Stories of Nebraska History
THE STORY OF CORONADO
FRANCISCO VASQUEZ CORONADO and his soldiers were the first white men to visit the Nebraska-Kansas plains. Coronado was a Spanish general who came to Mexico to seek his fortune in the New World. While there wonderful stories were brought by Fray Marcos, a monk, who had traveled a thousand miles north, into the country now called Arizona. In that land it was said were the Seven Cities of Cibola, with houses built of stone many stories high, and great abundance of gold and silver, turquoises, cloth, sheep, cows, and tame partridges. All the Spaniards in Mexico were eager to take possession of such a wonderful land and to seize its riches. Coronado was the lucky man who was made general of the army which was sent out to conquer these famous seven cities. Three hundred Spaniards on horseback and a thousand Indians, with a long train of horses and cattle carrying food and ammunition, started in February, 1540, on this fine errand. After a long and hard journey across the desert the army arrived at the towns of the Zuni and Hopi Indians in Arizona. They found there what one finds to-day -- a desert with houses made of sun-baked mud, the homes of poor and peaceful Indians who make pottery and weave a little cloth and raise corn and beans and fowls. The riches and splendor of the wonderful Seven Cities of Cibola were a dream of the desert. Like many other things in life, the farther off, the more wonderful -- the nearer, the more common.
The Spaniards were very much disappointed. They had come so far to conquer a people who were hardly worth conquering. It would never do to go back to Mexico with nothing to show for their long journey. So Coronado marched eastward across New Mexico into the valley of the Rio Grande. Stretched along this valley for many miles were villages of the Pueblo Indians. They also were poor and peaceful, irrigating little patches of the valley in order to raise corn and beans, making cloth and pottery, and living in sun-baked mud houses. These Pueblo Indians treated the Spaniards kindly and furnished them food. The army camped there for the winter. Quarrels arose between the soldiers and the Indians. The soldiers stormed the villages, killed many of the Indians, and burned some whom they took prisoners. The Spaniards then tried to conciliate the Indians so that they would go on raising food for them, but up and down the fair valley of the Rio Grande there were fear and hatred of the white men.
At this time Coronado heard for the first time the story of the land of Quivira, far to the northeast. An Indian slave whom the Spaniards called the Turk, because they said he looked like a Turk, told the story. His home was far out on the plains, but he had been captured by the Pueblo Indians and held as a slave. It is supposed that he was a Pawnee Indian, for the Pawnees wore their hair in a peculiar way so that they resembled Turks. The story of Quivira told by the Indian slave was of a wonderful land far across the plains. There was a river six miles wide, and in it were fishes as big as horses, and upon it floated many great canoes with twenty rowers on a side. Some of these canoes carried sails, and the lords sat under awnings upon them, while the prows bore golden eagles. The king of Quivira, Tatarrax, slept under a great tree with golden bells on the branches. These bells swung to and fro in the winds which always blew, and their music lulled the king to sleep. The common people in Quivira had dishes of plated ware and the jugs and bowls were of gold. The king of Quivira worshiped a cross of gold and an image of a woman, the goddess of heaven.
The First Printed Picture of a Buffalo
Stories like these filled the hearts of the Spaniards with longing to reach the land of Quivira and to help the people there to take care of its riches. On the 23d of April, 1541, Coronado and his army marched away from the Rio Grande valley, guided by the Turk and by another Indian from the same region, whom they called Isopete. For thirty-five days they traveled out upon the high plains. These were so nearly level they could look as far as the eye would pierce and see no hill. They found great herds of buffalo, or "humpbacked cows" as they called them, on these plains, and Indians who traveled around among these cows, killing them for their flesh and skins -- eating the flesh raw and making the skins into tents and clothing. The Indians had dogs to pull their tents from place to place, and had never seen horses until the Spaniards came. The Spanish army saw for the first time the American buffalo. None of these Indians who hunted the cows had ever heard of the rich land of Quivira with its gold and silver, its great canoes, and its king. Here the two guides began to tell different stories, and confessed that the houses in Quivira were not quite so large as they had said, and the people not so rich.
Coronado and his army had eaten all the corn they had brought with them for food. The land of Quivira was still said to be far to the north. A council was held and it was determined to send the army back to the Rio Grande, while Coronado with thirty horsemen and two guides pushed on to find Quivira. So the army went back, and Coronado with his thirty men traveled on, eating nothing but raw buffalo meat. After crossing a great river, supposed to be the Arkansas, they came to the country of Quivira, forty-two days after parting from the army, or seventy-seven days after leaving the Rio Grande.
A Quivira Grass Hut.
(Courtesy R. B. Brower, St. Cloud, Minn.)
Coronado says in his letter to the King of Spain, "Where I reached Quivira it was in the fortieth degree (of latitude)." The fortieth degree forms the state line between Nebraska and Kansas. This would make Quivira in the Republican valley. Coronado found no gold, no silver, no bells tinkling from the trees, no fishes big as horses, and no boats with golden prows. He found Indians living in grass huts, growing corn and beans and melons, eating raw buffalo meat and cutting it with stone knives. There were twenty-five of these grass hut villages, and the only metal seen in them was a piece of copper worn by a chief around his neck. Coronado went on for seventy-five miles through the villages of Quivira and came to the country called Harahey. The chief of Harahey met them with two hundred men, all naked, with bows and arrows and "some sort of things on their heads," which probably means the way they put up their hair, and suggests that they were Pawnees. Here the Turk confessed he had lied to the Spaniards about the riches of Quivira in order to lead the army off on the trackless plains where it would perish. "We strangled him that night so that he never waked up," is the way one of the Spaniards tells the story of what happened to the Turk.
(From photograph by A. E. Sheldon.)
Coronado spent a month in Quivira and Harahey. He wrote that the country was the best he had seen since leaving Spain, for the land was very fat and black, and well watered with rivulets and springs and rivers. He found nuts and plums and very good sweet grapes and mulberries to eat, and plenty of grass and wild flax and sumach. The Spaniards held a council and resolved to go back to Mexico, for they feared trying to winter in the country so far from the rest of the army. So Coronado raised a great cross, and at the foot of it he made some letters with a chisel, which said that Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, general of the army, had arrived there. The Spaniards then marched away, in the month of August, 1541, almost four hundred years ago, and left the land of Quivira, with its fat, black soil, its beautiful rivulets and springs and rivers, its great prairies of grass and its nuts, plums, good sweet grapes and mulberries, its queer cows with humped backs and its Indians living in grass huts and eating raw buffalo meat. And no one has yet found the great cross the Spaniards raised with the name of Coronado upon it. Nor has any one yet found the tree covered with golden bells under which Tatarrax, the great king of Quivira, sleeps, lulled by the music of the bells.