Sierra de la Plata
The Sierra de la Plata ("Silver Mountains") was a mythical source of silver in the interior of South America. The legend began in the early 16th century when castaways from the Juan Díaz de Solís expedition heard indigenous stories of a mountain of silver in an inland region ruled by the so-called White King. The first European to lead an expedition in search of it was the castaway Aleixo Garcia, who crossed nearly the entire continent to reach the Andean altiplano. On his way back to the coast, Garcia died in an indigenous ambush in Paraguay, but survivors brought precious metals back to corroborate their story. The legend inspired other expeditions, all of which ended in failure.
The Río de la Plata (literally "Silver River") and the modern country of Argentina (from the Latin argentum, "silver") both take their names from the myth. The legend of the Sierra de la Plata may have been based on the Cerro Rico de Potosí in Bolivia, which was discovered by a Spanish expedition traveling from Peru in 1545.
Origins of the Legend
Juan Díaz de Solís
The legend of the White King and the Sierra de la Plata began with the expeditions of Juan Díaz de Solís along the coast of South America. On his first voyage in 1512, Solís followed the coast of Brazil until he came across an enormous river, the Río de la Plata, which Amerigo Vespucci had named the River Jordan on his 1501-02 expedition and the local inhabitants called Paranaguazu ("river like the sea" or "great water"). Solís decided to call it the Mar Dulce ("Freshwater Sea") due to its great size. After exploring the area and guessing it could be a strait connecting the Atlantic to the Pacific, Solís returned to Spain to stake his claim as conqueror and governor of the region. In 1516, he returned with the title of Captain General, but when Solís and his party landed on the eastern bank of the Río de la Plata, they were attacked and killed by Guaranís. Seeing this, the crew remaining on the ships decided to weigh anchor and return to Spain.
On their way back to Europe, one of the Solís expedition's vessels shipwrecked off the coast of Santa Catarina Island in what is now Brazil, leaving eighteen men stranded. One of them, the Portuguese explorer Aleixo Garcia, became friendly with the local Tupí-Guaranís, and through them learned of a great mountain of shining metals far into the mainland.
Garcia left Santa Catarina along with other castaways and a large indigenous party to search for the Sierra de la Plata, crossing most of South America before reaching the Andean altiplano. This was supposedly the home of the White King, whose throne was entirely decorated with silver. After taking a few valuable pieces, the explorers headed back to the Brazilian coast, but along the way, Aleixo Garcia and the other Europeans were killed in a Payaguá ambush. The few Tupí-Guaranís who managed to escape told their story, showing off the silver pieces they had gotten from the realms of the White King.
In 1526, the Venetian explorer Sebastian Cabot left Spain with the goal of reaching the Molucca Islands in Indonesia by way of the Straits of Magellan. During a stopover in Pernambuco in northern Brazil, he first heard the story about a land rich in precious metals far inland, which could be reached via an enormous estuary further south. The estuary ended up being called the Río de la Plata for its role as the supposed natural gateway to the treasure. The legend captivated Cabot, so he abandoned his mission and decided to find the Sierra de la Plata, assuming that the royal authorities would be indulgent if he found enough silver.
On Santa Catarina, the castaways Melchor Rodríguez and Enrique Morales confirmed the stories, telling Cabot about Aleixo Garcia's expedition and showing him the metals that had been brought back. Cabot headed toward Río de la Plata, where he disembarked to repair two ships that had been damaged in a storm. There, the expedition met former cabin boy Francisco del Puerto, the sole survivor of Solís's landing party. Del Puerto, who was living with the Guaranís, also verified the legend and offered his services as guide and interpreter.
After entering the Río de la Plata, the expedition divided in two: Cabot would continue up the Paraná River and Antón de Grajeda would travel up the Uruguay River. In 1527, at the confluence of the Paraná and Carcarañá Rivers, Cabot established the fort of Sancti Spiritu, the first European settlement in the Río de la Plata basin, and a future base for expeditions to the land of the White King. The party was suffering from hunger and sickness, and since they could not travel by land, they continued north upriver until they landed at an island they named Año Nuevo ("New Year"). There, they traded colored glass with the Timbús for food, but Cabot, thinking he had been shortchanged, ordered his men to kill them, burn their homes, and take their food.
In February 1529, they reached an indigenous town they called Santa Ana, where they were treated hospitably, fed well, and told rumors of other "white men" who were coming up the river behind them. Cabot, however, stuck to his plan and continued up the Paraguay River until strong currents prevented him from going further. There, he had a brigantine sent ahead under the command of Miguel de Rifos. Near the confluence of the Pilcomayo River, Rifos decided to disembark with a few men after being welcomed by some indigenous people on the shore. The Europeans headed through the forest to the village, where they were unexpectedly ambushed. Supposedly, it was a trap arranged by the local chief and Del Puerto, who wanted a larger share of the plunder.
Those who had stayed in the brigantine managed to escape, and when they returned to Cabot, he decided to head back to Sancti Spiritu. On the way, he came across Diego García, the "other white man" he had been told about. García, like Cabot, had been commissioned to travel to the Moluccas, but had deserted when he heard the tales of the White King. After a brief dispute, the two captains decided to join forces to find the Sierra de la Plata, with Cabot in charge of the unified fleet.
At Sancti Spiritu, Captain Francisco César was chosen to explore the local region together with another fifteen soldiers. Three months later César returned with half of his men and a rumor that nearby was a great city full of riches that from then on would be known as the Ciudad de los Césares ("City of the Caesars").
The Sebastian Cabot expedition ended in failure when Cabot and Diego García made their next attempt to find the Sierra de la Plata. The local indigenous people took advantage of their absence to attack and destroy Fort Sancti Spiritu, killing many of his men. Low on morale, food, and supplies, Cabot and his crew were finally forced to give up their goal and return to Europe.
- City of the Caesars (Ciudad de los Césares)
- El Dorado
- La Plata Mountains
- Quivira and Cíbola
- Goodman, Edward J. The Explorers Of South America. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992.
- Hosne, Roberto. Historias del Río de la Plata. Buenos Aires: Planeta, 1998.
- Kinsbruner, Jay, and Erick D. Langer, eds. Encyclopedia of Latin American History and Culture. 2nd ed. Vol. 5. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2008.