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The Spanish explorers and conquistadors who followed in the footsteps of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca had dreams of gold, of cities full of gold: enough gold to fund Spain’s far-­flung empire for years, enough to build Christian missions in the vast wilderness, enough to finance Spanish armies and navies. Cabeza de Vaca himself had not seen the fabled Las Siete Cuidades Doradas de Cibola (Seven Cities of Gold). Indeed, what the Spanish explorer had seen in eight years of wandering after being shipwrecked in Florida in 1528 was a land rich in mosquitoes and hostile inhabitants rather than precious metals.

Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions were probably the first Europeans to explore the deserts of the North American Southwest, passing through what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. The Spaniards eventually gained the trust of the natives as they undertook to heal some of the sick they encountered by invoking their faith and praying over the patients. “Our fame,” he wrote, “spread throughout the area, and all the Indians who heard about it came looking for us so that we could cure them and bless their children.”

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