Great River


Not all, for though they did not actually see, they heard of great cities on the river to the north, with many storied houses, where there were great riches, according to the people who told them so, and in fact: there was some evidence, for the people gave them some turquoises, and five arrowheads carved out of emerald.

Emerald? Where were these? Could they be examined?

Unfortunately, they had been lost in a frontier fracas with Governor de Guzmán’s men, but were perfectly real, a bright, polished, though not transparent green.

And these fabulous arrowheads came from the cities to the north, on the river?

Yes, and had been obtained by trade with southerly Indians, who bartered parrot feathers for them. There were other things of interest, and possibly of value—beautifully made shawls better than those made in Mexico, bangles and ornaments of beads, including coral that was traded inland from the South Sea, that great ocean lying to the west.

Yes, yes, shawls and beads—was there by any chance any sign of gold and silver and other metals?

Not directly, save for a copper hawk’s-bell come upon in the prairies far inland. The trading Indians were asked, as of course all people were asked every time they met anyone, whether gold and silver were in use in the great river houses. The reply was no, they did not seem to place much value on such substances. However, in the mountains through which they had come, reported Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, he and his friends had themselves seen many signs of “gold, antimony, iron, copper, and other metals.”

Could the way be followed by strangers to the land?

Probably—certainly, if anyone went along who had once travelled it.

Good. The refugees would please prepare a written report of all they had seen, as fully as possible, to be forwarded to the home government.

It was like the imperceptible rising of a pall of smoke from unknown land which became slowly visible.

All the evidence was translated into visions of wealth. But after all, experience made it seem plausible that the northern country should be another Mexico, another Peru, where in their own terms of gold and silver the conquerors had found wealth so real and heavy that the treasure ships returning to Spain with only the King’s fifth of all colonial income were worth whole fleets of raiders to the French and British. From the very first evidence at the tropical coast, with Montezuma’s gifts to Cortés of golden suns the size of carriage wheels and the rest, there was promise in every report of an unknown land.

As interest grew in the conquest of the north, there was talk that the Spanish Governor of New Galicia, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, would be named by the Viceroy to organize and command the new colonization. He had come to Mexico in the suite of the Viceroy a year or so before, and had shown himself to be an able man of government.

Destiny and the Future

In midsummer of 1540 the Pueblo World of the river had the news of what was happening at the rocky towns to the west, in the deserts, where Zuñi people lived. New men had come, in shining garments, with tremendous animals on whose backs they rode. It seemed that these animals, with their great teeth in their long bony heads, ate people. There was a battle at the town of Hawikuh, where before the town the Indians made a line of sacred meal on the ground which they told the newcomers not to cross. One of the strangers advanced and made a long statement with a one-handed gesture to his brow, his breast, and each shoulder. More came up behind him. The Zuñis sounded their war horn, and were ready, with leather shields and bows, arrows, lances and maces. The women and the little ones and the old ones were sent many hours before to the hills beyond the town. The war captain gave the signal and arrows flew. Then came the men with the high animals, and gave war, making loud sudden noises with flashes of fire and smoke, and thrusting with hard knives as long as a leg. The Zuñis broke and ran to their town, the invaders followed, and a hot fight brought the surrender of the town in a little while. The new men broke into the food stores and ate like starving dogs. They made peace, and treated everyone kindly, though they had killed twenty Zuñis in the battle. Their chief was a grand lord who had been hurt in the fight, wearing a helmet of gold. He now recovered, and remained with his men at Hawikuh. Various chiefs from other pueblos went to see him, bringing him gifts of turkeys, animal skins and food. To them he gave marvellous little things never before seen, some to be worn, either as ornaments, like the flashing beads, or on the head, like the red caps, others to be played with, like the little bells. He made much of a sign to be given with fingers, crossed one over another, squarely, or fixed in wooden pieces. It was the mark by which they did everything. They could always be recognized by it.

There were people always moving on the long trails that went from the western deserts to the eastern plains. The news came along steadily.