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Melchior Díaz

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Captain Melchior Díaz was a key member of the Coronado expedition of 1539-1542. He was characterized as being "a very upright individual with high intelligence and understanding, a good Christian, competent, and a man very experienced in matters of war, a prudent person very mindful of the conversion and welfare of the natives." His experiences in New Spain were extensive. He had served under Nuño de Guzmán during the conquest of Nueva Galicia (the province Francisco Vázquez de Coronado became governor of in 1538), was the alcalde mayor (chief administrator) of Culiacán, in the modern Mexican state of Sinaloa, and lieutenant governor of Compostela, the then capital of Nueva Galicia. He was among the Spaniards who in 1536 encountered the survivors of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition when they finally stumbled into the outskirts of Culiacán after an eight year odyssey. For Vázquez de Coronado, Díaz was someone he implicitly relied upon to accomplish intelligence-gathering assignments that sent him to many parts of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico.

To date nothing is known of his origins. His untimely death in 1541 precluded his recording his experiences or applying to the king for grants based on his meritorious service. Many such applications included valuable personal information.

As early as November 1539 Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza sent Díaz and Juan de Zaldívar with fourteen horsemen and an unknown number of Indian allies from Culiacán to the north "to learn whether the report fray Marcos brought was in agreement with what he would see." Fray Marcos and the black slave Esteban had been sent by the viceroy in November 1538 to verify reports of the rumored grandness of the Seven Cities of Cíbola (Zuni). When fray Marcos returned alone to Mexico City with glowing reports, despite the fact that Esteban had been killed by the Zunis, Mendoza sought verification before he committed men, equipment and money on a full-blown expedition to Cíbola.

As the Díaz-Zaldívar group made its way north, Díaz reported being well-received by the Indians, who provided them with food and shelter. However, he reported that because there was very little excess corn available it might prove doubtful that an expedition the size of Vázquez de Coronado's (about 2000 persons and 5000 head of livestock) could sustain themselves. In fact, "Zaldívar and the other horsemen] say that because the year had been bad, [the Díaz party itself] experienced the hardship of hunger at many places."

As he and the others continued north, winter set in. They began to experience cold and frosty weather, so much so that several Indian allies froze to death and two Spaniards nearly did so. As the weather deteriorated, Díaz decided to halt at the pueblo ruin of Chichilticale, located somewhere in southeastern Arizona, and wait for winter to end. In a report he sent to Mendoza he told what he had learned of Cíbola from natives who lived nearby, or who had been there over the years. He was able to gather the first solid and surprisingly accurate information on what the expedition might encounter.

He was told that there were, in fact, seven settlements of Indians in Cíbola, but that “they have crudely worked buildings made of stone and mud" and not the magnificent houses reported by fray Marcos. His detailed report gives us another glimpse into the Pueblo world, their buildings of two and three stories, their methods of and weapons for fighting, the flora and fauna, cultural practices, and their physical appearance. Ever on the lookout for signs of wealth he reported their use of bison hides, turquoises and small crystals (possibly peridots), but could get no confirming information on whether they possessed metal of any sort. He was told "that the land is excellent for corn and beans."

He reported that an Indian who had accompanied Esteban to Cíbola and had been a captive there was one of his informants. He was astute enough to record some ethnographic details as told to him by his informants when he said, "the Indians perform their dances and songs accompanied by flutes they have. Their holes, where they place their fingers, yield many tunes. They sing along with those who play [the flutes]; those who sing also clap their hands in the same way we do."

He was also informed of other large, civilized settlements in the region, Acoma and possibly the Rio Grande pueblos, Hopi or the ancient Hohokam settlements along the Gila River. He was warned that the people of Cíbola had told his informants that if these Christians came, they should kill them. "[They said further] that if [the Indians where Díaz was writing] did not dare [to kill the Spaniards], they were to send [the messenger] to tell [the people of Cíbola], because they would come to do it right." Despite the mean faces of the people of Chichilticale, Díaz was able to obtain some very remarkable information on Cíbola. Díaz did warn the viceroy that despite the many people along the trail, "they are not suited to any other use besides making them Christians." In other words, expectations could not be sustained that suitable populations would be found to support encomiendas (grants to collect tribute).

Sometime in March 1540 Díaz and Zaldívar on their return south to report to the viceroy met Vázquez de Coronado with the entire expedition at Chiametla some 150 miles north of Compostela. The reports they made to the Captain General were unsettling. However, it was not until weeks later that the viceroy received Díaz's report in which he detailed his reconnaissance and verified that Esteban had indeed been killed at Cíbola. The report arrived too late to halt the expedition.

Vázquez de Coronado continued to make use of Díaz's talents as the verifier of fray Marcos's claims. Again, somewhere south of the Yaqui River in the modern Mexican state of Sonora 300 miles north of Culiacán, he was sent with fifteen horsemen to confirm the existence of a reported large population of Indians somewhere on an arc ranging from southern modern Sonora to southern Chihuahua in the Sierra Madre Occidental. As Vázquez de Coronado wrote to the viceroy, "he [Díaz] traveled four days through some very rugged mountains and did not find anything to subsist on there. [Nor did he find] people or information about anything, except he did find two or three impoverished little settlements with twenty or thirty rude shelters each." Díaz's reliable reports of Tarahumara rancherías (transitory settlements) did not bode well for fray Marcos's reputation for truthfulness. As Vázquez de Coronado continued to Mendoza, "the conclusion was drawn that all the rest [that fray Marcos had told about] would be things of that sort." When Díaz and his men returned from that reconnaissance he was dispatched with trade goods to the Sonora Valley over 100 miles farther north to obtain corn for the men and animals.

By July 1540 the vanguard of the expedition reached Cíbola only to see for themselves that it fell far short of what fray Marcos described and more closely resembled the description Díaz had obtained from informants while wintering over in Chichilticale. For fray Marcos's own safety, Vázquez de Coronado had Díaz and Juan Gallego escort him back to Mexico. When the Díaz party reached San Gerónimo/Los Corazones, near the modern town of Ures, Sonora, Gallego continued on to Mexico City with fray Marcos, while Díaz remained to take command of the Spanish outpost and to launch his final reconnaissance.

That mission was to take half the men from San Gerónimo and head to the Pacific coast in search of Hernando de Alarcón's supply ships. Alarcón had been commissioned to take ships laden with much needed supplies up the west coast of Mexico, thinking that it would be quite easy to rendezvous with the Coronado expedition in Cíbola. Unfortunately, Spanish knowledge of the regional geography was badly misinformed. Instead of finding the "port of Cíbola" he encountered a vast expanse of land, Arizona, between himself on the lower Colorado River and Zuni.

Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera later wrote an account of Díaz's expedition that he must have obtained from the men who accompanied the captain. Again, the report contained details of the native peoples he encountered, providing valuable ethnographical data about the semi-nomadic Yuman Indians of southwest Arizona and southeast California. Díaz, although not enthused by the manner in which the Indians lived, was very impressed with their height and strength. The natives were capable of carrying loads that six Spaniards could not budge. He included a description of their thatched shelters that held over a hundred individuals. He remarked on the Indian's ingenuity for keeping warm during winter's cold desert nights. The fact that they carried about a lighted firebrand with which they could warm themselves, so impressed Díaz that he named the lower Colorado River, Río del Tizón, or Firebrand River.

When his party reached the Colorado River, Díaz discovered that Alarcón had come and gone, leaving written messages at the base of a tree. This discouraging news did not prevent him from continuing his reconnaissance. He built rafts to cross the river and after overcoming some Indian resistance was able to gain the other side. He continued his explorations west, becoming the first European to see the geothermal area in extreme northern Baja California known today as the Cerro Prieto.

Unfortunately, in January 1541 Díaz suffered a freak accident best described by Castañeda de Nájera. "One day a whippet, which a man-at-arms had, ran ravenously after several rams [the Spaniards] were bringing along for food. When the captain [Díaz] saw it, he hurled his fighting lance at it as he was galloping. [The lance] stuck in the ground. Unable to stop the horse, he ran onto the lance, and his thigh was pierced by it, so that the iron tip exited at his groin and his bladder was ruptured." He himself removed the lance. His men had no choice but to abandon any further explorations and return to San Gerónimo, carrying their mortally wounded captain. Díaz, incredibly, lived for another twenty days. The exact whereabouts of Díaz's grave remains a mystery to this day. It has been suggested that the location is in the vicinity of modern Caborca, Sonora.

During his fourteen months and over 3500 miles of reconnaissance on behalf of the Coronado expedition, Melchior Díaz left a valuable legacy. The information he gathered on the native peoples he encountered offers the modern reader a glimpse into a way of life prior to European contact.

Sources Used:

Bolton, Herbert E. Coronado: Knight of Pueblos and Plains. Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 1949.

Flint, Richard. Great Cruelties Have Been Reported: The 1544 Investigation of the Coronado Expedition. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2002.

Flint, Richard and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. and trs. Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-1542: "They Were Not familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects. Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 2005.

Ives, Ronald L. “The Grave of Melchior Díaz: A Problem in Historical Sleuthing." Kiva (December 1959) 25 (no.2):31-40.

Tello, fray Antonio. Libro Segundo de la Crónica Miscelánea, en que se trata de la Conquista Espiritual y Temporal de la Santa Provincia de Xalisco en el Nuevo Reino de la Galicia y Nueva Vizcaya y Descubrimiento del Nuevo México. Guadalajara, México: La Republica Literaria, 1891. Reprint, México, D.F.: Editorial Porrúa, 1997.