Francisco Vázquez de Coronado

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was in his late twenties when he led a major expedition of reconnaissance and conquest from Mexico City to Cíbola, Tiguex, and Quivira from 1539 to 1542. He was a native of the great university town of Salamanca in north-central Spain. As a youth, he had probably spent time in the city of Granada, which had been retaken from its long-time Moorish rulers only a generation earlier. Francisco's father, Juan Vázquez de Coronado, had held the post of corregidor, or royal administrator, there in 1515 and 1516. Francisco's mother was Isabel de Luján, who had already given birth to another son, Gonzalo. As a younger son in a well-to-do family, Francisco would be excluded from major inheritance from the family estate, under the tradition of primogeniture.

It was during his father's tenure in Granada that the Vázquez de Coronado family developed close ties with the very powerful house of Mendoza. Iñigo López de Mendoza, the second conde de Tendilla, was the first Spanish captain general and governor of the former Islamic kingdom of Granada, a post that was to remain in the Mendoza family for more than a hundred years. Juan Vázquez de Coronado was, thus, a member of Mendoza's administration.

That close association bore fruit for the corregidor's son Francisco when Antonio de Mendoza, son of Granada's captain general, was appointed first viceroy of New Spain in the Americas in April 1535. Francisco was among the new viceroy's entourage when he sailed for New Spain later that year.

Within 12 months of arriving in New Spain, the young caballero married 12-or-13-year-old Beatriz de Estrada, one of the daughters of the former royal treasurer and interim governor of New Spain Alonso de Estrada and his very capable wife Marina Flores Gutiérrez de la Caballería. Through this marriage Francisco became a very wealthy man. Beatriz had brought to the marriage the encomiendaof Tlapa in the modern Mexican state of Guerrero, the third largest encomienda in New Spain. Through the encomienda, the couple exercised the right, granted by the Spanish king, to collect tribute from the Indian people of that region. The monetary value of Tlapa would soon figure importantly in young Vázquez de Coronado's future.

In the same year of Francisco and Beatriz's marriage, another event occurred that was to shape his career. Four survivors of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition to La Florida, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés de Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Estevan de Dorantes, reached Mexico City after an incredible overland journey across the continent. They reported that, while traveling from one native community to another beyond the far northern fringes of New Spain they had heard tell of wealthy and populous cities even farther north. At the time, it was supposed that these might be cities in Asia, in European imaginations of the day a place of fabulous wealth.

As an hidalgo and protégé of the viceroy, young Vázquez de Coronado rose rapidly in Mendoza's administration. In 1537 Mendoza sent him to investigate an uprising among black slaves and Indians at the mines of Amatepeque, southwest of Mexico City. Having extracted confessions from several Blacks, Francisco had them drawn and quartered, effectively ending the uprising. According to what he wrote the king, Viceroy Mendoza was pleased with the young man's performance.

Vázquez de Coronado followed that assignment with another, to investigate living and working conditions of Indians laboring in the mines of Sultepec. There, charges had been leveled against mine operators that they worked Indian miners without sufficient rest and food, that they forced the Indians to carry excessively heavy loads of ore, and that the Indians were not being taught Catholic doctrine. Francisco, in his position of visitador, or official investigator, found that the charges appeared to be true and referred the case to the audiencia, or high court, in Mexico City for a final decision. The result was that the mine owners were fined.

With his work at Sultepec complete, Vázquez de Coronado was next dispatched to the eight-year-old province of Nueva Galicia, comprising much of what today are the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, and Sinaloa. The province had been established in 1530-1532 by its conquistador and first governor Beltrán Nuño de Guzmán. He had been arrested and relieved of his governorship in 1537, and now Francisco was to conduct the residencia, or formal administrative review, of Guzmán's successor, Diego Pérez de Luján.

On his trip from Mexico City to Compostela, the capital of Nueva Galicia, Vázquez de Coronado was accompanied by the Franciscan priest fray Marcos de Niza, who was being sent north to verify the reports of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions about wealthy cities. On arrival in Nueva Galicia, Vázquez de Coronado found that Governor Pérez de Luján had died, leaving the chief executive's job vacant. Francisco assumed those duties himself and was soon officially confirmed in that post.

When Marcos de Niza returned to Nueva Galicia from the north late in the summer of 1539, he reported electrifying news to the young governor: there was a remarkably prosperous city far to the north called Cíbola. Both men hurried to Mexico City to notify the viceroy. There, investors and participants were enlisted in what was to be a privately-financed expedition to bring Cíbola into the Spanish sphere. Vázquez de Coronado, mortgaging Tlapa, eagerly became, along with Mendoza, one of the major investors in the enterprise and assumed the role of its captain general, or overall leader.

By late February 1540, Vázquez de Coronado, Marcos de Niza, and nearly 2,000 other people, Europeans, African slaves, and Indian allies from what is now central and western Mexico were again in Compostela, ready to jump off toward Cíbola. Four tiring and hungry, but otherwise largely uneventful, months later. Vázquez de Coronado and an advance guard of a hundred or so Europeans and their slaves and servants and several hundred Indian allies came within sight of the first city of Cíbola. Its appearance was profoundly disappointing. As Vázquez de Coronado later wrote, "everything the friar had said was found [to be] the opposite."

Despite that blow to their enthusiasm, the expeditionaries were in sore need of food. Besides, maybe the other cities of Cíbola were wealthier than this one. Vázquez de Coronado and his principal advisors, in council, decided that they must enter Cíbola, obtain food, and reconnoiter the territory. When they had gotten within hailing distance of the city, the ancestral Zuni town of Hawikku in west-central New Mexico, the captain general assured that the requerimiento, or formal request to submit to the king, was read aloud three times to Zuni Pueblo warriors who issued from the stone and mud-mortar town. The Zunis responded with jeers and warning arrows.

In the face of the Zunis' refusal to admit the advance guard to Hawikku, Vázquez de Coronado, again with the approval of his council, ordered that it be attacked. During the ensuing battle, Francisco was knocked to the ground by a heavy thrown stone, receiving the first of two very serious injuries he suffered during the course of the expedition. While he lay unconscious in a nearby tent, the Zunis evacuated Hawikku, which had previously been emptied of women, children, and the elderly. The advance guard swarmed in, finding a plentiful supply of corn and other foods. In a matter of hours, while the other expeditionaries ate and examined Hawikku, the captain general revived.

Neither Hawikku nor any of the other nearby Zuni towns revealed the sort of high-value goods the expeditionaries had hoped to find. And the regions population was much too small to support the Europeans and their households through payment of tribute. Even so, Vázquez de Coronado and his council made the decision to send a messenger south to the main body of the expedition, which had followed the advance guard only as far as what is now central Sonora. The messenger was to tell them to pack up and proceed to Cíbola. That was a decision that later angered the viceroy and was to cost nearly all of the expeditionaries every maravedí they had invested.

The principal complication of the decision to move the main body of the expedition from Sonora to Cíbola was the impossibility of resupply of food and clothing without reliance on the Indians of the region. The overland route from Mexico City and Nueva Galicia was prohibitively long, and supply by sea, which it had been assumed would meet the expedition's needs, was ruled out by the much greater distance than expected from the Sea of Cortés.

The problem of supply was further aggravated by the subsequent decision by the captain general and the council to move the expedition's base to Tiguex, along the Rio Grande in the vicinity of Albuquerque and Bernalillo. Tiguex, a cluster of 12 to 20 pueblos, offered a much larger native population than did Cíbola, as well as a more temperate climate and much greater agricultural production. Access to both foodstuffs and Pueblo clothing depended on the goodwill of the Tiguex people.

What goodwill there was quickly evaporated in the face of demands by the expedition that a pueblo be vacated for its use. That was followed within weeks by peremptory requests for food and, as winter closed in, clothing. The Tiguex people responded by attacking the expedition's horse herd, killing as many as 60 animals. In return, Vázquez de Coronado dispatched parties to present a formal ultimatum to the residents of several Tiguex pueblos. The overture was rejected, and warfare broke out between the expedition and the Tiguex people. Fighting lasted until early spring 1541, when the expedition left the Rio Grande in pursuit of rumors of another purportedly wealthy Indian community known as Quivira.

After weeks of travel on the Great Plains, the captain general and a small detachment reached Quivira, only to be disappointed again. Vázquez de Coronado bowed to pressure from several captains and permitted the execution of their guide and then headed back to the Rio Grande to join the remainder of the expedition. The captain general and his council determined that the expedition should return to Quivira following the winter of 1541-42 in order to follow up new reports of large and prosperous native communities perhaps as far east as the Mississippi River.

Those plans, however, were scuttled by events far to the south, the eruption of a widespread native uprising in Nueva Galicia now known as the Mixtón War. The hostilities there interrupted what had been regular communication between the expedition and the viceregal capital in Mexico City. That, combined with continuing violent resistance of the Pueblo people, rendered continuation of the expedition untenable. In addition, Vázquez de Coronado suffered a second serious head injury in a fall from his horse.

The captain general convened a council of prominent expeditionaries and put to them the question of whether the expedition should be abandoned. The decision was unanimous to return to Mexico City come spring, rather than to march farther east. A faction within the expedition later attempted to rescind its agreement to withdraw from Tierra Nueva. But, in the end, Vázquez de Coronado was able to hold fast to the original decision. About April 1, 1542, the expedition pulled up stakes and headed back south. Discipline was poor, and the force disintegrated as it retreated through Nueva Galicia. Fewer than 100 of the original 360-plus men-at-arms returned to Mexico City with the captain general.

Viceroy Mendoza, as a private citizen the largest investor in the expedition, could not hide his displeasure with his protégé. Within months, two investigations were launched into the conduct of the former captain general and governor. Although he was largely cleared of malfeasance, Vázquez de Coronado was tied up in legal battles for years. One, an effort to reclaim encomiendas that had been stripped from him while on the expedition to Cíbola, Tiguex, and Quivira, was still pending at the time of his unexpected death in 1554, at the age of about 43. He had continued to serve as a city councilman in Mexico City until very shortly before he died. The cause of his death was a contagion that also afflicted several other members of the city council. In the years that followed, Vázquez de Coronado's widow, Beatriz, saw that three of her five daughters were married into very prominent and influential families in New Spain. She never remarried and devoted herself to a pious life as a beata, or lay woman of devout religious practice.

Sources Used:

Aiton, Arthur Scott. Antonio de Mendoza, First Viceroy of New Spain. Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1927.

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

Day, A. Grove. Coronado's Quest: The Discovery of the Southern States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940.

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.

Flint, Shirley Cushing. "La Sangre Limpiada of Marina Flores Gutiérrez de la Caballería." Colonial Latin American Historical Review, 11:1 (Winter 2002):35-54.

Flint, Shirley Cushing. "The Financing and Provisioning of the Coronado Expedition." The Coronado Expedition From the Distance of 460 Years,ed., Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, 42-56. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003.

The 1539-1542  Coronado expedition, though generally considered a failure, opened the American Southwest to Spanish exploration.

Reproducing prohibited without express permission from the State Records Center and Archives.

Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives.