Great River

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Great River is the story of the Rio Grande Valley and the four great cultures which have flourished there: Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American. The selection published here covers the story of the Spanish explorers, from the appearance of Pineda’s fleet at the river’s mouth to the bitter end of Coronado’s search for the golden city of Quivira.

No other book of American history this season has received such rousing critical acclaim. Carl Carmer called it “one of the major masterpieces of American historical writings.” Orville Prescott in the New York Times prophesied it would win the Putilizer Prize or the National Book Award “or both.”

Published in two volumes (price $10), Great River was fourteen years in the writing. Paul Morgan is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., but has lived in the Southwest since he was twelve and has written of it in novels, stories and essays. In the course of research for his magnum opus he traveled three times the full length of the Rio Grande’s 1,800 miles, with side trips into every corner of the Southwest.

As it came to the sea at the Gulf of Mexico the river turned from side to side in looping bends and dragging effort like a great ancient dying snake. The land was white with sea shells and crusty with salty sand. On the low dunes hard tall ranks of grass stood up in thin blades that cut if touched. The sky was low, even in sunlight. Air over the sea thickened and thinned as wind and moisture played. Someone watching the sea where the river flowed its brown water into salty gray waves that broke shoreward forever, someone looking and idly turning his head, saw the low lines of the whole world—pale horizon, vapory sky, wide-shadowed green sea, the mist-white shore with its reed huts scattered close to the river, and the drying nets, and the powdery browns of the people moving at what they did. Warm in the fall, the days expected nothing new. The search for clams, crabs, oysters went on, and the dwellers watched for signs that the edible root of the sand dunes was coming into season. Now and then a memory of outrage by other people inland, or from up and down the coast, returned and brought caution. Enemies always came on foot. Sometimes all their dogs and children and women came too, and waited in the land haze for the outcome of battle. On some days the distance was blue with misty heat and the aisles of palm trees along the river could be taken for smoke far away.

Looking to the land for food and protection, and to the sky for weathers that told the immediate future, the beach people kept no guard seaward, where the water birds dived with sounds like splintering rock, and the clouds now met and hung over everything and again separated and travelled like misty pearls and trailed shadows like mother of pearl over the waters that were never still, and yet always the same, forever long as anyone remembered, forever and forever.

Yet the sea, the light, the clouds, had the power of making image and marvel out of nothing, phantoms to loom and fade. Perhaps it was so with the vision of change that became visible on the sea one day.

One, then another, and another, and another, sharp cloud came clear of the horizon. They moved close on the surface of the water. They rested on dark bulks. They came toward shore, all four of them. They were not clouds, then, but houses on the water, with trees standing out of them holding up great mats in the air. All four moving slowly could turn in accord like birds. Each time they turned they crossed a line nearer to the beach. Before long they were moving in the water that was made brown by the run of the river into the sea. The mats were shaken and changed, the bulks drifted, and all four came into the arms of the river, and in the moving houses were men amazingly decorated. Voices stranger than any before echoed across the water.

Twenty-seven years after Columbus’s first discoveries, it was a day in the autumn of 1519 Anno Domini when four ships of Jamaica stood in through the veils of sea air to the mouth of the Rio Grande, and the point of view was about to be changed for the next three hundred years from that of the river Indian to that of the European soldiers, sailors, civil servants and friars on board the little fleet.

With their coming, the golden haze of the Indian story along the river began to lift. Hitherto, the river people had been without individuality. Time was unrecorded and experience was halted within each generation. There was no way of setting down the past and of letting it recede. The ancient people were trapped in an eternity of the present tense.

Now against the moving backdrop of the civilized world, the little fleet dropped anchor in the brown river water, and someone on board recorded the act. Leo X was Pope, the earthly source of all legitimate authority. The Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, was planning to go to Germany to preside at hearings of Martin Luther. In England Henry VIII was King, and the righteous author of an essay condemning Luther for defection from the Faith. In France, as guest and employee of Francis I, Leonardo da Vinci died. Ferdinand Magellan was nearing Tierra del Fuego in his first voyage around the globe. There were no European colonies anywhere in North America. Deep in Mexico, to the south, the passion to conquer smoldered like hidden coals under the courtesy with which the Captain-General Hernando Cortés approached the Emperor Montezuma high in his capital.