Great River


The army had time on its hands, and all sought diversion as they could. The General liked to ride. He had twenty-two horses with him, and often went out riding with one of his close friends. On December 27, 1541, he took riding with him Captain Rodrigo de Maldonado, who was the brother-in-law of the Duke of Infantado. Riding side by side, the two officers were soon in a race. The General’s horse was spirited. The contest was lively. The General was leading. Suddenly his saddle girth broke. He fell. As he struck the ground, there was no time to throw himself out of the path of Maldonado’s horse, or for Maldonado to check his mount. The Captain tried to jump his horse in order to miss the General, but one of its flying hoofs struck the General in the head.

The garrison was horrified at the calamity. They took the General to his quarters and laid him in bed. He was close to death. How could it have happened? The saddle girth, long among his effects, must have rotted without anyone’s knowing, the servants or anyone. For days his life was given up for lost. When at last he began to recover, and was able to be up again, they had to give him bad news.

Captain de Cárdenas on his way to Mexico to sail for Spain had returned in flight to the Tiguex River with news of Indians in rebellion in Sonora, and Spanish soldiers stationed there dying from arrows poisoned by the yerba pestifera of that land. The homeward path to Mexico was endangered.

The General turned faint at the story and took to his bed again.

And there he had time for a terrible reflection.

He spoke of how a long time ago in Salamanca his mathematical friend had prophesied for him that he would one day find himself in faraway lands (which had come true), and that he would become a man of high position and power (which had come true), and that he would suffer a fall from which he would never recover (and was this coming true now?).

He spoke of his wife and children, saying that if he were to die, let him be with them.

The doctor taking care of him repeated outside what he had heard in the sickroom. Those who meant to return to Quivira were angered at the thought of giving up the expedition, and the doctor carried to the General reports of what they said. In his weakness the General was pressed by all—those who wanted to go to Quivira, and those who longed, like him, to return to Mexico. He kept to his rooms, saw few people, and sent word that if, as was claimed, the army wanted now only to go home, he must have proof of this will in a written petition, signed by all their captains and leaders.

This was given to him, and he hid the folded paper under his mattress. If enemies should steal his strongbox to recover the paper and destroy it for bad ends, they would be fooled. The General then sent forth an order announcing the return of the entire army to New Spain.

But once the decision was made to abandon the poor realities of Tiguex and the vision of Quivira, some officers changed their minds and proposed compromises. Let the General go with sixty men, leaving all the rest to make a colony. But few of the bulk of the army would agree to this. Then let the General take the main body and leave sixty men here until the Viceroy could send reinforcements. But the General disapproved all such suggestions, and held legal proof in the petition which all had signed that his order to retreat from the hard country was by the agreement of all. Somehow in spite of the guards posted in his quarters and outside, an attempt was made to rob him of the petition. The thieves got his strongbox, but not the paper, and only knew afterward where he had kept it.

In the battles of Arenal and Moho the army had taken many Indian prisoners. The General now ordered these released. It was his last official act as lord of that river province. Early in April, 1542, the command was given to begin the long march down the river to the narrows of Isleta, and there turn west over the desert to retrace the trail to Mexico. Aside from a few Mexican Indians who decided in the end to remain in the Tiguex nation, the expedition had lost in its two years of movement and battle and privation no more than twenty men out of the whole fifteen hundred.

Travelling at times by litter, the General left behind him a vision changed and gone like a cloud over the vast country of the Spanish imagination in his century. A faith of projected dreams and heroic concepts gave power to the men of the Golden Age, a few of whom found even more than they imagined. The General, like many, found less. Having searched for the land of his imagining, and not finding it, he could have said, as Don Quixote later said, ”… I cannot tell you what country, for I think it is not in the map. …”

The army as it descended into Mexico began to disintegrate. Officers and men fell away as it pleased them to find other occupations at Culiacán, Compostela, and all the way to the city of Mexico.

In due course reports of the expedition went to Madrid and came before the Emperor. The royal treasuries had supported the expenses of the undertaking. On learning of its outcome, Charles V ordered that no further public monies were to be allocated to such enterprises.

As for the governor of the Seven Cities, the Tiguex River and Quivira, the Emperor received another report during a legal inquiry a few years later. The Judge Lorenzo de Tejada, of the Royal Audiencia of Mexico, wrote on March 11, 1545: