In 1936, as Texans were nearing the 100th anniversary of the winning of its independence from Mexico, the anniversary of a much older event was also approaching, namely the 400th anniversary of the expedition of Coronado. The Texas Centennial took place in 1936 and this so called quad-centennial or quatro-centennial concerns the events that occurred three hundred years before the Texas Revolution and a full eighty years before the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock.
Francisco Vázques de Coronado was a Spanish explorer who lived from about 1510 to 1554. He was born in Salamanca, Spain and spent his younger days there. He was not the oldest sibling in his family, and as such, he would not have stood to inherit his family’s property. So, Coronado elected to come to the New World when he was in his mid 20s with another family to seek his own fortune. The family he traveled with was that of Antonio de Mendoza, then the Spanish viceroy. Not long after Coronado arrived he married Beatriz de Estrada, the daughter of another Spanish official. In service to the Spanish government, Coronado was said to have handled himself well in helping to quell rebellions among mine workers who at that time consisted of black slaves and Indians who were working in his area. Because of his favorable handling of these issues, he was appointed governor of a province in New Spain (now the interior of Mexico).
While Coronado was serving as as a provincial governor in New Spain, as the Spanish colony was known, reports reached him regarding the seven “golden cities” that were rumored to exist north and west of this area. These tales were likely carried back by another explorer, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and missionary Fray Marcos de Niza, leading Coronado to obtain approval to set out to find these cities. Various accounts add that Coronado personally financed much if not all of this expedition by consuming or borrowing against his wife’s personal wealth.
His journey began far south into western Mexico from the town of Compostela and continued to the north and east. His party crossed into lands we know now as Arizona and New Mexico and intersected with many historic Native American tribal communities, including the Zuni tribe with which his forces clashed. It is also said that he encountered Acoma, before heading further north and east. The area in and around the Colorado Plateau is believed to have long been inhabited by ancestors of some of these tribes even earlier, at least as far back as the 1100s. As some have pointed out, these civilizations existed a good 700 years before Texas independence, more than 900 years ago.
Coronado is believed to have twice crossed through what would later become known as the Texas Panhandle, taking a more southerly route the first time as he headed east and cutting through the northwest section of the area the second time as he returned west on his way back to Mexico.
His expedition reached its furthest point in what would become the state of Kansas. Coronado never found the wealth that he was searching for, after traveling for the better part of two years. Failing to find the riches that were rumored to exist, his expedition was considered by Spain to have been a failure. Since Coronado used much of his own family’s personal wealth, it took a great toll on his personal finances.
However, it was in this time period that people of European descent are to have first seen western wonders such as the Grand Canyon and the Colorado Plateau, named after the Colorado River that flows from Utah all the way to the Gulf of California. This river is not to be confused with the one of the same name in Texas. Coronado’s travels through Texas also took him through Palo Duro Canyon. The map below seems to be fairly representative of his probable route.
Following his return, Coronado was removed as governor. He returned to private life, settling in Mexico City. He served for several years on the city council. Coronado died in 1554. Besides Coronado and Cibola, these place names can be associated with the old legends and Coronado’s expedition: El Dorado, Paititi, City of the Caesars, Lake Parime at Manoa, Antilia, and Quivira. It is not unusual to find locations including buildings, streets, schools and even shopping centers that bear some of these names, especially in the southwestern United States.
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