The end of the mystery
What to do when the only histories are ghost stories
In the fall of 1540, a platoon of 20 Spanish soldiers marched through New Mexico’s Glorieta Pass and into an Indigenous settlement called Cicuyé, or Pecos Pueblo, 15 miles southeast of present-day Santa Fe. As part of a larger column of troops led by the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, the men had already waged a horrific campaign of mass murder, rape, torture and enslavement across much of the Rio Grande Valley, but they arrived in Cicuyé as invited guests, and were welcomed with a feast that lasted several days. Eventually, Coronado’s men were presented with one of the village’s captives, about whom little is known apart from the nickname the Spaniards gave him: El Turco, or the Turk.
A half century earlier, Christopher Columbus and other explorers in the Spanish crown’s service had gone in search of the New World in large part because of the Ottomans, whose emergence as a great power in the eastern Mediterranean forced Christian Europe to seek alternate trade routes and sources of treasure. Now, a thousand miles inland on a strange, uncharted continent, they looked at this brown-skinned Plains Indian and saw a haunting apparition of what had driven them across the Atlantic. “Perhaps understandably,” writes Gerald Horne in The Dawning of the Apocalypse, “Spaniards found Ottomans in the deserts of North America, for it was around then that a Venetian diplomat, representing a region in vertiginous decline, asserted that the Ottomans were seeking to become rulers of the world.”
Hearing of the Spaniards’ obsession with gold, the Turk became one in a long line of Indigenous guides to spin a yarn for the invaders about the vast riches that lay in store for them in a mythical city just over the horizon — in this case, Quivira, the name that either the Turk or his captors gave to the Great Plains country he had come from. Quivira, as the Turk described it — or at least as the men of the Coronado expedition interpreted it, from communications mostly made in sign language — was, indeed, not unlike an American Constantinople, situated along a river five miles wide, filled with fish as large as horses, sailed upon by the natives in great galleys with golden eagles on their prows.
Coronado and his men had every reason to distrust the Turk’s story. The expedition had already failed to find the famed Seven Cities of Cibola that it had been sent in search of in Pueblo country. Nearly all of the other Indigenous people with whom they spoke, including another Cicuyé captive who hailed from the same place on the Great Plains, told them that the Turk was lying. Several of Coronado’s men expressed their own doubts, or at least claimed to have later. None of it mattered. When he was brought before Coronado, the Turk insisted that his captors, the people of Cicuyé, had stolen all the gold jewelry he’d brought from his homeland — and in an episode of slapstick brutality, the conquistador’s men marched back to the pueblo, demanded the gold and, after being told there was none, imprisoned and tortured the elders who’d welcomed them days earlier.
When spring came, the Turk led Coronado and a company of more than 1,500 Spanish soldiers, slaves and Indigenous allies on a thousand-mile journey into present-day Kansas, penetrating deeper into the heartland of the new continent than any other European before or in many decades afterwards. In each new settlement they encountered, the invaders found more visual evidence and more assurances from tribespeople that no cities of gold existed there, but still they pressed on.
At last, with the expedition encamped somewhere in the Arkansas River Valley, the Turk confessed that his aim had been to lure the Spanish troops to their deaths by exposure and starvation on the Great Plains, and he was promptly — and secretly, so as not to provoke the well-populated villages that now surrounded the expedition — strangled to death. The conquistador marched his men back across the “sea of grass” and arrived in New Mexico six months after he’d left it, having found nothing but a single piece of copper hanging from the neck of one Quiviran village chief. Coronado took it and sent it as a gift to the Viceroy of New Spain.
Somewhat problematically for someone who’d just started a newsletter focused on the American West, I spent a lot of my reading bandwidth this year on books about the early modern period of European and American history: Horne’s works on what one title dubs The Apocalypse of Settler Colonialism, Alan Taylor’s American trilogy, Patrick Wyman’s The Verge, Mike Duncan’s Hero of Two Worlds, Ellen Meiksins Wood’s The Origin of Capitalism, Joseph Ellis’ The Cause, the expanded 1619 Project, a handful of books about the Spanish colonial era and, out of habit, pretty much anything about naval exploration and the Age of Sail I can get my hands on.
The forces gathering steam on either side of the Atlantic during those two or three centuries would, of course, soon be unleashed as the tempest that swept westward across the North American continent and much of the rest of the world, forever changing anything in its path. But it takes a lot of squinting and fussing and very broad brushstrokes to see points of contact between the far West and the imperial conflicts of the Old World, especially when one is chiefly concerned, as we are here, with the West as it exists between the Great Plains and the Sierra Nevada. Wyman’s book, set in the four decades following Columbus’ first voyage, deftly portrays the causal links between early colonial conquest and the seismic European power struggles of the era, including the crucial role that wealth plundered from the Americas played in empowering the Hapsburg empire under Charles V. It was Charles, the wheezing, dim-witted, Francophone Holy Roman Emperor, who had authorized the conquest of New Mexico in 1540, but neither Coronado nor any other Spanish explorer of the present-day United States ever found anything that compared to the looted treasure and working gold and silver mines of the decimated Aztec and Incan empires to the south.
Instead, the Mountain West would remain a blank space on the stage of world history until well into the 19th century. The impacts of European intellectual and religious movements from the Reformation to the Enlightenment would hardly be felt on the farthest edges of the imperial frontier. The constitutional politicking and mythmaking of the early American republic would be led by men scarcely able to conceive of what lay beyond the Ohio River Valley. Even as late as the Civil War, the climactic resolution of the founding’s central moral contradiction, the West would play only a minor role in the national drama.
This isn’t a problem in any real sense, but it does pose difficulties for anyone who feels a belonging to these Western-in-the-global-sense traditions, a need to situate this particular land within them. If, as Benedetto Croce observed, all history is contemporary history, an act of reaching back to construct something out of the raw materials of the past, what do we reach for in the premodern West? Certainly not a void, although a great deal about its Indigenous inhabitants, from the settlements of the Southwest to the nomadic tribes beyond, remains unknown to us, and evidence suggests that even in places where the Spanish had no direct or long-term presence, contact caused vast upheavals from the early 16th century onwards.
What we’re left with, for the most part, are ghost stories, legends passed down in the interstices of history’s grand narratives. The Spanish called it the “northern mystery” — a vast region shrouded by a veil so impenetrable that as late as the mid-18th century, many maps still depicted California as an island. Americans have long felt an impulse to fill in these gaps; in Denver’s West Side Books a few weeks ago, I came across a strange little octavo called Vanishing Trails of Romance, by Warren E. Boyer. Published in 1923, the book aimed, Boyer declared in a foreword, to show readers that the “glamour of chivalry, despite common belief, [is] not confined to the European side of the Atlantic,” furnishing a collection of folktales that transposed medieval tropes into the setting of the Old West and its “crumbling adobe castles”: imagining the Pikes Peak region as the mythical Aztec homeland of Aztlán, or recasting the early Colorado fur traders Lupton and St. Vrain as landed knights competing for the favor of an Indian princess. “The Rocky Mountains are rich in colorful romances of the primitive threshold of a forgotten Yesterday and the vanishing trail of a fleeting Today,” Boyer wrote. “Here Toltec, Aztec, Spaniard, Frenchman, Indian and Pioneer American pass in historic review.”
The actual historical record doesn’t offer as much romance, or, for that matter, information of any kind. In the vast distances between major historical waypoints — Coronado’s disastrous search for cities of gold, the Pueblo uprisings of the late 17th century, the Lewis and Clark expedition, the opening of the Oregon Trail — lie only fragmentary glimpses at the centuries-long transition that followed the Spanish empire’s arrival. Classical histories of the period have long been constructed largely out of the official accounts of royally sanctioned expeditions like Coronado’s, by way of the detailed records kept by colonial bureaucrats. But in addition to their obvious neglect and suppression of Indigenous knowledge, these sources are known in some cases to have been censored to prevent information from falling into French or English hands, and we’re still finding evidence that private, unauthorized or otherwise forgotten explorations were attempted.
To Western ears, there’s always been a tantalizing sense of the uncanny in these tales. Who could hear of the scarcely believable journey of the four survivors of the ill-fated Narváez expedition, who disappeared along with 600 other men near Galveston Bay in 1527 only to be found along the Gulf of California eight years later, and not be lured in by the mystery? The mythologization of what they’d experienced in the north began immediately, leading directly to the expeditions of Marcos de Niza and Coronado. The latter, in his hopeless search for Quivira, became convinced that when he found the kingdom, it would be ruled by other survivors from Narváez’s voyage or another lost Spanish army. Alongside precious metals, this, too, became an enduring fixation for the Spaniards, who in the late 18th century were still being drawn northward by tales of a land ruled by bearded white men in metal hats. Fittingly, the lost cities of gold, a legend born of the Ottomans’ rise, had over time come to resemble a western-hemisphere version of the Prester John myth, reflecting a belief not only that salvation lay over the horizon but that it had a perfectly white and Christian face.
Today, we may be drawn to stories of the old, mysterious West for something like the opposite reason — not familiarizing the exotic, but exoticizing the familiar. I’ve been captivated for years by accounts of a visit by explorer Zebulon Pike, the man for whom Colorado’s greatest peak is named, to the all-but-forgotten frontier town of Prairie du Chien in 1805. Pike, on a mission to find the headwaters of the Mississippi River, had expected to find little but “savage wilderness” in the country north of St. Louis, but in Prairie du Chien he instead found a large, bustling hub of Western trade, its dozens of well-built and whitewashed houses filled with elegant European furniture imported via Fort Mackinac. Jared Orsi’s Citizen Explorer captures the world that Pike encountered deep in the upper Mississippi woodlands, arriving in the farthest-flung white settlement in the continent-spanning new territory that the U.S. had acquired two years earlier:
During his stay, Pike heard a babel of languages, which taxed even basic communication. At one point, Pike found himself speaking French to a trader, who translated to a Sioux, who in turn translated to some Winnebagos. In the vicinity of Prairie du Chien, he met people of Sioux, Winnebago, Sauk, Fox, Menominee, British, French, and American origin and every conceivable mixture thereof. … Among this eclectic collection of permanent and temporary villagers there were as many national and tribal allegiances as there were racial combinations.
Today, Prairie du Chien is just another small town in Wisconsin. The world that Zebulon Pike found there two centuries ago wasn’t the world that this country wanted to build in such places; instead, the Indigenous peoples Pike met and traded with were to be routinely massacred, betrayed and dispossessed as the forces of American empire marched relentlessly westward across the continent.
Questions of whether or not the country should remember atrocities like these, and in what proportion, are at the heart of an overlapping series of debates that increasingly look like they’re going to swallow our national politics whole. At first glance it may seem odd that we’re arguing over abstract interpretations of history while the country is burning down, but really it’s not. The Trump administration’s farcical 1776 Commission, an attempt to answer the 1619 Project with a nationalist manifesto for “patriotic education,” wasn’t wrong to observe that these debates “amount to a dispute over not only the history of our country but also its present purpose and future direction.”
What role is there for the West — a place never glimpsed by the framers or their intellectual forebears across the Atlantic, a place where the age of myth and mystery survived long enough to be displaced by modernity practically overnight — to play in debates over what this country should believe about itself, how haunted it should be by its past? To the extent that the slapdash 1776 Commission Report carried any intellectual heft at all, it came from a loosely knit school of conservative thought known as West Coast Straussianism, so named for a group of disciples of political philosopher Leo Strauss who’ve found a home at California’s Claremont McKenna College and the conservative Claremont Institute. The commission’s chair, Larry Arnn, was a star pupil of Claremont patriarch Harry Jaffa and founded the Institute in 1979, and he was joined on the panel by Charles Kesler, a professor at the college who edits the Claremont Review of Books.
But the West Coast Straussians, characterized by their emphasis of individual liberties derived from natural law rather than any particular regard for constitutional and democratic norms, are indeed coastal, products of a cultural lineage that since the time of the Spanish missions has had more in common with the Old World than with the strange deserts beyond the Sierras. Only one of the commission’s 23 members had any meaningful connection to what we might as well call the true West, the arid interior, the high steppe, sagebrush country.
There are plenty of perfectly satisfying material explanations for this; the region is, of course, by far the country’s least populous. But if we’re to allow ourselves a reasoning more rooted in values and ideology — and wouldn’t the Straussians approve? — it’s this: The true role of the West, the true role of the frontier, has never been to answer abstract philosophical questions about America’s identity and meaning and purpose, but to brush them aside entirely. The Mountain West’s lone representative on Trump’s 1776 Commission, in a negligible ex-officio capacity, was then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, a Colorado native and mercenary oil industry fixer, too focused on the profitable task at hand to worry about how a bunch of tweed-jacketed academics might explain or justify it. There was gold in those hills, after all, and in the West, the question of what this country was supposed to be has always mattered a lot less than the fact of what it plainly is.