By Rick Schwertfeger, Frontier Partisans Southern Command, Austin Texas
Stephen Harrigan explores the early Spanish contacts with Texas in “They Came From The Sky: The Spanish Arrive in Texas,” the fascinating “preview” of his “sweeping, full-length history.” If this mini-book is any indication, we have something to look forward to.
Hernando de Soto “had stipulated that his body be buried in his homeland of Extremadura, in a chapel built especially to receive it, whose walls would bear his family’s coat of arms and whose altar would be decorated with the cross of the order of the Knights of Santiago. But in the end…his remains were wrapped in a shawl, weighted with sand, and deposited into the Mississippi.”
The Spanish conquistadores took Cuba, Peru, and Mexico. Foot soldier Bernard Diaz del Castillo said that they aimed “to glorify our holy faith and serve His Majesty.” Hernando Cortes, preparing to invade Mexico, “ordered two…flags…, the royal arms and a cross worked in gold on each side, with an inscription that said, ‘Brothers and Companions, let us follow the Sign of the Holy Cross, with True Faith, that with it We Might be Victorious.’”
That glorifying and serving, of course, included the slaughter of war, appropriating the natural riches, taking slaves, and subjugating the indigenous peoples.
The Spanish also ventured into and beyond Florida, one entrada (expedition) of which led to de Soto’s watery grave. The lands between Mexico and Florida, however, were a huge mystery: remote, vast, unknown. “There was no Aztec grandeur on the Texas coast, a thousand miles north of Tenochtitlan, where…Karankawa bands pieced together a subsistence existence following the cycles of spawning fish and ripening fruits and nuts.”
The first Spaniards to set foot in Texas did so as the result of a disaster. A fleet under “ruthless soldier and tireless schemer” Panfilo de Narvaez sailed from Havana for northern Mexico. Confused by swirling winds and currents, they landed “all the way across the Gulf of Mexico on the western coast of Florida”! They had no idea of the great distance between there and their original destination. Setting out on foot and then by rafts, the seas drove them onto what today is Galveston Island, starving, dehydrated, many near death. Narvaez’s raft, however, drifted out into the Gulf. He never was seen again. It was November, 1528.
Stephen Harrigan recounts how they were saved by Karankawas, given food, warm fires, even brought into their own shelters. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca assumed leadership. It’s an extraordinary story of death, enslavement of the few survivors, eventually being seen as spiritual healers, and how eight years later four made it back to Mexico. It was 1536.
Harrigan begins They Came From The Sky with an almost lyrical account of the land of Texas; and of what notable archeological sites reveal about the prehistoric peoples. After an interesting account of the Alibates Flint Quarries along the Canadian River in northern Texas, Harrigan discusses the extraordinary pictographs in the canyon lands between where the Pecos and Devils Rivers join the Rio Grande. I can attest to their beauty and the serene sense of awe they engender, as my family and I have visited a few in Seminole Canyon and, through the Rock Art Foundation, on a private ranch to its east. These were hunter/gatherers, but little is known except for these mystical cosmological records they left.
“By the beginning of the sixteenth century, Texas was well-populated with indigenous peoples living in nomadic family groups or in settled villages….” Harrigan succinctly presents the major contacts that followed the aforementioned Narvaez/Cabeza de Vaca expedition. Many of the early entradas resulted in degrees of disaster, battles with indigenous peoples, sickness, and astonishing tales of survival over long distances and time.
Harrigan describes Coronado adrift on the vast, trackless Llano Estacado, the remarkably flat prairie in the Texas Panhandle. Coronado wrote, “no more landmarks than as if we had been swallowed up in the sea… There was not a stone, nor a bit of rising ground, nor a tree, nor a shrub, nor anything to go by.”
After the remnants of the de Soto expedition limped into Mexico in 1543, “for many years to come the low-lying coast, assaulted by storms in summer and winter, with no landmarks except shifting dune fields, remained a lethal barrier to any secure European foothold in Texas.” And when silver was discovered in Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1546, “the urgency to explore a region that seemed to offer very little was gone.”
The next contacts were in the west, as expeditions followed the Rio Grande north. In 1595 Juan de Onate’s expedition resulted in “a hardscrabble cluster of missions,” run by “Franciscan friars with a fervent determination to Christianize the Indians.” Jumano Indians from the Texas plains appeared at a mission in 1629, troubled and seeking aid. “The Apaches, rising in power,” threatened to control their buffalo grounds and trading routes. “But the Jumanos lived far away from the Spanish outposts, and the country between was so vast and inhospitable that the alliance never happened.”
By the mid-seventeenth century, to the Spaniards Texas had the quality of a “mirage” —lying out there shimmering in the sun, “a place from which the Spanish mind could not release its material dreams, its mystical claims.”
They Came From The Sky comprises 80 pages. But Harrigan packs an extraordinary amount of history into it. He writes lyrically, deftly presenting the empty vastness of the land and the desolate coast; the native tribes that lived there; and the Spanish explorers who followed their “hubristic spirit of conquest” into discovery, disaster, and often death. Harrigan has written a wonderful volume.
N.B. The quotes from conquistador Bernal Diaz de Castillo are from his epic “The True History of the Conquest of New Spain,” which Californio vaquero and amateur historian extraordinaire Arnold Rojas called “one of the most amazing and vivid narratives of adventure ever written.”
© 2017 Rick Schwertfeger, Austin, TX. Used by permission