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A Biography of America

New World Encounters

American history moves from west to east, beginning with Ice Age migrations, through the corn civilizations of Middle America, to the explorations of Columbus, de Soto, and other Spaniards.

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Program 1: New World Encounters/The Beginnings of America

Donald L. Miller with Stephen Ambrose, Virginia Scharff, Waldo E. Martin, Jr., Pauline Maier, Louis P. Masur, and Douglas Brinkley


[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: People sometimes ask me, as an historian, “What is history for? What is its function?” Particularly, since it’s what I call a crippled discipline, a discipline that can’t get at the truth. We’ll never have a complete and clear record of the human past, and we can’t get into the minds of our historical characters. We can’t resurrect them from the grave and put them on the Freudian couch and psychoanalyze them. Even if they leave a memoir, those memoirs are liable to be slanted and faulted. And their story itself is a brainwasher, in a sense. And he or she has his or her own point of view and perspective.
Yet, given all these limitations, I would argue that history is utterly essential, essential to making us human. It separates us from the animals. How is that?
Human beings interact with their environment. And out of that interaction comes a culture. And what history is, is our memory, our collective memory of that culture. It puts us in touch with our past. By putting us in touch with our past, our past ceaselessly influences us and even haunts us.

MillerA Biography of America is a series of 26 programs that tell the American story through narrative lecture, discussion and debate.

Ambrose: It didn’t happen because it is inconceivable.

Miller: A team of historians came together to think through and shape the series.


[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: I’d like to start out talking a little bit about what’s distinctive about what we’re trying to do as a biography of America. What does that mean?

Scharff: There won’t be a grab bag of everything; it can’t be–

Miller: In fashioning this series, we went out and tried to get the best historians we could.

Martin: For telling details, both particular–

Miller: We picked people who are great storytellers, scholars–

Maier: To understand what’s distinctive about the past is implicitly to know what’s distinctive about the present.

[Photo: Pauline Maier]

Miller: Pauline Maier, for example, is our revolutionary historian. And she’s absolutely at the top of her game. She’s a brilliant historian, and she brings to life the whole period of the American Revolution and the constitutional period.

Maier: But, it’s the distinction of the past, I think, that makes this story interesting.

Masur: This biography of America is not pretending that biography is any more neutral and objective and detached than anything else. I mean, we’re making choices, we’re making selections.

[Photo: Lou Masur]

Miller: We have Lou Masur who’s an intellectual historian, but also does social history. And Lou has a wonderful feel for the 19th century, and he’s done some brilliant lectures, I think, for us, on the Reform Period during the Jacksonian era.

Masur: As Emerson said, “History rightly understood is biography.” And so it really comes down also to our definition of history.

Martin: My students are always enraptured with the notion of success. But, failures are often far more interesting and far more revealing.

[Photo: Waldo Martin]

Miller: Waldo Martin explains, I think, cogently, clearly, the motivating causes for the Civil War. We bring Waldo back again, and he traces what happened to the south after the Civil War, and takes a look at it from a long-range perspective. We have Douglas Brinkley.

[Photo: Douglas Brinkley]

Brinkley: It seems to me to say we’re looking at the story of America in a narrative fashion that I kind of like about it because it goes chronologically, but also as best biographies do, talk about the life and times of America and kind of–

Miller: He has a special love for Theodore Roosevelt, and has done a real nice lecture for us on the Progressive Period, on Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, people he’s both, you know, acutely familiar with. Doug’s also done the Great Depression.

Brinkley: As Thomas Wolfe said, “there are a billion forms of America.” And just when you think you’re coming to some new realization, you realize, What do we really know about the Shoshones’ relationship to the Sioux.

Scharff: I really like stupid questions. And I had three stupid questions that I came to this project with. Where is America? Who counts as American? And what counts as American?

[Photo: Virginia Scharff]

Miller: Our western historian is Virginia Scharff. She’s been great. She pinch hits all over the place, and has helped us so much. She asks the big questions. She fills in the spaces for us. She’s done a terrific lecture on the American West.

Scharff: The first thing we have to know about history is that the people we’re talking about weren’t always dead. They weren’t always dead; they were alive. You know, a lot of them–

Miller: At any one point in time, we’re thinking of the past, the present and the future. You’re sitting here; you’re thinking about what you’re going to do next, what you’re doing now, and what you just did. And you’re always thinking like that. That’s historical thinking. It’s the best kind of thinking, where the present is informed by the past, and shaped by the past. A long time ago my grandfather told me, he was a Slovak immigrant, who had no education. He said, “Always remember, you are what you have been. Never forget that.” And it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten. That’s what history means to me.

Miller: Today, on A Biography of America, “New World Encounters.”

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New World Encounters

[Photo: Donald Miller]

Miller: We begin with that rarest of things: a world-transforming event. It’s two o’clock in the morning, October 12, 1492. Three Spanish ships have been at sea for 33 days. Christopher Columbus has gambled that by sailing west in the unknown Atlantic, he’ll reach Asia, opening a blue-water trade route to China, then the world’s greatest civilization.

Columbus is on the flagship Santa Maria when a lookout on the Pinta spots a white cliff in the moonlight–and shouts: “Tierra! Tierra!” That moment was the beginning of a new age of world history.

A knowledgeable person in 1492 knew the earth was round. But that person’s world had only three continents–Europe, Asia, and Africa–and they were located around the landlocked Mediterranean. Christopher Columbus changed that forever. Columbus went to his death convinced he’d landed somewhere in Asia, but others suspected he’d found what Shakespeare called “a brave new world.”

[Picture of Columbus Landing]

The Vikings had landed in North America more than 500 years before Columbus, but hadn’t followed up their discovery. Spain did, and its discovery set loose creative energies all over Europe. Columbus’s landfall in the Bahamas began one of the most momentous cultural encounters in history. It re-united two worlds–two peoples who’d lived apart for tens of thousands of years. And it created the modern Atlantic community.

Trade and enterprise expanded beyond all reckoning and even the world’s food would never be the same. In 1492, no one in Ireland had ever tasted a potato, and Italians ate pasta without tomato sauce. Nor had the Indians Columbus encountered ever tasted an onion, a peach, a pear, an orange, or a banana, or anything made with rice, wheat or sugar. And they’d never seen a horse, a cow, a pig, a goat, a chicken, or even a honeybee.

Europeans enriched this cultural exchange by taking back with them a host of plants, besides the tomato and the white potato. They took back squash and cocoa, beans and corn, avocados and pineapples, chili peppers and peanuts, as well as two non-food plants, tobacco and cotton, which would sustain wealthy and brutally exploitative slave systems in the New World.

Columbus’s voyages, as we’ll see, changed the global economy and ecosystems in other, and sometimes catastrophic, ways. But the point I want to make here is that the originator of what has been called the Columbian Exchange wasn’t the real discoverer of America. And that American history doesn’t begin in 1492.

Pre-Columbian Civilizations

It begins in the Ice Age, approximately 30,000 years ago. We may never know precisely when our history begins or who were the first peoples to set foot on the land we call America. But what we do know is that at least one group of original discoverers were Stone Age hunting bands from Asia. They migrated from Siberia to Alaska across a land bridge that appeared when massive sheets of ice captured the seawater of the Bering Strait, exposing the dry ocean floor. These early American immigrants were searching for game, and their search took them through corridors created by towering walls of blue ice.

Others may have entered the continent over the ice flows from the east in an almost unfathomable feat of endurance and navigational skill. Still, the continent was vast and unpopulated prior to the arrival of these people. So wherever they migrated, when they got there they were utterly alone. Then almost 10,000 years later the ice melted, the sea rose up again, the land bridge disappeared, and they were cut off from the rest of the planet.

For thousands of years, these Stone Age hunting bands lived nomadic lives. But about 9,000 years ago, people in the highlands of Central America began cultivating beans, squash and corn; and that changed everything. These first part-time farmers began, over a period of thousands of years, to live close to their fields, and they started making pottery to store their surplus. Village life was born; humans began to settle down; and corn became the foundation of a new, more complex civilization.

[Photo: Mesa Verde structures]

Two of the greatest of these corn-based civilizations grew up before Europe emerged from the Dark Ages. At Chaco Canyon, in northwestern New Mexico, the Anasazi Indians harnessed scarce water with earthen dams and irrigation systems to turn the desert floor into a garden of squash and corn. And the architects built magnificent multi-storied apartments and 400 miles of arrow-straight roads to surrounding communities. When Chaco Canyon was abandoned, some of its master builders migrated l00 miles north to Mesa Verde. There, in huge caves in the canyon walls, they built communal houses so fantastic that the place has been called “The Disneyland of American archeology.”

Today, these are both active archeological sites, but we may never know why the Anasazi left, first Chaco Canyon, and then Mesa Verde. When the Spaniards arrived, they were both empty places. About the time the Anasazi were shaping their desert culture, the Mississippian, or Mound Building people, were living in Cahokia, a sprawling urban cluster just across the Mississippi River from present-day St. Louis.

[Picture: Cahokia]The Pharaoh-like rulers of Cahokia lived atop colossal, human-made earthen mounds, one of them with a base larger than any Egyptian pyramid. By the 13th century, Cahokia had a population of perhaps 30,000 people and a trading network encompassing the entire Mississippi River basin. When the Spaniards moved into the Southeastern United States, they encountered what was left of Mississippian civilization. The lands occupied by these people, and, further west, the descendants of the Anasazi, were the areas of North America that Spain first penetrated. The invaders had decisive advantages over those they invaded.

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The Spanish Invasion

North American Indians still lived in the Stone Age and had only one four-legged domestic animal, the dog, while the Spanish conquistadors had armor, powerful steel swords, guns, and explosives. And they had the horse, which gave them tremendous mobility and terrified the Indians, who had never seen such a fearsome beast. They also had trained war dogs, greyhounds that could chew the face off a man.

[Picture: Indian sickroom]

But the Spaniards’ most powerful weapons were invisible killers they brought with them in the blood and breath — infectious diseases. Because they’d been isolated from the rest of the world, the Indians had no immunity to European diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, influenza, and cholera. Common childhood diseases like measles and mumps hit them with ferocious force. Smallpox alone could wipe out an entire tribe in one harrowing visitation — partly because it struck almost everyone at the same time, leaving no one to tend to the victims.

In 1520 there were approximately 25 million people in Mexico. Eighty years later there were about 1.3 million, largely because of European diseases. It is no wonder the invasion of North America has been called “the greatest demographic disaster in the history of the world.”

The Spanish had yet another advantage over the Indians: a set of beliefs ideally suited for conquest. In l492, Spain had just completed a seven century-long war to drive the Moors out of Iberia. This Catholic crusade nourished a warrior culture among the lesser nobility of Castile, and they carried it to the Americas, convinced they had a divine mandate to reduce the New World infidels into submission.

Christopher Columbus

[Picture: Christopher Columbus]

Christopher Columbus

Columbus also saw himself as an agent of God’s purpose. In his lust for gold — and in the name of his god — he enslaved and killed Indians all over the Caribbean. But Columbus was also a product of the Renaissance spirit, a medievalist with many modern instincts.

He was from Genoa, one of the founding cities of European capitalism and a center of oceanic trade and cartography. A city of the sea, it formed him and launched him as a merchant-mariner. Columbus had read Marco Polo, the beginning of his obsession with China, and he had corresponded with the great Florentine geographer, Paolo Toscanelli, to get verification for his theory that he could easily reach Asia by sailing westward.

Toscanelli confirmed Columbus’s notion that Japan was only 3,000 nautical miles west of the Canary Islands. The great geographer was off by l0,000 miles. But that spectacular error gave Columbus the confidence to set out for China and Japan. Luckily, two huge continents blocked his way, or he and his men would have died horribly on the open sea.

Columbus might have been a bad geographer but he was a crack mariner. In discovering America, he discovered, as well, the clockwise motion of the winds and currents that would take him and every smart sailor after him, to and from America.

Hernando de Soto

The renaissance writers and artists celebrated individual accomplishment, and Columbus’s first voyage was one of the great maritime feats of any age. The point here is that Columbus was too closely associated with new developments in trade and navigational science to place him with medieval-like knights of the Reconquista.

If you want the prototypical conquistador your man isn’t Columbus; it is Hernando de Soto. Soto, as he was known in his time, became the first European to penetrate far into the interior of North America. From l539 to 1543, his army of 600 men traveled 4,000 miles, twice the distance later covered by Lewis and Clark.

Soto was a toughened veteran of the Spanish conquest in Peru. He’d come to the Americas at the age of 14, the son of an impoverished squire, and returned to Spain a rich man and with a reputation for killing Indians for sport. He could have retired in splendor, but he wanted more — more gold, more glory. So he got a commission from the Crown to organize a voyage into unknown North America. His aim: to find another Inca-style empire. After landing on the west coast of Florida, he moved north, traveling in princely splendor. His retinue included a steward, two toastmasters, a butler, a pastry cook, two falconers, eight grooms, five musicians, two jugglers, and innumerable bearers and bodyguards.

He passed through 10 future states of the United States. He went up into the Carolinas, across the Appalachians, and down through parts of Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi, coming on the Mississippi River near Memphis. Then he pushed on into Arkansas, before turning back to the Mississippi when he couldn’t find rich civilizations to plunder. There, on the banks of the river, he came down with a fever and died. Freed from his obsession, his men dumped his body into the river, and made it back to Mexico on ships made of logs, the local Indians in hot pursuit.

[Picture: De Soto on a white stallion]

De Soto on a white stallion

There’s a splendid painting of de Soto by William Henry Powell in a panel in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Soto is on a white stallion, and he’s decked out in satin and glistening armor, as are his soldiers and lieutenants, as they ride toward the great river Soto has discovered. The near-naked Indians are in supplicating positions, in fear and awe of the conquering captain.

The painting is a beautiful lie. First of all, de Soto wasn’t the first European to discover the Mississippi. The mouth of the river was first sighted in l5l9 by another Spanish explorer, Alvarez de Piñeda. And when Soto and his army reached the Mississippi, they didn’t look anything like the way we see them in this painting. They were a starving band that had been decimated by sickness and Indian attacks. Soto had buried almost half of his men, and the walking wounded were carrying the mortally wounded in makeshift slings. A few men still wore European clothes, but most were dressed like Indians. And they saw the big river in front of them, not as some magnificent discovery, but as one more damned obstacle to surmount.

The fighting in the Southeast had been incredibly ferocious. Everywhere de Soto went he demanded food, clothing, and women for his sex-starved men. When threats and diplomacy didn’t work, he went on hair-raising killing sprees. But the Indians fought back with suicidal determination; they weren’t the supplicants in Powell’s paintings.

In the walled city of Mavila, in present-day Alabama, Atahachi women fought side by side with their men in what was one of the bloodiest encounters in five centuries of warfare between Europeans and Indians. Soto’s invasion, and the diseases his men left in its wake, led to the destruction of most of what was left of Mississippian culture.

Had Soto been more interested in settlement than conquest, the rich agricultural lands he passed through might have been claimed permanently by Spain. And today they’d be speaking Spanish all over Dixie.

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado

[Picture: Coronado's expedition]

Coronado’s expedition

As de Soto was pushing beyond the Mississippi, another Spanish explorer, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, was moving across the continent from the other direction. At one point, without knowing it, the two explorers came within 300 miles of each other. De Coronado headed out from Mexico City with an enormous expeditionary force looking for cities of silver. But when he entered the lands of the Pueblo Indians — the descendants of the Anasazi — he found nothing but towns of adobe and stone.

Here he met resistance but crushed it quickly and pushed on, sending exploring parties all over the Southwest, across Arizona to the Grand Canyon, and beyond, into California. Then, hearing from an Indian guide that there was a rich city, called Quivera, far to the north, he followed the guide in search of it.

When he reached Quivera, in northern Kansas, all he found were the beehived-shaped huts of the primitive Wichita Indians and an endless sea of grass filled with buffalo. Coronado saw land and people of no value, but for those with a sense of irony, this is a rich moment. The Indians of the plains who stood staring in wonderment at Coronado’s mounted warriors were seeing for the first time the animal that would eventually revolutionize their lives. Disgusted by these people who drank buffalo blood, Coronado turned back toward Mexico, but not before ordering the strangulation of his Indian guide.

Juan de Oñate

For almost 60 years, only a handful of white men ventured back into Pueblo country. Then, in 1598, new rumors reached Mexico City of rich mines along the Rio Grande, and Juan de Oñate was sent into New Mexico with an expedition of soldiers and settlers. This time, the Spanish stayed.

[Picture: Attack on Acoma]

The first resistance occurred at Acoma, a pueblo built on top of a spectacular, 400-foot high mesa. When Spanish troops stopped there and demanded food, the warriors attacked them, killing l6 soldiers, including Oñate’s nephew. Oñate retaliated with chilling brutality. A party of soldiers secretly dragged a cannon up the rock face at the rear of the mesa, turned it on the town, and blasted away. In three days of fighting, the Spanish leveled Acoma and killed 800 of its people. Then Oñate staged a public mutilation — chopping one foot off every surviving young man.

But Oñate was as unsuccessful as Coronado in finding rich mines and was soon recalled to Mexico City. At this point, two years before the English founded Jamestown, the Crown was about to abandon New Mexico. But the powerful Franciscan order wanted it for missionary territory; so the friars were allowed to stay, with Crown protection, to establish a Catholic theocracy among the Pueblos.

The age of military conquest ended. The religious and cultural conquest began. The friars taught the Indians the Spanish language and Spanish ways, and tried to eradicate Indian religion and culture. When Indians resisted conversion or strayed from the faith, the soldiers were called in to intimidate or punish them. Then repression ignited rebellion. Drought and starvation struck the Pueblo communities–and they came under increasing attack from their traditional enemies, the Apaches and the Navajos.


All the while, the colony of some 3,000 Spanish settlers continued to illegally extract labor and tribute from the Indians. In l680, Popé, a medicine man who had been whipped for practicing witchcraft, led a lightning attack on the Spanish settlements. In three weeks, the Pueblos Indians killed 400 foreigners and drove the rest of them out of New Mexico.

The mutilated bodies of the priests were smeared with human excrement and thrown over the altars of their desecrated churches. At Acoma, the missionary father was hurled to his death from the top of the mesa. It was one of the most successful Indian resistance movements in American history, but the Pueblos couldn’t maintain their independence for long.

Unity dissolved because Popé demanded an end to all things Spanish—and the Pueblos had come to depend on Spanish farming technology, and on Spanish goats, sheep, cattle, pigs, and horses. So when Diego de Vargas marched into New Mexico to reconquer it, it was an easier task then he’d imagined. There was one uprising; then there were no more.

The Spanish settlers and soldiers helped keep the peace by reducing their demands for Indian labor, and by marrying Indian wives. And the Franciscans learned to tolerate Pueblo religious practices.

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France, Spain and England in America

In the 17th century, New Mexico, and the fortified town of St. Augustine on the east coast of Florida, were Spain’s only North American colonies. Both served as buffer states — in Florida, against the English in Georgia and the Carolinas; and in New Mexico, against the French, who from their base in Canada had claimed the entire Mississippi Valley.

France’s North America empire, however, was vastly different from Spain’s in purpose and practice. The French were in North America primarily for commerce, not colonization. They wanted to control the lucrative fur trade, and to get furs, they made alliances with the Indians. They didn’t want Indian lands or labor. And their Jesuit missionaries were amazingly tolerant and highly successful in dealing with the Indians. As were French fur traders, who married into Indian families and lived with natives and mixed-bloods at frontier trading posts. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

[Picture: Map of Roanoke Island]

Map of Roanoke Island

In 1600, Spain was the only European nation with colonies in North America. Samuel de Champlain had not yet established a French settlement at Quebec. And Protestant England, under Queen Elizabeth, had tried and failed to plant a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of North Carolina. The settlers on Roanoke Island had mysteriously disappeared around l590. To this day, no one knows what happened to them.

At this point, England was at war with Spain and might have postponed colonization for some time had it not been for two of the greatest spin-doctors of the Elizabethan age, two cousins, both named Richard Hakluyt. The Hakluyts believed England’s future greatness would be based on overseas colonies. In a series of massive books and reports, they implored the Crown to expel the Spanish papists from North America, convert the Indians to Protestantism, and begin trading with them. The Hakluyts described an America where the earth would produce things in abundance, as in the Garden of Eden, “without toil or labor.” These are their words.

When a company of gentlemen adventurers was finally sent to in Virginia in 1607, they apparently took the cousins at their word — and died in appalling numbers. But the struggling colony was saved — but just barely — by the soldierly discipline of the swashbuckling captain we’ll meet in our next lecture.

John Smith’s mission was to make certain that, in America, the seventeenth century would be England’s century.

Image as History: Surviving Conquest (Ácoma)

How has Ácoma accommodated change while maintaining a deep connection to the past?

High atop a rocky mesa in what is now the state of New Mexico, the pueblo of Ácoma stands as living testimony to an ancient American culture that has survived, and adapted, in the face of centuries of conquest.

This aerial photograph by H.L. James, taken in the early 1970s for a book sold to tourists at the pueblo, helps to tell the story.

Aerial View of Ácoma Pueblo Artist: Harold L. James Date: c. 1970

1. No one knows for certain when the ancestors of the current Ácoma people first came to the place known as Sky City. Some archaeological evidence suggests that people were living atop the mesa, and in small settlements along springs and streams on the surrounding plain, before the time of Christ. Tribal elders say that their people have always lived there. They say that the word “Ácoma” denotes “a place that always was.” A home.

Archaeologists agree that the village of Old Ácoma has been inhabited since at least 1200 A.D. The first Europeans to visit the pueblo were soldiers and priests sent by Francisco de Coronado in 1540. Those visitors did not find gold, but they did find a village of three- and four-story houses, set atop a mesa that seemed to pierce the very sky, with irrigated farms and “abundant supplies of maize, beans, and turkeys like those of New Spain.”

2. More than half a century of casual contact between Spanish and Ácoma people passed before the soldier Juan de Oñate came, in 1598, to conquer New Mexico for Spain. Ácoma resisted, relying on its seemingly impregnable location as protection. But Oñate’s soldiers made the grueling climb to the top, swarming over the rim, burning the village and taking hundreds of prisoners. Oñate sentenced all the adult prisoners to twenty years of slavery, sent the children to live “in the kingdom or elsewhere. . . that they may attain the knowledge of God and the salvation of their souls,” and reserved a special punishment for the Ácoma men. Before they were sent into slavery, his soldiers cut off one of the feet of each male prisoner.

The Ácoma never forgot. When a bronze statue of Juan de Oñate was erected in New Mexico in 1998, someone cut off the left foot.

3. By 1620, the Ácoma had returned to the mesa. A Franciscan father arrived in 1629 to supervise the construction of a church. The Ácoma learned to use the Spanish technique of adobe brick-making, combined with their own use of stone, tons of rammed earth carried up from the valley floor, and log timbers hauled great distances from mountains to the north.

Ácoma joined the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but after Spanish troops under Don Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico in 1692, the Ácoma cast their lot with Spain. They joined with the Spaniards in raids against Apaches and Navajos and adopted Catholicism, yet retained their ancient religious practices.

With Mexican independence in 1821, life at Ácoma changed little. Villagers farmed and worshipped as they had for the better part of two centuries. They still spoke their ancient language. Mexican officials continued to rely on Pueblo support in forays against the Navajos.

4. After the United States gained control of New Mexico in 1848, traders, soldiers, schoolteachers, homesteaders came. Americans encroached on Ácoma lands, introduced new goods, words, and ways. Ácoma men went to work laying track for the railroad that entered New Mexico in 1880. Ácoma children rode the train to school in Albuquerque, and in some cases, all the way to the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania. New tensions grew within the pueblo, with “traditionalists” resisting Americanization, and “progressives” embracing modern tools and attitudes.

Remote as it was, Ácoma would ultimately be integrated into American systems of transportation, communication, and exchange. And yet the Ácomas were determined to retain the land they held and to recover what they had lost through encroachment.

Ácoma in the 20th Century

In 1967, the Ácoma pueblo won a suit for lands covering over a million and a half acres, on the basis of the claim that the Ácomas had used and occupied the lands from time immemorial. But by that time, no land changed hands. Instead, the pueblo recovered some six million dollars to compensate for lost land.

By the end of the twentieth century, Ácoma had become a popular tourist destination, accessible by paved highway from Albuquerque. Tour buses operated by the pueblo navigate the sole paved road up the mesa, where guides lead groups to designated sites, and Ácoma women sell traditional pottery to eager customers.

Questions to Ponder (About Ácoma)

High atop a rocky mesa in what is now the state of New Mexico, the Pueblo of Ácoma stands as living testimony to an ancient American culture that has survived, and adapted, in the face of centuries of conquest.

  1. Does this short history of Ácoma make you think differently about Native Americans?
  2. How do cultures survive the processes of conquest?
  3. How do natural landscapes affect history?
  4. What does the act of cutting off a statue’s foot represent here?


Minge, Ward Alan. Acoma: Pueblo in the Sky. Albuquergue: University of New Mexico Press, 1976.

Stubbs, Stanley A. Bird’s Eye View of the Pueblos. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1950.

White, Leslie A. The Acoma Indians: People of the Sky City. Glorieta, New Mexico: The Rio Grande Press, Inc, 1973.


  • Powell, De Soto
    • Powell’s Hernando de Soto and United States History
      The William Powell painting Discovery of the Mississippi by De Soto, A. D. 1541. Includes links to essays about the painting and other murals in the Capitol rotunda.


  • Hakluyt’s writings
    • Richard Hakluyt
      A detailed biography of Hakluyt.



  • Hernando de Soto
    • Florida of the Conquistador
      Illustrated stories of Juan Ponce de Leon, Panfilo de Narvaez, Hernando de Soto, and Tristan de Luna.


  • Francisco Coronado
    • Francisco Vásquez de Coronado
      A brief biography of Coronado with links to other Coronado history pages.



  • Popé
    • People in the West – Popé
      A biography of Popé with related links.
    • Spirit and Place
      The history of the Pueblo societies including the story of Popé.

Series Directory

A Biography of America


Produced by WGBH Boston in cooperation with the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Administration, and with the assistance of Instructional Resources Corporation. 2000.
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