The Legend of El Dorado
El Dorado was a mythical city supposedly located somewhere in the unexplored interior of South America. El Dorado was allegedly unimaginably rich, with fanciful tales told of gold-paved streets, golden temples and rich mines of gold and silver. Between 1530 and 1650 or so, thousands of Europeans searched the jungles, plains, mountains and rivers of South America for El Dorado, many of them losing their lives in the process. El Dorado never existed except in the fevered imaginations of these seekers, so it was never found.
Aztec and Inca Gold
The El Dorado myth had its roots in the vast fortunes discovered in Mexico and Peru. In 1519, Hernán Cortes captured Emperor Montezuma and sacked the mighty Aztec Empire, making off with thousands of pounds of gold and silver and making rich men of the conquistadors who were with him. In 1533, Francisco Pizarro discovered the Inca Empire in the Andes of South America. Taking a page from Cortes' book, Pizarro captured the Inca Emperor Atahualpa and held him for ransom, earning another fortune in the process. Lesser New World cultures such as the Maya in Central America and the Muisca in present-day Colombia yielded smaller (but still significant) treasures.
The Seekers of El Dorado
Tales of these fortunes made the rounds in Europe and soon thousands of adventurers from all over Europe were making their way to the New World, hoping to be part of the next expedition. Most (but not all) of them were Spanish. These adventurers had little or no personal fortune but great ambition: most had some experience fighting in Europe's many wars. They were violent, ruthless men who had nothing to lose: they would get rich on New World gold or die trying. Soon the ports were flooded with these would-be conquistadors, who would form into large expeditions and set off into the unknown interior of South America, often following the vaguest rumors of gold.
The Birth of El Dorado
There was a grain of truth in the El Dorado myth. The Muisca people of Cundinamarca (present-day Colombia) had a tradition: kings would coat themselves in a sticky sap before covering themselves in gold powder. The king would then take a canoe to the center of Lake Guatavitá and, before the eyes of thousands of his subjects watching from shore, would leap into the lake, emerging clean. Then, a great festival would begin. This tradition had been neglected by the Muisca by the time of their discovery by the Spanish in 1537, but not before word of it had reached the greedy ears of the European intruders in cities all over the continent. "El Dorado," in fact, is Spanish for "the gilded one:" the term at first referred to an individual, the king who covered himself in gold. According to some sources, the man who coined this phrase was conquistador Sebastián de Benalcázar.
Evolution of the Myth of El Dorado
After the Cundinamarca plateau was conquered, the Spanish dredged Lake Guatavitá in search of the gold of El Dorado. Some gold was indeed found, but not as much as the Spanish had hoped for. Therefore, they reasoned optimistically, the Muisca must not be the true kingdom of El Dorado and it must still be out there somewhere. Expeditions, composed of recent arrivals from Europe as well as veterans of the conquest, set out in all directions to search for it. The legend grew as illiterate conquistadors passed the legend by word of mouth from one to another: El Dorado was not merely one king, but a rich city made of gold, with enough wealth for a thousand men to become rich forever.
The Quest for El Dorado
Between 1530 and 1650 or so, thousands of men made dozens of forays into the unmapped interior of South America. A typical expedition went something like this. In a Spanish coastal town on the South American mainland, such as Santa Marta or Coro, a charismatic, influential individual would announce an expedition. Anywhere from one hundred to seven hundred Europeans, mostly Spaniards, would sign up, bringing their own armor, weapons and horses (if you had a horse you got a larger share of the treasure). The expedition would force natives along to carry the heavier gear, and some of the better-planned ones would bring livestock (usually hogs) to slaughter and eat along the way. Fighting dogs were always brought along, as they were useful when fighting bellicose natives. The leaders would often borrow heavily to purchase supplies.
After a couple of months, they were ready to go. The expedition would head off, seemingly in any direction. They would stay out for any length of time from a couple of months to as long as four years, searching plains, mountains, rivers and jungles. They would meet natives along the way: these they would either torture or ply with gifts to get information about where they could find gold. Almost invariably, the natives pointed in some direction and said some variation of "our neighbors in that direction have the gold you seek." The natives had quickly learned that the best way to be rid of these rude, violent men was to tell them what they wanted to hear and send them on their way.
Meanwhile, illnesses, desertion and native attacks would whittle down the expedition. Nevertheless, the expeditions proved surprisingly resilient, braving mosquito-infested swamps, hordes of angry natives, blazing heat on the plains, flooded rivers and frosty mountain passes. Eventually, when their numbers got too low (or when the leader died) the expedition would give up and return home.