America’s first capital wasn’t Washington … or Philadelphia

Do you know where the first capital was in America? Jamestown? Plymouth? St. Augustine? Wrong on all three counts.

The first European-founded capital in North America was Española, a small city 25 miles north of Santa Fe.

Espanola_New_Mexico_Convento-replicaDon Juan de Oñate journeyed 1500 miles from Mexico City to Sangre de Christo mountains, the southern foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Here in 1598, he and the 500 colonists with him first set up their camp at the pueblo of Ohkay Owingeh.

After taking control of the pueblo, Oñate renamed it Sam Juan de Los Caballeros, after his patron saint, John  the Baptist. Then he established his capital in Española, making it the first European capital in North America — nine years before the English settlement at Jamestown and 22 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.

You could argue, the Vikings who landed in Newfoundland four centuries before Columbus “discovered” the New World, were the first to found a capital in North America. Leif Erikson called it Vinland, but it was little more than a few huts sheltering the explorers. It hardly qualifies as a capital.

Espanola_Depot_1920Oñate’s capital wasn’t called Española until the 1880s, when the railroad was built. Armado and Josefita Lucero opened a restaurant to feed workers. Josefita traced her roots perhaps all the way back to Oñate’s colonists.

The railroad referred to the Lucero Cantina as Española’s, meaning Spanish woman’s restaurant. And the name stuck.

After the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Don Diego de Vargas, who re-established Spanish rule in 1695, moved the capital to the village of Santa Fe, where it has remained ever since.

And the Tewa people who had lived at Ohkay Owingeh since 1200 CE? They reclaimed the name of their pueblo in 2005.