Coronado's Search for the Seven Cities of Gold Leads to Spanish Dominion over Southwestern North America

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Coronado's Search for the Seven Cities of Gold Leads to Spanish Dominion over Southwestern North America


The year 1542 was the great climax of the Spanish age of discovery—a year in which Spain had expeditions under way stretching halfway around the globe. Soon after the making of the Spanish empire in the New World with the discoveries of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506), the great colonial effort moved towards establishing roots on the northern and southern continents of North America. Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led the last of these expeditions in search of new lands in North America for Spain. In 1540 he led a two-year epic journey that gave him and his companions the distinction of being the first Europeans to explore California, to see the Grand Canyon, to live among Pueblo Indians, and to explore the Great Plains homeland of the Quivira Indians in central Kansas. Coronado made one of the most significant expeditions of the remarkable era of the opening of the Western Hemisphere by Europeans. Coronado's expedition gave Spain what is now known as the southwestern United States.


Although Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (c. 1510-1554) is generally credited with being the first European to arrive in what is now known as the southwestern United States, other Spaniards preceded this expedition by 13 years. In 1527 a Spanish ship carrying 400 people sank off the coast of Florida (possibly Texas), and four survivors spent nine years traveling west across the continent. These men were members of a Spanish expedition dispatched to explore the inner lands of the North American continent. One of the survivors, Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490-1556), wrote about how he and the others adapted and developed an unusual sensitivity to the native people, accepting their help and surviving for 13 years in an unknown land.

The four men eventually reached the Gulf of California and then headed south, until they arrived in the village of Culiacan in southern Mexico. They told stories of what they had seen (or heard about, or imagined)—seven huge cities whose houses were made of turquoise and gold, the fabled "Seven Cities of Cibola." The odyssey of Cabeza de Vaca and his men set in motion the rumors of "opulent countries" to the north, and four years later the mammoth expedition led by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was authorized.

In early 1540 Coronado led some 300 soldiers, up from Compostela, New Spain. An eager and well-appointed army, if a somewhat inexperienced one, it consisted not only of Spaniards but of Portuguese, Italians, and a Frenchman, a German, a Scot, and three women. On foot in the front ranks were Fray Marcos and four Franciscan padres, and bringing up the rear were 700 "Indian allies" who went along as servants, wranglers, and herdsman of the sheep, horses, and cattle brought along for food and transport. The expedition would follow the coast of the Gulf of California northward towards the state of Sonora, entering present-day Arizona and into New Mexico.

In July 1540 Coronado and his advance party of soldiers encountered the Zuni pueblo Hawikuh, which already had experienced an encounter with the Spanish the previous year; one of the survivors of Cabeza de Vaca's expedition was killed by Zuni warriors. Coronado arrived at the Zuni pueblo with the hope that he had finally "found" one of the famed cities of gold. Arriving at the high point of Zuni summer ceremonies, the Zuni people were not receptive to Coronado's declaration of the requirimiento—the standard Spanish speech to native peoples, which informed them that the Catholic Church was " the ruler and superior of the whole world." Coronado warned the Zuni that if they failed to obey orders, "with the help of God we shall make war against you and take you and your wives and children and shall make slaves of them."

Coronado ordered his men to attack the pueblo. The Zuni warriors fought bravely, but they could not stop the Spaniards. They were terrified by the sound of the loud guns and the charging horses. Their arrows and spears bounced off of the Spaniards' metal armor. The better-armed and mounted Spaniards entered the pueblo and finally the Zuni retreated, leaving Coronado and his men standing in an empty village.

Following this encounter, Coronado and his men discovered no gold in the Zuni pueblos. However, they did find ample food, producing fields, and a social system that was based on sharing and working together. From their base at Zuni, in hopes of redeeming the expedition, Coronado sent out scouting parties to investigate and hopefully find the illusive gold that had sent them into new unexplored lands.

Pedro de Tovar was sent to the Hopi pueblo at Tuysayan near the Grand Canyon. Meanwhile, Garcia Lopez de Cardenas was sent out to find the great river that Tovar had heard about from the Hopi people. Cardenas retraced Tovar's route to the Hopi mesas and there acquired some Indian guides. They eventually arrived at the south rim of the Grand Canyon. At first the discovers' eyes were deceived by the scale of the canyon. The Colorado River "looked like a brook" even though the Hopi guides told them that it was very wide and swift. Cardenas sent three of his most agile men to climb down to the river. These men spent a full day inching along a ridge and got "a third of the way down" before they had to turn back.

Melchor Diaz, another of Coronado's men, had instructions to travel west into an unexplored desert, find the flotilla of another Spanish ship, and collect supplies. Diaz negotiated a route to the Colorado River, and there he found a message stating that the ship had sailed back to Mexico. He then decided to travel upstream and traversed an area of sand dunes in the Mojave Desert of present-day California.

Winter quarters were set up in Tiguex, a large pueblo along the Rio Grande River. During this tumultuous winter of a near full-scale war against the Indians, Coronado met an Indian, called the Turk, who informed him of Quivera, a city rich with silver and gold. Coronado, in an attempt to salvage the expedition, decided to look for Quivera, taking the Turk on as his guide. He traversed the Texas panhandle and marched on further north. The Turk led Coronado on a wild goose chase that ultimately led to his death. When Quivera was found it was yet another disappointment, as the Quivera Indians were not rich in gold and silver, and the village consisted mostly of thatched huts. However, as at the Zuni pueblos, there was an abundance of cultivated crops, buffalo, and a sophisticated social system. Coronado's men were the first Europeans to see the great herds of buffalo inhabiting the vast plains.

The Spaniards returned to Tiguex, where they spent another winter. In 1542 Coronado went back to Mexico, roughly following the same route he had come. Fewer than 100 of the original 300 men returned. Many of the soldiers—weary, disgruntled, and fearing punishment because of their failure to find any treasure—deserted the expedition, as did the Catholic friars, who decided to stay in New Mexico to convert the Native American tribes to Christianity.


Initially for Spain, it made no great difference that Coronado had discovered vast fertile territories and staked the claim to the entire southwestern quadrant of the North American continent. Gold and silver had not been found, and that alone condemned the journey to failure and a pointless endeavor. However, exploration was a necessary first step to the colonization, exploitation, and social development of new lands in the New World. To the geographic map Coronado added Cibola, Tusayan, Tigeux, the Llanos del Ciloba, and Quivera, regions that became known as the Southwest or the Spanish Borderlands. Historical tradition in this vast area, from Nebraska to California, traces its lineage to the expedition of Coronado.

A notable contribution of the Coronado expedition to North American geography was the discovery of the Continental Divide—the watershed between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans from which two river systems run in opposite directions. It was also Coronado who first acquired a relatively accurate knowledge of the immensity of the southwestern part of the North American continent. European maps at the time showed the oceans north of Mexico as close together. However, Coronado dispelled this idea and established the idea of a vast land mass separating the Gulf of California from the Gulf of Mexico.

By a strange misunderstanding, the European mapmakers reversed the direction of Coronado's route. The location of the pueblos were reversed, and the province of Quivera was shifted to the shores of the Pacific ocean, where for several decades it roamed up and down the map. The Rio Grande, the great river that today marks the boundary between Mexico and the southwestern states, was shown as flowing west into the Pacific Ocean in northern California. Relatively unimportant though these curious mistakes of the mapmakers may have been, they make it clear that Coronado contributed more to North American geography than Europeans could easily digest.

There has been a widespread misconception that Coronado introduced the horse to the Plains Indians. In the available written records of the expedition there are few notations of the disappearance of horses. In fact, in the accounts of the Spanish expeditions in the later sixteenth and early seventeenth century, no mention is made of horses or mounted Indians. It seems likely that the horses were descended from stock that strayed or were obtained from Spanish settlements after the permanent colonization of New Mexico and Texas in the seventeenth century.

The expedition of Coronado left a rich legacy for Spain and opened up the settlement of southwestern North America by European colonizers.


Further Reading

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

Horgan, Paul. Conquistadors in North American History. New York: Farrar, Straus and Company, New York, 1963.

Udall, Stewart L. Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire. Albuquerque: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1987.

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Coronado's Search for the Seven Cities of Gold Leads to Spanish Dominion over Southwestern North America

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