Juan de Zaldívar


By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint

In early Spanish colonial New Mexico there were three prominent figures who bore the surname Zaldívar. Although their activities in New Mexico were separated by almost 60 years, it is significant that they were close relatives. The first of the three to leave an imprint on what would become New Mexico was Juan de Zaldívar, son of Ruy Díaz de Zaldívar and María Pérez de Oñate. He was born about 1514, possibly in Vitoria, in the Basque territory of northern Spain. His mother was the sister of Cristóbal de Oñate–who, in the late 1530s and early 1540s, served as lieutenant governor and interim governor of the province of Nueva Galicia in New Spain–and Juan de Oñate–a captain and alcalde mayor, or royal administrator.

Zaldívar himself arrived in New Spain in 1533 and may have traveled on to the new province of Nueva Galicia in that same year. There he lived for a time in the home of his uncle Juan de Oñate. Both of his uncles had been participants in the Spanish occupation of Nueva Galicia led by Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán at the beginning of the 1530s. When Guzmán was arrested in 1538 and relieved of his governorship of the province, Juan de Oñate was also accused of egregious abuse of Indians and fled to Peru to avoid possible punishment.

Juan de Zaldívar, though, evidently suffered no collateral stigma from his uncle's disgrace. When Francisco Vázquez de Coronado took over the governorship of Nueva Galicia in 1539, he appointed Juan one of the regidores, or city councilmen, of Guadalajara. He held that position, or the related office of alcalde, from then until his death more than 25 years later.

Only a few months after Zaldívar's appointment as regidor, fray Marcos de Niza reached Nueva Galicia after his long trek in search of the Cities of Cíbola. Vázquez de Coronado accompanied the friar to Mexico City, so he could report on his trip to the viceroy and his religious superior. The gist of his report was that the populous places in the north told about by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca did, in fact, exist, although he said he himself had seen only one of them from a distance.

Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza must have had qualms about Marcos\'s assertions because he immediately dispatched a message to Juan de Zaldívar in Guadalajara. In that message, the viceroy directed Zaldívar to retrace the friar\'s route to the north, picking up Melchior Díaz at Culiacán, on the way. Zaldívar and Díaz, with a dozen other men, were "to learn whether the report fray Marcos brought was in agreement with what he would see." They dutifully attempted to carry out Mendoza\'s order. During the late fall of 1539 the small party rode northward through what are now the states of Sinaloa and Sonora in Mexico and southeastern Arizona. But deep snow ahead of them blocked their way in the vicinity of pueblo ruins they knew as Chichilticale.

The Zaldívar-Díaz party spent three months in that region, talking with local natives who had been to Cíbola. As Díaz later wrote, "I have inquired into it through many people who have been there for fifteen [to] twenty years. I have attempted [to do] this in many different ways, making use of the Indians together and separately, and all [of them] eyewitnesses." The results were disappointing; they learned of "nothing of worth." Cíbola, it seemed, was a group of small settlements that lacked metal. In the early weeks of 1540, the reconnaissance party rode south, to inform the viceroy of its findings.

In March, they met the Coronado expedition making its way north toward Cíbola. Zaldívar and Díaz conferred with the captain general, apprising him of the evidence that Cíbola would prove to be far less grand than fray Marcos had suggested. The bad news leaked out, and many expeditionaries were in a foul mood as a result. Marcos, who was traveling with the expedition, did everything he could to reassure the people of the expedition that Cíbola really was a marvelous place. But, as Captain Diego López later testified, after Zaldívar and Díaz had talked with Vázquez de Coronado, he "held no hope that they would come across anything [worthwhile] in that land."

With only a short delay, Zaldívar pushed on south, finally finding Viceroy Mendoza at Colima. He delivered to the viceroy the information the reconnaissance had yielded, just as he had to Vázquez de Coronado. Mendoza\'s reaction was swift and unambiguous. Zaldívar was to head back north immediately, in order to overtake the large expedition. He was to deliver a message to the captain general that he should not continue to Cíbola with the full expedition, but instead "was first to send a captain to reconnoiter as far as Cíbola and to learn what it was." To get this message to Vázquez de Coronado as quickly as possible, Zaldívar traveled by ship to Culiacán. When the ship made port, though, Zaldívar found that the captain general had already departed eight days earlier, essentially already adopting the procedure mandated by the viceroy.

Awaiting Zaldívar was a letter from Vázquez de Coronado informing him that if he "chose to serve his majesty further in the expedition, they were to form a company for him by taking a number of men from each of the other companies." Having already spent months on the road, Zaldívar, nevertheless, agreed to lead a company. The unit that was put together for him included Luis de Quexada, Sebastián Roxo, and Melchior Pérez–who had originally been assigned to the company of Hernando de Alvarado–along with a dozen and a half others whose names are not known.

Zaldívar and his company now made up part of the main body of the expedition, which, in keeping with the captain general\'s instructions, would remain at Culiacán another week before following his route north. Stopping to establish a supply and communications base at Los Corazones–in what is now the Sonora River Valley–Zaldívar and the rest of the main expeditionary force did not reach Cíbola until October 1540. The captain general had ordered them to complete that leg of the trip even though Cíbola had, indeed, proved unsuitable as a source of tribute. He and the advance guard had meanwhile departed for the Rio Grande.

Still following weeks behind the advance guard, Zaldívar and the main force, led by Tristán de Luna y Arellano, caught up with Vázquez de Coronado by marching through unusually heavy December snow. After nearly eight months of separation, all the units of the expedition were reunited at Tiguex, in the area between modern Albuquerque and Bernalillo. The Pueblos of the region already felt unnecessarily put upon and mistreated by the newcomers. So much so, that the people of the whole region had recently risen up in arms, and the expeditionaries had burned a pueblo and executed native prisoners. Violent conflict was to be the norm for the next several months, as the expeditionaries attempted to restore passably amicable relations by force.

Zaldívar was thus absent during the first of the fighting along the Rio Grande. By its conclusion in March 1541, though, he was an active combatant, being credited, along with Captain Diego de Guevara, with having "overcome the other large pueblo by means of a siege." Three years later, after the expedition had come to an inglorious end, Zaldívar energetically defended the captain general and his comrades in arms from charges of having committed brutality against the Pueblo people. This exonerating testimony of his was generally not corroborated by other former expeditionaries. Zaldívar claimed that he had himself been severely wounded during the fighting that winter in Tiguex.

By April 1541, sufficient peace was established in Tiguex that the expedition could travel on toward the east, now led by the native guide El Turco in search of a place known as Quivira. Along the way, a captive Indian woman who had been assigned to Zaldívar, fled from him and escaped. When Quivira turned out to be another illusion, El Turco was executed. Various people were said by their companions to have killed El Turco, including Zaldívar. According to expeditionary Melchior Pérez, "he had heard it said by Captain Juan de Zaldívar that, under orders from the maestre de campo Diego López, he had garrotted El Turco because he had led the company deceitfully, put the whole army in danger, [exposed it to many difficulties], and had lied in everything he said." Zaldívar, though, was never officially charged with executing the guide.

After spending a second winter among the still hostile people of Tiguex, the expedition was abandoned, returning south toward Nueva Galicia and Mexico City in April 1542. Zaldívar probably left the disintegrating expedition as it passed through Guadalajara. As was true of most of the expeditionaries, Zaldívar found himself heavily in debt as a result of his participation as a captain. Years later, he put the size of his indebtedness resulting from the Coronado expedition at 5-6,000 pesos, a sizable sum for those days. Some of that debt, he said, resulted from his having provided food supplies to men-at-arms, presumably in his own company, which would have been customary for a company captain.

Despite his pleas of debt, Zaldívar had been very well off before the Coronado expedition and continued to prosper after it. He was married to Marina de Mendoza, daughter of Luis Marín, one of the conquerors of Tenochtitlan/México with Cortés. During that conquest in 1521, Marín had been captain of one of the bergantines, or oared gunboats, that had proved so important to Spanish victory. Juan and Marina had eight children.

Zaldívar maintained a very impressive house in Guadalajara, "one of most important in the province." By 1566, he could boast that he held "encomiendas, mines, grain fields, farms, slaves, and livestock farms." He was by then one of the wealthiest people in New Spain.

At age 52, he proposed to the king to lead, at his own expense, an expedition of conquest to the Philippines. He would outfit and provision 500 men-at-arms to take definitive control of Luzon, Mindanao, and other islands for Felipe II. In return, he asked for the titles of adelantado, or perpetual governor, and admiral. And he would also want, he said, the grant of an encomienda of the native people in an area of 50 leagues, about 130 miles, along some coast of his choosing. As reward for his successful conquest, he also expected to be granted exclusive right to trade with the natives of the islands and their Chinese and Moorish partners. Zaldívar's proposal had not been acted on when he died in Guadalajara around 1570.

Sources Used:

AGI, Patronato, 60, N.5, R.4, méritos y servicios, Juan de Zaldívar, February 1566.

AGI, Patronato, 76, N.1, R.5, méritos y servicios, Francisco de Zaldívar, March 1580.

Bolton, Herbert E. Coronado, Knight of Pueblos and Plains. Albuquerque: 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.

Simmons, Marc. The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991.


Twenty-six-year-old Basque Juan de Zaldívar served as a captain in the expedition to Cibola and Quivira led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.

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

Courtesy of the State Records Center and Archives.