The voyages of Columbus were quickly followed by a burst of Spanish exploration and conquest in Cuba and Mexico. By 1517, Diego Velazquez, the governor of Cuba, was sending out expeditions to explore the shores of Yucatan and the Mexican Gulf. In November 1518, Hernan de Cortes landed in Mexico with five hundred European soldiers.With the assistance of several thousand Indian allies, Cortes conquered King Montezuma and the Aztec overlords who ruled the land. Horses and superior weapons played an important role in Cortes’ ability to conquer the Aztecs.
Other contributing factors included the hatred that the Indians bore their Aztec overlords and the assistance of his native interpreter/mistress, Dona Marina, the daughter of an Aztec chief, who had been enslaved by the Mayans of the Yucatan. The Mayans had presented her to Cortes as a peace offering, and she became his mistress and a staunch supporter. In Mexico Cortes found gold and silver in abundance. He was soon able to conquer the Indians of southern Mexico as far south as Guatemala and Honduras. Spanish occupation of northern Mexico was not as rapid. The land was arid, thinly populated and inhospitable. Only the stories of gold drew the adventurers on.
The Legend of the Seven Cities
The Legend of the Seven Cities of Gold dates back to the eighth century, when the Moors of Africa conquered Spain for Islam. The archbishop of Porto in Portugual was believed to have set sail with six other bishops and a group of colonists and their cattle and supplies. The Christians reached land, so the story goes, burned their ships so that no one would be tempted to return to Spain, and each bishop built a fabulously rich city. Spanish cartographers had traditionally placed these cities on an island somewhere in the Atlantic, but as more and more islands were explored and no cities turned up, they began to position them at various places on the huge land mass representing the New World—often in North America. There was also an Aztec legend of Chicomoztoc, the Seven Caves, which seemed to give substance to the Spanish hopes.
As these stories circulated as part of the Spanish lore, tales were coming down from the north from Indians who claimed to have seen cities of buildings four and five stories high, decorated with turquoises. When the four forlorn survivors of the Florida expedition of Narvaez arrived in Mexico in 1536, they reported tales of large and powerful villages, four and five stories high. Cabeza de Vaca, one of these survivors, said that the lands he had actually seen were “remote and malign, devoid of resources,” but that the Indians in the Sonora valley had told tales of a rich, faraway people with whom they traded.
Two Franciscans, Fray Juan de la Asuncion and Fray Pedro Nadal, who traveled north in 1538 on a missionary journey, were also told of a country where people wore cotton clothes, had many turquoises and knew of larger and wealthier villages than their own.
The first European to enter what is now Arizona was probably Fray Marcos de Niza in 1539.* The viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, had selected the Franciscan to lead a small party north. Accompanying Fray Marcos was a Negro who was one of the survivors in Cabeza de Vaca’s party. This Negro, now a slave of Mendoza, was still called Estevan de Dorantes, after his former master. The party also included Fray Onorato and a number of Piman Indians who had come to Mexico with Cabeza de Vaca. Traveling northward the friar sent Estevan ahead with instructions to send back reports on what he found. According to Marcos’ report he went up the Sonora river valley and, after traveling eighty miles across Sonora, reached the San Pedro river. There he found the Indians he called Pintados (because his Pima guides called them Rsarsavina meaning spotted.) As the friar continued for five days down the San Pedro he passed small, poor settlements where some of the people claimed to have seen seven cities where the houses were eleven stories high and decorated with turquoises.
Following the San Pedro to its confluence with the Gila, Marcos forged ahead through the uninhabited land to the north. Within two or three days journey from Cibola, Marcos met Estevan’s companions returning from there. They brought the news that the Indians ahead had killed Estevan. Marcos supposedly convinced the Pimas to guide him to a spot on a hill from which he could see the cities they had almost reached. After one long look, he quickly returned to Mexico. When he got there his tale must have improved in the telling because he was soon followed by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, leading a well-equipped force of conquistadores. In justice to Marcos, who was later condemned as a liar by the men in Coronado’s march and others, the friar probably reported honestly what he had heard secondhand, detailed as follows by Bernard DeVoto in his book, The Course of Empire:
“His report to Mendoza shows that the Indians had told the truth about the country which they had learned on trading trips. They had accurately described the Zuni pueblos, the turquoises set in the doorposts, the cotton, the buffalo robes, the trade with nomadic tribes from the east. It was not their fault that, reaching minds spellbound with mythology, and the lust for gold, what they said meant much more and blew fantasy to flame. Marcos’ report is circumspect, only lightly brushed with rainbows, but his conversation across New Spain was, possibly on Mendoza’s instructions, much more extravagant than Cabeza de Vaca’s had been. So now all that had been heard about the horizon cities had been proved true.
“Their country had a name, a gift from Fray Marcos. It was called Cibola, and it had seven rich cities ripe for conquest and Christianity. The circle of desire had been closed. The island of the Seven Cities, Antillia, had been found at last, only two months’ march away.” (DeVoto, pp. 33-34)
The Journey of Coronado
Coronado’s force included two hundred and thirty horsemen, some with several horses, sixty-two soldiers on foot, five friars with their assistants, and a military guard, numbering altogether about three hundred and thirty. A large body of Indians followed the group, at least at the beginning. They had fifteen hundred horses, mules and cattle. According to Bernard DeVoto, “The expeditionary force which looked like a parade moved so slowly that on April 22 Coronado set out with a light column of about one hundred.” (DeVoto, p. 35)
Coronado probably followed Niza’s route up the San Pedro River and beyond the Gila. However he did not turn back at the New Mexican pueblos as the friar had done, but ventured on, with various parties heading far into the unknown northwestern and northeastern territory, reaching as far as the Grand Canyon and the plains of Kansas.
“Under the burning-glass July sun they went on across the green, rolling land-ocean under the unbounded sky, past the Great Bend of the Arkansas, left the river, traveled northeast till they reached the Smoky Hill River, and came to a Quivira village. A hunting camp, its palaces the grass huts of the eastern culture from which the Wichitas had migrated, it was singularly barren of kings and gold plate. It was in McPherson County, Kansas, near the village called Lindsborg, and here Coronado ended his penetration of Quivira.” (DeVoto, p. 43)
By the time the spring of 1542 arrived, most of the men were anxious to be heading back to Culiacan. A few were able to see the potential richness and promise of the land, but even these were daunted by the distance from Mexico, the coldness of the winters and the hostility of the natives.
Early that year the army set off for home. “The Wichitas guided him home, up the Arkansas and then by an old trail that diverged from it to the southwest, a much shorter passage than the outward one. This was an ancient route of trade and war; it became the road between New Mexico and St. Louis and would be called the Santa Fe Trail.” (DeVoto, p. 45)
They straggled into Culiacan in the early summer, and by July a shamefaced Coronado was in the capital apologizing for the failure of his mission. The Spaniards were in search of quick and easy riches, and Coronado had found none of the things of which he had gone in search. But his journey added greatly to the knowledge of the New World, by discovering the Zuni and Hopi Indians of the Southwest, the hunting tribes of the Great Plains, the teeming herds of bison, and the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. The photo above shows modern re-enactors dressed in historic costumes from the collection of the visitor center at the Coronado National Memorial, a must-see attraction in southeastern Arizona.
“Much of the zeal for conquest that characterized the Spaniards who took part in the Coronado expedition survived them and continued into the next century; but in the latter period it took the form of conquest of souls rather than of territory. Perhaps by that time the soldiers had satisfied themselves that no great amount of gold or other riches would reward their efforts, and perhaps too the subjugation of all the Pueblo country to the crown of Spain and the administration of its affairs may have absorbed their energy. In 1680 there was a great revolt of the Pueblo Indians, and every Spaniard in the country was killed or driven out. The province was not again subdued until 1693. But numerous small expeditions were made into it in the meantime, and the monks vied with their armed brethren in their efforts to bring the recalcitrant Indians again within the pale.” from Casa Grande by Cosmos Mindeleff
Perhaps the most far-reaching, long-term effect of the Spanish entrada into the southwest was the widespread introduction of the horse to North America. Frank Secoy in his ground-breaking study noted that two items of European culture altered forever the intertribal warfare of the Indians–the horse and the gun. Because Spanish policy forbid the selling or giving of firearms to the Indians–and because few Mexicans possessed arms–the two items came from different directions. The horse came from the Spanish in the south and west, and the gun came from the French and English, and later the Americans, in the north and east. Whichever tribe possessed either or both of these items had a significant, if temporary, advantage over its neighbors.
*Bernard De Voto in The Course of Empire traces the path of Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions in 1536 to the Gila river and the Chiricahua mountains into the San Bernardino valley, but their course was so erratic that it is impossible to say with any certainty where they had been.
See more on the Conquistadors
de Castaneda, Pedro et al., translated and edited by George Parker Winship with an introduction and additional notes by Frederick Webb Hodge. The Journey of Coronado.Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications. 1990.
DeVoto, Bernard. The Course of Empire. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998. This is a long and complex book, but the chapter on the Spanish entradas is very good and worth hunting down. If you can find the book in your library, read the first chapter “Children of the Sun.”
Diaz, Bernal. The Conquest of New Spain. London: Penguin Books, 1963. Translated by J.M. Cohen. (Other translations and editions are available. This is the fascinating personal narrative of an ordinary soldier in the army of Cortes.)
Rickman, David. Cowboys of the Old West. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1985. (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Montezuma, Cortes and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. (A great book!)
Secoy, Frank Raymond. Changing Military Patterns of the Great Plains Indians. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992. (First published 1953.)
Udall, Stewart L. Majestic Journey: Coronado’s Inland Empire. Santa Fe: University of New Mexico Press, 1987.
Wise, Terence and Angus McBride. The Conquistadores. London: Osprey Men-at-Arms Series, 1996.