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Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, by Robert LindneuxFrancisco Vásquez de Coronado

the conquistador whose search for cities of gold led to unexpected discoveries

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was born into a noble family in Salamanca, Spain, in 1510. He came to New Spain as assistant to Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza in 1535. His marriage to the daughter of a colonial treasurer made him the master of an enormous estate, and his suppression of a major slave rebellion led to his being named Governor of Nueva Galicia, a state northwest of Mexico City, in 1538.

Coronado's "realm" was at this time full of excitement due to the return of Cabeza de Vaca from the interior in 1536 with stories of new kingdoms in the north. In 1539, Friar Marcos de Niza returned from an exploration of present-day New Mexico with tales of a kingdom of seven wealthy cities known as Cibola. Tempted by the prospect of more wealth for Spain, Mendoza commissioned Coronado as leader of an expedition to search out and conquer Cibola. By February 1540, the entire force, consisting of more than 300 Spaniards and 1,000 Indian allies, gathered at Compostela for a formal review in the presence of Mendoza and other dignitaries and began the march into the interior.

map of Coronado's expeditionFrom Compostela, the expedition marched north to Culiacán, where Coronado set out in advance with one hundred picked men, leaving the main body under Tristán de Arellano to follow more leisurely with the baggage and cattle train. Veering inland along the Sonora and San Pedro rivers, Coronado crossed the White Mountains of present-day Arizona, and in early July entered Cibola, which he took by conquest after a stubborn fight.

Once conquered, Cibola proved to have none of the treasures Friar Marcos had reported. Reasoning that he must simply be in the wrong place, Coronado dispatched several small exploratory parties. One party, under Pedro de Tovar, was sent to the northwest and became the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon; the Hopi they encountered along the way proved to be even poorer than the Cibola. Hernando de Alvarado, who had been sent to the east, returned with information about villages around the Rio Grande River. When the main body of the expedition under Arellano joined Coronado late in November, all soon set out for the Rio Grande and went into winter quarters at Tiguex, a village near present-day Albuquerque, New Mexico.

On Arellano's march to Cibola, a midway post had been established in the Sonora Valley, with Melchior Díaz in charge. Díaz was instructed to meet up with Hernando de Alarcón, commander of a sea expedition which had been sent up the Gulf of California. In the course of his expedition, Alarcón discovered the mouth of the Colorado River and ascended it as far as present-day Yuma, Arizona, but proceeded no further upon realizing that he could not reach Coronado's expedition. When Díaz reached Yuma, he found a message left by Alarcón, after which he returned to Mexico.

Meanwhile, Coronado faced discontent at Tiguex, where the Indians rebelled at providing both housing and food for their Spanish "guests." One pueblo was burned and another besieged for almost two months before the rebellion was crushed.

In the spring of 1541, Coronado set out for Quivira, a rich and populous kingdom that was supposed to lie to the north and east. Upon reaching Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas panhandle, he sent the vast bulk of his forces back to Tiguex. Proceeding with less than 40 men, he reached the Arkansas River in July, and entered the area of the Quivira (Wichita) soon after. As had Cibola, the land of the Quivira proved to be barren of riches. The largest village he encountered, near present-day Lindsborg, Kansas, was little more than a collection of thatched huts, and Coronado finally gave up the search.

After spending the winter of 1541-1542 at Tiguex, the expedition made its way back to Mexico, following roughly the same route by which it had come.

Although Coronado's expedition was deemed a failure, he was able to keep his post as Governor of Nueva Galicia until 1544. He was acquitted of misconduct as leader of the expedition, but was fined on some charges growing out of his governorship. Removed from office, he moved to Mexico City, where he served in the municipal government. He died there in November 1554, and was buried in Santo Domingo Church.

SEE ALSO
Grand Canyon

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This page was last updated on 01/14/2017.