1540s: Coronado (Why Don't You...) - Shorter Version
History, by definition, is written down. This is not a knock against archeology, anthropology, oral histories, or any other efforts to unravel the past – it’s just a definition.
Consequently, prior to European exploration, everything we know about what is now Oklahoma is technically “pre-history.” This is important because I’m about to insist that the History of Oklahoma began in 1540 with the arrival of a conquistador by the name of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, and I don’t want to sound, you know – Eurocentric or dismissive of pre-literate peoples. I like to think of myself as quite culturally sensitive and stuff.
There are other places we could begin, of course. We could place its beginnings way back with the earliest fossil records. That approach, though, leaves us with a rather broad range of possible dates. Indian Removal is certainly a defensible starting point as well, despite the dramatic changes which began only a generation later as a result of the Civil War.
The first Land Run (1889) is certainly one of the more colorful events in our collective past, and far less depressing than most – as long as you don’t look too closely. This is when the first ‘Oklahoma’ lands were legally opened to white settlement, so claiming it as our “day of birth” has a certain logic to it. Even Statehood (1907) might be an obvious choice if it didn’t so blatantly marginalize all who came before.
So I choose to be literal and insist that the History of Oklahoma began in 1540 with the arrival of a conquistador by the name of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. He led an expedition which wandered through part of what is now far-western Oklahoma. Significantly, for our purposes, he and some of those with him left written records of their thoughts and experiences as they traveled – the first recorded “history” of the area.
The Spanish may have been the first to write about this little section of the universe, but they were hardly the first to encounter it. Various Amerindians had lived in or traveled across the Great Plains for centuries – maybe millennia. There were hundreds of different tribal identifications, and a far greater variety of cultures than we usually acknowledge. It’s really quite fascinating, if you’re into that sort of thing.
One of the big questions among American historians is just how many Amerindians were here before Columbus showed up and brought all of Europe as his ‘plus one.’ War and disease and such killed, well… a bunch of the native population, but whether that means a quarter, a third, or ninety-nine percent is in serious dispute.
Not that Coronado was wrestling with such issues in 1540.
It had been less than a half-century since Columbus sailed the ocean blue and stumbled across this little roadblock to India. The British seemed in little hurry to settle the new continent – Jamestown was established in 1607, Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans started arriving around 1630. Spain, however, wasted no time making their presence felt across Central America and Southwestern North America.
In 1520, Hernán Cortés led the overthrow of the Aztec Empire in what is now Mexico. By 1532, Francisco Pizarro had helped bring about the destruction of the Incas in Peru. In both cases, Spanish conquistadors had discovered complex civilizations and unmeasurable wealth. In both cases, the reality of their experiences dramatically exceeded rumors or expectations.
It was thus not particularly ridiculous for Coronado to go looking for untold riches or follow rumors of lavish cities inhabited by wondrous people. He set out in February of 1540 to do just that.
Conquistadors didn’t like to do anything on a modest scale, so Coronado took along 400 armed men and over a thousand Mexican-Indian “allies”. That many people meant livestock, food wagons, and innumerable other supplies
in tow, making for quite the logistical monstrosity.
His exact route is debatable, but he seems to have started north from what is now Mexico and traveled into New Mexico and/or Arizona in search of the “Seven Cities of Cibola.” He got into a few scraps with the locals, but his journey was otherwise unexciting until he encountered a young man the Spanish quickly nicknamed “The Turk.”
The Turk, most likely a Wichita or Pawnee, assured Coronado that the real treasures were to be found in “Quivira,” far to the east. He offered to lead them there, and each time they encountered other tribes the Turk would communicate with them briefly before they, too, would eagerly insist that “Quivira” was totally the place to be and begin using signs and making other vigorous efforts at communication to indicate that the riches there were impressive indeed – in a no-sense-waiting-‘round-here-you-prolly-wanna-get-going kinda way.
One can only assume that the Turk was essentially letting each new gathering know that they should play along and point the correct direction while feigning enthusiasm for the wealth and glory just up the road a ways. Most seem to have played along – certainly no one wanted this Spanish hoard camping out on their block for long.
This worked for a ridiculously long time, despite being a rather obvious ploy. Unfortunately, it relied heavily on the cooperation of strangers. Eventually, one of the tribes they encountered – the Teyas, an intriguing name later given to a future state whose name escapes me at the moment – started letting Coronado know that they had no idea what this Turk lad was talking about, and that he wasn’t even translating properly.
Despite his suspicions, Coronado let “The Turk” lead him all the way to what is now Wichita, Kansas, where they found Quivira. That part, at least was true.
It was not a city of gold, however, so much as a village of farmers living in grass huts. They were alarmingly tall for Indians, and very close to naked most of the time. Untold riches, though? Not so much.
Coronado spent several weeks hoping perhaps they were, somehow, close to some cities of gold if only he’d poke around a bit more, but finally reconciled himself to the truth – he’d been had.
He was so desperate to find treasure that when he discovered some copper hung on a necklace worn by one of the tribal leaders, he got all excited and sent it to the Viceroy of New Spain, who was surely bewildered by the exact purpose of THAT particular Fed-Ex package.
Coronado ordered that the Turk be garroted – the thing you see in action movies when they strangle someone with wire. To be fair, he had fibbed rather extensively and wasted months of their time, not to mention substantial resources. His sacrifice had not been in vain, at least – he’d led Coronado and crew far, far from his own people and their homes.
Coronado took a different route back to Tiguex in what is now New Mexico, where he wrote a letter to the King of Spain, dated October 20, 1541. It’s arguably the first written record of Oklahoma, and rich in both tone and detail. As primary sources go, it’s golden.
Unlike, say… Quivira.
Coronado went home frustrated and weakened after several armed conflicts and a serious fall from his horse along the way. He lost his fortune and much of his honor and died in 1554 – which I get is a total downer.
But while he’d hardly draw much comfort from it, he was the first Oklahoma Historian and a generally fine observer and record-keeper of much of the geography, the people, the wildlife, and the tribulations of the American Southwest in the 16th century.
There’s no record whether he ever got back that nifty copper necklace.