The Coronado Expedition
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition through Arizona in 1540 in search of transportable riches, rumored to be in the Seven Cities of Cibola. His trek through the area that today forms Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas began over 500 years ago. Before any significant European settlements appeared on the Atlantic Coast of North America, men in Coronado’s expedition were seeing the Grand Canyon and gazing at pueblo villages built by the Hopi and Zuni Indians.
A Spanish nobleman from Salamanca, Spain, Coronado went to the Spanish colony of Mexico (then New Spain) in 1535, at the age of 25, as an assistant to New Spain’s first viceroy, Andiono de Mendoza. By 1538 he had married the daughter of a wealthy colonial treasurer and become the governor of the province of New Galicia.
The Journey Begins
Coronado was appointed leader of a major expedition to conquer the area to the north of New Spain in January, 1540, upon the return of Fray Marcos de Niza and his reports of cities of vast wealth. The ambitious Conquistador quickly amassed soldiers and supplies. The quest was funded largely by Viceroy Mendoza and Coronado's wife. Several others invested their fortunes, hoping for a return of jewels and precious metal.
By February, 1540, a thousand men and hundreds of horses, mules, cattle, sheep gathered at Compostela, west of Mexico City near the Pacific Coast, in preparation for the journey north. The expedition party included approximately 240 mounted soldiers, 60 additional foot soldiers, and about 800 Indians and slaves. Fray de Niza traveled as a guide. Two ships, commanded by Hernando de Alarcón, would carry the bulk of supplies up the Guadalupe River. An advance guard of 100 men set out from Culiacán on April 22, 1540 following de Niza's route north through Sinaloa and Sonora.
Exploration of Arizona
The party traveled to the Spanish outpost of Corazones, located near present day Ures, Sonora on the river now known as the Rio Sonora. Coronado established a large camp and moved north up the river. The expedition is probably responsible for the name place name "Sonora." The explorers used the name ”Señora” for the part of a river just upstream from Corazones. Some scholars believe that this word was an early version of “Sonora.”
The army marched a few days from the “Señora Valley” to a north flowing stream, believed to be the present-day San Pedro River. After a few days on the river, they camped at the base of some mountains at a ruin then known as Chichiticale. This ruin is an American mystery! No archaeologists have found its location, but Coronado’s travel logs mention it extensively. It is thought to be a pueblo built by an ancient American Indian tribe and abandoned by 1400. It is believed to be about thirty miles west of the present town of Safford on the edge of the Apache Reservation. The search for the ruin continues today.
From Chichiticale, it is likely that Coronado took an advance guard north to the pine forests of the White Mountains. He then headed northeast to the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, located approximately five miles east of the modern day border between Arizona and New Mexico near Zuni Pueblo. The grand pueblo was supposedly one of seven Zuni pueblos in the area.
No Gold in Cibola
At last, the party had reached the “Cibola” described by Fray de Niza! However, the adobe village was a far cry from a city of gold. Upon approaching the site, Coronado knew that this settlement would not yield the wealth he was seeking. However, he decided to conquer the pueblo. There was reason for caution. This tribe had killed the Moorish slave Estevanico during Fray de Niza’s 1939 expedition.
Coronado’s guard skirmished with the Zuni Indians at Háwikuh on July 7, 1540. He was wounded in battle but ultimately conquered the site and established a base camp.
Fray de Niza was ejected from the expedition for his gross exaggeration of the area’s wealth. He returned south in disgrace.
Adventures on the Colorado River
From Háwikuh, the overland party split up. Coronado went east to continue the search for riches, and another band traveled west to reconnoiter with Alarcón’s ships. A small group led westward by Pedro de Tovar reached Tusayán, the location of several Hopi villages on the Colorado Plateau. The Hopi people were hospitable and exchanged goods with the travelers. After Pedro de Tovar returned to Háwikuh, Hopi guides took another small group, this one led by Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, to a vast river located 20 days journey from Tusayán. The banks of the river were deceptively high, and the river itself was half a league wide.
These men were possibly the first Europeans to see present-day Colorado River and certainly first Europeans to stand on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. However, the party did not explore the canyon itself. A few of the most agile men spent about a day trying to descend, and were unable to go more than a third of the way down.
Meanwhile, the ships commanded by Alarcón had set sail from present-day Acapulco on May 9, 1540. Alarcón reached the Colorado River delta and continued up the river past modern-day Yuma, but turned around when he failed to find any trace of Coronado’s party. Though the naval branch of the expedition had failed to meet the overland travelers, they had established that present-day Baja California was a peninsula, not an island.
Before the ships left the men buried some supplies and a note. Miraculously, the note was found by Melchior Diaz, leader of a small party that had traveled southwest from Háwikuh to rendez vous Alarcón's ships. Diaz is believed to have reached the Colorado at its confluence with the Gila. Inhabitants of the area, possibly members of the CocoMaricopa tribe, helped Diaz locate the note and cache of supplies left for him. Diaz named the vast river he saw the “Tison,” or “Firebrand” River because the Indians kept themselves warm with firebrands (torches) during cold weather. The river kept the name “Firebrand” for two centuries, though Diaz himself died on the trip back to Corazones.
Disappointment at Quivira
Coronado’s party headed east along the Rio Grande, reaching the pueblos near present-day Albuquerque in September. The traveling party spent the winter camped in this land of pueblos. An Indian (thought to be a captured Pawnee) known as El Turco described another rich city, known as Quivara, even farther to the northeast. In April, 1541, the Coronado party set off to find Quivira.
Scholars cannot recreate the exact route, but it is generally agreed that the whole party headed through panhandle of present-day Texas.The next month, Coronado and a small party went north through the panhandle of present-day Oklahoma until they reached a trading center on the Kansas River in what is now central Kansas. Coronado’s men describe the site as filled with mud huts and dogs. There was no sign of transportable riches of any kind. The wealth of Quivira had still not materialized. Some of Coronado’s men reportedly threw down their armor on the spot. This armor, found centuries later, gives important clues to the route of the Coronado expedition.
Disheartened, the travelers trudged southward, retracing their route. The explorers did not receive a jubilant welcome. Because no wealth had been found, the expedition was considered a total failure. The venture had squandered several fortunes, including those of Viceroy Mendoza and Coronado’s wife. In shame, Coronado resigned his commission as governor of New Galacia and retreated into obscurity.
Though the explorers had the chance to establish agricultural settlements, they failed to establish a permanent presence in this area. The expedition did, however, pave the way for a succession of miners and missionaries over the next three centuries.