Magazine article Sunset

Western Wanderings: Our Man on the Coronado Trail

Magazine article Sunset

Western Wanderings: Our Man on the Coronado Trail

Article excerpt


Coronado and the lost cities of gold

* In search of the fabled glory of the conquistadores, I'm steering down State Highway 92 in Palominas, Arizona. Palominas has a pink-and-yellow circus tent advertising a Full Gospel Crusade Miracle Service. It also has an ostrich farm, be- cause as we approach the millennium, ostrich farms are spreading across the length and width of our great republic.

Not far from the Miracle Service, the San Pedro River dawdles up from Mexico. It is, here, a desultory trickle of water shaded by cottonwood trees. The Bureau of Land Management has set aside the riverbank as a nature preserve, and I drive down a dirt road to find it. I can tell by the way the car shimmies that although the dirt is crusted dry on top, it is muddy underneath. On the radio someone named Lourdes is dedicating a song to Tom:is because they've had a fight. I worry about ruining my shoes in the mud and want to know what the fight is about. But the desire to follow historic footsteps wins out, so I stop the car and walk around. More than 450 years before, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado strode this riverbank on his journey to immortality.

The journey. In 1535, Coronado, son of a noble Spanish family and protege of the viceroy of Mexico, arrived in Mexico City seeking his fortune. It was a time when ambitious young noblemen found the New World a favorable place to fulfill dreams of imperial conquest. Cortes had lately vanquished the Aztecs, Pizarro the Incas. So when a Franciscan missionary, Fray Marcos de Niza, brought back rumors of a place called Cibola - a kingdom to the north reputed to have seven cities of gold - he was not ignored. The viceroy sent Coronado to explore this promising tierra nueva, or new land.

The resulting expedition has been enshrined as one of the great wildgoose chases of American history. Coronado set out in February of 1540. With him marched 350 Spaniards, 1,000 Mexican Indians, 1,500 horses and mules, and even more cattle and sheep. The journey lasted two years and covered 5,000 miles - from Mexico up through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma to the Kansas plains. Coronado and his men became the first Europeans to encounter the Zuni and the Hopi. A side expedition became the first to glimpse the Grand Canyon. What they did not find was gold.

There is still a fair amount we don't know about this expedition, including some basic points of territory covered. While most historians agree that Coronado led his men here along the San Pedro River, a few have argued that he entered Arizona to the west, along the Santa Cruz River. The golden kingdom of Cibola turned out to be a Zuni pueblo in New Mexico, which most historians believe is Hawikuh. The site of Quivira, another golden chimera, is not precisely known, but is believed to be somewhere on the Kansas plains. The questions are numerous enough that a few years ago the National Park Service decided against establishing a Coronado National Trail because the conquistador's route could not be fixed with sufficient certainty.

Still, says historian Richard Flint, over the last decade researchers have greatly advanced our understanding of Coronado's expedition. Flint himself has spent almost 20 years working on Coronado, retracing the explorer's route through eastern New Mexico, and probing Spanish archives to learn more about the men who traveled with him. The most tangible discoveries have been the 16th-century crossbow bolt heads unearthed in Blanco Canyon, Texas, in 1993 - the strongest physical evidence yet of Coronado's passage. For Flint, Coronado remains an important man for 20th-century Americans to know, if only because the conquistador and his brethren bear a strong resemblance to us. "They were a very cocksure group of people," he says, "bent on extending their way of living to the rest of the world."

I get back into the car and drive a few miles west toward the Huachuca Mountains, which are denim blue in the afternoon light. …

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