Coronado's Gold

The Kuaua Pueblo in Bernalillo, NM
The Kuaua Pueblo in Bernalillo, NM | Source

the 40s -- 1540s, that is

Just north of Albuquerque, one can visit a state monument, a designated landmark, where Francisco Vasquez de Coronado encamped along with his soldiers of fortune while on a journey to nowhere that ended in Kansas. One can read up on and study this event, but never really know what the man himself was thinking, or how the whole entourage got up day after day, for two years, and kept going on a mighty mission motivated by gold that came up completely empty. The pilgrimage to, first, Cibola, and second, Quivira, included parts of Oklahoma and Texas, too. Naturally, the pride and joy of serving God and country was a factor, reason enough in the 1500s. But the inhabitants of the Southwestern pueblos, who were contacted along the journey, did not provide any information. Or, if they did, it was either useless, unreliable, or both. Native American tribes were basically honest with Coronado and did not feed his ears with the misleading words he wanted to hear. It was instead a friar who initially set Coronado's imagination on fire, and he had not actually seen the Zuni's Seven Cities of Gold or Cibola, except, as indicated, from a distance. The history of solitary monks and assorted friars is certainly curious and colorful. This event is no exception. To think how a man of cloth, by himself, otherwise insignificant, should gain the attention of worldly power, and ignite the flammable imaginations of a venturesome generation of iron-clad Spaniards, is worth contemplating.

The expedition was a tremendous, costly failure, outdone only by the disaster of the Spanish Armada in 1588. As loyal and talented as the Spanish were, they had faults and shortcomings that caused alarm. One can read gory eyewitness accounts of their dubious exploits in the Americas. At the time, they were peerless, rich and well-armed, dominating Europe, vying with England, while conquering the New World across the ocean, with dagger and cross. They eventually returned to what is now United States soil, but this time with the usual complaints about a hard life unmitigated by the accumulation of precious metal. Judging only from the beautiful objects designed and crafted in the pueblos today, SW Native American ancestors could only have been partial to gold jewelry, had there been any. And, had this been the case, the Spanish would have found every trinket. Coronado and his followers held this goal well aloft above all others.

What can be said about things that have no material existence but are regarded as such by the mind? There were no Seven Cities, no El Dorado. It hardly mattered how much Coronado and his army wanted them to be true. Ideas get stuck in the mind and it will not let go. Surely this must have been one of them, prefiguring, after a fashion, many obsessions, individual and collective, not the least of which were those infamous weapons of mass destruction, that might have belonged to Saddam Hussein. And yet, there is no way to know for sure unless a search is conducted. Actually, gold was indeed in America. In fact, its discovery in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory, as well as in Georgia, prior to the Cherokees' Trail of Tears, would cause Native Americans considerable grief. The latter seem not to have been as impressed by the yellow stuff as their invaders. They were more bewildered than jealous or resentful. If the behavior of the Spanish in Latin and South America is any indication of how they might have handled the acquisition of gold north of New Spain, it would surely have been miraculous if the previous owners survived the transaction.

Gold awakened brutal dispositions if they did not yet exist in full force. The Spanish were particularly vulnerable to this temptation. But they were and remain today far from alone. What about other mental fixations, equally alluring, despite having no representation in or correspondence to reality? There are, for instance, grudges, infatuations, obsessions, fixations, ambitions, feuds, fears, desires, personal goals, and egotistical predilections that will not be denied, no matter how exaggerated, chimerical, or incredible. Something must be done, it is felt, and, if need be, against ethics, morals, and the most inviolable laws.

Coronado's story is interesting and instructive, and there are, behind glass, relevant relics and belongings to gaze upon. But all in all, there is little to see concerning this exploration in Arizona and New Mexico, for example, except Arizona and New Mexico. The Spanish were here, left a few traces, and commemorations now serve to preserve their memory. But they are not missed. The war, the real war, to overcome the lower traits and inclinations that hobble the human race goes on. No matter how well developed, civilization cannot quite rise above. Spanish culture, history, and sundry contributions to humanity are admired and valued. They are second to none in virtually every respect. But its contradictory and enigmatic streak of cruelty continues to amaze. It does not help much to add that after they departed some Americans followed suit.

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