- Historic Sites
“By Chaos Out Of Dream”
An exploration into the exploration of America
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
It was, after a fashion, as Lewis and Clark demonstrated from 1804 to 1806. But even Lewis and Clark, as sane and organized as they were, had their own illusions about the unknown. They left the Mandan villages in the spring of 1805 confident that the Shining Mountains would be a simple range beyond which the westward-flowing rivers would lead them to the Pacific. What they found was five hundred miles of interlocking ranges, a vast belt of mountains, difficult pass after difficult pass, canyons that frustrated attempts to descend them, rivers that ran in every direction. Only after the greatest labor and hardship were they able finally to make the Clearwater and the Columbia.
As with the Northwest Passage, so with other dreams and fantasies, products of the medieval imagination or simply of the unlimited possibility of the New World. Ponce de Leon, the discoverer of Florida, searched it hopefully for the Fountain of Youth it was rumored to contain. The rumor was probably generated by reports of the great springs, actually underground rivers, that boil up through the flat limestone of the peninsula. No spring revealed to Ponce de Leon any magical properties; but three centuries later, after reading about Florida in the Travels of William Bartram, Coleridge demonstrated the immortality of legend by making one of those springs into Alph, the sacred river, which runs through Kublai Khan’s magical gardens, through caverns measureless to man, down to a sunless sea. Perhaps the South Sea.
Poetry is realization of a kind, a splendid kind. El Dorado, the fabled Golden Man whom Walter Raleigh pursued so desperately up the Orinoco, found no such place in poetry, but survives as legend. The Seven Cities of Cíbola and the land of Quivira did not survive, even as legend, the exposure of their reality. Their pursuit brought only bitterness and disappointment, dust and ashes.
When Pánfilo de Narváez tried to colonize Florida in 1528, he died of the attempt, and most of his people with him. A handful, including Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, survived eight years of wandering among the Indian tribes, sometimes as prisoners, sometimes as revered medicine men, and in 1536, having walked across the southern part of the continent and down the Mexican Gulf Coast, they appeared in Panuco (now Tampico). They brought tales, heard from the Indians, of a land to the north and west where there were seven cities built of stone, with buildings four and five stories high whose doorposts and lintels were set with turquoise.
People still vibrating to the shock waves of what Cortés and Pizarro had found were not skeptics. Viceroy Mendoza sent a friar, Marcos de Niza, northward to investigate, and along with him the black slave Esteban who had been with Cabeza de Vaca. Esteban went ahead of Fray Marcos, sending back increasingly excited messages of what the Indians along their route told him. He was still ahead when they reached the first “city,” but when he entered it, his arrogance and his way of handling Indian women so offended the inhabitants that they killed him. Fray Marcos and his companions watched from a ridge and then fled—“with,” the historian Pedro de Castañeda wrote contemptuously, “their habits up to their waists.” But not before their eyes had seen what their imaginations told them to see: tall stone buildings, a city “larger than the city of Mexico,” doubtless full of treasure.
Fray Marcos’ overheated report led to the Coronado expedition, as grandiose a failure as even the Spaniards in the New World ever launched. The company that gathered at Compostela on February 22,1540, contained two hundred and thirty mounted men, many of them nonSpaniards, filibusters and fortune hunters from all over Europe. There were also sixty-two foot soldiers, one thousand horses, six hundred pack animals, thousands of sheep and cattle, four friars with their escort, mountains of supplies, and hundreds of Indians—a far more powerful force than either Cortés or Pizarro had had for their conquests. It was supported, moreover, by a naval arm under Hernando de Alarcón, with which it was supposed to make contact at the head of the Gulf of California.
This army pursued hallucination up the west coast of Mexico, through the Sonora and San Pedro valleys to near the GiIa, and then northeast to the Zuñi town of Hawíkuh—in Castañeda’s words “a small, rocky pueblo, all crumpled up, there being many farm settlements in New Spain that look better from afar”—which resisted and was destroyed. No gold or silver could be sifted out of its ruins. Resting the main army, Coronado sent his captains exploring—Tovar to the Hopi towns, Cardenas as far west as the Grand Canyon, Alvarado eastward past Acoma and the Tigua pueblos around modern Albuquerque and on to Cicuye (Pecos), where a fast-talking Wichita Indian from the buffalo plains told the Spaniards the kind of tales they liked to hear, of a land called Quivira, on a great river far to the east that contained fish as big as horses, where Indian kings rode around in canoes with twenty paddlers on a side, ate off golden plates, and took their siestas to the tinkling of little golden bells.
By spring Coronado had left some of the Rio Grande pueblos in ruins and the rest in a state of sullen submission. He had found no treasure in those poor mud-mortared villages. But there remained Quivira. Under the guidance of the Wichita, whom they nicknamed the Turk because he looked like one, they set out into country that only Cabeza de Vaca’s party had ever seen, the southern plains.