Alejandra Dubcovsky

“If the goal is to learn about Native people,” my son asked his eighth-grade teacher, “why are we following the conquistadores?” It was a good question, his teacher conceded, but then insisted on an answer all too familiar to historians: “we are just following what the sources say.” My son was not satisfied. “Did the sources really leave Native people out? Was there no way of telling their stories? Why should we care about four Spanish guys anyways,” he asked me over dinner. Though delighted that our mealtime conversations often dominated by talk of Minecraft or Nintendo had suddenly turned to history, I found myself wondering: What do we want our students to learn about the histories of early Native-European encounters? Why do these moments matter?

More and more U.S. history textbooks, including my son’s, now begin by describing the worlds that existed in North America for millennia before the European invasions.[1] Detailing complex Native civilizations, such as Cahokia or Chaco Canyon, these textbooks showcase the power of ancient Native peoples. But then there is a sharp break. The Europeans arrive in the sixteenth century, and suddenly all the power and possibility of the earlier Native stories is disrupted or simply gone. It is as if the accounts of the conquistadores suddenly transform the distant and long histories of Native power and sovereignty into a story populated by European actors, needs, wants, and ambitions.

Most U.S. history textbooks have a section I refer to as “The conquistador Bingo.” They include brief biographic sketches of the conquistadores: Hernando de Soto traveled through Florida to the Mississippi River, Juan de Oñate marched with four hundred soldiers and missionaries into the territory we now call New Mexico, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado journeyed north from Mexico into what is now Kansas, and so on and so on. The ventures of these men are often accompanied by a map crisscrossed with color lines detailing the different routes these explorers traversed. These maps rarely depict the borders or territories of the Native peoples whose lands these were and, even more problematically, these conquistador route-maps are sometimes superimposed on contemporary maps that outline the borders of U.S. states—as if these stories of encounter presuppose the U.S. nation. These color lines all seem interchangeable, and their purpose is to showcase European inroads into otherwise unchartered worlds.

Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin.

Except these worlds were clearly not uncharted; they were just unknown to Europeans.[2] And therein lies the trouble. The people who wrote most of the early accounts in what is now the United States knew very little and understood even less about the people, history, and land they encountered. They were often overwhelmed. They were perpetually perplexed. They were consistently lost. And thus, it is not too surprising that conquistadores make terrible guides into the historical past, and yet, they— as well as their confusion, misinformation, and prejudice— remain some of our only written sources into sixteenth century America. When we follow them and the routes drawn on top of our modern maps, we end up, much like my son’s teacher did, telling stories of encounters that privilege European voices and anxieties despite our best intentions to include Native voices. But if we disregard these Spanish narratives completely, pointing out only their incredible limitations and biases, we downplay the contingency of colonization and miss the power of Native people in shaping this changing world.

These encounters thus demand that we grapple with the significant divide between what the conquistadores claimed happened versus what actually happened.[3] Because embedded into the earliest written accounts about the land and people who would one day be part of the United States are deep inequalities: about whose stories are told, about whose concerns matter, and about whose struggles we prioritize. As we reflect on the United States at 250 years, these inequalities reveal themselves not only to be long-lasting, but also timely. Taught early (and often quickly) in the school term, the stories of sixteenth-century encounters can be so much more than lines on a map or quick biographical sketches of “four Spanish guys,” as my son would bemoan. They can become a touchstone for how histories of the American past are constructed and understood.

Narrating Encounters

Chief Hirrihigua had a hard time sleeping. Whenever he closed his eyes, he would think about his mother “and remembered how [they] had thrown his mother to the dogs and allowed them to eat her.”[4] It had been years since her death, and he still felt so much anger. His first encounter with the strangers, who called themselves Christians and moved through the land in ways Hirrihigua found both disturbing and vexing, had happened in the late 1520s. These men were members of the disastrous Pánifilo de Nárvaez expedition, which had fallen apart almost as soon as it made landfall—of the hundreds of men who had begun the journey only four survived (the most famous being Cabeza de Vaca and Estevanico, the first person of African-descent to explore North America). Many of these Spaniards, including the leader of the expedition, had seen first-hand the glory and gold of Mexico, but their hopes of replicating their success in the region we now call Florida were met only with struggle, starvation, and hostility.

Hirrihigua, horrified by the brutal attacks of the Spanish, countered their violence with his own: he launched raids against the Nárvaez’s expedition, hindered their movements through the land, and captured and often killed those who fell behind. Overall, this first encounter Hirrihigua had with the strangers proved violent, disorienting, devastating, but also brief. Though we often imagine encounters as a tense, even dramatic meeting along the shoreline when two very differently attired groups of people first laid eyes on one another with suspicion and curiosity. For Hirrihigua, it was what came after that first encounter that proved far more consequential. As a chief, he had to assess the damage done to his towns and crops. His community needed to heal and come to terms with what had happened. Even though there are no written sources about Hirrihigua’s efforts in the 1530s, after Nárvaez’s and his men departed the region, his disappearance from the written record does not mean that he disappeared.

A European drawing of a battle between Europeans and Indigenous peoples
[Battle between native Americans and Europeans] in Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën … zedert het jaar 1524 tot 1526. [Leiden] 1706. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

Hirrihigua remained in his homelands—in fact, the Spanish would re-encounter the chief in 1540 during de Soto’s expedition. As he rebuilt his community, the chief felt deeply the absence of his mother. Viciously murdered by the Spanish, she had been his connection to his kin and people. Southeastern Native societies were (and are) matrilineal, which means that the line of succession passed through the mother. Hirrihigua had relied on his maternal relations and connections to forge his place as chief. Her death was not simply a personal and painful passing, it threatened to sever the political and cultural ties on which he depended.[5]

The Spanish conquistadores had treated the chief’s mother as disposable and thrown her to the dogs; she was nothing more than a casualty of conquest. But for Hirrihigua, the incredible violence enacted against her body and life—against her power and her place in society—became the crucible of conquest. Through his mother’s death, the chief began to make sense of the serious and immediate threat these strangers posed.[6] Though later Spanish accounts describe Hirrihigua “as wary and hateful of the Spanish,” the chief had learned a valuable lesson from his first encounter, and from there on prioritized his responsibility to his surviving family, people, and land because Hirrihigua knew that there was a lot more than his position as chief at stake if he failed.[7]

The Spanish writers of these encounters did not care. They were far more preoccupied with justifying Spanish actions and decisions than offering any context for Hirrihigua or his people. They did not detail the complex Native worlds they saw, nor did they describe the vast trade, communication, and travel routes that linked Native polities together—even though the conquistadores routinely traveled on these paths and depended on these networks. It might be obvious that Spanish sources privileged European preoccupations over Indigenous ones—they wanted to know the location of the gold, the big cities, and the powerful leaders; they wanted to showcase the superiority of European armor and beliefs; and they wanted to narrate a story they found legible. However, it is important to remember that these lopsided accounts were describing Native worlds controlled and populated by Native people.

Hirrihigua’s mother would have understood these encounters differently. Though it might seem counterintuitive to focus on the experiences of Native women, considering they are so seldom mentioned in the conquistadores’ accounts, their presence offers a counterweight to the destabilization of European encounters. The lesson her death demanded of her son shows us a Native world that knew how to endure and survive, adapt and change, and, perhaps surprisingly to us, but certainly not to Hirrihigua, linked those critical skills to the role of women and family.[8] Women were the ones who farmed and prepared food; women were the ones who made kin and could rebuild community; women were the ones who cared and structured the family, as Chief Hirrihigua was routinely reminded by his wife and three daughters.

According to the Spanish chronicles, these four women, though deeply involved in Hirrihigua’s daily, personal, and even political life, were little more than a compassionate foil to the chief’s ruthlessness. While the chief wanted vengeance against the invading foreign forces, they pleaded for mercy; the daughters even manage to convince their hardened father to allow a lone Spanish survivor, Juan Ortiz, to be kept alive. “The cacique, to please his wife and daughters, allowed Juan to live at that time,” or so the Spanish sources claimed.[9] But these European-focused accounts misread the chief’s actions entirely. He did not want to “please” his wife and daughters. He had to. They were the ones who could determine the fate of Juan Ortiz, not Hirrihigua. They had allowed Ortiz to stay in their town and their home. Hirrihigua did not own his dwelling, these women did. They were the ones who fed him, clothed him, made remedies for him, and cared for him. And though the Spanish sources emphasized the piety of these women over the evilness of the chief, Hirrihigua recognized and depended on the labor and knowledge of his wife and daughters, as well as on their kindness.

It is easy to think of these women only as a trope or prop. After all, the only extant mentions of them never bother to give us their names. It is either their violent deaths or their ability to help the conquistadores that seem to matter to the Spanish writing the records. In these narratives of encounter, they were like stand-ins for all the poor, innocent people killed or affected by the Spanish conquistadores. But these Native women were not just a metaphor. They were real. And if we include them— their experiences, knowledge, and importance—in the stories of encounters, then we begin to see beyond the moment of rupture and violence, and a longer, protracted, and far more contested process of encounter takes shape.

A European image of four Indigenous women being offered as tribute
[European soldiers are offered four native American women and three native American men] in Naaukeurige versameling der gedenk-waardigste zee en land-reysen na Oost en West-Indiën … zedert het jaar 1524 tot 1526 [Leiden] 1706. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library.

Refusing Encounters

In 1540, de Soto and six-hundred men marched through some of the same region the Nárvaez expedition had traversed over a decade earlier. De Soto had barely begun his journey when he heard about the survivor Juan Ortiz, once a captive of Chief Hirrihigua, now held by Chief Mucozo. His transfer from one chief to another had been the work of Chief Hirrihigua’s daughters. Though their diplomatic and political intrigues happened mostly outside the pages of the conquistadores’ accounts, Ortiz’s presence lets us see beyond these women’s absences. His survival depended on them and affords us a glimpse into the complex lives and power of these Native women.

De Soto was in desperate need of a translator and sought to find both Ortiz and Mucozo. Chief Mucozo was sober and generous, described in Spanish sources as the exact opposite of his neighbor Chief Hirrihigua. Whereas Hirrihigua attacked de Soto’s men and abused Spanish captives, Mucozo welcomed them both. But Mucozo’s efforts to host these strangers came to an awkward pause when his mother suddenly appeared and demanded that the Spanish conquistador “return her son to her!”[10]

In terms of encounters, this was truly a bizarre one. Native and Spanish men were not fighting but sharing a meal. Mucozo was not in any real danger and his people were trying to forge a partnership with de Soto and his forces, or at least encourage them along their journey without causing any damage to their towns, when the elderly woman approached and began making demands. Mucozo’s mother enters and exits the Spanish narratives as if from thin air. But this was simply not the case, and it behooves us not to conflate Spanish confusion about this woman with her own understanding of her movements and actions. In other words, she might have surprised the Spanish, but she knew what she was doing.

She knew how to travel undetected along trails that connected her to her son’s town. She confidently approached the Spanish commander, showing not only that de Soto could be identified by his elaborate attire, armor, or position, but also that this woman had been paying attention to these strangers—as much as the conquistadores were trying to comprehend the land and people they were encountering, Native people were also trying to grasp all that was unfolding. And finally, Mucozo’s mother understood that she had an important role to play. As an elder and leader, it was her responsibility and obligation to council her son.

She began with a history lesson, mentioning what Narváez, who had traversed through this exact territory several years earlier, “had done to Hirrihigua.” She remembered the violence and devastation that had ensued; and she might have even known Chief Hirrihigua’s mother and about her untimely end. She demanded to know if the conquistador “planned to do the same” in her son’s town. She offered herself as tribute, pleading “that he [Mucozo] was young, and she was old…and that she alone would carry this punishment for both.” She knew what happened to Native women who were taken by these men. Maybe she thought her age would protect her from the sexual violence and exploitation that had befallen so many. Or maybe she saw no other way to appease de Soto. Displaying a love and dedication that prioritized her son’s future over hers, she made this emotional plea.

De Soto found her anxiety amusing. He laughed at her, and soon others joined him. Even Mucozo dismissed his mother’s worry. Mucozo’s mother looked around for reassurance, and although she saw that her son was not injured or in chains, she believed that this jovial meal between Natives and Spaniards was nothing more than a ruse. The Spaniards were deceivers, self-interested, murderers, and not to be trusted. She believed that they could turn against her son at any moment. Despite de Soto’s promises that “she could leave whenever she wanted” and that “her son enjoyed staying with them,” Mucozo’s mother had plenty of evidence to the contrary.[11]

Described in Spanish sources as pathetic, almost comical, Mucozo’s mother was nonetheless cognizant of her power. Her movement in and out of de Soto’s purview, and in and out of the historical record, reveals a much larger Native world that operated (and would continue to operate) well-beyond the prying eyes of these newcomers. While it might be much easier to visualize de Soto’s potential route through the region than it is to locate the Native towns and polities that existed beyond that line on the map, the absence of Native spaces and actors— as well as the absence of their fears, knowledge, responsibilities, and priorities—perpetuates stories of encounter that, as Mucozo’s mother desperately feared, would be all about violence, dispossession, and erasure. But she works to interrupt this narrative. Her warnings, movement, and love, allow us to peek into a larger and functioning Native world that both remembered its history and sought to create a different future.

Other Histories of Encounters

Stories of sixteenth-century encounters tend to support a national narrative that includes Native people simply to remove them.[12] But Chief Hirrihigua’s mother, wife, and daughters, as well as Chief Mucozo’s mother insist on a different narrative. While their stories echoed existing accounts of violence, death, disease, and enslavement, they are framed as deeply personal, and even intimate stories—of daughters undermining their father’s wishes, of mothers worrying about their children, and of sons remembering their mothers. Native women also take us to surprising places, showing us that their voices and power had tangible sway over their communities—over what foods grew and when, over who and how entered towns, and over how succession and authority was established. They expose the limitations of colonial sources written for and by men. They demand we envision other possibilities. And they remind us that these early encounters were much more than a singular moment; but a process that unfolded along, around, and much further beyond the conquistador routes drawn in textbook maps.

Author

Alejandra Dubcovsky is a Professor of History at the University of California, Riverside. She is the author of Informed Power: Communication in the Early South (2016) and Talking Back: Native Women and the Making of the Early South (2023).

Notes

I wish to express my deep gratitude to Véronica Castillo-Muñoz and Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor for helping me work through this piece, as well as the Center of Ideas and Society at UC Riverside, which funded our “Summer Pop-Up Working Group.” I also want to thank Noel Smyth for his careful eye and suggestions.

[1] Textbook examples: Give Me Liberty! An American History, Becoming America, and Global Americans: A History of the United States.

[2] Juliana Barr, “Geographies of Power: Mapping Indian Borders in the “Borderlands” of the Early Southwest.” William and Mary Quarterly, 68 (no. 1, 2011), 5-46.

[3] For this framework in a different context, see Michel-Rolph Tiouillot, Silencing the Past: Power

and the Production of History (1995).

[4] La Florida del Inca by El Inca Garcilaso De La Vega (1605). Part 1 of Book 2, Chapter 2

[5] Brooke M. Bauer, Becoming Catawba: Catawba Indian Women and Nation-Building, 1540–1840 (2023), 47–66.

[6] Audra Simpson, “The State Is a Man: Theresa Spence, Loretta Saunders and the Gender of Settler Sovereignty: Theory & Event, 19 (no. 4, 2016).

[7] La Florida del Inca by El Inca Garcilaso De La Vega (1605). Part 1 of Book 2, Chapter 2.

[8] For the importance of women’s agricultural knowledge see Jane Mt. Pleasant, “A New Paradigm for Pre-Columbian Agriculture in North America,” Early American Studies, 13 (no. 2, 2015), 374–412. Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690–1792 (2018), 13-66. Alejandra Dubcovsky, Talking Back: Native Women and the Making of the Early South (2023), 55-72.

[9] La Florida del Inca by El Inca Garcilaso De La Vega (1605). Part 1 of Book 2, Chapter 2.

[10] La Florida del Inca by El Inca Garcilaso De La Vega (1605). Part 1 of Book 2, Chapter 8.

[11] La Florida del Inca by El Inca Garcilaso De La Vega (1605). Part 1 of Book 2, Chapter 8.

[12] Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. (2010).