Age of Discovery
He explored the southwest of the American continent, claimed most of the southwest for Spain and charted the course of many rivers and native roads in the area.
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was born in 1510 in the Spanish city of Burgos, an important town in the northern part of the kingdom. Very little is known of his background, although the Vázquez family was considered to be minor members of Spain’s nobility. Coronado could read and write fairly well, so he most likely had some formal education.
Francisco Coronado arrived in the New World in 1535 as part of the court of Antonio de Mendoza, the new viceroy of New Spain, the general term for the land conquered by the Spanish on the American continent. This land encompassed Mexico and most of Central America, along with an undetermined amount of the southwestern part of North America. Mendoza and Coronado were very close, and the bond only grew stronger when young Coronado married Beatriz de Estrada. Beatriz’s father was the royal treasurer of New Spain and oversaw much of the important financial issues in the colonies. With such a politically connected wife, Coronado was set to go places in New Spain.
In October 1538, Coronado was appointed governor of the Spanish province of New Galicia, which consisted of parts of northern and western Mexico and an unclear border somewhere in the present-day southwestern United States.Coronado, a very hardy man, was well suited to the remote outpost.
In September 1539, a Franciscan monk, Marcos de Niza, returned to New Galicia from a journey north and told fantastic stories of seven cities filled with gold, silver and precious stones. He claimed that the Native Americans called this cluster of rich native towns Cibola. In reality, Cibola was the native town of Hawikuh in modern day New Mexico. No one is sure why Niza fabricated the stories of great riches in Cibola/Hawikuh; although it was a prosperous native town, there were no thrones of gold or city gates made of valuable native turquoise.
Estevanico, the Moroccan man who had traveled the breadth of the North American continent along with Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, had accompanied Brother Marcos de Niza and been killed by the native inhabitants of Cibola/Hawikuh. The native Zuni people, familiar with Estevanico’s prowess at curing the sick, suspected that he also had the ability to make people sick, and quickly turned on him. Despite the treatment his expedition had received at the hands of the Native Americans of Cibola/Hawikuh, Niza continued to preach about the wonders of the region to anyone in Mexico City who would listen.
Viceroy Mendoza decided that Governor Coronado should lead an expedition to claim this land and its riches in the name of Spain. In February 1540, some 300 Spanish soldiers, many mounted on the finest horses the colonies could offer, reported to the New Galician town of Campostella to begin the journey. Going with Coronado were several hundred Native American allies coerced by their Spanish overlords into accompanying the expedition. Close to a thousand extra horses, herds of cattle and pigs for the men to eat on the journey, and several heavy cannons, indicated that Coronado’s orders probably included conquering the cities of Cibola, not just trading with them.
At the Mexican town of Culiacán, one of the northernmost Spanish outposts in the colony, Coronado stopped to split his men into two groups. In late April 1540, Coronado himself set out with 100 men (80 on horseback, another 20 on foot) as well as Brother Marcos Niza to begin the exploration. The remaining men had orders to follow Coronado at a later date. After a month or so of steady marching, Coronado and his band had crossed the Gila River in modern-day western New Mexico and marched through the Colorado River plateau. They were close to Cibola, Brother Marcos told them, and urged them on.
On July 7, 1540, Francisco Coronado’s small army stood outside the walls of Hawikuh. The Spanish soldiers, who hoped for the riches and comforts a place like Mexico City, were disappointed when they saw the bare adobe buildings of the town, and the local Zuni people, who were not dressed in gold and silks. Pedro de Castañeda, one of the expedition’s chroniclers, actually feared for Marcos de Niza’s safety, as the angry Spanish army turned on him for leading them into the desert with a complete lie.
Hawikuh contained only about 200 or 300 warriors and Coronado was still focused on capturing the city. Instead of negotiating with the Zuni, Coronado dismissed his interpreters and ordered his men to attack the city. The Zuni put up as much resistance as they could offer, using bows to shoot arrows and slings to hurl stones at the invading Spanish. Coronado himself was critically wounded when a stone struck him in the head; only his steel helmet and two quick-thinking lieutenants, who dragged him away, saved him from death. In less than an hour, the Spanish took the town and feasted on the food they found stored there. Coronado, who quickly recovered from his injury, renamed the city Granada, after a town in Spain.
The Spanish set about conquering the surrounding towns, noting with bitterness that none contained much in the way of gold or riches. Coronado sent messengers, along with Marcos de Niza, back to Mexico to inform Viceroy Mendoza of what had been found so far. Granada became Coronado’s headquarters as he sent men out in small numbers to explore rumors of great rivers and other towns. López de Cárdenas, one of the men who had saved Coronado during the battle with the Zuni, was sent out to investigate rumors of a great river running through a series of red mountains. He became the first European to view the Grand Canyon in modern-day Arizona. Hernando de Alvarado, another of Coronado’s saviors, was sent to the east to investigate rumors of a large pueblo village named Ácoma, and ended up going as far as the modern Pecos River of Texas.
All of Coronado’s men met up in late autumn of 1540 in a conquered cluster of twelve native villages called Tiguex, north of modern-day Albuquerque, New Mexico. Alvarado brought with him a native he had met on his travels. Alvarado called this Native American “El Turco.” He told stories of a large city named Quivira, in the interior of the North American continent. It was a fantastic land where fish grew as big as horses, the locals sailed in ships as big as the Spaniards’ and every piece of dinnerware was made of solid gold. El Turco claimed he had brought golden bracelets made in Quivira to prove it.
When asked to show the bracelets, El Turco insisted that an untrustworthy group of Native Americans, the Tiguas, had stolen them. The chief of the Tiguas was a man the Spaniards called “Bigotes,” which means “whiskers” in Spanish. He insisted that El Turco was a liar and there were no golden bracelets in all of their city. Relations between the Spanish and the Tiguas worsened until the two sides took to fighting. The Spanish quickly defeated the natives. Despite pledging peace to the Tiguas, Coronado wanted to make an example of those who disobeyed the Spanish and burned several hundred Tiguas at the stake in a very public execution. Instead, it became common knowledge amongst the natives that Coronado’s men could not be trusted in talks of peace.
The winter turned very cold, and Coronado retreated to Tiguex to wait until the spring thaw. Most of the residents of the native cities fled to mountain strongholds to avoid being conquered by the Spanish. Coronado’s repeated peace entreaties to the natives were rejected; his reputation for brutality guaranteed that no native wanted to deal with the Spanish except on the battlefield. Coronado’s men, who were cold, hungry and miserable, found it impossible to barter for food from the understandably nervous natives. That winter there were several small battles between the Spanish and the Native Americans, which ended with the deaths of several of Coronado’s men and many more Native Americans.
When spring arrived in 1541, the Spanish were ready to move on. Why they believed El Turco’s stories is a mystery; Marcos de Niza’s slightly more believable tales of Cibola had already fooled them once. But greed is a powerful thing, and Coronado and his men wanted to best Hernán Cortés and conquer an empire larger and richer than the Aztecs of Mexico. So on April 23, 1541, the band of Spaniards set out with their guide El Turco, bound for Quivira, somewhere to the northeast.
The Spanish found themselves on the Great Plains of present-day Kansas. Herds of bison provided the men with all the food they could eat and the natives they met on the plains (mostly Apaches) knew nothing of the Spaniards’ reputation and were relatively friendly. But Coronado and his men couldn’t help but notice that there was no gold in this land. The men turned on El Turco in July and forced him to march in chains.
Sensing that even this small band was too large, Coronado split his army up. He took 36 horsemen and led them north towards the supposed direction of El Turco’s promised Quivira. The rest were sent back to Tiguex.
Soon, the members of Coronado’s expedition became sullen and quarrelsome; the unchanging flat scenery of west Texas and southern Kansas bored them terribly, and a morbid fear overtook some soldiers, who were terrified of dying in the middle of nowhere, so far from civilization. It was largely due to Coronado’s relentless drive that the men kept marching. In late summer 1541, Coronado came to the fabled Quivira, thought to be somewhere near modern Great Bend, Kansas. No gold, no giant fish-filled river and no great kings were to be found among the local Wichita people. El Turco admitted that he had lied to Coronado and led him out into the endless prairies so that he and all his men would die. The survivors would be so weak that if they made it back to Tiguex, the natives could easily massacre Coronado and his men in revenge for the Spaniards’ harsh treatment of them. Furious, Coronado strangled El Turco to death, then turned his men around for the return march to Tiguex, and from there, back to Mexico.
They arrived back in Tiguex just in time to settle in for winter. Again it was cold and dreary, with relations between the Spanish and natives at an all-time low. Relationships within the Spanish camp were no better; soldiers resented their officers for eating better and taking all the available clothing for themselves. Coronado’s men were hungry and dressed in tatters; two years on the march had been hard on the soldiers’ clothing. Things only got worse when Coronado was nearly trampled to death by a horse. He remained in critical condition all winter, but was well enough to attempt the trip back to Mexico in April 1542. His men were happy to leave; so many failures left the Spanish soldiers disheartened and disappointed. Many of the soldiers, still openly hostile to their officers, left the march to raid and plunder native settlements at they pleased.
In late autumn 1542, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, governor of the province of New Galicia and supposed discoverer of the riches of Cibola, appeared before Viceroy Mendoza with barely 100 soldiers left in his army and no gold to show for his journey. His report of walled adobe towns and barely-clothed natives infuriated Mendoza, who expected to be showered with riches and conquered native chieftains. But the explosive Mendoza calmed down and realized that they had all been fooled by ridiculous promises of golden cities and silk-draped natives. Realizing that Coronado had done the best he could in a land painfully devoid of gold and riches, he reappointed him governor of New Galicia in 1544, although Coronado had tried to resign the position in 1543.
Little is known about what finally happened to Coronado. The Spanish Crown investigated complaints that Coronado was a bad leader and that he was unnecessarily cruel to the Native Americans that he encountered. Despite the battlefield casualties and the burnings at Cicuyé, the city of the Tiguas, the Crown found him not guilty. Some sources say that Coronado went on to have some position in the local government of Mexico City, while others insist that he retired to his plantation in Mexico to live out the rest of his days. Whatever the case, Coronado retired from active exploration and died on September 22, 1556, in Mexico City.
Although he was unsuccessful at finding gold, great cities or advanced civilizations to conquer, Francisco Coronado’s expeditions were very successful in mapping out the lands that lay north of New Spain. Coronado and his lieutenants charted the paths of major rivers in the region and the well-established native trails that made traveling over the difficult terrain much easier, and noted the resources available in the region. After Coronado, Spanish maps became much more realistic. Gone were the gleaming cities of gold and silver, populated by giants in silk robes pulling horse-sized fish from swift flowing rivers. The Spanish now knew that the North American continent contained scrub deserts, vast plains covered with herds of bison, and small settlements of Native Americans who understandably disliked Spanish travelers.
Bolton, Herbert E. Coronado: Knight of Pueblo and Plains. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1949.
Day, Arthur G. Coronado’s Quest: The Discovery of the Southwestern States. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1981.
Castaneda, Pedro de. The Journey of Coronado. Fulcrum Publishing, 1990.
Flint, Richard, and Flint, Shirley C. The Latest Word from 1540: People, Places, and Portrayals of the Coronado Expedition. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.