The Seekers of El Dorado
Over the years, many men searched South America for the legendary lost city of gold. At best, they were impromptu explorers, who treated the natives they encountered relatively fairly and helped map the unknown interior of South America. At worst, they were greedy, obsessed butchers who tortured their way through native populations, killing thousands in their fruitless quest. Here are some of the more distinguished seekers of El Dorado:
- Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana: In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco Pizarro, led an expedition east from Quito. After a few months, he sent his lieutenant Francisco de Orellana in search of supplies: Orellana and his men instead found the Amazon River, which they followed to the Atlantic Ocean.
- Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada: Quesada set out from Santa Marta with 700 men in 1536: in early 1537 they reached the Cundinamarca plateau, home of the Muisca people, which they swiftly conquered. Quesada's expedition was the one that actually found El Dorado, although the greedy conquistadors at the time refused to admit that the mediocre takings from the Muisca were the fulfillment of the legend and they kept looking.
- Ambrosius Ehinger: Ehinger was a German: at the time, part of Venezuela was administered by Germans. He set out in 1529 and again in 1531 and led two of the cruelest expeditions: his men tortured natives and sacked their villages relentlessly. He was killed by natives in 1533 and his men went home.
- Lope de Aguirre: Aguirre was a soldier on Pedro de Ursúa's 1559 expedition which set out from Peru. Aguirre, a paranoid psychotic, soon turned the men against Ursúa, who was murdered. Aguirre eventually took over the expedition and began a reign of terror, ordering the murder of many of the original explorers and capturing and terrorizing the Island of Margarita. He was killed by Spanish soldiers.
- Sir Walter Raleigh: this legendary Elizabethan courtier is remembered as the man who introduced potatoes and tobacco to Europe and for his sponsorship of the doomed Roanoke colony in Virginia. But he also was a seeker of El Dorado: he thought it was in the highlands of Guyana and made two trips there: one in 1595 and a second in 1617. After the failure of the second expedition, Raleigh was executed in England.
Where is El Dorado?
So, was El Dorado ever found? Sort of. The conquistadors followed tales of El Dorado to Cundinamarca, but refused to believe that they had found the mythical city, so they kept looking. The Spanish didn't know it, but the Muisca civilization was the last major native culture with any wealth. The El Dorado they searched for after 1537 did not exist. Still, they searched and searched: dozens of expeditions containing thousands of men scoured South America until about 1800, when Alexander Von Humboldt visited South America and concluded that El Dorado had been a myth all along.
Nowadays, you can find El Dorado on a map, although it's not the one the Spanish were looking for. There are towns named El Dorado in several countries, including Venezuela, Mexico and Canada. In the USA there are no fewer than thirteen towns named El Dorado (or Eldorado). Finding El Dorado is easier than ever…just don't expect streets paved with gold.
The El Dorado legend has proven resilient. The notion of a lost city of gold and the desperate men who search for it is just too romantic for writers and artists to resist. Countless songs, stories books and poems (including one by Edgar Allen Poe) have been written about the subject. There is even a superhero called El Dorado. Moviemakers in particular have been fascinated by the legend: as recently as 2010 a movie was made about a modern-day scholar who finds clues to the lost city of El Dorado: action and shootouts ensue.
Silverberg, Robert. The Golden Dream: Seekers of El Dorado. Athens: the Ohio University Press, 1985.