Coronado on the Plains

Under the burning-glass July sun they went on across the green, rolling land-ocean under the unbounded sky, past the Great Bend of the Arkansas, left the river, traveled northeast till they reached the Smoky Hill River, and came to a Quivira village. A hunting camp, its palaces the grass huts of the eastern culture from which the Wichitas had migrated, it was singularly barren of kings and gold plate. It was in McPherson County, Kansas, near the village called Lindsborg, and here Coronado 9in 1540] ended his penetration of Quivira.

All this crossing of the plains had meant new landscapes, new experiences, new peoples, and they were all strange. “The land is the shape of a ball,” the annalist says, the first man who ever wrote the thought so many have had since, “wherever a man stands he is surrounded by the sky at the distance of a crossbow shot.” Everywhere the sun mocked the eye with unearthly distortions. Seared eyes could find no trees for solace except the willows and cottonwoods that marked watercourses and sometimes a small, hidden ravine choked with smaller stuff.

Only the earth and the sun and the arch of the sky, buffalo grass everywhere and then taller grasses. Ahead of them the grass bent as the wind trod it; the line of horsemen bent it too as they crossed; it rose again from wind and hoof and closed behind them and no sign of their passing had been left. Scouts, stragglers, the column itself might get lost in the tranced emptiness except that they piled stacks of buffalo chips to mark the way. Those same chips were the only fuel; their punk-like pungency for the first time prickled the noses of white men cooking supper.