Less than two generations after Christopher Columbus set foot on the shores of an
obscure Caribbean island on October 12, 1492, and claimed this New World for the
Spanish kingdoms of Leon and Castille, Spanish conquistadores such as Hernan Cortes
and Francisco Pizarro had conquered the Aztec Empire in Mexico and the Incas of
Peru. Subsequent explorers remained on the alert for other lands which might prove
as wealthy as ones these men had conquered. It was this search for a "new"
Mexico which ultimately led to the expedition which first brought the Spanish to
New Mexico in 1540.
Ironically, the first exploration of New Mexico may have come about from an ill-fated
Spanish attempt to settle Florida in 1527. A series of storms and ship wrecks stranded
four survivors from this expedition near present-day Galveston, Texas. This group,
which included Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and an African slave named Estévan
(also known as Estévan the Moor and Estevánico), spent more than eight
years wandering through southern Texas and northern Mexico. They were the first
Europeans to explore, albeit unwittingly, this part of North America.
In 1536, the ragged survivors finally emerged from the wilderness at Culiacan, on
the west coast of Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca's report to the Spanish Viceroy, Antonio
de Mendoza, included a brief mention of stories they had heard which told of large
cities in the interior of the continent where valuable minerals were traded. These
sparse but tantalizing bits of information sparked a renewed interest in the Spanish
quest to find the "new" Mexico which had so far eluded them. In 1539,
Mendoza authorized Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan priest who had accompanied Pizarro
to Peru, to conduct a preliminary exploration to determine the truth of
these reports. Estévan went along as the expedition's guide.
When the expedition approached what is now southern Arizona, Estévan and
several companions went ahead to scout the country. A system of signals was devised
so they could report to Fray Marcos about what they found. If there was nothing
important, they were to send back a cross the size of a man's palm. Important news
would be signaled by correspondingly larger crosses. One can only image Fray Marcos'
surprise when messengers returned bearing a cross the size of a man! The scouts
reported Estévan had learned of a place called Cibola, and had been told
this Cibola was but one of seven magnificent cities.
Fray Marcos rushed forward, anxious to see what marvelous sights had prompted such
a report. However, the Friar soon encountered several of Estévan's companions,
who reported that their colorful guide had been killed. Fray Marcos' report tells
us he was determined to see Cibola for himself, so despite the news of Estévan's
death, he continued northward until they came within sight of a settlement which
he described as being larger than the city of Mexico! Historians disagree as to
his motives, but it is clear Fray Marcos' report was vastly exaggerated. The Cibola
where Estévan was killed was in reality the ancestral Zuni pueblo of Hawikah,
but the friar's report seemed to confirm the stories which Cabeza de Vaca had heard
during his travels. Could it be that these seven cities of Cibola were the mythical
Seven Cities of Antilia, the golden Quivira men had been seeking since Medieval
From the list of those who anxiously proposed to follow up Fray Marcos' discovery,
Viceroy Mendoza chose 29 year old Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. This expedition,
as all such Spanish colonial enterprises of the time, was privately financed. Vasquez
de Coronado's family contributed 50,000 ducats (probably a million dollars in today's
money), towards the cost of the expedition, while Viceroy Mendoza personally invested
an additional 60,000 ducats. No one seemed concerned about the risk of such an investment.
After all, hadn't Fray Marcos confirmed Cabeza de Vaca's reports of the Seven Cities?
In January of 1540, Vasquez de Coronado set out from Mexico to find these fabled
cities of gold. The chronicles tell us that when arrived at the outskirts of the
multi-storied, stone and mud village of Hawikah, many unkind words were uttered
about Frey Marcos, as the expectations conjured up by his imaginative report were
nowhere to be seen
The Spanish were met by a line of Zuni warriors, intent on defending their home
against these strange visitors. Vasquez de Coronado attempted to convince them his
intentions were peaceful, but his conciliatory gestures were rebuffed. It was a
furious but uneven battle, as the mounted Spanish soldiers used their superior weapons
to beat back the determined Zuni defenders. Casualties were few, and after the battle,
the Spanish replenished their supplies from captured Zuni storerooms and continued
on their quest.
For the next two years, the expedition explored deep into the North American continent,
but discovered only that the Seven Cities of Cibola were, after all, nothing but
a myth. After Vasquez de Coronado was injured in a riding accident in the winter
of 1542, the disheartened adventurers returned to Mexico. Despite their failure
to find any cities of gold, history has shown the expedition to have been a journey
of epic proportions. In little more than two years, Vasquez de Coronado and his
men explored much of the southwestern United States, ventured deep into the plains
of Kansas, descended the walls of the Grand Canyon, and visited all the major lndian
villages in the region.
We can only imagine what the indigenous peoples they met thought of the light skinned
men who rode astride unfamiliar creatures, wearing uncomfortable looking clothes
which reflected the sun, aggressive and often rude men who carried weapons made
of steel and who persisted in knowing about cities where a bright yellow metal could
be found. It must have been a frightening, yet wonderful encounter. Little did either
of these two diverse cultures know that their worlds would never be the same.
For nearly forty years New Mexico was forgotten. As the sixteenth
century progressed, Spanish settlement advanced slowly, but steadily through northern
Mexico. During this period, Franciscan missionaries learned that Indians of the
region traded regularly with other peoples who lived further north. During the 1580's
several expeditions entered New Mexico and explored much of the same region traversed
four decades earlier by Vasquez de Coronado. One of these, led by Fray Bernardo
Beltran and Antonio de Espejo in 1582, is credited with the first official use of
the term, la Nueva Mexico, to describe the region we now call New Mexico. The reports
of these expeditions reminded Spanish officials of the many potential converts to
Christianity which lived in this region, and encouraged the subsequent conquest
and colonization of this "new" Mexico.