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Coronado's Journey Through Sonora and Arizona

In Brief:

In 1540, with a commission by the Viceroy of New Spain and funded by many investors, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado marched north from Compostela, Mexico, with a huge army, to conquer the Seven Cities of Cibola, discovered the year before by the priest, Marcos de Niza. The army contained around 350 Spaniards, some on horseback and more on foot, and around 900 Indian allies gathered from central Mexico, plus herds of livestock. Only a few women went on the expedition, including the wives of a very few Spanish soldiers. They expected to pay off the investments and get rich from gold and jewels in Cibola, but when they reached there in July, 1540, the found no wealth.

Coronado sent out side parties that discovered the Grand Canyon and the mouth of the Colorado River. A naval support expedition also sailed up the lower Colorado River, but failed to rendezvous with the land army. After Coronado conquered Cibola, he occupied other pueblos in New Mexico and marched as far as Kansas but never found gold. The expedition was regarded as a failure.

(The rest of the expedition is described on our page "Coronado's Journey Part II: Through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas" )

Aztec Warrior

Many people forget that about 2/3 of the Coronado expedition members were what Spaniards called "Indian allies"-- warriors from central Mexican towns who had allied with the Spanish to defeat the Aztecs in 1520.


Read About the Expedition

The most engaging popular history of the expedition was the book by historian Herbert Bolton, called "Coronado: Knight of the Plains," first published in 1949 by the University of New Mexico Press and still in print. Bolton was a brilliant writer and tells many engaging tales based on a synthesis of the chronicles plus his own research on the ground, following his estimate of the route both in Mexico and the U.S.

Scholarship has continued about the expedition, the life of the soldiers and native allies, and the location of the route since Bolton's time. The best modern collection of engaging research papers and photos of artifacts is "The Expedition to Tierra Nueva," edited by Richard and Shirley Flint, published in 1997 by the University of Colorado Press (one of the few southwestern states that Coronado didn't reach!). The Flints are currently editing a second collection based on a conference in 2000.

Tracking the Expedition's Route: Sleuthing for Clues and Artifacts

For over 100 years, the exact route of Coronado has been an American mystery. Generations of scholars have tried to retrace the steps of the army from their descriptions of villages, rivers, mountains, and native communities. National commissions have grappled with the problem of designating a "Coronado Trail" that tourists could follow, but clues were sparse, and politics raised its head when various factions tried to claim parts of the route for their state. Because we don't know just where they were, it is tantalizingly hard to interpret the Coronado chronicles' descriptions of native villages and other sites they visited.

An exciting race against time will be played out in the 21st century. In our lifetimes, many potential Coronado sites are being destroyed by urban growth, vandalism, and plowing of fields for agriculture. However, if amateur sleuths report possible Spanish artifacts, it may still be possible to locate more of Coronado's camps and document exactly where the army went. See our web page on helping scholars to locate Coronado sites.

Discoveries in the 1980s and 1990s, such as the identification of Coronado campsites near Albuquerque and near Floydada, Texas, have started to pin down the route. Using sites where artifacts have been found, researchers can better reconstruct the clues to other sites mentioned in the chronicles.

The First Part of the Adventure:
Through Sonora and Arizona to the Seven Cities of Cibola

The army was ordered to assemble in Governor Vasquez de Coronado's headquarters in Compostela, west of Mexico City near the coast. The muster roll was taken there on February 22, 1540. This was long before "American History" started in the United States; it was exactly 192 years before the birth of George Washington! The army chronicles describe how the army marched from Compostela to the last frontier outpost, the town of Culiacán, on the coast. On the way, the encountered the party of Melchior Diaz, who had been sent north to check the 1539 findings of the priest-explorer Marcos de Niza. Diaz reported that winter snows had prevented him from traveling further north than the present-day southern Arizona. He had more or less confirmed Marcos's discovery of Cibola, but, like Marcos, he was unable to confirm or report that gold was present in Cibola. From Marcos' report – or rather from rumors about it – the soldiers had conceived that Cibola was full of gold. Thus, in an irony of history, Coronado's army, even before reaching Culiacán, began to blame Marcos for deceiving them, even though his own report had said nothing about gold in Cibola.

Coronado Map

Reconstruction of Coronado's 1540 march north to Cibola and theRio Grande pueblos, based on later descriptions by chroniclers whotraveled with the army. Details are sketchy, but the positions of Old Culiocon, Cibola, Corozones, and Chichilticalli are believed to be known at least approximately.


Because of the report of Diaz, and perhaps beginning to have doubts himself, Coronado decided to charge ahead with a modest band of about 75-80 horsemen, 25-30 footsoldiers, and some native allies, to find out what was really in Cibola. They left the main army and the livestock, who would travel more slowly and catch up to them. The chronicles of the expedition describe how Coronado's vanguard then marched then north into terra incognito , guided by Marcos de Niza along the route he pioneered the year before. A first major stop was the native town called Corazones by the Spanish. (The name means "Hearts," after a feast of deer hearts given there to Cabeza de Vaca's party). Based on geographic clues, scholars virtually all agree that this was near the town of Ures, Sonora, on the Rio Sonora. Coronado established a major camp or staging area at Corazones. It was moved on several occasions and occupied three different sites on or near the Sonora River, but has never been found by archaeologists.

The Spanish then proceeded north. They gave different names to each "valley" or segment of a given river. They used the name Señora for the part of that river north of a gorge just upstream from Corazones. (This name, in the form Sonora, is still used for that river. In this valley, they used the place name Arispa or Ispa. It was written differently by different Spanish chroniclers trying to render the Indian name phonetically. (This corresponds to the town of Arispe in the Rio Sonora, a prominent Spanish, and later Mexican, town since the 1700s.) Based on this correspondence in names, most modern sleuths believe the army marched up the Rio Sonora. This matches other clues, as seen below. However, a few such as Charles di Peso, have argued that "Ispa" refers to the Bavispe River, the next river east of the Rio Sonora, even though this theory would require that the name Sonora was moved one valley to the west by later generations.

The army recorded marching a few days from the "Señora valley" north to a north-flowing stream, which they called the "Nexpa" after a local Indian name. This appears to be the San Pedro River in southern Arizona, which is a few days north across pleasant grasslands from the Rio Sonora headwaters. A few days downstream on the "Nexpa," they turned right for a few days to the base of some mountains, where they camped at a well-known campsite near a mysterious ruin called Chichilticale (usually pronounced Chee-CHIL-tee-CAHL-ley; the spelling varies). This name means "red house" in the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, and was possibly introduced by Aztec traders. Coronado and the men were disappointed that this famed building was only a ruin of mud walls. This mysterious ruin has disappeared and its location is uncertain, but as a number of authors have proposed, it must be one of the pueblo ruins of Southeast Arizona built in the late 1200s or 1300s and abandoned around 1400. The finding of Coronado artifacts at such a site might confirm a major point on the Coronado route, and establish a treasured site in the history of North America. Though forgotten today, Chichilticale was obviously an important paint on the prehistoric native trade route to Cibola, since Coronado's chroniclers divide the trip up into thirds: Compostela to Corazones, Corazones to Chichilticale, and Chichilticale to Cibola. (Sauer, 1932; Haury, 1984; Duffen and Hartmann, 1997; and Lee and Hartmann, in press; all give further speculation about the site of the lost Chichilticale ruin, which was so important in the days of Coronado. See our Bibliography page .)

Eureka Springs

The shady grove of Cottonwood trees at the Eureka Springs ranch was an historic campsite for travelers in the 1800s, and may be within a few miles of the now lost ruin of Chichilticale, where the army camped in Southern Arizona.

At Chichilticale, the route led through across a pass and then into the 15-day final mountainous poblado or depopulated wilderness that led to Cibola. This was the stretch from the Gila River across the White Mountains pine forest to Cibola (Zuni, New Mexico). Coronado's vanguard, reached the first town in the province of Cibola on July 7, 1540. This was the town now called Hawikuh (HA-wee-koo), first recorded by Marcos de Niza in 1539 phonetically as the Latinized, but otherwise similar sounding name Ahacus (A-ha-cu). Today it is an abandoned ruin on the Zuni Reservation. The Zunis tried to defend this pueblo, and a pitched battle was fought, lasting an hour or so. On another page of this web site, a vivid description of the battle for Cibola has been synthesized from the eyewitness accounts by several participants, including Coronado himself.

Excavations at Hawikuh were conducted in 1917-28 by the archaeologist Frederick W. Hodge. In the 1990s, Kansas archaeologist Frank Gagne reexamined materials from that site, now in Museum of the American Indian in New York, and found copper crossbow arrow points, or "bolt heads" as they are called, from the Spanish crossbows. Crossbow bolt points, are diagnostic of the Coronado expedition because it was the only army on Southwest American soil armed principally with crossbows. By the time the Spanish returned to New Mexico around 1600, firearms were coming into use. Gagne remarked that certain copper points from this site were so similar to points from other known Coronado sites that they could have been made by the same individual craftsman.

Coronado's vanguard fought their way into Hawikuh pueblo and occupied the town after the natives left, but it was a hollow victory, as they perceived it. There was no gold or jewels, and the soldiers blamed Marcos for this misfortune even though Marcos' report did not predict gold, and (contrary to popular histories) it is hard to establish that Marcos ever predicted vast transportable wealth in Cibola. The rest of the army caught up with the vanguard a few weeks later.

Hoping to find wealth that would make a profit for the expedition, Coronado sent out side parties that discovered the Hopi Pueblos of north-central Arizona (no gold there, either) and the Grand Canyon. He also sent Melchior Diaz, the officer who had gone north to check Marcos' report, to find the naval support expedition under Alarcon. Diaz marched across fearsome deserts to the Colorado River and found a message left by Alarcón. The naval support expedition had sailed up the lower Colorado River, but failed to find the land army and had departed, along with many of the personal supplies of the soldiers. Coronado had to decide what to do next.

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