A new book by Dennis Herrick counters Winston Churchill’s (alleged) dictum that history is written by the victors. Winter of the Metal People: The Untold Story of America’s First Indian War elucidates the failures of conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s expedition through the Southwest in the early 1540s. Herrick notes of Coronado, “He is a heroic figure to many present-day Americans who know almost nothing about the man — and what they do know is more myth than fact.” The author is correct in pointing out that Coronado’s legacy remains vibrant, as evidenced by the schools, streets, and public spaces named in his honor throughout the Southwest (including Coronado Historic Site in New Mexico and Coronado National Memorial in Arizona). To demythologize this figure, Herrick interweaves primary material with his own imagination in a lucid account of the expedition told mostly from the perspective of the Tiwa populations that were brutalized by Coronado’s forces.
At the heart of the narrative is the little-known Tiguex War — cited as one of the first wars between Native Americans and European explorers — which occurred along the Río Grande, north of what would become the city of Albuquerque, in the years 1540 to 1542. In Herrick’s account, the young Coronado (not yet 30) was overeager to establish his career by ensuring that the expedition was a financial success. Many early missionary and “pacification” ventures into “New Spain” were funded by private investors, not the Spanish Crown, and Coronado himself had invested all his personal holdings into this one. Frustrated by his failure to discover the Seven Cities of Gold (a legend that the expedition ultimately discredited), Coronado reacted with increasing aggression toward the Native groups he encountered. His actions during and after the Tiguex War were severe enough that, shortly after he returned to Spanish-held territories around Mexico City, the Council of the Indies formally tried him on charges of war crimes (in part because of Spanish casualties sustained during the expedition and its overall financial failure). The beleaguered conquistador managed to prevail over these charges, and as the centuries passed, his legacy became increasingly renowned.
Dennis Herrick reads from Winter of the Metal People at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 11, at Collected Works Bookstore (202 Galisteo St., 505-988-4226). Joining him is Johnny D. Boggs, reading from his new novel Valley of Fire.