Disappointing Discoveries

A talented researcher of the history of the West's posthumous book captures the calamities of the conquistadors

Failure is a slippery term, its meaning changing with perspective, one door closing and another opening and all that; but it's difficult to come up with a more fitting word to describe the 16th-century conquistador expeditions to these badlands.

First there was Francisco Vázquez de Coronado in 1540. His privately financed, "high-risk business venture" to find treasure and glory in Tierra Nueva, already inspired by a fantasy of golden cities, fell victim to a beautiful con job.

Oklahoma-based scholar and writer Stan Hoig, who died in 2009 at the age of 85, traces what begins to seem like Coronado's inevitable march toward disaster in Came Men on Horses: The Conquistador Expeditions of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and Don Juan de Oñate, published posthumously in January.

After failing to find the golden Seven Cities of Cibola and instead "discovering" a few humble pueblos in an otherwise empty and unforgiving land, Coronado was primed to believe it when an Indian, whom the Spanish called "the Turk" because he supposedly resembled one, told him of a huge city to the east that had so much gold that the residents made bowls out it. Based on this, Coronado turned east to the Great Plains, where his party would become "swallowed by a sea of grass," searching for a land called Quivira. This golden city turned out to be nothing more than a series of primitive villages along the Arkansas River where the inhabitants ate their buffalo meat raw. Coronado turned back before becoming hopelessly stranded, but he wasted much on the ridiculous side trip. The Turk admitted that he'd conspired with some mistreated Pueblo leaders to lead the Spaniards onto the "vast, landmark-void buffalo prairies to the east" in hopes that they'd never come back. The Spaniards garroted him and buried his body in an unmarked grave on those same prairies.

Coronado would return to Mexico in 1542 to face a mob of disappointed investors. An official investigation later revealed the expedition's brutality. Hoig writes of cavalryman Cristobal de Escobar, who with "no hint of remorse ... freely admitted to the murders; the ravaging of Indian villages; the rape of Indian women; and the looting of food, clothing and firewood the natives desperately needed through the bitterly cold winter."

Coronado's failures and criminal treatment of the native inhabitants were largely forgotten by century's end, when Don Juan Oñate began his disastrous expedition to colonize New Mexico. The effort's eventual failure, which came about after many of the settlers defied his orders and went home, was almost entirely the fault of the so-called "last conquistador." While Oñate was unlucky to have mounted a journey to a land with scant firewood during the Little Ice Age, Hoig writes that it was "his methods, as much as anything else, that did him in." Like Coronado, Oñate would be investigated and tried on his return. He was eventually found guilty of treating Indians "with great severity, injuring many innocent people and killing others," and for living "dishonorably and scandalously with women of the army, married and unmarried." And Oñate did all this while under specific orders from the crown to "see that his soldiers and settlers treated Indians well" lest they make the priests' job of converting souls even more difficult. One long-suffering friar reported that "When he instructed the Indians to become Christians, they asked why ... when it was Christians who had caused them so much harm."

Hoig spent a lifetime writing about the West, most often about Native Americans. Came Men on Horses is a fitting cap to his distinguished career as a regional interpreter. Relying primarily on previous English translations of primary documents from both expeditions, Hoig weaves a clear-eyed narrative decorated with fascinating details.

Of course, reading about these two failed missions of discovery and conquest in one volume, with all the facts and figures presented so clearly and simply, is just one perspective from which to judge Coronado and Oñate. Very few monumental human endeavors hold up to such scrutiny in hindsight. Still, knowing what we know now—that we are Coronado and Oñate's children in conquest and failure and myopia, and that we have spent the last 100 years attempting to make the Southwest into the place that we want it to be rather than simply allowing it to be the place that it is—I can't help wishing they had both stayed home.

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