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The Mysterious Journey of Friar Marcos de Niza

In Brief:

Marcos de Niza was the first explorer to report the Seven Cities of Cibola, and his report launched the Coronado expedition.

Marcos de Niza was a priest who was sent north from Mexico City by Viceroy Mendoza in 1538-39 to search for wealthy cities that were rumored to be somewhere north of the frontier of New Spain. In early 1539 he left the frontier at Compostela and journeyed north into the unknown for several months. In the summer of 1539 he returned and wrote a report saying he had discovered the cities - in a province called Cibola (the present-day native American pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico). He said he reached the first city and saw it from a distance, but because his companion had been killed there, he returned without entering it.

Most popular writers claim Marcos reported gold in Cibola, but his original report says nothing about gold. Nonetheless, conquistadors in Mexico city were exited by his news and assumed Cibola would be as wealthy as the conquered Aztec empire. Marcos led Coronado's army back to Cibola the next year, in 1540, but he became the scapegoat when Cibola turned out to have no gold, and the soldiers said he was a liar.

The big mystery about Marcos is whether he told the truth. Historians have argued for centuries about whether Marcos - a priest with a good reputation - simply interviewed some natives near the present border, and turned back without seeing Cibola. Also at issue: did he promote the rumors that Cibola was full of gold? Several prominent 20th century historians concluded Marcos did not have time to reach Cibola in 1539. They said he made up a fraudulent report as part of a conspiracy with Viceroy Mendoza to encourage the conquest of the north. Other historians have defended him.

Read What Marcos Himself Said

The Relación , or Report, that Marcos submitted about his explorations is still in print. The best modern edition and commentary is by Cleve Hallenbeck, published in 1949 by Southern Methodist University Press in a handsome edition, reprinted in 1987 by the same publisher. The original Spanish is presented as well as an English translation and a detailed commentary. Hallenbeck's was one of the scholars who believed Marcos lied about the journey, and his commentary about "the lying Monk," as he calls him, makes entertaining and provocative reading.

The Controversy Rages On

Marco died in 1558 in disgrace, everyone having blamed him for leading Coronado's army on a fruitless quest under false pretenses. The actual personality of the man is very unclear, and it is exciting to go back through the documents and try to understand what really happened. The French scholar Bandelier (1886, 1890 -- see reference list) re-examined the case and concluded Marcos had told the truth. Carl Sauer (1932) published a thorough but hard-to-find analysis of Marcos and his route in "The Road to Cibola." Other crucial studies of Marcos and his journey were published in the New Mexico Historical Review by Henry Wagner (1934), Carl Sauer (1937, 1941), claiming that Marcos was a complete fraud, having turned back near the present-day border without reaching Cibola, and that he was part of a secret conspiracy with Viceroy Mendoza to promote exploration of the north. Lansing Bloom (1940, 1941) attacked the faulty claim by Wagner and Sauer that Marcos had inadequate time to reach Cibola. William Hartmann (1997) argued from more modern archaeological data that Marcos was on well-known trade routes and did complete his journey, essentially as he described it.

Purposes of Marcos' Journey

Viceroy Mendoza gave Marcos a specific list of instructions which we still have. The main goal was to find news of any wealthy northern cities, rumors of which had been reported 1536 by Cabeza de Vaca when he and his party, wandered near the present US-Mexico border.

Many scholars ignore that a second general goal of Mendoza was to get information about the coast, because he believed it might be possible to mount a conquest of that area by sea. In fact, Cortés, conqueror of the Aztecs, was already building ships in a race to reach the north before Mendoza! Cabeza de Vaca had speculated that the northern trading center might be near the coast. Remember that many Spaniards still thought Mexico was an island, and thus that, somewhere in the north, the western coastline would curve around to the east.

A third goal was to report on the land route, the people, minerals and products, etc.

Many scholars, especially Hallenbeck (1949), berate Marcos for not following these orders. Hallenbeck claims he ignored virtually all of them, which is overly pessimistic. It is true that Marcos did not report as much detail as modern scholars would like, but from the vantage point of modern archaeology and geology, we can see that his brief Relación , or report, was correct in describing the location of Cibola, the architecture and customs, the turn of the coastline (to the west, not east), and some habits of natives in Sonora. The Relación also notes that Marcos provided a list of names of islands and possibly other geographic information in a separate document, now lost. The existence of this second document, with its list of names, may explain why the main Relacion is sketchy about geography.

The Mysterious Journey of Marcos de Niza

The route of Marcos in 1539 is known in very rough outline, but scholars have grand arguments over the details. Remember that Marcos led the Coronado army over more or less the same route in 1540. Thus, it is an exciting game of modern archaeological sleuthing to try to reconstruct his path from his statements. He started in Culiacan on March 7, 1539. By early April he was in a native village called Vacapa, where the people had not heard of the Spanish Christians, and where he spent some days. He stated he left there April 7. Some weeks after that, he departed from the main Cibola route to investigate the coast, correctly reporting that the coastline did not turn inland toward Cibola, but rather turned sharply west. The other specific date he reported is May 9, when he entered the final, 15-day " despoblado ," or unpopulated stretch, prior to reaching Cibola. This would place him at or near Cibola around May 24.

 	Hypothetical reconstruction of Marcos de Niza's route to the north.
Hypothetical reconstruction of Marcos de Niza's route to the north. The journey started from the old location of Culiocon and worked north along the coast, turning inland to the village of Vacapa. Details of the route are sketchy and controversial. The extent of his reported foray west, to explore the head of the Gulf, is uncertain.


A key to the route and rate of travel is the location of Vacapa, since Marcos gave the date he left there. Some scholars have placed it near the south border of Sonora, a few days north of Culiacan, but that is too far south both in terms of travel time and also because the Spanish slave raiders would have been known in that area, contradicting Marcos' comment that Christians were unknown there. Others placed at the north border of Sonora, near the north end of the Gulf of California, but that is too far north, because Marcos did not learn of the coastal turn until some days north of there. The best location for Vacapa, based on travel time and use of a place name "Vacapan" in the Coronado army chronicles, is in central Sonora near the famous village of Corazones, a town first reported by Cabeza de Vaca, where Coronado established a base camp.

Modern scholars virtually all put Corazones near the modern town of Ures. Near there is a river and village now called Matape, which might be a corruption of the old place name Vacapa. (Spanish renderings of native place names were usually only approximations, and indeed, different Spaniards often used different spellings.) A good guess, made by Bandelier as early as 1886, thus places Vacapa near Matape.

More details of the arguments, and a modern reconstruction of the route, are given by Hartmann (1997). With Vacapa placed in central Sonora, the rest of the route makes sense. After that point, Marcos may have stayed closer to the coast (following his orders) than the route used the next year by Coronado, up to the point where the coast turned west (about the latitude of the present border. Then he turned northeast. Coronado chronicles (but not Marcos' own document) say he discovered a famous old ruin, called Chichilticale, which was a major campsite just before plunging north into the 15-day despoblado . It was probably a pueblo ruin in southeast Arizona. The 15-day wilderness was the mountainous area north of the Gila River, which the route probably crossed somewhere near Safford, between the modern towns of Duncan and Bylas..

Origin of the Name "Cibola"

Marcos de Niza was the first person to record the name Cibola, reported to him by Estevan the Moor, who learned it from native informants. The term probably comes from a native term for buffalo, and refers to the vigorous trade in buffalo hides and other buffalo products, conducted from Cibola. As Marcos recorded from numerous interviews of natives in central and northern Sonora, the natives of that area made numerous trade trips, 20 to 30 days' journey north along the well-established Cibola trail, to work or trade at Cibola in return for buffalo hides, turquoise, and other materials. These facts give interesting insight into daily life of prehistoric peoples of southwest North America at the time the Europeans arrived.

Marcos de Niza collected what he called "cow hides" from the Indians in Sonora, Mexico, who first told him about Cibola. "Cibola" was a word that apparently referred to buffalos, and the buffalo products that the Zunis acquired in trade from other Indians to the east. This illustration, from 15__, shows that the Spanish soon acquired at least a rough idea of the nature of the "cows" of the plains.

More Details of Marcos' Journey:

The expedition of Marcos de Niza from Culiacan to Cibola in 1539 consisted of three principle explorers: Marcos de Niza, who was in charge, a second priest named Honorato, and a Moorish servant, Estevan Dorantes. Known as Estevan the Black, Estevan had been with Cabeza de Vaca's party, was familiar with native customs, and was the first African to explore the modern Southwest.  Along with these three were dozens, or on some days hundreds, of native admirers. Especially during the first part of the trip, they greeted Marcos as a great emancipator, because he brought word that Viceroy Mendoza had freed northern Sinoloa and southern Sonora from the Spanish slave raider, Guzman, who had previously terrorized the area.

Honorato fell ill in one of the first native villages a week or so after the expedition began, and was left behind. Marcos, Estevan, and their party, initially stayed near the coast, reporting on islands and habits of the coastal people. In a few weeks they turned inland to the town of Vacapa, in a region beyond the known frontier, where the residents had not seen Spaniards.

In a fateful decision, Marcos sent Estevan a few days ahead to reconnoiter the route, while Marcos waited for a party he had sent west to bring more information about the coast. Estevan had strict orders to send back word and wait for Marcos. Estevan must have been an extremely charismatic and enterprising figure. We know from the Cabeza de Vaca account that he had adopted the persona of a native shaman, and often preceded the other castaways into villages and enthusing the natives. Several later accounts from the Coronado army suggest that he had numerous dalliances with native women along the way north with Marcos.

At any rate, Estevan soon sent back word from a spot about three days ahead, that from native informants he had discovered the existence of a wonderful northern trade center, "the greatest thing in the world." It was named Cibola, and was roughly another 30 days' travel ahead. He sent one of these informants back to Marcos, but Estevan himself was so excited by the news that he declined to wait for Marcos.

Starting on April 7, Marcos left Vacapa and soon encountered the region where the natives knew of Cibola. He interviewed them carefully, always gathering consistent and increasingly glowing reports of the northern city. In the central Sonoran villages where Marcos traveled, the natives had only small brush huts and possibly some one-floor, one-room structures of adobe-like material. But Cibola had multi-story permanent buildings! Marcos wrote in an engaging style about what he learned:

  • These people had as much knowledge of Cíbola as in New Spain we have of Mexico City, or in Peru they have of Cuzco.

  • They particularly described the style of the houses, streets, and plazas in Cíbola, like people who had been there many times.... I remarked that houses of the style they described, several stories high, seemed impossible. To make me understand, they took soil and ashes and mixed them with water, and showed me how they placed the stones, and how the edifice was built up, placing stones and mortar until it reached the required height. I asked them if the men of that country had wings to reach the upper stories; they laughed and explained the concept of ladders to me as well as I could explain it. They took a stick and placed it over their heads, saying this was the height, from one story to the next....
Cibola (Zuni, NM)
Right: This view of the stonework in the ruins of the Zuni town of Hawikuh
Left: Marcos' description of Cibola (Zuni, NM) is strikingly accurate. This photo from the late 1800s shows the appearance of the one surviving example of the Seven Cities of Cibola, much as it appeared in the time of Marcos. It shows how the pueblo structure gives the impression of three to five stories' height. This was the style of construction in which was accurately described to Marcos by natives as far south as central Sonora.

Right: This view of the stonework in the ruins of the Zuni town of Hawikuh - standing in 1539-40 - confirms Marcos' description of stone-built walls in Cibola.

Marcos proceeded north, describing well-watered river valleys with villages and irrigated fields dotted along each stream. He tried to catch up to Estevan, but the Moor always remained several days ahead. In each village he added to his information about Cibola and its people. Earlier in the trip he mentioned showing samples of gold and other metals to the natives, in order to learn if metals were used in the area. In that instance, he reported that Indians in the inland mountains, to the east, were alleged to have gold. (Later Spaniards could not confirm this and considered another of Marcos' lies, but in fact gold was mined in that area in later centuries.) However, in the case of Cibola, it is curious that Marcos never mentions gold, or showing his gold samples. He does, however, correctly report that many turquoises were traded from that area, and that turquoises were embedded in some door frames. This apparently led to a belief by the conquistadors that Cibola/Zuni had doors and walls studded with jewels. Once again, Marcos was charged with lying. However, once again, his report was literally correct. As ethnologists confirmed in the 1800s, the Zunis sometimes worked a good luck turquoise into the entryway of a home, but as Coronado was sadly to learn, they had no great transportable wealth, either in turquoise, gold, or any other material precious to the Spanish.

This view shows the beautiful Santa Cruz headwaters in Sonora, Mexico.
The river valleys described by Marcos de Niza were well-watered and dotted with native villages about a mile apart. Today, many of these villages have only dry riverbeds because urban growth and farming have pumped underground water and lowered the water table. This view shows the beautiful Santa Cruz headwaters in Sonora, Mexico. The river flowed through Tucson until around 1920, but today is dry.

Marcos must have continued to ask about the configuration of the coast, because nearly two weeks after heading north out of Vacapa, he picked up information that the coast turned west. Now he had a dilemma. Should he try to catch up with Estevan on the Cibola trail, or should he make a side trip to the west to bring the Viceroy information about the coastline? He opted for the latter. Perhaps it was a half-hearted diversion, because he gives it only a few vague lines:

  • Here, I learned that the coast turns abruptly to the west, though it had been running to the north. As a change in the direction of the coast was a matter of importance I wished to learn about it, and so I went to view it, and saw clearly that, in latitude 35 degrees, it turns to the west.

This is generally regarded as an overstatement, because the coast at the north end of the gulf is harsh and barren desert country, and there is no single spot from which one can clearly visually confirm the major curve to the west toward the mouth of the Colorado river. Perhaps the sense of it is that Marcos made the downstream trip toward the coast and from talking to many villagers "came to understand clearly that, at about latitude 35 , it turns to the west" - which was essentially true, though a more accurate latitude measure would have been 31 to 31.5 .

In a few more vague lines of text, Marcos has returned to the Cibola trail, in pursuit of Estevan, who, to his distress, gathered a large band of admirers along the last populated valley before the 15-day wilderness (probably the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona), and plunged ahead into the mountainous country (the White Mountains of east central Arizona, north of the Gila River).

Incidentally, Marcos' account makes it clear that throughout this journey, the enthused natives acted as his guides and bearers on the Cibola trail, arranging his overnight stops. At least some of the time they used traditional campsites, and Marcos remarks on seeing campsites that had been used by Estevan. This proves Marcos was on a well-known route with natives carrying most of his supplies - not bushwhacking through unknown wilderness.

A little-known monument near the small town of Lochiel, Arizona, commemorates the place where Marcos de Niza crossed from Mexico into the present United States in 1539.
A little-known monument near the small town of Lochiel, Arizona, commemorates the place where Marcos de Niza crossed from Mexico into the present United States in 1539. The exact location of this crossing is unknown, but the monument may be within a few tens of miles of the spot.

So enthused were the natives of this last valley, that they organized a second party of "chiefs" from various villages to accompany Marcos to Cibola. On May 9, they entered the final 15-day despoblado , expecting to be reunited with Estevan around May 24 in the wondrous city of Cibola.

In a dramatic turn of events, Marcos' party met a handful of bloodied refugees a few days south of Cibola. Impetuous Estevan, they reported, had ignored orders from the governor of Cibola not to approach or enter the city. Apparently the governor was apprehensive about Estevan, who appeared as a strange, dark-skinned shaman, traveling with two Castillian greyhounds. Estevan, full of confidence from his experiences five years earlier, had laughed off the governor's orders and approached anyway where he was held for at least one night in a building outside the city. A skirmish ensued. Some of the southern Arizona natives in the entourage were killed or injured, and Estevan, too, was reported killed. (The death of Estevan in this way was confirmed a year later by Coronado's army.)

Marcos' entourage from southern Arizona almost turned on him, but after prayer and a distribution of gifts, Marcos talked his way out of the situation.

  • I proceeded to distribute what I had left of the garments and trade articles, to calm them, and I urged them to realize that even if they killed me, they could really not harm me because I would die a Christian, and would go to heaven. But those who killed me would suffer for it, because more Christians would come in search for me and kill all of them, even thought that would be against my own wishes. These words and my other speeches appeased them, though they still were angry over the people who had been killed.

  • I proposed that some of them should go on with me to Cibola, to see if any others had escaped, and to learn what we could about Estevan. I could get nowhere with this idea. At last, two of the chiefs, seeing me determined to go on, said they would go with me.

  • With these and my own Indians and interpreters, I pursued my journey until within sight of Cíbola, which is situated on a plain at the skirt of a round hill. It has the appearance of a very beautiful town, the best I have seen in these parts. The houses are of the style that the Indians had described to me, all of stone, with stories and terraces, as well as I could see from a hill where I was able to view it. The city is bigger than Mexico City. At times, I was tempted to go on to the city itself, because I knew I risked only life, which I had offered to God on the day I started the journey. But, in the end, I was afraid to try it, realizing my danger and that if I died, I would not be able to make a report on this country, which to me appears the greatest and best of the discoveries I have made.

  • When I remarked to the chiefs about how beautiful this city was, they replied that this one was the least of the seven cities. Furthermore, Totonteac, the still more distant kingdom, is even better than these seven. They said it has so many houses and people that it has no end.

  • Viewing the geographic setting of the city, I thought it appropriate to name this country the new kingdom of Saint Francis. There, with the aid of the Indians, I made a great heap of stones, and on top of it I placed a cross, small and light because I lacked the equipment to make it larger. I announced that I was erecting this cross and monument in the name of Don Antonio de Mendoza, Viceroy of New Spain, for our lord the Emperor, in token of possession and conforming to the instructions. I proclaimed that in this act of possession I was taking all of the seven cities... and that the reason I didn't proceed onward to them was to return and give an account of what I did and what I saw

At this point, Marcos retreated as fast as possible, "more full of fear than food," as he said ironically. In the last populated valleys, of southern Arizona, he found the people now hostile, because of the debacle - a fact that was to cause Coronado a less than joyous reception a year later.

Marcos gives few details of his return trip. Apparently he turned up in Mexico City in mid to late August. On August 23, Bishop Zumarraga, in Mexico City, wrote a letter with some details of Marcos' discoveries, possibly after chatting with him. On August 26, a copy of his Relación was certified and dated by the superiors of his Franciscan order. On September 2, it was delivered in person to the Viceroy at a court function where Marcos answered questions in front of various witnesses.

The return of Marcos initiated a period of intense rumor-mongering in Mexico City, as attested by various historians. Many writers say that Marcos claimed that Cibola had gold and fabulous wealth, and that this was the cause of the Coronado expedition. However, the Relación does not make these claims, and eyewitness testimony collected in November 1539 refers primarily (six out of seven testimonies) to rumors that Marcos had returned and found a "rich and populous" land to the north - not that he had found gold.

It is clear that Coronado's expedition expected to find gold, and people invested heavily in it for that reason, but it is difficult to prove that Marcos himself promised gold. Perhaps he speculated in this direction in private, or perhaps this rumor merely spread by a 16th century game of "telephone," based on the fact that Cortés and Pizarro had conquered golden empires only a few years earlier - suggesting that every native empire had fabulous wealth.

Did Marcos Really Reach Cibola?

The fact that Cibola turned out not to have gold caused the soldiers of Coronado to call him a liar. This charge was magnified in later centuries especially when Sauer, Wagner, and Hallenbeck in the 1930s and 40s concluded that Marcos simply did not have time to get to Cibola and back to Mexico City in the available weeks.

Upon examination, this charge turns out to be based on conclusion by Sauer and Wagner (1934, p. 214) that Marcos himself was back in Culiacan by mid June and back in Compostela by about July 1. This in turn was based on the fact that Cortés and Mendoza, in and around Mexico City, began to correspond to rumors of Marcos' discovery by July 26. Sauer and Wagner assumed that Marcos himself had arrived by that time. However, Bloom (1940, 1941), Hartmann (1997), and Nallino and Hartmann (in press) developed seemingly conclusive proof that Marcos, following Mendoza's orders, sent back messengers with news of his discoveries. Thus, it was the good news gathered by Marcos on his way north, not Marcos himself with his more sobering final outcome, that arrived in Mexico City by messenger in July. This is supported by letters of Coronado which remark on the arrival of a message from Marcos, and in one crucial letter (written in Compostela July 15) even refer to the good treatment given Estevan. At the time of this letter, Estevan was dead, which Coronado would have known if Marcos had arrived, but would not have known if the news was in a message sent back by Marcos on the way north.

The conclusion that Marcos did not arrive in Mexico until mid to late August essentially removes the time constraint and negates any claim that he had inadequate time.

Furthermore, if (as part of a conspiracy with Mendoza) Marcos never traveled beyond the region of the modern border, as claimed by Sauer, it seems beyond belief that he would turn around and volunteer to lead the Coronado army all the way to Cibola - and expect to get away with the fraud.

In any case, Marcos remains an intriguing and enigmatic character: priest, accused charlatan, courageous traveler, and first methodical purposeful explorer of the American southwest. Perhaps one day, some lucky scholar studying the archives in Seville, Spain, or the archives in Mexico City, or some musty documents in a small village church somewhere in Mexico, will turn up more documents that finally reveal the truth about this first explorer to document the unknown lands of the U.S.-Mexico border country and the seven cities of Zuni, New Mexico.



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