Hernando de Alarcón: First Contact With the Nations of the Colorado River Delta

The Colorado River Delta is an important part of our model of the Book of Mormon lands in Baja California and the North American Southwest. The Book of Mormon describes this as “a land of many waters, rivers, and fountains” where both the Nephite and Jaredite cultures came to an end. It is interesting to read accounts of early historical contact with the tribes living in this region.

The true story of Cabeza de Vaca’s survival among the prehistoric inhabitants of North America was incredible enough, even without the tall-tales that he added regarding Cibola and the seven cities of gold that he claimed to have seen. It was, however, these stories of wealth and riches in North America that motivated Coronado and his men to mount one of the most famous treasure hunting expeditions in recorded history.

While Coronado and his men were trekking into North America, an expedition was being carried out by sea in an attempt to support Coronado with supplies and men on his journey. The Conquistador in charge of this supporting expedition was Hernando de Alarcón. When Alarcón’s ship reached the northern end of the Sea of Cortez, he became the first European to come into contact with the tribes living in and around the delta of the Colorado River.

While the primary purpose of Alarcón’s expedition was not to preserve ethnographic details about new world cultures, it was his primary accomplishment. Slowly working his small boat upstream, Alarcón spent several weeks interacting with the tribes. He apparently took many notes of what he saw and what he was told. He was not successful in supporting Coronado’s party, but he did compose a preliminary report of his travels and sent it back to New Spain. There is no known record of his final report, but the preliminary report is rich in ethnographic details about the people and cultures he found in the delta region.

When he arrived, he found that the Indians revered the sun. In order to win their trust, he introduced himself through his interpreter as the “son of the sun”.

By signs I came to understand that the thing which they most esteemed and reverenced was the Sun: and I signified unto them that I came from the Sun. Whereat they marveled, and then they began to behold me from the top to the toe, and showed me more favor than they did before: and when I asked them for food, they brought me such abundance that I was obliged twice to call for the boats to put it into them, and from that time forward of all the things which they brought me they threw a part of it in the air toward the Sun, and afterward turned toward me to give me the other part.
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p16)

According to his report, the Indians quickly accepted his supernatural story and referred to him on multiple occasions as their Lord. Later, some of them questioned his celestial origins, but he seems to have answered their questions to their satisfaction. His account describes that he and his party treated the Indians with kindness, a description that seems substantiated by the fact that he was able to live safely among them while traveling deep into their territory and interacting with their chiefs for several weeks.

As noted an another recent article, Not only did they revere Alarcón as “the son of the sun”, they also associated him with legends told by their elders about white-skinned, bearded men in ancient times, one of many possible correlations to the Book of Mormon in our model lands:

Here came before me another old man like the former, with like ceremonies and offerings…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. And if you will not believe me, behold these people who are in the river: let us therefore give them meat, seeing they gave us their victuals. Let us willingly serve this lord, who wishes us so well, and forbids us to make war, and embraces all of us. And they have mouth, hands, and eyes, as we have, and speak as we do.
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p20)

His report consistently describes many large settlements in close proximity to each other, each with large populations that were very organized. Later historical accounts attest to the tribes’ strong social organization and their large, well-organized militaries.

Among his notes, there are many that relate to the weapons and armor that they used. Here is his description of the Indians’ first reaction when seeing his party, including the use of banners to identify their territorial claims:

there were more than 250 Indians assembled together with bows and arrows and with warlike banners, deployed in much the same manner as those of the natives of New Spain…Perceiving that I drew towards the shore, they came with great cries toward us with arrows ready in their bows and with their banner displayed…making signs that I should not come any farther. They put stakes in my way between the water and the land, and the more I lingered the more people still flocked together.
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p12)

They wear on their heads a piece of deer skin two spans broad, set after the manner of a helmet, and upon it certain small sticks with some kinds of feathers. Their weapons were bows and arrows of hard wood, and two or three kinds of maces of wood hardened in the fire…on the brawn [biceps] of their arms they wear a tight cord which they wind so often about that it becomes as broad as one’s hand. They wear certain pieces of deer bones fastened to one arm, wherewith they strike off the sweat, and at the other certain small reed pipes. They carry also certain little long bags, about one hand broad, tied to their left arms, which serve them also as bracers [wrist guards] for their bows
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p14-16)

In a later description of weapons he also mentions “bucklers” (Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p22)

Since it is very unlikely that there were crocodiles in the rivers near the delta, his statement regarding crocodile-skin shields is questionable, but worth noting:

he, however, knew of another exceeding mighty river in which there were such huge crocodiles that of their hides they made shields.
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p24)

He was also told about shields build of buffalo skin:

In discoursing with him of their armor, he said that some of them had certain large shields of leather, about two fingers thick. I asked him of what beast’s skin they made them, and he described to me a very great beast, like an ox
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p26)

Alarcón’s description of the well-organized militaries were the first of many such descriptions from the early centuries of historical contact. Notice the military presence and ceremony presented when they introduced one of their chiefs (the thousands of native men are described as being “without weapons” because of Alarcón’s insistence that they never be armed when they approach him):

the indians came forth with great joy and gladness to receive me, advising me that their chief waited for my coming. When I came to him, I found that he had with him five or six thousand men without weapons, from whom he went apart with some two hundred only, all of whom brought victuals with them. And so he came towards me, going before the rest with great authority, and going before him and on each side of him were certain who made the people stand aside, making him way to pass. He wore an open garment close before and behind and open on both sides, fastened with buttons, wrought with black and white checker work – it was very soft and well made, being of the skins of delicate fishes called Seabreams. As soon as he came to the water’s side, his servants took him up in their arms and brought him to my boat
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p29)

The account often mentions that the native soldiers obeyed the orders of elderly chiefs. The following excerpts demonstrate this pattern of authority as Alarcón was first making contact and trying to calm their fears:

I made signs to them that they should withdraw themselves, and that they should stand upon the side of a hill which was there between a plain and the river and that no more than ten at a time should approach me. Immediately the most ancient among them called to them with a loud voice, willing them to do so.

They made signs to me that they desired to see an arquebus shot off, which I caused to be discharged, and they were all wonderfully afraid except two old men among them who were not moved at all, but rather cried out upon the rest, because they were afraid. Through the speech of one of these old men, they began to rise up from the ground and to lay hold upon their weapons. Wanting to appease the old man, I offered him a silken girdle of different colors, and he in a great rage bit his lower lip cruelly, and gave me a thump with his elbow on the chest; he then turned in a great fury to speak to his company. After I saw them raise their banners, I determined to return myself gently to my boats
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p14)

These first tenuous encounters were apparently accompanied by a rouse intended to lure the Spanish into an ambush:

In this manner we went up two leagues, and I arrived near a cliff of a hill, whereupon an arbor had newly been made, where they made signs to me, crying that I should go thither, showing me the same with their hands, and telling me that there was meat to eat. But I would not go thither, seeing the place was apt for some ambush, but followed on my voyage. Within a while after issued out from thence about a thousand armed men with bows and arrows, and after that many women and children showed themselves, toward whom I would not go.
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p14)

Weeks later, he describes sentinels stationed at tribal borders:

they offered me more men to go with me, saying that they were naughty [mean] men which I should find above. But I would have none–nevertheless 20 of the went with me, who, when I drew near those who were their enemies, warned me thereof, and I found their sentinels set upon their guard on their borders.
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p23)

Several times, Alarcon was told about animosities and wars that were underway between the tribes of the lower river:

Then I called the old man to see if he would give me any people to go with me, and victuals to travel through that wilderness, and he laid before me many inconveniences and dangers which I might incur in that voyage, showing me the danger that there was in passing by a chief of Cumana, who threatened to make war upon them, because his [the old man’s] people had entered into the others’ country to take a stag [deer]
(Explorations of Hernando Alarcon in the Lower Colorado River Region, 1540; Edited and Annotated by Albert B. Elsasser; Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology; 1979;p28)

Alarcon also noted many things regarding native private and public houses of various types in various areas. He also described agriculture, native foods, cultural items, marriage and sexual patterns, and many other things that give us insight into the cultures of the Colorado delta and other nearby areas.

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