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The Coronado Expedition

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition through Arizona in 1540 in search of transportable riches, rumored to be in the Seven Cities of Cibola. His trek through the area that today forms Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas began over 500 years ago. Before any significant European settlements appeared on the Atlantic Coast of North America, men in Coronado’s expedition were seeing the Grand Canyon and gazing at pueblo villages built by the Hopi and Zuni Indians.

A Spanish nobleman from Salamanca, Spain, Coronado went to the Spanish colony of Mexico (then New Spain) in 1535, at the age of 25, as an assistant to New Spain’s first viceroy, Andiono de Mendoza. By 1538 he had married the daughter of a wealthy colonial treasurer and become the governor of the province of New Galicia.

The Journe​y Begins​

A 1940 postage stamp commeorates the 500th anniversary of Coronado’s journey.

Coronado was appointed leader of a major expedition to conquer the area to the north of New Spain in January, 1540, upon the return of Fray Marcos de Niza and his reports of cities of vast wealth. The ambitious Conquistador quickly amassed soldiers and supplies. The quest was funded largely by Viceroy Mendoza and Coronado's wife. Several others invested their fortunes, hoping for a return of jewels and precious metal.

By February, 1540, a thousand men and hundreds of horses, mules, cattle, sheep gathered at Compostela, west of Mexico City near the Pacific Coast, in preparation for the journey north. The expedition party included approximately 240 mounted soldiers, 60 additional foot soldiers, and about 800 Indians and slaves. Fray de Niza traveled as a guide. Two ships, commanded by Hernando de Alarcón, would carry the bulk of supplies up the Guadalupe River. An advance guard of 100 men set out from Culiacán on April 22, 1540 following de Niza's route north through Sinaloa and Sonora.

Exploratio​n of Arizona​

The Coronado expedition reached what is now Kansas before they abandoned the search for the Seven Cities of Cibola.

The party traveled to the Spanish outpost of Corazones, located near present day Ures, Sonora on the river now known as the Rio Sonora. Coronado established a large camp and moved north up the river. The expedition is probably responsible for the name place name "Sonora." The explorers used the name ”Señora” for the part of a river just upstream from Corazones. Some scholars believe that this word was an early version of “Sonora.”

The army marched a few days from the “Señora Valley” to a north flowing stream, believed to be the present-day San Pedro River. After a few days on the river, they camped at the base of some mountains at a ruin then known as Chichiticale. This ruin is an American mystery! No archaeologists have found its location, but Coronado’s  travel logs mention it extensively. It is thought to be a pueblo built by an ancient American Indian tribe and abandoned by 1400. It is believed to be about thirty miles west of the present town of Safford on the edge of the Apache Reservation. The search for the ruin continues today.

From Chichiticale, it is likely that Coronado took an advance guard north to the pine forests of the White Mountains. He then headed northeast to the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, located approximately five miles east of the modern day border between Arizona and New Mexico near Zuni Pueblo. The grand pueblo was supposedly one of seven Zuni pueblos in the area.

No Gold in Cibola

At last, the party had reached the “Cibola” described by Fray de Niza!  However, the adobe village was a far cry from a city of gold. Upon approaching the site, Coronado knew that this settlement would not yield the wealth he was seeking. However, he decided to conquer the pueblo. There was reason for caution. This tribe had killed the Moorish slave Estevanico during Fray de Niza’s 1539 expedition.

Coronado’s guard skirmished with the Zuni Indians at Háwikuh on July 7, 1540. He was wounded in battle but ultimately conquered the site and established a base camp.  

Fray de Niza was ejected from the expedition for his gross exaggeration of the area’s wealth. He returned south in disgrace.

Adventures on the Colorado River

Hopi guides led members of the Coronado expedition to the Grand Canyon.

From Háwikuh, the overland party split up. Coronado went east to continue the search for riches, and another band traveled west to reconnoiter with Alarcón’s 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 hospitable and exchanged goods with the travelers. After Pedro de Tovar returned to Háwikuh, Hopi guides took another small group, this one led by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, to a vast river located 20 days journey from Tusayán. The banks of the river were deceptively high, and the river itself was half a league wide.

These men were possibly the first Europeans to see present-day Colorado River and certainly first Europeans to stand on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. However, the party did not explore the canyon itself. A few of the most agile men spent about a day trying to descend, and were unable to go more than a third of the way down.

Map of California shown as an island.

Meanwhile, the ships commanded by Alarcón had set sail from present-day Acapulco on May 9, 1540. Alarcón reached the Colorado River delta and continued up the river past modern-day Yuma, but turned around when he failed to find any trace of Coronado’s party.  Though the naval branch of the expedition had failed to meet the overland travelers, they had established that present-day Baja California was a peninsula, not an island.

Before the ships left the men buried some supplies and a note. Miraculously, the note was found by Melchior Diaz, leader of a small party that had traveled southwest from Háwikuh to rendez vous Alarcón's ships. Diaz is believed to have reached the Colorado at its confluence with the Gila. Inhabitants of the area, possibly members of the CocoMaricopa tribe, helped Diaz locate the note and cache of supplies left for him. Diaz named the vast river he saw the “Tison,” or “Firebrand” River because the Indians kept themselves warm with firebrands (torches) during cold weather. The river kept the name “Firebrand” for two centuries, though Diaz himself died on the trip back to Corazones.

Disappointment at Quivira

Coronado’s party headed east along the Rio Grande, reaching the pueblos near present-day Albuquerque in September. The traveling party spent the winter camped in this land of pueblos. An Indian (thought to be a captured Pawnee) known as El Turco described another rich city, known as Quivara, even farther to the northeast. In April, 1541, the Coronado party set off to find Quivira.

It is likely that Coronado himself traveled through the land that is now the Coronado National Memorial near the Huachuca Mountains in southern Arizona in 1540.

Scholars cannot recreate the exact route, but it is generally agreed that the whole party headed through panhandle of present-day Texas.The next month, Coronado and a small party went north through the panhandle of present-day Oklahoma until they reached a trading center on the Kansas River in what is now central Kansas. Coronado’s men describe the site as filled with mud huts and dogs. There was no sign of transportable riches of any kind. The wealth of Quivira had still not materialized. Some of Coronado’s men reportedly threw down their armor on the spot. This armor, found centuries later, gives important clues to the route of the Coronado expedition.

Disheartened, the travelers trudged southward, retracing their route. The explorers did not receive a jubilant welcome. Because no wealth had been found, the expedition was considered a total failure. The venture had squandered several fortunes, including those of Viceroy Mendoza and Coronado’s wife. In shame, Coronado resigned his commission as governor of New Galacia and retreated into obscurity.

Though the explorers had the chance to establish agricultural settlements, they  failed to establish a permanent presence in this area. The expedition did, however, pave the way for a succession of miners and missionaries over the next three centuries.

Information from the Texas State Historical Association the Planetary Science Institute, and "Coronado: Knight of Pueblos and Plains” Bolton, Herbert E., Whittlesey House, New York, NY 1949.

The Sev​en Cities of Cibola

The Sev​en Cities of Cibola

Finding gold was a paramount objective among many Conquistadors, and Coronado was no exception. Rumors of riches abounded throughout the Spanish colonies. The violent conquistador Hernán Cortés had amassed a vast fortune when he massacred the Aztec Empire in 1521. The conquering of the Inca Empire in present-day Peru yielded gold and gems. Conquistadors expected to find similar quantities of riches in the north. The most persistent story was the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola.

Scholars disagree on the origin of the term “Seven Cities of Cibola,” but this myth and its promise or riches sparked exploration of the American Southwest. One theory loosely links the idea to a group of Catholic bishops who fled across the Atlantic Ocean when Muslims colonized the land that is now Portugal around 714. In this scenario, seven bishops and a flock of their faithful sailed west to a faraway land and founded cities of riches.

Another possible origin is a story told an Indian slave called Tejo who served Nuño de Guzmán, the viceroy of the Spanish colony of New Spain, now Mexico, around 1530 (predecessor to Viceroy Andiono de Mendoza). Tejo told de Guzman that his father had been a trader, and had seen items of silver and gold in areas of vast richness to the north. De Guzmán supposedly assembled an army and started north, but returned south after founding the town of Culiacan.

When Cabeza de Vaca returned with reports of  precious metals during his trek home from the disastrous Narváez expedition, the new Viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, sent Fray Marcos de Niza to confirm the riches. De Niza reported seeing the Zuni village of “Cibola,” and mentioned several other pueblo cities in the region. These rumors may have compounded until the legend was far larger than any reality could be.