Tracking Cornado In The Rio Grande Valley

A New Look at First Contact


On February 22, 1540, a large group assembled in a town square near the west coast of Mexico and prepared for their fateful journey northward. The place was Compostela, the provincial capital of Nueva Galicia (near present-day Tepic in the Mexican state of Nayarit). That day was marked by an expeditionary muster roll, or alarde, presented to the viceroy of all Nueva España, Antonio de Mendoza. Mendoza’s expedition to seek new civilizations and find riches was led by the twenty-nine-year-old governor of Nueva Galicia, Captain General Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján. Much investment and opportunity rested on the young governor’s shoulders as his expedition departed Compostela, but nobody could know how the course of history would be changed by the events that followed.Like many others of his generation, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado had come to the “New World” from Spain, a second son in a society that favored first-born males. His family’s close association with Mendoza ensured his rise to prominence, and his administrative competence no doubt helped. For his part, Mendoza was charged with carrying out the desires of the Spanish Crown to further the goals of building an empire and discovering new lands. The successes of explorers such as Hernán Cortés in Mexico (1519 – 1521) and Francisco Pizarro in Peru (1531 – 1533), who both added vast expanses of land and great wealth to the crown, stimulated the search for the next great civilization in the New World. The ongoing quest for a final route to the orient and potential wealth of spices, silk, and porcelain also drove exploration. Well over 100 Spanish expeditions were launched during the 1500s; Mendoza’s, like most, had to be privately funded. The final cost to send Coronado north was nearly 600,000 pesos (over 10 tons of silver), a staggering amount that exceeded almost all other enterprises of the time. At today’s value of silver, that cost was nearly twenty million dollars, but adjusted for inflation it could be worth ten times that or more in modern currency.

The expedition was made up of 375 Europeans — mostly Spanish, but including a few Germans and Englishmen. Several wives accompanied their husbands, and a few household contingents included porters and slaves. These enlistees filed past Mendoza and declared what they were bringing — their horses, weapons, military gear, and members of various small entourages. Nearly invisible in the muster roll were the many Indians of mixed Mexican indigenous heritage called indios amigos who were soldiers and laborers for the expedition. Their exact numbers are not known, but estimates hold that at least 1,300 and possibly 2,000 or more indios amigos were involved at some point. Over 1,000 horses and several thousand head of livestock were used. In fact, the entire enterprise would be one of the largest land-based efforts ever attempted by the Spanish Crown among its many sixteenth-century explorations. When it returned over two years later, the expedition had covered nearly 4,000 miles.


The many mythic dimensions of the Coronado expedition are spurred as much by the fancy of modern-day scholars as by the imaginings of a medieval worldview. Gaps in sixteenth-century geographic knowledge were filled in by imaginary places. The notion of a round earth existed, but the size of the world was largely a mystery. By the time of Columbus’s voyages, it was believed that islands would be encountered by sailing west from Europe, and that they lay off the coast of Asia. Nobody imagined that the islands would be the size of American continents, nor that the world’s largest ocean separated Asia from the New World.When the American continents were “discovered,” they were identified as mythical lands and kingdoms with names such as Tolm, Marata, and Totonteac. The passage to the Asian kingdoms of Sipango and Cathay was associated with Anian, and lands named Cíbola and Quivira were expected north of New Spain. Legends of seven cities or kingdoms go back many centuries in European mythology, but they found place in the New World. The idea that “seven cities of gold” in Cíbola were the primary motivating force for Coronado’s venture, however, is somewhat a modern invention. The real motivation was to find civilizations, ideally Asian, with a short route to riches. The expedition’s outcome could not have been any further from that expectation than the mythical maps and stories themselves.

A myth reinforced by modern literature and art is that of a well-equipped army of conquistadors in shining armor, riding on horseback. In fact, the expedition only carried 25 primitive muskets called arquebuses, 21 crossbows, 60 swords, and a few dozen pieces of chainmail for its 375 European men. Most also carried what they termed armas de la tierra, or Native weaponry. Almost certainly, all of the indios amigos were only outfitted with these Native weapons. And for all the land explored and the peoples encountered during the expedition, no claim of conquest was ever made on behalf of the Spanish Crown. CíbolaConverting myth to reality is the presumed work of scholars and scientists. We have learned more about the Coronado expedition in the past twenty-five years than has been pieced together in a century of prior work, thanks to the current efforts of historians and archaeologists. From the various interesting documents that survive from the 1500s, we know a fair amount of the route and major events along the way. Vázquez de Coronado proceeded north from Compostela to Culiacán and followed along the west coast of Mexico. The intent was to supply the forces along the way by ships, commanded by Hernando de Alarcón. But the coast veered away to the northwest, and the land route was due north, so Alarcón never made contact with Coronado, instead exploring the mouth of the Colorado River.

It took more than four months, but the expedition made its way to their presumed destination of Cíbola, at the present-day pueblos of Zuni. There, they had been told by Fray Marcos de Niza (based on his earlier reconnaissance), they would find the civilization they sought. Not only was de Niza wrong, but hunger and mutual anxiety led to hostilities: the first battle between the Spanish Empire and Native peoples of the American Southwest occurred at the Zuni pueblo of Hawikku on July 7, 1540. Coronado was badly wounded, but the Zunis were overpowered. This obvious setback presented itself as a challenge to turn back or press on. Coronado sent an advance party led by Hernando de Alvarado, who explored eastward past Acoma, into the Rio Grande Valley, and as far as Pecos Pueblo. He reported favorably to the captain general about the Rio Grande, where he said there was a better chance of finding what was being sought, and of setting up a base of operation.TiguexCoronado arrived in the Rio Grande Valley, or Tiguex Province, as the area came to be known, in the fall of 1540. His forces had come 1,000 miles in eight months from tropical climates and were unprepared for what would be one of the colder winters on record. His base camp was set up at a village called Alcanfor, or Coofor, which might be located across the river from Bernalillo and very near the Coronado Historic Site. His people needed to take over the village for shelter, and the Pueblo people could provide clothing and food. Mistrust and resentment escalated when a Pueblo man brought charges of an assault on his wife, but no justice was done. In turn, the Pueblos killed Native guards watching over livestock and stole mules and horses.

Coronado retaliated by attacking the defiant village, called Arenal, and men who surrendered in peace were instead rounded up for execution. Another fight ensued, and more than 100 Pueblo men were killed. The spiraling violence caused the people of the Tiguex Province to seek refuge in the strongest of their villages, called Moho, which was “three or four leagues away” from Alcanfor (eight to ten miles).The situation was now desperate for both sides. The people of Tiguex were engaged in a life-or-death struggle with strangers whose motives and tactics were incomprehensible. Coronado could not allow any resistance to succeed, or it would mean the likely demise of all in the expedition. The Pueblos fortified themselves in their last stronghold, Moho, and Coronado demanded they surrender or face the consequences. The standoff at Moho would last about two months, during which the pueblo was attacked several times, but the attacks were thrown back by brave fighting.

Soon, however, the Pueblo people began to die of thirst. “What troubled them most was their lack of water,” wrote Pedro Castañeda de Nájera, the expedition’s best-known chronicler, in 1565. “In the end, they dug a very deep well but it collapsed and thirty people died.” The siege ended when, one cold night in the spring of 1541, the remaining survivors made a run for the river but were discovered. More than 200 Pueblo people died that night, and the few survivors, suffering from cold and exposure, were captured. Coronado had broken the back of the resistance but could see there was no advantage to staying in Tiguex. He hastened east to Pecos Pueblo and toward a land called Quivira on the high plains, where there were new reports of riches.

Search and Research

At several places in the Rio Grande Valley, physical evidence of these dramatic events has been found and has challenged the ability of historians and archaeologists to match up their ideas. In the 1930s, Edgar Lee Hewett hoped to crown his distinguished career by finding Coronado’s main encampment in time for the 1940 cuartocentenario of the expedition. Already seventy, Hewett had founded UNM’s Anthropology Department in 1927 and helped to put the Antiquities Act into law. His local search for Coronado led to him to the west side of the Rio Grande near Bernalillo. He directed work at Santiago Pueblo, also known as Bandelier’s Puaray, but the presence of sixteenth-century material there was overshadowed by more spectacular finds of painted kiva murals at nearby Kuaua Pueblo. Despite the near absence of expeditionary artifacts at Kuaua, Hewett had his site in time for the 400th anniversary. Coronado State Monument (now Coronado Historic Site) was dedicated on May 7, 1940, as part of a months-long celebration including a reenactment of the expedition at the University of New Mexico.

In the mid-1980s, crews uncovered charcoal stains along the side of state highway 528 near Santiago Pueblo. Dr. Bradley Vierra’s excavations and conclusion that he had found part of a Coronado encampment drew criticism, but his analysis has proved accurate.

Most recently, several colleagues and I have uncovered dramatic physical evidence at the largest of the contact-period Rio Grande pueblos, called Piedras Marcadas (so named for its relationship to the many “marked rocks” in nearby Petroglyph National Monument), about eleven miles from the Coronado Historic Site.

To respect the wishes of interested Pueblo communities, no broad-scale excavations have been done at Piedras Marcadas. Instead, remote sensing techniques have been used to detect the locations of hundreds of adobe-walled rooms. Instruments have also identified hundreds of pieces of sixteenth-century metal just inches below the ground surface. These artifacts have been found in direct relation to the buried walls, and the patterns they reveal suggest a site of intense struggle.

Metal artifacts diagnostic of the Coronado expedition are distinctive and rare. Only a handful of sites in the nation contain such objects. Hand-forged wrought-iron nails with faceted heads clearly date to the 1500s. Small copper-alloy tips of clothing-lace tags, called aglets, were shorter and undecorated in the first half of the sixteenth century. Other artifacts (many of them personal items) attest to the presence of the men who may have fought at the site. These include buckles, bits of chain mail, scraps of copper used for body armor, and clothing fasteners. Perhaps the most diagnostic and compelling evidence are the munitions and weaponry. Lead balls fired from arquebuses have been found, along with the snapped tip of a dagger. The most important artifacts are tips of crossbow arrows called boltheads made from pure Mexican copper and diagnostic only of the Coronado expedition.

Just as compelling are the possible clues of fighting between the indios amigos and the Pueblo people. Imagine the first conflict between indigenous people from Mexico and indigenous people from the Southwest, evidence of which is contained in the projectile points and several dozen slingstones that litter the site surface.

The information potential at Piedras Marcadas is remarkable on many levels. Most of the pueblos in the Tiguex Province occupied in 1540 have been plowed up, built over, excavated, or are otherwise not available for research. This most transformative event, when non-Native peoples made first contact with the Pueblo peoples of the Middle Rio Grande Valley, is notably intact at Piedras Marcadas Pueblo. New fieldwork may focus on even more intensive remote sensing in which several different instruments will be used in certain areas to gain a clearer vision of what lies below the surface.

The details of the site’s structure, and the relationship between buried architecture and expeditionary artifacts, contain many subtle clues about the events of 1540–1542. Clusters of artifacts on the outside of exterior walls, in passageways, and within the central plaza of the pueblo suggest places where the village may have been attacked several different times. Physical analyses of the artifacts themselves bear great promise in determining details such as the source of lead and copper alloys used to make some items. Isotope analyses of the copper crossbow bolthead points and lead balls shot from arquebuses trace to an origin from mines in the north-central Mexican mining districts of Michoacán.

The search for Coronado’s traces began even with the next set of Spanish explorers, Chamuscado and Rodríguez, who interviewed a few expeditionary survivors in the early 1580s. Modern historians have been trying to piece together where Coronado may have gone since the latter part of the 1800s. Early twentieth-century historians such as Charles Meacham and Herbert Bolton, and archaeologists like Hewett and Gwinn Vivian, continued the pursuit to find places mentioned in the expeditionary documents. More recently, historians Richard and Shirley Flint have devoted thirty years to Coronado research and have written numerous books on the subject.

The Coronado expedition had profound and lasting effects, particularly on the Native peoples of the Southwest. Its failure to find riches or a new civilization caused Spain to lose interest in exploring lands to the north for more than forty years. The Native communities’ first experience with foreigners from other lands was a hard-learned lesson fraught with caution, distrust, and violence. Those sentiments resonated throughout the 1600s, culminating in the Pueblo Revolts of 1680 to 1696. Even today, 475 years after the first contacts were made by Vázquez de Coronado’s forces, different pueblo communities may have different perceptions of these events. Some of these views may still exist in oral traditions and in the teachings of elders, which are confidential to each community. One of the most important things historians, archaeologists, and Native communities can do is to find ways to reopen respectful dialogue about these events. To the extent that Native communities may offer to share their views, it is everybody’s responsibility to listen.

In so many ways, the search for Coronado and the physical traces of his famed but unsuccessful expedition are still very fresh today despite well over 100 years of scholarly attempts to find the very places where first contact occurred. With our discoveries at Piedras Marcadas in just the past five years, we are beginning to write a new chapter of that story.

Matthew F. Schmader is Albuquerque city archaeologist and an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of New Mexico.