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

Written HistoryHistory, by definition, is written down. This is not an 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 or anything. 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, although that 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…”

So, that’s unfulfilling.

Indian Removal (1830s) is arguably the beginning of Oklahoma as we now know it, despite the massive changes which followed only a generation later. That’s not where we begin in class, but it’s where we slow down enough to start paying attention. 

Lil' Okie The first Land Run (1889) is certainly one of the more colorful events in our collective past, and far less depressing than most – at least if 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. Economically one might argue that for all intents and purposes Oklahoma truly began with the oil boom, another “date range” event -  although surely we could agree the Glenn Pool (1905) was the catalyst for all the rest. But the 20th century? Really? That would make us babies, historically speaking.

CoronadoSo 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 diversified 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. 

Migration Map

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 no hurry to settle the new continent – Jamestown was established in 1607, Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans started arriving around 1630. Spain, however, wasted little 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 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. 

Coronado Setting Out

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.” 

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