Hernando de Alvarado

By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

In 1540, at age 22, Hernando de Alvarado, a native of the small town of Las Montañas in northern Spain, became captain of artillery for the Coronado expedition. Rather than a strictly military rank, the designation "captain" signified Alvarado's social status as leader and organizer of a company. Don Hernando was an hidalgo and caballero of the Order of Santiago, one of the three great religious-military orders of Castilla. The other two were those of Alcántara and Calatrava. Membership in the orders was restricted to very high-status individuals. Although the documentary evidence that would served as incontrovertible proof has not been located, Alvarado likely funded the artillery company he led, as well.

In addition to six small-bore swivel guns, called versillos, the "artillery" of the expedition included 25 matchlock arquebuses and about 20 crossbows. The versillos were small and light enough in weight enough to be packed on horseback. To use cannons such as these, they had to be mounted in sockets in logs or structural elements in a building or ship before being fired. The versillos used by the Coronado expedition proved completely ineffective against the massive stone and adobe pueblos in which the natives of New Mexico resided. As Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera wrote twenty years after the expedition, "some piece of heavy artillery would have been useful to demolish [the walls], since [Vázquez de Coronado] did not take [anything] except the smallest versillos."

When the bulk of the expedition passed in review before Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza at Compostela in February 1540, don Hernando possessed "four horses, a [chainmail] vest with sleeves, native arms and armor." Among the men in his company, which, like others of the day, may have numbered 20 to two dozen, were Juan Troyano, Francisco Muñoz, Juan Jaramillo, Melchior Pérez, and Juan Cordero. The others have not been identified, although some of them at least were undoubtedly retainers of the captain and had been in his service prior to the expedition. Such composition was typical of companies on Spanish-led expeditions of the sixteenth century.

Two months after the expedition's departure from Compostela, the second day after Easter 1540, the expeditionaries carried out a mock battle with the settlers of the most northerly outpost of Spanish settlement, San Miguel de Culiacán. In the heat of that ceremonial skirmish, at least one of the versillos was discharged. Among the gun crew of at least two men handling the piece was Francisco Muñoz, who loaded the charge. Unfortunately, his crewmate fired the fuse before Muñoz had withdrawn the ramrod, and the resulting premature explosion ripped off his hand. That accidental casualty was a rude shock for most of the men, who were new to combat and its vicissitudes.

In a matter of days, though, the captain general and his council decided to split the expedition. A relatively small advance guard of 75 to 100 men-at-arms, including Alvarado and his company, and several hundred Indian allies, would travel on ahead to the Cities of Cíbola. The remainder of the expedition would follow several weeks behind. Alvarado often rode even ahead of the advance guard.

During the early days of July 1540, as Vázquez de Coronado and the advance guard approached Hawikku, the southernmost of the pueblos of Cíbola, four native men approached Alvarado and maestre de campo García López de Cárdenas, who were in the lead. The men said they had come to welcome the advance guard and that people from Hawikku would bring food the next day. While López de Cárdenas sent two of the Indians back to Hawikku with what he thought were reassuring gestures, Alvarado rode back to notify the captain general.

Don Hernando and his leader then returned to the maestre de campo with gift items, consisting of cloaks and glass beads, for the two remaining Cíbolans. Although the two men departed for home seemingly well content, the expeditionaries distrusted their intentions. López de Cárdenas rode ahead with a small force to locate a constricted area along the Zuni River, which the advance guard was following. Such a spot might prove a dangerous ambush, if the Cíbolans wanted to attack. Just such a narrows was found and occupied by López de Cárdenas's company, about a day's march downstream from Hawikku. That night, indeed, a band of warriors of unknown size assailed the camp with shrieks, screams, and a few arrows, but then withdrew into the darkness.

The following day, July 7, 1540, in the Julian calendar, the entire advance guard drew up in front of Hawikku, facing an array of Cíbolan warriors. As mandated by the Spanish king, the expeditionaries read aloud to the assembled Cíbolans the requerimiento, or demand for submission, which was also translated by an interpreter. The response from Cíbola was a shower of arrows. In turn, the captain general ordered an attack on the pueblo. With Vázquez de Coronado, López de Cárdenas, and Alvarado in the lead, the combined European and Indian force rushed the stone walls.

Finding a ladder against the outer wall, perhaps left as a trap, the captain general began to climb. Once he was in that vulnerable position, the Cíbolan defenders hurled a barrage of stones down on Vázquez de Coronado from their position on the flat roof. Several cobbles slammed into the captain general, badly denting his helmet and knocking him to the ground. Alvarado and López de Cárdenas ran to the now unconscious leader and threw themselves on top of him, taking further blows themselves and saving Vázquez de Coronado's life. With the help of other men-at-arms and Indian allies, the two captains were able to carry the captain general out of stone's reach. They laid him in a pavilion tent and returned to the fight.

Within an hour or two the Cíbolan warriors abandoned their pueblo, which had previously be cleared of women, children, and elders. They reestablished themselves in a fortified position on nearby Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain. The advance guard occupied Hawikku, and the captain general regained consciousness, seemingly without lasting harmful effect from the head injury.

Word of the Spanish occupation of Hawikku quickly spread throughout the Pueblo world. In response, an embassy was dispatched from Cicuique, or Pecos, one of the eastern pueblos. Leading the group was a man the Spaniards called Bigotes. He and his companions exchanged gifts and parleyed with Vázquez de Coronado and his captains, including Alvarado. Bigotes offered to serve as intermediary during a tour of the Rio Grande pueblos. The offer was accepted, and don Hernando was designated to lead the expeditionary contingent that would accompany Bigotes.

With 23 other men-at-arms from the expedition, as well as a Mexican Indian contingent of unknown size, and fray Juan de Padilla, Alvarado left Hawikku in early August 1540, heading east as Bigotes directed. Their first stop was at Matsa:kya, the largest of the Cities of Cíbola. Then they proceeded upstream along the Zuni River and the Pescado Valley to the area of modern Ramah, New Mexico. On the way, the expeditionaries saw several ruined towns that once had been inhabited by the ancestors of the Cíbolans.

They noted a fork in the road near Ramah, one branch heading northeast to Zia Pueblo and the other more directly east to Acoma. Under Bigotes's direction, the reconnaissance party traveled by way of the great rocky mesa of Acoma. Alvarado and several of his men made the arduous ascent of the mesa by hand and toe holds. They were disappointed with the pueblo they saw on top. As don Hernando himself later wrote, "we regretted having climbed up to that place."

On the group went at Bigotes's bidding, striking the Rio Grande in the vicinity of modern Albuquerque, what was then Tiguex, a group of 12 to 20 related pueblos situated on both banks of the river. According to Alvarado, "The next day the principales and people came from twelve pueblos. [They came] in order, those from one [pueblo] behind the other. They walked around our tent playing a flute, and an old man [was] speaking." Relations were friendly between don Hernando and his companions and most of the Tiguex people, thanks in great measure to Bigotes's intercession. Rodrigo de Frías, an expeditionary who did not accompany Alvarado and Bigotes, later indicated, however, that two of the pueblos took offense at the Spaniards' arrival and "came forth in war." Don Hernando and his company forced themselves on those pueblos.

In contrast to relatively barren and thinly populated Cíbola and Acoma, Tiguex seemed to be a much more favorable location for the expedition. Alvarado, therefore, wrote to the captain general by courier, advising him to move the expedition to Tiguex for the winter. Vázquez de Coronado heeded that advice and took up quarters in Coofor, one of the Tiguex pueblos, by early winter, requiring the native inhabitants to leave and move to neighboring pueblos.

Meanwhile, following Bigotes, Alvarado continued a circuit of the other pueblos, arriving finally at Cicuique, his guide's home. Because Bigotes had informed don Hernando about great bison herds found on the plains of extreme eastern New Mexico and what is now the Texas Panhandle, he asked to go on to see them. Bigotes, saying he was worn out, declined to lead the expeditionaries farther east, but provided another guide, a native of the plains, whom the Spaniards called by the nickname El Turco.

The new guide led the reconnaissance party into the midst of the bison, but by means of signs he also gave information about a place called Quivira, where there were many large native settlements, as well as gold and other metals. At this news, Alvarado had seen enough of bison for now and rushed back to Tiguex to let the expeditionaries know what he had just learned. Among the things El Turco indicated, was that Bigotes and another leader from Cicuique, called Cacique by the Spaniards, had taken a gold armband from him.

As he passed through Cicuique, Alvarado stopped to question Bigotes and Cacique about the armband. The Indian leaders denied that any such object existed. Don Hernando took them captive and took them forcibly to Tiguex. There, Bigotes and Isopete were tortured in an attempt to extort information from them about the armband and Quivira. They revealed nothing more.

Even with such inconclusive information, the captain general, his council and captains, including Alvarado, decided to go in search of Quivira once winter was over. Throughout the summer of 1541, the expedition sought El Turco's home. When Quivira was found, it turned out to be very different than don Hernando had understood it to be. Instead of many large towns of permanent buildings where people lived who worked gold and other metals, there were villages of thatched structures where no metal was seen except a single piece of copper. The expeditionaries killed El Turco and returned to Tiguex extremely disappointed and angry. Certainly, part of the frustration was due to initial miscommunication between El Turco and the Alvarado party.

After the Coronado expedition was abandoned the next year, 1542, and returned to New Spain, charges stemming from a dog attack against Bigotes were recommended against Alvarado. However, none is known to have been filed. He was a vecino of the Ciudad de México by 1547, if not well before, and died on July 16, 1550.

Sources Used:

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, The Coronado Entrada: Aspiring Lords, Unwilling Vassals. Book manuscript in preparation.

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).


Born in 1517 in Las Montañas in Spain, Hernando de Alvarado became a pivotal figure in one of the most dramatic episodes of New Mexico\'s early history.