- Historic Sites
“By Chaos Out Of Dream”
An exploration into the exploration of America
February/march 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 2
Perhaps leading them on so that they could be cut off and destroyed, the Turk kept repeating his gilded tales, embroidering them as Spanish impatience and unbelief grew. At last, far out in the plains of Kansas, in country that Pedro de Castañeda thought was “part of a continuous continent with Peru, as well as with greater India or China,” the Turk’s stories would no longer wash, and they strangled him on the excuse that he had been heard conversing with the devil. Then they retreated from Quivira, and shortly from the Rio Grande, and returned in defeat and disgrace, quarreling among themselves and with their leader, to New Galicia. Of the three hundred horse and foot soldiers who started, about one hundred returned. No historian counted the losses among the Indian allies, or among the horses, which may from this expedition have begun to populate the horse heaven of the plains. Of the friars, two elected to stay in Cíbola and save souls, and they were killed for their pains.
Not even the most pitiful amount of treasure came from all their effort and bloodshed, and though some of the participants reported wonders, including many strange beasts out of medieval bestiaries, Castaƥeda, a cool observer, saw nothing of the kind. What he did see, and describe for the first time (though Cabeza de Vaca and his companions had certainly seen them first) were the plains and the buffalo, no small wonders in themselves.
All that they could see in that country, he said, was cattle, by which he meant the buffalo, and sky. “The land is in the shape of a ball, for wherever a man stands in it he is surrounded by the sky at the distance of a crossbow shot,” and “so level and bare that, wherever one looked at [the buffalo] one could see the sky between their legs. ” There, for almost the first time out of a Spanish mouth, is accurate observation of New World phenomena. He goes on: “Who could believe that although one thousand horses, five hundred of our cattle, more than five thousand rams and sheep, and more than 1500 persons, including allies and servants, marched over those plains, they left no more traces when they got through than if no one had passed over, so that it became necessary to stack up piles of bones and dung of the cattle at various distances in order that the rear guard could follow the army and not get lost.”
Coronado spent two years, from 1540 to 1542, trying to find another Tenochtitlân among the New Mexico pueblos and out on the Kansas plains. Blinded by gold, he missed the opportunity to settle the Rio Grande valley, an operation that would have to wait nearly sixty years. At nearly the same time as Coronado’s failure, Hernando de Soto was seeing what could be realized out of Florida. His men too were raiders, not settlers, and their encampments were beachheads, not towns. The Florida that they searched and ravaged was more than the peninsula. It covered much of Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama, and before they were satisfied de Soto’s men had probed out into Mississippi, Arkansas, and East Texas. As reported by Garcilaso de la Vega in The Florida of the Inca , de Soto’s campaign through swamps and forests had to be one of the bloodiest in the history of the New World, and it was attended by more hardship, suffering, and death on the part of the Spaniards than any other.
They found as little treasure as Coronado found, nothing but some furs and fresh-water pearls that they traded for or seized for lack of anything better. The one thing of importance that they did find, the Mississippi River, was more barrier and threat than anything else. Its 1543 spring flood appalled them. In the same turbid waters, the year before, they had sunk the body of their commander to keep the Indians from learning of his death. Down that majestic current they eventually made their escape. After four years of campaigning, two-thirds of them dead, their horses all killed, the survivors sick and full of wounds, bearded, dirty, clothed in rags and skins, they scrabbled together seven crude boats on the Gulf Coast and made their difficult way to Panuco.
There their suffering was enlarged by an ironic realization. At Panuco they found Spaniards tilling the ground, scratching out a bare living, making a settlement in country not one-tenth as rich and attractive as that which the de Soto army had passed through in scorn. More: the few furs and pearls they had managed to hang onto struck the Panuco people as being of great fineness and worth. Panuco was filled with envy at the richness and wonders these haggard ragamuffins had been privileged to see. But the ragamuffins, embittered at how the lust for gold had blinded them to the good land of Florida, broke out in fighting with knives and swords among themselves and were hardly kept from assaulting the king’s officers who had misled them.
There is a moral here, the same one that Castañeda drew from the Coronado fiasco. Castañeda thought Coronado’s retreat from New Mexico a mistake—he should have stayed and settled the Rio Grande valley. “For although they did not obtain the riches of which they had been told, they found the means to discover them and the beginning of a good land to settle in and from which to proceed onward. And since, after they returned from the land which they had conquered and abandoned, time has made clear to them the location and nature of the region they reached, and the beginning of a fine land they had in their grasp, their hearts bemoan the fact that they lost such an opportune occasion.”