- Historic Sites
“By Chaos Out Of Dream”
An exploration into the exploration of America
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Though unauthorized filibusters would raid New Mexico in the 1590’s, though Caspar Castano de Sosa would again conquer Pecos Pueblo and the Tewa, Queres, and Tigua towns, and though Leyva de Bonilla and Antonio Gutiérrez de Humana would carry Spanish ferocity from San Ildefonso clear to the Arkansas River in eastern Kansas, New Mexico would not be officially recognized as an opportunity until Juan de Oñate left the Rio de Conchos in February, 1597, with one hundred and thirty families, eighty-three wagons, and seven thousand head of stock, and took a direct line through El Paso to the upper Rio Grande. That was the true beginning of New Mexico. It was a beginning made with a reduced and more realistic expectation; a settle- | ment, not a raid.
Reduced expectation was something that Europeans other than the Spaniards did not have to learn by so hard a means, but it is something that all Americans in these shrinking times will have to learn better than they so far have. The first lesson was to learn to be satisfied with something less than rooms full of gold—with land, timber, water, native crops, wild game, all the natural richness of the virgin continent. The continuing lesson is to learn to be satisfied with less and less of these until they run out, or to take forethought and plan for their careful use and steady renewal.
Whatever America might in the end prove to contain, whatever authentic wonders of great rivers, mountains, plains, minerals, oil and coal, deep soil, fertile valleys, canyons so deep that rocks which from the top look no bigger than a man prove to be taller than the great tower of Seville, it took time before they could be seen straight. Some gilded expectations would have to be scaled down, some fantasies disproved and discarded, some open-ended possibilities put over on the impossible side, some biases given up, some purely native matters first understood and then accepted, some civilized accomplishments of the indigenous tribes given credence and respect. It took a long time for Europeans even to grant that Indian civilizations sprang from Indian brains, and were not taught them by some blue-eyed god or Welsh Prince Madoc or Nephite out of the Book of Mormon. Some myths, especially that of the Welsh Indians, died hard and late. In the 1870’s Brigham Young sent a Welsh Mormon down to the Hopi towns to see if the Hopi language contained any Welsh words. If it did, the Mormon theory that these town-dwelling Indians reflected culture traits surviving from the Nephites, who were in turn derived from the Lost Tribes of Israel, would have come into question. It didn’t and the Book of Mormon remains unchallenged by the descendants of Madoc.
More: The hope of sudden wealth that the New World engendered in a human race not until 1500 sanguine about the worldly future has not died. Every mineral and oil strike, every Prudhoe Bay or Overthrust Belt, every boom town from Dawson City to Rock Springs, demonstrates how undying is the human desire for a jackpot. It burns in us like a pilot light; the mere turning of a jet blows it into flame. For that lust the y New World is not to blame, but it is an accessory after the fact.
No one ever duplicated the glittering strikes made by Cortés and Pizarro, but it is surely true, as Walter Webb suggests, that New World wealth fueled Europe’s climb out of the Middle Ages, and that because of it, modern times in both Europe and America have been times of almost unbroken boom, now approaching or at its end.
The French and English, enviously watching the Spanish loot their American empire, had to settle for something less than Aztec and Inca gold—though Drake alone, in his single small ship, took home from his piracies on Spanish galleons enough gold so that Queen Elizabeth, out of her royal share, was able to pay off the entire national debt and have enough left to found the British East India Company. Drake’s gold was only a redistribution of Spanish booty, but actually all Europe benefited from the New World in food plants, especially maize and potatoes, as well as in timber, fish, furs, and much else. For the French and English the more permanent enrichment came from the fish of the Newfoundland banks, from Canadian furs, and from tobacco.
The French got their foothold on the St. Lawrence and expanded it. The English, after the disaster at Roanoke and the near-disaster at Jamestown, consolidated footholds in Virginia and Massachusetts and shortly took over the only serious competition in their area, that of the Dutch. There is no better way to remind ourselves of the variousness of the American heritage than to remember how different the French and English were in their approach to the new continent, and how different both were from the Spanish. The Spanish, at first looters, became settlers and imposed Spanish institutions on their territories, including the encomienda system that in practice enslaved the Indians, but they did intermarry- biologically they incorporated themselves into the indigenous population even while they were bending the indigenous population to Spanish ways. The French likewise never made a barrier to intermarriage. Adventurers and woods runners, they came closer to adapting themselves to the continent than any of their rivals, and except for some accidents of history and some pressures from the United States, they might have created in western Canada a métis nation like the mixed nation of Mexico. The English, stickers and settlers, did not much intermarry and did not much wander, but what they took and held they changed.