The Conquistadors

Some background in the history of Spain helps us understand the difference between the Spanish conquistadors of the southwest and the English settlers who came to the Atlantic coast nearly a century later.

In the 700s A.D. Spain was invaded by Moors from North Africa, and the country was dominated by Muslim rule as far north as the Pyrenees. The next seven hundred years were spent driving these Moors south, mile by mile, to reclaim the land which became the Kingdom of Spain. In 1492 the army of Ferdinand and Isabella broke the last Muslim stronghold, and the re-conquest was over. These nearly seven hundred years created an ideal of the hidalgo or warrior. These were the men who, after the reconquest of Spain, would head off to the New World. Bernard DeVoto explains the impact of this warrior class in The Course of Empire:

"They, the gentlemen of Spain, the hidalgos, explain much of the history of the world. Spain had developed only a rudimentary middle class. Instead, seven hundred years of war forced an evolution which produced as the principal caste and class of Spain a specialization, the conquerors. They had or won for themselves the status of gentry. They had each a horse, armor, arms, honor, courage, and an anarchic soul, and early in life most of them had little more. For seven centuries the way to lands, a competence, and distinction had been to go out and conquer them from the Moors. Ride off into the marches, make a conquest, assassinate your leaders, betray your companions, massacre and enslave the infidels, and push on farther. When the Moors were conquered, there were the Indies, there was the Carib coast, there were Mexico and Peru, there was the Amazons or the Cathaians or the Cipanguese or the Gilded Man [El Dorado]. These, it was certain had much gold, of which there could never be enough." (DeVoto, p. 7)

So when Fray Marcos de Niza reported his discovery of the "Seven Cities of Cibola" there was no shortage of volunteers ready to make the expedition in hopes of conquest and riches.

"The conditions in Mexico or, as it was then called, New Spain, were peculiar. The country was overrun by adventurers, many of them young men of excellent family, who had been sent out to reform and recuperate after sowing their wild oats in Spain. These young blades were men of ability, and in action second to none, but in time of peace they formed a heavy burden to the viceroy, Mendoza, who was compelled to entertain them on account of their standing and family connections. The conquest of a new country afforded to the viceroy an opportunity he had long sought to be rid of these “caballeros,” who came and went when they pleased, who used his houses and stables as freely as if they were their own, and who did very much what they pleased with his and other people’s property, but who resented any discourtesy or improper treatment, and who were able moreover through powerful friends and connections at court to make their resentment felt.

"Accordingly within six months after the return of Niza an expedition was organized for the conquest of the country he had discovered. This expedition included two hundred and fifty of these “gentlemen on horseback,” with some seventy footmen and several hundred Indians, and made a splendid array when it was reviewed by the viceroy on the day before the start was made, late in February, 1540. Complaint was made that the country was being stripped of its defenders and left at the mercy of any Indians who might seize the opportunity for an uprising. But the secretaries of the viceroy made a count and description of the force, and a sworn report was submitted a few days after the departure of the expedition, in which it was stated that in the whole army there were only two or three men who had ever been settled residents of the country, and that these were men who had failed to make a living. In short, it was considered a good riddance, and the orders given to the commander of the expedition, Coronado by name, one of the young gentlemen referred to, but an able man and governor of a province, might have been: “Go, and do not return !“

"The expedition had hardly started before doubts arose as to the truth of the statements which had been made by the friar Niza; or rather it should be said that the glowing picture that was in the minds of the young and ardent soldiers began to fade. Curses loud and deep were poured out on the head of the devoted monk, who had joined the expedition and who, in the consciousness of his own good faith, continued to act as its guide notwithstanding the bitter maledictions which greeted him at every step. The route was through an inhabited country at first and then through a wilderness; and a ruin which was discovered on the borders of this wilderness did much to discourage the explorers. This place was known as or called Chichilticalli, the red house; and while they were in search of a wonderful region containing seven cities and a great population whose houses were encrusted with turquoise and precious stones and full of utensils of gold, here they found only a ruin, which is described by Castaneda, the historian of the expedition, as “one tumbledown house without any roof, although it appeared to have been a strong place at some former time when it was inhabited, and it was very plain that it had been built by a civilized and warlike race of strangers who had come from a distance. This building was made of red earth.” He adds that “the house was large and appeared to have been a fortress. It must have been destroyed by the people of the district, who are the most barbarous people that have yet been seen."

"Much of the zeal for conquest that characterized the Spaniards who took part in the Coronado expedition survived them and continued into the next century; but in the latter period it took the form of conquest of souls rather than of territory. Perhaps by that time the soldiers had satisfied themselves that no great amount of gold or other riches would reward their efforts, and perhaps too the subjugation of all the Pueblo country to the crown of Spain and the administration of its affairs may have absorbed their energy. In 1680 there was a great revolt of the Pueblo Indians, and every Spaniard in the country was killed or driven out. The province was not again subdued until 1693. But numerous small expeditions were made into it in the meantime, and the monks vied with their armed brethren in their efforts to bring the recalcitrant Indians again within the pale." From Casa Grande by Cosmos Mindeleff.

Next
The Entry of the Spanish: The Coronado Expedition

Recommended reading:

Bannon, John Francis. The Spanish Borderlands Frontier: 1513-1821. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

DeVoto, Bernard. The Course of Empire. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. London: Penguin Books, 1963. Translated by J.M. Cohen. (Other translations and editions are available. This is the fascinating personal narrative of an ordinary soldier in the army of Cortes.)

Moorhead, Max. The Presidio: Bastion of the Spanish Borderlands. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975.

_____________. The Apache Frontier: Jacobo Ugarte and Spanish-Indian Relations in Northern New Spain, 1769-1791. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1968.

Officer, James E. Hispanic Arizona, 1536-1856. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1987.

Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. (A great book!)