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Early Spanish Explorers of the Southwest

by Robert Torrez


Less than two generations after Christopher Columbus set foot on the shores of an obscure Caribbean island and claimed this New World for the Spanish kingdoms of Leon and Castille, Spanish conquistadores such as Hernando Cortes and Francisco Pizarro had conquered Mexico, Peru, and much of Central America. These adventurers also were on the alert for signs of any new lands which might prove as wealthy as ones recently conquered. It was this search for a "new" Mexico which ultimately led to the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado to New Mexico in 1540.

In 1527, Panfilo de Narvaez set out from the Caribbean island of Hispanola with 600 colonists and soldiers to settle Florida. This ill-fated expedition met with a series of disasters which eventually left a few ragged survivors shipwrecked near present day Galveston, Texas, in November 1528.

In 1536, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, an African slave named Estevan (also known as Estevan the Moor and Estevanico), and two companions emerged from the wilderness at Culiacan on the west coast of Mexico. These four survivors of the Narvaez fiasco had spent nearly eight years wandering through southern Texas and northern Mexico. They were the first Europeans to explore, albeit unwittingly, this part of North America.

Cabeza de Vaca's report to the Viceroy mentioned that they had heard stories from various Indian tribes of large cities in the interior of the continent where valuable minerals were traded. These sparse but tantalizing bits of information sparked a renewed interest in the Spanish quest to find the "new" Mexico that had so far eluded them.

In 1539, Marcos de Niza, a priest who had accompanied Pizarro to Peru, was authorized by the government to conduct a preliminary exploration of the north to determine the truth of these reports. Estevan went along as the expedition's guide. Early that year, Fray Marcos, Estevan, and a retinue of Indian servants set out with high hopes of discovering the fabled Quivira and its streets of gold. When the expedition approached what is now southern Arizona, Estevan and several companions went ahead to scout the country. A system of signals was devised so they could report to the Friar about what they found. If there was nothing important, they were to send back a cross the size of a man's palm. Important news would be signaled by correspondingly larger crosses.

One can only image Fray Marcos' surprise when messengers returned bearing a cross the size of a man! They also reported that Estevan had learned of a place called Cibola and that he had been told this Cibola was but one of seven magnificent cities. Fray Marcos rushed forward, anxious to see what marvelous sight had prompted such a report. Shortly, however, the Friar met several of Estevan's companions who reported that their colorful guide had been killed.

Fray Marcos' report tells us he was determined to see Cibola for himself. Despite the news of Estevan's death, he continued the quest until they came within sight of a settlement which he described as being larger than the city of Mexico. He also added that his Indian guides had told him this Cibola was the poorest of the seven cities!

Historians disagree regarding his motives, but it is clear that Fray Marcos' report was, to put it kindly, vastly exaggerated. The Cibola where Estevan was killed was in reality the ancestral Zuni pueblo of Hawikah. Indications are that Fray Marcos never personally saw the village itself and probably did not even go beyond what is now southern Arizona. Instead, he apparently beat a hasty retreat to Mexico as soon as he learned of Estevan's death and relied only on the information given him by the survivors of Estevan's advance party. Regardless, the good friar's report seemed to confirm the stories which Cabeza de Vaca had heard during his travels. Could it be that these seven cities of Cibola were the mythical Seven Cities of Antilia, the golden Quivira for which men had been searching since medieval times?

From the list of those who anxiously proposed to follow up the report of Fray Marcos' discovery, Viceroy Mendoza chose Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, the 29-year-old governor of Nueva Galicia. This expedition was privately financed, as were all such Spanish enterprise of the time. Coronado's family contributed 50,000 ducats (probably a million dollars in today's money) or nearly half the cost of the expedition. Viceroy Mendoza invested 60,000 ducats of his own money. No one seemed concerned about the risk of such an investment. After all, hadn't both Cabeza de Vaca and Fray Marcos confirmed the certainty of the Seven Cities?

In January of 1540, Coronado set out from Mexico to find these fabled cities of gold. His expedition included over 300 soldiers, at least three women, and more than a thousand servants and support staff. Thousands of livestock, a sort of pantry on the hoof, trailed the main body. The expedition traveled slowly. In late June, they finally arrived at the outskirts of the multi storied, stone and mud village of Hawikah. It must have been a disappointing sight. The chronicles tell us that many a curse was heaped upon Fray Marcos' head that day, as the marvelous expectations conjured up by his imaginative report were nowhere to be seen.

As the Spanish approached, they were met by a line of Zuni warriors, intent on defending their home against these strange men who may have come to avenge the death of Estevan. Coronado attempted to convince them his intentions were peaceful, but his conciliatory gestures were rebuffed. Then the Zuni attacked. It was a furious but uneven battle.

The mounted Spaniards used their superior weapons to full advantage and beat back the determined Zuni defenders. Casualties were few, although Coronado was knocked unconscious by a well-aimed stone that bounced off his helmet. After the battle, the Spanish replenished their supplies from captured Zuni storerooms and continued on their quest. For the next two years, Coronado and his men explored deep into the North American continent but discovered only that the Seven Cities of Cibola were, after all, nothing but a myth. After Coronado was injured in a riding accident in the winter of 1542, the disheartened adventurers turned back to Mexico.

The Coronado expedition is often considered a failure, but history has shown that it was a journey of epic proportions. In little more than two years, they explored much of the southwestern United States, ventured deep into the plains of Kansas, descended the walls of the Grand Canyon, and visited all the major Indian villages, including Hopi, Pecos, and Taos.

New Mexico would now be ignored for nearly half a century. But eventually, the Spanish remembered the thousands of highly civilized, agricultural Indians who lived in large villages. Here were many souls who could be saved by conversion to Christianity. And herein lay one of the reasons why Juan de Onate marched north in 1598 to begin the European colonization of one of Spain's most remote possessions in the New World.