Coronado Expedition

From Compostela to Cibola

by Jay W. Sharp

It began at the Pacific coast village of Compostela on Sunday, February 22, 1540, amidst great fanfare and a parade for Antonio Mendoza—the viceroy, or, vice king, of New Spain; the mentor of 30-year-old General Francisco Vasquez de Coronado; and the major sponsor of the expedition.

Coronado"It was a splendid array as it passed in review before Mendoza" said George Parker Winship in his famed translation The Journey of Coronado 1540-1542. It was a pageant of the conquistadors—the conquerors, with traditions rooted in the centuries-long struggle to drive the Moors from Spain.

"The [well over 200] young cavaliers curbed the picked horses from the large stock farms of the viceroy, each resplendent in long blankets flowing to the ground. Each rider held his lance erect, while his sword and other weapons hung in their proper places at his side.

"Some were arrayed in coats of mail, polished to shine like that of their general... Others wore iron helmets or vizored headpieces of the tough bullhide for which the country has ever been famous. The [several dozen] footmen carried crossbows and harquebuses, while some of them were armed with sword and shield. Looking on was the crowd of [several hundred] native allies in their paint and holiday attire, armed with the club and the bow of an Indian warrior. When all these started off the next morning, in duly ordered companies, with their banners flying, upward of a thousand servants and followers, black men and red men, went with them, leading the spare horses, driving the pack animals, bearing the extra baggage of their masters, or herding the large droves of ‘big and little cattle,’ of oxen and cows, sheep, and, maybe, swine, which had been collected by the viceroy to assure fresh food for the army on its march.

There were more than a thousand horses in the train of the force, besides the mules, loaded with camp supplies and provisions, and carrying half a dozen pieces of light artillery—the pedreros, or swivel guns of the period."

Additionally, a few of the conquistadors took their wives and children on the great adventure. Several Franciscan friars and soldiers had already forged on ahead as a vanguard. Hernando Alarcon, commanding three ships – the San Pedro, the Santa Catalina and the San Gabriel – planned a voyage up the Gulf of California to the delta of the Colorado River with the intention of giving logistical support to the army. As the conquistadors and their retinue marched grandly out of Compostela, well organized, well equipped and well supplied, they could not have foreseen what lay ahead.

High Stakes

Fired by the triumphs of earlier conquistadors, the fervor of the Catholic religion, and the siren call of treasure, Coronado viewed his expedition as a mission of conquest. A conquistador born in Salamanca of noble parents, he meant to expand the empire of Spain; subjugate new peoples to the crown; open up new estates for his country’s noblemen; perhaps even find a new sea passage to the Indies, the original destination of Christopher Columbus himself. He meant to win new souls for the Church. Most of all, he meant to find treasure, an obsession which rested on will-o’-the-wisp rumors of mythical cities and lands laden with gold and silver.

As Herbert Eugene Bolton said in his classic Coronado: Knight of Pueblos and Plains, "Each track made by the explorers on the enormous map of the New World represents some glowing idea, some feverish quest, an effort to run to its source this or that tale of treasure, some rumored city, some wonder in the country beyond."

Coronado knew that his wealthy wife, Dona Beatriz, and his mentor, Mendoza, had drawn heavily on their personal fortunes to fund the expedition. His king (and the Holy Roman Emperor), Carlos V, desperately needed New World wealth to shore up Spain’s national treasury and to fund her European campaigns. Some of his conquistadors, often the reckless young men of noble but impoverished families, had borrowed heavily to pay for personal armor and weaponry. All counted heavily on the success of his expedition. As Bernal Diaz del Castillo, a conquistador and chronicler in Hernan Cortes’ conquest of the Aztecs, had said famously in The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, "We came here to serve God. And also to get rich."

All the pageantry notwithstanding, Coronado, somewhere in the mystic corners of his mind, may have felt a disturbing sense of foreboding. Years earlier, "a scientific friend of his in Salamanca had told him" in dark prophesy, according to chronicler Pedro de Castaneda, "that he would become a powerful lord in distant lands, and that he would have a fall from which he would never be able to recover."

Map of the Expedition

The Trail to Cibola

Coronado did not lead his army of conquerors across a totally trackless and unknown wilderness. Beginning at Compostela, he would follow the Native American trails of commerce which ran northward from Guadalajara through the Sonoran Desert across Arizona to western New Mexico’s Zuni Pueblos, and then, hopefully, to the Seven Cities of Cibola. From the reports of Cabeza de Vaca, the famous Spanish castaway and first Southwest explorer, Coronado had learned that the Indians of the desert spoke of "lofty mountains to the north, where there were towns of great population and great houses."

These, the Spanish believed, according to Cyclone Covey, who translated Vaca’s Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America, could only be "the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola, which supposedly had been founded somewhere in the west in the eighth century by seven fugitive bishops." From the word of Friar Marcos de Niza, who was sent north with the black moor, Estebanico, one of Vaca’s fellow castaways, to the Zuni Pueblos by Mendoza expressly to confirm the reports of "towns of great population," Coronado received intelligence that "in seven fair sized settlements... ...there is much gold, and that the natives...make it into vessels, and ornaments for the ears, and paletillas with which they scrape themselves to remove the sweat..." At least, that is what Friar Marcos evidently heard and what he duly reported, according to Bolton. (He did not actually dare to actually visit the Zunis, who had killed and dismembered Estebanico.)

From an account by Melchior Diaz, a conquistador sent northward on a reconnaissance by Mendoza, Coronado received a hearsay description of the Zuni Pueblos. It differed markedly from the Friar Marcos report. The general understood, however, that it was too late to turn back, but he had to have some doubt about the stories of Friar Marcos, especially since Diaz was a highly trusted lieutenant.

Coronado, and his sponsor Mendoza, knew, too, that the expedition had been given a sense of urgency by rival explorers. Hernan Cortes, the conquistador who had defeated the Aztecs nearly two decades earlier, had pushed the Spanish frontier north and west, up the Pacific coast, in a quest for additional empires to conquer. "I am informed...," said Cortes in a quote published by Carl Sauer in The Road to Cibola, "there are many provinces well inhabited, where it is believed that there are great riches and that in a certain part thereof is an island inhabited by the manner which in ancient histories is attributed to the Amazons." Purportedly, the Native Americans of the region had reported the "Amazon land to be very rich in pearls and gold," according to Sauer. Nuno de Guzman, another conquistador, had extended the Spanish frontier still farther north, up the coast as far as the state of Sinaloa, seeking the Amazon kingdom, pillaging Indian communities and capturing slaves. Based on stories by a Native American named Tejo, who spoke of trading excursions to seven communities in the north, Guzman had mounted a search, fruitless as it turned out, across the Sierra Madre for the Seven Cities of Cibola.

Coronado and his army, given wing by fables of treasure, marched northward out of Compostela on February 23, 1540.

"We came here to serve God. And also to get rich." The mantra of the conquistador.

According to Sauer, Coronado’s trail to the Zuni Pueblos – the illusory kingdom of seven cities – would lead first from Compostela northward parallel to the Pacific coast for about 300 miles to the Spanish outpost of Culiacan. "...the road is well known and much used," said one of Coronado’s captains, Juan Jaramillo, whose narrative appears in Winship’s translation.

From Culiacan, the trail continued northward along the coast, crossing the Sinaloa, the Fuerte and the Mayo rivers. It reached the Yaqui River somewhere north of Ciudad Obregon, followed the stream northward for some distance, now trending away from the coast. It diverged from the Yaqui near a fork and turned northwest, reaching a village the Spanish called Corazones (or, "Hearts"), which lay somewhere near the modern community of Ures, on the Sonora River, about 400 miles from Culiacan. The name had been conferred on the village by Cabeza de Vaca and his party of refugees after the villagers gave the wandering Spaniards "a present of the hearts of animals and birds to eat," according to Jaramillo. "There is an irrigation stream," he said, "and the country is warm. The dwellings are huts made of a frame of poles, almost like an oven, only very much better, which they cover with mats. They have corn and beans and melons for food... They dress in deerskins...

"There was a poison here [used on arrow points], the effect of which is...the worst that could possibly be is the sap of a small tree..." In a subsequent conflict, they would use the poison, said Jaramillo, to kill "several Christians."

From Corazones, the trail led due north, up the Sonora River, across Sonoran Desert lands, probably to the San Pedro River. It paralleled the San Pedro northward, across the border between Arizona and Sonora, and into the American Southwest, past the community of Benson to the isolated village of Cascabel. "An old Indian still remembered as leaving for the north about here..." according to Sauer. It threaded through several mountain ranges, striking the Gila River somewhere in the vicinity of Geronimo, Arizona, a distance of about 300 miles from Corazones. Somewhere toward the northern end of this leg lay Chichilticalli, a now lost prehistoric ruin which became a landmark signaling the beginning of the ascent up the Mogollon Rim to the Colorado Plateau. Here, "...the spiky vegetation ceases," said Castaneda. Chichilticalli "was made of colored or reddish earth. The house was large and appeared to have been a fortress. It must have been destroyed by the people of the district..."

Probably the trail followed the White River up the escarpment, crossed the Colorado Plateau plain to the Little Colorado River, and followed a tributary to the Zuni Pueblos, the Seven Cities of Cibola!—a distance of some 200 miles from Chichilticalli.

The Travelers

According to Bolton, Coronado, a "gentleman" of "noble birth," won the appointment to lead the expedition because he knew the northwestern frontier, having served well as the region’s governor. He enjoyed a close friendship with Mendoza and high popularity with the Spanish forces. He had married into the wealthy family of Dona Beatriz. Moreover, he had organized the expedition; "he had been the author of it all," said Castaneda.

Beginning the journey north from Compostela, Coronado divided his conquistadors, said Bolton, "into six companies of cavalry, one of artillery and one of infantry," manned almost entirely by the sons of Spain. The exceptions included five soldiers from Portugal, two from Italy, one from France, one from Scotland and one from Germany.

At the start of the journey, Coronado – thanks primarily to Dona Beatriz’ wealth – had a personal staff of servants, groomsmen and a page. He had supplied himself with elaborate armor, a plumed helmet, a coat of mail, two buckskin jackets and "arms of the country." He had nearly two dozen horses for his personal mounts and several sets of horse armor. His captains had similar, though lesser, arrays of armor, horses and weaponry. His horse and foot soldiers received equipment and mounts provided by Mendoza in addition to what they provided for themselves.

Coronado used the Indians, many of them from the Michoacan region, west of Mexico City, as "scouts, sappers, servants, herdsmen, horse wranglers, camp cooks, or in other occupations," said Bolton. Infected by the Spanish fever for treasure and adventure, the Indians had clamored to volunteer for the journey. Many of them brought their wives and children. They came equipped with heavy cotton "armor" and with bows and arrows as well as clubs and lances.

Some of Coronado’s party would add separate chapters to the history of the expedition, for example, Marcos de Niza, the Franciscan friar; Melchior Diaz, premier scout and a beloved commander; Pedro de Tovar, the expedition’s chief standard bearer; Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, a cavalry captain; Hernando Alarcon, the supply ships’ captain; and Hernando de Alvarado, captain of the artillery.

On the Trail

Coronado led his entire expedition from Compostela to Culiacan, arriving March 28, the day before Easter. With more than 1,000 people and several thousand animals, the column had crawled over the trail, covering the 300-mile first leg in 36 days, an average of just over eight miles per day. Coronado halted his expedition outside of Culiacan, awaiting the village’s completion of Easter rituals. "When the day after Easter came," said Castaneda, "the army started in the morning to go to the town and, as they approached, the inhabitants of the town came out on to an open plain with foot and horse drawn up in ranks as if for a battle..." The inhabitants and Coronado’s soldiers staged a mock battle, with the town being "taken by force of arms..." It was, said Castaneda, "a pleasant demonstration of welcome..."

On April 22, Coronado, with what Sauer called a "light horse party," left Culiacan for Cibola. The general had ordered the ponderous main body of the expedition to wait for two weeks then follow him as far as Corazones, where it was to await further instructions. In correspondence dispatched to Mendoza, Coronado said, "...I and the gentlemen of my company, who were horsemen, carried on our backs and on our horses a little food, in such wise that after leaving this place none of us carried any necessary effects weighing more than a pound... ...the road is rough and long, and what with our harquebuses, which had to be carried up the mountains and hills and in the passage of the rivers, the greater part of the corn was lost."

The hard trail, said Coronado, "troubled the soldiers not a little, considering that everything which [Friar Marcos] had said was found to be quite the reverse... was so bad that a large number of the animals which Your Lordship sent as provision for the army were lost... The lambs and wethers lost their hoofs..."

By the time Coronado and his party reached Corazones on May 26, 1540, "Ten or twelve horses had died of overwork..." The "black men and red men" who had begun the journey with the expedition at Compostela had begun to die from the hardship. This "was not a slight loss for the rest of the expedition."

Coronado spent several days at Corazones, fretting now about Hernando Alarcon and the resupply ships in the Gulf of California. Indians from the coast reported that they had recently seen the passage of a vessel not far off shore. "I do not know whether to think that it was the one which was sent to discover the country," said Coronado, "or perhaps some Portuguese." He assigned several men to remain at Corazones to establish a base, which would become known as San Hieronimo de los Corazones. He then resumed his march.

Coronado and his party arrived at Chichilticalli, roughly 300 miles from Corazones, sometime in May. Still worried about the resupply ships, he learned from local Indians that "I was fifteen days’ journey distant from the sea, although [Friar Marcos] had said that it was only 5 leagues [a Spanish league equals roughly 2.6 miles] distant and that he had seen it. We all became very distrustful [of Friar Marcos]..." He and his party faced an increasingly grave situation. "I rested for two days at Chichilticale [sic], and there was good reason for staying longer, because we found that the horses were becoming so tired; but there was no chance to rest longer, because the food was giving out."

He set out on the 200-mile-long final leg of the trail to Cibola, beginning the ascent of the Mogollon Rim, to the Colorado Plateau. "I entered the borders of the wilderness region on Saint John’s eve," said Coronado, "and...we found no grass during the first days, but a worse way through mountains and more dangerous passages than we had experienced previously. The horses were so tired that they were not equal to it, so in this last desert we lost more horses than before..." Jaramillo said that "...a Spaniard, who was called Espinosa, died, besides two other persons, on account of poisonous plants which they ate, owing to the great need in which they were." Subsequently, the main body of the expedition would find Espinosa’s bones, disinterred and gnawed by predators.

As Coronado and his men drew near Hawikuh, the westernmost of the Zuni villages – at last, the presumed golden Seven Cities of Cibola – the Indians briefly assaulted an advance guard, signaling a hostility possibly born of Guzman’s slave raids among tribes to the south. On July 7, when the village finally drew into sight, said Castaneda, "such were the curses that some [of Coronado’s men] hurled at Friar Marcos that I pray God may protect him from them.

"It is a little, crowded village, looking as if it had been crumpled all up together..." It was not a city laden with gold and silver. "It is a village of about 200 warriors, is three and four stories high, with the houses small and having only a few rooms, and without a courtyard... The people of the whole district had collected here... These folks waited for the army..."

Coronado saw that a fight could not be avoided. He said, "I charged them. ...they suddenly took to flight, part running toward the city, which was near and well fortified, and others toward the plain... Some Indians were killed..."

Coronado attacked the village, "As that was where the food was... I ordered the musketeers and crossbowmen to begin the attack and drive back the enemy from the defenses, so that they could not do us any injury. I assaulted the wall on one side, where I was told that there was a scaling ladder and that there was also a gate. But the crossbowmen broke all the strings of their crossbows and the musketeers could do nothing, because they had arrived so weak and feeble that they could scarcely stand on their feet." The villagers fought back ferociously.

Coronado, wearing his gilded armor and crested helmet for the battle, swiftly learned that he had unintentionally made himself the principal target for Zuni weapons. "...they knocked me down to the ground twice with countless great stones which they threw down from above," he said, "and if I had not been protected by the very good headpiece which I wore, I think that the outcome would have been bad for me." Dazed and disabled, Coronado had to be rescued by Captains Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and Hernando de Alvarado. The Spaniards, driven by hunger, continued to press the attack, and " the pleasure of God," said Coronado, these Indians surrendered, and their city was taken with the help of Our Lord, and a sufficient supply of corn was found there to relieve our necessities."

Aftermath of Battle

The battle done and bellies filled, Coronado and his fellow conquistadors confronted the reality of their quest for treasure in that mid-summer of 1540. He said, in a dispatch to Mendoza,

"...I can assure you than in reality [Friar Marcos] has not told the truth in a single thing that he said, but everything is the reverse of what he said, except the name of the city and the large stone houses...

"The Seven Cities are seven little villages...

" may be assured that if there had been all the riches and treasures of the world, I could not have done more in His Majesty’s service and in that of Your Lordship than I have done..."

As he recovered from his wounds, Coronado invited the conquered villagers – the citizens of Cibola – to make peace. He implored them to embrace Christianity. He advised them to recognize Spanish sovereignty. He questioned them about the surrounding region, other communities and potential treasure.

Learning about the seven – again, that magical number "7" – Hopi villages, roughly 75 miles north northwest, he dispatched Pedro de Tovar on July 15 to investigate, although without much real hope for treasure. "Our men arrived [at the Hopi village of Kawaiokuh] after nightfall," said Castaneda, "and were able to conceal themselves under the edge of the village, where they heard the natives talking in their houses..." The next morning, when the Hopi villagers discovered the Spanish – reportedly a "very fierce people who travelled on animals which ate people" – the warriors, armed with "bows, and shields, and wooden clubs," prepared for combat. After a brief skirmish, the villagers petitioned for peace, "saying that they had come to give in the submission of the whole province..." They gave Tovar and his soldiers some presents and spoke of a "large river and "people with very large bodies," evidently the Havasupais, to the west. Tovar returned to Cibola to report to Coronado.

Intrigued by Tovar’s report of a great river and large people, Coronado dispatched Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and 25 soldiers to learn whether the stream might lead to the sea and Alarcon’s supply ships. Cardenas re-traced Tovar’s trail to the Hopi villages, where he found a welcoming reception, new supplies and willing guides. Twenty days later, Cardenas reached the "banks of the river," said Castaneda. "It seemed to be more than 3 or 4 leagues in an airline across to the other bank of the stream which flowed between them.

"The country was elevated and full of low twisted pines, very cold, and lying open toward the north... [They] spent three days on this bank looking for a passage down to the river, which looked from above as if the water was 6 feet across, although the Indians said it was half a league wide." Three men, the "lightest and most agile," tried to descend the precipitous walls of the canyon down to the river. "They returned about 4 o’clock in the afternoon... They said that they had been down about a third of the way and that the river seemed very large from the place which they reached, and that from what they saw they thought the Indians had given the width correctly. Those who stayed above had estimated that some huge rocks on the sides of the cliffs seemed to be about as tall as a man, but those who went down swore that when they reached these rocks they were bigger than the great tower of Seville."

Cardenas and his men had discovered the Grand Canyon.

The Attempt to Reach Alarcon

Meanwhile, in early August, Coronado, his anxieties about provisions mounting, dispatched Melchior Diaz back over the trail to San Hieronimo de los Corazones to take charge of the settlement and to urgently search the upper Gulf of California for Alarcon’s supply vessels. In the same party, he sent couriers with orders to proceed on to Mexico City and report to Mendoza. He saw Friar Marcos leave with the soldiers to return home in disgrace. ("...he did not think it was safe for him to stay in Cibola...," said Castaneda.) En route, the party encountered the main body of the expedition moving northward expectantly, anxious to share in the fabled wealth of the Seven Cities of Cibola. The truth came hard, but the expedition moved on. It was now September.

At San Hieronimo de los Corazones, Diaz took command of the settlers while the couriers and Friar Marcos pushed on southward for the capital. Within days, Diaz recruited soldiers and Indian guides to head west, to the upper reaches of the Gulf of California, to search for Alarcon’s ships. According to Bolton, Diaz’s force included some 25 soldiers and several Indians. They drove sheep to serve as a movable commissary. They also took a greyhound dog, which they thought, said Bolton, "might prove to be useful in case of need."

Unknown to Diaz, Alarcon had already sailed the length of the Gulf of California, anchoring his three ships at the mouth of the Colorado River in late August, and he had begun his exploration of the banks and Native American communities of the great stream. Ascending the river by launches, he sought, not only a connection with Coronado’s expedition, according to Bolton, but also his own possible discovery of new empire and treasure, maybe even the Seven Cities of Cibola. As he traveled, he posed as the "Son of the Sun" – a deity or holy man – to win the confidence of the native peoples, who revered the sun. He offered instructions in Christianity. He inquired into the surrounding country and nearby villages. Discovering that the local communities had heard about Coronado’s conquest of Cibola, Alarcon tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit a party from the Indian communities and his own forces to cross Arizona and attempt a rendezvous. Finally, at the juncture of the Colorado and Gila rivers, somewhere near Yuma, Alarcon gave up. He returned downstream to his ships and the voyage home, but not without leaving a message which he hoped Coronado’s men might find. It was now the middle of October.

At approximately the same time, said Bolton, Diaz led his party out of San Hieronimo de los Corazones, heading northwest, probably following the route of the Camino del Diablo – the Road of the Devil – across the fierce lava fields of the lower Sonoran Desert for the head of the Gulf of California and the delta of the lower Colorado River. He struck the river in the vicinity of the Gila junction. From the native peoples, he learned that he had missed making contact with Alarcon by only a matter of days. He followed the riverbank downstream, hoping that he might somehow overtake Alarcon. He arrived at a point near the anchorage of Alarcon’s ships, which had already turned south for the journey home. Remarkably, Diaz discovered Alarcon’s message—words carved into the trunk of a tree:


Anxiously, Diaz dug up the letters, said Castaneda, "and learned from that how long Alarcon had waited for news of the army and that he had gone back with the ships to New Spain, because he was unable to proceed farther..." This meant that Coronado – soon to be joined by his full expedition at Cibola – would receive no replenishment of his supplies from Alarcon.

Diaz led his force back upstream and crossed the river to investigate the desert beyond, hoping to find the Pacific coast in spite of hostile Indians, the harsh landscape and an active lava field. The end of the exploration came unexpectedly. Diaz saw that the greyhound dog, expected "to be useful in case of need," had given chase to several of the party’s sheep. Angrily, Diaz, said Castaneda, "threw his lance at the dog while his horse was running, so that it stuck up in the ground, and not being able to stop his horse he went over the lance so that it nailed him through the thighs and the iron came out behind, rupturing his bladder." The party immediately abandoned the exploration to carry Diaz back to San Hieronimo de los Corazones, but the captain died en route, on January 18, 1541. His men buried him beneath a mound of stones somewhere along the Devil’s Road.

A Time for Decision

Even before Coronado learned of the failure of Alarcon’s supply mission and the tragedy of Diaz, he had begun to think about abandoning the impoverished villages of Cibola and moving to more prosperous pueblos on the Rio Grande. He had received intelligence from the Indians about the eastern pueblos. He had recommendations from reconnaissance parties. His expedition faced a hard winter. And who knows? Treasure – another Aztec or Inca empire – might lie to the east.


In "The Coronado Expedition: Cibola to Grand Quivira and Home," we retrace the great conquistador’s trail eastward across New Mexico, the Llano Estacado and the Kansas plains, and we bid him good bye as he turns for home, a man in anguish, broken by the trail. Additionally, we will cover some of the sites which lie along Coronado’s route.

Jay W. Sharp

More Trails

Desert Trails
Trails of the Native Americans
Coronado Expedition from Cibola to Quivira then Home
Chihuahua Trail
Chihuahua Trail 2
The Juan Bautista De Anza Trail
Jornada del Muerto Trail
Santa Fe Trail
The Long Walk Trail of the Navajos
The Desert Route to California
Bradshaw's Desert Trail to Gold
A Soldier's view of the Trails Part 1
A Soldier's view of the Trails Part 2



Share this page on Facebook:

DesertUSA Newsletter -- We send articles on hiking, camping and places to explore, as well as animals, wildflower reports, plant information and much more. Sign up below or read more about the DesertUSA newsletter here. (It's Free.)

The Desert Environment
The North American Deserts
Desert Geological Terms


Enter Email:

Shop desert store



Copyright © 1996- and Digital West Media, Inc. - -