Coronado (Why Don't You Come To Your Senses?)

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. Unlike with people, the “birth” of Oklahoma is not an objectively established event. 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 – as in, “the earliest Oklahomans settled the land sometime between 50,000 and 100,000,000 years ago…”

Rather unfulilling, isn't it?

Indian Removal (1830s) is arguably the beginning of Oklahoma as we now know it, despite the dramatic changes which arrived only a generation later as a result of the Civil War. Removal isn’t technically where we begin in class, but it’s where we slow down and start paying attention. 

The first Land Run (1889) would make for a flashy starting point. It’s 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. Then again, that would mean coming to peace with the suggestion it’s not really history until white people show up.

Which I can’t. 

Statehood (1907) would be an obvious choice, I suppose – but again with the white guys issue. Economically one might argue that modern Oklahoma truly began with the oil boom, another “date range” event. We could probably muster agreement that the Glenn Pool (1905) was the catalyst for all the rest, but that starts the story in the 20th century! That would make us babies, historically speaking.

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.

And they all came from somewhere else.

Based on the evidence we have now, mankind – such as it is – started far away from here. If the Lord created Adam and Eve and placed them in a tangible Garden of Eden, He did so WAY across the world – probably in Iran or thereabouts. If man evolved from single-celled protozoa, into a fish, then a goat, then a monkey, etcetera, he did so WAY across the world – most likely the Middle East and/or Northern Africa. 

There was spawning and diffusion, like there always is, and at some point a bunch of them walked across the Bering Strait (the ancient land bridge between Russia and Alaska) and spread across the Western Hemisphere. 

It would have taken a while. 

There may have been multiple cultures arriving over time, or they may have scattered over the centuries once here. In any case, the Amerindian tribes covering this half of the world before the Europeans showed up were quite a diverse bunch.

Again – good stuff if you’re into that sort of thing and wish to study it further. People do. 

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. 

The answer matters, and not merely for statistical precision – historians are still trying to figure out if the arrival of white guys simply sped the decline of cultures who’d have eventually evolved or vanished anyway, or whether 1492 marked the onset of not-entirely-unintentional genocide. It’s an ethical question as much as a historical, political, or social issue.  

Not that Coronado was wrestling with such abstractions 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. 

What follows is a fairly accurate transcription of my total guesswork as to what these conversations must have been like – never before published on a major education blog.  

Turk (to NewTribeGuys):  Hey, I guess you probably noticed the, um, conquistadors and soldiers and such currently surrounding you…

NewTribeGuys (to Turk):  Why are you pointing? Are you trying to trick us into looking behind us? That’s completely lame. 

Turk (to NewTribeGuys):  I realize you don’t know me, but you’re gonna want to trust me on this. These guys are looking for Quivira, a city of gold and other untold riches and topless virgins and whatnot. Now, turn and point the same direction I am so it looks convincing. Maybe nod a bit and tell me with enthusiasm that we’re on the right track.

NewTribeGuys (to Turk):  The hell are you talking about? There’s no ‘city of gold’ or whatever in that direction, or any other for that matter. Why did you bring these people here?!

Turk (to Cornado):  He says we’re on the right track and honors the great Coronado on his amazing journey!

Turk (to NewTribeGuys):  Look, you see how many tense foreign-looking fellows are behind me? Think about them eating your food. Taking your goods. Forcing themselves on your women. It’s not pretty, brother – I’ve seen it. Several times, actually. Now either get all excited about how close we are to Quivira or go ahead and bring out your daughters and stew because they’re starting to get restless.

NewTribeGuys (look at Coronado and his men, back at Turk, at Coronado and his men, back at Turk, and murmur briefly to one another)

NewTribeGuys (loudly, to Turk, Coronado, the rest of their tribe, and most of the neighbors):  Ooohh, yes – Quivira! The one (gesturing dramatically) way over that way! Yes, yes – you’re very close! We thought you’d said you were looking for, um… Chi Berra, the famous atlatl maker. He, of course, is the other direction entirely. But not Quivira – nope, that crazy city and its golden virgins and whatever are ACTUALLY RATHER NEAR! (more gesturing) 

Turk (to Coronado): They say it’s this way.

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 surely had a major ‘WTF?’ moment opening THAT 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.

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