Among the many who joined and traveled with the Coronado Expedition, the entrada's namesake and leader is the most well known. However, the Captain General of the expedition that would bear his name was only a cog in the wheel of a much larger force. Huge numbers of enslaved people, Aztec/Mexica allies, servants, herders, tailors, cobblers, cooks, European soldiers, journeymen, and many others streamed into the indigenous villages of northern Mexico, the Southwest US, and the plains of the Midwest. The collective impact the group had on the region is palpable, even with the buffer of historical perspective.
Regardless, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was the designated leader of the expedition and with this responsibility came decisions that would effect the outcome of the entrada. Therefore, it is important to know the man who took the helm of this expedition into the northern reaches of contemporary Nueva España.
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján was born to a noble family in Salamanca, Spain. His early history is somewhat uncertain, but he was thought to have been born in 1510. In 1535, Vázquez de Coronado - later to be referred to in English as Coronado - left Spain for Mesoamerica. He traveled with the entourage for Antonio de Mendoza, the new Viceroy, or governor, of New Spain.
Vázquez de Coronado acquired an enormous estate from his marriage to Dona Beatiz, the daughter of colonial treasurer Alonso de Estrada, and was governor of Nueva Galicia by 1538. Despite his great fortune and status in Mexico, Vázquez de Coronado wanted to follow in the footsteps of other Spanish conquistadores, such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro González, both of whom conquered large civilizations (Aztec and Incan empires respectively).
When the Franciscan Priest, fray Marcos de Niza, returned from the north (what is now northern New Mexico) with tales of a vast empire, Viceroy Mendoza began assembling an expedition to conquer and claim the civilization for Spain. The civilization was thought to be the rumored "Seven Cities of Gold", later referred to as Cíbola. When Mendoza commissioned Vázquez de Coronado to command the expedition to Cíbola, he accepted the mission, and on February 23, 1540, Vázquez de Coronado and the large expedition under his command pushed north from Compostela on Mexico’s west coast en route to the fabled golden cities.
The expedition was ultimately deemed a failure. Vázquez de Coronado, his dreams of fame and fortune shattered, finally returned to Mexico City in the spring of 1542. Although publicly scorned and discredited, he again resumed his position of governor of Nueva Galicia. He and his captains were subsequently called in to account for their actions during the quest, including the maltreatment of indigenous peoples. Ten years after his return, at the age of 42, he died in relative obscurity. He could not know, however, that the expedition he had led would set the stage for the saga of the American and Mexican West. Native American religions would shift, sometimes forcibly, to incorporate the teachings of the Franciscan and Jesuit priests who would follow the expedition. Furthermore, he and his expeditionaries brought back knowledge of the land and people of the north and opened a way for later Spanish explorers and missionaries to colonize the Southwest, bringing about a clash and fusion of cultures that resounds today.