Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1982


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 2, No. 3, Summer 1982, pp. 146-56.


Copyright 1982 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The first European who traveled on the Great Plains was Alvar Nuiiez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spaniard who lost his way as he wandered through the southern plains about 1534. Culturally conditioned to value a varied landscape, he later complained, "We nowhere saw mountains." Several years later another Spaniard, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, traveled into the plains looking for gold but found only grass and bison. What is now Kansas was like nowhere else he had ever been. He was vexed to find that the only way he could keep his party together was by marking the way with piles of sun-bleached bones and buffalo dung. Coronado and his men thus began a process of adapting their European ways to the conditions they found on the prairie-plains; they were creating human landmarks in a region that had been without them. Moreover, the records they left began a parallel process: by providing the first descriptions of and reactions to the landscape, they recorded how the first Europeans felt upon finding themselves in a region without landmarks. Pedro de Castaneda, who wrote the most extensive account of the Coronado expedition, clearly shared his commander's frustration over the plains landscape. His feelings are evident in the style, emphasis, and tone of his Narrative. The plains of Kansas modified his previous assumptions, and the experience had a marked effect on Castaneda's descriptions.

Castaneda is an early example of a writer who adapted his techniques to accommodate the North American prairie-plains landscape. By looking at the writings of the region in historical perspective, and so considering explorers' accounts, fur-traders' journals, and travel narratives as precursors of prairie-plains fiction, one may argue that authorial technique has been to a high degree affected, and at times directed, by the landscape. Just as Castaiieda was both impressed and troubled by the vastness of what is today Kansas and its lack of landmarks, writers of fiction have been similarly influenced by the same landscape. Within exploration and travel accounts, it is possible to isolate reactions and motifs that are directly attributable to the landscape itself. Fiction writers later made imaginative use of these same kinds of reactions as a means of defining setting and conveying the experience of the plains landscape.


The absence of usual European landmarks on the plains draws considerable attention from Castaneda: "It was impossible to find tracks in this country, because the grass straightened up again as soon as it was trodden down.,,2 Later in the Narrative he returns to this theme and exclaims,

Who could believe that 1,000 horses and 500 of our cows and more than 5,000 rams and ewes and more than 1,500 friendly Indians and servants, in travelling over these plains, would leave no more trace where they had passed than if nothing had been therenothing- so that it was necessary to make piles of bones and cow-dung now and then, so that the rear guard could follow the army. The grass never failed to become erect after it had been trodden down and, although it was short, it was fresh and straight as before. [Pp. 381-82]

The effect of the landscape on Castaneda is evident in his description; he has exaggerated the size of Coronado's party so as to emphasize the land's strangeness, and his rhetoric emphasizes the effect of the landscape upon his imagination: the question "who could believe," and his repetition of "nothing" reflect his amazement. Coronado, in a letter to the king, remarks that the land offers "no more landmarks than if we had been swallowed up by the sea," and Castaneda describes the practical effect of the land on the expedition:

Many fellows were lost at this time who went out hunting and did not get back to the army for two or three days, wandering about the country as if they were crazy, in one direction or another, not knowing how to get back where they started from .... It is worth noting that the country here is so level that at midday, after one has wandered about in one direction and another in pursuit of game, the only thing to do is to stay near the game quietly until sunset, so as to see where it goes down, and even then they have to be men who are practised to do it. [Po 336]

Castaneda seems to have had the greatest difficulty in seeing and imagining the apparent absence of distinguishing features in the plains landscape. Thus, when he wrote his Narrative some twenty-five years after his return from the plains, his tone is still one of amazement, an attitude that is most evident when he describes bison grazing in the midst of the plains:

The country they [the bison] travelled over was so level and smooth that if one looked at them the sky could be seen between their legs, so that if some of them were at a distance they looked like smooth-trunked pines whose tops were joined, and if there was only one bull it looked as if there were four pines. When one was near them, it was impossible to see the ground on the other side of them. The reason for an this was that the country seemed as round as if a man should imagine himself in a three-pint measure, and could see the sky at the edge of it, about a crossbow shot from him, and even if a man only lay down on his back he lost sight of the ground. [Pp. 383-84]

Castaneda seldom uses metaphor in his Narrative, yet this passage is filled with vivid comparisons. Apparently he was trying to find a way to make his subject clear to readers who had never seen such a landscape and might have had difficulty imagining one. It is not surprising that Castaneda's metaphors are European in origin; what is remarkable is their singularity within the Narrative as a whole. Because of his reaction to the plains landscape-a country of round flatness offering almost no perspectiveCastaneda appears to have been compelled to use metaphor; his writing shows that he was perplexed by a landscape that offered both an unlimited line of sight and a horizon line that appeared "a crossbow shot" away.