Finn J.D. John

Offbeat Oregon History

In the late 1530s, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza of the Spanish colony of Mexico started hearing rumors of a string of rich, gold-encrusted cities far to the north.

Of course, no 1500s Spanish colonial administrator would ever ignore rumors of more wealthy natives to rob and kill, so Mendoza dispatched a scouting party to see what could be learned about these “Seven Cities of Cibola.”

When the party returned, they hadn’t actually seen anything of interest, but they’d heard plenty.

“I found a man born in Cibola,” the emissary, Fray (Friar) Marcos de Niza, wrote in his report to the governor. “He told me that Cibola was a great city, inhabited by a great store of people...He says that the houses are of lime and stone...and that the gates and small pillars of the principal houses are of turquoise, and all the vessels wherein they are served, and the other ornaments of their houses, were of gold: and the other six cities are like unto this, whereof some are bigger.”

Well, this was most exciting, and Mendoza lost very little time in arranging for an expedition to find and conquer these seven golden cities.

To do this, he partnered up with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the governor of the “Kingdom of New Galicia” (a large patch of coastal south-central Mexico, including modern-day Aguascalientes and Jalisco) to outfit an expedition. Coronado would lead it personally, and both he and Mendoza invested a great deal of their own money into it.

It set forth in 1540.

The expedition was not a success. On the great plains near Kansas and Oklahoma, Coronado found what he assumed was the “Great Limestone-and-Turquoise City” of Cibola, and found that it was in reality a collection of grass huts occupied by a population of regular, hard-working, non-gold-having Native Americans.

But when he arrived, he soon started hearing rumors of another city, off to the east, that was even shinier and more golden than Cibola: The marvelous sunset city of Quivira.

Not yet having figured out that the natives were simply trying to get rid of them, Coronado set forth in quest of this new store of plunder, following a Native American guide he called “El Turco” because he looked vaguely Turkish.

Later he was told that Quivira was not to the east, but to the north, so Coronado sent most of his army back and, with about 30 men and El Turco, headed out in the general direction of Kansas.

Eventually Coronado found an Indian village that he could call Quivira, whereupon he declared victory and marched home, considerably poorer in purse. And after that, Quivira started appearing on maps.

And this is where things get interesting. Because the legends of Quivira that were fed to Coronado indicated that it was a seaport town, close by a great river two miles wide, full of fish the size of horses.

Well, Kansas is not exactly richly endowed with seaports; nor does such a river exist there. But transplant Quivira to the West Coast, and it starts to sound a lot like the Columbia River and its sturgeon fishery.

So as the West Coast started getting explored, mapmakers started including Quivira on it. Generally they tended to put it right around 42 degrees north latitude — right on or slightly north of today’s Oregon-California border.

Of course, today this seems pretty ridiculous. But those early mapmakers, working with the anecdotal reports of various explorers, had no idea how much real estate there was between Kansas and Oregon. And there must have been some skepticism on the subject of whether the dumpy little village found by Coronado was really the Quivira. Perhaps there were two? Or perhaps Coronado was covering up some secret knowledge that he hoped to exploit later, without having to share it with dozens of big-mouthed soldiers?

So Quivira lived on in dozens of maps drawn in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As late as 1750 — just three decades before the American revolution — it was still being included.

Sir Francis Drake, on his famous voyage around the world that may actually have included a stopover in an Oregon bay (“Nova Albion”), had at least one such map in his possession, and surely was keeping an eye out for signs of Quivira.

He never saw any, of course. The Oregon Coast at that time was a wilderness. The closest it had to cities were communities of itinerant Native Americans living in portable or makeshift structures.

But had it always been so? Was it possible that the city of Quivira was, at one time, real? Did it stand there, on the edge of a little bay just north of Cape Blanco, thriving around the time Rome fell?

And did something then happen — perhaps the 300-year Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake and tsunami — to close off the mouth of its bay and crush its walls into heaps of rubble and cover them with soil, leaving only a handful of odd-looking mounds and a string of legends to mark what once had been?

Legends, perhaps, of a golden city trimmed with turquoise, passed back and forth among its survivors’ descendants until the chance came to use them to lead a gang of rapacious steel-clad Spanish thugs astray?

This is all pure speculation, of course — more, it’s romantic tale-spinning of the kind one usually finds in pulp-fiction magazine stories about Atlantis and Lemuria. But there is a wisp of supporting evidence for such a theory:

On Sept. 8, 1881, the Port Orford Post printed a very curious article. “There have recently been discovered near Floras (Lake) in this county, what appear to be the ruins of an ancient city, built of cut stone,” the article states. “The site of the numerous buildings of the ages gone by are indicated by mounds, in and under which, by making excavations, are found masses of cut stone, bearing quite plainly the marks of the stone cutter’s chisel, and lying as if the wall had tumbled down.

“These relics of ancient masonry were first unearthed to view by the storm uprooting a large tree which had grown up on one of these mound-like elevations. Thus the blocks of sand stone were exposed to view, and thus curiosity excited which led to the prospecting of other mounds (of which there are many) in the same locality, in all of which the phenomena were present. Further explorations will be made with a view to throwing more light if possible on this curious spectacle.

“We shall visit and personally inspect these alleged ‘ruins’ at no distant day, when we hope to be able to give a detailed description of the ‘town’ and its immediate surrounding,” the article concludes.

But historian Bill Wallace has found no sign of a follow-up to this story. It just seems to disappear.

Was it a mistake? A rumor started by a troublemaker? Most likely, it is something like that.

But there is always the possibility — a remote and unlikely possibility, but a possibility nonetheless — that the broken bones of a lost civilization lie buried beneath the loam and sod between Port Orford and Bandon, waiting even yet to be rediscovered.

(Sources: Bright, Verne. “Quivira, a Legendary City of the Northwest Coast,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, June 1951; Wallace, Bill. “The Lost City,” Curry Historical Society, Gold Beach, Ore.: curryhistory.org)

— Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: finn2@offbeatoregon.com or 541-357-2222.

19870059