Great River


Those men were not all dressed alike. Some—the leaders, the elders—wore shining pieces of armor at the neck, the breast, the arms, the thighs. Others wore chain-mail shirts, hauberks, under their ordinary shirts of Holland linen. Some had jackets of many layers of quilted cotton, that could turn or break the blow of an arrow. Some wore metal helmets shaped like deep slices of melon, that were morions, and others had hats of leather and felt shaped like little round boxes with tufted brims and jeweled brooches and expensive feathers from eastern Africa. There were suits of brocade or velvet, stained and worn from travel, padded and puffed at the shoulders and elbows. The hips and loins were covered with trunks made of leather or heavy cloth, slashed and puffed to show other stuff and color beneath. Their legs looked long and slender and ceremonial, encased in tight thick hose that reached to the groin. Soft leather boots were worn either rippled up tight on the thighs or loosely pulled down about the calves in many folds. Shoes were flat-soled-and-heeled, and had puffed and slashed toes revealing contrasting color. Everyone had cloaks, some with embroidery of gold and silver bullion, some plain, but all voluminous and expressive in gesture, whether thrown about the face for warmth or secrecy, or lifted by a sword at the rear like the rooster’s tail, and all hanging as richly from the shoulders of a hungry private soldier as from those of a hereditary gentleman.

At the waist, aslant the codpiece, nestled the dagger with hilt turned to receive the left hand instantly. At the left side, from a baldric of leather studded variously with precious stones, or gold, silver or brass rivets, hung the sword with basket guard, silver wire-wrapped hilt, and a cross guard below the grip that signified when necessary the crucifix. The private soldiers carried a variety of tall weapons—pikes, halberds, spears, lances—and some had maces, including the morning star from Germany with its long-spiked ball dangling from a length of chain. A platoon handled the heavy crossbows that with their carved and colored ornaments, graceful curved bows and stout thongs at a glance suggested some sort of plectral instrument for music. A few elite soldiers handled the heavily chased flintlock muskets bound to walnut or blackthorn stocks with thick bands of copper, brass and silver. A hardly bearded youngster in white hose and quilted body mail, with indifference masking pride, might carry the royal standard on a tall pole tipped with silk streamers and a sharp iron point.

The Spanish company spent forty days about the mouth of the Rio Grande, which they called the Rio de las Palmas. While some of the men worked on the ships—scraping barnacles, recaulking, repairing—others went into the country. They traded with the Indians, though for what and with what nobody said. Travelling eighteen miles upriver from the mouth, they found forty Indian towns—wattled reed and mud houses to come to for seafood seasons, and to leave when the roots and berries inland were ready to be eaten. There was no report of seeds planted and crops raised for food. Pineda told in sweeping general terms of the whole land he had seen, from Florida to Veracruz, and found it good, at peace, productive, healthful. He saw Indians with gold ornaments but did not say where. But of all the places he had seen he chose the River of Palms to recommend for colonization when at the end of forty days, the ships were floated, and the expeditioners embarked for their return to Jamaica, four and a third centuries ago, laden with the most desirable cargo of their time—knowledge of new lands. They were the first Europeans to see any part of the Rio Grande.


A year later in the summer Spaniards came back, again by sea, to the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas.

There were a hundred and fifty foot soldiers, seven cavalrymen, some brass cannon, and building brick and lime, with several masons, in three ships under Diego de Camargo on the lower river in that summer of 1520. Again the visitors came from Governor Garay of Jamaica, who declared in his official reports to the crown that the men of the previous year had been eager to return to their river; that they had promised the natives to do so; that it was important to keep their word to the Indians; that the Indians longed for Christianizing; and that three ships were idle and available at Jamaica for the venture. Behind the florid virtue of colonial prose lay harder fact. Cortés had made plain that other claimants to Mexico would be briskly handled. A colony, an organic evidence of true claim, would have to underlie any argument that might arise over frontiers. The Rio de las Palmas lay conveniently north of Cortes, and yet near enough to the river Pánuco where a position could be taken, and an attitude struck, to bound Cortés on the north, and extend Garay to the south. And what professional colonizer in a time of colonial genius forgot the rewards that came to the successfully bold? Literally lord of frontiers, of marches, such a one could hope to be created marquis, and know glory, before wearing a carved coronet on his tomb.

Camargo sailed up the Rio de las Palmas for about twenty miles, winding on the long and repeated curves of the river, above whose low banks that seemed like the sea floor his fat heavy little ships bulged like sea monsters cast out of their element, and could be seen from miles away on the flat coastal wilderness. The masts moved slowly among the palms, and came to rest between Indian towns on the banks.