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Coronado Searched for Cities of Gold
Article first published in Vol. 17, 1998.
By Chris Fumagalli with research contributed by Danny Moreno
Indians found they could sometimes please the explorers by inventing stories of places where the natives wore gold, emeralds and diamonds and walked on streets paved with gold. The tales grew larger and larger with every retelling. Fray Marcos de Niza, whose group hastily left Zuni when Estebán and his men were killed, added to these stories by assuring the Spanish government in Mexico that indeed the cities existed. On the heels of this disastrous expedition came the one by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.
Born in 1510 to a noble family in Salamanca, Spain, Coronado had influential friends in both Spain and Mexico. At 25, he joined the staff of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. In 1538, he became governor of Nueva Galicia, the present states of Aguascalientes, Jalisco and Zacatecas. A year later, he married the wealthy Beatriz de Estreda, granddaughter of King Ferdinand.
Coronado would hear the reports by Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, Estebán and others about the incredible riches which lay north. In 1540, Viceroy Mendoza gave Coronado the authority to seek the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola.
Coronado financed his own expedition, as did many explorers, for he expected to make money from his travels. With a force of 300 soldiers, hundreds of Indians and a number of clergy, including fray Marcos de Niza, Coronado departed Compostela, his provincial capital, on February 23, 1540. Supply ships commanded by Hernando de Alarcón cast off from the western coast of Mexico on the same date. The Spanish erroneously believed Cíbola lay near the Gulf of California, so the planned rendezvous of Coronado and Alarcón never occurred.
The Coronado Expedition traveled north through Culiacán, about 350 miles northwest of Compostela. Food was scarce, and the pace of travel slow. Coronado decided to travel ahead with an advance guard to search for the golden cities. For more than three months, Coronado and his men followed Indian trails cutting across deserts and mountains.
The expedition, tired and hungry, reached an adobe settlement and thought it was one of the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola. In reality, the Coronado Expedition had found the Pueblo of Hawikuh, which was home to the Zuni Indians.
The Zuni were in the midst of their summer solstice rituals, but Coronado and his men proceeded to enter Hawikuh without regard to the Indians ceremonies. This would lead to the reading of the requirimento that, according to author Michael Dorris, basically said the Zunis must convert to Christianity or be known as worshippers of the devil and killed. Of course, the proclamation was in Latin. The Coronado Expedition quickly seized control of Hawikuh but left soon after they discovered the Zunis had no gold or silver.
Coronado and his men would destroy at least thirteen more villages like Hawikuh, torturing their residents in the name of greed and Christianity. And just like in Hawikuh, there was no gold and no one willing to convert to Christianity.
Although disappointed, Coronado continued to send exploratory detachments in search of wealth. Garcia Lopez de Cárdenas led one detail up the Colorado River and discovered one of the geographical treasures of the world: the Grand Canyon.
Another detachment encountered the Pueblo Indian village at Acoma and other villages along the Rio Grande. Finding food more available by the river, Coronado's party wintered near present-day Santa Fe. Having crossed the continental divide, the Coronado Expedition then traveled through the Rocky Mountains and into Texas.
Although Coronado himself never saw the Grand Canyon, in the spring of 1541, he did explore Palo Duro Canyon, located in the Texas Panhandle near Amarillo. Formed by erosion by the Red River, the walls of Palo Duro plunge over 1,000 feet to the canyon's floor. Here Coronado found the Querecho Indians, who used the canyon for food and shelter.
Coronado discovered buffalo, or bison, and was one of the first Europeans to describe the animal on which the Querechos depended. The Indians ate the blood and meat of the buffalo, used the skin to build their homes, the tendons for needles to sew clothes, the bones to make awls, and buffalo chips for fuel.
The Coronado expedition next turned north, crossing the Canadian and Arkansas rivers, seeking Quivira, another legendary city of gold. A Pawnee Indian slave named El Turco had perpetuated the story and paid for the lie with his life when Coronado found Wichita Indians living in grass huts, without gold and treasure, in what is now Kansas.
Coronado's expedition was deemed a failure because it found no gold. Coronado lost his credibility as well as his post as governor, but later became a council member in Mexico City and remained there until he died on September 22, 1554. Today, we realize the historical importance of the expedition, for Coronado was the first to explore the Southwest, find and document great natural treasures and meet Indian tribes, the descendants of whom still populate our area.