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Came Men on Horses: The Conquistador Expeditions of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Oñate

Came Men on Horses: The Conquistador Expeditions of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Oñate

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Came Men on Horses: The Conquistador Expeditions of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Oñate

Lunghezza:
544 pagine
14 ore
Pubblicato:
Oct 15, 2012
ISBN:
9781607322061
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Guided by myths of golden cities and worldly rewards, policy makers, conquistador leaders, and expeditionary aspirants alike came to the new world in the sixteenth century and left it a changed land. Came Men on Horses follows two conquistadors--Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Oñate--on their journey across the southwest.

Driven by their search for gold and silver, both Coronado and Oñate committed atrocious acts of violence against the Native Americans, and fell out of favor with the Spanish monarchy. Examining the legacy of these two conquistadors Hoig attempts to balance their brutal acts and selfish motivations with the historical significance and personal sacrifice of their expeditions. Rich human details and superb story-telling make Came Men on Horses a captivating narrative scholars and general readers alike will appreciate.

Pubblicato:
Oct 15, 2012
ISBN:
9781607322061
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Stan Hoig is professor emeritus of journalism, University of Central Oklahoma, Edmond. He was inducted into the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame in 1994 and the Oklahoma Historical Hall of Fame in 1998. Also among his numerous books are The Sand Creek Massacre, The Battle of the Washita, and Jesse Chisholm, Ambassador of the Plains.

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Index

Illustrations

1.1.   Map of New Spain and the Caribbean

1.2.   The El Dorado legend: El Dorado being powdered with gold

1.3.   The golden raft

1.4.   The landing of Columbus

2.1.   Bartolomé de las Casas

3.1.   Mexican cart with wheels

3.2.   Coronado and Oñate routes to Tierra Nueva

5.1.   Bird’s-eye view of Acoma and its mesa

5.2.   Pueblos of the Upper Rio Grande

7.1.   Timeline and projection of Coronado’s march to Quivira, 1541

7.2.   Image of an American buffalo

8.1.   Coronado’s march in Kansas, 1541

8.2.   Route concepts of Quivira expeditions

8.3.   Possible routes of the Coronado and Oñate expeditions to Quivira

13.1. Pictograph of conquistadors on march in Cañon del Muerto, Arizona

15.1. Gaspar de Villagrá, Oñate captain

20.1. Oñate’s march, 1602

20.2. Oñate’s march in Kansas

20.3. Timeline and projection of Oñate’s march to Quivira, 1601

20.4. Early Indian homes in Texas

21.1. Interpretation of Miguel’s map as it relates to today

21.2. How Indians could have smelted gold

22.1. Pueblo of Taos

22.1. Oñate’s Paso por aqui inscription, El Morro, New Mexico

A.1.   The Coronado Stone

Preface

As do most historical studies, this work stands on the shoulders of many people: event participants, witnesses, historians, and writers, past and current. Most significant, of course, are those Spaniards who during the Era of the Conquistador wrote, reported, or testified about their experiences. I have taken their words as though they were spoken directly to and for us today, rejecting any notion that they hold any less value because of their antiquity. At the same time, however, I have considered any potential contamination of their truth stemming from societal or personal attitudes of the ages.

Yet it is important to be clear. While the heroic efforts of the conquistador in his discovery of the American world are fully appreciated, the actions and events dealt with here are measured by today’s moral standards that accept and appreciate the humanity of America’s native occupants.

We are most fortunate that Spain was such a highly literate nation as to amass a quantity and quality of written record that gives testimony to the conquistador. But no study of the Spanish conquistador can be other than humbly grateful to those modern scholars who have gone to archives in the United States, Mexico, Spain, and elsewhere to read the difficult, quill-produced cursive of the many Spanish documents, translate them into English, annotate them, and have them published for others to study and make use of.

Among those who have rendered valuable translations and narratives are George Parker Winship with The Coronado Expedition, 1540–1542 (1964) and George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey with Narratives of the Coronado Expedition, 1540–1542 (1940), as well as Don Juan de Oñate, Colonizer of New Mexico, 1595–1608 (1953). These works provide both the original Spanish documents and their translations into English. Though the narratives that accompany these translations are outdated in some respects, these sources were important in the preparation of this book.

History of Central America by Hubert Howe Bancroft and Coronado, Knight of Pueblos and Plains by Herbert E. Bolton helped awaken American readers to the day of the conquistador and his role in the history of the United States, Mexico, and North America in general. These sources provided a primary introduction to this study of the two conquistador expeditions.

The prodigious scholarly production Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539–1542 (2005), edited, translated, and annotated by Richard and Shirley Cushing Flint, however, was chosen over previous Coronado translations in the main. This work extensively updates the earlier studies and contains valuable documents and notes not found otherwise.

I have, however, provided citation references for all three of the major Coronado translations listed here where possible. There are variations of interpretation among the three, and at times the innuendos of meaning can be significant in determining precisely what the Spanish author actually wished to convey.

The debt this book owes to these studies makes it seem particularly less than grateful to argue with historical conclusions made by those translators and authors. The privilege of my doing so, however, is an inherent value of their scholarly efforts and an absolute necessity in sorting out the truth of history. Still, I bow respectfully not only to their invaluable work but to their intellectual thought as well.

I express my thanks to Paula Aguilar, Teresa Neely, and Nancy Brown-Martinez of the Center for Southwest Research at the University of New Mexico for their research assistance. And once again I must give great credit and extend sincere appreciation to my wife, Pat Corbell Hoig, whose reading, editing, and consultation contributed much to this book.

STAN HOIG, PHD

Came Men on Horses

Introduction

For Riches Yet Unfound

There might still be large treasures which the Aztecs had hidden to spite their foes ... The search continued: houses were again ransacked, gardens upturned, cellars and passages examined, and graves were opened and the lake was dragged.

Bancroft¹

It may seem curious to debate the question of what brought the Spanish conquistador to North America. Those who have read early accounts of the conquistador would likely answer the question in a single word—gold. Authoritative studies such as Rivers of Gold (2003), by the accomplished British scholar Hugh Thomas, provide solid evidence of the impetus gold gave to Spanish exploration from the famous first voyage of Columbus forward.

Other reputable historians today dispute this, however. They charge that historians and popular writers of the past have wrongly portrayed the conquistadors as so single-minded in their search for gold as to be lustful. As an example, they point to the way journalist Paul Wellman described the conquistadors in his 1954 book Glory, God, and Gold. Every Spaniard, Wellman wrote, would plunge his arms elbow-deep in gold ingots before he returned.²

Wellman’s description was an improbable exaggeration designed to emphasize a point and was not intended to be taken as a literal fact. Indeed, it may be difficult to prove that conquistador leaders or their expedition members were inordinately lustful in their search for gold. It is also difficult to prove that they weren’t.

Hernando Cortés, the most prominent of the conquistadors—who knew if anyone did—once spoke about the matter to the Aztec leader Montezuma. The Spaniards, Cortés confessed, employing his own improbable exaggeration, had a disease of the heart that only gold could cure.³ Bartolomé de las Casas, the censorious Catholic clergyman, declared more directly: Their [the conquistadors’] whole end was to acquire gold and riches in the shortest time so that they might rise to lofty positions out of all proportion to their wealth.For Spaniards, current historian David J. Weber concurs, the accumulation of gold and silver was not merely a means to an end, but an end in itself.

All of the European nations in the sixteenth century, in fact, were desperate for gold. Spanish author Jean Descola addressed this matter: Europe lacked gold. What was looted from Turkish coffers, the few nuggets brought back from Africa by Portuguese explorers, and the melting down of gold plate had increased the reserves of metal very little ... Localized for a long time to the land routes of Oriental caravans and the sea routes along the African coasts, the battle for gold was soon to spread to the Dark Sea. Where could gold be found, indeed, if not in the Indies?⁶ It is entirely true, however, that past literature in America was prone to emphasize the conquistadors’ desire to find gold to the exclusion of other significant goals. Earlier scholars and writers had good cause to be one-sided on this issue, given the enormous witness by sixteenth-century literature and art to the extent the early conquistadors would go to obtain gold.

The essential fact is that obtaining gold abetted all other ambitions of Spanish conquest. In many instances, and this was true of both Coronado and Oñate, gold was not the ultimate objective of a conquistador expedition. The hope of finding it, however, was the principal avenue of achieving other objectives. But on a personal level, there can be little doubt that such hope excited the passions of those who enlisted in conquistador expeditions.

Further, what is missing from this argument over the importance of gold is recognition of the difference between the first generation of conquistadors that flourished during the early sixteenth century and the ensuing second- and third-generation conquistadors such as Coronado and Oñate. In No Settlement, No Conquest, Richard Flint lists 132 major Spanish-led expeditions.⁷ The Conquistador Period lasted essentially from Columbus in 1492 past Oñate in 1598, providing more than a full century in which generations, and world conditions with them, changed.

These first expeditions embarked from Europe largely to explore, discover, and conquer land and seek gold but not principally to colonize or Christianize. In the main, the head conquistadors were out to find wealth and conquer territory for Spain and to gain fame and position for themselves, and they suffered little restraint from the state or the church as to how they got them. In addition to discovering an entirely new land mass on the earth that humankind knew, through his exploitations Columbus also excited the European world to the potency of a new land rich with gold.

While Spanish conquistadors of ensuing generations were likewise contaminated by exotic myths of lost riches, their missions were conducted largely as colonizing efforts. Discovered wealth was essential to that purpose. Well-positioned members looked to obtain grants for estates among the Indians (called encomiendas), while others hoped to improve their fortunes in the new colony through their occupational skills and trades. At the same time, they, too, fantasized about finding lost cities of gold.

The earlier conquistadors had gained a wide reputation for cruelty and brutality that had been labeled the black legend. In April 1549, following a vigorous debate regarding Spanish morality between las Casas and Spanish humanist Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, the king mandated a new set of rules for conquistador expeditions.

By edict, conquistadors were to act more humanely than their predecessors had toward American natives. Such edicts, however, were far removed from the fields of contest in the Americas. The later expeditions did improve some on past conquistador behavior toward native people, but both the Coronado and Oñate Expeditions featured their own excesses.

Other factors, of course, motivated all of the conquistadors. Columbus’s discovery of America had opened great vistas of curiosity that were irresistible to adventurous men. A mysterious New World of unlimited wonders and potentially unlimited wealth awaited discovery and exploitation. Spaniards of both generations were similarly affected. Most of them nourished a fierce zeal to serve the Spanish Crown and to advance its empire and, yes, Christianity but also to advance the world presence of the Catholic Church through the process of discovery, conquest, and colonization.

The answer, therefore, to the question of what brought the conquistadors to America—and to North America in particular—was a mixture of motives. But evidence clearly indicates that, for the most part, conquistadors chose gold and empire over godly pursuits.

In 2003 Penn State professor Matthew Restall published his revealing Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest regarding misconceptions of the historical image of the Spanish conquistadors. The erroneous views he points to are those that evolved from early literary accounts in both formal histories and popular writings. They can rightly be classed as literary myths. In contrast, myths referred to in this study are those of Old World origin that came from Europe to America, as well as those generated by Indians in the New World to act upon the conquistador period of discovery. Here they will be called gossip myths.

Restall appropriately reveals several erroneous views of the conquistador that have developed over time in today’s United States: the misleading view that expeditions were sponsored and soldiered by the state, the false mystique regarding the conquistador leaders’ exceptional military experience and ability, and the validity of the Spanish requirement for Indian submission. On one point, however, Restall stands to be challenged. In making his argument regarding the role of gold in conquistador quests, he cites the instance of Francisco Pizarro in Peru: "The ‘most important thing’ to Pizarro was not gold, but the governorship [of Peru]. However, he needed to find gold in order for there to be a governorship worth having. Put in the larger context, Spaniards had no interest at all in the metal per se, any more than we treasure credit cards as objects" (emphasis added).

Because the Spanish hunger for gold is so blatantly clear, both in official Spanish records and in literature of the day, the conclusion drawn in this statement requires further consideration. During the sixteenth century, as it had been for the Roman Empire and others before, gold was a dominating concern of kings and queens (e.g., Isabella of Spain), as well as of the men they sent afar to search out the New World. It was a craving that infested the European world. The day of the Spanish conquistador featured a predominant mind-set on gold, even as American society today is fixated on sex or automobiles.¹⁰

Throughout world history, gold has been the base value item upon which empires were built and by which nations functioned. Indeed, gold may have served the purpose of obtaining the governorship for Pizarro, but that was not its sole attribute. To most people of that day, gold held much of the intrinsic quality of jewels. The metal, precious in the arena of trade, gleamed and sparkled, and it could be used to adorn other things. Significantly, its presence gave off the aura of wealth and social distinction.

From the advent of early civilizations, the metal has been coveted not only for trade purposes but also for its inherent beauty as adornment, whether for household dressings; armament such as helmets, sword hilts, and spurs; the trappings of horse gear; or other objects where the glittering metal added a special allure and beauty. Gold not only held wealth; it symbolized such.

It is not by happenstance, therefore, that gold was the ultimate promise of many myths. By the time the Spanish began exploring the New World, the desire for gold, inflamed by the ultimate promise of mythical lost cities where gold abounded freely, was a foremost impulse of adventurous men.

In the main, Restall’s statement makes the same error in reverse that earlier historians committed in disregarding other motives for wanting gold. It is equally fallacious to deny gold in favor of other conquistador motivations.

Spaniards of the sixteenth century were heirs to a heroic generation that had just driven the Islamic Moors from Spain. Their great victory at Granada came in 1492, the same year Columbus discovered America. Inspired Spaniards set forth with national and religious fervor to explore and conquer the New World. For them, and for the generation that followed, the call of Spanish heraldry was a potent force that impelled men forth to seek hidalgo, caballero, or even adelantado (governorship) status and position.

It was a general assumption that conquistador parties would conduct military conquests of Indian settlements and confiscate any accumulated wealth they might find. But conquistador ventures were not state-supported, with either money or soldiers. As privately financed ventures, conquistador expeditions required the recruitment of members. Men to win the conquest and others to colonize with their women or entire families were enticed to enlist in expeditions largely through the promise of sharing in the rewards.

Once a settlement was subdued, a system known as the encomienda (or repartimento) grant (a grant of authority) was instituted. Under this mandate, certain Spaniards of position were given the right to lord over a community of native people. The encomendero could then demand of the natives tributes in terms of labor or material wealth. In turn, the Spanish overlord was required to provide military protection for his charges and see to their indoctrination in the Christian religion by friars of the Catholic Church.

The practice of encomienda, which had been brought to the New World by Columbus, fit well with the purposes of both the Crown and the church. Though certain aspects were different, the encomienda functioned much the same as the American plantation in keeping a body of people in servitude to the financial advantage of an overlord and a dominant race at large. The system, which for many years featured abject slavery, served the cause of Spanish colonization well, with little cost to the Crown.

While encomiendas promised the reward of tributes, they were only one way expeditionary rewards were won. The first and most enticing reward was the discovery prize. Under Spanish law, it was fixed that when discoveries of great wealth occurred, as with Cortés in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru, the discovering party would reap four-fifths of the prize and the state one-fifth.¹¹

Discovery prizes had to be divided among the conquistador party. Sometimes this was done on a service basis, such as rewarding the horsemen more than the footmen in the expedition. Generally, the expedition commander chose whatever method pleased him—which was whatever he could get away with. There was no official rule for dividing the four-fifths of the looted prize among a conquistador party. It was achieved by various methods, including status of rank. The conquistador leader and his principal lieutenants always took their share first.¹²

Cortés had recruited his Spanish fighting men on the promise of potential reward once victory was achieved. Assembling his force to make the divide, he first put aside the government’s royal fifth and gave another fifth to himself as captain general. He then set apart other large sums to cover costs of his fleet, for personnel horses killed during his conquest, and to reward the procuradores in Spain. After all this he gave special shares to the priests who had accompanied his army, to his captains, and to archers and men with firearms and crossbows. The lesser rank-and-file members of his expedition received far smaller shares. When his looted treasures ran out, Cortés turned to encomiendas as a way of rewarding followers.¹³

Certain expedition members’ hope to obtain encomiendas did not preclude the pervasive hope of everyone on a given expedition to find the lost treasures repeatedly promised by prevailing myths. Encomiendas and gold were not mutually exclusive goals. Sometimes they were so interrelated, in fact, that it becomes difficult to determine which was primary and which was secondary. Coronado scholar Richard Flint speaks to this essential relationship in Great Cruelties Have Been Reported: The ultimate aim of most members of the [Coronado] expedition was enrichment from precious metals. They were expecting, however, that those precious metals would already be exploited by a sophisticated native population. Tribute and encomienda were the means the expedition had for tapping into that expected wealth.¹⁴ From this, the question arises: was taking forced tributes from impoverished natives through the encomienda any less lustful than looting the coffers of a tribal sachem?

Throughout history, the much desired yellow metal has been a prime medium of exchange, an exalted symbol of material value by which other wants of life can be obtained. At times it became even more, a mind-and soul-consuming craving in itself. Such historic moments include the gold rushes to California in 1849, to Colorado in 1859, and to Alaska in 1898—all of which are known instances in which the desire to find gold mounted to the level of mass obsession. Why should we think that the conquistadors, having often heard the exalted tales—both fictional-based and real—of golden treasures in the New World, were an exception to such human compulsions? Evidence of an impelling desire specifically to find golden wealth is replete throughout the records of Spanish conquest.

Both Coronado and Oñate were men of wealth even before they set forth on their quests, and both saw the achievement of conquistador status as a steppingstone to a governorship in Nueva Mexico. But, as with Pizarro, finding new wealth was an absolute necessity for maintaining a new Spanish province. The immediate hope was to find that wealth pre-accumulated by some Indian leader. But if not, there was always the potential of gathering it, as in the Indies, through gold or silver from mines worked by Indian labor.

Flint observes that the Coronado expedition was decidedly not a prospecting and mining endeavor.¹⁵ Expedition members, he notes, took with them very little of the equipment or tools required to mine, conduct assays, or work gold. Expedition members’ mining experience was scarce or nonexistent. Many were artisans of various practices, and others had no interest whatever in digging for metals or gems. But still, this does not say that they had no passion for discovering a fabulous booty of gold as promised by the prevailing myth of lost cities of gold.

The Oñate Expedition, on the other hand, did look to mining prospects if the need arose. Juan de Oñate y Salazar and the Zaldívar brothers, Juan and Vicente, who were officers in his expedition, had long operated silver mines in Mexico prior to marching north. Records of Oñate’s expedition reveal that its baggage included mining and assay needs such as quicksilver.¹⁶ Members of the expedition, however, marched north with exalted dreams of discovering great stores of wealth already accumulated, as in Mexico City and Peru. They, too, looked with great hopes to the mythical promise of Quivira.

Nothing better illustrates the Coronado Expedition’s fervor to find gold than the instance of Bigotes, the friendly and helpful Cicuye (Pecos Pueblo) warrior who was held in captivity. He was dragged about in an iron collar and suffered having dogs set on him while manacled, all because Coronado and his captain, Hernando de Alvarado, suspected (almost surely erroneously) that Bigotes possessed a gold bracelet.¹⁷

The two men were fully determined—no matter the moral cost—to do anything to anyone to obtain the bracelet. Whether they had in mind the reward of encomiendas or of a potential city of gold is anybody’s guess, but both spoke to the same intense purpose of obtaining great wealth.

The Indian slave Jusepe told Juan de Oñate that the fugitive expeditionary captains Francisco Leyva de Bonilla and Antonio Gutiérrez de Humaña had been lured forth by extravagant tales [myths] of gold which abounded in the many towns in those regions [of northern Mexico].¹⁸

In his History of New Mexico, essentially a personal account of the Oñate Expedition, Captain Gaspar de Villagrá, a prominent member of the expedition, wrote of the exasperation that existed when they did not find riches. Because they did not stumble over bars of gold and silver immediately, Villagrá observed scornfully of the colonists, they cursed the barren land and cried out bitterly against those who had led them into such a wilderness.¹⁹ This testimony to the Spaniards’ passion to find riches in the Americas—even six decades after Coronado—was again expressed by Rodrigo del Rio de Losa, Knight of the Order of Santiago and former governor of Nueva Galicia, who wrote in 1602, "We may well believe that there are people [in Tierra Nueva] who bear a metal crown like our kings, there are walled houses of five, six, or seven storeys [sic] and silver and gold as in other lands and in the Indies. For the greed of these riches, we Spaniards came to these parts, which is the main bait that attracts us here."²⁰

The Coronado and Oñate Expeditions from deep in present Mexico to the American Southwest were elaborate entradas (excursions) from Spanish-controlled New Spain (Nueva España as of 1518) to Tierra Nueva (North America), the wilderness lands to the north. The first was conducted by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1541 and the second sixty years later by Don Juan de Oñate in 1601.

Though neither expedition discovered a golden city, these ventures from Mexico and their expeditionary searches in New Mexico, to the West Coast, and eastward onto the Central Plains awakened recorded history of the southwestern United States as it existed prior to European influence. The two expeditions are at the very beginning of our national experience.

Interestingly, the grand reward of the golden myth was always just beyond reach. If not found on one of the Antilles Islands, then perhaps on the America mainland; if not in the Brazilian jungle or the mountains of northwest Mexico, then at Cibola; if not at Cibola, then at Quivira. But even when no city of gold was found on the plains of Kansas, some members of the Coronado and Oñate Expeditions felt they had simply not searched far enough. Surely they would find gold, some thought, if only they would push on to Harahey or Enchuche.

ABBREVIATION KEY

H/R-DJO = Hammond and Rey, eds., Don Juan de Oñate

NOTES

1. Bancroft, History of Mexico 2: 2, 4.

2. Wellman, Glory, God, and Gold, 18.

3. Weber, Spanish Frontier, 23; Flint, No Settlement, No Conquest, 36–38.

4. Bartolomé de las Casas, Brevísima relación de las destrucción de las Indias (abridged edition of the Biblioteca encyclopédica popular, 77 [Madrid: Fundación Universitaria Espańola, 1977]), paragraph 16; cited in Leonard, Books of the Brave, 1.

5. Weber, Spanish Frontier, 23.

6. Descola, Les Conquistadors, 10.

7. Flint, No Settlement, No Conquest, 261–266.

8. Hemming, The Search for El Dorado, 138–139.

9. Restall, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, 22. Richard Flint concludes as well that: "The [Coronado] expedition was not in a literal [i.e., actual or real] sense looking for gold (emphasis added). Flint, What They Never Told You," Kiva: The Journal of Southwestern Archaeology and History 71, no. 2 (Winter 2005): 204; Flint, No Settlement, No Conquest, xv.

10. Though seldom mentioned by historians, the pleasures of native women also ranked high as a prize of conquistador conquest. But gold and other treasure was often the prize that inspired expedition members.

11. Cortés’s royal four-fifths was described as consisting of 32,400 and odd pesos de oro, or melted gold; 100,000 ducas’ worth of unbroken jewels, feathers, and similar items; and 1,000 or more marcos of silver. Bancroft, History of Mexico 1: 343n31.

12. Ibid., 343. Many of the jewels and much of the gold, including that belonging to the king, were lost during the Spaniards’ desperate retreat from Mexico City in June 1520. Some of Cortés’s men were drowned by the weight of the gold they carried, while others threw their treasure into the lake they were crossing in an attempt to survive the battle. Aztec Indians came later, many believed, and dragged the lost fortune from the lake. Ibid., 475–477, 483.

13. Thomas, Rivers of Gold, 490.

14. Flint, Great Cruelties, 540.

15. Flint, What They Never Told You, 208–209.

16. Ulloa Inspection, H/R-DJO 1: 136: Salazar Inspection, ibid., 225.

17. In No Settlement, No Conquest, 137–138, Flint calls attention to Coronado’s denial that he ordered that the dogs be set onto Bigotes.

18. Villagrá, A History of New Mexico, 58–59.

19. Flint, No Settlement, No Conquest, 148.

20. Rio de Losa to Viceroy, H/R-DJO 2: 764.

Part 1

The Coronado Expedition

Today, archaeologists are scouring historic sites in the Southwest and Central Plains searching for clues to the drama of our Indian past and the conquistador era. Ever so gradually, more and more revelations are coming to light. It is with the discovery of an outline of a prehistoric Indian pit house, a piece of chain mail, a rusted knife blade, or a copper arrowhead once employed by a Spanish crossbow that more truths about the past emerge.

But we have been rewarded in another very significant way. The Spanish were the first Europeans known to enter the American Southwest. As it emerged into a world power, the Spanish Empire of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries featured literate men and written works. Reports, narratives, letters, testimonies, and other writings left behind from their era of exploration and discovery provide the details of the Spaniards’ adventures in America.

We can almost imagine that the persons who penned these historical documents blew the ink on them dry and handed them to us to read—except that would be slighting the scholars who uncovered them yellowed with the ages from distant archives, poured over their antique script, and translated them for further study.

Through these documents we discover that within the gilded romance of the Spanish conquistador lies embedded not only bravery and resolve but some other less admirable traits as well. America’s history of record begins here.

1

Of Myths and Men

The inhabitants [of Topira] wear gold, emeralds, and other precious stones and serve [meals] on silver and gold, [with] which they cover their houses. The principales wear heavy, well-worked chains of gold around their necks.

Coronado’s Myth¹

When the Spanish conquistadors came to America to conduct their conquests for the Spanish Empire, they were inspired and guided to an indefinable but significant extent by popular myths that featured fabulous cities of golden wealth or other worldly rewards. Because the ethic of recorded history requires tangible, provable fact, the concrete influence of elusive, popularly propagated myths has generally been slighted. Conversely, however, few historical studies, especially nationalistic ones, avoid dependence to some degree on mythical input relative to either events or personalities.

It may seem spurious to give myths such strong responsibility in as important an event as exploration of the New World. But, in truth, these societal delusions played an influential role throughout the period of Spanish exploration of the Americas. Their tangible effect is difficult to deny. Many were born as infectious Old World mythologies that, fostered by fanciful delusion, flowed through folk legend and early literature from the Old World westward through Europe and on to the Antilles (the West Indies). From there they were carried onward to the American continents by aspiring conquistadors. Throughout the period of Spanish discovery, myths influenced the actions of policy-makers, conquistador leaders, and expeditionary aspirants alike.

In his study of the sixteenth-century Spanish conquest, Books of the Brave, Irving Albert Leonard tells how these ancient legends were spread by the development of printing and the production of romantic novels. Rumor-filled travel histories provided by the Italian Marco Polo, Englishman Sir John Mandeville, and Spaniard Pedro Tafur were read avidly by those who could do so.²

The seeds for many of the enduring fantasies of New World explorations took root during the Moorish-Muslim invasion of the Iberian Peninsula in the early eighth century. A Portuguese archbishop was said to have fled by ship out into the little sailed and scantly explored Atlantic Ocean. He was joined by six other bishops and their Christian followers with all their goods and livestock, disappearing from the known world of Europe.³

Over time, a legend—a very potent one—developed, taking in part from Plato that the bishops had established seven cities on an island called Antilia. The idea that the lost cities were resplendent with gold developed mysteriously over the years. Occasional sightings of the fabled island were reported by ocean navigators who may have long been at sea:

Plato spoke of the mysterious civilization of Atlantis and the island of Antilia, or the Seven Cities, located beyond the Pillars of Hercules. These accounts wound their way through Western Civilization, accumulating other ancient myths such as lands inhabited by Amazons, valiant women warriors who cut off their left breasts in order to use bow and arrow, lands of gold and jewels, fountains of youth, and Christian communities isolated from the rest of Christendom.

These fanciful myths of antiquity spread to Spain and Portugal, where they flourished. Spain in particular, with its background of Christian versus Muslim wars, became steeped in a tradition of mythology befitting its age of knighthood and chivalry. These traditions had most of the ancient myths enveloped with a patina of historical fact.⁵ Thence from Europe the legends were carried across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas by a generation of determined

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