- Historic Sites
Paul Horgan tells a lyric story of the Rio Grande Valley, where Spanish and Indian cultures met in a conflict of arms and ideas
December 1954 | Volume 6, Issue 1
It was the destiny of this river from the first to be a frontier of rivalries, a boundary of kingdoms, a dividing line between opposing ambitions and qualities of life. During the next three years, three Spanish leaders considered themselves the rightful masters of the Rio de las Palmas.
Intrigue in the colonies and at Court worked away to crumble Cortés from below. As a result of representations made to him, the Emperor in. 1525 removed the Panuco from the jurisdiction of Cortés and created a new province of Pánuco-Victoria Garayana, reaching all the way to Florida and including the Rio de las Palmas. Nuno de Guzmán, appointed governor, sailed for his new province which he reached over a year later.
And meantime, with the return of Narváez to Spain petitioning for command of the lands once granted to Garay, the Emperor made still another grant, establishing the province of Florida, reaching from the Atlantic coast to the Rio de las Palmas. Narváez was made adelantado.
Presently Panfilo de Narváez with his royal charter, four hundred men, eighty-two horses, four ships and a brigantine rode out of the harbor of Xagua in Cuba. His course was charted for the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas. His pilot had been there before, with Garay, and was believed to know the whole crescent of the great Gulf, from Pánuco to Florida. But it was a year of storms, and in early April of 1528 Narváez and his company were driven from their course by a wild south wind that blew them into the west coast of Florida, where they landed on the fifteenth. They were far—how far they could not know —from the River of Palms; but amidst hostile demonstrations by Indians, who yet wore a few golden trinkets, and discoveries of the wrecked ship and the deerskinwrapped corpses of earlier Spaniards, Narváez concocted high plans. The fleet was to proceed along the gulf coast to the Rio de las Palmas, while he and the cavalry and the bulk of the footmen marched tc the same future capital by land. There they would meet, and the city would rise, and it would not be Cortes who built it, or poor Garay, but the Adelantado Pánfilo de Narváez, with his failures in Mexico wiped out, his one eye flashing enough for the other one which Cortes had cost him, his marvellous deep commanding voice proper to a wise governor of fabulous lands united to Spain and ennobled by his own courage and zeal. The fleet caught the wind to sea, and in due course, Narváez moved overland into the wilderness, according to plan. He never reached the river that was the western boundary of his vast province. The ships of his original fleet looked for the River of Palms, there to meet him, but either did not sail far enough or passed the lazy waters of its bar-hidden estuary at night, for they never found it. They returned to their starting point on the Florida coast, but there was no sign of their captain-general. They sailed back and forth for nearly a year searching for him and the three hundred men who had disembarked with him; but to no avail; and in the end they gave up and sailed for Veracruz, in New Spain.
For seven years nothing was known of the fate that befell the remainder of the Narváez command. But when the news finally came, those who heard it were lost in marvelling at how it arrived.
A thousand miles upland from the mouth of the Rio de las Palmas, dug-out villages roofed with straw, twig and mud sat by the banks of the river. It was the same river, though nobody then knew this. The river banks were low, here and there shaded by willows and cottonwoods. A little distance back on either side, the ground was hard with gravel. Narrow deserts reached to mountains that lay parallel to the river. The leaves were turning yellow, for the first frost had come, and the hunting parties from the villages had already left for the buffalo plains to the northeast, leaving only a few people at home to care for old persons and to guard the stored harvest of beans, squashes and corn.
To the most northerly of these river villages, near the site of modern El Paso, there came walking in midNovember, 1535, two Indian women, one of whom was the returning daughter of a man who lived there. With them were two extraordinary persons, a man whose skin was light, though burned by sun and wind, and a man whose skin was black. These men showed signs of having suffered from near-starvation over a long period. They were sparsely clothed in animal skins. The women said that three days away were two other white men, escorted by a large throng of Indians of the prairies who dared not approach closer because of long-standing enmities with the village people. There was much to tell the villagers about the strangers, who were great doctors able to cure the sick and raise the dead. If the two already there in the town by the river were made welcome, the other two who waited three days away would come also. Yes, let them come, said the town people. With that, accompanied by many of the river people, the strangers set out to join their companions. Toward the end of the three days’ journey, the white men, with five or six of the villagers, went ahead to prepare the meeting, and a few miles later met the other two white men who waited in the desert with their crowd of roving prairie people. The white strangers greeted one another with joy, sharing the news of settled towns where food was to be had. They then proceeded to meet the gift-laden procession that was approaching, and with which walked the black man.