Great River


He must have known, though he kept saying to the end that just a way farther there really was the other great river, with all its gold and silver and jewels and royal splendor. But then, he had said that about every place at which they had stopped, and where they had found nothing.

Why was he not killed much sooner then?

The General was partial to him. Everybody knew it and resented it. Finally, of course, the General ordered the execution himself.

How miserable. And there was nothing else in the country of Quivira?

Big wolves, and white-pied deer, and rabbits that a man on foot could never catch but that never moved from the path of a horse, so that you could lance them from your saddle with no trouble. And grapes grew there, nuts, mulberries, and plums like those in Castile. As for riches and comforts and fine living—when you got off your horse at the end of a hard day and had to get some supper to satisfy your hunger, you cooked whatever you had, and you cooked it on a fire made of the only thing to be found, which was cow droppings. That was Quivira.

Prophecy and Retreat

The Turk lied and died for it, at the hands of outraged Europeans. But it was more than individuals, it was two kinds of life that told on the one hand, and punished on the other. The quest for wealth led to different answers in each case. To the Indian, wealth meant all that both pueblo and plain offered—rain and grass and primal acts of work and of the fruits of the earth only sufficient to sustain life equally for all. To the Spaniard it meant money and all that lay behind it: to purchase instead of to make, and of the world’s wealth, all that a man could possibly gather and keep far beyond the meeting of his creature needs. The logical extension of the Indian’s view would in time produce the wealth sought by the Spaniard, but only through work and cultivation of the humble stuff of the earth. But the Spaniard’s hope had a simple logic that ended with the ravishment of wealth already existing in forms dependent upon civilization for their pertinence—gold and silver instead of grass and rain.

The General went among his people hiding his disappointment as well as he could, and giving them heart against the problems of the winter by a promise of renewed hope. Now that he knew the plains so well, and would not have to count upon treasonable Indian guides, he would lead the army out again in the spring, for it was entirely possible that by going just a little farther to the east, the rich kingdoms would at last appear before their eyes.

Some of the soldiers could kindle to this hope; others could not. It was going to be another cold year, the food stocks were not any too full, and the silent towns of the river no longer supplied clothing, even under force. Even keeping warm by fire was not easy. The General wrote to the Emperor Charles about Tiguex and its problems. Of all the lands he had seen, he wrote on October 20, 1541, “the best I have found is this Tiguex river, where I am camping, and the settlements here. They are not suitable for settling, because, besides being four hundred leagues from the North sea, and more than two hundred from the South sea, thus prohibiting all intercourse, the land is so cold, as I have related to your Majesty, that it seems impossible for one to be able to spend the winter here, since there is no firewood or clothing with which the men may keep themselves warm, except for the skins that the natives wear, and some cotton blankets, few in number.”

The winter garrison was increased by the arrival of Captain Pedro de Tovar and a small force from the base camp far away in Sonora. He brought letters, including one that announced to Captain de Cárdenas that his brother in Spain was dead and that he had succeeded to titles and properties at home. There was also news of disorders and rebellions among the detachment at Sonora. Tovar’s party looked about eagerly for the treasures of the northern conquest and, finding none, could not hide their sharp disappointment which was like a reproof to the long-disillusioned garrison. But Tovar’s men kept their high spirits, for they could hardly wait until spring, and the second march into Quivira, with all its promises of adventure and wealth. The garrison let them hope. For the present all suffered together from cold and hunger and lice. When Captain de Cardenas, with permission, departed on the long trip home to assume his inheritance, and took with him a few who were no longer able-bodied fighters, there was many another soldier who would have gone too, but did not ask, for fear of being thought cowardly. Bad feeling ate at the core of the command. If things went wrong, who was responsible? The General himself, no matter how much he had once been respected and loved.

But as winter wore on the General once again was setting things in motion for the return to Quivira. Few of the soldiers wanted to go. Most of those who were eager to go were officers. Preparations went ahead with commands given by enthusiastic officers to men in low spirits.

Christmas came and went, with the friars leading in the observance of the Feast of the Nativity.