Friday, August 27, 2010


Recently I’ve found myself obsessed with learning about the Spanish exploration of America. As a holder of an Anthropology BA and former professional archaeologist, I like to think of myself as reasonably well rounded in my Western Hemisphere history. Obviously I know the broad strokes of the conquest of the Aztecs and the Incas and it’s really colored my impression of the Spanish. I hated them. For breaking so many truly amazing civilizations with their stupid Catholicism and never-ending quest for gold. Fuck the Spanish! You could get me to go off on the Spanish at the drop of a hat.

But as I’ve gotten older I’ve seen the other side of the argument. The one that remembers that to the Spanish of the time, the empires they destroyed were EVIL. It’s hard to think of another religion that indulged in as much institutionalized human sacrifice as the Aztecs. And the Mexica had themselves conquered the previous empire as had those that came before as had those that came before. It was not a long-lived regime. The Mayan empire was already in collapse long before Tenochtitlan was even built.

The start of my new conquistador fixation came from reading Tony Horwitz’s A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World. I’ve read all of his books and love how he mixes travelogue with historical information. In this one, he visits the sites of all the pre-Pilgrim explorations into America, starting with the Vikings in Newfoundland. It was reading the chapters on the various Spanish expeditions, such as De Soto in Georgia, that I learned about the Black Legend of the Spanish. The slanderous one that said that *all* the Spaniards did was torture and maim and rape and burn alive and enslave and desecrate. Oh sure, that happened. A lot. Especially in Peru. But that was more the minority than I had in my head. As I kept reading I found myself thoroughly engrossed by the chapters about the American Southwest. Specifically about Cabeza de Vaca and about Coronado. Horwitz had two books in the suggested reading that caught my eye, both called Cities of Gold.

Cabeza de Vaca was one of four ultimate survivors of a shipwreck on the Gulf coast of Florida in 1527. Originally a large number of the crew survived, made rafts, and made their way to Texas. There, separated from the others now lost at sea, their raft and one other shipwrecked again, on Galveston Island, where they were enslaved by the Indians. Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, his slave Esteban, and Castillo escaped, and then wandered their way back west and south to Spanish territories. Wandered for years. Upon their return, they were heralded not only for the extraordinary tale of their survival but also for bringing back news of an even greater empire to the north. This empire was what Coronado then attempted to locate and annex for the Kingdom of Spain.

I’ve previously read a couple of books by Douglas Preston but they were both fiction. Cities of Gold: A Journey Across the American Southwest was non-fiction. Preston moved to New Mexico from the east coast, got interested in the Spanish explanation, and in the late 1980s, decided to go check it out for himself. So the author and his weirdo artist buddy actually retraced a section of Coronado’s route, from the Mexico/Arizona border to Pecos, on horseback. Very intrepid. He gave lots of great historical information – cowboy, Spanish, and Native – in between the amazing tale of his adventure. I actually would have liked to learn more about the Spanish themselves but the book was truly fascinating and it was great getting such a grab bag of historical anecdotes related to each point along the trail. Preston has a very engaging voice and struck just the right tone when bringing up sensitive issues, with land use or Indians or whatever.

The fabled Seven Cities of Gold turned out to be Zuni Pueblo, then called Cíbola. Vázquez de Coronado had been following a route scouted for him the year before, 1539, by a Franciscan friar from Nice, Fray Marcos de Niza. Marcos didn’t actually make it all the way to Cíbola. And he himself had been following behind none other than Cabeza de Vaca’s fellow survivor, the black Moor Esteban. Esteban was killed and Marcos turned around within sight of the pueblo to report back that it existed and was just as awesome as described by Indians. Ever since, there’s been non-stop controversy. The lush route Marcos described was not what Coronado’s army encountered. And the city was hardly the rich capital he had been promised. Coronado had invested much of his personal wealth, not to mention all of his political clout, in this mission and wasn’t about to go back to Mexico City empty handed. He continued his expedition all the way into Kansas, still chasing after a prize worth the effort of his army’s travels.

Currently I’m reading Cities of Gold: A Novel of the Ancient and Modern Southwest by William K. Hartmann. As the subtitle implies, it’s fiction and Hartmann switches between a modern narrator and historical narrative. The first person narrator in 1998 is telling the story about his own past as an urban planner in Tucson in the late 1980s. He’s caught up in the mystery of attempting to unravel the motivation behind Fray Marcos’ supposed deception in his reports back to New Spain about the Seven Cities of Cíbola. The historical chapters follow Marcos on his mission to both scout a route to the fabled Cities as well as report back to the viceroy on the location of the west coast. The author is obviously sympathetic to the Franciscan, finding his reputation as a liar and fraud undeserving. Thankfully it doesn’t come across as heavy handed by using the device of having the narrator believe that Marcos was wronged. And it’s definitely an engaging tale. I am very curious to see how the ultimate descriptive discrepancy is explained away in the end. Hartmann has quoted a lot of primary sources from the 1500s and onward the narrative which help to accentuate the changing opinions of scholars from many eras. I do find it a bit jarring each time the perspective switches and yet I am engaged with both the modern and ancient stories.

Unfortunately, Esteban himself never wrote down any account of his travels. He was killed before Marcos managed to catch up to him on their scouting trip so yet another mystery remains unsolved regarding just exactly what happened. I find it poetic irony that the first “European” to explore into the future US was an African slave. Esteban was said to be quite the dandy and was definitely a hit with the ladies. He had been the main translator for Cabeza de Vaca’s group. They survived their wanderings by becoming, essentially, rock stars. They were considered great healers and developed a literal following. Hundreds of people roamed with them as they made their way across the continent. The four survivors became quite sympathetic to the Indians’ way of life and were horrified when their followers were captured as they entered Spanish territory. Cabeza de Vaca wrote a detailed account of their experience which I intend to read as I continue my exploration of Spanish exploration.

The other one I would like to read was written by Pedro de Castaneda. He was one of the soldiers in Coronado’s army and wrote an account of the exploration after the fact. It came to be considered a key anthropological record of the native peoples they encountered. Castaneda went beyond just a sympathy to the Indians and instead developed what is now called cultural relativity when describing differences of customs and practices. His is often the only record of Pre-Colombian life as many of the tribes and cities and villages were wiped out thanks to the germs that came along with the Spaniards. When later settlement took place en masse, there were vast empty spaces where there once lived flourishing peoples.