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Coronado's Journey Through New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas

In Brief:

Finding no wealth in Cibola or the surroundings, Coronado moved his army east to the pueblos around Albuquerque, on the Rio Grande River, in September 1540. They spent the winter there. In these pueblos, Coronado heard stories of an another wealthy trade center, Quivira, to the northeast. In April 1541, the entire army marched east to the Texas panhandle, and in May Coronado and thirty horsemen rode north to Quivira, which was located in Kansas. Again finding no wealth, they returned to the Albuquerque area. In December, Coronado was injured in a fall from his horse.

Having found no transportable wealth, ailing from his injury, and wanting to see his wife again, Coronado ordered a return of the army to Mexico in 1542. The expedition was considered a colossal failure, squandering fortunes of several participants. Coronado resigned his governorship of the northwest frontier of New Spain and retired to his estates. The Spanish were so disillusioned by the lack of rich empires that they didn't return north in substantial numbers for half a century. Although the Coronado expedition mapped the northern Gulf, pioneered a route to New Mexico, explored America all the way to Kansas, and made the only observations of pre-European native life, most of this knowledge was lost.

Map of the Coronado Expedition (1540-42)United States National Park Service map shows the extent of Coronado Expedition explorations across Mexico and the United States.


The Main Army Moves to Cibola and the Naval Expedition Reaches the Colorado

While Coronado's advance guard fought the battle of Cibola on July 7, 1540, the main army was still waiting at the base camp in Corazones, in central Sonora. After occupying the town of Hawikuh, Coronado sent out several parties, including one that discovered the Grand Canyon, another which went east to discover the pueblos along the Rio Grande and the plains full of buffalo herds beyond, and still another to Corazones. The last group notified the army of the events, and the army set out for Cibola in September, reaching there later in the fall.

In the mean time, the naval branch of the expedition had packed many of the personal supplies of the soldiers and sailed from Acapulco May 9, 1540. This expedition was under the captain, Hernando de Alarcon. Alarcon reached the Colorado River delta, which had already been discovered by Francisco Ulloa in an expedition sent by Cortes in 1539, but Alarcon sailed further up the river, past modern day Yuma, in a fruitless search for the army. He buried a message, which was later found by party sent out by Coronado, stating that he had sailed this far and returned home. Thus, the army was on its own, and the dream of naval support died.

Moving East from Cibola

After Coronado realized that no gold was to be found in any of the six or seven towns of the Cibola province (the present day Zuni Reservation of west central New Mexico), and after the main army arrived, Coronado moved in the last weeks of 1540. He passed the famous mesa-top pueblo of Acoma, which Marcos de Niza had first learned about and recorded as Acus. After a few days they came to the Rio Grande River, along which were numerous large, multi-story pueblos. This is a province the Spaniards called Tiguex (TEE-wish), probably after a native name.

The army spent the winter of 1540-41 in that area. Although the army made attempts at a peaceful presence, they were a serious strain on the food resources of the area, and several skirmishes were fought with pueblos, including one site now known as Santiago Pueblo. A National Historical Monument is located at the ruin of Kuaua Pueblo, a few miles west of Albuquerque, where the army may have spent some time. Crossbow bolt heads and nails, resembling the material at Hawikuh, have been found at some these sites, including one bolt head reportedly embedded in a Puebloan skeleton at Santiago Pueblo. One of these sites is commemorated by a sign along the west side of a highway a few miles southwest of Albuquerque.

Campsite 2Where Coronado once camped, explosive suburban sprawl has covered the landscape with tract housing and highways.


The army was growing more desperate during this period. During this period, Coronado's men sought information about other possible wealthy locations. Many of the soldiers, not to mention Coronado's wife and Viceroy Mendoza, had invested their fortunes in the expedition, and the only hope of making good on this investment was to find gold, jewels, or other transportable wealth that could be plundered from the native people. Because of their faith in their own religion and the superiority of European culture (not to mention theological questions about whether the "Indie-ans" were actually human), the Spanish army never questioned their assumed moral right to take the property and even the lives of the "heathen" natives -- an age-old problem that has been expressed by many cultures.

After many interviews, the army learned of another important trading center far to the northeast, called Quivira. This center did exist, though some historians believe the Puebloans exaggerated its importance just to get rid of the troublesome Spanish visitors!

On April 23, 1541, the entire army set out to find Quivira, stopping first at the Pecos Pueblo, now a National Monument east of Albuquerque. More Coronado materials have been found there.

Leaving Pecos, they traveled east across east-central New Mexico until they reached extremely flat plains - so devoid of features that some men who set out from army camps to hunt couldn't find their way back and were lost. This area is identifiable as the Llano Estacado, or "Staked Plains" of the Texas panhandle. Finally that found two canyons where they camped.

Approach to BlancoFarm land near Floydada, Texas, gives an idea of the frighteningly flat plainswhere expedition members were lost due to lack of landmarks to navigate by.


In an intriguing tie-in, an old, partly blind informant at one of these Texas panhandle campsites told the soldiers that he had heard of the Cabeza de Vaca party, which had passed somewhere near their to the south. With a little more detail, this remark could help us identify the route of Cabeza de Vaca's castaways, but no one is sure how far to the south they were.

At this point, Coronado did the same thing he had done the previous year. He picked a small, light contingent to travel north to Quivira, leaving the main army behind. There are some indications that he was beginning to suspect that Quivira would have no more gold than Cibola did. In any case, he sent the main army back to their base in pueblos of Tiquex, near Albuquerque, where they arrived in June, 1541. Meanwhile Coronado's small expeditionary force then set out to the north, and probably in July they arrived in the Quivira province, turned out to be located in Kansas!

The midsummer march across the dry plains must have been uncomfortable, and once again the army was disappointed in the destination. Although Quivira was an important trade center to the buffalo-hunting Plains Indians, it was less impressive than the pueblos of New Mexico. As perceived by the Spanish, it was merely a collection of impoverished villagers in mud huts. Coronado stayed about 25 days in Quivira, and finally decided to return to the pueblo country, leaving toward the end of August, 1541. Some of the soldiers must have decided that this was the end of the line, and flung down their heavy armor, because various pieces of chain mail have turned up in Kansas.

Evidence of Coronado in Kansas

The evidence that Coronado reached Kansas, is well documented but not widely known. The army, of course, recorded that they had marched many days east and north from New Mexico. As early as 1880s, a piece of chain mail turned up in central Kansas, and locals proclaimed that it was Coronado material and Quivira was in Kansas. Others questioned this, however; the chain mail might have come from later Spaniards such as Oñate, in 1601, or been traded into the region by Indians. Writing in 1994, however, archaeologist Waldo Wedel documented numerous fragments of chain mail, from six sites scattered over a few miles in central Kansas, and only in that area. Many of these are from caches made by Indians, and thus are material buried by Indian hands, not directly part of a known Coronado Army camp site. Trade pottery from the New Mexico pueblos is also abundant in the area, affirming that this was a specific destination region for Pueblo traders. Although native people may have moved the material over short distances, it is unlikely that all the material was moved en mass. Wedel thus locates Quivira near Lyons, Kansas.

The Retreat

Coronado marched quickly back to the Rio Grande pueblos, arriving October 2, 1541. Some time in December he fell from his horse and hit his head. This injury took some time to heal, and Coronado seems to have become despondent over his failure to find gold, his injury, and his separation from his wife. During the cold weeks of January, 1542, in the Albuquerque pueblo country, Coronado decided that the army should return to Mexico, empty handed. Return meant that the investments would be abandoned and the soldiers would return bankrupt. Some of the soldiers tried to talk the general out of his decision, probably arguing that they should stay, explore the new land, and perhaps find mineral deposits that could be worked by native labor, as was being done in Mexico. Coronado overruled them and the return began in the spring of 1542.

On the way home, near the campsite at the ruin of Chichilticale, he met up with a relief army on their way north. Many of the fresh troops argued for a glorious return to the Cibola/Tiquex country, but Coronado talked them out of it. The armies returned home, numerous soldiers dropping out and settling near Culiacán or Compostela rather than return to Mexico City in shame.

An Alternate History: A Southern Empire from Florida to Mexico

Ironically, at the time of the march to Quivira in 1541, Hernando de Soto's army was probing west from Florida. In May of 1541, at the same time Coronado was dividing his army in the Panhandle of Texas and starting north to Kansas, de Soto was crossing to the west bank of the Mississippi River. The armies may have passed within some hundreds of miles of each other. All the time that Coronado was in Kansas and marching back to the Albuquerque area, de Soto probing west of the Mississippi, where he died on the Red River in April of 1542. If the two armies had met up, they might have considered their expeditions as much more successful. Such a linkage could have formed a string of base camps and eventual settlement along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas and on around to the Spanish towns on the Mexican coast. Without such a link, and without a good way to measure longitude, the Spanish of the 1500s never really understood how far North America stretched from east to west. Since the Spaniards in Florida were never able to link up with those in Mexico, the Spaniards of the mid 1500s went on believing that these lands were independent islands of the "West Indies." If the Spanish had established ports along the coast, it is possible that all of the southern U.S. might have been permanently settled by Spain in the later 1500s and 1600s, instead of being claimed later by the French in New Orleans and the U.S.

Significance of Coronado's Expedition

Coronado's expedition remains a paradox of history and an object lesson in not capitalizing on a discovery. On the one hand, they carried out an amazing exploration of central North America several generations before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock! Undeniably, they displayed great courage and stamina. But because they had the idea that "wealth" must be gold and jewels, and because their economic system required that they get rich quick instead of creating self-sustaining agricultural settlements, they did not recognize value in the fertile valleys and mineral-rich hills through which they passed. It was only because of their own world view that they were forced to return home as failures. They were among the first exponents of the peculiarly American slash-and-burn dream of getting rich quick at the expense of the land and the people, without any long term investment - and because of this perverted dream, they failed to recognize their possibilities for success and pursued their own path toward self-perceived failure.

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