By Bill Dean
“A men, amen I say unto thee, unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:1-21). If that is true, the Indians should have thanked their lucky stars the Spanish forced them to be baptized as Catholics. That is because most of the Indians were about to die. At the time of the Spanish Conquest there were about 20 million natives in Mexico – by 1600 barely one million remained.
While there is disagreement among the experts about the numbers, every authority agrees that the 16th century was a demographic disaster for the native population of Mexico. The treatment of the Indians (including treatment of their children) working the plantations and the silver mines was unimaginable. Many of those who survived the work died of smallpox, the plague, and other diseases imported from Spain.
You know about Hernán Cortés. You may not know about his arch rival named Beltran Guzman. As president of Mexico’s first audiencia, Guzman planned to bring Cortés to trial for mistreating the Indians. He was hardly the one who should have been pointing fingers. “Bloody Guzman,” as he was known, and his troops went on a slaughtering rampage of their own. The Indians they didn’t slaughter they tortured to find out where they could find silver and gold. Guzman’s atrocities landed him in a Spanish prison where he died, but that didn’t deter others from following in his footsteps.
Torturing Indians had become the Spanish method of getting rich. Burning of feet, cutting off of hands, dumping Indians into spike-filled pits, depriving entire tribes of food and water, and cutting up body parts of dead Indians and feeding the parts to survivors was how the Spanish learned where the gold and silver was. Monks described these events to artists whose paintings and sketches made a lasting record of Spanish atrocities. Whole tribes could be hung or burned to death. Infants would be fed to the Conquistadors’ dogs. Stronger Indians were rounded up and hauled off to the mines as slaves.
We have been to the mines of Zacatecas. The narrow tunnels spiral many layers into the mountains. Inside these dark caves Indian men, women, and children seldom saw the light of day. Those who didn’t die in the tunnels that caved in, or who survived falling from rope bridges and rickety ladders, died from exhaustion or bad lungs. Life in the mines, if anyone can call it living, was unbearable.
In the end, exploitation of the Indians proved to be the only way there was for the Spanish to extract riches from its colony. But that harsh reality did not prevent some wishful thinking sparked by rumors of the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold.” In 1539 Friar Marco de Niza, a Franciscan priest, reported to Spanish officials that he saw one of them – Cibola – in what is present day New Mexico. Acting on that tip, in 1540 the Viceroy sent out a search expedition led by his friend, Francisco Vázquez Coronado. Bloody Guzman may have held the record for cruelty, but for being gullible the prize should probably go to Coronado and the 336 members of his party. Perhaps, on the other hand, there was reason for optimism; after all, the tip came from a priest; Spain had earlier recovered vast riches from the Incas of South America; the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan proved to be a rich and wondrous discovery. So why should Coronado and his men be “Doubting Thomas’s” about the Seven Cities of Gold?
They struck off on horse-back with visions of fame and fortune. But the cloud of dust they left in their wake might just as well have been blowing in their faces. Everywhere they went native villagers would tell Coronado that the fabled cites were más allá (farther on). The villagers must have been pointing northward because Coronado and his exhausted entourage got just about to present day Wichita, Kansas. That, of course, was 400 years before Wichita became the “Air Capital of the World.” The only action around Wichita back then were roaming “shaggy cows” (buffalos). Coronado finally gave up. His men were angry and broke. The Viceroy was not pleased.
And the fabled cities of gold and wealth were never found because there were not any. The dismal truth was that exploiting the Indians was the only way to do what Spain wanted to be done.