“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time” – T.S. EliotExpeditions to conquer new worlds are hard to finance. Just ask NASA. When it comes to intrepid explorers optimism nonetheless reigns that just over the undiscovered horizon is a pristine wilderness rife with marketable goodies for the folks back home, or at least a fabulously wealthy, but technologically inferior aboriginal population that won’t put up to much of a fuss when you spirit away their crown jewels, enslave their women and children, and claim their territory for your distant king and country.
Sadly, most mysterious foreign shores are (a) mysterious, and (b) far away, particularly when one had the misfortune to still be mired in the Age of Sail, and navigation away from known coasts was a dicey affair at best. If you’re going to attempt a colonial land grab in some poorly defined nether region, you can’t just hop in a boat and start rowing. You first need to brush up on your capitalist standards and practices. It’s really an exercise in project management when you’re not entirely clear what it’s going to look like on the other side. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good general description of all project management these days. At any rate, to get the exploratory ball rolling in the 16th Century, one needed an edgy financier or wealthy patron to gamble on your information, and set you up with the funds to attract colonists, crew a nice flotilla of ships, and keep you financially afloat while awaiting the ambiguous future where your ill-gotten gains start to roll in or your far-flung colonial empire starts to turn a profit.
And as is still true to this day, them’s that has the means aren’t just tossing bushels of hard currency into the wind, hoping a nice chunk blows back into their bank account. A venture capitalist needs to believe in the endeavor. That’s why you’ve got to generate hype. Take the Segway. It was a two-wheeled, self-balancing, battery powered scooter that you rode standing up. Cute, but not very inspiring as a description. Now, if you keep the patent under wraps, spread around the “Project Ginger” codename, hint that it is the very essence of the future of transportation, a revolution on par with the internet, and the investors and journalists come knocking at your door. Selling stodgy 16th Century European aristocrats on exploration efforts wasn’t that different. One needed a hook, and what better hook than rumors of wealthy realms ripe for the picking by unscrupulous colonial powers.
By about 1521, the Spanish were firmly established in the Caribbean, but the Southeastern United States had yet to be significantly explored. With their ships already locally headquartered in Hispaniola, Spanish slavers Pedro de Quexo and Francisco Gordillo, with financial backing from Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón set off to check out that big, honking landmass to the north, winding up somewhere near the Winyah Bay in South Carolina (which they promptly named “the Land of St. John the Baptist”, since trading on the cachet of a saint is always good business). Quexo and Gordillo were really just looking for a quick payday, so they sailed around for a month, and figured out who the indigenous inhabitants were and what they had to steal, reporting they encountered a people called the Chicora (it’s unclear if they were referring to a kingdom or a tribe), who were swimming in wealth and natural resources. “The Indians offered the Spaniards some very fine and fragrant marten furs, some seed pearls, and some small quantities of silver, whereas the latter in turn presented them with articles brought for barter. When such courtesies had been exchanged and the ships had taken on supplies of wood, water and other provisions, the Spaniards embraced their new friends and invited them to come on board to examine their vessels and the cargo carried in their holds” (Vega, 1951, p10). Such niceties turned out to be a ruse. Quexo and Gordillo were mostly looking for slaves to work in the Hispaniola gold mines. They shanghaied about 60 of the natives and hot-footed it back to Hispaniola to sell them into slavery, including one particular captive who would eventually come to be named Francisco de Chicora, once he learned Spanish and was baptized.
Quexo and Gordillo were just small time. Gordillo was a captain in the Spanish Navy. Quexo was just a “hired gun”. They vanish from the pages of history after returning to Hispaniola, but the captured native “El Chicorano” (later Francisco de Chicora) had some interesting stories to tell Gordillo’s patron Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, primarily about the fabulous wealth to be had in his South Carolina homeland. Where Quexo and Gordillo were just working stiffs, Ayllón had some political juice. He arrived in Santo Domingo in 1502 (modern day Dominican Republic), was a member of the Real Audiencia (colonial Spanish judges), and was mayor of Concepción de La Vega, the first gold “boomtown” of the New World, and one of the most important European cities in the hemisphere at the time. Ayllón could smell money. He took Francisco de Chicora on as his personal servant, and started petitioning the Spanish government for the right to conquer and settle Chicora. He set off for Spain with Francisco de Chicora in tow as witness to the fantastic land of Chicora, and Francisco obligingly was one heck of a hype-man.
Doubtless because he desired to be taken home, he employed his time and talents in regaling his captors with romances of Chicora. He was taken by Ayllón to Spain, where two famous historians Peter Martyr and Oviedo, got from him at first hand and preserved for us these earliest tales of Carolina. According to Francisco the natives of Chicora were white, with brown hair hanging to their heels. In the country there were pearls and other precious stones. There were domesticated deer, which lived in the houses of the natives and generously furnished them milk and cheese. The people were governed by a giant king called Datha, whose enormous size was not natural but had been produced by softening and stretching his bones in childhood. He told, too, of a race of men with inflexible tails, ‘like the tailed Englishmen of Kent,’ says a Spanish humorist. ‘This tail was not movable like those of quadrupeds, but formed one mass, as is the case with fish and crocodiles, and was as hard as bone. When these men wished to sit down, they had consequently to have a seat with an open bottom; and if there were none, they had to dig a hole more than a cubit deep to hold their tails and allow them to rest’ (Bolton, 1921, p14).
By 1523, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón had received a grant from Charles V, who at the time ruled the Spanish Empire, the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg Netherlands, to claim the land explored by Quexo and Gordillo. Basically, they gave him Chicora, assuming he could find it again. The court historian in Spain, Peter Martyr d’Anghiera dutifully recorded Francisco de Chicora’s firsthand testimony, and everyone was sure they were going to get rich in the undertaking, while simultaneously adding confusion to where the place actually was, identifying two kingdoms of Chicora and Duhare as separate but adjacent entities.
I must cite another witness whose credit is not less among laymen than that of Dean Alvares amongst priests, namely the licenciate Lucas Vasquez Ayllón. He is a citizen of Toledo, member of the Royal Council of Hispaniola, and one of those at whose expense the two ships had been equipped. Commissioned by the Council of Hispaniola to appear before the Royal India Council, he urgently asked that he might be permitted to again visit that country and found a colony. He brought with him a native of Chicorana as his servant. This man had been baptised under the Christian name of Francisco united to the surname of his native country, Chicorana. While Ayllón was engaged on his business here, I sometimes invited him and his servant Francisco Chicorana to my table. This Chicorana is not devoid of intelligence. He understands readily and has learned the Spanish tongue quite well. The letters of his companions which the licenciate Ayllón himself showed to me, and the curious information furnished me by Chicorana, will serve me for the remainder of my narrative. Each may accept or reject my account as he chooses. Envy is a plague natural to the human race always seeking to depreciate and to search for weeds in another’s garden, even when it is perfectly clean. This pest afflicts the foolish or people devoid of literary culture, who live useless lives like cumberers of the earth. Leaving the coast of Chicorana on one hand, the Spaniards landed in another country called Duhare. Ayllón says the natives are white men, and his testimony is confirmed by Francisco Chicorana. Their hair is brown and hangs to their heels. They are governed by a king of gigantic size, called Datha, whose wife is as large as himself. They have five children. In place of horses, the king is carried on the shoulders of strong young men, who run with him to the different places he wishes to visit (Peter Martyr d’Anghera, 1912 trans., p258-259).
Just to further impress his Spanish patrons he fiddled with the supposed geographical location of Chicora a little bit, from from the 33.5 degrees north recorded by Gordillo to 35–37 degrees. Evidently, this was an effort to sell Chicora as a “new Andalusia” by giving it parallel coordinates to the famously fertile regions of Spain. With crown approval, he had all his paperwork in order. Ayllón prepared another expedition, intending to conquer the Kingdom of Chicora, to which he had been granted title.
In 1523 Ayllón obtained a royal cedula securing to him exclusive right of settlement within the limits of a strip of coast on either side of the place where his subordinate had come to land. In 1525, being unable to visit the new land himself, in order to secure his rights he sent two caravels to explore his territory under Pedro de Quexos. “They regained the good will of the natives,” says Shea,” and explored the coast for 250 leagues, setting up stone crosses with the name of Charles V and the date of the act of taking possession. They returned to Santo Domingo in July, 1525, bringing one or two Indians from each province, who might be trained to act as interpreters.” After considerable delay Ayllón himself sailed for his new government early in June, 1526, with three large vessels, 600 persons of both sexes, including priests and physicians, and 100 horses. They reached the North American coast at the mouth of a river calculated by them to be in north latitude 33° 40′, and they called it the Jordan—from the name of one of Ayllón’s captains, it is said. Here, however, Ayllón lost one of his vessels, and his interpreters, including Francisco of Chicora, deserted him. Dissatisfied with the region in which he had landed and obtaining news of one better from a party he had sent along the shore, Ayllón determined to remove, and he seems to have followed the coast. The explorers are said to have continued for 40 or 45 leagues until they came to a river called Gualdape, where they began a settlement, which was called San Miguel de Gualdape. The land hereabout was hot and full of marshes. The river was large and well stocked with fish, but the entrance was shallow and passable only at high tide. The colony did not prosper, the weather became severe, many sickened and died, and on October 18, 1526, Ayllón died also. Trouble soon broke out among the surviving colonists and finally, in the middle of a severe winter, those that were left sailed back to Hispaniola (Swanton, 1922, p34).
Now, the short-lived colony of San Miguel de Gualdape, was probably the first Spanish settlement in the present mainland United States (preceding St. Augustine, Florida by 39 years), probably near modern McIntosh County, Georgia. The odd and wealthy Kingdom of Chicora never materialized, except perhaps when Francisco de Chicorana was sitting around the campfire with his buddies telling them how he punked the Spanish. Interestingly, historians have long recognized a coastal Native American tribe living near Pawley’s Island, South Carolina called the Chicora. They grew corn, tobacco, and beans in their gardens and domesticated animals like deer and chickens. Because of their location, and it is thought that indeed the Chicora may have been some of the first Native Americans to see the Spanish explorers arrive in the 1520s, and still exist today near the South Carolina coast. Chicora, along with other vanishing realms like the lost Kingdom of Saguaney, and El Dorado beckoned to Europe with the promise of riches, only to move ever farther towards the horizon and out of their grasp. And sadly, we often become obsessed with the glittering dreams that we knowingly exaggerated. As Suzi Quatro once said, “You’re all right, as long as you don’t believe your own hype”.
Bolton, Herbert Eugene, 1870-1953. The Spanish Borderlands: a Chronicle of Old Florida And the Southwest. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1921.
Helps, Arthur, Sir, 1813-1875. The Spanish Conquest In America And Its Relation to the History of Slavery And to the Government of Colonies. London: J.W. Parker and Son, 1855
Vega, Garcilaso de la, 1539-1616. The Florida of the Inca: a History of Adelantado, Hernando De Soto, Governor And Captain General of the Kingdom of Florida, And of Other Heroic Spanish And Indian Cavaliers. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1951.
Anghiera, Pietro Martire d’, 1457-1526. De Orbe Novo: the Eight Decades of Peter Martyr D’Anghera. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912.
Swanton, John Reed, 1873-1958. Early History of the Creek Indians And Their Neighbors. Washington: Govt. Print. Off., 1922.