The Journey of Coronado, 1540–1542: Account of the Expedition to Cibola Which Took Place in the Year 1540, in Which All Those Settlements, Their Ceremonies and Customs, Are Described Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Neither gold nor silver nor any trace of either was found among these people.”

Summary Overview

Just twenty years after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire in Central Mexico, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led a large expedition to the northern reaches of New Spain. Young and well connected, Coronado had secured a governorship in a border region of the emerging colony. Ambition pulled him further northward. His goal was conquering Cibola—a supposed land of seven cities thought to be constructed out of gold. In terms of finding golden cities, Coronado’s journey was a failure. However, the reports and memoirs written by the Spaniards accompanying Coronado offered a different form of wealth in an era of imperial ambition: firsthand accounts of the lands and peoples of Northern Mexico, the North American Southwest, and lower reaches of the Great Plains. Expedition member Pedro de Castañeda’s chronicle of the two-year journey included more than three dozen detailed chapters, two of which are considered below.

Defining Moment

For centuries, European legends fueled popular visions of far-off cities built with precious metals and jewels. Long before the explorer Christopher Columbus ventured across the Atlantic, Spaniards, like the Portuguese and other continental neighbors, believed such cities to exist in remote corners of the Orient. Thus, for the first generation of conquistadors who followed Columbus to the New World, dreams of golden cities were not farfetched. In fact, for Coronado and his contemporaries, gold- and silver-laden cities in the Americas were a demonstrable reality. To Spanish observers, the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan and its environs (present-day Mexico City) held abundant gold and silver. By the 1530s, just ten years after Hernán Cortés conquered the region, Spanish agents in Mexico were mining and minting more silver than the world had ever seen. At that same time, in the high Andes mountain range of South America, Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro was engaged in an attempt to take over the Inca Empire. Accounts of golden temples in the city of Cuzco (Peru) soon filtered northward to Mexico and east to Spain; they offered further encouragement for New World adventurers with golden dreams. Whoever could find and conquer the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola would surely win great wealth and fame.

As Spanish mining operations began in the former Aztec and Inca Empires, Cibola remained elusive. Fortune seekers exaggerated anecdotal observations of Spanish explorer Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, who had wandered the Americas for several years after a 1528 shipwreck in the Gulf of Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca’s descriptions of Pueblo Indian communities encouraged fellow Spaniards to explore what are now Arizona and New Mexico. In 1539, Franciscan friar Marcos de Niza claimed to have seen the famed cities from a distance; his formal report to colonial authorities gave credence to the claim of Tejo, an Indian man, that the streets of Cibola were lined with the workshops of silversmiths. A year later, when Coronado entered that site, no silver wealth was found. Moving east to the Rio Grande Valley, he found Pueblo agricultural communities whose adobe walls could appear golden in the light of the setting sun, but he found little precious metal. Months spent traveling east onto the Great Plains yielded little more. Cibola remained elusive because it did not exist.

While Coronado’s expedition failed in its primary mission, it succeeded in increasing knowledge of New Spain’s northern frontier. Detailed descriptions of the region’s geography, climate, and indigenous communities proved crucial to governors, bureaucrats, soldiers, and priests as they constructed Spain’s American Empire from the sixteenth century forward.

The Journey of Coronado.

(Library of Congress)
Author Biography

Except for his participation in the expedition to find the mythical Cibola, few other details are known about Castañeda’s life. In the early sixteenth century, Castañeda joined thousands of Spaniards who left their homeland seeking new opportunities in the Americas. While some dreamed of fame and fortune and cities of gold, others were content to be soldiers or bureaucrats in service to the Spanish Crown and its emerging colonial government. Many others wanted nothing more than land, a commodity that had become increasingly scarce in Spain. Born in Nájera, Castañeda soon crossed the Atlantic. In New Spain, he and his wife raised several children, and in 1540, he joined Coronado’s expedition as it departed from Culiacán on Mexico’s Gulf of California. Because such a journey into unknown territory involved great risk, those who agreed to accompany Coronado likely expected rich compensation if the conquest of Cibola was achieved.

While others wrote official reports during the journey, Castañeda chronicled the adventure after the fact. Almost ten years after the death of Coronado and twenty years after their return from points north, he penned his narrative under the title Account of the expedition to Cibola which took place In the year 1540, in which all those settlements, their ceremonies and customs, are described. In the two decades since the failed search for Cibola, interest in exploring the northern border regions of New Spain had waned. Fortune hunters still sought golden cities, yet discouraged by Coronado’s failure, they turned their attention southward. The South American continent became their new focus as they searched for the legendary city of El Dorado.

Through the 1540s and 1550s, Castañeda had been repeatedly asked questions about the Coronado expedition and his Account was an attempt to satisfy that interest. In his mind, the northern lands held tremendous potential for settlers, and he was confident riches would eventually be found there. Certainly, he wrote with an eye to posterity as he evidenced the bravery of Coronado and his men. At the same time, he was particularly concerned about misconceptions that had circulated regarding the region. For years he had heard fantastic and exaggerated stories that he knew to be untrue. He wrote his chronicle for those who valued detailed and credible information. As such, the land, climate, people, and animals of the region figure as prominently in his narrative as the would-be conquerors.

Document Analysis

When the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan was secured by Spanish forces under Hernán (sometimes called Fernando) Cortes in 1521, its conversion to the colonial capital of Mexico City began immediately. Indian temples were dismantled and rebuilt as Roman Catholic churches, and royal palaces were converted to government buildings. Through such efforts, urban landscapes were conquered and assimilated, just like the Indian peoples living in the Valley of Mexico. Yet the capital and its immediate environs represented only a portion of the territory that became New Spain, and outside of key urban centers, Spanish control of the region remained fragile for decades. While it is tempting to frame Spain’s conquest of the Americas as a linear process with a predetermined outcome, doing so overlooks a historical reality: Spain’s efforts to establish an American empire were a work in progress for generations. Though Spaniards held significant military advantages over indigenous populations, Spanish processes of conquest and colonization only gradually established control for the Crown. Where sedentary urban populations existed in the Caribbean, on the Central American isthmus, and on the South American continent, these two processes happened more quickly. Yet, where stretches of land were sparsely populated and where geography challenged human migration, conquest was much delayed and colonization remained tentative. In the massive territory north of the Valley of Mexico, in what is now Northern Mexico, the US Southwest, and the lower reaches of the Great Plains, Spanish hold over the territory was never absolute.

Castañeda’s account of the Coronado expedition evidences the complexities of the conquest and colonization processes. His narrative is particularly revealing of three obstacles to Spanish colonial control: rivalries and resentments among Spanish leadership in New Spain, conflicting agendas among Spaniards and Indians on the frontier, and the lack of credible information to guide conquest and colonization.

After Cortes had defeated the Aztec, he was soon rewarded for his military achievement with a title of nobility and land grants in Spain and Mexico. As a captain-general in command of soldiers, he had proven his value to Spain. However, conquest and colonization were distinct processes that required different skills. Once Aztec populations and their allies had been subdued in the Valley of Mexico, the establishment and legitimization of governmental authority became the new priority. Displacing Cortes and acting through the Council of the Indies, Spain’s king quickly moved to establish rule of law. By the mid-1530s, Spain’s New World territories would be divided into two administrative districts known as viceroyalties. In both the Viceroyalty of New Spain (Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean) and the Viceroyalty of Peru (Spanish South America and Panama), the king’s representative ruled under the title of viceroy. To make governance more practical within these two enormous colonies, the council created administrative and judicial subdivisions known as audiencias. Importantly, while this emerging structure aimed for efficient colonial governance, it was also designed to limit the growing power of the conquistadors. In New Spain, the intent was to rein in Cortes.

Rivalries and Colonial Stability

The first chapter of Castañeda’s Account details the earliest official search for the Seven Cities of Cibola, and it introduces the man appointed by the Spanish Crown to limit Cortes’s power. At a time when Spain’s knowledge of areas north of the Valley of Mexico was limited and just before the Viceroyalty of New Spain was created, Nuño de Guzmán had been appointed governor of provinces on the northern frontier. Also president of the first audiencia in New Spain, he was charged with transitioning from military governance and establishing colonial administration based on Spanish law. Cortes, whose influence in the colony was tremendous, stood in his way. Rivalry and resentments built between the men and their supporters, and Cortes made a preemptive move. He returned to Spain to make his case to the Crown in person. Guzmán took full advantage of his absence. He attacked Cortes’s power bases; as Castañeda explains, Guzmán did “much damage to his property and to that of his friends.”

As the principal Spanish authority in the colony and a governor of northern territories, Guzmán mounted a massive expedition that extended beyond the reaches of New Spain. Known for his brutal treatment of Indian populations, his expedition destroyed indigenous communities and established new Spanish towns. For example, he founded Guadalajara, now Mexico’s second largest city. But while expansion of the colony’s borders was an official objective, the goal of most participants in this expedition was more personally focused; they sought wealth. Many of the Spaniards who signed on to accompany Guzmán were frustrated with and resentful of Cortes, who had favored his allies and friends in distributing the spoils of the conquest. Many Spaniards who had followed Cortes were thus left without land—the prized commodity that had drawn them across the Atlantic.

Their hopes rekindled by the promises of the northern frontier, approximately four hundred Spaniards cast their lot with Guzmán. Acquiring land wealth, however, was not their only goal. For many, hopes of finding large quantities of gold and other precious metals also served as a principal motivator. Popular legends of golden cities had circulated in Spain and Portugal for centuries and when impressive amounts of precious metals were confiscated during the conquest of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan, obsessions with such legends intensified. News of the conquest of the Inca capital at Cuzco, where gold was in even greater abundance, further fueled Spaniards’ dreams of wealth. Many would-be conquistadors wished to know where in the Americas the next treasure rich cities would be found. Based on their firsthand observations of the metal wealth of Tenochtitlan and Cuzco, few questioned the existence of such cities. And for many, all indicators pointed north. Hundreds were determined to be part of the next search and did not hesitate to join Guzmán. There were certainly risks to consider—joining an expedition required commitment of finances and time, and the return on such investment was not guaranteed. The possibility of death on the journey also loomed large. Still, the lure of wealth was stronger.

In planning exploration of unknown territories, Spaniards did not rely on legends alone. To support their mission, they collected firsthand observations from those who had traveled beyond the colony’s frontiers. Given that few Spaniards had done so, this meant reliance on Indians. Guzmán gave particular credence to the claims of Tejo, an Indian man who had traveled in the northern deserts with his father as a child. Tejo’s memories of visiting “some very large villages, which he compared to Mexico and its environs” fed Spanish convictions that the next golden city only awaited discovery.

Logically, indigenous peoples were more credible sources of information than Spanish legend. For expeditionary groups, Indians offered knowledge of the routes across the land, climatic conditions, and regional sources of water and nourishment, as well as settlements and cultures that might be encountered en route. Thus their direct observations were highly valued. Yet as Castañeda’s narrative demonstrates in various places, the Spaniards’ Indian guides often had their own agendas. Many offered their expertise with ulterior motives. In the case of Tejo, however, motives are not clear. Additionally, the credibility of the information he offered from childhood memories would have been difficult to discern, even assuming Tejo’s intent was to be helpful to Guzmán. Furthermore, challenges of communication between Spaniards and those who spoke Indian languages likely contributed to problems of interpretation. Considering that concepts of space, distance, time, measurement, and wealth are cultural constructs—that they are defined locally rather than globally—it is easy to imagine Tejo and Guzmán using common vocabulary but understanding words differently.

Even with Indians as guides, Guzmán’s exploration of mountains and deserts of northern and western Mexico involved movement across difficult terrain. Though thousands of Indians did the grunt work of the expedition, the strain of travel gave many Spanish participants second thoughts. Before most could swallow their pride, give up their golden dreams, and return to the comforts of urban life in Mexico City, Guzmán made the decision to stop the expedition at the newly established city of Culiacán. According to Castañeda, two issues were at the center of the commander’s decision; his continuing rivalry with Cortes and a dearth of credible information about the frontier. At Culiacán, Guzmán considered the news of Cortes’s return from Spain, complete with a title of nobility bestowed by the king. These were uncertain times in the fragile colony. Colonial authority was still a work in progress, and given his rivalry with Cortes, Guzmán though it best to return to protect his own authority and assets in more settled regions. The simultaneous death of Tejo, his valued Indian guide, cemented Guzmán’s decision to return. Thus, the first chapter of Castañeda’s Account shows how the expansion of New Spain came in starts and stops. The growth of the colony into parts unknown was delayed a few more years until questions of governing authority could be worked out. In the interim, the legend of Cibola had more time to grow.

The Value of Credible Information

Within a few years, governance was more stable and the legend of Cibola had spread. New Spain became a viceroyalty, and the first viceroy arrived in 1535 to bring order to the colony. In his entourage came Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, an ambitious twenty-five-year-old and the son of a family friend. Coronado soon married into a prominent family and gained appointment to the governorship of New Galicia, a province on the northwest frontier of New Spain. Before long, the young governor attempted to extend the frontier by continuing the northerly search for the elusive Cibola. Encouraged by descriptions of Pueblo Indian villages offered by Cabeza de Vaca—a Spaniard who had wandered for years after his shipwreck on the Texas coast, the viceroy sent a small reconnaissance mission to see if these communities were, indeed, the golden cities of legend. The mission, headed by Fray Marcos de Niza, confirmed the golden dream. A Franciscan priest, Friar Marcos’s word was deemed credible, even though he had not personally entered the village of Zuni, a Pueblo community located in present-day New Mexico, but had observed it from a distance. Still, the viceroy had no reason to doubt the word of a priest, and he turned to Coronado to lead a new conquest. Coronado embarked as general on a massive expedition to Zuni in 1540. Investing his own resources, and encouraging other Spaniards to do the same, he gathered a force of three hundred men, approximately one thousand Indians, and hundreds of head of livestock.

The journey would prove a disappointment and financial and political disaster for the young general. Though his precise route is much debated, it took him through the northwestern part of Mexico into Arizona and across New Mexico. He wintered in the Rio Grande Valley among other Pueblo villages on the outskirts of what is now Albuquerque, a region Spaniards called Tiguex. During this first half of the journey, he sent various scouting parties to the west and east; they were the first Europeans to find the Grand Canyon. From his winter camp, Coronado departed in the spring on a new route to the north and east. Hugging the Rio Grande Valley and then moving west to Cicuye on the Pecos river, his group was in constant contact with and dependent upon the Pueblo peoples whose riverside agricultural villages thrived in the high desert. Even with his Pueblo connections, however, precious metals continued to elude him. Encouraged by an Indian guide who promised a golden city at distant Quivira, Coronado soon struck a course across the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma and into Kansas. Relying on information he could not verify, he reached Quivira, where the legend of Cibola finally died. Realizing he had been foolish, he returned to Tiguex to spend a second for winter before heading home to Mexico. A defeated man, he was a much maligned in New Spain for the failure of his expedition.

Chapter XXI of Castañeda’s account finds Coronado and his army close to the northern terminus of their journey at Quivira, near present-day Salina, Kansas. The general’s diversion from the Rio Grande to cross the Great Plains had come in response to the tall tales of “the Turk,” who had been an inhabitant of those plains. Called “the Turk” for his resemblance to North African Moors who had ruled Spain for centuries, he was a slave of the Pueblo people at Cicuye. Anxious to escape captivity and return home, the Turk spun tales of golden Quivira and offered to lead the Spaniards to the riches. The Pueblo peoples at Cicuye also had a hand in the plot: they asked their slave “to lead them off on to the plains and lose them, so that the horses would die when their provisions gave out, and they would be so weak if they ever returned that they would be killed without any trouble.” The Spaniards negotiated both high deserts and vast plains with the help of their Indian guides, but their dependence on them left them vulnerable. The only way to truly verify information was through firsthand observation. Coronado and his men were not completely ignorant of hidden agendas, and they wrestled with suspicions at all stages of the journey. Another guide, Ysopete, who was also from Quivira, repeatedly challenged the Turk’s assertions about golden wealth. Yet, having invested so much time and resources in pursuit of a legend, the hope of gold remained a powerful motivator.

Detailing early encounters between Indians and Europeans in New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, Castañeda’s chronicle evidences the Spaniards’ dependence on Pueblo, Teyas, Wichita, and Pawnee peoples. At all stages of the expedition, but especially on the plains, Spaniards needed Indian guides to travel the land. With flat grasslands extending in all directions to the horizon, Spaniards were easily disoriented; without guides they found themselves “wandering about the country as if they were crazy, in one direction or another, not knowing how to get back where they started from.” Indian guides were also crucial cultural intermediaries who negotiated peaceful passage over tribal territories and smoothed reception on arrival in settlements and camps. Just as important, Indians directed movements between settlements and helped Spaniards to find water, food, and shelter. Observing the peoples they encountered, they learned to hunt the buffalo, to dry its meat, and to use its skins. They learned to find less-obvious animals that lived on the plains, edible plants among the grasses, and fruits and berries that appeared with changes in elevation.

While Coronado failed to find gold, Castañeda’s descriptions of the region offered a wealth of credible information for future expeditions as well as future historians. Castañeda recognized the value of firsthand observations. After noting a plethora of inaccuracies that had circulated about the Coronado expedition in the two decades since its return, his goal was to set the record straight. In a letter to an unidentified colonial authority that serves as a preface to his Account, Castañeda emphasized his desire that the work be published. Upon Coronado’s return in 1542, various official reports had been produced and submitted to the viceroy, council, and king. Yet each of these had been brief rather than detailed and none were widely circulated. In focusing more on expeditionary movements, military engagements, and the absence of gold, they left many questions about the land and its peoples open to speculation. In providing a more thorough account of the journey, Castañeda offered more relevant information and interpretation for posterity.

Over the next century, England and France began to lay colonial claims stretching from the North Atlantic to the Mississippi Valley, and Spain took greater hold over Mexico and Florida. Detailed, firsthand information about the North American West was in high demand. Given growing imperial rivalries among European powers and more localized rivalries within their New World colonies, credible information about lands and peoples of the region was highly prized. Within New Spain, Castañeda’s chronicle informed the actions of a succession of viceroys, missionary priests, and migrants who were engaged in the conquest and colonization of the Americas. Castañeda’s detailed descriptions of Indian peoples and cultures, geography and climate, and flora and fauna served the varying agendas of those interested in political and spiritual conquest, economic opportunity, and land ownership.

Essential Themes

Failure to find large quantities of gold and silver temporarily suppressed interest in areas on New Spain’s northern frontier. The twin processes of conquest and colonization were put on hold. Coronado’s expedition had been financial disaster for participants, and it took a few decades before new conquistadors, priests, and adventurers were again willing to risk their own assets (and lives) on such ventures. Yet the fact that, prior to writing his chronicle, Castañeda fielded repeated requests for information on the region is indicative that some degree of interest, however limited, remained. Credible information was still in demand.

Whoever was the recipient of Castañeda’s narrative is not known, and the original no longer exists. The Account survives through a copy made in Seville, Spain, in 1596. Granted a royal monopoly on trade with Spain’s American colonies, Seville was a logical depository for the document. Many in the city who engaged in transatlantic commercial activities would certainly have valued firsthand observations about the natural and human resources of the far-off region.

By the time Castañeda’s document was written, Spain’s American viceroyalties had established chains of authority that limited the most explosive internal rivalries threatening colonial stability. International rivalries, however, intensified. The Caribbean Basin was especially vulnerable to European conflicts, and on the North American continent, Spain grew increasingly concerned over French and English encroachment on lands it claimed. In such an atmosphere, establishing settlements on New Spain’s northern frontier became expedient. Settled Spanish populations would deter encroachment by rival nations and, if necessary, defend the land. Thus, as the sixteenth century drew to a close, conquerors and colonists moved north again, more than fifty years after Coronado’s return. That enormous subsoil silver deposits had been discovered in central areas of New Spain certainly added to the enthusiasm for new expeditions to northern lands.

Logically, the Pueblo villages in the Rio Grande Valley became the initial focus of Spanish conquest and colonization. Credible and detailed descriptions of Pueblo communities and culture informed the approaches of those directing the twin processes. Significantly, in contrast to Coronado’s focus on gold, conversion of Indian populations to Catholicism was now a priority. The missions of priests and soldiers were now the same: to pave the way for peaceful settlement of large Spanish populations in the region. As waves of Spanish settlers invaded the sedentary villages of the high desert in the seventeenth century, horrific brutality was sanctioned in the name of Christ and king. The Pueblo people resisted but eventually struck a bargain for peace with Spain.

  • Castañeda, Pedro de. “Account of the expedition to Cibola which took place in the year 1540, in which all those settlements, their ceremonies and customs, are described.” The Journey of Coronado, 1540–42. Ed. and trans. George Parker Winship. New York: Barnes, 1904. xxix–148. Print.
  • Flint, Richard, and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. The Coronado Expedition From the Distance of 460 Years. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P, 2003. Print.
  • Winship, George Parker, ed. and trans. The Journey of Coronado, 1540–42: From the City of Mexico to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas and Nebraska. New York: Barnes, 1904. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Flint, Richard, and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. and trans. “They Were Not Familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects.” Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539–42. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 2005. Print.
  • Hallenbeck, Cleve. The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza. Dallas: Southern Methodist UP, 1987. Print.
  • “Handbook of Texas Online.” Texas State Historical Association. Texas State Historical Association, n.d. Web. 4 June 2012.
  • Krieger, Alex D. We Came Naked and Barefoot: The Journey of Cabeza de Vaca across North America. Austin: U of Texas P, 2002. Print.
  • “New Mexico Office of the State Historian.” New Mexico State Record Center and Archives. New Mexico State Record Center and Archives, 2012. Web. 4 June 2012.

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