slideshow 1 slideshow 2 slideshow 3 slideshow 4 slideshow 5 slideshow 6

You are here

Background to the Coronado Expedition

Background to the Coronado Expedition: The Spanish Frontier and the Power Struggles of the 1530s

This material is adapted from passages in the novel, Cities of Gold (2002). Copyright, William K. Hartmann

Understanding the Southwest's first contact between Natives and Europeans requires us to see today's borderlands as the conquistadors did -- terra incognito, beyond the northern frontier. Cortés had conquered the Aztecs of Mexico City in 1520 (or as they called themselves in the 1500s, Mexica, pronounced me-SHEE-ca), and Pizarro had conquered the Incas of Peru in 1533. Fabulous wealth had been found in both places. By the mid 1530s, young, would-be conquistadors were dreaming up new schemes of conquest as they cooled their heels in devastated Mexico City, which was essentially destroyed during Cortés' attacks. They simply assumed that another gold-rich empire lay over the horizon waiting its turn to be conquered by Europe and Christianity.

New World Beach

Columbus discovered America in 1492. Spanish activities were headquartered in Cuba for the next few decades. From 1492 until the Coronado Expedition, most Spaniards thought that Cuba, Yucatan, and even Mexico were probably islands (the "Indies") off the east coast of Asia. Painting by William K. Hartmann.

In 1536, a pivotal event transpired. Into Spanish slave-raiding camps in southern Sonora wandered four survivors of a 1528 shipwreck on the Texas coast near Galveston: Álvar Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, and Dorantes' Moorish servant Estevan, and a fourth Spaniard. They had survived among Indian tribes for eight years, wandering in the wilderness of the west Texas and along what is now the U.S.-Mexico border. They worked their way west, establishing themselves as traveling shamans, especially with the help of the charismatic Estevan, whom they called "the black." Somewhere near the present-day border, they picked up rumors of a major trading center, north of their route. Dorantes was even given a copper bell, said to come from this wealthy area. Based on the copper bell, the wanderers surmised that the mysterious northern city had metal-working centers. (This was incorrect. The bell had actually been traded north from central Mexico to the pueblo towns of what is now New Mexico; it had then found its way south, by trade, into the hands of Dorantes. Several examples of such large, incised copper bells are known from archaeological studies.)

Archaeologists have found many copper bells from late prehistoric ruins (ca. 1300-1500) in the of Cabeza de Vaca's route. The small bells (size of a quarter) are more common. The large one matches the description of the bell given to Dorantes. These bells came from village sites in SE Arizona. (Arizona State Museum).Archaeologists have found many copper bells from late prehistoric ruins

Map of NW Mexico and SW United States

Map of NW Mexico and SW United States, showsestimated route of the shipwrecked Cabeza de Vaca party from Texasalong the present day border and S into Sonora. They reached a river where, in order to get to Sonora, they had to travel 17 days N and 17 days W through poor country to get around the Sierra Madre Mountain range. Once they had turned S, they reported good country and prosperous villages with maize, deer meat, and other food. Also, in the mid-1530s, Cortez had already begun probing N along the coast into the Gulf of California.


Eventually, in 1536, the castaways stumbled onto a party of Spanish soldiers on the frontier of "New Spain." By that time, the northern frontier of "New Spain" was far to the south, only half way up present-day Mexico. Here, in the southern part of present-day Sonora, Governor Nuño Guzman's troops were raiding native villages for slaves. Nobody knew what lay further north. The castaways' news of a northern trade center confirmed the dreams of the Spaniards in Mexico City and excited the dreamers. Dorantes' copper bell convinced everyone that people in that northern province mined and smelted metals, and that cities of gold lay somewhere in the north.

Mexico City was governed by an able administrator, Viceroy Antonio Mendoza. This Vice-roi, or Vice-king, was appointed directly by the king of Spain to represent the royal court in the new world. The original conqueror, Cortés, was out of favor, having lost much of the wealth he took from the Mexicans. As early as 1523, the King had appointed a new Royal Treasurer to crack down on accounting procedures. Sulking and restless, Cortés moved west, to the coast, and started building ships, exploring what we know as the Gulf of California. In 1535, he established a short-lived colony on Baja California -- which was thought to be an exotic island. These naval explorations led to the unofficial name for the Gulf: the Sea of Cortés. By 1537, Cortés was organizing to build more ships to sail farther up the gulf, an effort now spurred by the castaways' new rumors of a rich empire in that direction. Cortés still claimed that northern exploration was his right, under his original contract with the King of Spain, but under the new viceroy, Cortés' influence was waning. Meanwhile, a wildcat colony sprang up on the northern frontier at Culiacán, where Nuño Guzman and his henchmen raided Indian villages to capture slaves.

Viceroy Mendoza answered these challenges by forbidding any northward explorations not authorized by the royal authorities, i.e. himself. This would prevent Cortés from getting the upper hand in the north. Having arrested the slave raiding governor, Guzman, the viceroy in 1538 appointed Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to be the new governor of the province around Culiacán. In September of the same year, Cortés asserted his own cause by complaining to the Council of the Indies, the Supreme Court of New Spain, that he had nine ships ready to sail north and explore the new frontier.

Now Mendoza was under extreme pressure. After several false starts, he finally succeeded in organizing his own semi-secret land expedition to head north and check out the rumors about wealthy cities. The viceroy wanted no repeat of Cortés' heavy-handedness or Guzman's slave-raiding atrocities. As head of the expedition, he chose a priest of good reputation, Marcos de Niza who would travel with a group of native allies, and an intriguing guide -- none other than Estevan, the Moor who had already survived years of wandering in the northern area. Marcos left Mexico City with Coronado in the fall of 1538, with secret orders to explore the northern coast and seek the supposed northern empire....

PSI is a Nonprofit 501(c)(3) Corporation, and an Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Employer
Corporate Headquarters: 1700 East Fort Lowell, Suite 106 * Tucson, AZ 85719-2395 * 520-622-6300 * FAX: 520-622-8060
Copyright © 2022 . All Rights Reserved.