A Puebloan View of a Lesser-Known War


New Mexico Mercury online magazine

Published Sept. 5, 2013

by Dennis Herrick

A Chinese restaurant’s fortune cookie proclaimed that “You have a charming way with words and should write a book.” Inspired, I taped that little slip of paper to the front of my desktop computer where I was writing.

The result is a historical novel, Winter of the Metal People, which took ten years to research, write, and rewrite.

Winter of the Metal People is about the Coronado expedition and the Tiguex War he fought in 1540-41 against Pueblo tribes — but it’s told for the first time from the Indian point of view.

The book’s first hurdle is that it happened so long ago. There’s a plaque embedded in a Santa Fe plaza sidewalk claiming the Pueblo Revolt was America’s first war between Europeans and Indians. 1680 was a long time ago, but the Tiguex War occurred near Albuquerque 140 years earlier. Another example of a history marker caught in a lie.

When I moved to Rio Rancho, I learned that America’s first Indian war was fought around my house. However, what was known about Coronado was more myth than fact.  I’d never heard of the Tiguex War, named after its primary target, the Tiwas (formerly Tiguas). Neither had hardly anyone else.

After nearly five centuries, I decided it was time to tell the Puebloan side of the story.

The only way to do that was through a historical novel, using known facts, but omitting Eurocentric bias. I wanted to bring Pueblo characters to life through plausible fiction, filling the many gaps in the historical record.

As author Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

Like nearly everyone else who wants to know more about the Coronado expedition and its Tiguex War (pronounced TEEwesh), I started with Herbert E. Bolton’s Coronado: Knight of Pueblos and Plains, first published in 1949.

That was a mistake. Bolton’s unwavering Eurocentric favoritism made him an apologist for conquistadors’ excesses. He even did his best to rationalize why expeditionaries burned alive at the stake at least thirty Tiwa captives. Bolton repeatedly held the Spaniards up as gallant, chivalrous, and blameless. He depicted Indians as villainous and inferior.

Archaeological and historical research since 1949 has disproved many of Bolton’s most cherished opinions. I spent the next few years trying to get Bolton’s biased viewpoint with its distortions and assumptions out of my head.

Bolton’s book has been corrected, updated, and superceded by Richard Flint’s No Settlement, No Conquest, published in 2008. Flint’s book is by far the best nonfiction account of the Coronado Expedition.

Early on I also read horseman Pedro de Castañeda’s eyewitness account of the expedition, which included nearly four hundred European men-at-arms and up to two thousand  Mexican Indian allies—mostly warlike Aztecs and Tarascans. There were only fifty to a hundred warriors in a typical Rio Grande pueblo.

Castañeda wrote The Journey of Coronado about twenty years after the expedition. Curiously, Castañeda’s account was less chauvinistic than Bolton’s rewriting four hundred years later. Several times Castañeda questioned Coronado’s judgment and thought his fellow expeditionaries acted more viciously than they should have.

Castañeda made observations about the Puebloans’ clothing, customs, and religion that greatly added to our understanding today of early Puebloan life.

Nevertheless, it was not until I read Flint’s Great Cruelties Have Been Reported that I realized how much Castañeda left out to protect Spanish honor and reputations.

Flint’s 2002 book translated testimonies that expeditionaries gave during Coronado’s trial on charges of war crimes, malfeasance, and the unpardonable conquistador sin—retreating while the Tiwas were still at war.

Besides the stake burnings, expeditionaries testified to many atrocities that Castañeda never mentioned—including multiple rapes, enslavement of women and children, the cutting off of Tiwa men’s noses and hands, and the execution of warriors by the expedition’s vicious war dogs.

The testimonies also revealed that Puebloans waged guerilla warfare against the expedition in the second winter of 1541-42. That encouraged the Keres, Towa, and Tewa pueblos to begin withholding desperately needed food and clothing, forcing Coronado to return to Mexico.

Bolton had known about the testimonies. But he selected only the portions favorable to the Spaniards. He dismissed or ridiculed the rest testified to under oath.

My years of research were spent learning as much as possible about the expedition’s Tiguex War. I turned to more than two hundred sources—some centuries old—looking for even a few words or a sentence about America’s forgotten Indian war.

Numerous contradictory points had to be sorted out and interviews conducted. I made the effort to put myself into the lives of sixteenth-century Puebloans, who faced a technologically advanced enemy and were outnumbered in every battle. But they courageously resisted anyway.

Sunbury Press in Pennsylvania published my manuscript in June after numerous agents and every Southwest publisher I could think of turned it down.

More than one agent admitted that he or she liked my novel but couldn’t think of any New York publisher who would take it on. Meanwhile, the three books so far written ostensibly by Jersey Shores TV star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi are selling well. Thank you, Simon & Schuster.

A prestigious small publisher is much better than self-publishing, but it’s still difficult. I’m resigned that it will take a determined marketing effort of at least a year or, gulp, even more, before many readers who would like such a book come to realize Winter of the Metal People even exists.

The few Puebloans who have seen the book say they appreciate having their people’s early history finally revealed and the many myths of the conquistador version dispelled.

Winter of the Metal People is available at online sites such as sunburypress.com and amazon.com, both in print and as an e-book.

Because visiting every bookstore is not practical, I need to think of imaginative ways to get the word out. Two professors have separately told me Winter of the Metal People should be required reading for UNM freshmen. I have no idea how to pursue that.

Patience, author. Patience. It will take more time. Everyone knows that, unlike history markers, fortune cookies don’t lie.

Dennis Herrick is the author of Winter of the Metal People: The untold story of America’s first Indian war. It is a historical novel about the Coronado expedition to the Albuquerque area in 1540 and the Tiguex War fought against the Puebloans. A former newspaper reporter, editor, and publisher, he is an emeritus member of the journalism faculty at the University of New Mexico.