Coronado’s Giant Discoveries
Across the continent, at the same time that De Soto was blazing his famous trail, an expedition led by Coronado searched for the fabulously rich “Seven Cities of Cibola.” Near Mexico’s present-day border with California and Arizona they ran into several tribes of Indian giants. Starting out from Mexico City with some three hundred Spaniards and eight hundred native Indians, the Coronado expedition marched west to the Pacific Ocean. Then turning north-ward, they ascended the coast through regions that later became known as Sinaloa and Sonora. While this march was underway, Hemando de Alarcon set sail with two ships up the coast, transporting the baggage and supplies for the soldiers. The original plan called for Alarcon and the army to keep in frequent touch and to rendezvous at suitable harbors along the coast. So when the army reached the province of Senora, a force under Don Rodrigo Maldonado set out to find the harbor and scan the horizon for Alarcon’s ships. Maldonado sighted no ships, but he did return with an Indian who stood so tall as to astonish the Spaniards. Pedro de Castaneda, who accompanied Coronado and later wrote the most complete and factual history of the expedition, records this unusual event as follows: “Don Rodrigo Maldonado, who was captain of those who went in search of the ships, did not find them, but he brought back with him an Indian so large and tall that the best man in the army reached only to his chest. It was said that other Indians were even taller on the coast.”8 This giant evidently belonged to the Seri. This great Indian tribe occupied the island of Tiburon and the adjacent Sonora coast on the Gulf of California. Historians testify to their tall stature.
Soon after this, while still trying to establish contact with Alarcon, Captain Melchior Diaz came across another tribe of giants. Taking twenty-five of his “most efficient men” and some guides, Diaz struck out toward the north and west in search of the seacoast and the ships. “After going about 150 leagues,” reports Castaneda, “they came to a province of exceedingly tall and strong men–like giants ” Evidently, these were the Cocopa, a Yuman tribe. According to Castaneda, these huge Indians went about mostly naked. “They . . . live,” he adds, “in large straw cabins built underground like smoke houses, with only the straw roof above ground. They enter these at one end and come out at the other. More than a hundred persons, old and young, sleep in one cabin. When they carry anything, they can take a load of more than three or four hundredweight on their heads. Once when our men wished to fetch a log for the fire, and six men were unable to carry it, one of these Indians is reported to have come and raised it in his arms, put it on his head alone, and carried it very easily.”
While among these Cocopas, the captain learned that ships had been seen at a point three days down toward the sea. But when Diaz’ finally reached this place, he saw no sign of a sail, even to the distant horizon. On a tree near the shore, however, his party found this written message: “Alarcon reached this place; there are letters at the foot of this tree.” Diaz dug up the letters and learned from them how long Alarcon had waited for news of the army and that he had gone back with the ships to New Spain, i.e., Mexico.9
But on his way back Alarcon changed his mind–and thus became the discoverer of the Colorado River giants. Sailing into the port of Culiacan, he came unexpectedly upon the San Gabriel, loaded with provisions for Coronado. This chance meeting with the San Gabriel probably figured in Alarc6n’s decision to resume efforts to locate the explorer’s party. At any rate, he added this third ship to his fleet and continued up the coast. They sailed the Gulf of California until they entered the shallows near the head of the gulf. After hazarding the murky shoals there and almost losing all three ships, he and his crew reached the mouth of the Colorado River. Dropping anchor here, Alarcon and his exploratory party launched two boats against the river’s furious current. “Thus began,” writes historian Herbert Eugene Bolton, “the historic first voyage by Europeans up the Colorado River among the tall Yuman peoples who lived along its banks on either side.”10
A piece up the river Alarcon and his men came upon their first settlement. About two hundred and fifty giant Cocopa warriors stood on the banks, ready to attack them. But the captain, by making signs of peace and offering gifts, won them over. Further upstream more than a thousand giant Indians appeared with bows and arrows, but Alarcon knew they intended them no harm because their women and children accompanied them. These Cocopas he described as “large and well formed, without being corpulent. Some have their noses pierced, and from them hang pendants, while others wear shells. . . . All of them, big and little, wear a multi-colored sash about the waist; and tied in the middle, a round bundle of feathers hanging down like a tail…. Their bodies are branded by fire; their hair is banged in front, but in the back it hangs to the waist.” The women, meanwhile, “go about naked, except that, tied in front and behind, they wear large bunches of feathers.”11