Arizona: Coronado National Memorial Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

This memorial commemorates Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s exploration of the United States Southwest (1540-1542). The memorial is located near his point of entry into the United States in his search for the Seven Cities of Cíbola. It was established four hundred years later.

Site Office

Superintendent

Coronado National Memorial

4101 East Montezuma Canyon Road

Hereford, AZ 85615

ph.: (520) 366-5515

Web site: www.nps.gov/coro/

In 1536, Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, Estéban de Dorantes, and two other survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez’s expedition from Cuba to the southeastern United States stumbled into Spanish Mexico with stories of rich cities located to the north. Antonio de Mendoza, first viceroy of New Spain, assigned Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to lead a Spanish expedition into the southwestern part of today’s United States in search of those cities of gold.

The Coronado National Memorial sits in the Huachuca Mountains overlooking the San Pedro River Valley where Coronado may have left modern Mexico and entered Arizona. The expedition explored the southwestern part of the country, from Arizona’s Colorado River to central Kansas. They found no gold, but were the first Europeans to view the Grand Canyon, explore the Great Plains and its bison herds, and contact the Indian tribes in the southwestern United States.

The Legends of the Seven Cities of Cíbola

Dorantes, Cabeza de Vaca, and their companions had not seen the cities of gold, but recounted legends heard from the Indians they contacted during their two-year wanderings through the southwestern United States and northern Mexico. They were not the first to tell such tales; the stories were common among the Spaniards in Mexico. However, Cabeza de Vaca’s report gave them credence and stimulated Mendoza to dispatch a party to explore the “northern mystery,” as the Spanish in Mexico thought of those lands.

Cabeza de Vaca refused Mendoza’s offer to lead a preliminary scouting party, so Mendoza bought Dorantes, a black man and a slave of one of Cabeza de Vaca’s companions, to act as a guide. As the excursion approached Cíbola, Dorantes scouted ahead of the main party and was captured and killed by the natives. Before his misfortune, he sent word confirming the great riches of the cities that lay to the north.

Dorantes’s message and the news of his death sent the main party scurrying back to Mexico. Marcos of Niza, a Franciscan friar and leader of the scouting expedition, reportedly led a small group north to view the southernmost city themselves before retreating to Mexico. However, some historians believe that the entire group returned directly to Mexico without further scouting. If so, the riches of the cities were again reported on the basis of hearsay, not direct observation. Whether he saw one of the cities or not, Marcos’s report to Mendoza reinforced the legend of the Seven Cities of Cíbola and their great wealth.

Given the recent conquests of the fabulous cities of the Inca in Peru and the Aztecs in Mexico, it is not surprising that the Spanish authorities and adventurers accepted the legends as authentic. With these firsthand reports from his emissaries, Mendoza prepared to conquer the Seven Cities for Spain. Aware that Hernán Cortés, conqueror of the Aztecs, and Hernando de Soto, already involved in an expedition into Florida, were also planning explorations in the north, Mendoza rushed to establish a priority claim there.

North to Cíbola and the Colorado River

In response to Marcos’s encouraging report and to the competitive threat of Cortés and de Soto, Mendoza placed Coronado at the head of a large expeditionary force and commissioned him to conquer the Seven Cities of Cíbola and anything else of worth in the north. In 1540, Coronado set out on that quest. After a challenging march through northern Mexico, Coronado’s troops moved down the San Pedro River Valley in the southern Huachuca Mountains and crossed the imaginary line that today separates the Mexican state of Sonora from the state of Arizona in the United States. The Coronado National Memorial overlooks that part of Coronado’s route.

For the next two years, Coronado’s troops lived one of the grandest adventures in American history. They found and conquered the Seven Cities of Cíbola (actually Zuñi Indian villages), none of which was named Cíbola and none of which was rich in precious metals or in any way that the Spanish measured riches. Coronado dispensed exploratory parties in all directions from the center he set up at Cíbola.

One, under García López de Cárdenas, went northwest to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River through the Hopi Indians’ homeland, which proved to be without gold, as were the Zuñi cities. They are believed to be the first Europeans to view that magnificent chasm. Melchior Díaz led another group west in an attempt to make contact with Hernando de Alarcón, assigned the task of supplying the expedition by sea from the Gulf of California. Díaz and Alarcón never made direct contact, but both did find the lower reaches of the Colorado River. Díaz also found a group of letters buried by Alarcón before Alarcón realized that he had no way of reaching Coronado with supplies and returned to Mexico.

The Rio Grande and Pecos

Yet another exploratory group led by Hernando de Alvarado went east from Cíbola and discovered the Rio Grande River and a group of Pueblo Indian cities. These were impressive pueblos, but none contained the gold the Spaniards sought. The conditions seemed more pleasant than in the Zuñi region, however, and at Alvarado’s suggestion, Coronado moved the bulk of his force to Tiguex in the Rio Grande Valley near today’s Albuquerque, New Mexico. Meanwhile, Alvarado’s group had explored east to the Pecos River and beyond to the llano estacado (staked plain), where they saw great herds of bison. Their guides were two Plains Indians–a member of the Wichita tribe named Ysopete, and a Pawnee called the Turk by the Spaniards because they thought he looked Turkish.

The Turk told stories of Quivira–cities of gold to the north– fueling the explorers’ imaginations and raising hopes for the success of their journey. Coronado was determined to explore farther north and east, to Quivira, the next spring. Meanwhile, the Spaniards prepared for winter on the Rio Grande.

Coronado was apparently more conscientious in following the Spanish government’s dictate to treat the natives decently than were other Spanish conquistadors. He took no slaves and was apparently less rapacious than the average conquistador. However, his command seems benign only by comparison. His army took the food it needed from native stores with no consideration for the needs of the natives. They occupied an entire pueblo, displacing the natives at the beginning of winter, forcing them to find shelter in adjacent pueblos during the most trying time of the year.

Some pueblos resisted the Spaniards’ requests for blankets, food, and other commodities probably because of their own needs. In response, the Spanish destroyed villages, killing many of the people who lived in them. Indians were burned at the stake and captive leaders from other pueblos as well as the Turk and Ysopete were forced to watch so that they would develop proper respect for the Spanish and pass on that respect to their villages. Coronado denied giving orders for such activities and was apparently not present at any of the most egregious butcheries, but as leader of the expedition, he must bear some responsibility.

Quivira

The next spring Coronado’s band, with the Turk and Ysopete as guides, headed north and east to find Quivira and its riches. The Turk led them into the staked plain of the Texas Panhandle, then south and east, not north toward Kansas and the cities of Quivira. At least two explanations have been tendered for his action. He may have been trying to lead them to the cultural centers of the Mississippi Valley, the closest thing in the United States to the Aztec and Inca cities of gold. However, most Mississippian cities were abandoned or in decline by 1541. Alternatively, he may have tried to lose them in the vast, unmarked expanse of the llano estacado. If the second explanation is true, it may have been a suggestion of the Pueblo Indians, who were understandably angered by Spanish oppression and would surely have appreciated losing their visitors.

The Turk was put in chains and held as a captive for the rest of the journey, and Ysopete became their guide. Coronado sent the bulk of his army back to Tiguex in the Rio Grande Valley and continued the hunt for Quivira with a more mobile force of about forty men. Ysopete led them north to Kansas and Quivira, the land of the Wichita, but the twenty-plus Wichita villages they visited failed to live up to Spanish expectations: They were neither grand cities nor full of gold.

The Turk gave no acceptable account for his role in misleading the Spaniards and was strangled and buried. Coronado apparently issued the order, again suggesting that this benign hand of Spanish conquest was so only by comparison with others. Tired of following empty leads and convinced that the north held no cities of gold, Coronado returned to the Rio Grande Valley to spend another winter, after which he determined to return to Mexico.

A considerable number of the party, especially those who had not accompanied him to Quivira, remained convinced that the golden cities lay farther to the east or north and talked him into another trip north in the spring. However, Coronado suffered serious injuries in a riding accident during the winter. The accident restored the original plan, and he returned to Mexico the next spring.

In Mexico, he was tried for mistreatment of the Indians and for not continuing the search beyond Quivira. He was acquitted but lost much of his influence and position. His poor health worsened, and he died on September 22, 1554. He was forty-four years old.

Accomplishments of the Exploration

Coronado’s expedition discovered the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, explored the lower reaches of that great river, explored the southern Great Plains, witnessed the plains’ great bison herds, contacted the Zuñi, Pueblo, Hopi, Apache, Wichita, and other Indian tribes, and pretty well determined that the “northern mystery” held no cities of gold. His reward was disgrace–in his own mind and in the minds of his superiors.

Only in retrospect, long after his death, was the enormity of the expedition’s accomplishments appreciated. Much of that appreciation was possible because of the journals kept by various members of the expedition, especially Pedro de Castañeda, a soldier in Coronado’s army. These sources led to a comprehension and appreciation of the expedition’s central role in American history.

The Coronado National Memorial

The Memorial overlooks the San Pedro River Valley, which contained an ancient Indian trail, through which Coronado entered today’s United States. It contains a museum with weapons, military dress, and other clothing of Coronado’s time. History programs and a video covering the Coronado expedition are presented periodically. Hiking trails and roadways allow exploration of the Memorial, including a cave named for Coronado.

In addition to the historic significance of the Memorial, its Huachuca Mountain surroundings are among the best areas in the country for natural history observation, especially of birds. Adjacent areas famous for their bird-watching and other natural history include the San Pedro National Riparian Conservation Area, Miller Peak Wilderness, Coronado National Forest, and Ramsey Canyon Preserve. Several canyons scattered around the area–Ash, Carr, Garden, and Miller–are also known for the diversity of their bird life.

For Further Information
  • Bolton, Herbert Eugene. Coronado, Knight of Pueblos and Plains. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990. First published in 1949, it is among the best available accounts of Coronado’s expedition.
  • Day, Arthur Grove. Coronado’s Quest: The Discovery of the Southwestern States. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1940. An interesting account of Coronado’s life and journey.
  • Flint, Richard, and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. The Coronado Expedition to Tierra Nueva: The 1540-1542 Route Across the Southwest. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1997. A wealth of scholarship on the Coronado expedition.
  • Hodge, Frederick W., and Theodore H. Lewis, eds. Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States 1528-1543. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1965. Includes a translation of Casteñeda’s report on Coronado’s expedition.
  • Lavender, David. De Soto, Coronado, Cabrillo: Explorers of the Northern Mystery. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior. National Park Service, 1992. Explains Coronado’s expedition in the context of other Spanish expeditions to the southern United States and gives a brief description of the Coronado National Memorial.
  • Vigil, Ralph H., Frances W. Kaye, and John R. Wunder. Spain and the Plains: Myths and Realities of Spanish Exploration and Settlement on the Great Plains. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1994. Treats Coronado’s journey to Kansas in the context of other Spanish activities in the Great Plains.
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