The Spain Among Us

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From the twentieth-century perspective the wanderings of the first Spanish explorers have a comical element—who would look for gold in Kansas? In some books you will find Francisco Vâsquez de Coronado written down as a fool for doing exactly that (one prominent writer speaks of the “Coronado fiasco”). Then why, we might ask, have scores, even hundreds, of modern Americans, professionals and amateurs, expended fortunes in time, money, laborious study, and physical effort in trying to trace the exact path of this fool and find the merest scrap of material evidence of him? The answer is that we have learned, in large part from the efforts of the Spaniards, that the very act of seeking lies at the heart of the American character. We look for Coronado’s path because he was a great, original American seeker. He went in search of wealth and found something better instead; he found the American West. Wallace Stegner writes, “America was discovered by accident and explored to a considerable extent by people trying to find a way to somewhere else”: to India; to a Northwest Passage; to the land of El Dorado; to the fabled land of Queen Califía, for whom the Spaniards named California; or to the Seven Cities of Cíbola—Coronado’s personal dream. With some three hundred men he searched through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and into Kansas.

 

Do we still laugh that Coronado found Kansas instead of gold? In one of our own modern myths, Dorothy returns, transformed, to that very place, unburdened by the emeralds of Oz, but having learned about courage, love, and wisdom. The Spaniards were the first to learn about the transforming power of the New World, that this is a place of mirage and miracle and that the two are forever getting mixed up; that the land that refuses to yield up silver or gold dispenses, más allá , a Grand Canyon, maize, buffalo, and an Eden in the Rio Grande Valley—and, in time, the richest nation in history.

 

The Grand Canyon was discovered when Coronado sent a detachment under García López de Cárdenas to find the passes to the South Sea (the Pacific) that the Indians had told of. López went off, did not find the South Sea, but did find himself at the edge of a precipice the likes of which he had never seen before. He sent men down to the river at the bottom. It did not seem that far, judging by some rocks below that appeared to be a man’s height. The scouts came back in a few hours; too far to the river—those rocks are higher than the tallest tower in Seville!

In Texas the chronicler Pedro de Castaneda found himself in the field of dreams; the earth there was so flat it seemed round “in the shape of a ball”; it was like standing at the top of the world: “wherever a man stands … he is surrounded by the sky at the distance of a crossbow shot.” Farther on they found America’s inland sea, the ocean of grass. Walking across it was like sailing in a boat with no rudder. It could swallow an army. In amazement Castañeda watched the grass spring up again after the column had passed. “Who could believe,” he marveled, ”… they left no more traces when they got through than if no one had passed over?” One man strolled into the grass and was never seen again; the search party itself was lost for days.

 
The wanderings of the explorers can seem comical, but we learned from them how seeking lies at the heart of the American character.

At home in Mexico Castaneda pondered the worth of the enterprise: “For although they did not obtain the riches of which they had been told, they found the means to discover them and the beginning of a good land to settle in and from which to proceed onward.” ¡Más allá!

Charles F. Lummis, the great collector and savior of Southwestern art and architecture, called the Spanish the “world-finders.” A tremendous outpouring of Spanish exploration culminated in 1542, the year Coronado’s expedition ended. Hernando de Soto’s party was on its way to Mexico, having landed in Florida in 1539 and explored Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, and Alabama, crossed the Mississippi (the first Europeans to do so), and pressed up the Arkansas River into Oklahoma. At sea Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo sailed from Mexico along the Baja CaIifornian coast and discovered San Diego Bay and the Channel Islands. After Cabrillo’s death his second-in-command continued up the Pacific coast to make the first European sighting of Oregon. Ruy López de Villalobos sailed across the Pacific to a group of islands he named the Philippines. Francisco de Orellana, having ascended and descended the Andes to reach the headwaters of the Amazon, emerged at the mouth of that river after two years.

It is interesting to compare this record with that of English wanderlust. Nearly two centuries later William Byrd, upon his return from a surveying trip along the Virginia-Carolina border, wrote that “our country has now been inhabited more than 130 years by the English, and still we hardly knew anything of the Appalachian Mountains, that are no where above 250 miles from the sea.”