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Cast of Characters

Alarcón, Hernando
(???? - 15??)

Captain of ships sent northward up the Gulf of California to support the Coronado expedition. The organizers of the expedition mistakenly thought that they could supply the expedition by sea from a port that would be only a few days travel west of the route. Alarcón reached the Colorado River delta and sailed up the river in 1540, leaving a message which was later found by a branch of the expedition under Melchior Diaz.

Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Nuñez
(ca. 1490- ca. 1560)

(The family name means "head of a cow" and came from a military victory against the Moors in Spain, when an ancestor used a cow's head as a symbol to warn the troops.)

Cabeza de Vaca joined an expedition to explore Florida in 1528, but the expedition was disastrously managed. After the army was separated from its ships, it built rafts and tried to cross the Gulf of Mexico from the NW coast of Florida. This group was shipwrecked near Galveston Florida. A handful of survivors were captured by poor and primitive hunter/gatherer tribes of Natives, and made servants. The last four survivors escaped around 1534, wandered across west Texas and New Mexico. They ingratiated themselves with the villagers and tribes they found, becoming known as powerful shamans. They were given many gifts including a copper bell, reported to come from a larger town to the N of their route. They turned S through Sonora, where, in 1536, they eventually stumbled into a camp of Spanish slave raiders working N from the frontier of New Spain. Their report of the copper bell and possible metal-producing northern towns was a major factor in motivating the Coronado expedition. Cabeza de Vaca later (ca. 1542, revised in 1555) published a famous book about their adventures, still in print.

Las Casas, Bartolemé de

Las Casas started as a young settler and farmer in Cuba, but converted to the priesthood. He was known for fiery sermons against the outrages of the conquistadors in Cuba and elsewhere, ca. 1510s and 20s. He wrote extensively about the problem of saving the Indians from destruction, and how to integrate them into a New World Society. Some scholars believe his writings from this period were the model for Thomas More's Utopia, published in 1516. Las Casas traveled back and forth to Europe. He compiled histories of events in the New World, and claimed to be a friend of Marcos de Niza, who discovered Cíbola, and may have been an influence on the policies of Bishop Zumarraga of Mexico.

Casteñeda, Pedro de
(15?? - after 1596)

A soldier in Coronado's army who wrote the most detailed later account of the expedition. The account was written roughly 50 years later, and is still in print. A note at the end says that the copying of the finished manuscript was completed in Seville in 1596. His account, and similar 16th century accounts of adventures in the new world, were part of the origins of the novel, as developed further by Cervantes in Spain around 1600.

Coronado, Francisco Vásquez de
(1510? - 1554)

In 1538 he was appointed governor of New Galicia, the northwest province of New Spain, on the west coast of Mexico near Compostela and Culiacan. From there he led the roughly 1200-man expedition in 1540 across Sonora and SE Arizona to the Seven Cities of Cibola (the pueblos of Zuni, New Mexico). Finding no gold or transportable wealth, he proceeded on to the pueblos around Albuquerque, where the army wintered in 1540-41. From there, they searched further for wealthy cities or trading centers, traveling across the Texas panhandle and parts of Oklahoma as far as Kansas. Although they made the first major exploration of west-central North America, the expedition was considered a defeat, because the financial backers and soldiers lost all invested, in a speculative gamble to get rich off Native gold.

Coronado returned home disappointed and lived out his life quietly on his hacienda, apparently being regarded as failure. As was common in those days, he went through two trials, in 1544 and 1547, to examine his possible mistreatment of the Indians during the expedition. He was basically acquitted on these charges, though the standards of investigation were different in those days than in the modern U.S. Generally, he has been regarded as more benign in his treatment of the native people than many of his contemporaries. He died in 1554.

Cortés, Hernan
(1485 - 1547)

Conqueror of Mexico. The Spanish base of operations after Columbus was in Cuba. Cortés was given a commission by the Governor of Cuba in 1518 to explore the Mexico coast after reports were received of substantial native towns in that region. Cortés explored and founded a town on that coast and quickly learned of the wealthy empire of the Aztecs. His commission did not include authority to march on the interior, but in a bold move he burned his ships so his army could not retreat, formed an alliance with local people who were taxed by the Aztecs, and then marched on the Aztec capital (now Mexico City) with an army of about 350 or possibly 400 Spaniards and over 1000 Indians. He was welcomed into the city on November 8, 1519, by the Aztec king, Moctezuma. He cleverly formed a curious co-rulership with him for some months, during which Moctezuma was held under house arrest by the Spaniards. All during this time, Cortés demanded and received tribute in gold, which he planned to divide between the Spanish king and his army. In testimony to his diplomacy, daring, and military power, Cortés maintained his army in the midst of a much larger population of armed Aztecs, in a city that was isolated on an island in the midst of a lake, with only a few causeways available as escape routes. The city was regarded by the Spanish as one of the most beautiful in the world, being called the Venice of the new world, for its canals and temples.

In 1520, the Cuban governor sent a force to arrest Coronado for overstepping his commission. Cortes took part of his army from Mexico City, defeated the army from Cuba, and converted them to his cause. Meanwhile, the small force that he left in Mexico City panicked and massacred many of the Aztec nobility during one of their religious festivals. Cortes returned to a tense city. On June 30, 1520, he tried to lead his army in an escape from the city, carrying their gold over the causeways, but most of the gold was lost. Cortés regrouped his Spanish army and native allies in the countryside outside Mexico City, built boats, and attacked the city in 1521. In the course of fighting his way into the city over many days, the Spanish army destroyed building after building, in order to keep from being attacked from the roofs. The army essentially destroyed the entire city, much to the sorrow of Cortés. As a result, Cortés had lost the city and much of the gold he had hoped to present to the Spanish king.

Thus, Cortés was replaced as governor of the city by Viceroy Antonio Mendoza and pursued a lifelong competition with him to find another wealthy empire. Cortés built ships on the west coast of Mexico and probed north in the 1530s, hoping to find a new empire to conquer. This led him into competition with Mendoza, who sent landward expeditions north, and who eventually sponsored Coronado's expedition to conquer Cibola (Zuni, New Mexico.)

Cortes died in 1547 at age 63, using his will to instruct his son to inquire into a philosophic question that had plagued him - whether the native "Indians" were a sub-human species or human beings with souls like the Spanish.

Diaz, Melchior

A captain in Coronado's army, usually credited with being capable and popular. About the time Coronado departed for Cibola from the base camp at Corazones, Sonora, he sent Diaz northwest with a small force to find Alarcón's ships at the head of the Gulf of California. This party made the first European crossing of the Colorado River, near Yuma, AZ. They discovered and reported geothermal hotsprings, probably the ones near Calexico, Mexico. In a bizarre horseback accident near this place, Diaz was gored in the groin by his own lance, which he had thrown at a dog chasing his sheep. His men attempted to carry him back on a litter, but he died on the way and was buried on a small hill, probably somewhere between Sonoita and Caborca, Sonora. The grave has never been found.

Dorantes, Andres
(15?? - 15??)

A colleague of Cabeza de Vaca and soldier on the disastrous Florida expedition of 1528. Dorantes was one of the four survivors who wandered across the SW and arrived in Mexico in 1536, with news of richer towns to the north. He was the master of the Moorish servant, Estevan, who played a famous role in later exploration. Dorantes had been given a large copper bell (of a type now known through archaeology), from one of these towns, and this bell convinced the Spaniards (incorrectly) that the northern peoples worked in metals. The Viceroy, Mendoza, recruited Dorantes to go back to the north and find these towns in 1537, but Dorantes instead returned to Spain and dropped out of the story at this point.

Dorantes, Estévan de
(15?? - 1539)

A.k.a. Estévan the Black or Estévanico. Estévan was a Moor, who had been captured in Spain and made a servant of Andres Dorantes. Andreas Dorantes and Estévan were survivors of the disastrous Florida expedition of 1528, shipwrecked on the Gulf coast, and wandered the SW with Cabeza de Vaca's party of four castaways (see Cabeza de Vaca). Estévan was clearly the most charismatic of the four survivors, and was described as a kind of "front man" who made initial contact with many villagers.

After the return to Mexico in 1536, Estévan was selected by Viceroy Mendoza to help lead the priest, Marcos de Niza, on a northern reconnaissance to find the northern trade centers that were rumored to lie north of the Cabeza de Vaca party's route through the SW. Marcos sent Estévan a few days ahead, where Estévan was the first to report news of the Seven Cities of Cibola, but impetuous Estévan disobeyed orders to wait for Marcos. With two greyhounds and a party of Native admirers, he charged ahead, reached Cibola (Zuni, New Mexico) nearly a week before Marcos, angered the Zunis by his flamboyant behavior, and was killed by them.

(see Dorantes, Estévan de)

Estrada, Beatriz
(1524? -1590)

Wife of Coronado. Daughter of the treasurer of New Spain, sent by the king to monitor the possible mismanagement by Cortes. Money from her family financed about a third or half of the expedition. The investment yielded no return because the expedition failed to find gold or transportable wealth.

(or Onorato, 15?? - 15??)

The somewhat mysterious priest or lay brother who accompanied Marcos de Niza north during the 1539 reconnaissance to discover Cibola. He fell ill after one or two weeks on the trail and returned to Culiacan, probably becoming one of the messengers who delivered Marcos' messages back to Mexico City before Marcos himself arrived. Nallino and Hartmann (in press, 2001, Coronado volume ed. by R. and S. Flint), speculate that he might be the same person as Juan Olmedo, an (Indian?) acolyte of Marcos, who apparently returned to Mexico City in mid-summer 1539 with Marcos' reports of the discovery of Cibola, and was later credited with the discovery himself, in several confused histories of the period published in later decades.

Jaramillo, Juan
(15?? - 15??)

A soldier in Coronado's army who wrote the second-most detailed account of the expedition. Jaramillo's account gives many good geographic details of the route.

Marcos de Niza
(1595? +/- 5 years? - 1558)

Marcos was a Franciscan priest who came to the new world in 1531, and served initially in Peru during the conquest by Pizarro. According to his contemporary, the historian Bartholeme de las Casas, he reported many atrocities by the conquistadors in Peru. He came north to Mexico in 1536-37, and was reportedly well respected by his Franciscan colleagues. He was thus selected by the Viceroy, Mendoza, to make an exploration north to find the reported wealthy cities rumored to be there. He left Mexico City with Coronado in 1538, departed Coronado's outpost, Culiacan, in 1539, and returned in late summer, 1539, correctly reporting a northern trade center named Cibola (Zuni, New Mexico), with many buffalo skins, turquoises, cotton garments, along with fertile populated valleys in northern Sonora and the westward turn of the Gulf of California coast at its north end, which he placed at 35 degrees latitude. Contrary to popular accounts, his report did not claim gold in Cibola, although he may have claimed this informally. The report gave a reasonably accurate report of the pueblos of Zuni, stating that he approached close enough to see one of the towns in the distance, but feared to enter because of the death of his companion, Estévan, in Cibola.

Marcos' report of Cibola's existence was the prime cause of the Coronado expedition. Marcos led the army back to Cibola the next year (1540) but was branded a liar the next year when Coronado's army found no gold or transportable wealth there. Although he was the first to explore northward and issue a report on what is now the SW United States, he returned to Mexico in disgrace and died some years later in poverty and neglect. Many historians have joined in calling him a liar, claiming he did not have time to reach Cibola and may have been merely a henchman of Mendoza in stirring up interest in a northward expedition of conquest. Other historians, especially recently, have supported Marcos' account and argued that he was telling the truth as he knew it.

Marcos lived near Mexico City in his later years, more or less in disgrace and in poor health. It was said that his poor health was due to his exertions on his two trips to Cibola. We have a sad letter from him in 1546 he petitioning Bishop Zummáraga for a stipend of wine, which was granted, to help him with his "lack of blood and natural heat." He died, taking his secrets with him, in 1558.

Mendoza, Antonio
(ca. 1490 - 1552)

The "good viceroy" of New Spain. Although Cortés conquered the Aztecs and their capital of Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) in central Mexico in 1520, he basically destroyed the city to do it, and lost the gold which Moctezuma had amassed for him. Partly for these reasons, the Spanish king appointed a new Viceroy (vice-roi, or vice-king - the king's representative) in Mexico. Mendoza was an able administrator.

Mendoza was engaged in a long term competition with Cortés. Both wanted to seek out and conquer the rumored wealthy cities to the north. Cortés tried to do it by sea in the 1530s, along Mexico's west coast. After Cabeza de Vaca came into Mexico City in 1536 with rumors of northern wealth, Mendoza tried to organize a land expedition in 1537 with a survivor of the Cabeza de Vaca party, Andres Dorantes, but this never materialized. In 1538, Mendoza appointed Coronado governor in the NW and sent him, along with the priest, Marcos de Niza to pacify and explore the NW. Under Mendoza's orders, Marcos proceeded north in 1539 all the way to Cibola, and returned in late summer of that year with a report of the discovery of a prosperous Native American province, the Seven Cities of Cibola (Zuni, New Mexico).

Mendoza then forbid Cortés from exploring further in that direction and appointed Coronado to lead an army to conquer the new province. Mendoza invested heavily in the expedition, being one of its two major backers, along with Coronado's family. Mendoza lost this investment.

Mendoza was eventually promoted to the position of viceroy of Peru in 1551. Though in ill health, he accepted, and died in Lima on July 21, 1552.

(See Honorato)

Zumárraga, Bishop
(1468 - 1547)

Bishop of Mexico City during the time of the Coronado expedition. Zumárraga was humanist pioneer in some ways, starting the first hospitals and printing press in Mexico. He had a copy of Thomas More's Utopia, annotated in his own hand, and apparently had sentiments about ways to accomplish a peaceful Christianization of the Indians and development of Indian communities along Utopian lines. On the other hand, he was ruthless in oppressing any Indian attempts to maintain the old Aztec religious practices, and participated with the Inquisition in putting some Indian leaders to death for following the old ways. Zumárraga was the Bishop of Mexico during the period when the famous vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe was supposed to have occurred, and he was the clergical authority who was supposed to have pronounced it a miracle. However, there is no documentary evidence of this event from that time period, and most scholars believe the story was invented about a century later, to create an icon to whom indigenous peoples could identify.

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