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Cannons rewriting history of Coronado/native peoples

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Cannons rewriting history of Coronado/native peoples

Hobbsan helping to share that history

Levi Hill/News-Sun

The history books are unwavering in their declaration of the path Francisco Vázquez de Coronado took into North America in 1540 on his 2,500-person quest for Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold.

But the history books are wrong.

Historians don’t accept rewrites of history easily and so it may be some time before school curriculums reflect the new information, but archeologist Deni Seymour has not only found several of the oldest artillery pieces made in the Americas, but the oldest North American European settlement in the Southwest and is mapping out Coronado’s actual route through Arizona into northern New Mexico.

A trifecta of cannons recently discovered in Arizona are the crux of the discoveries and thanks to help from a Lea County foundation, models of those cannons will soon once again boom over the desert southwest for the first time in nearly 500 years.

How it began

This major rewrite of not only Spanish and American history but the history of the Sobaipuri-O’odham peoples of southern Arizona began as many discoveries do — with a spark.

“I’ve been interested in history my entire life,” Seymour said, adding that school lessons as a child ignited an interest in Coronado and his expedition. “I have always been interested and always curious about where he went. Because I grew up here in the West.”

Coronado’s path through the Americas has long been one of the greatest mysteries of the Southwest.

Sure, historians thought they knew exactly where Coronado ventured from the historical documents found in Mexico City and Spain. But no evidence had ever been found where historians thought the archival evidence pointed.

That’s because the reading of the archival evidence was wrong and the accidental discovery of a single, tiny artifact ignited a wildfire.

“I was studying the later Spanish colonial era, but I would look for Coronado from time to time,” Seymour said. “About 25 years ago I found an artifact in a site I was digging. It was a jingle-bob on a stirrup like those found in Texas.”

Seymour thought she knew what she had, but wasn’t sure and as she reached out into the archeological community, she found there were precious few artifacts from Coronado’s era of the mid-1500s that had been documented.

It wasn’t they hadn’t been found, but instead they were being mis-identified to a later era of Spanish occupation in the late 1700s.

This set her on a path to learn all she could about Coronado-era artifacts and practically rewrite the book on them. It also gave her the knowledge to know what she was looking at the day in southern Arizona when she picked up a small metal artifact.

The first find

“I knew it was Coronado immediately,” she said of the carrot-head horseshoe nail.

But it shouldn’t be there … not 60 miles west of what historians avowed was Coronado’s route into the Americas.

Seymour recorded the find and that night unrolled a map of Arizona alongside copies of the historical documents.

Looking at the clues in the writings and where the horseshoe nail was discovered she made a guess where she could find more Coronado artifacts … a place he would surely have camped on his journey.

“Within two hours we had evidence. We had another distinctive nail,” she said.

In short order Seymour and her team turned up more nails, distinctive crossbow bolt heads from the Coronado era and evidence of a what she thought was a campsite, but it turned out to be so much more.

“We thought we just had a campsite. One site along the trail and I was excited as ever,” she said.

More excavations of the site proved the find was no campsite but a full-fledged village.

“It is in the wrong river valley,” Seymour said of the site’s location. “It is supposed to be in the San Pedro River valley, 60 miles to the east. But it turns out it is 60 miles west in the Santa Cruz River Valley.”

Through an examination of the historical documents Seymour and her team were able to conclude the site is none other than San Geronimo III — the third of three towns Coronado’s expedition established to try to get a foothold in the Americas.

Each town was established, failed and moved further north as the expedition advanced. San Geronimo II was located in the state of Sonora, Mexico. San Geronimo III, established in about June 1541, outdates many famous early American settlements.

“It was the earliest European settlement in the American Southwest and third in the nation. It is earlier than Roanoke and Jamestown,” Seymour said. “There are two other Spanish ones that are earlier that have not been found.”

The town was established by about 40 of Coronado’s horsemen, along with their squires, slaves and perhaps family members, left behind as the caravan continued on north.

The total population of San Geronimo III was likely some 200-400 people.

A cannon emerges

As the archeologists began unearthing the long-lost village, dozens of amazing finds were discovered. Horseshoe nails, musket balls and hundreds of fascinating artifacts dating back to the Coronado era came to the surface.

Then, one day, while excavating a collapsed structure buried beneath nearly 500 years of sand, up came a cannon.

The design of the small cannon, called a “hackbut” by some, or a versillos, is from the mid-to-late 1400s, and it was practically obsolete when the expedition started.

It is a rampart or wall gun, wherein the right-angle hook on the bottom of the barrel was placed on the off side of a rampart wall to take up the recoil when fired.

The find stunned Seymour and her team — and send shockwaves through the archeological world.

In 2023, American Rifleman magazine ran a story, “A Conquistador’s Cannon Unearthed,” Seymour and a partner had put together on the find.

The cannon, the oldest firearm ever found in the continental United States, and possibly the oldest-known firearm produced in the New World, was used to fire a spread of projectiles like a shotgun upwards of 100 yards to push back attacking Indian forces.

Former Lea County Western Heritage Museum Director Calvin Smith was contacted by Seymour and invited to view the discovery.

“I have handled hundreds of thousands of artifacts in my time, but that was one of the most inspiring and finest pieces I’ve ever held,” Smith said of the cannon.

In terms of archeological finds, the cannon was much like finding the Holy Grail.

Seymour said x-ray scans of the 42-inch-long, 7-gauge smooth bore, 40-pound cannon strongly suggests it was cast in Mexico and was quite likely one made two decades earlier by Conquistador Hernán Cortés.

In 1519, when Cortes landed in the “New World” he burned his ships, sending a message to his 600 men that turning back was not an option.

Seymour’s team believes the cannon may be one of 60 made from metals taken from the burned ships.

“It is different than, for example, copper items or bronze cast in Spain,” Seymour said. “It is similar to crossbow bolt heads made in the Americas as opposed to Spain. There is no way in the world a foundry in Spain would have let one of these out of their doors as crude and unfinished as it was.”

More cannons?

The discovery of the cannon was so monumental Seymour kept the find fairly secret until the providence of it could be authenticated. When she finally did bring it to the public’s eye something amazing happened.

“After we found the first one, I waited quite some time and gave the big reveal we had found Coronado and took a poster of (the cannon) and held it up and a couple people in the audience had found one 13 years before and thought it was old mining equipment,” Seymour said.

The discoverers of that cannon lead Seymour to it and now with two cannons located and four listed in the historical documents as having been taken to what would become the Albuquerque area, Seymour became curious about what else might be at the San Geronimo III site.

“There is more stuff there than expected,” she said. “It is clear a pitched battle took place.”

Seymour’s team returned to the site and in March made another monumental discovery — a third cannon.

Unlike the first cannon, which appears to have been unused in the battle when the Sobaipuri-O’odham Indians destroyed the town and killed the inhabitants, this cannon had clearly been used in the battle.

“It was definitely used in the battle,” Seymour said. “It blew up.”

Possibly overcharged with powder by a soldier on the verge of being overran by enemy forces, the cannon breached along one side, exploding, likely destroying the structure it was fired from and possibly killing the Spaniard, or at the very least wounding him so severely he was then clubbed to death.

None of the three cannons were particularly well made, but this third one had an extremely off-centered bore with one wall of the barrel being much thinner, likely contributing to its malfunction.

Monumental discovery

From the find of San Geronimo III and the previous horseshoe nail, Seymour was able to plot a projected path for Coronado’s expedition.

Through trial and error she has mapped out a total of 11 campsites along his trail with a possible twelfth awaiting confirmation.

She has also discovered locations indicating there were offshoot legs from the main expedition where small parties were likely sent to explore for better routes or survey areas along the main route and more sites are being discovered all the time.

One such “foray” route goes directly east toward New Mexico and it is very possible that as Seymour plots out her points that a Coronado expedition site may soon be found in New Mexico’s Bootheel region, or possibly further north in the Gila.

News of these monumental discoveries has generated some interest, but not nearly enough in Seymour’s mind.

“I realized this find was bigger than myself and bigger than an academic paper or two,” Seymour said.

As such she was able to raise enough funds to film the first episode of a series on the discoveries titled “Coronado: The New Evidence,” which will begin showing on PBS stations Aug. 3.

The episode has premiered as an independent film in film festivals in Australia and the U.S. and locally in Arizona, multiple showings of it have been sold out, Seymour said.

“We are changing history, and when I speak to students, they think history is set and we know everything, but there is a lot we don’t know,” she said. “There is still a lot to be discovered and learned.”

These finds don’t just give historians a new map of Coronado’s expedition. They rewrite a lot of the Southwest’s history, Seymour said.

“Another reason this is super important, is we now know this relates to the Sobaipuri-O’odham Indians,” she said, adding historians thought it was the Ópata tribe Coronado encountered. “This opens up the history of the Sobaipuri-O’odham people. They are learning their own heritage and history and gaining community pride. They weren’t passive and docile natives like history suggests. They fought back and were the earliest to do so and do so successfully.”

The Sobaipuri-O’odham likely attacked San Geronimo III in October or November 1541, just a few short months after the town was established. It did not take them long to grow weary under the yolk of Spanish abuses, including the Europeans taking their wives and daughters as sex slaves, stealing their food and lopping off their noses, tongues and hands for minor offenses.

Many of the town’s population were killed, and the survivors were forced to flee.

One historical account suggests that the battle was over quickly, with the natives surprising the Spanish in the early morning, implying that many were killed in their beds.

One account says that only six Spaniards survived the attack, aided by a priest who fiercely defended others with a broadsword during the chaos.

These survivors fled the town, marking the first time that American Indians defeated and totally routed the Spanish in North America. Indeed, no European expeditions came back to southern Arizona for about 140 years.

Making more cannons

Seymour began looking for a way to fund another film and spread the wealth of the discoveries with museums around the Southwest.

The cannons were a natural choice, being such monumental finds. But how do you share three cannons with a dozen museums?

The answer came like lightning — you make new ones.

While talking with Smith about the discoveries, Seymour mentioned she was interested in building a replica cannon. Smith immediately knew exactly how to get that done.

“I am here at Trinidad (State College) and I knew the dean of the school real well,” Smith said, adding the school is known nationally for its gunsmithing program. “When I told him about this cannon, I think he peed in his pants. He was excited.”

Smith said the dean of the college was all on board for building working replicas of the cannons through the school’s gunsmithing program, but building a cannon isn’t cheap.

How would it funded?

Enter Hobbsan Glen Houston. The long-time Lea County oilman and his wife established the America West Foundation, contributing, among many other things, a 20,000 piece collection of arrowheads and artifacts to the Spindletop-Gladys City Boomtown Museum in Beaumont, Texas.

Smith said Houston’s foundation has helped him in every museum project he’s worked on. He thought Houston would be excited to be a part of the cannon project.

He wasn’t wrong.

Houston jumped at the idea, visiting the San Geronimo III site in person and pushing the foundation’s board of directors to help fund the construction of three cannons at a cost of $2,500 each.

“This is really and truly the history of the United States,” Houston said. “I think it is important that we accommodate Dr. Seymore. She is going to give a cannon to the museum where she found the cannon. We will distribute the others out.”

That first cannon might be going to the museum near the San Geronimo III site, but not before Seymour hears it go “boom.”

“I would never fire the original, but we are going to fire one of these and I can’t wait,” she said giddily. “Everyone I know is dying to hear what this is going to sound like.”

There is no timeframe yet for the completion of the replica cannons as the wheels of the endeavor have just started turning.

In the meantime, Seymour continues to battle the staggering Arizona desert heat with forays of her own back to San Geronimo III and on to other potential Coronado sites to continue to put together a more complete picture of a history long thought to be fully understood.

“The artifacts we are finding and the place we are finding them is a way for the public to connect to the past and even the natives are really enjoying driving value from holding the cannon, seeing it, putting on our replicated chainmail and helmets and getting a sense of what their ancestors might have done,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to rewriting the history correctly is the amount of artifacts that are being lost.

Seymour said she has photos of another horseshoe nail found by a rancher that could further help map out Coronado’s route, but the discoverer won’t divulge where the nail was found.

“They won’t tell us where they found it and won’t admit they have it. They think they will get into trouble,” she said. “But this may be the only Coronado artifact for 50 miles and if someone picks that one up and we don’t record it, the whole trail may be lost forever.”

The archaeological efforts by Seymour and her team are privately funded with no grants from universities.

To support the excavation and the search, or the film (specify which), tax-deductible donations are accepted at: Arizona Coronado Project (You must specify this project). Old Pueblo Archaeology Center, P.O. Box 40577, Tucson, AZ 85717-0577.

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