Great River


The stone masons, the bricks and lime, in the ships were intended for the building of a fort as the first unit of civilization on the river for defense against Indians and, possibly against other Spaniards from the south, should the boundary challenge ever be given.

Perhaps motives were never really concealed.

The Indians were friendly as Camargo and his people landed. Pineda had come and gone in peace, while the Indians watched what he did, and gave him their frail products in return for his cheap colors and shines and pretties, and let him march, if he would, seeing and seeing as if he hungered with his eyes.

Now Camargo settled heavily among the river Indians. He would have food from their stores, for his men. Superior strength in armament at times felt like personal virtue, justifying all, as in a police psychology. Other Indian possessions may have seemed suitable to take—dwellings, women, lordship, honor, liberty. The record of provocations on the one hand, and of treacheries on the other, was meagre. But one day a group of Indians turned against the Spaniards, and open hostility flared on both sides. Camargo made a show of arms, but the river people fought back, and a battle driving them to the ships in the river cost the Spaniards eighteen men and all seven horses of the cavalry. Abandoning one of their ships, the Spaniards weighed anchor in the other two and headed down river. Indians pursued them in a great fleet of canoes. The clumsy towering ships like great bullheaded fish, imprisoned by the meanders of the river, were exposed to the stinging missiles and cries of the Indians in the canoes, and others on the low banks. The distance they had to travel to reach the sea was twice as long by water as by land. But at last they came to the roiled water of the mouth, crossed the shallow bar, and headed south following the coast.

The ships were in bad repair. Nearing Veracruz, and other Spaniards, one of the ships had to be abandoned. It sank, after the men on board had safely moved to the other ship, which reached Veracruz only to settle and sink in the harbor after ten days.

Three years later, on July 25, in 1523, Governor Francisco Garay himself finally arrived at the Rio de las Palmas from Jamaica with an army of seven hundred and fifty officers and men in sixteen ships, armed with two hundred guns, three hundred crossbows, and artillery. A town was to be founded here and called Garay. The civil administration had already been established, and the alcaldes and councilmen appointed, before the Governor’s expedition had left Jamaica. He had never heard from his other two forces of 1520; but he believed that their attempts to found a colony were successful. His purpose was not only to make his capital on the River of Palms, but also to make good his claims—based on Pineda’s voyage in 1519—to all the region reaching south to the Pánuco River, despite the fiery shadow of Cortes which had already fallen across the territory. Cortés, Cortés—the name, the legend reached into the mind and affairs of every man who turned himself and his fortunes toward the New World.

Garay sent a subordinate up the river to fix upon a proper site for his city. The Governor waited at the arms of the river for a report. It came in four days, when his scouting officer returned to say that what he had seen made him conclude that the river country was unsuitable for the founding of the city of Garay.

Many men were dismayed when the Governor, almost as though seizing upon a pretext for his action, abandoned the plan to settle the Rio de las Palmas. Some urged him to remain. But he turned his face toward the south where on the Pánuco River, as he already knew, Cortés had established the town of Santiestevan. Was this to be endured by that officer of the crown who swore he had a claim to the Pánuco prior to the claim of Cortés? Garay was heard to declare that he would fight for his claim, and ordered the bulk of his army ashore, to join him in an overland march from the Rio de las Palmas to the Pánuco. The fleet he directed to follow the coast. Through hardship and loss, both land and sea forces made their way south to give battle. But what genius of success attended Cortés? On his very way to oppose Garay by force of arms rather than by legal sanction, he received in the jungle a new royal grant giving him jurisdiction over the Pánuco, superseding the one earlier made to Garay, who came only to be swept magnetically into the power of Cortés—Cortés, to whom Garay’s soldiers and sailors were eager to desert, Cortés, who never forgot anything, Cortes, to whom the Rio de las Palmas at the north was an outpost, possibly strategic, to be kept sharply in a corner of his mind, and be done about when the time came.

Garay bowed to the royal cedula and in due course was kindly, even sumptuously, received by Cortés in Mexico. There in the court of New Spain, he met another of the conqueror’s defeated rivals—Pánfilo de Narváez, who had undertaken to represent the Governor of Cuba in a matter of landing in Mexico and arresting Cortés—a venture which had cost Narváez his small army, his reputation, his freedom, and one of his eyes. The two prisoners, given every privilege, exchanged old hopes and severed dreams. To proud men, the very kindness of Cortés could be terrible; for only to rivals rendered harmless could he show so much. Governor Garay died before the new year, of a broken heart it was said, after leaving Cortés as executor of his will, and Narváez as the inheritor of his hope to colonize the River of Palms.