Historical Tales: 3—Spanish American - Charles Morris

Coronado and the Seven Cities of Cibola

The remarkable success of Cortez and Pizarro in Mexico and Peru went far to convince the Spaniards that in America they had found a veritable land of magic, filled with wonders and supremely rich in gold and gems. Ponce de Leon sought in Florida for the fabled Fountain of Youth. Hernando de Soto, one of the companions of Pizarro, attempted to find a second Peru in the north, and became the discoverer of the Mississippi. From Mexico other adventurers set out, with equal hopes, in search of empire and treasure. Some went south to the con-quest of Central America, others north to California and New Mexico. The latter region was the seat of the fancied Seven Cities of Cibola, the search for which it is here proposed to describe.

In 1538 Francisco Vasquez de Coronado was appointed governor of New Galicia, as the country lying north of Mexico was named, and sent out a certain Fray Marcos, a monk who had been with Pizarro in Peru, on a journey of exploration to the north. With him were some Indian guides and a negro named Estevanico, or Stephen, who had been one of the survivors of the Narvaez expedition to Florida and had travelled for years among the Indians of the north. He was expected to be of great assistance. As the worthy friar went on he was told of rich regions beyond, where the people wore ornaments of gold, and at length he sent the negro in advance to investigate and report. Stephen was to send back by the Indians a cross, the size of which would indicate the importance of what he had learned. Within four days messengers returned with a great cross the height of a man, significant of great and important discoveries.

One of the Indians told the friar that thirty days' journey from the point they had reached was a populous country called Cibola, in which were seven great cities under one lord, peopled by a civilized nation that dwelt in large houses well built of stone and lime, some of them several stories in height. The entrances to the principal houses were richly wrought with turquoise, which was there in great abundance. Farther on they had been told were other provinces, each of them much greater than that of the seven cities.

Two days after Easter, 1539, Fray Marcos set out on the track of his pioneer, eager to reach the land of wonders and riches of which he had been told. Doubtless there rose in his mind dreams of a second Mexico or Peru. The land through which lay his route was strange and picturesque. Here were fertile valleys, watered by streams and walled in by mountains; there were narrow canons through which ran rapid streams, with rock-walls hundreds of feet high and cut into strange forms of turrets and towers.

As he went on he heard more of the seven cities and the distant kingdoms, and of the abundance of turquoises with which the natives adorned their persons and their doorways. But nothing was seen of Stephen, though shelter and provisions were found which he had left at points along the route. As for the dusky pioneer, Fray Marcos was never to set eyes on him again.

At length the good monk reached a fertile region, irrigated like a garden, where the men wore three or four strings of turquoises around their necks; and the women wore them in their ears and noses. But Cibola lay still beyond, the tales of the natives magnifying its houses till some of them were ten stories in height. Ladders, they said, were used in place of stairways. Reaching at length the Gila River, a stream flowing through deep and rugged valleys, he heard again of the negro, who was crossing the wilderness to the northeast, escorted like a prince by some three hundred natives. Fifteen days journey still lay between Fray Marcos and Cibola, and he went on into the wilderness, escorted, like his pioneer, by a large train of natives, who volunteered their services.

For twelve days the journey continued through a rough mountain region, abundantly supplied with game, consisting of deer, rabbits, and partridges, which was brought in by the Indian hunters. But now there came back startling news, for one of the negro's guides appeared, pallid with fright, telling how Stephen had reached Cibola, where he had been seized, plundered, and imprisoned. Farther on two more Indians were met, covered with blood and wounds, who said that they had escaped from the slaughter of all their comrades by the warlike people of Cibola.

The bold monk had now much trouble in getting his frightened followers to go on with him, but by means of abundant presents he induced two of the chiefs to proceed. He was determined to gain at least a sight of the land of wonders, and with the chiefs and his own followers he cautiously proceeded. At length, from a hill summit, he looked down on a broad plain on which he saw the first of the famous seven cities. To his excited fancy it was greater than the city of Mexico, the houses of stone in many stories and with flat roofs. This was all he could tell from his distant view, in which the mountain hazes seem to have greatly magnified his power of vision.

That was the end of Fray Marcos's journey. He did not dare to approach nearer to that terrible people, and, as he quaintly says, "returned with more fear than victuals;" overtaking his escort, which, moved by still greater fear, had not waited for him. Back to Coronado he went with his story, a disappointing one, since he had seen nothing of either gold, silver, or precious stones, the nearest approach to treasure being the greenish turquoise.

The story of the negro pioneer, as afterwards learned, was one that might have fitted the Orient. He advanced with savage magnificence, bells and feathers adorning his sable arms and legs, while he carried a gourd decorated with bells and with white and red feathers. This he knew to be a symbol of authority among the Indians. Two Spanish grey-hounds followed him, and a number of handsome Indian women, whom he had taken up on the way, attended him. He was followed with a large escort of Indians, carrying his provisions and other effects, among them gifts received, or plunder taken, from the natives.

When near Cibola, he, in disobedience of the orders given him, sent messengers to the city bearing his gourd, and saying that he came to treat for peace and to cure the sick. The chief to whom the gourd was presented, on observing the bells, cast it angrily to the ground, exclaiming,

"I know not those people; their bells are not of our fashion; tell them to return at once, or not a man of them will be left alive."

In despite of this hostile message, the vain-glorious negro went on. He and his company were not permitted to enter the city, but were given a house outside of it, and here they were stripped of all their possessions and refused food and drink. The next morning they left the house, where they were quickly surrounded and attacked by a great number of the townspeople, all of them being killed except the two Indians who had brought the news to Fray Marcos.

Why they were treated in this manner is not known. They seem to have been looked on as spies or enemies. But it is interesting that the legend of the killing of a Black Mexican still lingers in a pueblo of the Zuni Indians, though three centuries and a half have since then elapsed.

The story of the discovery of the Seven Cities, as told by the worthy Fray Marcos, when repeated in the city of Mexico gave rise to high hopes of a new El Dorado; and numbers were ready to join in an expedition to explore and conquer Cibola. The city was then well filled with adventurers eager for fame and fortune, many of them men of good family, cavaliers of rank "floating about like corks on water," and soldiers ready to enlist in any promising service. It is no wonder that in a few weeks a company of over three hundred were enlisted, a large proportion of them mounted. The Indians of the expedition numbered eight hundred, and some small field-pieces were taken along, while sheep and cows were to be driven to supply the army with fresh meat.

Francisco de Coronado was given the command, and so distinguished was the cavalcade that the viceroy would have appointed each of the gentlemen a captain but for fear of making the command top-heavy with officers. It was early in 1540 that the gallant expedition set out, some of the horsemen arrayed in brilliant coats of mail and armed with swords and lances, others wearing helmets of iron or tough bullhide, while the footmen carried cross-bows and muskets, and the Indians were armed with bows and clubs. Splendid they were—but woebefallen were they to be on their return, such of them as came back. An accessory party was sent by sea, along the Pacific coast, under Hernando de Alarcon, to aid, as far as it could, in the success of the army. But in spite of all Alarcon's efforts, he failed to get in communication with Coronado and his men.

On the 7th of July, after following the monk's route through the mountain wilderness, the expedition came within two days' march of the first city of Cibola. It was evident from the signal-fires on the hills and other signs of hostility that the Spaniards would have to fight; but for this the cavaliers of that day seem to have been always ready, and the next day Coronado moved forward towards the desired goal.

At length the gallant little army was before Hawaikuh, the city on which Fray Marcos had gazed with such magnifying eyes, but which now was seen to be a village of some two hundred houses. It lay about fifteen miles southwest of the present Zuni. The natives were ready for war. All the old men, with the women and children, had been sent away, and the Spaniards were received with volleys of arrows.

The houses were built in retreating terraces, each story being smaller than that below it, and from these points of vantage the arrows of the natives came in showers. Evidently the place was only to be taken by assault, and the infantry was posted so as to fire on the warriors, while a number of dismounted horsemen sought to scale the walls by a ladder which they had found. This proved no easy task. Coronado's glittering armor especially made him a shining mark, and he was so tormented with arrows and battered with stones as he sought to ascend that he was wounded and had to be carried from the field. Others were injured and three horses were killed, but in less than an hour the place was carried, the warriors retreating in dismay before the impetuous assault.

Glad enough were the soldiers to occupy the deserted houses. Their food had given out and they were half starved, but in the store-rooms they found ''that of which there was greater need than of gold or silver, which was much corn and beans and chickens, better than those of New Spain, and salt, the best and whitest I have seen in all my life." The chickens seem to have been wild turkeys, kept by the natives for their plumage. But of the much-desired gold and silver there was not a trace.

The story of all the adventures of the Spaniards in this country is too extended and not of enough interest to be given here. It must suffice to say that before their eyes the Seven Cities of Cibola faded into phantoms, or rather contracted into villages of terraced houses like that they had captured. Food was to be had, but none of the hoped-for spoil, even the turquoises of which so much had been told proving to be of little value. Expeditions were sent out in different directions, some of them discovering lofty, tower-like hills, with villages on their almost inaccessible summits, the only approach being by narrow steps cut in the rock. Others came upon deep canons, one of them discovering the wonderful Grand Canon of the Colorado River. In the country of Tiguex were twelve villages built of adobe, some on the plain and some on the lofty heights. The people here received the Spaniards peaceably and with much show of welcome.

In Tiguex was found an Indian slave, called by the Spaniards El Turco, from his resemblance to the Turks, who said he had come from a rich country in the east, where were numbers of great animals with shaggy manes,—evidently the buffalo or bison, now first heard of. Some time later, being brought into the presence of Coronado, El Turco had a more wonderful story to tell, to the effect that "In his land there was a river in the level country which was two leagues wide, in which were fishes as big as horses, and large numbers of very big canoes with more than twenty rowers on a side, and carrying sails; and their lords sat on the poop under awnings, and on the prow they had a great golden eagle. He said also that the lord of that country took his afternoon nap under a great tree on which were hung a large number of little gold bells, which put him to sleep as they swung in the air. He said also that every one had his ordinary dishes made of wrought plate, and the jugs, plates, and bowls were of gold."

No doubt it was the love of the strangers for the yellow metal that inspired El Turco to these alluring stories, in the hope of getting rid of the unwelcome visitors. At any rate, this was the effect it had. After wintering in the villages of the Tiguas, which the Spaniards had assailed and taken, they set out in the following April in search of Quivira, the land of gold, which El Turco had painted in such enticing colors. Against the advice of El Turco, they loaded the horses with provisions, the imaginative Indian saying that this was useless, as the laden animals could not bring back the gold and silver. Scarcely to his liking, the romancing Indian was taken with them as a guide.

On for many leagues they went until the Pecos River was crossed and the great northern plains were reached, they being now in a flat and treeless country, covered with high grasses and peopled by herds of the great maned animals which El Turco had described. These strange creatures were seen in extraordinary numbers, so abundant that one day, when a herd was put to flight, they fell in such a multitude into a ravine as nearly to fill it up, so that the remainder of the herd crossed on the dead bodies.

Various tribes of Indians were met, the story they told not at all agreeing with that of El Turco, who accordingly was now put in chains. Coronado, not wishing to subject all his companions to suffering, but eager still to reach the fabled Quivira, at length sent all his followers back except thirty horsemen and six foot-soldiers, with whom he continued his journey to the north, the bisons supplying them with abundance of food.

For six weeks they marched onward, crossing at the end of thirty days a wide stream, which is thought to have been the Arkansas River, and at last reached Quivira, which seems to have lain in the present State of Kansas. A pleasing land it was of hills and dales and fertile meadows, but in place of El Turco's many-storied stone houses, only rude wigwams were to be seen, and the civilized people proved to be naked savages. The only yellow metal seen was a copper plate worn by one of the chiefs and some bells of the same substance The utmost Coronado could do was to set up a cross and claim this wide region in the name of his master; and his chief satisfaction was in strangling El Turco for his many embellished lies.

We shall not describe the return journey, though it was not lacking in interesting incidents. Finally, having lost many of their horses, being harassed by the Indians, and suffering from want of provisions, the way-worn army reached known soil in the valley of Culiacan. Here all discipline was at an end, and the disorganized army straggled for leagues down the valley, all Coronado's entreaties failing to restore any order to the ranks.

At length the sorely disappointed commander presented himself before the viceroy Mendoza, with scarcely a hundred ragged followers who alone remained with him of the splendid cavalcade with which he had set out.

Thus ends the story of the last of the conquistadores, who had found only villages of barbarians and tribes of half-naked savages, and returned empty-handed from his long chase after the Will-o'-the-wisp of Quivira and its fleeting treasures. Little did he dream that Quivira would yet become the central region of one of the greatest civilized nations of the world, and rich in productions beyond his most avaricious vision.