Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1510-1554), Spanish conquistador, first explorer of North America's Southwest, and so-called conqueror of the legendary Seven Cities of Cíbola.
Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was born in Salamanca, Spain. He first came to North America in 1535, when he accompanied Antonio de Mendoza, the first Spanish viceroy of New Spain (what is now Mexico and much of the western United States), to the newly conquered territory. There Coronado married into a wealthy and influential family and rose rapidly to positions of honor and responsibility. In 1538 he became a member of the town council of Mexico City and in August of that year, governor of the province of Nueva Galicia in what is now western Mexico.
The Nueva Galicia frontier was at that time a center of great excitement. The Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca had recently returned to Spain from years of trekking through the American interior. Cabeza de Vaca had told stories of rich Native American kingdoms in the north, stories seemingly corroborated by the 1539 expedition of Franciscan missionary Marcos de Niza to the land of the Zuni people of what is now New Mexico. From these explorers’ accounts came tales of the Seven Cities of Cíbola, legendary Native American cities filled with gold located somewhere in the northeastern part of New Spain.
|III||EXPEDITION TO CÍBOLA|
Viceroy Mendoza, tempted by the prospect of wealth, authorized the conquest of these regions in the north and commissioned Coronado as leader of the expedition. In February 1540 Coronado led a force consisting of more than 300 Spaniards and 1,000 Native American allies on a march northward, along the western slope of the Sierra Madre Occidental. He kept to old trails close to the Gulf of California, then veered inland along the Sonora and San Pedro rivers and crossed the White Mountains of what is now eastern Arizona. In July Coronado came to the region known to the Spanish as Cíbola and conquered it after a stubborn fight.
Cíbola proved a great disappointment for Coronado. The legendary cities proved to be communities of Zuni pueblos with none of the treasures the previous explorers had reported. Hoping that the legendary treasures did exist somewhere in the region, Coronado sent a party northwest under his lieutenant Pedro de Tovar. Tovar found and conquered Tusayan, a Hopi pueblo community. The Hopi pueblos proved equally poor, but the people told of a great river to the west. After Tovar’s return to Cíbola, Coronado sent another officer, López de Cárdenas, to explore this river. Traveling far to the west, Cárdenas became the first European to see the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, but was unable to reach the bottom of the great gorge. The entire party wintered at Tiguex, in the valley of the Rio Grande near what is now Albuquerque, New Mexico.
|IV||CROSSING THE GREAT PLAINS|
In the spring of 1541 Coronado set out to find a kingdom to the east called Quivira, said to be rich and populous. The expedition crossed the Great Plains of what is now northern Texas, where they became the first Europeans to see the region’s vast herds of American bison, or buffalo. Turning northward into what is now Kansas, Coronado crossed the Canadian and Arkansas rivers and found Quivira, which turned out to be only a hostile village of the Wichita people. Coronado led the expedition back to Tiguex for another winter. There he was wounded in the head while jousting with his men. He returned home to Nueva Galicia in 1542, broken in health and reputation and disillusioned in his hope of finding great wealth.
Coronado was coolly received by the authorities of New Spain. An official inquiry accused him of misconduct as leader of the expedition for his alleged brutal treatment of Native Americans. He was acquitted but was eventually relieved as governor of Nueva Galicia in 1544. Coronado moved back to Mexico City, where he continued to serve as a city councilman until he died in September 1554.
The account of Coronado’s explorations, valued for the unique description of the southwestern United States before the European conquest, was published in the 14th report (1896) of the U.S. Bureau of Ethnology. In 1952 the Coronado National Memorial commemorating the expedition was established near Bisbee, Arizona.