The entrada of Coronado into North America is featured prominently in our history books. Less well-known is a side story about a Spanish explorer who embarked on a voyage by sea with the intent to rendezvous with Coronado and support him in his search for the legendary seven cities of Gold.
In 1540, Alarcon embarked with a number of men, ships, and supplies and traveled north through the Gulf of California until he reached the Colorado river delta at the tip of the gulf. The account of his exploration of the delta is fascinating to read and is rich in ethnographic details about the people and cultures he encountered there.
If you are familiar with our model of the Book of Mormon lands in Baja California and the North American Southwest, you will recognize the prominent role that the delta of the Colorado river plays in it. Before modern dams were built along the Colorado River, a beautiful, green delta existed. Here Limhi’s search party “traveled in a land among many waters”, here “at the place where the sea [of Cortez] divides the land [of Baja from the mainland]” the Jaredites built a great city, here the Jaredite nation came to an end in terrible warfare, here the Nephite nation also came to an end at the hands of the Lamanites, here the surviving Nephites fled from the Lamanites toward the “south countries” in Mexico, here Mormon hid up all the Nephite records in his possession in the Hill Cumorah (the hill is currently known as Cerra Prieto). This is the land that Mormon described as “a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains”.
Modern linguists have found that the languages spoken in the delta are directly related to those of the Baja peninsula and that the divergence of the various dialects of their language occurred during Book of Mormon times and is very consistent with the timing of the large Nephite migrations into the “Land Northward” in the closing chapters of Alma and the opening chapters of Helaman.
When Alarcon reached the delta, he found that the tribes there reverenced the Sun. He was able to convince them that he was the “Son of the Sun”. In relation to this, Alarcon recorded the following:
“Here came before me another old man…I sought to learn something of him…This man said likewise to the rest of the people ‘This is our lord. Now you see how long ago our ancestors told us that there were bearded and white people in the world, and we laughed them to scorn. I who am an old man and the rest who are here have never seen any such people as these…'”
-(Elsasser, Albert B. (1979). Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology, 1(1). Retrieved from: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/86x647bs)
Who were these “bearded”, “white” people that their “ancestors” told them about so “long ago”? This incident happened far from the Aztec empire which the Spanish had conquered 20 years previously. There is no question that the tribes of the delta had heard of the arrival of the Spanish among the Aztecs, but does this explain the quote about the bearded white people that their ancestors told them about long ago while they “laughed them to scorn”?
Remember, Alarcon himself identifies the speaker as an “old man” who said “I who am an old man and the rest who are here have never seen any such people as these”. The Spanish had only been in Mexico slightly more than 20 years. How could the “ancestors” of an “old man” inform him of the Spanish?
Also, if the quote does reference the Spanish, why would their ancestors believe it but their current generation “laugh them to scorn” instead of believing it also? The bearded white people from long ago are only mentioned this once as far as I can tell, but it is an interesting quote.
There are a lot of other interesting things to learn from Alarcon’s explorations. We will explore his explorations more thoroughly in future posts.