“We Spaniards know a sickness of the heart that only gold can cure” – Hernán Cortés

Did someone say gold?

16th Century Spanish Conquistadors liked shiny things.  Gold in particular gave them a warm, fuzzy feeling.  And as the treasure galleons began plying the route from Mexico to Spain laden with Aztec riches, the Spanish must have figured this here New World was just plain littered with jewels and precious metals.  Having established a base of operations in Tenochtitlan by 1521, and bored with rolling around naked in piles of gold, the Conquistadors turned their eye northward, assuming similar circumstances might prevail.  Our story starts with a certain Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of the four surviving members of the ill-fated 1527 Narváez expedition, originally sent forth to establish colonial settlements and garrisons in Florida and explore the Gulf Coast.

When your primary source is affectionately surnamed “Cowhead”, it’s best to take his observations with a grain of salt, but as I said, Conquistadors like shiny things, so even the hint of fabulous riches from a dubious authority gets them all geared up and thundering across the plains. The Narváez expedition, captained by Pánfilo de Narváez set out in 1527 with 600 men.  Apparently Pánfilo was neither a good explorer nor conquistador.  His claim to fame prior to 1527 was a failed campaign to stop Hernán Cortés from invading Mexico (which was actually unauthorized by then big cheese in the Spanish New World, Governor of Cuba Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar).  Although his forces significantly outnumbered Cortés, he was deftly outmaneuvered.  Cortés poked his eye out and took him prisoner for his troubles, eventually letting him return to Spain, where somehow he convinced King Carlos V to appoint him Governor of Florida.

Narváez promised his expedition’s investors untold wealth on par with the loot Cortés was shipping back, and set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain on June 27th, 1527.  The whole effort went sideways immediately.  When he landed in Santo Domingo two months later, his troops immediately began deserting.  After losing a few ships and tons of supplies to hurricanes, he eventually managed to regroup in Cuba, hired a shady master pilot named Miruelo, who claimed extensive knowledge of the Gulf Coast, and set off, intending to stop briefly in Havana to stock up on supplies.  Sadly, he ran all his ships aground on the Canarreos shoals just off the coast of Cuba, where they spent three weeks eating up all their food before they were refloated.  Within sight of Havana, they were blown by strong winds back into the Gulf, and opted to head for Florida despite their dwindling stores.  They finally arrived in the Tampa Bay area in April 1528, trading with the Tocobaga natives (who showed him a little gold and told him it was much more plentiful further north).  Basically, the indigenous Floridian Tocabaga and Timucua kept pointing the Spanish towards the northerly Apalachee, their sworn enemies.

To make a long story short, Narváez split his forces, sent most north overland, and a portion by sea up the Gulf Coast.  They managed to lose all their boats, while starvation, incessant native attacks, and disease ravaged the expedition.  Narváez was too ill to command, soon died, and only 242 men remained, all recognizing that the whole effort had essentially failed, and if they were to survive they better hot-foot it to Mexico.  They built five rafts, stole some corn from the locals and started to sail along the coast in the general direction of Texas, led by Cabeza de Vaca.

Some folks just go from bad luck to worse luck.  Hurricanes wiped out most of the rafts, and only 80 survivors wound up shipwrecked somewhere near Galveston, where they pretty much gave up and eked out a meager existence until most of them had perished.  By 1532, the only survivors were Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and Moorish slave Estevanico.  They opted to head across New Mexico and Arizona in a final attempt to make it back to Spanish territory, limping into Mexico City, sometime around 1536.  Cabeza de Vaca went home to Spain in 1537, and by 1542 published the tale of the Narváez expedition in his La relación y comentarios, later editions appropriately entitled “Shipwrecks”.

Since 1539, both Estevancio and Cabeza de Vaca had been talking about native stories of fabulously wealthy indigenous cities, always north of wherever the Spanish happened to have control in the New World.  Cabeza de Vaca reported what he heard from the natives regarding what would come to be known as Cibola, Quivara, or “The Seven Cities of Gold”.  Somewhere in Cabeza de Vaca’s wandering around the American Southwest, he started to hear the rumors.

I found very ample report of Cibola, whereof they made such particular relation unto me, as people which go yearly thither to earn their living. Here I found a man born in Cibola, who told me that he came thither, having escaped from the governor or Lieutenant of the town; for the Lord of these seven Cities liveth and abideth in one of those towns called Ahacus, and in the rest he appoints lieutenants under him. This townsman of Cibola is a white man of a good complexion, somewhat well in years, and of fame greater capacity then the inhabitants of this valley, or then those which I had left behind me. He said that he would go with me, that I might beg his Pardon; and of him I learned many particulars; he told me that Cibola was a great city, inhabited with great store of people, and having many streets and marketplaces; and that in some parts of this city there are certain very great houses of five stories high, wherein the chiefs of the City assemble themselves at certain days of the year. He sayeth that the houses are of Lyme and Stone, according as others had told me before, and that the gates, and small pillars of the principal houses are of Turquoise, and all the vessels wherein they are served, and the other ornaments of their houses were of gold; and that the other six Cities are built like unto this, whereof some are bigger; and that Ahacus is the chiefest of them. He said that toward the Southeast there is a Kingdom called Marata, and that there were wont to be many, and those great Cities, which were all built of houses of Stone, with diverse lofts; and that these have and do wage war with the Lord of the seven Cities, through which war this Kingdom of Marata is for the most part wasted, although it yet continue and maintain war against the other. Likewise he said, that the Kingdom called Totonteac lays toward the West, which he said is a very mighty Province, replenished with infinite store of people and riches (From de Niza, appended to Cabeza de Vaca, 1922 trans., p218-219).

What self-respecting Conquistador could resist getting his conquer on with such prizes to be had, just to the north of wherever he happened to be?  There is of course a long tradition of Native Americans telling the colonial power de jour that limitless wealth is just to the north (for the similar con job pulled on the French, see “The Lost Kingdom of Saguenay: El Dorado of the North”).  Whoever came up with the Quivira marketing plan probably wasn’t aware that he was tapping into a popular Iberian urban myth dating from the 8th Century tale of about seven cities founded on the island of Antillia by a Catholic expedition, a virtual Catholic utopia.  With this predisposition and the prospect of shiny things, the idea of seven golden cities just would not die.  The seven cities of the American Southwest were said to be Hawikuh, Halona, Matsaki, Kiakima, Cibola, and Kwakina, and a mysterious unnamed seventh (known collectively as Quivira).  Thus the expedition in search of them commenced posthaste.

Upon hearing the fantastic stories of Cabeza de Vaca, the Viceroy of New Spain Antonio de Mendoza ordered Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza and Narváez survivor Estevanico to head north and scout for the Seven Cities.  They met a monk along the way who confirmed the rumors, but Estevancio was killed by the Zuni somewhere in New Mexico and de Niza returned to Mexico City, claiming he had gone even further north and seen an enormous city of gold from a distance.  As shiny things were clearly to be had, in 1540 Mendoza assembled a military expedition under the famous Francisco Vázquez de Coronado who we all hear about in history class, and sent him off to find the seven cities of gold and claim them in the name of Spain.

Coronado spent the next few years tromping around New Mexico and Arizona, meeting the Apache, Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, and Rio Grande Pueblo Indians, but was sadly disappointed by the fact that they were farming peoples with a distinct lack of shiny possessions.  Clearly, the indigenous folks in the American Southwest weren’t enamored of Coronado as a houseguest.  Conquistadors are not known for their table manners.  And there is no better way to get rid of a pesky Conquistador than to point him towards somebody else’s gold.  It just so happened that a native popped up near Pecos, Texas, and thereafter was simply referred to as “the Turk”, who was introduced to Coronado by his Captain of Artillery Hernando de Alvarado.

The Spaniards enjoyed themselves here for several days and talked with an Indian slave, a native of the country toward Florida, which is the region Don Fernando de Soto discovered. This fellow said that there were large settlements in the farther part of that country. Hernando de Alvarado took him to guide them to the cows; but he told them so many and such great things about the wealth of gold and silver in his country that they did not care about looking for cows, but returned after they had seen some few, to report the rich news to the general [Coronado]. They called the Indian “Turk,” because he looked like one (Reyes Castañeda, 1904 ed., p43).

It seems that the unfortunate “Turk” was the designated sacrifice intended to lead the Spanish Conquistadors away from Texas to perish in the Great Plains.  As they encountered the Querechos and the Teyas natives, they informed him that the Turk was leading them in the wrong direction if they were looking for Quivira, and sent him further north towards Kansas and Nebraska.  Every tribe’s answer seemed to be “if you’re looking for gold, go north young man”.  Are you starting to see the pattern of making the annoying Conquistadors somebody else’s problem, preferably your enemies?  Coronado finally arrived in Quivira, and realized he’d been punked.  He sent his army home and proceeded north with 30 men and a new set of directions.

Coronado and his companion horsemen followed the compass needle for forty-two days after leaving the main force, or, as he writes, “after traveling across these deserts for seventy-seven days in all,” they reached the country of Quivira. Here he found some people who lived in permanent settlements and raised a little corn, but whose sustenance came mainly from the buffalo herds, which they hunted at regular seasons, instead of continuously as the plains Indians encountered previously had done. Twenty-five days were spent among the villages at Quivira, so that Jaramillo, one of the party, doubtless remembered correctly when he said that they were there after the middle of August.  There was nothing here except a piece of copper hanging from the neck of a chief, and a piece of gold which one of the Spaniards was suspected of having given to the natives, which gave any promise of mineral wealth, and so Coronado determined to rejoin his main force. Although they had found no treasures, the explorers were fully aware of the agricultural advantages of this country, and of the possibilities for profitable farming, if only some market for the produce could be found (Winship 1896, p396-397).

Apparently, all that glitters does not even glitter.  One must consider this an optimal strategy for getting rid of party-crashers.  Just tell them about the open bar and high quality spirits at the party a little further north.  While its true that the Conquistadors perfected the “Greed is Good” ethos long before Gordon Gecko in Wall Street, they certainly managed to get around as a result, which just goes to show that you can get a lot done grasping at straws or hurrying after mirages.  As author Napolean Hill observed, “More gold has been mined from the thoughts of men than has been taken from the earth”.

Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar, active 16th century. The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca And His Companions from Florida to the Pacific, 1528-1536. New York: Allerton Book Co., 1922.
Reyes Castañeda, Pedro. The Journey of Coronado: 1540-1542; From the City of Mexico to the Grand Canon of the Colorado And the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas, And Nebraska, As Told by Himself And His Followers. New York: A.S. Barnes, 1904.
Winship, George Parker, 1871-1952. The Coronado Expedition, 1540-1542. Washington: Gov’t. Print. Office, 1896.