Articles, Prix de West


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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. In 1540, 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 deserts and then following trails that parallel today’s border between Arizona and New Mexico. It was a medieval-looking army, made up of 350 European men-at-arms, Africans, and as many as two-thousand Aztec warriors. It 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.

The second component of the entrada, carrying the bulk of the expedition’s supplies and under the leadership of Hernando de Alarcón, never made it to the destination. Due to a mistake in the geographical knowledge of the Southwest, the ships sailed via the Gulf of California north to the base of the Colorado River. The rapids of the Colorado made it impossible for the ships to travel further than a few miles north, leaving Coronado with no supplies.

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 the large river far to the northwest.

That August, Cardenas, along with twenty-five mounted Spanish soldiers and servants, departed from Cibola. They were welcomed with food at the Hopi hilltop 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. Pablo de Melgosa, Juan Galeras, “being the most agile” of Cárdenas’ army, and a third unnamed soldier, were ordered by Cárdenas to descent into the canyon and report back on the conditions of the river and the whereabouts of the missing ships Hernando de Alarcón was commanding.

In his charcoal drawing CAPTAIN PABLO DE MELGOSA AND JUAN GALERAS: PLANNING DESCENT- GRAND CANYON 1540, Curt drew his models standing at the edge overlooking Grand Canyon near Lipan Point. Captain Melgosa is wearing a Morion style helmet and breast plate and Jaun Galeras has a rope over his shoulder anticipating a difficult route to the river.

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 and that they would not be able to use the Colorado River to link up with Hernando de Alarcón’s fleet.

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 Spaniards’ conduct soon provoked hostility and resistance, however 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 and covered with high grass that a group of men who’d set out 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. They explored as far south in Oklahoma as Stillwater.

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 expedition 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.

Grand Canyon has honored this first European encounter by naming Coronado Butte and Cárdenas Temples as landmarks within the canyon. The Spanish – Coronado flag is among the many that fly over the National Cowboy Museum.

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