The Legend of El Dorado
Around 1541, less than half a century after Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas, rumors began to spread among European explorers in South America that somewhere in the hinterland of the vast continent lay a fabulous golden kingdom with riches far greater even than the great treasures of gold and silver Hernan Cortés and Francisco Pizarro had been able to extract from the Aztec and Incan empires of Mexico and Peru during the 1520s and 1530s. For the remainder of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Spanish, German, and English soldiers of fortune led expeditions through the jungles and mountains of South America, each hoping to be the first to find and conquer “El Dorado” (The Golden One), an Indian chief so rich that he clothed himself only with gold dust. All the expeditions failed, none able to find a golden chief, his wondrous kingdom, or a lake holding the great quantities of golden offerings which the legend promised. Today the legend of El Dorado is largely regarded as an unfortunate myth, a symbol of the greed that spurred Spanish conquistadors and other European explorers to conquer the land and aboriginal peoples of South America in their mad search for precious metals and easy wealth.
There is some debate among historians concerning the exact origin of the legend of El Dorado. The Spanish conquistadors Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada and Sebastián Benalcázar as well as the German explorer Nicolaus Federmann each claimed in their memoirs to have been searching for El Dorado when they converged near present-day Bogatá in the late 1530s; however, the first written description of the legend comes from the Spanish historian Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, who wrote in 1541 in his Historia General y Natural de las Indias, Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano of a story he had heard from the Muisca Indians of Columbia telling of a native leader who each morning had gold dust applied to his entire body, which he washed off each night before sleeping. Although de Oviedo could not confirm the veracity of this story of the chief he dubbed “El Dorado,” he reasoned that it was certainly plausible, considering the enormous quantities of gold that had been found in the previous two decades in Mexico and Peru. The following year another historian, Pedro de Cieza de León, recorded a variation of the El Dorado legend based on stories an expedition led by Gonzalo Pizarro had heard from the Quijos Indians. They told of a valley east of the Andes Mountains, where gold was so plentiful that natives commonly wore the metal as ornaments. The legend took on further dimensions in 1589, when Juan de Castellanos published his Elejias de Varones Ilustres de Indias, which claimed that Benalcázar had been told by a native of Bogatá of an Indian chief who regularly performed a sacred ceremony in which he threw golden treasures to the bottom of a lake. Subsequent seventeenth-century Spanish accounts, including Fray Pedro Simón's 1627 Noticias Historiales de las Conquistas de Tierra Firme en las Indias Occidentales and Juan Rodríguez Fresle's 1636 El Carnero de Bogatá: Conquista y descubrimiento del Nuevo Reino de Grenada continued to elaborate the association of El Dorado with a ceremony involving a lake, most commonly identified as Lake Guatavita, a circular lake near the highlands of Bogatá. Twice in the sixteenth century and again in 1801 and 1898, Spanish, French, and British treasure hunters attempted to drain Lake Guatavita in hopes of finding great treasures at the bottom of the lake; besides a few tantalizing finds, these attempts always ended in bankruptcy.
For much of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, lured on by the many variations of the legend, numerous expeditions marched over the high mountains and vast jungles of South America, each hoping to be the first to lay claim to the riches of El Dorado. Gonzalo Pizarro, Gonzalo Pérez de Quesada, Pedro de Ursúa, Pedro Maraver de Silva, and Antonio de Berrío led some of the most famous Spanish explorations for the legendary kingdom, nearly all ending in disaster as countless men died as the result of disease, hunger, and clashes with hostile natives. Spaniards, of course, were not the only Europeans who hungered to find El Dorado. The Germans Philip von Hutten and Nicolaus Federmann each vainly sought after El Dorado, as did the English explorer, Sir Walter Raleigh, whose 1595 Discoverie of the large, rich, and beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the Great and Golden Citie of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado) and 1618 Sir Walter Raghleys Large Appologie for the ill successe of his enterprise to Guiana are among the few first-hand accounts published in English that expound the legend of El Dorado. Like so many of the Spanish and German explorers before him, Raleigh's attempt to locate El Dorado cost him his life; he was executed in 1618 after a second unsuccessful voyage to Guiana in search of the land of gold yielded little.
Today it can be difficult to comprehend why European explorers would have believed that El Dorado could exist in any of its variations, either as an Indian chief who covered his body with gold each day, as a ceremonial lake into which gold was thrown in religious or political ceremonies, or as a vast kingdom where gold was so common that it was used as ordinary jewelry and even to construct houses. By and large, historians have led the examination of the legend of El Dorado, usually focusing on the hardships encountered by the various expeditions that attempted to find the location of the Indian chief and his fabulous kingdom. These historians have attempted to rationalize that search in several ways, both by reminding modern readers that after the tons of gold and silver which Spaniards found in Mexico and Peru in the first decades after the European discovery of the New World, it was not unreasonable to assume that more great civilizations would be found which collected the metals so valued in Europe, and by demonstrating that there is some reason to believe that the stories which led to the legend of El Dorado may have had some slight basis in fact, which was exaggerated in the legend. Literary criticism of the explorers' accounts tends to focus on the influence of traditional stories of gold—from Biblical tales of golden cities to the Greek myth of Jason and the golden fleece—which may have led Europeans to believe that a real Golden city as well as a New Golden Age could be found deep in the interior of the South American continent.