Wherever we, Homo Sapien Sapiens, go we leave something behind. Even when we enter the hostile and the unknown, we leave behind traces of our passing, evidence of our existence, proof that our experience is not our imagination but something else. Something more tangible. Here is a case in point.
In the year 1528 the remnants of an expedition of Spaniards fought their way through the jungles and everglades of Florida. Just eighty men out of hundreds reached the West coast.
The survivors built crude barges and set sail across the Gulf of Mexico. They were heading West and no one was going to stop them.
Washing up in Mexico they were taken captive by a tribe of natives. Six years later there were only four left, Alvar Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Estevan, a Moroccan Moor and Alonso Castillo. Finally through guile and luck they escaped into the wilderness.
They wandered the wilderness until they were found and adopted by another Indian tribe who took them to be shamen. They became known as 'The Children of the Sun' and their modern medical knowledge was employed to good effect as healers.
Estevan became fluent in several Indian dialects, dressed as a native and carried a medicine rattle and a feathered, beaded gourd as symbols of his magical status but it was Dorantes who was presented with the gift of the bell which was to lead to so much trouble and Coronado's disappointment. They said it came from a great city where they originally lived in the mountains North of the desert.
Believing the bell had been made by the natives who gave it to them, Dorantes assumed that the natives to the North were metal workers and probably rich in treasure and Spaniards were always interested in treasure. Many years later it was determined that the bell had in fact been made in Meixco City and traded North.
Two years later, the wanderers were rescued from their plight by Spanish slave raiders and taken to Mexico City.
While Dorantes and his fellow pilgrims were lost in the wilderness, Cortes, the conqueoror of Mexico, was replaced by Mendoza as Viceroy. Upon meeting Dorantes and hearing of his fantastic adventures and the bell, Mendoza tried to convince him to return to the wilderness and find the famed treasure of the people of the bell, but Dorantes declined and returned to Spain.
Medonza appointed a man named Coronado to be the new governor of the province in Northern Mexico around Culiacán.
De Niza, a Franciscan priest was appalled by the atrocities committed by the Spainards in the New World when he accompanied Pisarro on his conquest of Peru and became committed to protecting the natives of Mexico as best he could. De Niza left Mexico City with Coronado in the fall of 1538, but his price of passage were secret orders from Mendoza to seek the rumoured Northern empire.
Coronado established the Spanish garrison in Culiacan but De Niza and a second priest named Honorato along with the dark skinned Moor, Estevan, who, just like Jesus had spent so many years in the wilderness and had been with Dorantes and knew of the bell, walked into the desert looking for the fabled Northern Cities of gold and were joined along the way by an impressive parade of natives who considered De Niza a great emancipator because he twarted the terrible Spanish slave raiders.
Soon, Honorato fell ill and was left behind. De Niza and Estevan entered the vast Sonoran desert together.
But De Niza was slow. Too slow for Estevan who was not interested in De Niza's charitable work with the locals and forged ahead but with strict orders not to do anything or enter any cities he might find until De Niza had caught up with him.
Weeks later, Estevan sent word back of a wonderful city, Cibola, roughly another 30 days' journey North on a well defined trail but was not inclined to wait for De Niza.
De Niza hurried to catch up but was confused when he only found villages of small brush huts and one-floor, one-room structures of adobe-like material. Cibola supposedly a rich city, with permanent, multi-story buildings with turquoise jewels embedded in the doorways. There were well-watered river valleys with villages and irrigated fields as he tried to catch up to Estevan, but the Moor always remained several days ahead.
Nearly two weeks later, De Niza received word that a party of scouts he had sent to follow the coastline had determined that it turned abruptly West after running many miles North. As the changeing the direction of the coast was a matter of great importance as it might signal a new sea route back to Spain, De Niza gave up his pursuit of Estevan and went to look for himself. After exhausting himself for many weeks he found no such indication that their was a sea route North of Mexico, so he returned to the Cibola trail and his pursuit of Estevan.
In the meantime, Estevan had accumulated a large band of admirers and followers, and they encouraged him to venture into the mountainous country North of the desert. De Niza had no choice but to follow. The trail was clear and campsites well established. He grew excited. This was familiar to him. It was very like the trade routes of Peru and he anticipated finding the treasure cities of the North very soon.
Estevan began sending back wooden crosses and stories about a Northern tribe called the Zunis. The crosses grew larger and larger each day. Then De Niza had word that Estevan had arrived at Hawikuh, a Zuni pueblo. De Niza, not trusting Estevan to follow orders picked up the pace of his journey.
Early one morning De Niza found a few bloodied refugees on the trail. They told of how Estevan, imbued with a sense of power that his followers attributed to his dark complexion and his two Castillian greyhounds, entered a Zuni city. He did not realise that his medicine gourd was trimmed with owl feathers, a bird that symbolized death to the Zuni.
Estevan was seized and held captive. Many of the natives in his entourage were overcome and slaughtered.
Terrified by the news of the Zuni hostility, his native escort turned on De Niza, worried that the Zunis would hold them accountable for bringing the Spaniards North.
De Niza gave the natives what trade goods he had left and told them that it did not matter to him if they killed him because he was a Christian and would go to heaven. But that more Christians would come and kill all of them and he, De Niza, was the only one who could stop them.
De Niza wanted to turn back but could not without being sure Estevan was really dead. There had been promises made and oaths taken.
At last, two of the chiefs, seeing him determined, agreed to go on.
He continued North then found Cibola. He admitted that the houses were unlike any he had seen to date, but they had nothing of the grandeur of the Inca cities he had seen in Peru.
He wanted to recover Estevan or his body but was afraid. He rationalised to himself that if he died, he would not be able to make a report on this country.
When his native escort assured him that Cibola was just one of at least seven great cities, and that, Totonteac, the still more distant kingdom, was even richer, with so many houses and people that they could not be counted. De Niza immediately declared these seven cities the new kingdom of Saint Francis, made a large mound of stones topped with a cross before fleeing back to where he had come from assuming Estevan was dead but not verifying it. His adventure wasn't over yet.
De Niza turned up in Mexico many months later. He found that Honorato, had whipped up a frenzy with tales of the treasure city of Cibola.
So,in 1540 Coronado marched North from Compostela, Mexico, with a huge army. The army contained around 350 Spaniards, some on horseback and more on foot, and around 900 Indian allies gathered from central Mexico. They took with them herds of livestock, especially horses. Only a few women were included, among them a few of the wives of Spanish soldiers and De Niza who was forced to show him the way.
The army marched from Compostela to the last frontier outpost, the town of Culiacán, on the coast. Where they came on Diaz, who had already been dispatched to verify what De Niza had reported on the seven cities but winter snows hade stopped him before he got all the way through the mountains. He could not tell Coronado whether or not there was gold and treasure in Cibola but he said the natives believed there was a rich city, somewhere to the North.
Coronado, with 80 horsemen,30 footsoldiers, and some native allies, forged ahead. De Niza begged Coronado to take him along. He was determined to find out what happened to Estevan.
They left the main army and the livestock to come North at their own speed. De Niza led Coronado into, terra incognito along the route he pioneered the year before. He led them across a pass and then into the mountainous pobladoor a depopulated wilderness that separated Cibola from the South.
It was early July when they reached a small town called Hawikuh (HA-wee-koo) not far from Cibola. The Zunis attacked. A short fight ensued.
Coronado's men were armed with crossbows. They pushed the Zunis out of Hawikuh. There was no gold or jewels. Coronado accused De Niza of lying. Having outmarched their supplies they waited for the rest of the army to catch up to them. It took a few weeks.
While they were waiting, Coronado sent out small parties and scouts. They discovered some Hopi Pueblos and the Grand Canyon, but no gold. He also sent Diaz to find the promised naval support on the Sea of Cortes.
Diaz marched across fearsome deserts to the Colorado River and found a message left by the naval commander. He had sailed as far as he could up Colorado River, but failed to find the land army. In the meantime, Diaz gored himself in the groin with his own lance and died.
Back in Hawkikuh, facing starvation and mutiny, Coronado decided to devote his attention to the treasure of the Seven Cities.
He set out North. It was hard going. De Niza promised that the trail would be good and the terrain flat. But hills turned out to be mountains. Many animals were lost.
They reached the Valley of Corazones in May where they found people and cultivated land. The women wore dresses of deerskin. They painted their chins and eyes and were frequently seen out in the open drunk on a homebrew wine and engaged in sexual congress. The chiefs of the villages stood upon mounds and directed their people. Dotted about the villages were little shrines, bristling with many arrows sticking into them, like a porcupine. They were a sign of war and hostility to anyone who cared to pay attention.
The mainstay of the native diet were melons so large that a person could carry only one at a time and when cut into slices and dried in the sun, tasted of figs and kept for a very long time.
Coronado had yet to encounter anyone who had actually seen Cibola except the Indians who had been with Estevan. These were hungry times.
Coronado's advance guard met their first Indians from Cíbola. There were two of them, and they ran away. The advance party kept going until they spotted some Indians on a hilltop.
The Spaniards made signs of peace and offered presents to trade. Some of the natives came down and took the trade goods. With sign language and translators, the Zuni were given a cross and asked to go to their town and tell their people that Coronado was coming peacefully and wanted to be friends.
The soldiers made camp. In the dead of night the Zuni attacked. The horses ran off and the men were left on foot. Only two of the scouts remained mounted, but it was enough to save their comrades. The Zuni were afraid of the huge animals and the powerful crossbows wielded by the Spaniards.
The next morning Coronado turned up with the rest of the men. He was furious and ordered a full military assault on Cibola. When they arrived, the total Zuni population was arranged outside the city in opposition. Knowing his own men were weak and hungry, Coronado pulled up.
The soldiers, even the ranking officers, cursed Friar De Niza and his lies. Cibola was only a little, crowded village, of about 200 families. The ramshackle houses were only about three and four stories high. The disappointment was palpable.
There was smoke from many fires rising up around the town behind an intimidating array of warriors. Some were blowing horns. With typically Spanish sense of occasion, Coronada sent a representative, two friars and a notary ahead to read the warriors the Requerimiento prescribed by the King of Spain. It told the Zuni, in Spanish, that they would not be harmed, but defended in the name of God.
The Zuni approached Coronado. They completely disregarded the overtures of peace and started shooting arrows and tearing at the friar's robes, but no one was harmed.
Coronado could not risk a full engagement. He took a few mounted men, some trade articles and ordered the army to follow at a distance. The Zuni continued to shoot their arrows. Coronado held his nerve and kept advancing.
Emboldened by Coronado's passive response the Zuni ran up to his horse and fired arrows into it from only an arms length away. The arrows were crude and had little effect. When one arrow pierced one of the friars and drew blood, Coronado's patience evaporated. Coronado asked for the friar's approval to order the attack. It was given.
The impatient Spaniards loosed their leathal crossbows at the natives who fled back to the city and fortified themselves.
Coronado would not take the horses into the narrow streets but ordered well armoured foot soldiers to take the town. The few musketeers and crossbowmen began the attack but the crossbowmen broke all their strings and the musketeers had arrived so weak that they could scarcely stand on their feet.
Coronado waded in, standing out from the rest by his gilded arms and armor, and a plume on his headpiece. The Zuni knocked him to the ground twice with stones thrown from the roof, stunning him in spite of his headpiece. They hit him many times on his head, shoulders and legs. He received two small facial wounds plus an arrow wound in the right foot.
Don Garcia Lopez dragged Coronada unconscious from the danger and the town was overcome. There were no Spanish casualties and even the wounds were minor.
There were no cruelties in the aftermath of the battle. All of the Zuni were well treated, especially the women and children.
Over the next few days, the chieftain of nearby pueblos came with peace offerings of deer and cattle skins, yucca fiber blankets, and some turquoises, and a few bows and arrows, but the Zunis dispersed from Cibola and left the town to the Spaniards.
The soldiers were disgusted with Cíbola and threatened De Niza with all manner of retribution for his lying and deceit. Coronado on the other hand was interested in what exactly it was that he had come to conqueor.
He heard about and visited, Totonteac, a large group of Hopi villages, with which Zuni traded. He also ranged far enough to find the Rio Grande pueblos which had vigorous trade with plains Indians. There he found the buffalo robes and skins that De Niza had seen traded all the way into Sonora.
Coronado wanted the Zuni and the Hopi to come down from their hilltop strongholds and return to their houses with their wives and children and become Christians and recognize the King. But the Zuni and the Hopi would have none of it.
The Indians worshiped the water that made the corn grow. The women wore coils on their hair on their heads to carry jars of water. With one of these coils, a woman could carry a jar of water on her head up a ladder without touching it with her hands. It was an impressive skill.
Some brought their children to the priests but not many. When they prayed, they always faced toward the sun. They would raise their hands and rub their faces and bodies. They decorated sources of water with feathers of various colored birds. They also sprinkled ground cornmeal and other yellow powders around them. They made the same sort of offerings to the Spanish cross.
Coronado asked them to paint all the animals of their country on a buffalo hide. They made two skins for him, one with animals and the other with the birds and fishes.
Coronado sent the two painted hides, some turquoises, two earrings of the same, fifteen Indian combs, some plates decorated with turquoise, two baskets, and some hair coils back to Mexico City.
With these paltry offerings, he sent a dejected letter saying there was little chance of finding gold or silver. He had seen one or two small items, but the natives would not trade him for them and would not tell him where they came from.
The longer Coronado stayed around Cibola, the more dejected he became. He wanted someone to take the blame for his disappointment. Cíbola was not an Aztec-like city of gold, it was little more than a tawdry group of mud huts. He blamed De Niza.
In September, Coronado moved his army East to the pueblos on the Rio Grande River. He had been on this expedition less than a year and he was already exhausted and disillusioned. Wintering in the pueblos, he heard stories of an another city, Quivira, to the Northeast, but had little optimism that there was any wealth to be found there. He was broke and disgraced. He could not return to Mexico City with nothing. It was not a place to have nothing.
When spring came he marched the entire army East. Coronado and thirty horsemen rode North to find Quivira. They found nothing but endless grasslands and hostile natives. By December they were back where they started and the hopeless Coronado fell from his horse and hurt himself. It was the last straw.
He ordered a return of the army to Mexico in 1542 then resigned his governorship and retired. No Spaniard of any account returned North for another fifty years.
Threatened with death and very much out of favour with Coronado and his followers, De Niza, also made his way back to Mexico City. He never again ventured into the wilderness.
Of Estevan, who knows, but there can be little doubt, he along with Coronado and other Spaniards left behind horses which transformed the native cultures of the plains but they almost certainly also left behind some physical genetic code and a little bit of The Magic Helix.