Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

CORONADO (ca. 1510-1554)

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado explored the American Southwest and the Great Plains from 1540 to 1542. As a younger son born into a family of the lesser nobility in Salamanca, Spain, Coronado was given a limited portion of the family estate by the laws of primogeniture and entail. Seeking to improve his fortune, this poor gentleman joined the retinue of Antonio de Mendoza, New Spain's first viceroy. Shortly after his arrival in Mexico City in 1535, Coronado married Doña Beatriz, one of five daughters of Alonso de Estrada, treasurer and governor of the colony in the 1520s and reputed to be the illegitimate son of Ferdinand II of Aragon (1479–1516). Coronado's marriage elevated his social status and allowed him to enjoy half the tribute of the Indians of the town and province of Tlapa, granted to the couple by his wealthy mother-in-law. Favored by the viceroy, Coronado became a member of the municipal council of Mexico City before being appointed governor of the northwestern province of Nueva Galicia in 1538.

From the time of Columbus's discovery, the impulse for exploration was grounded in mistaken medieval geographical theory and legendary tales of rich kingdoms. The search led by Coronado for the gold of the Seven Cities of Cíbola and Quivira had its origins in European legend, a tall tale told by an Indian in Mexico, and the disastrous expedition led by Pánfilo de Narváez to Florida in 1528. When four survivors of the Narváez expedition arrived on the northern frontier of Nueva Galicia, their tale of adventure and subsequent report to Viceroy Mendoza set the stage for the Coronado expedition.

The desire of the Franciscan order to peacefully convert the Indians of the north and the dream of finding "another Mexico" by the conquistadors led to at least two reconnoitering expeditions by Franciscan friars. The alleged discovery of Cíbola by Fray Marcos de Niza, who described the humble Zuñi village of Hawikuh as a city of fine appearance larger than Mexico City, persuaded the viceroy to send Coronado north with an army of 300 Spaniards and some 800 Indians on February 4, 1540. Fray Marcos acted as chief guide but returned to Mexico after Cíbola was reached and proved to be a crowded little village lacking wealth.

After choosing winter quarters on the Rio Grande, the Spaniards met an Indian slave at Pecos who told them of large settlements to the east rich in gold and silver. In the spring of 1541 this Indian, called the Turk, led the expedition on a fruitless quest into the Great Plains. Coronado reached Golden Quivira in the vicinity of Great Bend, Kansas, only to find a Wichita Indian village of grass lodges. After wintering in New Mexico, Coronado, disillusioned, in ill health, and 50,000 ducats poorer, led the disappointed army back to New Spain. After being replaced as governor of Nueva Galicia in 1544, Coronado returned to Mexico City, where he acted as councilman until his death.

Coronado's quest for golden kingdoms was a failure, but his journey through the present states of Arizona and New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and the Great Plains of Oklahoma and Kansas gave the European world geographical knowledge of these hitherto unknown regions. Moreover, reports of the expedition described the way of life of the sedentary and hunting tribes the Spaniards encountered and the flora and fauna seen in that country. Further, the fantasy of Quivira persisted and would be joined to utopian dreams of spiritual conquest between 1542 and 1580. The final result would be the colonization of New Mexico and the mission system, the chief institution responsible for the extension of Hispanic culture onto Spain's northern frontier.

See also IMAGES AND ICONS: Quivira.

Ralph H. Vigil University of Nebraska-Lincoln

Bolton, Herbert E. Coronado: Knight of Pueblos and Plains. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1949.

Hammond, George P., ed. Narratives of the Coronado Expedition, 1540–1542. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1940.

Hodge, Fredrick W., ed. Spanish Explorers in the Southern United States, 1528–1543. New York: Barnes and Noble, Inc., 1953.

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