Kansas – what do you think of? Wheat? Covered wagons? College basketball (RCJH!)? Tornadoes and Aunti Em hollering “Dooorthy!”? How about gold? How about Spanish Conquistadors looking for a whole city of gold……in KS. Nutty, huh.
But that’s what we encountered one spring afternoon on a causal ride, after unhitching the trailer near the humble prairie town of Council Grove. While tooling along a rural dirt road admiring the soft rolling grasslands of the Flint Hills, we spotted a rather large cross on a hill in the distance. Not completely out of the norm – this was God’s country after all, but the placement seemed odd. We were miles from any sign of human life. I was pretty sure the cows hadn’t put it up. The sign explained it – Father Juan de Padilla, killed by the local Indians in 1542. He was part of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition to colonize New Mexico in 1540. A side trip looking for ‘Quivira’, the city of gold, landed them smack dab in the center of future Kansas. The gold story was created by an Indian captive that just wanted to make it back home. Sadly the Spaniards didn’t have the same love of the land, and killed their captive when the gold failed to glitter in the gently sloped treeless hills.
Coronado’s band moved on towards NM, but Father Juan found his way back to the area the following year after walking nearly a 1,000 miles. His missionary work ended with his life that same year at the hands of the locals. He is considered one of the first Christian martyrs in the U.S.
Oddly enough, this event was jarred from my memory after re-watching Dances With Wolves recently – a scene near the end where Kevin Costner’s Lakota Sioux pull out a Spanish morion (helmet).