“Zuni Village,” The Coronado Expedition, 1540-1542, 1896, From The Library at The Mariners’ Museum, E125.V3.W7.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado

1510 CE - 1554 CE


Primary Goal:

To locate the fabled riches of the Seven Cities of Cibola, which turned out to be a complete fabrication.


He explored the southwest of the American continent, claimed most of the southwest for Spain and charted the course of many rivers and native roads in the area.

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was born in 1510 in the Spanish city of Burgos, an important town in the northern part of the kingdom. Virtually nothing is known of his background, although the Vázquez family was considered to be minor members of Spain's nobility. Coronado could read and write fairly well, so he most likely had some formal schooling.

Coronado arrived in the New World in 1535 as part of the court of Antonio de Mendoza, the new viceroy of New Spain. "New Spain" was the very general term for the vague amount of land conquered by the Spanish on the American continent; the land encompassed Mexico and most of Central America, along with an undetermined amount of the southwestern part of North America. Mendoza and Coronado were very close, and the bond only grew stronger when young Coronado married Beatriz de Estrada. Beatriz's father was the royal treasurer of New Spain and oversaw much of the important financial issues in the colonies. With such a politically connected wife, Coronado was set to go places in New Spain.

In October 1538, he was appointed the governor of the Spanish province of New Galicia. It was an ambiguous province at best, and consisted of parts of northern and western Mexico and a very questionable border somewhere in the present-day southwestern United States. Coronado, a very hardy man, was well suited to the remote outpost. In September 1539, New World.">Franciscan monk Marcos de Niza returned to New Galicia from a journey north; he was telling fantastic stories of seven cities filled with gold, silver and precious stones. He claimed the Native Americans called this cluster of rich native towns Cibola.

In reality, Cibola was pretty much just the native town of Hawikuh, in modern day New Mexico. No one is sure why Niza fabricated the stories of great riches in Cibola/Hawikuh; while a prosperous native town, there were no thrones of gold or city gates made of valuable native turquoise. Estevanico, who had traveled the breadth of the North American continent along with Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, had accompanied Brother Marcos and been killed by the native inhabitants of Cibola/Hawikuh. The native Zuni people, familiar with Estevanico's prowess at curing the sick, suspected that he also had the ability to make people sick, and quickly turned on him. Despite the treatment his expedition had received at the hands of the Native Americans of Cibola/Hawikuh, Niza continued to preach about the wonders of the region to anyone in Mexico City who would listen.

The town of Hawikuh (or what was left of it) was roughly 20 miles from the modern-day city of Zuni, New Mexico. The name Cibola (also spelled "Cevola" by some early Spanish writers) is thought to come from a corruption of the local word "Shiwina," which referred to all the land occupied by the Zuni. The Spanish, after conquering the region, briefly renamed the place Granada. Why Niza invented the concept of seven cities made of gold is also a mystery, as gold is not plentiful in the region, and Cibola consisted of seven or so adobe villages.

It was decided by Viceroy Mendoza that Governor Coronado should, since he was in charge of the northern lands that Cibola was in, lead an expedition to claim this land (and, no doubt, its riches) in the name of Spain. In February 1540, some 300 Spanish soldiers, many mounted on the finest horses the colonies could offer, reported to the New Galician town of Campostella to begin the journey. Going with Coronado were several hundred Native American allies coerced by their Spanish overlords into accompanying the expedition. Close to a thousand extra horses, herds of cattle and pigs for the men to eat on the journey, and several heavy cannons, indicated that Coronado's orders probably included conquering the cities of Cibola, not just trading with them.

At the Mexican town of Culiacán, one of the northernmost Spanish outposts in the colony, Coronado stopped to split his men into two groups. In late April 1540, Coronado himself set out with 100 men (80 or so on horseback, another 20 on foot) as well as Brother Marcos Niza to begin the exploration. The remaining men were kept at Culiacán under the command of Tristán de Luna y Arellano, who had orders to follow Coronado at a later date. After a month or so of steady marching, Coronado and his band had crossed the Gila River (in modern-day western New Mexico) and marched through the Colorado River plateau. They were close to Cibola, Brother Marcos told them, urging them on.

On July 7, 1540, Coronado's small army stood outside the walls of Hawikuh. The Spanish soldiers, itching for the riches and comforts of another Mexico City, were disappointed when they saw the bare adobe buildings of the town, and the local Zuni people, who were not dressed in gold and silks. Pedro de Castañeda, one of the expedition's chroniclers, actually feared for Marcos de Niza's safety, as the angry Spanish army turned on him for leading them into the desert with a complete lie. Castañeda reported that he had seen houses in his native Spain that were larger than those in this town of Cibola, which contained about 200 or 300 warriors.

But Coronado had no time to deal with punishing Niza at the moment; his more pressing business was the capture of Hawikuh. The Zuni were not happy to see Coronado or his army camped outside the walls of their town. Rather than waste valuable time negotiating, Coronado dismissed his interpreters and ordered his men to charge the city. The Zuni put up as much resistance as they could offer, using bows to shoot arrows and slings to hurl stones at the invading Spanish. Coronado himself was critically wounded when a stone struck him in the head; only his steel helmet and two quick-thinking lieutenants, Garcia López de Cárdenas and Hernando de Alvarado, who dragged him away, saved him from dying outside the gates of Hawikuh. In less than an hour, the Spanish took the town and feasted on the food discovered stored there. Coronado, who quickly recovered from his injury, renamed Cibola/Hawikuh Granada, after a town in Spain.

The Spanish set about conquering the surrounding towns, noting with bitterness that none contained much in the way of gold or riches. Coronado sent messengers back to Mexico to inform Viceroy Mendoza of what had been found so far, and they took Marcos de Niza with them, as he was no longer a popular member of the expedition. Granada became Coronado's headquarters for several weeks, as he sent men out in small numbers to explore rumors of great rivers and other towns. López de Cárdenas, one of the men who had saved Coronado during the battle with the Zunis, was sent out to investigate rumors of a great river running through a series of red mountains. He thus became the first European to view the Grand Canyon in modern-day Arizona. Hernando de Alvarado, another of Coronado's saviors, was sent to the east to investigate rumors of a large pueblo village named Ácoma, and ended up going as far as the modern Pecos River of Texas.

All of Coronado's men eventually met up again in late autumn of 1540 in a conquered cluster of twelve native villages called Tiguex, north of modern-day Albuquerque. Alvarado presented the assembled Spaniards with a native he had picked up on his travels. Alvarado, who insisted that the man looked like a Turk, called this Native American "El Turco." He was telling stories of a large city named Quivira, in the interior of the North American continent. Quivira was a fantastic land where fish grew as big as horses, the locals sailed in ships as big as the Spaniards' and every possible piece of dinnerware was made of solid gold. El Turco claimed that he was no liar; he had golden bracelets made in Quivira to prove it.

When asked by the Spanish to produce the bracelets, El Turco insisted that the untrustworthy Tiguas of the city of Cicuyé, south of modern Albuquerque, had stolen them. The chief of the Tiguas, a Native American called "Bigotes" by the Spaniards ("Bigotes" means "whiskers" in Spanish; apparently the chief sported more facial hair than was normal on most Native Americans of that region), insisted that El Turco was a liar and there were no golden bracelets in all of Cicuyé. Relations between the Spanish and the Tiguas worsened until the two sides took to fighting. The Spanish quickly overcame all native resistance. Despite pledging peace to the Tiguas, Coronado, hoping to make an example of what happened to those who might defy the Spanish, burned several hundred Tiguas at the stake in a very public execution. Instead, it became common knowledge to the natives of the American southwest that Coronado's men could not be trusted when discussing peace.

The winter turned very cold, and Coronado retreated to Tiguex to wait until the spring thaw. Most of the residents of the native cities had fled to mountain strongholds to resist any efforts by the Spanish to conquer them. Coronado's repeated peace entreaties to the natives were rebuffed; his reputation for brutality, earned during his interactions with the Tiguas of Cicuyé, ensured that no native wanted to deal with the Spanish except on the battlefield. Coronado's men, who were cold and hungry and miserable, found it impossible to barter for food from the understandably nervous natives. That winter there were numerous skirmishes between the Spanish and the Native Americans, ending in the deaths of several of Coronado's men and many more Native Americans.

When spring finally rolled around in 1541, the Spanish were ready to move. Why they were willing to believe El Turco's stories is a mystery; Marcos de Niza's slightly more believable tales of Cibola had already fooled them once. But greed is a powerful thing, and Coronado and his men wanted to best Hernán Cortés and conquer an empire larger and richer than the Aztecs of Mexico. So on April 23, 1541, the band of Spaniards set out with their guide El Turco, bound for Quivira, somewhere to the northeast.

The Spanish found themselves on the Great Plains of present-day Kansas. Great herds of bison provided the men with all the food they could eat, and the natives they met on the plains (mostly Apaches, who were at first surprised to see Spanish horses, but would later become very skilled horsemen) knew nothing of the Spaniards' reputation, and were relatively friendly. But Coronado and his men couldn't help but notice that there was a shocking lack of gold in this land. The men turned on El Turco in July and forced him to march in chains.

Sensing that even his small band was too large, Coronado split his army up. He took charge of 36 horsemen and led them north, in the vague direction of El Turco's promised Quivira. The rest were sent back to Tiguex under Tristán de Luna y Arellano, who had joined Coronado that winter. Soon, the members of the expedition became sullen and quarrelsome; the unchanging flat scenery of west Texas and southern Kansas bored them terribly, and a morbid fear overtook some soldiers, who were terrified of dying in the middle of nowhere, so far from civilization. It was largely due to Coronado's relentless drive that the men kept marching.

In late summer 1541, Coronado came to the fabled Quivira, thought to be somewhere near modern Great Bend, Kansas. No gold, no giant fish-filled river and no great kings were to be found among the local Wichita people. El Turco admitted that he had lied to Coronado and led him out into the endless prairies so that he and all his men would die. The survivors would be so weak that if they made it back to Tiguex, the natives could easily massacre Coronado and his men in revenge for the Spaniards' harsh treatment of them. Furious, Coronado strangled El Turco to death, then turned his men around for the return march to Tiguex, and from there, back to Mexico.

They arrived back in Tiguex just in time to settle in for winter. Again, it was cold and dreary, with relations between the Spanish and natives at an all-time low. Relations within the Spanish camp were no better; soldiers resented their officers for eating better and taking all the available clothing for themselves. Coronado's men were hungry and dressed in tatters; two years on the march was hard on soldiers' clothing. Things only got worse when their redoubtable leader Coronado was nearly trampled to death when he fell beneath the hooves of a riding companion's horse. He remained in critical condition all winter, but was well enough in April 1542, to attempt the trip back to Mexico. His men were happy to leave; no riches and no great cities to conquer left the Spanish soldiers disheartened and disappointed. Many of the soldiers, still openly hostile to their officers, dropped out of the march and went off to raid and plunder native settlements at will.

In late autumn 1542, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, governor of the province of New Galicia and supposed discoverer of the riches of Cibola, appeared before Viceroy Mendoza with barely 100 soldiers left in his army and no gold to show for his journey. His report of walled adobe towns and barely-clothed natives infuriated Mendoza, who expected to be showered with riches and conquered native chieftains. But the explosive Mendoza calmed down and realized that they had all been fooled by ridiculous promises of golden cities and silk-draped natives. Realizing that Coronado had done the best he could in a land painfully devoid of gold and riches, he reappointed him governor of New Galicia in 1544, although he had tried to resign the position in 1543.

Little is known about what finally happened to Coronado. The Spanish Crown investigated complaints that Coronado was an incompetent leader and that he was unnecessarily cruel to the Native Americans with whom his expedition interacted. Despite the dozens of native battlefield casualties and the several hundred Coronado had burned to death at Cicuyé, the Crown found him not guilty. Some sources say that Coronado went on to have some position in the local government of Mexico City, while others insist that he retired to his plantation in Mexico to order around a houseful of native servants and live out the rest of his days. Records show that whatever the case, Coronado retired from active exploring and died on September 22, 1556, in Mexico City.

While Coronado's explorations were fruitless in terms of finding gold, great cities or advanced civilizations to conquer, they were tremendously successful in mapping out the lands that lay north of New Spain. Coronado, as well as the expeditions made by his lieutenants, charted the courses of major rivers in the region, noted well-established native trails that made travel much easier over the harsh, arid terrain, and noted the resources available in the southwest. After Coronado, Spanish maps became much more realistic; gone were the gleaming cities of gold and silver, populated by giants in silk robes pulling horse-sized fish from swift flowing rivers. Instead, the Spanish knew that the North American continent contained scrub deserts, vast and seemingly endless plains covered with herds of bison, and small settlements of Native Americans with an understandable dislike for Spanish travelers.