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by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

The word "Cíbola" made its appearance for the first time in writing as a New Mexico place name in September 1539. On the second day of that month the Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza presented to Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza the written report of a trek he had just completed. He had left Mexico City in November 1538, dispatched by the viceroy to learn what he could about populous and prosperous cities that reportedly existed hundreds of leagues to the north.

Marcos traveled northward with the Moorish slave Esteban de Dorantes. Esteban was familiar with some of the territory they would cover because he had traversed it three years earlier as one of four survivors of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. Marcos and Esteban, along with a second friar named Onorato and several hundred Indians, departed from the frontier of Spanish control at Culiacán in what is now the state of Sinaloa in Mexico in early March 1539.

Two weeks before Easter, Marcos's company minus Onorato, who had been forced to turn back because of illness, reached a native town called Vácapa. Vácapa has not been identified in modern terms but was in today's southern Sonora. At that point, fray Marcos decided to send Esteban on ahead while he himself celebrated the solemn holiday and waited for messengers he had sent to the coast of the Gulf of California.

The two of them agreed on a code by which Esteban would notify Marcos by means of Indian runners about what he might hear and or find. "If what [was reported] was of moderate importance, he would send me a white cross [the size] of one palmo; if it was grand, he would send one [cross] two palmos [in size]; and if it was something grander and better than Nueva España, he would send me a large cross," wrote Marcos in his report.

Just four days later, a messenger from Esteban arrived in Vácapa, bringing with him "a very large cross the height of a man." Also with him was another Indian sent by Esteban, a man who had been to a place he said was called Cíbola. According to the messenger, Cíbola was "the greatest thing in the world." His companion, the man who had actually seen it, reported that "in this first provincia there are seven very great ciudades, all under one lord. [These cuidades consist] of grand houses made from stone and lime. The smallest [are] one story with a flat roof on top, and others [are] two and three stories."

The messenger urged fray Marcos to hurry in pursuit of Esteban, so that together they could reach Cíbola without delay. Marcos, though, had his own commitments. He waited until Easter was past and then set out on Esteban's trail. Although evidently Marcos had expected the Moroccan to wait for him, that never happened. Esteban continued on ahead of the friar, repeatedly sending back huge crosses signifying the importance, size, and wealth of Cíbola.

Following behind the Moor by perhaps as much as two weeks, fray Marcos reached the settlement where Esteban had first been told about Cíbola. There, several people told the friar that each year they traveled to Cíbola to work in the fields in return for payment in turquoise and bison hides. Nearly two weeks later, the friar entered an indigenous settlement where a refugee from Cíbola was living. That man informed the friar that "Cíbola is a great ciudad in which there are many people, streets, and plazas...the other seven ciudades are like this [one]. Some [are] larger, and the most important of them is Ahacus."

Marcos proceeded onward until he met an Indian who had accompanied Esteban, now heading back south. He and other survivors who arrived the next day told the friar troubling news: Esteban had reached Cíbola, but had been killed by the people there. In the face of that catastrophe, fray Marcos abandoned his journey and rushed back to Mexico City as fast as he could to inform the viceroy about Cíbola.

Although Marcos's news about Cíbola was all secondhand, it was so enticing, that Mendoza finished plans to send out a large-scale expedition to go there. It would be led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. That huge force arrived within sight of Ahacus, the first of the cities of Cíbola, in July 1540. According to one of the members of the expedition, "When they saw the first pueblo, which was Cíbola, such were the curses that some of them hurled at fray Marcos, that may God not allow them to reach [his ears]. It is a small pueblo crowded together and spilling down a cliff."

Despite their profound disappointment with Cíbola, the expeditionaries fought their way into the first city and later reconnoitered the others. Less than a month after reaching the seven cities, Vázquez de Coronado wrote to the viceroy with evident disgust, "The seven ciudades are seven small towns, all consisting of the [sort of] houses I describe [here]. They are all located within close proximity, within four leagues. All [together] are called the reino of Cíbola...In this one, where I am now lodged, there could be some two hundred houses, all encircled by a wall. It seems to me that together with the other [houses] that are not [encircled] in this way, they could reach [a total of] five hundred hearths [households]. There is another neighboring town, one of the seven, [that] is somewhat larger than this one. [There is] another one the same size as this [one], and the remaining four are somewhat smaller."

The people of the seven small towns fled to their customary refuge atop a nearby, steep-walled mesa. Although leaders descended from time to time to talk with the expeditionaries, the Cíbolans never returned en masse to their homes during the two years the expedition remained in what was to become New Mexico. For the expeditionaries and Spanish colonists in general, Cíbola dropped from conversation, though Marcos's early report continued to circulate in Europe for many years. As a result, even into the eighteenth century, places labeled as "Cíbola" appeared on European maps of the Americas, drifting here and there across the southwest quarter of North America.

There has been general agreement for a century and a half between the people of Zuni Pueblo, in today's west-central New Mexico, and historians and anthropologists that the towns known to the Coronado expedition as Cíbola were predecessors of modern Zuni. Only 40 years after the Coronado expedition, Antonio de Espejo explicitly made that connection, writing in 1583: "After traveling twenty-four leagues to the west [of Acoma Pueblo] in four days, we finally came to a province of six pueblos, known as Zuñi or Cíbola." Pioneer anthropologist Frank Hamilton Cushing reinforced that identification in 1879 with observation of archaeological ruins and information received from Zuni tribal members.

Nevertheless, there has been dispute over the years as to the modern identity of the individual pueblo ruins that once comprised Cíbola. The most recent comprehensive investigation of that problem, carried out by archaeologist Keith Kintigh, has concluded that the seven most likely candidates for the cities of Cíbola are Hawikku (the Ahacus of the sixteenth-century documents), Mats'a:kya (also mentioned in the sixteenth-century documents), Kyaki:ma, Kwa'kin'a, Halona:wa, Kechiba:wa, and Chalo:wa. It is also possible that only five or six of these pueblos were actually occupied at the time of the Coronado expedition.

These seven ruined towns are now strung out along and adjacent to a 12-mile stretch of the Zuni River. But the people of Cíbola in the 1540s lived in and utilized a much larger territory. Some of the Cíbolan agricultural fields lay many miles from the pueblos and were farmed from seasonal homes. The agriculture use area comprised an extensive region encompassing irrigable land adjacent to the upper Little Colorado River and several of its tributaries, Cottonwood Wash, Chevelon Creek, the Rio Puerco (of the west), Carrizo Creek, as well as the Zuni River. This territory straddles what is now the boundary between the states of New Mexico and Arizona but the people of Cíbola used a far greater domain for other purposes including collection of sacred, medicinal, and edible plants; hunting; and acquisition of minerals such as clay, pigments, salt, and various stones used for tools and weapons. The boundaries of that use area reached as far south as modern Glenwood, New Mexico, west to the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona, east to the Malpais lava flows southwest of Mount Taylor in west-central New Mexico, and north as far as the latitude of the Hopi pueblos.

The name Cíbola may be a corruption of the Zunis' name for their pueblo, Shiwana. It has also been suggested, as anthropologist and Zuni tribal member Edmund Ladd put it, that Marcos de Niza's earliest informants "had robes, probably buffalo robes, with them...Probably the bearers were pointing to the robes and saying, 'Cíbolo, cíbolo,' because the word for buffalo in the Zuni language is ciwolo." Whatever the case, the word was, strictly speaking, not the Zunis' own name for their towns or any individual town. Its use as such by Marcos and members of the Coronado expedition is a classic case of miscommunication between Europeans and Native Americans during their earliest contacts.

The people of Zuni/Cíbola, numbering perhaps 2,000 in 1540, continued to occupy six or seven pueblos for the next 150 years. Since prehistoric times, they had been important middlemen in trade of turquoise and bison hides from the Pueblo world and the Great Plains, and for exotic feathers and sea shells from Sonora and areas farther south along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. In addition, they were very successful farmers, raising corn, squash, beans, and other crops. Their ceremonial lives were highly developed; religious observances, centering on the intervention of anonymous ancestors in control of the environment, were at least as important to the people of Cíbola as they are to their Zuni descendants today.

With the permanent establishment of a Spanish colony in New Mexico in the late 1500s, attempts were made to convert all of the Pueblos, including the people of Cíbola/Zuni, to Catholicism. At Cíbola, those efforts were only sporadically and partially successful. The first mission and church were established at Hawikku in 1629, but the mission had a very uneven history. Several times in the next 50 years, the Zuni people rose up and expelled or killed the resident priests. After the great Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Franciscans never again successfully gained a foothold at Zuni.

At the time of the revolt, the Zuni people consolidated their towns into a single settlement, at the site of Halona:wa. At that point, Cíbola, as Marcos de Niza and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado knew it, ceased to exist. Gone were the seven cities that once spurred the dreams of conquistadors and missionaries alike. The people remained, but their string of towns along the Zuni River began melting into mounded ruins.

Sources Used:

Anyon, Roger. "The Late Prehistoric and Early Historic Periods in the Zuni-Cíbola Area, A.D. 1400-1680." Current Research on the Late Prehistory and Early History of New Mexico, edited by Bradley J. Vierra, 75-83. Albuquerque: New Mexico Archaeological Council, 1992.

Ferguson, T.J. and E. Richard Hart. A Zuni Atlas. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

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.

Green, Jesse. Zuñi: Selected Writings of Frank Hamilton Cushing. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1979.

Hodge, Frederick W. History of Hawikuh, New Mexico, One of the So-Called Cities of Cíbola. Los Angeles: Southwestern Museum, 1937.

Kintigh, Keith. Settlement, Subsistence, and Society in Late Zuni Prehistory. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985.

Ladd, Edmund J. "Zuni on the Day the Men in Metal Arrived." The Coronado Expedition to Tierra Nueva: The 1540-1542 Route Across the Southwest, edited by Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, 225-33. Niwot, Colorado: University Press of Colorado, 1997.

Latitude: 3420
Longitude: 10735