The Spanish and the Navajo

History of the Spanish and the Navajo

The first account in history of the Spaniards arrival in the Southwest dates back to 1540 when Coronado and his expedition came in search of gold and riches. Unsuccessful, they returned to Spain empty handed.


The Spaniards succeeding visit to the Southwest had other intentions. They wanted to resettle, indoctrinate and civilize the Indians by converting them to Catholicism. Through their efforts they wanted to teach the Indians a better way of life.

The Spaniards did, indeed, meet one objective. They took the best farm lands and resettled in Indian territory. Their second objective failed. Although Missions were established and Indians did attend services, they were not converted to Catholicism. The third objective was met to an extent. The Indians absorbed the Spanish culture and. used it to their,advantage, but they did not let the Spaniards influence their beliefs and philosophy of life.

Spanish and the Navajo

When the Spaniards arrived in the Southwest, they brought with them domestic animals such as cows, horses, and sheep. They also brought with them guns and tools, which were all new to the Indians.

The presence and depredations of the Spaniards were to totally change the world of the Navajos. Within ten years after the arrival of the Spanish colonists in 1598 the Navajos had obtained sheep, cattle and horses from pueblo Indians who escaped from the Spaniards, taking the cattle, horses and sheep they were tending with them, and sought refuge among the Navajos.

The first impression the Indian had of the Spaniards was ‘that they were Gods.
Later, their impression changed dramatically when the Spaniards settled on their best farm lands and left their families homeless, and used Indians as slaves and servants. Those who served as slaves learned many of the Spani~h ways.
They learned how to build’ adobe homes using molds . They learned to grind wheat to make bread, as well as how to ride horses and care for domestic animals. At the same time the Spaniards learned from the Indians. They were introduced to foods made from corn and corn meal.

This went on for many years and the Indians grew weary. They resented the Spanish invaders. They wanted them out of their territory. They no longer wanted any part of them. So in 1680, all the Indian tribes acted together to drive the Spaniards out; and this they did.

After 1700 the Spanish found the Navajo to be an ever growing scourge because of their raids and alliances. The tribe always managed to be at peace with some tribes, while it fought and raided others. They feared only the Utes, who had learned war in the Plains area. Once the Plains tribes acquired the horse, they developed Indian warfare into an art. The annual efforts of the Spanish to break up alliances and outwit the Navajo are reported in the letters of the Spanish governor de Anza, 1777-87. (Thomas, 1932). These efforts were fruitlessly continued until, in 1846, the United States relieved the Spanish of the Southwest and their Navajo problem.

By the end of the 1700’s the Navajos had drifted farther west into the Canyon de Chelly area. New settlements were established. By 1776, the region lying between the Rio Grande Pueblos and the Hopi village was known to the Spaniards as “Providence of the Navajos” and a new way of life for the Navajos began.

By this time, the Navajos had acquired thousands of sheep and horses they were more mobile and they could farm to a greater extent and their tribe was growing in number.

In 1800, Antonio Pinto died. He was a Navajo leader who was Instrumental to some extent in keeping the peace between the Spaniards and Navajo. After his death the Navajos relied heavily on raiding the villages of New Mexico for sheep and horses. The Spaniards raided for the purpose of acquiring captives as laborers and household, servants, and by this time hundreds of Navajo women and children were living in Spanish homes as servants.

Hostilities grew deeper and deeper and the Navajos rebelled by not only raiding the Spanish settlements, but other Indian tribe settlements as well. The other Indian tribes appealed to the Spaniards for help and in 1818 a treaty was signed by one band of Navajos·whom the Spaniards had defeated once before.

The Treaty failed because once again there was no one leader for all the Navajo clans. Raiding continued for several more years. The Navajo way of life was greatly influenced by the Spaniards during this period.

Navajos remained free from all military, political, and ecclesiastical control. They continued to acquire items of Spanish material culture through their systematic harassment of the settled Spanish and Pueblo villages but their social and political organization remained unchanged.

More about Navajo History:


First Contact with the Navajo – 1540

In 1493, the year after the discovery of the New World, Pope Alexander VI issued his famous Bull of Demarcation, in which Spanish explorers be gave to Spain all the undiscovered country of the Southwest lying beyond an imaginary line one hundred miles west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. Upon this Spain based her claims to the New World.

Coronado Expedition Map

Coronado Expedition Map

Not until 1513 did European explorers venture into the interior of North America. Previous to this time they had merely touched upon the shores of the great western continent. The great beyond appeared to them dark, void, and impenetrable. Balboa in that year crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and six years later Cortez landed on the east coast of Mexico.
Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, Spanish Explorer, leads an expedition of soldiers from Mexico into the American southwest in search of gold. They arrive and discover the Hopis during the summer of 1540, where Navajos were already in the Hopi province.

Francisco Coronado

Francisco Coronado

The first recorded contact between Navajos and the Spanish invaders came in 1583 in the area of Dinetah.

An expedition led by Antonio de Espejo refers to the Querechos Indians near Mt. Taylor. The Spanish also at times referred to Navajos as “Apaches de Navajo,” leading to some confusion for future historians.

During this time and up to the recent past, Navajos were referred to as Apaches. At the time of the conquest, the word “Apache”, from the Zuñi “apachú” (enemy), their appellation for the Navajo, was used by the Spaniards to denote any hostile Indians.
Then the Spaniards named the Apache bands according to their traits or locale:

Mescalero, for the mescale gatherers, several tribes for the closest mountain,

“Apache de Jicarilla” for their baskets,

and the “Apache de Navaju” which they borrowed from the Tewa word – “Navaju” meaning “the arroyo with the cultivated fields.

The Navajo name for Spaniard is Nakai, meaning “those who wander around,” referring to the various expeditions that frequently came into Navajo country.
That the Navajos consider themselves the aristocrats of the southwest they tactily admit by calling themselves “Diné,” the People.

A Native American (Navajo) Family

A Native American (Navajo) Family

They are of Athapascan stock, and ethnologists are generally agreed that they came from the north, drifting into the area they now occupy less than a thousand years ago. In earliest historical times they were found wandering over what is now western New Mexico, eastern Arizona, and southern Utah and Colorado. Their present reservation, while much smaller than their original range, is in the same region.

Navajo legends in general bear out the supposition that they came from the north, except one very picturesque one which tells that the People came from the south, bringing their four sacred plants: tobacco, corn, squash, and beans.

Navajo Camp

Navajo Camp

They occupied all the country, but, finding the Pueblo people better fitted for agriculture, they generously gave them the valley lands and kept the high grassy uplands for themselves.

This legend has the great advantage of justifying the Navajo habit of appropriating the crops raised by the Pueblo people.

The Navajo also appropriated women when it suited him to do so, with the result that his race is probably a compound of all the southwestern Indian stocks, with accretions of Spanish blood, whatever racial amalgam the Spaniards had acquired in Mexico, and later additions from the American Army and American traders. What was most vigorous, most alluring, most enduring of all races the Navajo has apparently taken and made his own.

History of the Navajo

Ancient Navajo and Native Americans Migrations
First Contact with the Navajo – 1540
The Americans and the Navajo
The Mexicans and the Navajo
The Spanish and the Navajo
Navajo Long Walk to Bosque Redondo
Antonio el Pinto Chief of the Navajos