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Spanish Influence And The Introduction Of Mediterranean Coral Into America

On 23 February 1540 Francisco Vàsques de Coronado set out from Campestola, Mexico, on an expedition that was to have a decisive impact on the life and history of the populations of the American Southwest. The mission of the 600 soldiers and six Franciscan friars was to find the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cibola and to subjugate the local populations and convert them to Catholicism. Although this mission was not achieved, it had such an impact on the native peoples that it brought about profound changes in their way of life and thinking which persisted well beyond the presence of the Spanish in America.

The entrada of the Spaniards in the American territories started on the coast of Mexico and progressed towards the interior of the continent following what came to be known as the Camino Real de tierra adentro. The route made use of the network of roads which the natives had always used in carrying on their exchanges of local products. With the advent of the Europeans this itinerary gradually became a full-blown network of trading and communication between the south and north of the American continent.

As we mentioned above, the Spaniards brought to the New World a series of products and goods which were unknown to the native populations, including sheep, horses, wheat and coral, as well as new crafts and techniques such as metal working. In the accounts of the first Spanish explorers we find frequent mention of the term “coral”. Initially this was taken to mean that the scarlet material was already in use in Mexico and the Southwest prior to the arrival of Columbus. The Franciscan Marcos de Niza, sent by Francisco Vàsques de Coronado to reconnoitre the territory to the north of Sonora19, seems to have been the first to reach what is now New Mexico in about 1539, together with a Moor from North Africa called Estevan20. The friar was hoping to find the riches and marvels recounted by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca concerning the “seven cities of Cibola” 21 , now identified with the sites of the Zuni villages. In his notes we find the first mention of the use of coral among the natives: “… they wore many coral beads found in the Southern Seas and many turquoise beads they had received from the north”22.

Is it not rather strange that men with much weightier matters on their mind should pay attention to the presence of coral? The fact is that in 16th century Europe this material was highly prized. The western rim of the Mediterranean basin and North Africa, where Estevan came from, were the centre for coral fishing and trade, and throughout the 17th century the precious commodity was at the heart of rivalry and alliances between European powers based on its exploitation23. In 1581 another Spaniard, Herman Gallegos, had this to say concerning the expedition led by Rodriguez Chamuscado in New Mexico against the Jumano Indians of the Rio Grande: “…some of the Indians who approached us wore white and coloured coral of a poor quality attached to their noses … when we asked where it came from, they indicated that it came from the sea”24.

We find another mention of the presence of coral among the Zunis in the memoirs of Governatore Juan de Oñate, who was charged by Federico II of Spain with colonising the territories opened up by Francisco Vàsquez de Coronado in 1540. Describing his journey from the Rio Grande to the Rio Colorado in about 1604, Oñate wrote “ … the Yuma Indians …are the ones who bring coral from the sea, calling it “quacame”, …given the considerable distance from the coast they do not have much of it … in the province of the Zunis there is more, and it is bartered. The Zunis say that the Indians of the Valle Señora come and sell it, and they are no more than six days’ march away”25. This observation, like the previous ones, not only records the use of coral but suggests that trading went on between the populations living in the territories of the Rio Grande, who had no access to the sea, and those living along the Gulf of California over a thousand kilometres away.

Nonetheless we have to regard the references to “coral” in 16th and 17th century Spanish accounts with diffidence, for the term is clearly used inappropriately. Corallium Rubrum has never been found in the ornaments found in archaeological sites predating the arrival of Columbus26. In fact this coral species is typical of the Mediterranean and does not grow off the western coast of Mexico nor indeed in the Gulf of California. Thus it seems likely that when the Spaniards spoke of “coral” they meant a material deriving from seashells in different hues of red27 . We know that on the arrival of the Spanish the Pueblo populations wore a large number of ornaments featuring orangey-red discs and beads, but these cannot have been made of red Mediterranean coral. They were almost certainly beads made from shells like the spiny oyster, a bivalve mollusc which is still exploited in Pueblo jewelry (fig. D70065) and is readily available from the Gulf of California down into Ecuador28.

An account by Father Jacopo Sedelmayer of 1746 seems to confirm this hypothesis concerning the true nature of the “coral” used by the Yumas, who adorned themselves “with necklaces of seashells woven together with other coloured shells looking like coral that they fashion and pierce”29.

But if red coral was not available along the coast of central-northern America, how did it become part of native ornaments, as is unquestionably documented by items of jewelry attested by literary and photographic records from the 18th century to the present? Nonetheless we have to regard the references to “coral” in 16th and 17th century Spanish accounts with diffidence, for the term is clearly used inappropriately. Corallium Rubrum has never been found in the ornaments found in archaeological sites predating the arrival of Columbus30. In fact this coral species is typical of the Mediterranean and does not grow off the western coast of Mexico nor indeed in the Gulf of California. Thus it seems likely that when the Spaniards spoke of “coral” they meant a material deriving from seashells in different hues of red31. We know that on the arrival of the Spanish the Pueblo populations wore a large number of ornaments featuring orangey-red discs and beads, but these cannot have been made of red Mediterranean coral. They were almost certainly beads made from shells like the spiny oyster, a bivalve mollusc which is still exploited in Pueblo jewelry (fig. D70065) and is readily available from the Gulf of California down into Ecuador32.

An account by Father Jacopo Sedelmayer of 1746 seems to confirm this hypothesis concerning the true nature of the “coral” used by the Yumas, who adorned themselves “with necklaces of seashells woven together with other coloured shells looking like coral that they fashion and pierce”33. But if red coral was not available along the coast of central-northern America, how did it become part of native ornaments, as is unquestionably documented by items of jewelry attested by literary and photographic records from the 18th century to the present? Gradually Catholic missions were set up along the route of the Camino Real, and in time these became centres of trade and exchange. They also began to host workshops for local handicrafts, which boosted the growth of the churches and communities. Over several decades Indians poured into the missions, which later turned into the famous trading posts where people could congregate and exchange products coming from the north and south of the country.

The missions were supplied with objects of little or no monetary value, such as the crucifixes and medals worn by the missionary friars, brought by the Spaniards as gifts to bestow on acquiescent local chieftains and as a way of entering into relations with new tribes34. There were also objects of more superior craftsmanship such as holy images, altar furnishings and rosaries comprising glass, crystal, jade and coral beads35. All these objects connected with the Catholic cult began to influence the style of ornaments used by the natives. It is quite plausible that the coral brought to America in the form of rosary beads began to be inserted into the ornaments featuring turquoise and seashells in the local tradition.

Evidence bearing this out came from an archaeological expedition in 1975 in the Missions of San Bernardo and San Juan Bautista, on the borders of Mexico and Texas. Various types of ornamental material were found, including thirteen salmon pink coral beads in globular or barrel shapes36. Similar beads were also found on the site of missions in Texas (Rosario Mission in Goliad County) and California (San Jose Mission)37. From the accounts left by the missionaries it seems likely that the beads came from rosaries given to the Indians in the Spanish period38. The beads found in the Rosario Mission can be dated to 1750 – 1780, while those found in California date from some ten years earlier.
While we can only make approximate estimates as to when the natives first handled Corallium Rubrum, it is certain that by the first decades of the 19th century red coral was being imported and used in the Southwest. This is recorded in reports by American officers stationed in New Mexico. In his Three years among the Indians and Mexicans General Thomas S. James had this to say about the San Felipe Pueblos, observed at Santa Fe during a procession celebrating Mexican independence on 6 February 1822: “They were all tastefully dressed in cotton cloth of their own weaving and decorated with coral beads of a brilliant red color. Many wore rich pearl necklaces and jewelry of great value…the red coral was worth one hundred dollars a pound.”39.

Up until the middle of the 19th century we do not know exactly where the Mediterranean coral imported into America came from. It may have been sent from Spain or Italy, having been gathered on the coasts of the central-western Mediterranean40. To date we have no documents concerning direct trade with Italy in the first decades of the 19th century, but the use of coral among the Pueblo undoubtedly anticipated the reality of the importation of coral into America from Italy from the second half of the 19th century to the present, which we shall describe below.

As we have seen, in the 17th century the goods imported into the Southwestern territories included not only rosaries in coral but also silver, bronze and copper medallions, from both the Christian and Moorish traditions in Spain. These elements became part of local ornamentation, taking on a symbolism that had more to do with the local, pre-conquest beliefs than their Christian origins. Typical examples are the Lorraine cross, with its two horizontal bars (figs. D60522, D60523) and the pomegranate (D60524). The former was adopted by the Pueblos, Hopis and Navajos because it recalled the form of the dragonfly, a significant element in their culture because it heralded the period when the maize ripened and of the spring rains, bringers of life. Images of this insect are common in cave paintings and in the decoration of pre-Columbian ceramic ware. For the natives the cross was first and foremost an ornament; they wore it to placate the missionary zeal of the friars, while continuing, often in secret, to honour the beliefs they had held for centuries. We cannot, however, simply affirm that as time went on Indians never viewed the cross in the way the Spaniards intended. Following their conversion, some of the Pueblos wore jewels serving as rosaries made of coral and metal.

The pomegranate was another symbol imported by the Spaniards. They in turn had acquired it from the tradition of the Andalusian Moors, who considered it one of the gifts of Allah symbolising fertility and abundance. After all, the capital of the Andalusian kingdom bore the auspicious name Granada, which is Spanish for “pomegranate”. This shape is still very popular in the jewelry of the Navajos and Zunis. In the “squash blossom” necklaces (figs. D60349, D60360, D60352) it is combined with the upturned crescent, naja, another supreme Islamic symbol which the Native Americans may first have seen adorning the reins of Moorish horses41. All these various symbolic elements, like coral itself, reveal the influence of Spanish and Mediterranean traditions on the native cultures during some three centuries of coexistence.



19Sonora is a state in Northern Mexico, on the borders of Arizona and New Mexico.

20Estevan, also known as “Estevanico” and “black Stephen”, was a Berber born in Azamour, south of Casablanca. Sold in slavery to a Spanish nobleman, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, in 1520, he set sail for the Antilles as part of an expedition to conquer Florida. Following a shipwreck only Estevan, Carranza, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and one other voyager survived. They eventually came across groups of Spanish settlers in Mexico. In 1539 during the expedition with the friar Marco de Niza in search of the “seven cities of Cibola” ordered by Coronado, Estevan was killed by the Zunis. Another version of his disappearance maintains that he fled to live with the Pimas, who worshipped him for his healing skills.

21The Journey of Alvarez Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, translated by Bandalier Fanny, New York, 1905

22Op. cit., p. 156

23See Del Mare C., Russo F., 2005, pp. 11-19

24Gallegos H., Relation, translated by Hammond and Rey, Santa Fe, 1927, p.19

25/p> Hodge F.W., Coral Among Early Southwest Indians, “Masterkey”, vol. XVII, No. 3, May, 1943, p.101; Zarate Salmeron in Bolton, Exploration in the Southwest, New York, 1916, pp.278-79

26Numerous archaeological digs on the sites of San Juan, Pueblo Bonito, Hawikuh and other areas in the Southwest have demonstrated the absence of red Mediterranean coral, Corallium Rubrum, in the period preceding Columbus. See Hodge F.W., 1943, pp.99-102; Woodward A., Notes on Coral in Southwest, “Masterkey”, vol. XXI, No. 1, Jannuary, 1947, pp. 25-26; Tanner, C. Lee. , Coral among Southwestern Indians in “Essay in Anthropology in Honor of Byron Cimmings”, Tucston – Santa Fe, 1950, pp.117-132.

27There is a consensus of opinion that commercial red coral did not grow in the Gulf of California, but only such varieties as sea fan, Muricea Californica, “cup-shaped coral”, Paracyathus Stearnsii, and Scleractinia, white or off-white in colour and porous, which cannot be used for ornaments.

28Tanner, C. Lee, 1950, p.118

29Sedelmayr’s Relatión of 1748, translated and published by Donald L. Ives, Bur. Of Amer. Ethnol., “Anthropologic Papers”, No. 9, Washington, 1939, p.109

30Numerous archaeological digs on the sites of San Juan, Pueblo Bonito, Hawikuh and other areas in the Southwest have demonstrated the absence of red Mediterranean coral, Corallium Rubrum, in the period preceding Columbus. See Hodge F.W., 1943, pp.99-102; Woodward A., Notes on Coral in Southwest, “Masterkey”, vol. XXI, No. 1, Jannuary, 1947, pp. 25-26; Tanner, C. Lee. , Coral among Southwestern Indians in “Essay in Anthropology in Honor of Byron Cimmings”, Tucston – Santa Fe, 1950, pp.117-132.

31There is a consensus of opinion that commercial red coral did not grow in the Gulf of California, but only such varieties as sea fan, Muricea Californica, “cup-shaped coral”, Paracyathus Stearnsii, and Scleractinia, white or off-white in colour and porous, which cannot be used for ornaments.

32Tanner, C. Lee, 1950, p.118

33Sedelmayr’s Relatión of 1748, translated and published by Donald L. Ives, Bur. Of Amer. Ethnol., “Anthropologic Papers”, No. 9, Washington, 1939, p.109

34Bird A., Heart of the Dragonfly: Historical Development of the Cross Necklaces for Pueblo and Navajo Peoples, Albuquerqe, Avanyu Publishing, 1992, p.1

35n the 17th - 19th century in Christian Europe it was customary to make rosary “paternosters” in red coral symbolising the passion and blood of Christ

36Harris R. K., Harris I. M., Hester T.R., A Study of Glass Beads, Coral Beads, and Bead Spacers from San Juan Bautista and San Bernardo Missions, Guerrero, Coahuila, Mexico, in “Bulletin of the Texas Archeological Society”, Volume 70/1999, p. 390

37Harris R. K., Harris I. M., Glass Beads.In Mission Rosario Archeological Investigation 1973, Archeological Report 14, Pt.1, Texas Park and Wildlife Department, Austin. 1974, p. 71

38Harris R. K., Harris I. M., Hester T.R., 1999, pp. 392-393

39James T.S., Three Years Among the Indian and Mexicans, Watterloo, 1846, reprinted Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, 1916, p. 143

40See Del Mare C., Russo F., 2005, pp. 11-19; Liverino B., Il corallo dalle origini ai nostri giorni, Ed. Arte Tipografica, Napoli, 1998, pp. 233-235

41Tisdale S., Fine Indian Jewelry of the Southwest, Santa Fe, 2006, p. 60

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