Friday, March 06, 2020

A New Mexico Myth or Two

Way back when, this is what we learned in the Connecticut public schools about our then future southwestern home state.

“Some time after Columbus came to America a Spanish explorer named Coronado traveled into what is now New Mexico in search of the Seven Cities of Gold known as Cibola. He did not find them and left. Then it became a state in 1912.”

But now it appears that this account of the Land of Enchantment’s discovery is not only grossly oversimplified – but may itself be as much of a myth as the purported septet of treasure laden metropolises proved to be.

First here is an expanded narrative of the famed Spanish explorer’s quest.

CORO-painting-East-Wall-web.jpegIn 1534 the former Moorish slave Esteban and Fra (Franciscan Brother) Cabeza de Vaca led an unsuccessful exploration of New Mexico – from which the former did not return. Six years later Spanish Viceroy of Mexico, Don Antonio de Mendoza, sent another group northward. 

Both excursions were searching for seven cities said to be filled with gold and treasure – a belief further fueled by Fra de Vaca’s exaggerated report of his first trip, “It appears to be a very beautiful city, the best that I have seen in these parts.” The commander of the new expedition was the ambitious governor of a Mexican province, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.

For more than four months Coronado followed old Indian trails across deserts and through the mountains. Finally, exhausted and hungry, he reached an adobe settlement that he hoped was the first of the fabled Seven Cities – but instead turned out to be Hawikuh Pueblo, home to the Zuni.

"Coronado came in while [summer solstice] rituals were in progress. Zuni elders sketched a cornmeal line between Coronado's men and the people at Zuni, which Coronado was not supposed to cross. Coronado's men, who were literally starving to death by that time, just bulled right in." (Alfonso Ortiz).

The Spaniards easily took over the village, seized their food, set up a wooden cross and demanded that they immediately convert to Christianity. And quickly discovered that the Zunis had no gold. Over several weeks, Coronado destroyed thirteen villages, punishing anyone who resisted.

"There was a decree that would be read when the Spanish came into a new native community that said – in Latin – 'Everybody here must fall down and worship Jesus Christ, and if you don't we will take it that you are worshipers of the devil and you will be wiped out.’” (Michael Dorris)

Coronado sent smaller parties out into the surrounding countryside. One marched to the Gulf of California; another crossed the Painted Desert into the land of the Hopis; and a third went to the Grand Canyon. None found any gold.

The frustrated explorer then heard from a Plains Indian, whom the Spaniards called “The Turk,” of another village called Quivira, to the north and out onto the Great Plains. The expedition ended up in present-day Kansas at a Wichita Indian village on the banks of the Arkansas River – mucho agua but nada oro. The Turk was executed. And Coronado made the long march back to Mexico. His search had lasted three years, led him across a quarter of the West, and earned him nothing. 

His summary, “The country itself is the best I have ever seen for producing all the products of Spain...But what I am sure of is that there is not any gold nor any other metal in all that country.”

Then in 1598 – apparently inspired by the first of Coronado’s conclusions – Viceroy Luis de Velasco, dispatched Juan de Oñate y Salazar to colonize the land that today is New Mexico, and to spread Catholicism by establishing new missions in the settlement. Oñate brought with him a party of 400 men (130 with their families, twelve of them priests) – plus over 7,000 horses, oxen, sheep, goats and cattle and the wherewithal to replicate their lives in Spain, including the Three Ws (wheat, wool and wine.)

A practical man sent on a practical assignment – Oñate was not a man to be distracted by fanciful tales and legends. Well, maybe a little.

Following a trip from New Mexico to what he thought was the Pacific, Oñate reported back to the Mexican Viceroy that they “had learned of, but never actually saw, a variety of curious peoples: one group had ears so large that they hung on the ground; another never ate, but lived only on the odor of their food ‘because they lacked the natural means of discharging excrement’; and still another ‘whose men had virile members so long that they wound four times around the waist, and in the act of copulation the men and women were far apart.’” (Myth and the History of the Hispanic Southwest”, David J. Weber)

We suspect that the Natives from whom they heard these tales of “curious peoples” were just messing with their conquerers’ heads.

But then there was the myth of Montezuma, which the Pueblo Indians took quite seriously. This tale held that the original Aztec homeland was here in New Mexico, and that the first king was from Taos, Acoma, or one of the other Pueblos. Known also as Moteczoma, Moctezuma or Mwatazuma – “he taught the people their customs, and how to build the adobe pueblos. One day he kindled a fire that they were never to allow to burn out, then departed for Mexico (in some versions, on the back of an eagle), promising to return some day and save them from the Spanish.

“Ethnographer Adolph Bandelier asserted in the 1890s that these legends had been invented by the Pueblos fifty years earlier solely to impress American explorers, and were not really part of their religion; he cited a document purporting to be a secret plot to 'teach' the natives that they were the descendants of Emperor Montezuma for political purposes, during the Mexican-American War. 

“However, other documents [show] that the Spanish too were quite aware of Montezuma's renown in the Pueblo region of Arizona [as far back as] 1694, when the natives told Jesuit Father Eusebio Francisco Kino that Montezuma had built what is still today known as Montezuma's Castle.” (David J. Weber)

So, have all of the myths about New Mexico now been laid bare? Not quite apparently.

A newly published book – “A Most Splendid Company: The Coronado Expedition in Global Perspective” by Richard and Shirley Cushing Flint – puts forth the argument that Cibola-seeking was not the real reason for this unsuccessful adventure. Instead, the exploration of the land to the north (“Tierra Nueva”) was just part of the plan to complete the goal of Christopher Columbus’s voyages – finding a direct, westward route from Spain to the Asian sources of silks, porcelains, spices, and dyes. (The Spanish were already trading with that part of the world via the land routes known as the “Silk Road” – but tariffs imposed by Turkey were cutting into profits.)

We recently heard the authors give a presentation at New Mexico’s History Museum. And in response to skeptical comments during the Q & A session they confidently asserted that searching for gold was not even mentioned in the first-hand accounts of the trip. And did not even become part of the story until the 1840s when historians, themselves in the midst of a prospecting craze at the time, decided that the precious yellow metal just had to be only reason for exploring Tierra Nueva 300 years earlier.

In other words the purportedly historic account of a fruitless search for a mythical city seems itself to be a centuries old urban legend.

The Flints shared a small portion of their decades of research during the talk – including the global depictions available to Columbus, et al in the 15th and 16th centuries known as T-O maps. The T is comprised of the Mediterranean Sea, the Nile River, and the River Don dividing the three continents, Asia, Europe and Africa. The O is the encircling ocean. Jerusalem was shown in the center.


Graphical representations of the earth changed as explorers brought back their findings as to what was actually out there – of which the biggest shock was the discovery of massive bodies of water.

“[This] forced mapmakers to devise creative solutions. One of the earliest strategies was to shrink the oceans [borrowing from Columbus who claimed that his] crossing took only 33 days...omitting the 37 days spent traveling from Spain to the Canaries...These cartographic manipulations consistently under-measured the Atlantic, minimizing the distance between the Old World and the New.” (

Columbus’s newly discovered land mass was even shown touching the orient on one early 16th century map displayed during the talk. Explorations lead to newer maps, which in turn helped precipitate more explorations.

According to, maps at that time were “not intended to be representative; instead [they] focused on a Christian ordering of space with Jerusalem at the world’s center.” In other words, “an exaggerated or idealized conception of a person or thing.” One of our iMac dictionary’s definition of myth.

Which brings us to our favorite New Mexico myth – the tri-cultural, architecturally unique, historically aware, literate, mecca of local multi-ethnic folk art and fine art in the exotic desert southwest known as Santa Fe.

In the first part of the twentieth century the then 300-year-old municipality was a declining provincial capital of 5,000 with a serious identity crisis. It had none. So the town leaders decided to become “a city different from other American cities and...from its recent Victorian past” as well as an “exotic tourist destination.”

In 1912 local businessman Harry H. Dorman with archeologists Edgar Lee Hewett and Sylvanus Morley of the Museum of New Mexico, developed a plan to use a standardized building design as the centerpiece around which to create this new persona – a style based upon its own pre-1850 architectural past. “It should be the duty of all city officials to guard the old streets against any change that [does not] conform externally with the [newly defined] Santa Fe Style.”

But not everyone was on board. “I am happy my ancestors built of adobe, so that rather than have them desecrated by ignoramuses, they have, for the most part, gone back to the earth,” said one member of the 2/3 majority Hispanic community.

This architectural revival/reimagining was combined with a rejuvenation of local art, lots of public ceremonies, romanticized literature, historic preservation, and the extolling of the comfortable coexistence of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo-American cultures to create “The City Different.”

Santa Fe “is a myth in the pejorative sense of the word – a half-truth, something made up. But like invented traditions everywhere, it is also a myth in the honorific sense of the word – something that provides a unifying vision of the city, its people, and their history, and that has fostered one of the most active art and myth-making centers in the United States. Initiated to promote tourism, it has also provided a sense of coherence and continuity to a region in the midst of social and economic transformation.” (Chris Wilson, University of New Mexico)

Wisely these myth-makers made certain that this fairy-tale city in the desert had a strong basis in reality. And most importantly that anyone could easily discover it, even those of us who first heard of the Land of Enchantment from the east coast public school curriculum.