Skip to main content

Great River

July 2024
75min read

Paul Horgan tells a lyric story of the Rio Grande Valley, where Spanish and Indian cultures met in a conflict of arms and ideas

Great River is the story of the Rio Grande Valley and the four great cultures which have flourished there: Indian, Spanish, Mexican and Anglo-American. The selection published here covers the story of the Spanish explorers, from the appearance of Pineda’s fleet at the river’s mouth to the bitter end of Coronado’s search for the golden city of Quivira.

No other book of American history this season has received such rousing critical acclaim. Carl Carmer called it “one of the major masterpieces of American historical writings.” Orville Prescott in the New York Times prophesied it would win the Putilizer Prize or the National Book Award “or both.”

Published in two volumes (price $10), Great River was fourteen years in the writing. Paul Morgan is a native of Buffalo, N.Y., but has lived in the Southwest since he was twelve and has written of it in novels, stories and essays. In the course of research for his magnum opus he traveled three times the full length of the Rio Grande’s 1,800 miles, with side trips into every corner of the Southwest.


As it came to the sea at the Gulf of Mexico the river turned from side to side in looping bends and dragging effort like a great ancient dying snake. The land was white with sea shells and crusty with salty sand. On the low dunes hard tall ranks of grass stood up in thin blades that cut if touched. The sky was low, even in sunlight. Air over the sea thickened and thinned as wind and moisture played. Someone watching the sea where the river flowed its brown water into salty gray waves that broke shoreward forever, someone looking and idly turning his head, saw the low lines of the whole world—pale horizon, vapory sky, wide-shadowed green sea, the mist-white shore with its reed huts scattered close to the river, and the drying nets, and the powdery browns of the people moving at what they did. Warm in the fall, the days expected nothing new. The search for clams, crabs, oysters went on, and the dwellers watched for signs that the edible root of the sand dunes was coming into season. Now and then a memory of outrage by other people inland, or from up and down the coast, returned and brought caution. Enemies always came on foot. Sometimes all their dogs and children and women came too, and waited in the land haze for the outcome of battle. On some days the distance was blue with misty heat and the aisles of palm trees along the river could be taken for smoke far away.

Looking to the land for food and protection, and to the sky for weathers that told the immediate future, the beach people kept no guard seaward, where the water birds dived with sounds like splintering rock, and the clouds now met and hung over everything and again separated and travelled like misty pearls and trailed shadows like mother of pearl over the waters that were never still, and yet always the same, forever long as anyone remembered, forever and forever.

Yet the sea, the light, the clouds, had the power of making image and marvel out of nothing, phantoms to loom and fade. Perhaps it was so with the vision of change that became visible on the sea one day.

One, then another, and another, and another, sharp cloud came clear of the horizon. They moved close on the surface of the water. They rested on dark bulks. They came toward shore, all four of them. They were not clouds, then, but houses on the water, with trees standing out of them holding up great mats in the air. All four moving slowly could turn in accord like birds. Each time they turned they crossed a line nearer to the beach. Before long they were moving in the water that was made brown by the run of the river into the sea. The mats were shaken and changed, the bulks drifted, and all four came into the arms of the river, and in the moving houses were men amazingly decorated. Voices stranger than any before echoed across the water.

Twenty-seven years after Columbus’s first discoveries, it was a day in the autumn of 1519 Anno Domini when four ships of Jamaica stood in through the veils of sea air to the mouth of the Rio Grande, and the point of view was about to be changed for the next three hundred years from that of the river Indian to that of the European soldiers, sailors, civil servants and friars on board the little fleet.

With their coming, the golden haze of the Indian story along the river began to lift. Hitherto, the river people had been without individuality. Time was unrecorded and experience was halted within each generation. There was no way of setting down the past and of letting it recede. The ancient people were trapped in an eternity of the present tense.

Now against the moving backdrop of the civilized world, the little fleet dropped anchor in the brown river water, and someone on board recorded the act. Leo X was Pope, the earthly source of all legitimate authority. The Emperor Charles V, King of Spain, was planning to go to Germany to preside at hearings of Martin Luther. In England Henry VIII was King, and the righteous author of an essay condemning Luther for defection from the Faith. In France, as guest and employee of Francis I, Leonardo da Vinci died. Ferdinand Magellan was nearing Tierra del Fuego in his first voyage around the globe. There were no European colonies anywhere in North America. Deep in Mexico, to the south, the passion to conquer smoldered like hidden coals under the courtesy with which the Captain-General Hernando Cortés approached the Emperor Montezuma high in his capital.

The four ships of the little fleet were under the command of Captain Alonso Alvarez de Pineda. With him were two hundred and seventy Spanish men-at-arms. They had been afloat since the previous spring. Their orders, issued by Francisco Garay, governor of Jamaica, directed them to coast along the shores of Florida as far as they might in order to find a water passage to the Orient. For a while the term Florida signified the whole immense crescent of the Gulf of Mexico. Pineda logged rivers and bays, but he had not found the strait for Cathay when in August he came upon other Spaniards already ashore at Veracruz.

There was an incident at Veracruz. Pineda anchored his fleet in the harbor. The ships were reported to the Spanish commander ashore—Cortés, who at once went with fifty soldiers to investigate. No newcomers were welcome on that shore. Cortés had already sunk his own ships. His men were ready with his own spirit to take Mexico, for by now they had seen with him the gifts brought with soft messages by ambassadors from Montezuma; and they lusted for such a country. The feathered ambassadors had laid before Cortés an image of the sun, beautifully chased, of pure gold, the size of a carriage wheel, alone worth more than twenty thousand crowns; a larger disc, of silver, which was the moon; a helmet full of raw gold to the value of three thousand crowns; thirty excellently modelled gold figures of ducks, dogs, lions, deer, monkeys and tigers; ornaments—rods, collars, plumes of feathers, fans, all done in gold or silver; headdresses of precious green parrot feathers. Cortés wanted none to help, and none to share, in the ravishment of Mexico. Coming to the Veracruz beach with his soldiers to see who anchored offshore and what was wanted, he did not see Pineda, but met a notary and two soldiers from the anchored fleet, who in ceremony took possession of these lands for Governor Garay of Jamaica.

Cortés at once had them arrested and denuded. Putting three of his own men in the clothes of the captives, he sent them in the landing-party’s own boat to hail the ships to send ashore. A small boat with twelve men in it put in to the beach, and four came from it through the surf carrying crossbows and guns. Cortés’s men sprang out of hiding and surrounded them. The small boat pushed off in alarm, and as it reached the nearest anchored ship, the fleet was already making sail. It departed.

So Cortés knew from his captives that the coasting expedition was also charged with laying claim to lands; and Pineda knew that a ruthless and powerful campaign was afoot in Mexico. Plunging heavily northward, the four ships travelled along the barren coast which at that season was also mild. There were no signs of other Spaniards, there were nothing but naked brown staring creatures as Pineda brought the squadron to the mouth of the river that reached inland and showed its course by its aisle of palm trees. The tallest masts of the vessels reached as high as the highest palms. At rest, the ships looked heavy and swollen, with their high bows and bulging sides and tall, suddenly narrowed housing at the stern where rows of windows framed in gilt carving flashed slowly when the hulls veered. Either under sail, or with sail furled as now, the ships looked to be nodding forward, across their own bowsprits.

Seen close to, their mystery vanished. Their clinker-built planking was crusted with barnacles. When an unloading port in the side was opened, and men leaned out gazing, a wave of foul air was let go. What looked like a cloud on the horizon was dirty coarse sailcloth with faded heraldic painting on it. The hulls were perhaps a third as long as the masts were high. A small boat was launched over the side to bring Pineda ashore. It was then proper style to step into the surf when the boat grounded and, drawing a sword, slash the blade into the waves, stating at the same time that these waters, and this land, and all in their provinces, now came under the possession of His Most Catholic Majesty.

Company from the ships followed the captain ashore. They were in general slender and muscular people, not very tall, but finely proportioned. Their heads were narrow, their faces oval, their hands and fingers long, their shoulders sloping. Moving with grace, and a certain suggestion of repose, they yet could in an instant flare into violence, sparring with blade or pike swift and deadly. Their skin was tough and swarthy, taking the light with a faint tarnish of gold, and turning in shadow with warm darks that suggested embers buried but alive and ardent. They kept their dark hair cropped like caps hugging their tall skulls. Many of them, even youths, wore mustaches that curved out about the mouth to meet sharply pointed beards under the lower lip. The lips were exposed, ruddy and sharply scrolled. These swarthy faces flashed alive with startling whites—the whites of eyes set off by the piercing black of their pupils, and the whites of teeth showing through lips parted for the breath of interest. Their eyes were set deep and often showed black shadows under the carved shell of their brows.

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.

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.


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.

Upland River

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.

The meeting in the desert was ceremonious. The river dwellers brought gifts of beans, squashes, gourds, robes of buffalo fur, and other things. These were bestowed upon the strange doctors in friendship. Now the plains people and the river people confronted one another. They did not speak one another’s tongues, and were enemies. The doctors gathered up the gifts they had just received and gave them to the roaming people who had come there as escorts, and asked them to go back to their own people and away from their enemies, which they did.

With the others, the doctors then marched to the river dwellings, and as night came with the November chill they reached the houses. Great celebrations were held for the visitors, who gave thanks in prayer for having found those people, with whom they stayed all night and a day. On the second morning they began to travel again, accompanied by the people, going up the river which ran brown and shallow between earthen banks below two mountains that made a pass. Messengers went ahead. On the streambanks beyond the mountains the doctors found other towns where they were received with different signs of friendship. When the strangers came into houses they found the people seated facing the wall, with lowered heads, and their hair hiding their faces. In tribute to the visitors the householders had heaped all their possessions in the middle of the room from which when greetings had been exchanged they gave presents of robes and animal skin. The people were strong and energetic, with beautiful bodies and lively intelligence. The young and able men went wholly naked, the women and old feeble men clothed in deerskin. They freely and aptly answered questions put to them by the strangers.

Why did they not plant corn?

Because all they had left was seed corn on which they were living.

How was this?

Because there had been no rain for two years. Seed put into the fields was stolen by the moles, who could find nothing else to eat, since nothing grew in the dry years. The summer sun destroyed what the winter cold had not killed. The people begged the doctors to invoke rain for them from the sky, and the doctors acquiesced.

Where did the corn come from?

From that place where the sun went down.

Ah. And how did a man reach that place?

The shortest way to it was in that very direction, to the west, but the proper way was to go up the river toward the north. Even so, anyone would have to walk for seventeen days before finding anything to eat except chacan (juniper berries) which even when ground between stones was too dry and bitter to enjoy, though birds ate it, and brown bears in the mountains. Here, they said, try it, producing some. The strangers tried, but could not eat it.

Leaving the people, who would not go with them, they walked on the trail up the river’s east bank. Every night they came to other people who received them with gifts of buffalo robes, and offered them chacan, which they did not eat, but lived instead on little stores of deer suet that they had hoarded against starvation. For fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen days the three white men and the black man made their way along the depleted river from village to village. And then, below the shoulder of the mountain that made them change their course (the southern tip of the Caballo range) they crossed over to the other bank, and diminishing as they toiled away from the river until they were mere specks in that speckled land, they finally vanished into the west.

Behind them were seven years of impossible endurance and determination to survive—impossible, except that they endured and survived; for these four were all that remained free and alive in 1536 out of the whole armored and bannered company that had landed in April of 1528 on the west shore of Florida with Pánfilo de Narváez, by royal charter hereditary Grand Constable, Governor, Captain-General and Adelantado of that kingdom in fantasy. The mission of Narváez— to know the country from Florida to the Rio de las Palmas—was at last carried out by members of his company, however unexpectedly.

One of the four starving travellers was the royally appointed Treasurer of the Rio de las Palmas. His name was Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and he came from Jerez de la Frontera in Spain. He did not know his own river when he found it. The others were Captain Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, of Salamanca, and Andres Dorantes de Carrança, of Bejar, who owned the last man of the four, the Moorish Negro slave Estebanico.

The river saw them no more. But with them they carried its image and its legend. Weeks later they came among people who told them more of life to the north. There was a great river—and again it was the same river—where lived many people in big towns with immense houses. They were people of wealth, and had many fine and desirable things, like these blue stones, and these green arrowheads, five of them—here, take them—which, the Spaniards thought, shone like emeralds. Emeralds treated like common flint for arrowheads! For such treasures, Indians went on a long trail crossing the deserts and mountains to the great housecities of the north on the river, and traded yellow, scarlet, blue and orange macaw feathers, and the tiny green breast feathers of little parrots for them. At the right times of the year the trail was well-travelled.

The four travellers followed it to the south, and took with them in experience and memory all they had seen and all they had been told, that would soon reveal a whole new world to those whom they at last met—Spanish soldiers bearded and helmeted, mounted on horses, armed with swords and lances, at the outposts of the slave trade in the province of New Galicia whose governor was the former governor of the River of Palms, Nuño de Guzmán.

They were delivered from their prison of space. The wilderness of their tremendous passage ceased to be an abstraction as soon as they found succor amongst those who could hear what they had to tell, Spaniard to Spaniard.

The Travellers’ Tales

They were given clothes to wear, and after seven years of nakedness they could scarcely endure the feeling of cloth. They were given beds to sleep in, but for many nights could not sleep anywhere but on the ground. Their rescuers wept and prayed with them giving thanks for their delivery out of the barbarian lands. But there were bitter discoveries to make again of rapacity and greed among their own kind as represented by Governor Guzmán’s men at Culiacan. Still, every sense of the value inherent in their extraordinary —and exclusive—news of vast new kingdoms helped to urge Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his companions on to the city of Mexico, where they arrived on Sunday, July 25, 1536. Here there were two men who more than anyone else wanted to see them, to question them, and to glean their treasure of information.

One was the Viceroy, Don Antonio Mendoza, maintaining in his palace a state proper to the direct representative of the Emperor Charles V, with sixty Indian servants, three dozen gentlemen in his bodyguard, and trumpets and kettledrums.

The other—how could it have been otherwise so long as he breathed?—the other was the Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, Cortés, starving for a renewal of conquest, and gnawing on his pride like a dog on a bare bone. Still restless, he still saw the new continent as exclusively the vessel of his aging energies.

The sabbatical refugees were splendidly received, now by the Viceroy, now by Cortés, and given fine clothes and other gifts. On the feast day of St. James the Apostle, a bull fight was arranged with a fiesta to honor the heroes. Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was put up at the viceregal palace.

The travellers had much to tell:

How seven years before with the whole company they had set out with the Grand Constable in Florida to find the rich inland country of Apalachen where they were promised gold and food, and how when they got there all they saw was a starving tribe of belligerent Indians; how days of roaming brought them nothing better; how the Governor fell ill and irresolute; how they tried to find the sea again and, having found it, how they wondered whether they could build boats in which to go by water to the River of Palms; how they had no tools or crafts with which to build boats; and yet how one day a soldier volunteered to make pipes out of tree branches and bellows out of deerskins; how they turned their stirrups, spurs, crossbows into nails, axes, saws and other tools, and set to work; how in twenty days with only one real carpenter among their number they constructed five boats about thirty feet long, caulked with palm fibre, and rigged with ropes made from horsehair, and sails made from Spanish shirts, and oars carved out of willow; how two hundred and two men embarked for the River of Palms in the five boats on the twenty-second of September in 1528, and how when all were loaded, the sea reached to within the spread of a thumb and little finger of the gunwales, and how men could hardly move for fear of swamping; how nobody in the party knew navigation; how they drifted west in hunger, and thirsted when the water containers made from the whole skins of horses’ legs rotted and would not serve further; how it was when men died from drinking sea water; how when they landed now and then to forage they were attacked by Indians; how winds and currents drove the boats apart from one another; how the Captain-General dissolved his command, saying it was each man for himself, and how he himself in his boat vanished out to sea one night in high weather and was never again seen; how two of the boats were blown ashore and broken on a barren island near the coast; how those who escaped, now only eighty in number, came to land naked and skeletal; how they passed the winter there amidst Indians, digging in the shallows for roots until January; how they agreed to demands by Indians to effect cures of the sick, praying the Pater Noster and the Ave Maria, which healed the infirm; how they were enslaved as root diggers by the Indians; how Nunez Cabeza de Vaca became a trader between coastal and inland people, taking from the shore such things as sea snail, conch shell for use as knives, sea beads, and berries, and bringing from inland in return skins, reeds or canes to make arrows of, hide thongs, ochre for face-painting, and tassels of deer hair; how others of the company died until eighty became fifteen, and those became four, threatened and terrorized by In- dians through the years of captivity and constant movement from sea to plains, from plains to rivers, according to the seasons of food; how the company sliced and dried the flesh of their companions who died, and ate it to live; how the mosquitoes caused such torment that the people at times set fire to forests and grasses to drive them off; how they saw buffalo, some tawny, some black, with small horns; how the ground fire-hot from the sun in summer burned their bare feet as they wandered naked; how the four friends were separated many times when their Indian masters of different tribes met and parted; how the friends escaped and came to friendlier tribes inland among whom they became, all four of them, powerful doctors of medicine, making cures by the grace of God, and even as Núñez Cabeza de Vaca did, restoring to life an Indian admitted to be dead; how going naked under the sun they shed their skins twice a year like snakes, and carried open sores on their shoulders and breasts, and were torn by thorns in the heavy brush of the inland country; how the Indians saw and heard better and had sharper senses than any other people they had ever seen; how one day they were given two gourd rattles by Indian doctors who said these had come floating by a river from the north; how another day they saw a hawk’s-bell of copper, carved with a face, which they were told came from a country where there was much copper; how in a new tribe they came among, the men hunted rabbits driving the animal ever closer to each other and finally striking it with a club most accurately thrown; how these people were hospitable and hunted deer, quail and other game for them, and at night made them shelters of mats; how as they moved the people, three or four thousand strong, went with them and asked of them cures, blessings, and breathings of sanctification upon their very food, until their duties became a great burden; how these people never spoke to one another, and punished a crying child by scratching it from shoulder to calves with the sharp teeth of a rat in punishment; how through the summers and winters of seven years these and countless other memories came with them in their powerful will to keep walking to the west, to the west; how they avoided the courses of rivers that flowed south and east which would return them to the miseries of the seacoast and its barbarians; and how they looked for rivers that flowed south and west, which might lead them out of the unknown land toward the mapped places of New Spain. …


And by the grace of God, they had indeed found their countrymen. Now—continued the voice of government—after all the abuses and hardships so admirably survived, was there then information as to the material resources seen along the journey?

Nothing but the utmost in degrading poverty for the first six years, until the travellers moved westward through mountains, and encountered the river where the corn-raisers lived. Given rain, it must be good country. They saw it.

Was that all?

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.

One day in August of that summer the old chief of the pueblo of Pecos, that stood at the gateway to the plains to the east of the river, came to the river pueblos on a journey. With him he brought a few of his people, including a young chief who wore long mustaches. He had heard of what had happened to the Zuñis, and he was going to see for himself. Word had travelled that the new man at Hawikuh would be glad to see chiefs from the country. The newcomers at Hawikuh were strange people, and bold men, and should be met and examined. Travelling by the pueblos on the river, the chief from Pecos and his party crossed over to the west and made their way in the August heat over the desert to the town where the amazing thing had happened.

When he arrived with his party at Hawikuh, he was without delay taken to see the commander of the invasion, whose name was given as General Don Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. The travellers identified themselves. The old chief of the pueblo of Pecos because of his position was at once called Cacique, and the young chief, because of his long mustaches, was called Bigotes. Friendly greetings were exchanged and gifts—on the one hand little glass dishes, and pearl beads, and little bells; on the other, dressed animal skins, and leather shields, and headdresses.

Bigotes spoke for the callers. He was a tall, handsomely made young man, a person of authority. He said they had come in response to the General’s invitation to the people of this land to meet him as friends. He put his hands on himself and then toward the General. If the other soldiers and the General wished to come to his own land—he pointed to the east—then they would be welcomed, and in the air he made designs to enlarge his meaning.

The General was touched, and showed his gratitude. He was himself a tall and handsome young man, with dark gold hair, mustaches and beard, and blue eyes. He gave himself a fine bearing and was beautifully dressed, with leather, velvet, brocade and linen. He indicated that he would know more of the lands from which Bigotes and his friends came.

There to the east, told Bigotes with word and hand, lay the plains, so wide, so flat, so far, where the cattle were, with great bodies, little hooves, heads lowered, short curled horns, and beards, thus, from the chin.

The General knew of those before, from the reports of Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. One by one the pieces of the map fell into place.

Now it was clear that there was much to see and the General wanted to ask one of his first captains to go to see it. He presented Captain Hernando de Alvado, commander of the artillery. Captain de Alvarado, with twenty soldiers, and the chaplain Fray Juan Padilla, was to accompany the Indian visitors on their return to their homelands, and take up to eighty days if necessary to make a proper reconnaissance of the territory to the east.

Bigotes and Cacique found that this could be arranged, and at once proposed to accompany Alvarado as his guides and to sponsor him in friendship among the people they would meet and whose towns they must pass as they went, toward the land of the cattle.

So it was settled. The General had already sent other expeditions to the west and the northwest, who would report back to Hawikuh which he now called Granada, both because it somewhat resembled the town in Spain, and also to honor the Viceroy, who came from the old Granada. Captain de Alvarado now with his little force of sixteen cavalry, four dismounted crossbowmen and a chaplain, along with the Indian party would be able to furnish much information. The General would remain at Granada until he received all reports from his scouting forces in the field. Then, in a position to move wisely, he would decide where to take the bulk of the army, which awaited his word in the Sonora Valley to the south, and establish its winter quarters.

The General saw Alvarado and his company off to the east on Sunday, August 29, 1540, which was the feast day of the beheaded St. John. The unknown lay vastly all about him to the west, the north and the east. His health was restored to him after the wounds he had suffered in the battle for Hawikuh, when because of his gilded armor and his place of command in the vanguard of his troops he had been the chief target of the Indian defenders. Storming the walls among his men, he had suffered piercing arrows and a rain of heavy stones thrown down from the parapets. Alvarado and another captain, Garcia de Cárdenas, had saved his life and borne him away unconscious, and for the duration of the battle they had thought he must die.

But now the town was at peace, the Indians made paintings for him on hides, showing the animals of the region, that he could send to the Viceroy, and he worked on his reports, and awaited news from his field forces.

Not too many years before an odd thing had happened in Salamanca, his home in Spain. It was the kind of thing to which thought now and then returned. It seemed that in his young days he had a friend who was an adept in mathematics and other sciences. One day they had a conversation in which destiny and the future came up. The mathematician looked at him and told him that he was destined in the future to find himself in faraway lands.


Yes, and furthermore, that he would become a man of high position and much power.

Position? Power?

Yes, but alas, he was to suffer a fall from which he would never recover.

A fall?

The mathematician told him no more; but already at Granada in the Indian wastes of the most remote northerly marches of the Indies of the Ocean Sea, the General of the Army Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was undertaking new kingdoms for the Crown. Was the prophecy two-thirds fulfilled?

Faith and Bad Faith

On the evening of September 7, 1540, Alvarado and his company on the way to the plains came to a river which Indians called P’osoge, or Big River. Upstream, they said, were many towns, and downstream a few others. Here the banks were gentle, with cottonwoods and willows and wild fields of grass. On the west side were gravelly terraces and on the east, a band of desert rising far away into a long range of blue mountains parallel to the river. The evening light there arched yellow and vast overhead and the full river ran brown and silky to the south. The Spaniards were near the site of the modern Indian town of Isleta.

The river they named the River of Our Lady, because they had discovered it on the eve of her feast day —the Rio de Nuestra Senora.

Alvarado ordered his tent pitched, and at once sent Indian guides bearing a cross to the river towns of the north, to announce his coming.

The march from Vàsquez de Coronado’s headquarters at Granada had taken a week, during which they had passed other towns, notably Acoma, the citadel on the rock. Alvarado declared that it was one of the strongest ever seen. The town, of three- and four-storied houses, sat on a great mesa of red rocks four hundred feet high, or, as Spaniards measured, about as many feet as a shot from a harquebus would travel. The ascent was so difficult that, he said, they were sorry they tried it. It was a well-provisioned town, with corn, beans and turkeys. They passed on eastward and came to a big lake with abundant trees that reminded them of those of Castile. And then they reached the river.

On the next day came Indians from twelve pueblos with friendly greetings. They formed a little procession and came to Alvarado’s tent, the group from each pueblo following in turn. An Indian played on a flute as they marched. After circling the tent, they entered and presented the Captain with food, skins and blankets, and an old man spoke for all of them. In return Alvarado gave them little gifts, and they withdrew.

Alvarado pursued such a good beginning. His party moved northward along the river. They saw its groves of cottonwoods and its wide fields, and the twelve towns of the province where they were, which was called Tiguex, and the two-storied houses built of mud. In the fields by the towns they saw cotton plants, and they took notice of the rich produce of melons, beans, corn, turkeys and other foods that the people raised, and they saw that the people, following the ways of the farmer, were more peaceable than warlike. Here the people did not go naked, but wore mantles of cotton and robes of dressed hides, and cloaks of turkey feathers. Their hair was worn short. Among them, the governing power lay with the elders of the town, who made certain odd statements, such as that they could rise to the sky at their pleasure. Alvarado believed that they must be sorcerers.

Lying all about the river country were other provinces with eighty scattered towns. From these the leaders came to greet Alvarado in peace. With Bigotes guiding him, he continued his progress up the river from town to town until he came to a black canyon cutting through a high plain. He ascended the plain for there was no passage in the canyon. On the plain he came to a town remarkable for its size and the number of its stories, and for the fact that it lay in two parts, with a creek running between. He understood it to be called Braba, and was invited to lodge there. But he declined with thanks, and camped without. It was the pueblo of Taos. He thought it had fifteen thousand people. The weather was cold. It appeared that the people worshipped the sun and the water.

Wherever they went, Alvarado’s company planted crosses and taught the people to venerate them. In the bare ground before the towns, the large crosses stood, and to them the Indians prayed in their fashion. They freed sprinkles of corn meal and puffs of pollen before the crosses. They brought their prayer sticks of feathers and flowers. To reach the arms of the cross, an Indian would climb on the shoulders of another, and others brought ladders which they held while another climbed, and then with fibres of yucca they were able to tie their offerings to the cross, bunches of sacred feathers and wild roses… .

All this Captain de Alvarado and Fray Juan de Padilla wrote to the General at Granada, telling him of good pasture land for the horses and domestic animals, and sending him a buffalo head and several loads of Indian clothing and animal skins, and a map of the country they had seen, and advising him to bring the army to the River of Our Lady for the winter, as it was much the best country they had yet seen. The report was dispatched by courier.

With this first duty done, Alvarado with his own men and the Indian guides departed from the river to go east to see the cattle plains.

His report to the General brought early and positive results. Don García López de Cardenas, captain of cavalry, with thirteen or fourteen cavalrymen and a party of Indian allies from Mexico and Hawikuh, came to the river with orders to prepare winter quarters for the whole army.

Cardenas came to the twelve towns of Tiguex, and near the most southerly, on the west bank, he began to prepare campsites in the open, opposite the site of modern Bernalillo. It was October, and the bosky cottonwoods were turning to pale bronze above the brown run of the river. The days were golden and warm, but the nights were beginning to turn cold. The soldiers shivered in their open camp.

Now and then, when the light was gone, and all was quiet, and the smokes of evening no longer dawdled in the still air above the pueblo near-by, an Indian here, and another there, would quietly appear among the soldiers in their camp. They looked to see where the sentries were, and if they were on guard. In their expressionless way the Indians would seek out soldiers and communicate a suggestion to them. Did they want to wrestle? And a soldier or two, off duty, would get up, and with every appearance of good will, take up the challenge. The wrestling pairs went at their game. Something about the way of the Indian wrestlers made the Spaniards think. It was almost as though the Indians with a buried idea were trying out the strength of the soldiers. The nights were cold. The soldiers shivered.

A hard winter was coming. One October night the snow fell on the soldiers in the open fields. What would the whole army do when it arrived to camp on the river?

Cardenas presented himself to the chief of the nearby pueblo on the west bank, which was called Alcanfor, and asked him to move his people into other pueblos of the province, to leave the Spaniards a town to themselves, where not only the small advance guard but the main body of the army, when it arrived, could be given shelter. The Indian governor gazed upon him and finally agreed to do as he asked. Taking nothing but their clothes the Indians left their houses, and the soldiers moved in, settling themselves and making arrangements for the arrival of the General. The garrison —only fourteen cavalry soldiers and a handful of Indian infantry from the west and south—hoped for the early arrival of the General and the whole army. Amidst the pueblos they felt alien and uneasy.

There was, somehow, a feeling of more trouble in the air. It was something of a relief when Captain de Alvarado returned to the river from the eastern cattle plains. He came dragging four people in iron collars and chains, and he had an animated story of his adventures to tell Cárdenas and the others at Alcanfor:

Eastward, through a mountain pass, beyond which were many other pueblos in ruins, and a turquoise mine, and another spine of mountains, there was the largest town yet to be seen by any of the explorers. It was Pecos, where Bigotes and Cacique had come from. There the chiefs and their Spanish friends were received with drums and flageolets, and gifts of clothing and turquoises. There the soldiers rested for a few days, feasting, and listening to stories of the kingdoms of the plains that lay beyond.

The stories were told by two captive Indian slaves who came from the plains and belonged to Bigotes and Cacique. One, a young man, was called Isopete. The other, because he looked like one, was named the Turk by Alvarado. These two must be the guides for a march to the cattle country. Bigotes decided to stay behind when the rest of them set out.

They went south by a river (the Pecos) with red rock and water and then left it to follow a smaller river, eastward. The Turk learned to speak a little Spanish. With that, and by gestures, he began to talk about a land of Quivira far to the east. Gold, silver, silks. Rich harvests. Great towns. Alvarado listened as they travelled. Soon they were in sight of endless herds of buffalo, and they hunted among them, bringing the big running bulls down with lances. Several horses were killed by the charging buffalo and others were wounded. If the cattle stood and stared with their bulging eyes sidewise, the soldiers killed them with harquebuses.


Gold, continued the Turk, and for proof, there was a gold bracelet that he himself had brought from Quivira when captured by Bigotes.

Where was the bracelet then?

Bigotes had it, at home, in Pecos.

Was he sure?

Very sure, and he added other details of precious wealth in the far plains kingdom.

Alvarado’s commission of eighty days was then over half spent, and he decided to turn back to Pecos to take from Bigotes the Turk’s golden bracelet as proof of what lay waiting for the General in Quivira. He ordered his party back to Pecos. The Turk cautioned him. He must on no account mention the bracelet to Bigotes. But on arrival, after receiving new gifts of provisions, Alvarado demanded the bracelet.

Bigotes and Cacique were bewildered. What bracelet?

The bracelet of gold they had taken from the arm of the Turk, here.

They declared that the Turk was lying. There was no such bracelet.

With that, Alvarado retired to his tent, and sent for Bigotes and Cacique. When they appeared, he had them clapped into chains for denying him what he asked for, and ordered the Turk to be kept in arrest as a witness. Trouble followed. The people of Pecos hearing what had happened to their chiefs came to Alvarado’s camp crying bad faith, and discharging arrows. Presently the Turk escaped. A parley followed. Alvarado agreed to release the captive Cacique if he and his men would bring back the Turk. When they did so, Alvarado put them back in chains again, and again there was an outcry from the Indians. And then the land of Pecos was threatened by enemy Indians from another province. Alvarado and his men helped the Indian war party to go and defeat the enemy. The captive chiefs were released for the campaign, but in the course of it, the Turk once again escaped, taking Isopete with him. Once again Bigotes and Cacique were sent to recapture the slaves, and returning without them, were still again put in chains.

“I will keep you so until the Turk is delivered to me,” declared Alvarado, whereupon the fugitives were brought back by other Indians. The battle campaign was abandoned as suddenly as it had been started, and Alvarado, bringing his four prisoners in iron collars and chains, marched westward to report to the General at Granada. But coming to the River of Our Lady he found Cárdenas and the others already at Alcanfor, and heard that the General himself with a large advance guard was on his way to the river. Alvarado halted there to wait for him with the enlivening news of the golden bracelet and all that it must mean.

Facing Battle

At Granada, to the west, by late November, the main body of the army had arrived from the south under command of Captain Tristan de Arellano. The General received them warmly, and gave orders that they should rest for twenty days and then follow him east to the river, for he was leaving with thirty men to establish his winter headquarters at Alcanfor. He took a different trail from that of Alvarado and Cardenas, striking to the southeast, meeting cold weather and for three days finding no water. Just before coming to the river he passed through a province of eight pueblos called Tutahaco, where the people were peaceable. Hearing of further towns down the river, the General sent Captain Francisco de Ovando, perhaps his most popular officer, to explore them and rejoin him at Alcanfor in the Tiguex province. Then turning upstream the General made his way in the winter valley, with all its dry golden, earthen pink and river-brown colors, to the town commandeered by his advance guard, where he arrived in the afternoon of an early December day, pleased to see the garrison established under Cardenas, and especially pleased to find Alvarado already returned from the cattle plains. The very first evening, the General sent for Alvarado to tell his story. Alvarado, who brought the Turk with him, made his report. The General then turned to the Turk. What, then, was this country like to the east of the cattle?

Oh, there was a vast river, two leagues across, where the fish were as big as the Spanish horses. On it floated great numbers of long canoes, carrying sails, with more than twenty oarsmen on each side. At their prow were large golden eagles. Under canopies at the stern the lords of the country took their ease. The ruler of that kingdom slept in the afternoons under a large tree in whose branches were hung countless little golden bells which beguiled him as they rang in the breeze.

The Turk spoke earnestly and openly. It was impossible not to believe him.

Was he sure of what he meant by gold?

Acochis , he replied. That was gold.

The General showed him some ornaments made of tin. Was this gold?

The Turk leaned over and smelled of the tin, and said that of course it was not gold, he knew gold and silver very well, and in fact, did not, as it happened, himself, care for any other metals.

Then there was silver, too?

Yes, all the ordinary table service was of silver, and larger pieces, like pitchers, bowls and platters, were of gold.

(Hardly thirty years before, the Emperor Montezuma had sent Cortes, at the seacoast, an image of the sun as large as a carriage wheel, and all of solid gold… .)

The General was enthralled.

What of the golden bracelet, then?

The Turk repeated that it had been wrested from him by Bigotes, and hidden at Pecos.

How could it be obtained?

Why, if they would let him go there alone, without Bigotes, the Turk would find it and bring it straight back to prove all he had been saying.

The General excused him, and he was led away. Alvarado advised strongly against releasing the Turk. He had long tried to escape from his enslavement; now could he be trusted to do as he promised? Bigotes, with the other captives, was at Alcanfor and could be questioned. With the advice of Fray Juan de Padilla, the General ordered him and Alvarado together to question Bigotes further. Much depended upon what they could learn from the young chief.

That night the captain and the friar took the prisoner to the fields near the pueblo and interrogated him. Bigotes denied everything all over again. They concluded that he was lying. Alvarado knew what was commonly done in cases of that sort. He ordered some of the army’s dogs turned loose upon Bigotes. But even though bitten on an arm and both legs, the prisoner refused to confirm the Turk’s story. Later, the lacerated Bigotes, with Isopete and the Turk, were delivered in shackles to Cardenas for safekeeping. Cacique, the fourth prisoner, an old man, though not chained was also retained in custody. The news of their treatment filtered through the pueblo settlements, behind whose impassive walls it made bitterness among the river people.

But now for the moment the General had more immediate problems to solve. The garrison was growing, and in less than three weeks his main force would arrive. Most of them were used to warmer southern climates. Already some of the Mexican Indians and Negroes with the army had died of the freezing weather. It was a sharp December in the river valley. He would need additional clothing for his troops. The Indian people seemed to have ample supplies of cloth of their own manufacture—cotton, and yucca fibre in which strips of rabbit fur were twisted. A requisition would have to be levied.

The General sent for an Indian who was called Juan Alemán, after a man in Mexico of the same name whom he resembled. Juan was a chief of Moho, a pueblo fifteen miles up the river. He had shown himself to be friendly. The General now asked him to collect from all twelve towns of Tiguex a requisition of three hundred articles of clothing or cloth with which to dress the soldiers.

Juan Alemán replied that he was unable to speak for more than one pueblo, as each was independently governed and would have to be approached separately.

With this, the General designated officers to visit the pueblos one by one and collect the levy. The order was promptly carried out. Some of the Spaniards did their duty considerately, others roughly. But in all cases the Indians had no chance to prepare for the demand, and time and again submitted by taking the clothes off their backs to hand to the soldiers, some of whom while foraging also took the opportunity to come away with corn, turkeys and other edibles. The river people lived from season to season, for the most part. Privation for them must follow the stern removal of their modest possessions, even though, in obedience to the strict command of the Viceroy, nothing was taken from the native people without reimbursement. But beads and little bells would not keep the people of Tiguex warm as winter fell, or feed their mouths as their harvest, gleaned with dances of thanksgiving, was so fast depleted by the strangers in their midst.

Thought moved behind the earthen brows within the earthen walls.

The soldiers were but men like others, as the playful wrestling had shown on those autumn evenings in the Spanish camp. Any man could die like another; but not so readily if he rode a huge beast that could trample over obstacles and people with furious power, and bear away its rider to safety faster than a man could run.

One day there came running from the Spanish pastures near Alcanfor a Mexican Indian wounded and bleeding who was one of the guards with the garrison’s herd of horses. He cried that another guard had been killed by arrows, and that the horses were being driven across the river and north toward the pueblo of Arenal by men of Tiguex.

In a very real sense the horses could mean life itself to the Spanish. Cardenas taking some men with him galloped out in pursuit. Footprints led him across the river and as he went he came upon many horses already killed with arrows. Others were alive and scattering in the river groves. He rounded up all he could and started back to the corrals, passing the pueblo of Arenal, which was barricaded behind new palisades. Within, there was a wild concert of yells, exhortations, sportive chorus. He heard captured horses braying and dashing wildly about. The Indians were driving them as in a bull ring, and shooting arrows at them. He made a demonstration outside the palisades, and got their attention. He offered them forgiveness and peace. They reviled him and mocked him with obscene motions. He returned to his own pueblo with the rescued portion of the herd and reported to the General.

Vásquez de Coronado called his staff together for a council of war. His captains and his two Franciscan chaplains sat with him. All factors were weighed. The main army was not yet at the river, though surely it must by then be on the march. With the river towns in revolt, it would be impossible to conduct any explorations of the cattle plains and beyond, where the real objective of the whole expedition seemed now to lie. The uprising must be put down or between the prizes of Quivira and the long road home to Mexico there would be unpredictable dangers. The advance garrison was not large; there was risk in giving battle at this point; yet there seemed greater risk in not doing so. The General asked for votes. Each captain in turn, and the friars, voted to make one. more offer of peace and, if it were rejected, to fight.

Captains Diego López and Maldonado were ordered to go respectively to the pueblos of Arenal and Moho. There they made announcements in official style offering peace and asking for specific complaints as to any individual misbehavior on the part of the army. If evidence supported charges, the guilty soldiery would be punished in the presence of the Indians.

In answer, the Indians, from their terraces where they seethed in tumultuous crowds, with their ladders drawn up, cried their defiance to the sky and brandished like flags the tails of the Spanish horses they had killed. After the officers were nearly killed at both pueblos through trickery, they returned to the General and war orders went out.

Captain Don Garcia López de Cárdenas would command a force to subdue and capture the pueblo of Arenal, without delay. Attention would be turned later to Moho and other rebellious towns.

Battle Piece

In daylight, the east mountains of bare rock looked near. Below them lay the band of desert; below that, the sandy terraces to the river, edged with groves brittle in winter. The pueblo rose in cubes of earth, casting sharp triangles of ink-blue shadow. The roof terraces were peopled. The ladders were up. Silence held the strain of looking. Presently from the south there was movement through the dry trees and out to the opening about the celled house. The light stung itself on metal and broke in rays as the column turned and halted. One man went forward and motioned a few others to follow him. They advanced quite clear of the troops and halted facing the plain walls along whose tops clung the minutely striving creatures dimly glistening like bees in great swarm. To them the man spoke out. At a distance his voice sounded thin but earnest. He motioned with his arms, offering. The swarm buzzed in rage from the roofs and replied with threatening motions. The man cried out again. Again the clustered bodies of the hive showed defiance. For two hours the exchange of offer and refusal continued. The man on the ground then returned to the mounted column and all rested motionless for a few moments. Then a movement began to detach one horseman after another from the column, as they set out and formed a circle all around the pueblo. When the movement was completed, there followed another pause and then came a long valiant cry that weakened as it went through the air until it might have been a wail, crying “Santiago … ,” and the men outside the pueblo began to advance on horseback and on foot against it. From the roofs downward: arrows and stones, wild dancing convulsions loathing and loathly, handfuls of powdered mud from puddled walls, screamed incantations. From the ground upward: slicing flights of arrows from crossbows, and volleys of lead bullets lumbered in gentle arcs by the harquebuses, and charges forward on horseback to cover efforts on the ground against the very walls. The walls were not excessively high, for the bodies of a few men leaning upon them, and the feet and hands of others climbing upon these, and holding, and the scramble of a few more upon those, let the top of the first rise of wall be reached. There swords flew, flashing, and wooden maces beat against them and upon helmets. The clinging strife against the wall fell down and rose again and fell and rose, and through the hours prevailed with its armored bodies flowing at last over the roof edge to stay, like a stain that once spilled would spread and flow until it stained all. Colors changed. Fluid crimson altered the rooftop as it altered naked earthen brown. Sounds wound on the air, the break of wood and steel, bone and life. With failing light and yellow evening the men from the ground were everywhere on the rooftops, and the people of the hive, but for their dead, were vanished below within the cells, into which the long delicate prongs of their ladders were drawn after them. Silence came with night, and hardly a movement, save that of the calm river going in its shallow valley. With morning, on the roofs, the leader of the armored men made another scene of exhortation, casting his voice awide and turning himself to be heard down below in the pits of darkness where remained silence and defiance. After an interval, then, separate small storms followed when the attackers tried to capture each cell by itself with its occupants. But the structure was thick, the entrances small, the cells many and interconnected, and advance was slow. There was a pause for a new undertaking, directed from the captured terraces, and then, below, on the ground, came men bearing a heavy burden against the walls. It was a huge log. With its end they began to thunder upon the ground wall of the big house slowly, in regular rhythm, shaking the earth house as if with deep drumbeat. Behind the battering ram there was a gathering of dry winter brush and bough. Fires sprang alive in the daylight and carried smoke into the blue. The giant drumming went on and wall-earth began to crumble. Cakes of earth fell aside, then whole clods, sliding like talus, then white dust shaken from the interior walls, and the hive was opened at its lowest level. Now the fires were taken brand by brand to the breach, and thrown in, and wood brought, and added, and the air shuddered in and out as drafts fought, but finally the whole cellular house acted as a chimney, and the smoke was drawn whistling from the banked fire on the ground outside through the rooms and out on to the roof terraces. With it were drawn the people inside, stumbling and crying, who clawed at themselves to see, and hugged themselves to breathe. They swarmed to the edges of the roof, where many were thrust by swords. Some hung down from the roof and dropped and ran and were ridden down by mounted men. Others were stopped as they ran on the ground, and were laid low by swords or bullets. Still others, taken as they fled from the walls, were made to keep running but tightly held until they reached the roaring fires into which they were thrown and in which they were kept at the points of long lances that spitted them if they strove to reach the cool air. Near-by there were stakes driven into the ground with faggots piled about them. To these many captives were dragged and tied, and the fires lighted about them. All appeared to happen with speed, wild understanding and inevitability. A tent for the mounted commander stood safely apart. Into it a large throng of escaped or surrendered people were put. The burning bodies at the stakes were in their view. Seeing those they tried to break from the tent to escape again but from outside men with blades thrust at them through the walls of the tent and those who survived to throw themselves forth were seized and piled on to the fires that grew and grew making flame and smoke high in the air by the mild river below the sandy sweeps that reached to the bare rock mountain on the east. Presently the mountain grew dim and the smoke from the fires seemed heavy in its rise. Winds swept over the reeking ground. The air turned colder. A thick snow began to fall upon the flames, the dying who still moved, the open dead at quiet, the excited animals and the armored men at their last tasks. The snowfall was gentle and sober. It softened broken edges and darkened the day and fell so fast that it muffled the hooves of the mounts as the column of troopers assembled from their various works about the little plain of the terraced city and with movements now modest and slow rode away southward through the thickened air. By evening all was quiet and no fires burned, and late in the night a handful of last inhabitants in the hive found their way safely out and ran away in the shadows of their house which was destroyed by the events of those two days.


Returning at the head of his troops through the snowfall from the ruins of Arenal, Don Garcia López de Cardenas was met outside the headquarters at Alcanfor by the General himself, who embraced him heartily and approved his whole action in the victorious battle.

The Garrison

The snow was still falling on the next day when the main body of the army under Captain de Arellano arrived from the west to join the General at Alcanfor. It was a dry snow that fell thickly but lay lightly and soldiers in the open field slept warmer all night for the cover silently made upon them.

The General’s forces were now all with him but for a small rear guard left in the northern march of Mexico in the Sonora Valley. The army could look up the river and see the thickened air above Arenal still smoking from yesterday’s battle. They were eager for news, and heard all, especially the Turk’s promises of the great wealth that awaited them in the eastern kingdom of Quivira. When would they leave? When the river of Tiguex, as they now called it, was pacified. They would be on the river for a while. A self-supporting army in the field moved slowly at best.

There were three hundred and forty men-at-arms enrolled in the now-assembled force, including two hundred and thirty cavalry, and sixty-two infantrymen. These were all of European blood, mostly Spanish, but with an occasional foreigner, like the five men from Portugal, and the Scotsman, and the German bugler from Worms, and the Sicilian, the Genoan, and the Frenchman. Like a bridge between the old world and the new, a native of the island of Hispaniola was on the muster roll. These were young soldiers. The youngest was seventeen, most of them were barely over twenty, hardly any over thirty. The General himself at thirty was an elder of the army. Many of them were nobles and gentlemen, come to seek their fortunes in the new world. Their blood pounded with longing and promise. By their young beards they looked older than they were, and by their cap-cropped hair younger. In their great appetite for the unknown they went to take more than to give; and like all youth what they desired most if they did not say it was experience, without which there was shame before other men, and inequality of opinion.

Three of the private soldiers brought their wives. One of these men was a tailor. His wife served as nurse and seamstress, and rode seven thousand miles with the expedition on a horse. The military company were served by close to a thousand Mexican Indians, many of whom were accompanied by their wives and children. With the main body of the army came the flocks of sheep—over five thousand rams, ewes and lambs. The pace and distance of the daily marches of the army were determined by how steadily and at what speed those grazing little animals could move. The army brought five hundred head of cattle. Six hundred pack mules carried supplies and equipment. Five hundred and fifty-two horses belonged to the soldiers.

Alcanfor received the army shortly before the new year of 1541. The pueblo was crowded but as a fortress it was also safe. The herds and the flocks were guarded in corrals and pastures outside the walls. The snow continued to fall. Spanish soldiers whiled away their off-duty time. They would talk with the chaplainsFray Juan de Padilla and Fray Luis de Escalona. Fray Juan had been a soldier himself in his youth. He knew how to talk with them. There were two Indian lay assistants with him, the oblates Sebastian and Luis. The soldiers went to confession, heard Mass, attended vespers, and cooked, and some wrote letters that two years later would be received in Spain, if ever. Playing cards could be made out of the heads of drums. They gambled at cards, playing “first” and “triumph,” which were not prohibited by the command, and “doubles” and “lamb-skin-it,” which were. Throwing dice was also forbidden and popular.

Captain de Ovando was back from the explorations downstream, to report that he had found four towns, built like the ones at Tiguex, occupied by friendly Indians. He saw no wild people, but as he had stayed with the river, this was not surprising, for the wandering Indians seemed to keep to the plains.

Heavy snowfall kept the garrison confined at Alcanfor, though the General had determined to demand the submission of the rest of the Tiguex nation and to obtain it if necessary with further battle. About a week after the arrival of the army it was possible to send Captain de Cárdenas and a party of forty horsemen and some infantry up the river with the ultimatum. They crossed to the eastern bank and presently came among the upriver towns which they found abandoned. At one of these they discovered a number of dead horses. In retaliation, Cárdenas burned the town and returned to headquarters. Word presently came that the Indians driven from their refuge in the bare and frigid hills were collecting at the pueblo of Moho, on the west bank about ten miles north of Alcanfor. In common defense, the river people, though accustomed to live under local rule in each town, now gathered under the general rule of Juan Alemán. Again and again the General sent his message of clemency and power, calling for all to submit to His Holy Catholic Caesarian Majesty. Captain de Maldonado took it to Moho first, only to return with reports of treachery and defiance. Cárdenas went forth once more with his cavalry and infantry, and found the Indians clustered on their roof edges at Moho waiting for him with Juan Aleman to speak for them.

Arriving within earshot, Cárdenas made his proclamation with large gestures.

Alemán responded. It was good to have the Captain there. Much could be settled without war. Let the Captain dismount and come forward alone, and he would meet him likewise on the ground before the pueblo.

Cárdenas gave his sword, lance and horse to an orderly to hold for him and went forward, but not without a few guardsmen following him. Alemán advanced from the pueblo unarmed, but also followed by his bodyguard. As the two leaders met Alemán held out his arms with a smile and embraced Cardenas about the body—and tightly held him immovable. The Indian bodyguard sprang forward and rang blows with wooden maces on the Captain’s helmet. They took him away from their chief and carried him rapidly toward a narrow opening in the palisade. People on the roof crying execrations sent arrows and stones down on the visitors. At the entrance, Cárdenas freed himself enough to brace against its sides as the Indians worked to drag him through into captivity and death. Three of his horsemen rallied and charged to the palisade to rescue him. They brought him free of danger. He was wounded in the leg by an arrow.

But in spite of his wound and the weather he went upstream to the next pueblo, after leaving a detachment on guard at Moho. Once again he met abuse, arrows and defiance. He returned to Moho, gathered up his rear guard, and followed the trail in the snow back to Alcanfor. The General then determined to give battle with his whole army.


They came in full array a few days later to Moho, and made camp about the spring outside the pueblo. The German bugler from Worms sounded his trumpet. The call to surrender and the offer of amnesty were given in the proper form, with the notary officiating. The frieze of defenders on the terraces became animated with obscene mockery. The General gave an order. The troops moved out to surround the town which stood on a level plain of barren gravel from which the wide slow curves of the river could be seen to the north and south. Stout tree trunks were planted deep in the earth to form a palisade before the walls. The defenses were better than at Arenal, for the walls themselves were built of upright timbers solidly side by side and woven with willow branches from the river banks, and thickly plastered over with river silt. Here the town had not one continuous terrace of roof at each level, but several platforms separated by wide gaps. There were towers with portholes near their tops. It was a large town with deep granaries well-filled.

Stones flew down on the attackers who tried to climb the walls. Many soldiers fell, hurt and stunned. On one wall, soldiers raised ladders and fifty reached a roof terrace. They fought across gaps firing at Indians on the same level. From higher terraces stones fell and arrows whistled. To help them in their preparations for war the Indians called upon deathly nature. They shut rattlesnakes into willow cages and thrust arrows among the snakes who striking at the arrow heads flooded their venom on the flint or obsidian points, where it dried in tiny crystals but did not lose its power. Now from the portholes in the towers they sent the poisoned arrows and where these struck they left festering wounds that killed or disfigured.

A soldier ascended to one of the portholes bringing wet mud with which he tried to plaster it shut. He was killed outright by an arrow that quivered deep into his eye.

Another was struck in an eyebrow by a poisoned arrow, but lived, saying that he was saved by his devotion to the rosary.

Nearly a hundred soldiers were wounded by arrows in this first day.

When the cold night fell the soldiers retired to their camp where the physician went to work on the living casualties, who numbered nearly a third of the army. It was costly; too costly. The General resolved on a siege of the pueblo. He controlled the water supply. How long could the Indians live on whatever water they had stored?

The army lived in the field, and its tents and settled ways and traffic of supply between the camp and Alcanfor suggested the existence of a new town. The besiegers were as troubled as the besieged. The weather continued cold. It was wearing to be vigilant yet inactive. Twice it appeared that the water within Moho must be all gone, and that peace would follow at once; and twice, the Indians were saved by what gave the soldiers such discomfort: it snowed. The Indians melted the snow and stored the water in their clay vessels.

Keeping siege, the General yet had time for other duties. One of these was to listen to the Turk, who still a prisoner continued to show great eagerness to interest his jailers. What he said filtered through the camp. The siege of Moho seemed to be an irritating obstacle in the way of the proper business of the army, which lay to the east, in the land called Quivira, where—

Why, yes, there was gold, the Turk said, there was so much of it that they could load not only horses with it, but wagons.

What else?

In Quivira, on a lake, the royal canoes had golden oarlocks. The ruler lived in a great palace, hung with cotton cloth.


Yes, Quivira where there was much gold and silver, but not as much as could be seen even farther east, in other kingdoms, called Harahey and Guaes.

Even more? It sounded like the richest country of all the Indies so far, including Mexico and Peru.

Yes, even more, and in that land, lived the king—the Turk even knew his name, which was Tattarax—who said his prayers from a book, and addressed them to a woman who was queen of heaven.

Then it was, surely it was, a Christian country?

During the siege of Moho the General made a friendly trip to Pecos. When the war on the river should be ended, he would start for Quivira. Pecos lay on the way. It would be well to resume friendly relations with so powerful a city on his line of march. He took with him the aged Cacique whom he restored to his people amid their acclamations. But where, they wondered, was Bigotes, and where the Turk and Isopete, the slaves?

He could answer that. They were still at the great river, but had actually presented him with a plan to lay before their countrymen, which was this: if the people of Pecos helped in the conquest of Tiguex, the General would reward them with the gift of one of the conquered pueblos. At the victorious end of the war, Bigotes and the others would be released.

The people thought, and replied that it was not convenient to do as he proposed. It was early spring. The planting had begun with prayer and observance. But if he commanded them, they would obey.

The General did not insist since they hesitated to volunteer. He returned to the river where he found his people suffering from the cold, and inaction, and impatience. In the third week of February, 1541, he ordered another attack upon Moho. It was inconclusive, like the first, and it lost the army five killed, including its well-loved young Captain Francisco de Ovando, who while crawling on his hands and knees toward an opening in the defenses was seized by the enemy and taken within the walls where he was put to death, despite the efforts of his soldiers to save him.

This event was sad, and it became mysterious, and all things seemed related in odd powerful ways when something was discovered about the Turk in connection with it.

Cervantes, a soldier who was the guard at the Turk’s prison, looked in at him one day, whereupon the Turk asked how many Spaniards had been killed in a recent fight.

Cervantes stonily replied that no soldiers had been killed.

No, said the Turk, Cervantes was lying, for the Indians had killed five Christians, including a captain.

Yes, admitted the guard, now that he was forced to say so, the Turk was correct. But how could it be? The Turk was under lock and key, he saw no one, talked to no one, heard nothing.

All the Turk would say was that he knew it already, and needed no one else to tell him.

Cervantes was not satisfied, and when opportunity came, he spied upon the Turk and was dumfounded at what he saw, and saw at once that it explained everything. He swore under oath that he saw the Turk talking to the Devil who was enclosed in a jug filled with water. It must have been the Devil who told him what he knew. What a mystery. What if everything else the Turk knew—gold, silver, little bells in trees, wagons full of treasure—were just as true as the death of Captain de Ovando?

The siege dragged on. Soldiers experimented with building some cannons out of heavy timber, thickly bound with ropes. But these were a failure.

The General sent to the pueblo of Zia, to the west of the river, asking for clothing for his shivering army. The people were generous, and sent back some cloaks, hides and blankets.

But spring was advancing. The snowfalls ended. The water supply in the crippled town was finally vanishing. Moreover, the season of planting and propitiation, the birth of the future, were passing by, and if unattended, would end in physical hardship and spiritual sorrow for the Indians. One night at the end of March they began to steal away out of their walls toward the river. Forty mounted soldiers were on guard. The alarm was given. An Indian arrow pierced a soldier’s heart and he died at once. Another soldier was seized and taken and was never seen again. The soldiers attacked, the camp was aroused, and a battle followed in the darkness. Many Indians were killed, and soldiers were wounded, as the Indian retreat continued toward the river. The water was high and cold, the current fast. Hurrying for freedom, the Indians came to the bank and were pursued by the cavalry, and few escaped wounds or death. The river took away the bodies and blood of those killed while trying to cross. Some reached the east bank in the dark. It was an icy night, filled with the sounds of arms and voices. The investment of Moho was over. It had lasted fifty days.

In the morning, soldiers went over the river and found wounded and half-frozen Indians lying there, whom they brought back to be restored and treated as servants. Other soldiers entered the pueblo to see what they could find, for all provisions were to be gathered for the commissary. Soldiers looked out for jewels and other treasures, and discovered instead the ashes of mantles, feathers and turquoise strings burned to save them from the Spaniards. They found stores of maize, and recognized again that Indians of the river did not own anything except their food and their cotton clothes and their robes made of turkey feathers and rabbit fur.

The General commanded a portion of the pueblo of Moho burned as a warning to the people of Tiguex. He sent for Bigotes, the Turk and Isopete so they too might see. His policy was prevailing everywhere, for farther up the river during the last days of the siege, another pueblo had been taken by a mounted detachment who forced the Indians to abandon it. After a few days, in early April, the General heard that the people were returning to some of the upriver towns to fortify them. He sent Captain de Maldonado to do what needed to be done. A day or so later, the General saw smoke in the north over the valley, and asked what it meant. He was informed that Captain de Maldonado had burned a town. With that image—distant smoke rising from the mud-plastered timbers of a Rio Grande pueblo in the springtime groves of willows and cottonwoods far below the air-blue mountains—the Tiguex war was won.

The Eastern Plains

The weather warmed, and then froze again, and solid ice reached across the river. If they were all going east it would be well to start while they could cross on the ice, the whole army of fifteen hundred people, and a thousand horses, and five hundred cattle, and five thousand sheep. On April 23, 1541, the train passed from Alcanfor over the frozen river and began the long march to the eastern plains in search of Quivira and its treasures. Bigotes and Isopete, freed of their collars and chains, were on their way to be restored to their pueblo of Pecos. The Turk was the principal guide, still raving of wonders to come. The slow procession went north along the east bank, passing the burned town of Arenal, empty like all the other pueblos of Tiguex. Rounding the northern end of the Sandia mountains, the army drew away eastward and out of sight of the river.

Seventy-seven days later, all but the General, his chaplain, and thirty mounted men and six footmen returned to the river to settle once again at Alcanfor. The town was still empty of Indians, like all the others, and so long as these Spaniards were in the nation of Tiguex, no Indians ever came back to live there.

The army returned in low spirits and unwillingly. On their march to the plains with the General they had met one disappointment after another, though they saw strange sights of passing interest. Farther and farther east the visions of the Turk had taken them to the very limit of caution. They left Bigotes at Pecos, and moved out to the plains where they saw Indians who lived in tents and used dogs as beasts of burden, and noticed that if his load was badly balanced the dog barked for someone to come and set it right. They heard of a big river to the east and many canoes. It was all familiar—the Turk had mentioned such. They came to flat highlands in whose irregular faces were deepslashed canyons of red rock and scrub oak. In such places, the plains cattle stampeded, the army lost horses, Captain de Cárdenas broke his arm. Now and then they encountered groups of Indians who lived in straw huts on the prairies and hunted the buffalo for materials of food, shelter and arms.

What was wrong? Where was the gold? The Turk took them now in one direction, now in another, keeping up a flow of promises and explanations for his change of plans.

Isopete, the Indian slave brought from Pecos, declared that the Turk was lying. There was such a country as the Turk said, but there was nothing in it that the General sought.

But still they marched, seeing in one place a white woman with painted chin, and in another a wild hailstorm. The stones, as big as oranges, dented armor and killed animals. Trembling, the people wept and prayed and made vows. Each day they heard how far they had gone according to the soldier whose duty it was to count steps by which the leagues could be computed. In all that wilderness, they were appalled at how little mark so great a throng of men and women and beasts made upon the grasses of the plain. They left no trail, for the grass in the wind waved over their path like the sea over a galleon’s wake.

One day the General called a halt for a council of his captains. The leaders agreed upon a decision. The army was to turn back to the Tiguex River, there to settle at Alcanfor once again, and scour the valley for supplies against the next winter. The General and thirty picked horsemen and a handful of infantry, together with Fray Juan de Padilla, and Isopete, and the Turk, once again in chains for his ineffectual performance of his duties as guide, would go farther to the east to see what they could see. The General’s smaller force could proceed more swiftly than the long lumbering straggle of the burdened army, and could live off the animals of the plains more readily. The army begged to be taken along, saying they would rather die with the General than return to the river without him who might never return. He was firm, though he promised to send swift couriers to fetch them after him again if he came upon the treasure of Quivira. They saw him go, and waited a fortnight for word from him, while they hunted the buffalo, and killed five hundred bulls whose meat they dried for winter storage. The hunters often lost their way back to camp, for the land was so flat and so barren of marks that in midday with the sun overhead there was no way to know where to turn. At the end of every day the army in camp built fires, blew horns, beat drums, fired their muskets to guide the huntsmen home. Only at sundown could they get their bearings.

But no word came from the General, and at last the army turned to the west. Plains Indians served as guides. Each sunrise a guide watched where the sun rose, and then facing westward sprang an arrow whose course they followed. Before they overtook it, they let go another, and so each day they drew the line of their course through the air until they came once again to the river, on the ninth of July.

Captain de Arellano was in command of the army. He lost little time in sending out detachments to forage for the winter supplies, one to the north, one to the south, both to follow the river.

Toward the end of summer Captain de Arellano decided to go to look for the General. Picking forty men, and giving the command of the army on the river to Captain de Barrionuevo, he started east. At Pecos he found the people unfriendly. There was a skirmish near the town and two Indians were shot. The misfortunes of Bigotes and Cacique were not forgotten. Pecos stood near the pass through which the General’s return must come. Why did he not come? It was late in August, and the rains were falling everywhere, the rivers would rise, the homeward travellers would have trouble crossing them if they waited much longer. But at last word came by Indian traveller that the General was actually on his way. Arellano decided to wait for him at Pecos, to protect the pass if need be, and by his presence keep the people of Pecos subdued.


During the second week of September the General’s cavalcade came into view. Arellano and his men welcomed it with great joy. The General paid a visit to Pecos, and was politely received by the people, for he knew what he knew, now, and they realized it. He then pushed on rapidly to the river, and the soldiers of his party mingled with Arellano’s, and the General talked with his officers, and on reaching Alcanfor everybody had something to ask and to answer. Those starved for news were fed by those who had meagre news to share, and most of that outrageous.

What was King Tattarax like: Montezuma?

They saw a chief, an old naked wretch with white hair and a copper bangle around his neck, that was his whole wealth, and they were not even sure he was King Tattarax.

And the canoes with golden eagles? The gold bells in the trees? The wagons full of gold?

No gold anywhere.

But the Turk said?

The Turk was dead, garrotted one night in silence in the tent of Captains López and Zaldívar, and buried in a hole already dug for him, before anybody woke with the morning watch.

But why?

Treachery. He lied and lied. He plotted the destruction of the whole army from the first. Going east through Pecos, he arranged with the people to lead the army astray and exhaust them and remove them from food supply, so their horses would die, and if they straggled back from the plains, the Pecos warriors could easily dispose of them in their weakness.

But Pecos? Why would they agree to this?

Bigotes. The iron collar and chain, the dogs that bit him when ordered to. Cacique’s captivity.

But the country? The wealth?

Immense plains, people with grass-roofed huts, people who ate meat raw and carried a freshly butchered cow-gut around their necks from which they drank blood and stomach juice when thirsty, people who did everything with little flint knives set in wooden handles, who sharpened the blades rapidly against their own teeth, like monkeys that put everything to the mouth.

And the Turk knew all the time there was nothing else?

He must have known, though he kept saying to the end that just a way farther there really was the other great river, with all its gold and silver and jewels and royal splendor. But then, he had said that about every place at which they had stopped, and where they had found nothing.

Why was he not killed much sooner then?

The General was partial to him. Everybody knew it and resented it. Finally, of course, the General ordered the execution himself.

How miserable. And there was nothing else in the country of Quivira?

Big wolves, and white-pied deer, and rabbits that a man on foot could never catch but that never moved from the path of a horse, so that you could lance them from your saddle with no trouble. And grapes grew there, nuts, mulberries, and plums like those in Castile. As for riches and comforts and fine living—when you got off your horse at the end of a hard day and had to get some supper to satisfy your hunger, you cooked whatever you had, and you cooked it on a fire made of the only thing to be found, which was cow droppings. That was Quivira.

Prophecy and Retreat

The Turk lied and died for it, at the hands of outraged Europeans. But it was more than individuals, it was two kinds of life that told on the one hand, and punished on the other. The quest for wealth led to different answers in each case. To the Indian, wealth meant all that both pueblo and plain offered—rain and grass and primal acts of work and of the fruits of the earth only sufficient to sustain life equally for all. To the Spaniard it meant money and all that lay behind it: to purchase instead of to make, and of the world’s wealth, all that a man could possibly gather and keep far beyond the meeting of his creature needs. The logical extension of the Indian’s view would in time produce the wealth sought by the Spaniard, but only through work and cultivation of the humble stuff of the earth. But the Spaniard’s hope had a simple logic that ended with the ravishment of wealth already existing in forms dependent upon civilization for their pertinence—gold and silver instead of grass and rain.

The General went among his people hiding his disappointment as well as he could, and giving them heart against the problems of the winter by a promise of renewed hope. Now that he knew the plains so well, and would not have to count upon treasonable Indian guides, he would lead the army out again in the spring, for it was entirely possible that by going just a little farther to the east, the rich kingdoms would at last appear before their eyes.

Some of the soldiers could kindle to this hope; others could not. It was going to be another cold year, the food stocks were not any too full, and the silent towns of the river no longer supplied clothing, even under force. Even keeping warm by fire was not easy. The General wrote to the Emperor Charles about Tiguex and its problems. Of all the lands he had seen, he wrote on October 20, 1541, “the best I have found is this Tiguex river, where I am camping, and the settlements here. They are not suitable for settling, because, besides being four hundred leagues from the North sea, and more than two hundred from the South sea, thus prohibiting all intercourse, the land is so cold, as I have related to your Majesty, that it seems impossible for one to be able to spend the winter here, since there is no firewood or clothing with which the men may keep themselves warm, except for the skins that the natives wear, and some cotton blankets, few in number.”

The winter garrison was increased by the arrival of Captain Pedro de Tovar and a small force from the base camp far away in Sonora. He brought letters, including one that announced to Captain de Cárdenas that his brother in Spain was dead and that he had succeeded to titles and properties at home. There was also news of disorders and rebellions among the detachment at Sonora. Tovar’s party looked about eagerly for the treasures of the northern conquest and, finding none, could not hide their sharp disappointment which was like a reproof to the long-disillusioned garrison. But Tovar’s men kept their high spirits, for they could hardly wait until spring, and the second march into Quivira, with all its promises of adventure and wealth. The garrison let them hope. For the present all suffered together from cold and hunger and lice. When Captain de Cardenas, with permission, departed on the long trip home to assume his inheritance, and took with him a few who were no longer able-bodied fighters, there was many another soldier who would have gone too, but did not ask, for fear of being thought cowardly. Bad feeling ate at the core of the command. If things went wrong, who was responsible? The General himself, no matter how much he had once been respected and loved.

But as winter wore on the General once again was setting things in motion for the return to Quivira. Few of the soldiers wanted to go. Most of those who were eager to go were officers. Preparations went ahead with commands given by enthusiastic officers to men in low spirits.

Christmas came and went, with the friars leading in the observance of the Feast of the Nativity.

The army had time on its hands, and all sought diversion as they could. The General liked to ride. He had twenty-two horses with him, and often went out riding with one of his close friends. On December 27, 1541, he took riding with him Captain Rodrigo de Maldonado, who was the brother-in-law of the Duke of Infantado. Riding side by side, the two officers were soon in a race. The General’s horse was spirited. The contest was lively. The General was leading. Suddenly his saddle girth broke. He fell. As he struck the ground, there was no time to throw himself out of the path of Maldonado’s horse, or for Maldonado to check his mount. The Captain tried to jump his horse in order to miss the General, but one of its flying hoofs struck the General in the head.

The garrison was horrified at the calamity. They took the General to his quarters and laid him in bed. He was close to death. How could it have happened? The saddle girth, long among his effects, must have rotted without anyone’s knowing, the servants or anyone. For days his life was given up for lost. When at last he began to recover, and was able to be up again, they had to give him bad news.

Captain de Cárdenas on his way to Mexico to sail for Spain had returned in flight to the Tiguex River with news of Indians in rebellion in Sonora, and Spanish soldiers stationed there dying from arrows poisoned by the yerba pestifera of that land. The homeward path to Mexico was endangered.

The General turned faint at the story and took to his bed again.

And there he had time for a terrible reflection.

He spoke of how a long time ago in Salamanca his mathematical friend had prophesied for him that he would one day find himself in faraway lands (which had come true), and that he would become a man of high position and power (which had come true), and that he would suffer a fall from which he would never recover (and was this coming true now?).

He spoke of his wife and children, saying that if he were to die, let him be with them.

The doctor taking care of him repeated outside what he had heard in the sickroom. Those who meant to return to Quivira were angered at the thought of giving up the expedition, and the doctor carried to the General reports of what they said. In his weakness the General was pressed by all—those who wanted to go to Quivira, and those who longed, like him, to return to Mexico. He kept to his rooms, saw few people, and sent word that if, as was claimed, the army wanted now only to go home, he must have proof of this will in a written petition, signed by all their captains and leaders.

This was given to him, and he hid the folded paper under his mattress. If enemies should steal his strongbox to recover the paper and destroy it for bad ends, they would be fooled. The General then sent forth an order announcing the return of the entire army to New Spain.

But once the decision was made to abandon the poor realities of Tiguex and the vision of Quivira, some officers changed their minds and proposed compromises. Let the General go with sixty men, leaving all the rest to make a colony. But few of the bulk of the army would agree to this. Then let the General take the main body and leave sixty men here until the Viceroy could send reinforcements. But the General disapproved all such suggestions, and held legal proof in the petition which all had signed that his order to retreat from the hard country was by the agreement of all. Somehow in spite of the guards posted in his quarters and outside, an attempt was made to rob him of the petition. The thieves got his strongbox, but not the paper, and only knew afterward where he had kept it.

In the battles of Arenal and Moho the army had taken many Indian prisoners. The General now ordered these released. It was his last official act as lord of that river province. Early in April, 1542, the command was given to begin the long march down the river to the narrows of Isleta, and there turn west over the desert to retrace the trail to Mexico. Aside from a few Mexican Indians who decided in the end to remain in the Tiguex nation, the expedition had lost in its two years of movement and battle and privation no more than twenty men out of the whole fifteen hundred.


Travelling at times by litter, the General left behind him a vision changed and gone like a cloud over the vast country of the Spanish imagination in his century. A faith of projected dreams and heroic concepts gave power to the men of the Golden Age, a few of whom found even more than they imagined. The General, like many, found less. Having searched for the land of his imagining, and not finding it, he could have said, as Don Quixote later said, ”… I cannot tell you what country, for I think it is not in the map. …”

The army as it descended into Mexico began to disintegrate. Officers and men fell away as it pleased them to find other occupations at Culiacán, Compostela, and all the way to the city of Mexico.

In due course reports of the expedition went to Madrid and came before the Emperor. The royal treasuries had supported the expenses of the undertaking. On learning of its outcome, Charles V ordered that no further public monies were to be allocated to such enterprises.

As for the governor of the Seven Cities, the Tiguex River and Quivira, the Emperor received another report during a legal inquiry a few years later. The Judge Lorenzo de Tejada, of the Royal Audiencia of Mexico, wrote on March 11, 1545:

“Francisco Vâsquez came to his home, and he is more fit to be governed in it than to govern outside of it. He is lacking in many of his former fine qualities and he is not the same man he was when your Majesty appointed him to that governorship. They say this change was caused by the fall from a horse which he suffered in the exploration and pacification of Tierra Nueva.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.