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. Read More
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.
North By Land & Sea
With high hopes for boundless wealth, the overland expedition assembled in Culiacán, at that time the northern-most Spanish settlement about 550 miles south of the present-day International Border.
The expedition also had a naval contingency. Two ships commanded by Capitán Hernando de Alarcón would carry even more supplies north on the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) to the delta of what we know today as the Colorado River.
On April 22, 1540, Coronado and his smaller, faster-moving advance guard headed north toward a vast unexplored territory. The bulk of his army followed, sometimes days behind.
Coronado’s army most likely arrived at present-day Coronado National Memorial and then followed the San Pedro River in Southern Arizona north for a time. Somewhere, it's hard to know exactly where, they turned northeasterly and came across an Indian ruin known as Chichiticale. They described it as a single, very large, but roofless building made of red earth. They assumed that it had long since been abandoned and speculated that, because of its size, it could have been a fort built by a warrior culture. (To this day, this ruin is a mystery! Many have tried to find it, but archeologists and historians remain uncertain as to its location. Some, however, have speculated that it is at the Kuykendall Ruins.)
From Chichiticale, it is likely that Coronado took a vanguard north to the White Mountains. (US Highway 191 north of Morenci’ traces this portion of Coronado’s route. It is designated Coronado Trail Scenic Byway, one of the most beautiful drives in all of Arizona.)
The Battle For Hawikuh
Coronado and his soldiers then headed northeast where they would find the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, located approximately five miles east of the present-day border between Arizona and New Mexico 12 miles southwest of the Zuni Pueblo. (Today, Hawikuh is a National Historic Landmark District that includes numerous archeological sites.)
At last, they had reached Cíbola, but the adobe villages were a far cry from cities of gold. It wasn’t long before Coronado decided to conquer the pueblo anyway.
At first, Coronado tried to communicate his peaceful intentions, but the Zunis would have none of it. They began throwing stones and shooting arrows at the Spaniards. Big mistake.
Coronado’s soldiers skirmished with about 200 Zuni warriors at Háwikuh on July 7, 1540. Coronado was wounded in the battle, but the Spaniards, with their horses and superior weapons, easily conquered the site in about an hour, killing perhaps a dozen Indians. Afterward, the Spaniards established a base camp here and ransacked the pueblos for food, which by this time they desperately needed more than gold.
Here too, Fray de Niza was vilified by everyone and ejected from the expedition for his gross exaggeration of the area’s wealth. He returned south in disgrace.
From Háwikuh, the overland expedition split up as it often did in order to explore more territory in less time. Coronado went east with a relatively small contingent of soldiers to continue the search for riches. Another band traveled west to reconnoiter with their ships. A small group led westward by Pedro de Tovar reached Tusayán, the location of several Hopi villages on the Colorado Plateau. The Hopi people were not any happier to see the Spaniards than the Zunis and refused to allow them to enter their villages.
As good Spanish conquistadors, Tovar and his soldiers quickly overran the place. The Hopis, seeing that resistance was futile, became more hospitable and the two groups exchanged goods and information. Pedro de Tovar returned to Coronado at Háwikuh with a Hopi tale about a great river at the bottom of a gigantic hole in the earth located 20 days journey from Tusayán.
(Note. The luxurious El Tovar Hotel at Grand Canyon Village on the South Rim that opened to wealthy tourists in 1905 is named for Pedro de Tovar. It was owned by the Santa Fe Railroad and operated by the Fred Harvey Company. Now as then, it is located only a short walk from the terminus of the Grand Canyon Railway that begins in Williams on Route 66. The day trip by rail from Williams to the South Rim and back is delightful.)
Soon, Hopi guides took another small group of Spaniards, led by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, to see for themselves.
These intrepid Spaniards of the overland Coronado Expedition were the first Europeans to stand on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and look down on the mighty Colorado. However, they did not explore the canyon itself, although several men spent a day trying to descend. They made it about a third of the way down a steep canyon wall before giving up.
The Supply Ships
Meanwhile, the ships commanded by Alarcón had set sail from present-day Acapulco on May 9, 1540. Alarcón and his ships reached the Colorado River delta, which they reported was 2 leagues (about 6 miles) wide. From there, the tiny Spanish navy continued up the river past present-day Yuma by rowing in smaller boats. Some 50 miles north of the Delta, Alarcón and his men turned around when they couldn’t find any trace of Coronado.
Though the naval branch of the expedition had failed to connect with the overland party, it wasn’t a total waste. They did discover that present-day Baja California is a peninsula, not an island as had been thought.
Before the ships left the area, the sailors buried some supplies and put a note in a bottle for Coronado and his men. Considering the unexplored remoteness of this vast landscape, it seems impossible that any of Coronado’s men would find the cache.
Yet, the note and supplies were found by Melchior Diaz, leader of a small party that had traveled southwest from Háwikuh to rendez vous with Alarcón's ships. Diaz is believed to have reached the Colorado at its confluence with the Gila. Inhabitants of the area, probably Maricopas, helped Diaz locate the note and cache of supplies. Why the Indians had not already stolen the supplies is unknown. The glass bottle alone could have been worth a great deal to people who had never seen such a thing.
Diaz named the vast river he encountered the “Tison,” or “Firebrand” River because the local Indians kept warm in cold weather with firebrands (torches). For the next two centuries, the great river that now makes Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix, Yuma, and Tucson possible would be known throughout New Spain as Rio del Tison.
Coronado Continues North and East
Coronado’s main party headed east along the Rio Grande, reaching the pueblos near present-day Albuquerque in September, 1540. Here the expedition spent the winter and met an Indian they called El Turco (the Turk). He described another rich city known as Quivara even farther to the northeast. In April, 1541, Coronado and his reduced party set off to find yet another city whose fabulous wealth they could steal.
(By now, the Indians of the immediate region were well-aware of how dangerous these conquistadors could be. One can imagine that “El Turco” was trying to entice the Spaniards away from the pueblos.)
The Expedition’s Route From Arizona To Kansas And Back
Relying on the expedition’s chronicles, historians are almost certain Coronado and most of his expedition traveled through what is today Coronado National Memorial near the Huachuca Mountains and then along the San Pedro River in Southern Arizona.
(Note. The Coronado National Memorial, located south of Sierra Vista on the International border, is the southern trailhead of the 750-mile Arizona Trail that bisects the state from Mexico to Utah. The San Pedro River is one of the few remaining riparian areas in Southern Arizona. Prior to the arrival of Americans, this was a land of flowing rivers and cienegas (marshlands) lined with giant cottonwoods, and home to beavers and river otters. Since then, Southern Arizona has lost over 90% of its surface water due to human habitation – farms, ranches, and cities. For this reason, we wholeheartedly support conservation organizations such as Friends of the San Pedro River and the Nature Conservancy at such Southern Arizona preserves as Araviapa Canyon Wilderness, Muleshoe Ranch, and Ramsey Canyon.)
Historians of this period cannot recreate the exact route in its entirety, but they generally agreed that the Coronado Expedition wandered through the panhandle of present-day Texas. From there, Coronado and a small party went even farther north through the panhandle of present-day Oklahoma until they reached a trading center on the present-day Kansas River in central Kansas. Here they found dirt-poor Indians living in mud huts with lots of dogs. In disgust, some of Coronado’s soldiers threw down their armor on the spot and gave up the quest. This armor, found centuries later, gave important clues to the most northerly route of the Coronado Expedition.
Once Coronado came to the realization that he had been led on a wild goose chase, he ordered El Turco garroted.
The Return Home
Disheartened, the mighty conquistadors retraced their route south. When they arrived back in Mexico City there were no jubilant homecoming celebrations. Having found no wealth, the Viceroy and other investors, including Coronado’s wife’s, had lost their fortunes and considered the expedition a total failure.
Although he remained governor of Nueva Galicia for about a year, the expedition bankrupted Coronado. In 1554, at Mexico City, he died in obscurity.
Copper crossbow arrow points have been found in the Albuquerque area of New Mexico where Coronado’s party is thought to have encamped that winter of 1541-42. Nearly identical points were excavated from the ruin of Hawikuh around 1920 and were undoubtedly from crossbow arrows, or "bolts," fired by Coronado's soldiers during the skirmish. More recently, others have been found during metal detector surveys conducted by the Zunis. These copper points are 1 to 2 inches in length.