Ian Aebel is a historian, researcher, educator, and writer with a Ph.D. in History and M.S.T. in College Teaching.
Early Life and Career
Remember that scene in the 2007 film National Treasure: Book of Secrets where Ben Gates and his crew discover the city of Cibola behind Mount Rushmore? This is referring to the belief that supposedly a group of seven cities of gold, called Cibola, were hidden from Europeans after the fall of Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs, in 1521. Most of us realize, though, that Cibola is probably a myth.
But for hopeful Spanish explorers and conquistadors, or conquerors, in the early sixteenth-century, Cibola was a real place. Francisco Vázquesz de Coronado y Luján (1510 to 1554), a fabulously wealthy political figure and landowner in New Spain, risked his entire fortune and the financial security of his family to find Cibola.
Coronado was born in Salamanca, located along the border of Portugal in the kingdom of Castile y León, the center of power in Spain. The second son of a noble family, Coronado decided to the travel to the New World in 1535 with one of his friends, Antonio de Mendoza. Mendoza was set to become the viceroy, or supreme governor of all of New Spain, a massive territory that stretched from present-day Panama up through the present-day U.S. Southwest and Texas.
Mendoza gave Coronado his own kingdom in New Spain to rule, Nueva Galicia, a beautiful region on the Pacific coast of present-day Mexico that stretches about 700 miles from Los Mochis to Manzanillo. Coronado married the wealthy Beatriz de Estrada and settled down into what should have been a long and happy life.
But as you might have guessed, Coronado was not satisfied with his life as a governor. In 1539, he sent Friar Marcos de Niza and one of his slaves, Esteban, to investigate the area that is now New Mexico. Esteban was one of the four survivors of an ill-fated expedition that saw him lost in the wilderness of South Texas and North Mexico for seven years. Even though his companions pleaded for his freedom, Esteban had remained a slave. But only Friar Marcos de Niza returned from the journey, reporting that while Esteban had been killed, the Friar had located Cibola!
We must take a moment to investigate this story a little more closely. Esteban was a sympathetic figure; most people believed he should have been freed after his heroic journey in the wilderness. In all likelihood, Friar Marcos used the expedition to help Esteban escape to a friendly Native American tribe. Furthermore, legends of cities of gold had routinely been used by North American tribes to distract and confuse money-hungry conquistadors. Friar Marcos used the story as a good excuse to distract Coronado from the loss of his slave.
As you might imagine, Coronado believed the story was absolutely true! He instantly went about raising money for the expedition, getting money from Mendoza and going into debt, mortgaging his land and getting an enormous loan. Mendoza, for his part, started to believe that his friend might have been tricked by Friar Marcos and dispatched a survey team to check out his story. The results were inconclusive, but the group leader was adamant that Friar Marcos' tale was probably fabricated. But it was too late. Coronado left for Cibola on 23 February 1540.
Journey to Ruin
For over 2 years, Coronado's expedition traveled through present-day Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and finally into Kansas. Following the original path of Friar Marcos, he found a region in the midst of a terrible drought. The torrid conditions strained the expedition, and the Hopi and Pueblo tribes they encountered were in no condition to help resupply Coronado's crew. As such, he attacked them, inflicting enormous Native American causalities. When they finally reached the area where Cibola should have been, they found a rugged Hopi village decimated by the drought.
In spite of the evidence, Coronado refused to believe that the cities of gold did not exist. Learning of a major river nearby, he sent an expedition in search of it. This group became the first Europeans to encounter the Colorado River and Grand Canyon. Unable to traverse the rapids of the river and steep canyon walls, Coronado and his group journeyed east through the prairies of the American Midwest.
As time passed over the endless grasslands, Coronado encountered endless buffalo and Native American tribes who were not at all frightened of the group. He went as far as Kansas before turning around, forced to conclude that he would never find the fabled cities of gold.
There was a great scandal when Coronado returned empty handed in 1542. Both Mendoza and Coronado had lost a great deal of money; Coronado was especially ruined, forced to declare bankruptcy and face a trial for crimes he committed during the 2 year journey. His relationship with the viceroy helped him escape further punishment, and he remained governor for 2 more years before retiring to Mexico City with his ever growing family. Indeed, life must not have been too bad, for by the time Coronado died in 1554, he had eight surviving children!
Francisco Vázquesz de Coronado y Luján (1510 to 1554) was an explorer and conquistador who succeeded in constructing a grand life in paradise by the age of 30. Yet Coronado gave up all of his wealth and power to chase a city of gold that a little patience and investigation would have demonstrated to be a myth.
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