Coronado’s Southwest Expedition Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Coronado conducted the first extensive European exploration of the North American Southwest, which prompted later expeditions and Spanish settlement of the region.

Summary of Event

The Moors, a nomadic North African tribe, occupied the Iberian Peninsula for several hundred years before being driven out in the late fifteenth century. They contributed much to Spanish culture. They also were part of a myth that would have enduring consequences for North America. Legend had it that oppressed Christians led by seven bishops had fled the Moorish invasion and gone west by sea. These refugees were supposed to have landed on an island called Antilia and established seven cities of fabulous wealth. These cities then formed a utopian commonwealth, later called the Seven Cities of Cíbola Seven Cities of Cíbola . Exploration and colonization;Spain of North America Coronado, Francisco Vásquez de Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez Estevanico Oñate, Juan de Guzmán, Nuño Beltrán de Mendoza, Antonio de Marcos de Niza Onarato Díaz, Melchor López de Cárdenas, García Alvarado, Hernando de

Coronado leads an expedition of soldiers, indigenous peoples, and clergy through the arid southwest.

(Library of Congress)

Spanish explorers, motivated by the New World’s promise of wealth, moved quickly to capitalize on its Mexican conquest of the early 1520’s by Hernán Cortés. Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán had been appointed governor of the central Mexican province of Panuco in 1527. Guzmán’s young American Indian slave, Tejo, told the cruel governor that he had heard stories of seven rich cities to the north and west. In 1529, Guzmán and a force of four hundred soldiers set out to found the province of Nueva Galicia in what is today northwest Mexico just below the Arizona border. He found treacherous terrain, and he killed indigenous peoples along the way. By 1531, he had abandoned his search for the cities of gold.

Coronado’s travels included (1) exploration of the lower Colorado River by a splinter party led by Melchor Díaz; (2) a conflict in which two hundred Tiguex natives were killed; (3) discovery of the Grand Canyon by García López de Cárdenas; (4) Hernando de Alvarado’s reconnaissance of the Acoma pueblo, the Rio Grande Valley, and the environs of modern Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos, New Mexico; and (5) Coronado’s visit to the fabled area of Quivira (supposed location of the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola) in eastern Kansas. The great cities that Coronado sought proved to be thatched huts housing poor natives.





Then, in 1536, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca escaped indigenous captivity in Texas and completed an eight-year odyssey from Florida, across south Texas, and across the Rio Grande into Mexico. He and his three companions—two other Spaniards and a Moorish slave named Estevanico, or Esteván—endured much hardship and had many tales to tell. They had not seen the fabulous seven cities but had heard about advanced civilizations to the north. The islanders of Antilia just might have fled to a mainland sanctuary. Thus the rumor was revived.

In August, 1538, twenty-eight-year-old Francisco Vásquez de Coronado was appointed governor of Nueva Galicia. Meanwhile, the viceroy of Mexico, Antonio de Mendoza, was seeking someone to lead an expedition to seek the seven cities. Estevanico was ready and willing, but a slave could not be expected to command Spanish soldiers. Conveniently, two padres arrived who were eager for the adventure. Fray Marcos de Niza and Fray Onarato sought grace in establishing Church authority. Estevanico was ordered along.

The expedition went sour from the beginning. After leaving Nueva Galicia in the spring of 1539, Fray Onarato became ill and had to return. Estevanico ignored Fray Marcos and went on ahead north into present-day Arizona and east across the Gila River into New Mexico. Fray Marcos most likely never got as far as the Arizona country.

Estevanico reached the city of Cíbola (the first use of this term) on Zuñi land in eastern New Mexico. New Mexico The Zuñis Zuñis were one of the many settled tribes in the American Southwest that the Spaniards labeled pueblo after their sophisticated architectural skills. The Zuñis, however, killed Estevanico and dismembered his body to prove that he was not a god. Fray Marcos reported back to the viceroy that the trek to the land of the Zuñis was gentle, and that all indications were good that the Seven Cities of Cíbola actually existed. These lies spurred further exploration.

In mid-November of 1539, a scouting party led by Melchor Díaz took forty-five soldiers to Cíbola, mounted on the first horses to enter the western part of the continent. Díaz returned with a discouraging report: The terrain was rugged, and no evidence of gold, silver, or jewels was found. Coronado remained undaunted. He was a knight-errant in an exotic land, and his ethos was to serve God and country while serving himself. The Spanish relied on the adelantado (military chieftain) to secure new lands for the Crown. This warrior might have to bankroll his own expeditions and the risks were great, but so too were the possible rewards.

Coronado set out on February 23, 1540, from Compostella on Mexico’s west coast with 340 soldiers, several hundred American Indians, and a few African servants. He subjugated the Zuñi after a brief fight and sent emissaries ahead to scout the countryside. Captain García López de Cárdenas and his small band went north and became the first Europeans to gaze into the Grand Canyon. Captain Hernando de Alvarado moved east past the mighty fortress of the Acoma pueblos into the Rio Grande Valley and then north through the area that is now Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos, New Mexico. All along, these conquistadores found sophisticated Pueblo settlements with good supplies of maize, turkeys, and beans. They found no gold or silver.

Alvarado then turned east toward what is now the New Mexico-Texas border. There he learned about the slave trade that existed between the Pueblo and Plains tribes. He met a captured Kansas Indian whom the Spaniards called the “Turk” because of his complexion. The Kansas Indian knew what the Spanish craved. To get back to his own country, he concocted a story about precious minerals aplenty if the Spaniards would head north and east to the Kansas plain and the fabulous city of Quivira. He was taken back to Coronado, who believed him because he wanted to believe.

Scattered fighting had broken out between the Spanish conquistadores and the indigenous inhabitants of New Mexico during the harsh winter of 1540-1541. The Spaniards wanted food, supplies, and clothing, and so they took them. Coronado was nevertheless determined to march to Quivira. He pushed on all the way to eastern Kansas, in the area that is now Wichita, and found mostly grasslands. Coronado had the Kansan Indian “informant” executed, then returned to winter in the Rio Grande Valley before retreating to Old Mexico in the spring of 1542. The exhausted and tattered expedition reached Mexico City sometime before October 13. Coronado felt defeated and disappointed.


For forty years, the frontier that Coronado had helped to establish lay neglected by the Spanish authorities. A combination of internal political squabbling and tribal uprisings preoccupied the viceroy in Mexico City. Gradually, Franciscan Franciscans;American Southwest missionaries and Spanish miners pushed north and revived interest in Tierra Nueva, as Coronado’s men had called the land. The authorities took note, and in 1595 they granted the title of governor and captain general to Juan de Oñate. His job was “to carry out the discovery, pacification, and reconquest of the provinces of New Mexico.”

The ruthless and ambitious Oñate went north from El Paso in 1598 and quickly subjugated the Pueblo tribes. He attracted soldier followers by the promise of their becoming Hidalgos, which literally meant “son of someone” and was the lowest rank of Spanish nobility. He became adelantado and established a systematic repression of the Pueblo Indians through forced labor, murder, rape, torture, and extortion. The Franciscans competed with the civil authorities for plunder, until the only difference between the mission encomiendas (forced labor arrangements) and those of the governors was into whose pocket went the profits. Oñate established the first settlement, called San Juan, north of Santa Fe. Because the site of Santa Fe had more room, a better defensive position, and a reliable source of water, colonialists began settling the area as early as 1608.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Adorno, Rolena, and Patrick Charles Pautz. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca: His Account, His Life, and the Expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez. 3 vols. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Volume 1 contains Cabeza de Vaca’s own narrative of his adventures. Volumes 2 and 3 provide close readings and interpretations of the narrative together with analyses of the place of the work in literary history and the general history of Spanish exploration in the Americas.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cabeza de Vaca, Álvar Núñez. The Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca. Translated and edited by Rolena Adorno and Patrick Charles Pautz. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. A stand-alone edition of Adorno and Pautz’s critically praised translation of Cabeza de Vaca’s narrative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flint, Richard, and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. The Coronado Expedition: From the Distance of Four Hundred Sixty Years. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003. Anthology studying all aspects of Coronado’s expedition, from the names of its members to the technical design of their horseshoes to the interactions with the indigenous peoples.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Flint, Richard, and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. The Coronado Expedition to Tierra Nueva: The 1540-1542 Route Across the Southwest. 1997. Reprint. Niwot, Colo.: University Press of Colorado, 2004. A companion to the above anthology, this multidisciplinary study provides archaeological, ethnographic, historical, and geographic research into the specific route followed by Coronado’s expedition. Explains the evidence, details the most likely route, and discusses the importance of these findings.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Forbes, Jack D. Apache, Navaho, and Spaniard. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. Focuses on Spanish incursions into Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas between 1540 and 1700.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Terrell, John Upton. Pueblos, Gods, and Spaniards. New York: Dial Press, 1973. A tribute to Pueblo culture and its resiliency.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Udall, Stewart L. Majestic Journey: Coronado’s Inland Empire. Rev. ed. Sante Fe: Museum of New Mexico Press, 1995. The former secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior retraces Coronado’s route to demonstrate the historical importance of his expedition.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Webber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. Smoothly written synthesis of an important cultural clash.

1493-1521: Ponce de León’s Voyages

1495-1510: West Indian Uprisings

Apr., 1519-Aug., 1521: Cortés Conquers Aztecs in Mexico

1528-1536: Narváez’s and Cabeza de Vaca’s Expeditions

May 28, 1539-Sept. 10, 1543: De Soto’s North American Expedition

1542-1543: The New Laws of Spain

Sept., 1565: St. Augustine Is Founded

Jan., 1598-Feb., 1599: Oñate’s New Mexico Expedition

Categories: History