Great River


The mathematician told him no more; but already at Granada in the Indian wastes of the most remote northerly marches of the Indies of the Ocean Sea, the General of the Army Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was undertaking new kingdoms for the Crown. Was the prophecy two-thirds fulfilled?

Faith and Bad Faith

On the evening of September 7, 1540, Alvarado and his company on the way to the plains came to a river which Indians called P’osoge, or Big River. Upstream, they said, were many towns, and downstream a few others. Here the banks were gentle, with cottonwoods and willows and wild fields of grass. On the west side were gravelly terraces and on the east, a band of desert rising far away into a long range of blue mountains parallel to the river. The evening light there arched yellow and vast overhead and the full river ran brown and silky to the south. The Spaniards were near the site of the modern Indian town of Isleta.

The river they named the River of Our Lady, because they had discovered it on the eve of her feast day —the Rio de Nuestra Senora.

Alvarado ordered his tent pitched, and at once sent Indian guides bearing a cross to the river towns of the north, to announce his coming.

The march from Vàsquez de Coronado’s headquarters at Granada had taken a week, during which they had passed other towns, notably Acoma, the citadel on the rock. Alvarado declared that it was one of the strongest ever seen. The town, of three- and four-storied houses, sat on a great mesa of red rocks four hundred feet high, or, as Spaniards measured, about as many feet as a shot from a harquebus would travel. The ascent was so difficult that, he said, they were sorry they tried it. It was a well-provisioned town, with corn, beans and turkeys. They passed on eastward and came to a big lake with abundant trees that reminded them of those of Castile. And then they reached the river.

On the next day came Indians from twelve pueblos with friendly greetings. They formed a little procession and came to Alvarado’s tent, the group from each pueblo following in turn. An Indian played on a flute as they marched. After circling the tent, they entered and presented the Captain with food, skins and blankets, and an old man spoke for all of them. In return Alvarado gave them little gifts, and they withdrew.

Alvarado pursued such a good beginning. His party moved northward along the river. They saw its groves of cottonwoods and its wide fields, and the twelve towns of the province where they were, which was called Tiguex, and the two-storied houses built of mud. In the fields by the towns they saw cotton plants, and they took notice of the rich produce of melons, beans, corn, turkeys and other foods that the people raised, and they saw that the people, following the ways of the farmer, were more peaceable than warlike. Here the people did not go naked, but wore mantles of cotton and robes of dressed hides, and cloaks of turkey feathers. Their hair was worn short. Among them, the governing power lay with the elders of the town, who made certain odd statements, such as that they could rise to the sky at their pleasure. Alvarado believed that they must be sorcerers.

Lying all about the river country were other provinces with eighty scattered towns. From these the leaders came to greet Alvarado in peace. With Bigotes guiding him, he continued his progress up the river from town to town until he came to a black canyon cutting through a high plain. He ascended the plain for there was no passage in the canyon. On the plain he came to a town remarkable for its size and the number of its stories, and for the fact that it lay in two parts, with a creek running between. He understood it to be called Braba, and was invited to lodge there. But he declined with thanks, and camped without. It was the pueblo of Taos. He thought it had fifteen thousand people. The weather was cold. It appeared that the people worshipped the sun and the water.

Wherever they went, Alvarado’s company planted crosses and taught the people to venerate them. In the bare ground before the towns, the large crosses stood, and to them the Indians prayed in their fashion. They freed sprinkles of corn meal and puffs of pollen before the crosses. They brought their prayer sticks of feathers and flowers. To reach the arms of the cross, an Indian would climb on the shoulders of another, and others brought ladders which they held while another climbed, and then with fibres of yucca they were able to tie their offerings to the cross, bunches of sacred feathers and wild roses… .

All this Captain de Alvarado and Fray Juan de Padilla wrote to the General at Granada, telling him of good pasture land for the horses and domestic animals, and sending him a buffalo head and several loads of Indian clothing and animal skins, and a map of the country they had seen, and advising him to bring the army to the River of Our Lady for the winter, as it was much the best country they had yet seen. The report was dispatched by courier.

With this first duty done, Alvarado with his own men and the Indian guides departed from the river to go east to see the cattle plains.

His report to the General brought early and positive results. Don García López de Cardenas, captain of cavalry, with thirteen or fourteen cavalrymen and a party of Indian allies from Mexico and Hawikuh, came to the river with orders to prepare winter quarters for the whole army.