Shortly after the discovery of America, the Spanish people became obsessed with the idea that somewhere in the interior of the New World there were rich mines of gold and silver, and various expeditions were sent out to search for these treasures. As every important event in history is the sequence of something which went before, in order to gain an intelligent understanding of the expedition of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola and the country of Quivira (1540-42), it is necessary to notice briefly the occurrences of the preceding decade. Pedro de Castaneda, the historian of the expedition, began his narrative as follows:
“In the year 1530 Nuno de Guzman, who was president of New Spain, had in his possession an Indian, one of the natives of the Valley of Otixipar, who was called Tejo by the Spaniards. This Indian said he was the son of a trader who was dead, but that when he was a little boy his father had gone into the backcountry with fine feathers to trade for ornaments, and that when he came back he brought a large amount of gold and silver, of which there is a good deal in that country. He went with him once or twice and saw some very large villages, which he compared to Mexico and its environs. He had seen seven very large towns which had their streets of silver workers.”
The effect of a story of this nature upon the Spanish mind can be readily imagined. It aroused the curiosity, ambition, and greed of Guzman, and exercised an influence on all the enterprises he directed along the Pacific Coast to the north. Gathering together a force of some 400 Spaniards and several thousand friendly Indians, he started in search of the “Seven Cities,” but before he had covered half the distance he met with serious obstacles, his men became dissatisfied and insisted on turning back, and at about the same time Guzman received information that his rival, Hernando Cortez, had come from Spain with new titles and powers, so he abandoned the enterprise. Before turning his face homeward, however, he founded the town of Culiacan, from which post incursions were made into southern Sonora for the purpose of capturing and enslaving the natives.
In 1535 Don Antonio de Mendoza became viceroy of New Spain. The following spring, there arrived in New Spain Cabeça de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andres Dorantes and a black man named Estevanico, survivors of the Narvaez expedition which had sailed from Spain in June 1527. For six years these men had been captives among the Indians of the interior, from which they had heard stories of rich copper mines and pearl fisheries. These stories they repeated to Mendoza, who bought the black man with a view to having him act as a guide to an expedition to explore the country, but it was three years later before a favorable opportunity for his project was offered.
In 1538 Guzman was imprisoned by a Juez de Residencia, who worked for Diego Perez de la Torre, who ruled the province of Culiacan for a short time. When Mendoza appointed his friend, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, governor of the province of New Galicia, situated on the west coast of Mexico, the new province included the old one of Culiacan. Coronado had come to New Spain with Mendoza in 1535. Two years later he married Beatrice de Estrada, said to be a cousin by blood of Charles V, King of Spain. About the time of his marriage, Mendoza sent him to quell a revolt among the Indians in the mines of Amatapeque, which he did very successfully. It was because of his success and probably his family ties, that the viceroy appointed him governor of New Galicia.
Coronado showed a willingness to assist and encourage Mendoza in the effort to find the “Seven Cities,” and on March 7, 1539, what might be termed a reconnoitering party, left Culiacan under the leadership of Friar Marcos de Niza, with Estevanico as the guide. Father Marcos had been a member of Alvarado’s expedition to Peru in 1534. Upon reaching a place called Vapaca in central Sonora, Mexico, Marcos sent Estevanico toward the north “with instructions to proceed 50 or 60 leagues and see if he could find anything which might help them in their search.”
Four days later, Estevanico sent to Father Marcos a large cross, and the messenger who brought it told of “seven very large cities in the first province, all under one lord, with large houses of stone and lime; the smallest one story high, with a flat roof above, and others two and three stories high, and the house of the lord four stories high. And on the portals of the principal houses, there are many designs of turquoise stones, of which he says they have a great abundance.”
A little later, Estevanico sent another cross by messenger who gave a more specific account of the seven cities, and Father Marcos determined to visit Cibola for the purpose of verifying the statements of the messengers. He left Vapaca on April 8th, expecting to meet Estevan at the village from which the second cross was sent, but upon arriving there, he learned that the black man had gone on northward toward Cibola, which was a 30 days’ journey. The friar continued on his way until he met an inhabitant of Cibola, who informed him that Estevan had been put to death by order of the Cibolan chiefs. From the top of a hill, Marcos obtained a view of the city, after which he hastened back to Compostela and made a report of his investigations to Governor Coronado.