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Rabbitbrush Rambler: Conquistadors in Nueva Tierra

Posted: Tuesday, Feb 19th, 2013

I have been reading an outstanding new book, Came Men on Horses, by the late Stan Hoig, which offers a close look at the adventurers who came to the American Southwest, including notably our neighbor New Mexico about 500 years ago. The land they visited was then known as Nueva Tierra.

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and, Don Juan de Oñate y Salazar, whose names most of us know, were wealthy men in New Spain (Mexico) who undertook their expeditions in the hope of amassing greater riches for themselves and their companions and investors. The conquistadors were daring, certainly, but they do not fit our notions of heroes.

Their expeditions earned no wealth or honor. Instead, they gained well-deserved condemnation for ruthlessness and cruelty that engendered long-lasting fear, distrust, and enmity among the indigenous people. (It is no comfort that some other conquerors of the New World were equally devoid of moral conscience or worse.)

In Hoig’s book, I also learned various other facts, such as Oñate’s wife being the great-granddaughter of Moctezuma and granddaughter of Hernando Cortéz. No wonder Oñate started with so much wealth!

I also read about some calamitous stampedes of bison and attempts to corral them on the plains, although one in the San Luis Valley did not make it into Hoig’s book, unfortunately.

Coronado is best remembered for seeking the nonexistent Seven Cities of Gold at Cibola (Zuni) in eastern Arizona and Quivera in eastern Kansas. He returned home a failure, impoverished and condemned in a court for the brutality he and his men inflicted during their expedition in 1540-1542.

A half century later, when Oñate set forth in 1598 knowing already that Cibola was a fantasy, he continued the search for Quivira and looked for a rumored sea full of pearls to the west. He too returned to Mexico with both his fortune and his reputation ruined.

Soldiers and adventurers, men with or without such great wealth, and a few women too, joined these expeditions in the belief that all would be enriched with gold, silver, and land. Hundreds of slaves also accompanied the entourages to Nueva Tierra but were not forced against their will to go, or so it was said.

Coronado was appointed the captain general of his expedition. Oñate was to be the governor of his enterprise.

These huge ventures were backed with private resources including the viceroy’s. There were large numbers of oxen, mules, donkeys, horses, livestock, dogs, and carts with iron-rimmed wheels. Oñate’s entourage started with a couple of carriages besides.

They assembled large amounts of food, equipment, weapons, and armor, but naval support failed to reach them along coast of the Gulf of California. Before long, both expeditions found themselves struggling against the challenges of terrain and distance, depleted food supplies, unsuitable clothing, and no shelter for the climate as winter descended, and a few men contemplated desertion during the journeys, but those who tried it received violent retribution.

Although some natives in pueblos offered food to the strangers, any good will proved to be short-lived. The newcomers sometimes received fierce resistance, as at Zuni for example, while pueblos along the Rio Grande were sacked for food, cloaks, blankets, and shelters that the natives needed for their own survival.

The blood of the natives flowed, and rape was common. In addition, Oñate assembled a sizable harem at his headquarters.

Royal decree provided that Oñate was to establish a colony, to convert the native people to Christianity, and to treat them kindly. At least, to their credit, the priests urged better behavior, though futilely.

Some in the expedition’s encampment at San Gabriel, near San Juan Pueblo, mutinied while Oñate was away looking for treasure in Kansas, but, surprisingly, the deserters were listened to when they reached Mexico. After stubbornly ignoring orders by authorities in Mexico and Spain until 1609, he was finally evicted and returned to Mexico in disgrace.

Sic transit gloria.

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