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Discovering a Campsite in Texas

Coronado Slept Here:  Discovering a Campsite in Texas

 


In Brief:

Finding campsites of the Coronado army is not only an adventure, but is important in establishing where they went and interpreting their observations of prehistoric Native American life. At least one camp has been found along the Rio Grande where the army settled in for two winters, but no campsite of the army-on-the-march was known until the discovery described here, near the town of Floydada in the panhandle of Texas. Numerous artifacts from the expedition, including copper crossbow arrow points, nails, and chain mail have been recovered.

Example of national interest in the discovery of the Texas Campsite- part of a Christian Science Monitor article from April 24, 1996
Example of national interest in the discovery of the Texas Campsite- part of a Christian Science Monitor article from April 24, 1996. Note the chain mail gauntlet, which was found in the same canyon in the late 1950s. This three fingered gauntlet was a style sewn inside of a leather glove, to protect the upper hand during sword combat.

 

Setting and Background

When Coronado's soldiers struck out into the plains east of New Mexico, they came to some of the flattest landscape of North America, the so-called grassy plains of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains of the Texas Panhandle country. One of amazed soldiers wrote "The country seems like a bowl, and when a man sits down the horizon surrounds him at the distance of a musket shot. There are no groves of trees except at the rivers.... In traversing 800 miles, [no] mountain range was seen, nor a hill nor a hillock three times as high as a man."

The exact location of Coronado's route through from New Mexico to Kansas was controversial throughout most of the 20th century. There were no landmarks for the Spaniards to report. The Soldiers found the featureless grassy plains to be terrifying, with no good way to tell direction at midday. Enormous herds of buffalo engulfed some of their horses. One of the chroniclers, a soldier named Pedro Castañeda, describes the danger caused by the featureless country:

Many fellows were lost at this time; they went out hunting and did not get back..., wandering the country as if crazy.... Every night [we] took account of who was missing, fired guns and blew trumpets and beat drums and built great fires, but some of them wandered so far that this gave them no help.

But one major clue was reported about a place they came to. In an area where they had seen nothing but "buffalo and sky," Castaneda tells how Coronado's advance guard came to a large ravine, with a village in the bottom. Here, the natives, who had heard of much-admired party of Cabeza de Vaca, Estevan Dorantes, and the other castaways in 1535-35, presented the advance party with a gift of a pile of tanned skins "and a tent as big as a house." When the army caught up, the soldiers fell on the pile and plundered it, "and in less than a quarter hour, nothing was left but the empty ground." The local natives were left in tears, because they expected that the strangers would merely bless the pile. What happened next was a famous incident that left modern archaeologists salivating:

While the army was resting in this ravine...a tempest came up one afternoon with high wind and hail, and in a short time, hailstones as big as bowls, or bigger, fell as thick as raindrops.... The negroes protected the horses by holding large sea nets over them, with helmets and shields.... The hail broke many tents, battered many helmets, wounded many horses, and broke all the crockery of the army...which was no small loss because they do not have any crockery in this region.

Where was this unusual scatter of the broken crockery? Surely a canyon containing a scatter of Spanish pottery or perhaps Indian pottery carried east from the Pueblos could be located. . Castañeda recorded that the army also stopped at another ravine a few days away, so there might be several canyons nearby. No such sites had come to light by the early 90s.

 	The Army Museum of Madrid, Spain, displays a royal 1517 camp tent, possibly similar to the camp tent used by Governor Coronado in 1540.
The Army Museum of Madrid, Spain, displays a royal 1517 camp tent, possibly similar to the camp tent used by Governor Coronado in 1540.
A reconstruction of the appearance of the Coronado army campsite. Painted from nature at the site, by William K. Hartmann.
A reconstruction of the appearance of the Coronado army campsite. Painted from nature at the site, by William K. Hartmann.

 

This web page describes the discovery of one of the two campsites mentioned above. The broken crockery, as of 2000, has not been found for reasons we will describe.

Today's roads are mostly north-south grids in this area, and many intersections are marked by tiny Texas farm towns. One of these towns, south of Amarillo, is Floydada, Texas (pronounced, as residents say, "like the two names: Floyd and Ada.") Floydada's Historical Society on the main square houses some unusual treasures of Americana. There, among showcases displaying the 1890s wedding dresses and Bibles of early anglo settlers, curator Nancy Marble can bring out a mysterious relic -- part of a gauntlet constructed of chain mail, picked up by a local rancher in the 1960s. Little known for years, the Floydada gauntlet and some newly-found associated artifacts, such as odd-shaped metal arrow points, have recently been recognized as priceless relics of the Coronado army expedition

The artifacts come from a ravine near the town. One of the principal players in the story, Jimmy Owens, a local water utility employee and metal-detector buff who first reported the metal points, described the ravine to me in his laconic style: "It's like Forrest Gump's box of chocolates down there. You never know what you're going to get." Owens, who died a few years after the discovery, was the a key player, a metal-detector buff who first located the crossbow points. Unlike many collectors he had the courage to come forward and show his material to archaeologists, which led to the recognition of the site. As a result, it was named for him.

The Discovery of the Jimmy Owens Site

Local consciousness about the mysteries of the Coronado route was raised in 1992 when New Mexico scholars Richard and Shirley Flint organized a conference on Coronado and his route. (A University of Colorado Press book of papers reported at this conference is listed in the bibliography, under Flint and Flint, 1997.) Richard Flint emphasized two diagnostic types of artifacts that would verify a Coronado campsite. First were crossbow paraphernalia, because Coronado's was the only large army to pass through the Southwest armed with crossbows. Disheartened by the "failure" of the expedition, other Spaniards didn't return till decades later, when guns were coming into use. The second Coronado diagnostic marker would be Mesoamerican artifacts manufactured by the 2/3 of the army who were not European, but allies from the south Mexican tribes who had helped defeat the Aztecs only twenty years before. Examples would be pottery from central Mexico or the small obsidian blades which lined those warriors' clubs (and the obsidian could be identified as Mexican through isotopic studies.)

At the same conference, Oklahoma archaeologist Don Blakeslee discussed Blanco Canyon, the ravine near Floydada Texas. He pointed out that the chain mail gauntlet had been reported by a rancher in the 60s, and suggested Blanco Canyon might be one of the ravines mentioned by Castaneda. But the gauntlet was an isolated, one-of-a-kind item, and hence of limited value in proving anything. Even if it were from Coronado's army, it might have been picked up elsewhere by natives and traded into this region.

View of an entry into the canyon where Coronado artifacts were found, near Floydada, Texas.
View of an entry into the canyon where Coronado artifacts were found, near Floydada, Texas. The land is now private ranch land. Coronado chronicles described camping in such a "bassanca."

 

The following year, Jimmie Owens, in Floydada, began his metal detector forays into Blanco Canyon and began turning up unusual copper and iron points. By chance, Blakeslee gave a talk in the Panhandle region, stressing the search for Coronado and the idea that crossbow bolt points might be found. Owens came forward with his points. Flint and Blakeslee confirmed that the points fit the general pattern of those from Coronado's encampment in Albuquerque. In early 1995 they made a weekend spot check of the canyon and turned up some broken sherds. Could they be the sherds broken in the hailstorm?

Copper crossbow arrow points found at the campsite near Floydada, Texas.
Copper crossbow arrow points found at the campsite near Floydada, Texas. These and several dozen more were scattered over a football-field-sized area in a canyon floor, along with other coronado-era material. The reason for such s concentration of arrow points is a mystery. Compare with similar points from New Mexico on the Battle of Hawikuh page.

 

The whole thing was turning into a detective story. And what about the gauntlet? Was it really one of a kind? Investigators visiting the area learned that a second rancher had reported a piece of chain mail shortly after the gauntlet was found. In a story worthy of a report on UFO debris, the chain mail piece had been put in a box and disappeared when the family moved. But wait! He had found a yet another piece! Ah, but that piece had been left by mistake in a truck glove compartment and disappeared when the truck was sold.... Some people said the second rancher was a jealous competitor of the first; and questioned whether the second piece ever really did exist. Later investigation by Nancy Marble, of the Floydada Historical Society, did turn up witnesses who had seen at least one of these pieces.

With this rapidly accruing evidence, the next step was a full fledged archaeological survey of the site, before local collectors carried off too much material. On Labor Day weekend, 1995, the first survey was held with volunteers, including the writer under the general direction of archaeologist Don Blakeslee from the University of Kansas, with support from Richard Flint and other professionals.

At dawn on September 2 we headed across the flat plains toward the ravine southeast of town. We were within a hundred yards of the historic ravine before we could see it: the dirt road wound down about 200 feet into a fertile valley, about half a mile across at that point, and wider to the southeast. Cottonwood trees lined a small dry creekbed down the middle. Local ranchers report that the water table had been going down during the whole century because of pumping through the whole region. As for the stream, said the ranch owner, "you could catch fish in it until 1955.... Today the water is 80 feet down." So this fertile ravine, or barranca, as the Spanish called it, was a perfect campsite in 1540.

The early days of the 1995 survey indicated that there was not much pottery on the surface, and that the reported crossbow points had been coming from about 10 inches down in the soil. In other words, if there was a site there, it was buried under sediment that had accumulated on the canyon floor. Only the metal artifacts were being picked up, by the most talented of the metal detector buffs. Lunch discussions reminded us that the chain mail had still not been authenticated, nor had archaeologists actually seen a cross bow bolt head come out of the ground. Could the whole thing be a fraud? On the plus side, the local ranchers who arrived for lunch reminisced about the hail storms of the region; there had been two big ones that year, including "that last one, that put a bunch of dents in my Airstream." Score one for Castañeda.

Soon Jimmy Owens came by with his metal detector, showed us an area where he had found a concentration of metal objects from various periods, and while we were there, he located and picked out an iron awl of a type made in Europe and traded in the area, probably in the early 1800s. There was a native village site in the canyon, and it clearly seemed to have been a gathering spot in ancient times. After another day or so, the metal detector artistes turned up a few more copper crossbow bolt heads in the presence of the archaeologists. "Artiste" was no exaggeration. Amidst the many signals of ranch debris in the valley, Jimmy Owens could guess with some accuracy whether he had a bolt head, whether it was copper or iron, and how far down it was.

Nails found at the campsite are believed to have been used on horse shoes and probably for other purposes.
Nails found at the campsite are believed to have been used on horse shoes and probably for other purposes. Compare with similar nails found at the De Soto campsite in Florida from the same period, on the Help for Scholars page.

 

A few weeks after this survey ended, news filtered out from Floydada. The local amateurs had been energized. Jimmy Owens, becoming more knowledgeable day by day, had gone back to the canyon, and in a football-field sized area near the old streambed, east of our Labor Day survey, he had turned up more than a dozen new bolt heads, plus associated nails. Most of these were being donated to the Floydada Historical Society. The count of reported bolt heads was now up to 19. It was good news and bad news: the bolts matched Coronado styles found near Albuquerque, but Blakeslee and others worried about getting back before the site was picked over.

Blakeslee attained some new funding and a new survey was scheduled in January, 1996. While temperatures on Labor Day had soared close to 100; the January temperatures soared only into the 20s. The survey party looked like arctic explorers. Jimmy, who had blossomed into a semi-pro, had been out flagging spots where he picked up possible bolt heads. He complained that it took a lot of will power for him to leave them in the ground.

Many of these flags turned out to be positive detections. Furthermore, Blakeslee laid out several two-by-two-meter test squares in the area of the point-scatter; they were excavated to a depth of some inches. These turned up probable buffalo bone fragments and, finally, one copper bolt point in situ. The latter was important in allowing the archaeologists to say, at last, that they had actually excavated one of the points under carefully controlled conditions. By the end of the January 1996 survey, the number of crossbow points was up to more than 40, along with dozens of nails of an early Spanish type. At first the purpose of these nails was uncertain, but several turned up eventually in early Spanish horseshoes. They seem to have been primarily horseshoe nails, an essential part of a horse-mounted expedition. In addition, pottery sherds characteristic of the Coronado era New Mexico pueblos were found -- though not in numbers to confirm the site of the notorious hail storm.

Kansas researcher Frank Gagne, from the Blakeslee team, subsequently compared the Texas crossbow points with those found at Hawikuh (Zuni, N.M.) and along the Rio Grande, and remarked that in spite of a range of styles, some of the points from one site were so similar to points at the other that they were probably made by the same artisan. Also, artifacts similar to the Floydada site were found among materials from the De Soto expedition, verifying that they belong to the mid 1500s.

Based on the accumulated evidence, Don Blakeslee held an April 1996 press conference in Washington, to announce the discovery that Blanco Canyon was a place where Coronado camped -- a site that he named the Owens site, in honor of the metal detector-artist who came forward with his finds.

Meanwhile, a third survey in late spring, 1996, turned up more material, including a Mesoamerican style blade in association with a buffalo bone. The blade was not made from materials known in the Mesoamerican area, adding to the confidence that it was made by one of Coronado's nameless Indian allies who helped him make the first exploration of the Western U.S.

Still, the site leaves us with some unsolved mysteries. Is it really the site of the notorious hail storm? A dense scatter of broken Spanish and/or Pueblo-style sherds has not been found. Perhaps the center of the camp has not been found, or storm-damaged camp was in a nearby second ravine, which is somewhat vaguely mentioned in the accounts. Why the weird scatter of crossbow points over the football-field-sized area? Why was so much material lost while the army camped in this canyon? Jay Blaine, a well-known Texas archaeologist who joined the group, speculated that the points might have leaked out of bags of points on horses spooked by the hail storm. More work will be required to map the total distribution artifacts, find the center of the camp, and see if any explanation emerges. By the end of the January survey the total number of crossbow bolt points was approaching forty, along with other Coronado-era materials.

Significance of the Jimmy Owens Site

As already emphasized, fixing Coronado's route through the Texas panhandle will allow archaeologist/historians better to interpret the army's chronicles.

Furthermore, the Blanco Canyon site reveals the artifact assemblage that will typify additional Coronado sites. Two or three more discoveries like this, especially along the route between Mexico and Cibola, part of the route, could roughly fix the whole route.

There is another value to the Floydada Texas story, which brings the Coronado affair around in a full circle. Remember the shipwrecked wanderers whose story of northern cities started the whole affair, Cabeza de Vaca, the black Moor Estevan Dorantes, and two others. The account that Cabeza de Vaca wrote about their own lives among the Indians paints a picture of seasonal migrations of prehistoric Texas tribes, from near-coastal region to regions where they traded with buffalo hunters. But the picture is murky, because we don't know where the castaways were.

However, as mentioned above, Coronado's chronicler, Pedro Castañeda, mentions that the Cabeza de Vaca party passed near there. To be more specific, he tells us the reason why the Indian women were so upset when Coronado's army plundered the large pile of gifts that had been brought out for them from the village -- perhaps the village in the canyon near Floydada.. The natives of the canyon, Castañeda tells us, had expected more friendly behavior because they had already met other Spaniards who had acted more kindly! These were the castaways of a few years before, who "had passed through this place.... The women and some others were left crying, because they thought that the strangers were not going to take anything, but would merely bless them as the [Spanish castaways] had done when they passed through here." Another chronicler confirms this story, but suggests the castaways had seen somewhat further south. In either case, the Floydada areas appears to be the pivotal locale that ties together two of the first historic Spanish adventures in the Western U.S.

Visit the Floydada, Texas, Museum

The Jimmy Owens site is not presently accessible to visitors, since it is on private ranch land. However, some of the artifacts can be seen in the museum in Floydada, south of Amarillo. For a history buff driving through the area, this side trip in an interesting adventure.

 	The Floyd County Historical Museum in Floydada Texas exhibits some of the artifacts from the nearby site.
The Floyd County Historical Museum in Floydada Texas exhibits some of the artifacts from the nearby site.

 

For me, after studying the writings of those old explorers for years, it was an adventure to sleep in Coronado's camp site, and I can only hope that the Owens site will some day be more accessible and valued for the history it represents. Surprisingly, the defining moment of my adventure was not holding the glass-encased chain mail gauntlet in downtown Floydada, but rather standing out in the ravine with Jimmy Owens. "You want to see some points I found?" He fished in his pocket and placed the points in my hand. I thought they might be fragile with age, but they were solid, gleaming, sharp. They had heft and were crafted cleverly. They seemed like little art objects from the very first years of recorded history in our country.


 

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