body to his mission at Halona to bury it.10

In 1680 a rebellion swept across New Mexico, and the Indians drove the Spanish out. The Zunis did their part, killing Fray Juan de Bal at Halona and burning the church there. Whether the church at Hawikuh had been reestablished is not known for sure, but there is evidence that it had been and that during the rebellion the church was again burned and the priest either escaped or else joined the Zuni tribe. The Zunis fled to Towa Yalanne. When Diego de Vargas passed through on his mission of reconquest, he found the Zunis still on the top of the mesa and made peace with them. They had preserved the sacred furnishings of the Halona church and they presented them to Vargas. Only the written church-records were missing. They descended from the mountain and established the present pueblo of Zuni, on the north side of the river where Halona had been. They consented to have three hundred of their children baptized.11

In 1699 a new mission was begun. Padre Juan Garaicochea was priest there from 1700 to 1703. In 1703 the Zunis killed three Spanish soldiers who had been mistreating the people. They fled to Towa Yalanne and Garaicochea was recalled to Santa Fe. In 1705 he returned and persuaded the Zunis to descend from the mesa and finish building the mission. Most of the Zunis had embraced the Catholic faith by the next year, or at least the Hopis regarded them as Christians when they attacked them for that reason. In 1707 Fray Francisco de Irazabal became the Zuni missionary.12

The eighteenth century was marked by an irregular work by the missionaries at the Zuni mission. In the latter half of the century, Apache and Navaho raids increased while the missionary work decreased. Some of the missionaries stationed at Zuni included Padre Juan Jose Toledo (1744-1748), Fray Silvestre Velez de Escalant and Fray Mariano Rosete (1774-1778), Fray Andres Garcia (1779-1780), Fray Rafael Benavides and Fray Manuel Vega (1788), and Fray Daniel Martinez (before 1792). In 1821 the Franciscans withdrew from Zuni because of the Indian raids and because of Mexican Independence.13

In 1846 Colonel Doniphan's expedition resulted in a peace treaty between the Zunis and the Navahos, which stopped the Navaho raids. In 1848 New Mexico became part of the United States. There were occasional Catholic visits to Zuni, such as the one in 1863 by Bishop Lamy.14

Forrest sums up well the results of the Spanish Catholic missions:

The Zunis never took kindly to the white man's religion, and, with the exception of the Hopis, they were regarded by the Spaniards as the most warlike and difficult of all the Pueblo tribes to convert to Christianity.

Of all the Pueblo Indians in Now Mexico this tribe has been affected the least by Christian influence . . . 15

1Earle R. Forrest, Missions and Pueblos of the Old Southwest (Cleveland: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1929), pp. 161-172; and Frederick Webb Hodge, History of Hawikuh New Mexico (Los Angeles: The Southwest Museum, 1937), pp. 6-40. [return]

2Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1962), p. 187; and Hodge, op. cit., p. 61. [return]

3Hodge, op. cit., pp. 82, 83, citing Estevan de Perea, Segunda Relacion ([n.p.]: [n.n.], 1633). [return]

4Hodge, op. cit., p. 89, citing Alonso Benavides, Memorial, 1630, trans. Mrs. Edward E. Ayer (Chicago: [n.n.], 1916). [return]

5Hodge, op. cit., pp. 90-94; and Forrest, op. cit., pp. 173-174. [return]

6Hodge, op. cit., pp. 95, 969 [return]

7 Ibid., p. 98. [return]

8Some sources say 1670. [return]

9Perhaps Navahos. [return]

10Hodge, op, cit., pp. 99, 100; and Forrest, loc. cit. [return]

11Hodge, op. cit., pp. 100-106; Forrest, op. cit., pp. 174-184; and Matilda Cox Stevenson, "The Zuni Indians: Their Mythology, Esoteric Societies and Ceremonies," Twenty-third Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology 1901-1902 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904), pp. 283-286. [return]

12Forrest, loc. cit.; Stevenson, loc. cit.; and Spicer, op. cit, , p pe 187, 188. [return]

13Stevenson, loc. cit.; Spicer, loc. cit.; and Dorothea C. Leighton and John Adair, People of the Middle Places A Study of the Zuni Indians (New Haven, Connecticut: Human Relations Area Files, 1963), p. 27. [return]

14Spicer, op. cit., p. 198; and Leighton and Adair, op. cit., P. 28. [return]

15Forrest, op. cit., p. 184. [return]

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