Coronado's Letter w/ Commentary ("What I Am Sure Of Is This...")

“What I Am Sure Of Is This…” - Coronado’s Letter to the King of Spain (October 20th, 1541) {Excerpts and Commentary}

Coronado’s letter to the King summarizing his “failed” expedition is a wonderful source – not only for the content it covers, but the tone and “spin” it employs. While it’s dangerous to read too much into a document nearly five centuries old and translated from another language, there are a few moments too rich to neglect.

HOLY CATHOLIC CAESARIAN MAJESTY…

{W}hile I was engaged in the conquest and pacification of the natives of this province, some Indians who were natives of other provinces beyond these had told me that in their country there were much larger villages and better houses… and that they had lords who ruled them, who were served with dishes of gold, and other very magnificent things; and although… I did not believe it before I had set eyes on it… 

{It seemed} important that it should be investigated for Your Majesty's service… 

This sounds very much like an effort on the part of Coronado to (a) lower expectations and (b) cover his own behind. “I was skeptical, Your Highness, but of course I wanted to check it out FOR YOU…”

Notice, too, the casual assumption that traveling about conquering and pacifying is just how one fills a normal day.

After nine days' march I reached some plains, so vast that I did not find their limit anywhere that I went… And I found such a quantity of cows in these, of the kind… which they have in this country, that it is impossible to number them, for while I was journeying through these plains, until I returned to where I first found them, there was not a day that I lost sight of them. 

Tatanka!

And after seventeen days' march I came to a settlement of Indians who are called Querechos, who travel around with these cows, who do not plant, and who eat the raw flesh and drink the blood of the cows they kill, and they tan the skins of the cows, with which all the people of this country dress themselves here. 

They have little field tents made of the hides of the cows, tanned and greased, very well made, in which they live while they travel around near the cows, moving with these. They have dogs which they load, which carry their tents and poles and belongings…

That’s about as succinct a description as you could ask of life on the Great Plains – nomadic, living in tipis and utilizing just about every part of the buffalo they hunted. The use of dog travois was common on the Plains as well. 

I traveled five days more… until I reached some plains, with no more landmarks than as if we had been swallowed up in the sea, where they strayed about, because there was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by…

And while we were lost in these plains, some horsemen who went off to hunt cows fell in with some Indians… called Teyas; they have their bodies and faces all painted, are a large people like the others, of a very good build; they eat the raw flesh just like the Querechos, and live and travel round with the cows in the same way as these. 

I obtained from these an account of the country where the guides were taking me, which was not like what they had told me, because these made out that the houses there were not built of stones, with stories, as my guides had described it, but of straw and skins, and a small supply of corn there…

Texans with painted bodies and faces? Must have been on their way to a football game. 

It was looking more and more like this trek to Quivera wasn’t going to turn out the way Coronado hoped. It was growing increasingly difficult to rationalize away the warning signs in favor of avarice and happy thoughts. 

It seemed to me best, in order to see if there was anything there of service to Your Majesty, to go forward with only 30 horsemen until I should be able to see the country, so as to give Your Majesty a true account of what was to be found in it… 

I traveled forty-two days after I left the force, living all this while solely on the flesh of the bulls and cows which we killed, at the cost of several of our horses… and going many days without water, and cooking the food with cow dung, because there is not any kind of wood in all these plains…

You have to love the subtle reminder that Coronado was not, of course, doing any of this for himself, but for the King. Note also that going on with only 30 men was really stripping it down to a skeleton crew. 

As to cooking with dung… is he talking manly “roughing it” talk, or expressing his disgust and frustration? “WE HAD TO COOK. WITH. POOP. THAT’S WHAT WE’RE DEALING WITH OUT HERE – NOT GOLDEN CITIES. NOT SILVER STREETS. POOP-COOKING.”

It was the Lord's pleasure that, after having journeyed across these deserts seventy-seven days, I arrived at the province they call Quivira, to which the guides were conducting me, and where they had described to me houses of stone, with many stories; and not only are they not of stone, but of straw, but the people in them are as barbarous as all those whom I have seen and passed before this; they do not have cloaks, nor cotton of which to make these, but use the skins of the cattle they kill…

“Barbarous” wasn’t as loaded a term five centuries ago, but it certainly wasn’t positive. It defines the Natives in stark contrast to the “civilized” Europeans recording the encounter. 

The natives here gave me a piece of copper which a chief Indian wore hung around his neck; I sent it to the viceroy of New Spain, because I have not seen any other metal in these parts except this and some little copper bells which I sent him, and a bit of metal which looks like gold. I do not know where this came from…

His disappointment is palpable, but it’s not the full-blown disgust and frustration we’re going to see momentarily. The desperation of sending a lone copper necklace to the viceroy is almost heartbreaking - the months, the hope, the depravations endured… for a copper necklace of unknown origin. 

And can’t you almost picture the viceroy receiving it and thinking… “What the--?”

The diversity of languages which exists in this country and my not having anyone who understood them, because they speak their own language in each village, has hindered me, because I have been forced to send captains and men in many directions to find out whether there was anything in this country which could be of service to Your Majesty. And although I have searched with all diligence I have not found or heard of anything, unless it be these provinces, which are a very small affair.

Remember that behind-covering we referenced earlier? This is more of it. 

Here’s my favorite part:

I have treated the natives of this province, and all the others whom I found wherever I went, as well as was possible, agreeably to what Your Majesty had commanded, and they have received no harm in any way from me or from those who went in my company. I remained 25 days in this province of Quivira, so as to see and explore the country and also to find out whether there was anything beyond which could be of service to Your Majesty…

“…as well as was possible…”

What a wonderfully cautious bit of self-justification. 

And what I am sure of is that there is not any gold nor any other metal in all that country, and the other things of which they had told me are nothing but little villages, and in many of these they do not plant anything and do not have any houses except of skins and sticks, and they wander around with the cows; so that the account they gave me was false, because they wanted to persuade me to go there with the whole force, believing that as the way was through such uninhabited deserts, and from the lack of water, they would get us where we and our horses would die of hunger…

Coronado’s frustration almost leaves spittle on the page centuries later. More importantly, though, it’s right here we see the first written expression of the single greatest conflict between white guys and the red guys over the next four centuries.

“They don’t plant anything… they wander around… there’s no wealth…”

To the average European, nature is there to be subdued. Reworked. Made into your humble servant. 

To the typical Amerindian on the Great Plains, nature is simply there. It may be utilized. Perhaps a bit revered. The idea, though, that you could subdivide it and own it and remake it into what you wished…?

They were not starry-eyed environmentalists, but they certainly asked for different things out of life than the typical white guy. This disparity is not the only source of conflict between these cultures, but it would shape European attitudes and policies towards the Native populations for centuries to come.

Well beyond one conquistador and his futile search for gold.

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