The story of the Coronado Expeditions is one of bravery, perseverance, high adventure, faith, and incredible greed. Between hiking trails and scenic back roads, we can retrace their historic route.
Sixty-seven years before the English established Jamestown, VA (1607), and 80 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, MA (1620), Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition through present-day American Southwest in search of the Seven Cities of Gold described by Fray Marco de Niza (of Nice, Italy).
The First Reports Of Limitless Riches
A Moroccan slave named Esteban Dorantes (also called Estevanico) and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca were two of four survivors of the ill-fated Narváez Expedition (1527-28) that was intended to conquer Florida for Spain. Suffering enslavement by American Indians near the Gulf Coast and many other hardships along their way, the four finally reached Mexico City after 8 years lost in what is now Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.
Once safely back in New Spain (present-day Mexico), the four survivors reported that they had heard natives tell stories about cities of limitless riches located hundreds of miles north of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City).
The First Expedition North (1539)
Recalling the vast riches plundered from the Aztecs by Hernán Cortés and his conquistadors 20 years earlier (1519), Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza had no reason to doubt the stories. He wasted no time organizing a small, exploratory expedition and put Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza in charge. Logically, the friar took Estevanico, now his slave, to serve as guide.
When the 1539 Spanish expedition reached the present-day State of Sonora, Fray de Niza sent Estevanico to scout ahead. Soon the African slave came across a monk who repeated native stories about the riches to be found in seven cities in a region called “Cíbola”.
For weeks, Estevanico continued to scout ahead of the main body until he reached Cíbola where he was met by the American Indians known as Zunis. (Today, Cibola is the Zuni ruins of Hawikuh on the Zuni Reservation in western New Mexico)
The Zunis killed Estevanico when he unwittingly showed them something that, to the Zunis, symbolized death. Terrified, Fray de Niza and companions hightailed it back to Mexico City.
The Marcos de Niza Report
There, de Niza claimed that they had seen Cíbola from a great distance, but he was certain that it was larger than Tenochtitlan, the former Aztec capital. In other words, Cíbola was a very substantial place, even by European standards. According to de Niza’s report, the people of Cíbola used gold and silver dishes, decorated their houses with turquoise, and possessed mounds of pearls, emeralds, and other gems.
(Conceivably, the mica-inflected clay of the Zuni’s adobe pueblos may have created the illusion of buildings made of gold when reflecting the golden rays of the setting sun, thus fueling Fray de Niza’s over-active imagination.)
The Coronado Expedition (1540-42. Twenty-seven months.)
Upon hearing this news, Viceroy de Mendoza wasted no time in organizing a large military expedition to conquer Cíbola for God and King and take possession of the riches that the Franciscan friar had described so vividly. The Viceroy named the Governor of Nueva Galicia, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, to head the expedition.
Coronado’s expedition included over a thousand men and hundreds of horses, mules, cattle, and sheep. Among these were about 240 mounted soldiers, 60 foot soldiers, about 1,300 Indian allies, plus an unknown number of slaves. The Indians and slaves would be necessary to carry supplies over land. The Indians could also hunt for game and forage for edibles along the route. No doubt Coronado also planned on using them to help carry the enormous treasure back to Mexico City.
An expedition of this size would be a very expensive expedition. Funding for the quest came from Viceroy Mendoza and Coronado’s wife, the daughter of a wealthy family. Others too invested their fortunes, hoping for a huge return in jewels, gold, and silver. Read More