My Conquistador Story

Feb 16, 2021 | Articles

García López de Cárdenas and the Discovery of the Grand Canyon

Sometimes the most innocent and simple things can change one’s life, as was the case for Curt Walters’ first visit to the Grand Canyon in the late summer of 1969. It was more than just a lifetime art challenge to learn paint its depths and it was more than an introduction to the great early artist of Grand Canyon. Curt had an unexpected curiosity with a small 4-foot diorama of the Spanish Conquistadors discovering Grand Canyon. It was in the same visitor’s center alongside all the great art on loan from the Santa Fe Railroad. As with all artist, the visual is always more important than words. Curt studied for a long time the Medieval looking soldiers, some horseback and on foot and Indian guides gazing of the Grand Canyon. The 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (c. 1510-1554) was serving as a governor in New Spain (Mexico) when he gathered a large army and headed north in search of the so-called Seven Golden Cities. The Story of the diorama was the discovery of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River, in September 1540, by a small party of Spaniards led by García López de Cárdenas, Coronado’s maestre de campo.

Seven years later shortly after moving to Taos in 1977 Curt was asked by Ann Stribling of Dodson Gallery to do a commission. Curt knew it was going to be stretch of his skills but with outward confidence accepted the commission, “The Conquistador discovery of Grand Canyon” which was to be an oil painting 20” x 30.” I was in financial stress, and of course, welcomed the opportunity.” Serendipitously that very day Curt had taken baby Miranda to watch a local parade from front of Dodson Gallery and he was fortunate to snap a few photos of reenactment Conquistadors riding horseback. The gentleman who commissioned the discovery painting supplied Curt with some research and a list of artifacts and named figures that must be in the painting. Two friends modeled for Curt and with the visual image in his head from the diorama he had seen in 1969, he created the painting, featuring the formations and vista from Moran Point on the East rim of Grand Canyon as instructed. “The truth is that it was more of a challenge than I was capable of handling at the time, but the gentleman was delighted with my effort” The decades passed, and Curt’s art and life moved on and the commission forgotten.

In the fall of 2010, Curt and Tom and artist friends John and Terri Moyers spent a month traveling and painting southern Spain. The last city on the painting tour was Toledo, and Curt was eager to try his hand in this historic and ancient city. ” I became increasingly interested and “seduced” by the many shops that handled reproductions of 16th-19th century Spanish shields, daggers and swords, and fondly I began remembering my time in Taos painting armor.” Although Curt wanted to purchase, he passed on the moment.

Almost immediately up on return from Spain, Curt was back to the task of compiling painting images and titles and dates for his catalogue raisonné. His painting of the Conquistador discovery of Grand Canyon was among a box of 35mm slides of paintings he was scanning from 1977. A rush of excitement and sentimentality came over him. ” This painting, albeit of my youth and somewhat naive was charming. I knew at that moment I wanted to try painting the story of the Spanish Conquistadors discovering Grand canyon again, but this time, do it with the eye and heart of a mature artist. I will never forget the expression on Tom’s face when I announced that I will now be painting nudes and conquistadors in my studio.” Tom nodded he head and muttered under his breath ‘just one of his moments’. Little did Tom know of the adventures to come his way.

Curt began reading as many books as he could find to understand the story of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and García López de Cárdenas. ” I have never seen an important painting of this event”. Curt fells that this historical project is a continuation of his life’s study of Grand Canyon. “I visualize the painting as a gathering of international cultures awed by one of the greatest landscapes in the world.”

It has been estimated that well over a million Spaniards emigrated to Latin America in the period between 1492 and 1824.[i] The conquistadors were not paid soldiers as we think in terms of today’s army but joined at their own expense with the expectation of riches. Spaniards brought African slaves to the Americas as part of the early as the conquest. The colonial expansion was for profit for the crown and the conquers themselves. The Encomienda was a cruel Spanish labor system that rewarded conquerors with large land grants and the free forced labor of the native peoples. Although Carlos V of Spain forbid brutality against native populations, it was an unquestioned practice of the time and played a part in the Coronado Entrada and remains in the remembered history of the Native tribes of Mexico and the American Southwest. Indigenous peoples were forced into Catholic conversions. The Spanish also brought the infectious diseases unknown in the Americas, including smallpox and measles killing thousands. “It is with great sensitivity that I approach this subject”

Curt has spent most of his life painting the sky and earth. He has done few figure paintings. “At times I felt very much like a student” In the last ten years Curt has not rested in his quest to gain the skill and knowledge to complete a major historical figure painting, which in return has rewarding him with the gift of even better landscapes, as witnessed by his many awards. Curt found the drawing sessions of the local figure drawing groups uncomfortable, because of his notoriety all the artist watched him work. ” I was a student and needed the freedom to make mistakes and express myself, so I started hiring the models for private sessions. Having the young people in my studio has been a great joy. They speak of love and are eager for tomorrow.” Many of the models have become friends and several posing nude. “With privacy for my ears only, they have shared their most private secrets. I have sold a few of my nudes, but it is difficult, I feel as though I am sending away my friends.” Curt has concentrated on posses that he plans to employ in his reenactment painting. “I need to understand the muscle and form under the costumes and armor.”

The Moyers, Tom, and Curt returned to Spain again in 2012. The trip was more than just a painting adventure. In Toledo Curt purchased reproductions of mid 16th Century armor and swords, saddles and banners and two arquebus riffles for his recreation painting of Cardenas discovering Grand Canyon.

Curt’s new treasures from Spain soon began to arriving in Sedona in large crates. Following his instincts he impulsively began a painting of the new shining objects that cluttered his small studio. ” I was so happy I simply wanted to paint it all.” Plate XX: The Entrada: My Studio 24×24.

With sketchbook in hand Curt has visited museums that house great armor collections. “The Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria, has been my favorite.” London, New York, Detroit, Cleveland were on the sketching tour and close at hand, Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Albuquerque Art Museum and Coronado Monument in Bernalillo, NM together have a collection period Spanish and Indian artifacts thought to have been recovered from the historic pueblo of Tiguex along the Rio Grande.

Curt returned again to Spain in 2014 to sketch the armor of the Royal Armory of Madrid and visited the great tapestries at in the Royal Palace. On view were two replicas commissioned by Philip V and finished in 1744 which are of “The Conquest of Tunis” commissioned by Charles V in 1525. The set of is considered by many the most accurate representation of mid16th century warfare and clothing. Again in Toledo, Curt purchased a 16th century breast plate and shield and three period swords crafted of ancient Toledo steel, ” a feeling so very different from the reproductions.”

When back in Sedona, ” I took fencing lessons so that I could understand the historic jester, stance and foot work of the swordsman in 1540.” Curt purchased historical patterns of mid-16th century clothing. With photos in hand of the Tunis tapestries Curt had a local seamstress and Miranda, his daughter, craft several of the costumes. In a quest for authentic character, Curt found a local breeder of the elegant Andalusian “Pure Spanish Horse” the bread ridden by the Spanish Conquistadors.” I have enjoyed sketching these horses, they are powerful and their head is long with a straight profile and flared nostrils. They do not look like Quarter horse so familiar to me from my childhood and the southwest.”

Curt painted in Mexico City in 2017 and spent several days touring the city’s world class museums. His mission was to gain an insight to the ancient Aztec that would have accompanied the Spanish to the Grand Canyon. In 2018 Curt returned yet again to Mexico so that he could paint and visit the mountain village of Compostela, home of Coronado and where he gathered his army for the Endrada into the Southwest.

The first visit to Grand Canyon by Europeans also brought together an amazing mix of cultures and personalities, from upper-class Spaniards known as hidalgos, to European foot soldiers, African slaves, and Mexican and Native American Indians. With scant information, Curt has begun to form a mental image of the heritage, dress and character of the individual personalities that would have accompanied Cardenas on that first European encounter with Grand Canyon.

Curt is a man with deep respect for all cultures and peoples. He is sympathetic to the lingering anger felt by the native peoples of the Americas caused by the Spanish colonization of the Americas. After four hundred and eighty years their resentment has not faded.


In 1539, Friar Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan priest, had reported to Spanish colonial officials in Mexico City that he’d seen the legendary seven cities of Cibola far to the north of Mexico. On January 6, 1540 (Epiphany on the Christian calendar), Antonio de Mendoza, the first Viceroy of New Spain, appointed  Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to lead an expedition north to explore and conquer the region.

That February, Coronado’s expedition departed from what is now the town of Compostela, inland from Puerto Vallarta on the west coast of Mexico, and headed north through the Sinaloan and Sonoran deserts, following trails that parallel today’s border between Arizona and New Mexico. A medieval-looking army, it was made up of 350 European men-at-arms, as well as a large number of spouses, the African slaves, and as many as two thousand Mexican Indian allies, mostly warriors from Aztec, Tarascan, and other tribes from central and western Mexico. Livestock included 540 saddle horses for the caballeros, 960 pack horses and mules, and large herds of cattle, sheep, and pigs for the expedition’s commissary.

On July 7, 1540, Coronado’s expedition reached Cibola. (now the Zuni Reservation in western New Mexico), After the natives refused to allow him and his men to enter one of their villages, a fierce battle broke out; Coronado was seriously injured, but his men prevailed, and they occupied Cibola.

Coronado soon appointed García López de Cárdenas to lead a force to locate and survey a rumored large river far to the northwest.

That August, Cardenas, along with a small group of Spanish soldiers and servants, departed from Zuni. They were welcomed with food at the Hopi ocher colored hill top villages and were told tantalizing tales of the great river to the North and west. Hopi guides then led them to Grand Canyon.

After nearly three weeks they reached the South Rim of the Grand Canyon between present-day Desert View and Moran Point. Cárdenas ordered Pablo de Melgrossa, Juan Galeras, and a third, unnamed, soldier to descend into the canyon and report back information concerning the river. This is the subject Curt’s drawing, “Ordering Descent,1540: López de Cárdenas.” Plate xx Ordering Descent,1540: López de Cárdenas Conte drawing 40×30 2015

After descending some third of the way down the canyon but thwarted by the sheer vertical distance from their position to the river, the men were forced to return to the rim. Without water, and suffering from great thirst, the Cárdenas detachment remained only three days near the canyon rim before returning to Cibola. (In their report, the men noted that some of the rocks they’d seen in the canyon were “bigger than the great tower of Seville.”)

In the last weeks of 1540, Coronado and his army left Cibola and headed east. They passed the famous mesa-top pueblo of Acoma and continued to the province of Tiguex, an area along the Rio Grande near present-day Bernalillo. The Indians they encountered there were at first friendly, but the Spaniards’ conduct soon provoked hostility and resistance, which was put down harshly. At least one hundred Indian prisoners were burnt at the stake or shot as they attempted to escape. Coronado’s army remained in Tiguex for about eighty days.

Departing Tiguex in the early spring of 1541, the army traveled east to Pecos Pueblo, then continued eastward until they reached the extremely flat plains of what is now the Texas panhandle. The area was so devoid of notable features that a group of men who’d set out from camp to hunt couldn’t find their way back and were lost. The army finally discovered two canyons, present-day Palo Duro and Tule canyons, where they camped. (In 2014, archeologists working at this site discovered the breast plate armor of Garcia López de Cárdenas, with his name inscribed on it.)

Discouraged, Coronado held a council of his captains, and they decided that the army would return to Tiguex, while Coronado would head north with a small force in search of fabled Quivira.

During this march, the Spaniards traversed what are now the Oklahoma Panhandle and Kansas. A stone marker north of Beaver, Oklahoma, on Highway 270, commemorates the expedition’s passing through the Panhandle. An inscription that reads “Coronatto 1541” was found on Autograph Rock, near Boise City, in Cimarron County, Oklahoma. Although it is not one-hundred-percent certain that Coronado was the author, some historians think it may indeed have been he who scratched this Castilian-style lettering on the stone.

In July 1541, Coronado and his army arrived at the “river below Quivira” (probably the Arkansas River), but did not locate Quivira itself, so they returned to Tiguex and rejoined the army. Disheartened, the weary expeditionaries trudged southward, retracing their route back to Mexico. Because no great wealth had been found, the expedition was considered a total failure. It did, however, very accurately map the land and rivers of the region, paving the way for a succession of miners and missionaries into the Southwest over the next three centuries.


Ordering Descent 1540 Lopez de Cardenas

Plate XX: Ordering Descent,1540: López de Cárdenas | Conte Drawing | 40″ x 30″ | 2015

López de Cárdenas was Coronado’s first cousin, and a distant cousin of King Carlos V of Spain, providing clues to his physical appearance. Happily, I discovered the model for my drawing, a friend of my grandson. Immediately upon meeting Ty Brand, a very handsome young man, I thought of López de Cárdenas; Ty’s dark piercing eyes and facial features are perfect as the face of Cárdenas. In my portrait, López de Cárdenas stands at the edge of the Grand Canyon; in the distance below him is the Colorado River. I have given him the stance of a young hidalgo (Cárdenas was only twenty-three) and the class distinction is felt in his clothing and armor. His left hand placed on his hip is known as the Renaissance elbow, and his two-finger hand gesture is that of royalty. In his right hand he holds a cup sword. Prepared to make his orders clear, he looks directly into your eyes.


[i] MacIas, Rosario Marquez; MacÍas, Rosario Márquez (1995). La emigración española a América, 1765–1824. ISBN 9788474688566.
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