Part 11: Spanish Reactions
No one really knows for sure how much the Spaniards were manipulated. I don't think they had to be manipulated very much. They were determined for their own reasons not to allow the Americans to explore into the Southwest. For one thing, they were afraid of letting the Americans come in contact with the Indian tribes of the southern plains. The Comanches, which were extremely numerous, and had fond memories of the days when the Spaniards and the French had competed for their favors, now looked on the Americans as a new competitor with the Spaniards, and were anxious for the Americans to reach into the southern plains.
The Spaniards had no intention, then, of letting the Americans treat with Comanches and groups like that, and so for their own reasons, the Spaniards were determined to make every effort to block these American expeditions. They sent three different expeditions out to try to capture Meriwether Lewis, but the Missouri River was so far away that these Spanish expeditions were never really able to get close to capturing Lewis.
On the other hand, the Red River of the South was easily accessible to those Spanish troops, and so Spain, in the spring of eighteen-six, began to put together a plan for stopping this Southwestern Expedition. It decided—the Spanish government in Madrid, and in Cuba—decided to, first of all, alert the authorities in New Mexico and in Texas of the impending American expedition. A whole series of Spanish officials, the commandant-general of the interior provinces—whose name was Nemicio Salcedo—personally directed the opposition. He instructed the governor of Texas, whose name was Antonio Cordero y Bustamante, to make sure that the Americans did not get to the Wichita and Comanche country. He said, do whatever is necessary, including a declaration of war on the United States if you have to, but do not allow these Americans to make contact with the Indians of the Southern Plains.
And so, Spanish officials basically threw themselves into a frenzy of activity. They put together two different expeditions to block Jefferson's exploration. One was launched out of Nacogdoches, a city that was only about a hundred miles or so from Natchitoches, in Louisiana. The expedition from Nacogdoches was led by a man named Francisco Viana, Captain Francisco Viana. It consisted of about two hundred and twelve Spanish dragoons—including an ancestor of mine, who was a lieutenant in that army; his name was Jose Flores, of Nacogdoches. He was one of the officers, in fact, who ended up meeting with Jefferson's explorers in the summer of 1806.
The other force, that was going to be the insurance force, was launched from Santa Fe under the leadership of Lieutenant Fecundo Melgares. It was a six-hundred-man force, and it was to be the insurance policy, as I said. In case the American expedition somehow managed to slip by Viana—or Viana—Melgares was going to try to confront the Americans farther up the Red River.
As Peter Custis described it in eighteen-six, "This expedition seems to have thrown their whole country into a ferment." And he was right. The Spanish were determined not to allow this expedition to proceed.
Among the array of scientific discoveries that the Jefferson expedition into the southwest hoped to make, were not only masses of metal (that turned out to be meteorites), mountains of partial salt—and that, in a way, reflected reality because the Red River did, in truth, head in an area that is laced with gypsum; it's an extremely salt-laden region and so that was not entirely a chimera. But one of the other things that really intrigues Jefferson about the southwest were reports that wild horses roamed the southwest in large herds. In fact, some of his informants told him that there were herds of thousands of wild horses in the southwest. And this really intrigues Jefferson because he said, If true, this is the first time in the modern age that the horse can be studied in its wild state. So he was very interested in having his explorers have a look at these herds of wild horses. Unfortunately, they never do make it far enough west to see those large herds. But this was another reality; the southwest was full of—some estimates are—as many as two million wild horses in 1800.
Traders, trappers, explorers, trappers, explorers, all who set forth into the trans-Mississippi West during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, firmly carried in their mental baggage one legend or another about the fabulous wealth of the Spanish in the Southwest. Dominating the lore were stories of treasure troves such as the Seven Cities of Cibola, and even as late as the mid-1840s a book appeared reaffirming the existence of El Dorado—the mythical "place of riches."
Meanwhile, the fictions made for good conversation, at least. In the vicinity of the Great Falls of the Missouri during June and July of 1805, the men of the Corps of Discovery occasionally were startled by loud booming noises resembling cannon-fire, the "unaccountable artillery of the Rocky Mountains," as Lewis put it. The Corps' French-Canadian hired hands, the engagés, had a ready explanation: Those thunderous explosions were nothing but "the bursting of the rich mines of silver which these mountains contain."
The most surreal legend of all was that the Spanish had more wealth than they could use. Naturally, there were plenty of men, as greedy as they were gullible, who were eager to do their less fortunate neighbors a big favor. En route back down the Missouri, on September 17, 1806, the Corps met an outbound boatload of traders headed for "Spanish Country" via the Platte River, who were bent on setting up a trading post, Sergeant John Ordway heard them say, to "get the Spaniards to come and bring their silver & gold and trade it for goods as they are full of money and no goods among them of any account."
Even the best minds of the age were ready to believe it. William Dunbar, a Scottish mathematician and astronomer reputed to be the leading scientist in and of the West, who had emigrated to Natchez in the late 1790s, assured his good friend Thomas Jefferson that the Red River Country was not only a haven for unicorns and sea serpents, but that ingots of silver lay about for the taking.
Amid all the fictions, however, there was at least a little solid evidence to contemplate. Broken Arm, a Nez Perce chief and friend to the Corps, showed Clark a stone smoking pipe "curiously inlaid with Silver," which the chief had gotten from the Shoshones who, as Lewis had already learned during his conversations with the sages among Sacagawea's people, regularly traded for horses, mules, cloth, shells and metal beads with "white people," undoubtedly Spaniards, some distance to the southwest.
Less obvious, apparently, was the fact that although the Spanish had come to this hemisphere for gold, they had stayed for silver. Montezuma's paltry placer gold mines, seized by rapacious conquistadors during the 1520s, 30s and 40s, had payed out by 1550. Silver then became the mainstay of New Spain's wealth, and remained so until 1819, when her New World empire was vanquished by internal revolutionaries and empire-building Americans.
Then, too, there was evidence such as that pictured above.
The unique "rock" pictured here, which Taovaya and Comanche Indians revered as a sacred healing shrine, a "medicine rock" they called Po-a-cat-le-pi-carre, was actually an iron-and-nickel meteorite. Historians now believe it was extraterrestrial litter such as this, first observed by white traders in the 1770s, that gave rise to the "silver ore" stories that were in turn lent credence by Dunbar and John Sibley in letters to Thomas Jefferson.
The Freeman-Custis Expedition did not see this "Medicine Rock," for although they may have kept their eyes peeled, it lay miles from their route, near the upper Brazos River, west of Fort Worth. In 1810 the Taovaya and Comanche Indians sold it to a trader named Anthony Glass—whom Professor Flores compares to John Colter of Lewis and Clark's Corps of Discovery—and eventually it found a permanent home in the Peabody Museum at Harvard University. A mere 40 inches in length and 16 inches in height, it weighs 1,635 pounds.
Eventually all the legends turned to reality in June of 1859, when Henry Comstock found a rich deposit of silver ore near Carson City, Nevada. During its peak years in the late 1870s the Comstock Lode produced silver worth about thirty-six million dollars annually. The Bland-Allison Act of 1878 marked the official beginning of silver coinage in the U.S., and today we carry reminders of those old legends in our pockets and purses.
—Joseph M. Mussulman
Based on Flores, J&SE, 15-16 note 19; 305-06 note 35