What route did the Expedition take?

Due to the passage of time and the lack of archaeological evidence, the specific route of the Coronado Expedition remains largely a mystery. However, historians and archaeologists have constructed multiple routes from artifacts found on the landscape and from interpreting historical journals. Dr. Joseph Sánchez of the Spanish Colonial Research Center at the University of New Mexico has written a scholarly passage describing the expedition's movement through what is now Sonora and Arizona:

The Coronado Expedition and the San Pedro River Valley

by Joseph P. Sánchez

The single most important leg of the expedition is that from Compostela through Sonora. Without a fundamental understanding of that portion of the route it is impossible to determine exactly where the expedition entered present Arizona and what direction it took beyond that point. The literature suggests two viable points through which the expedition passed upon entering present Arizona: the San Pedro and San Bernardino River valleys. Because the route from Compostela to either of those two points is vague, a third line of march, one farther east, is possible. A fourth alternative, a western route through the Santa Cruz valley, has been discounted in recent years by scholars. In any case, finding the location of the expedition's entry into the present United States depends wholly on determining the route taken through Sonora.

Although Bolton and Day presented a route through Sonora based on observation and analogy of their readings of the documents and what they perceived to be on the ground, Charles DiPeso approached the problem by utilizing available archaeological data and pertinent historical documentation. The historical problem lay in part with the lack of identity of rivers in Sonora for the early Spanish period. DiPeso wrote, "when modern historians attempt to correlate present‑day names, such as Yaqui or Sonora River, with names used by early explorers who had no maps and often were inconvenienced by a lack of interpreters, and who used such terms as Yaqui and Senora, then distances and travel times are sacrificed and misconceptions are bound to arise. As just mentioned, a league was accepted as being a specific distance, and wherever possible was used to determine distances between points." (DiPeso, 1974:37). By comparing the accounts from various expeditions, DiPeso arrived at a certain determination of place‑names in Sonora. For example, he determined the first river crossed by Vázquez de Coronado to be the Río Evora de Mocorito. Using the Villa de San Miguel de Culiacán as the beginning point, his methodology involved comparing terminology and distances or time of travel reported by Diego de Guzman, nephew of Nuño de Guzman, (1533), Cabeza de Vaca (1536), Marcos de Niza (1539), Vázquez de Coronado (1540) and Francisco de Ibarra (1565), sources that agreed on the sixteenth century location of Culiacán and on the historic name of the Rio Evora de Mocorito.

Testing his hypothesis to determine that the first river was indeed the Mocorito, DiPeso discovered that Vázquez de Coronado's Río Petatlan, the first river north of Culiacán matched with Guzman's Petatla and Niza's Petatlan. So too, he determined, the Río Petatlan had been renamed Río San Sebastian de Ebora during Ibarra's time. Hence evolved the modern name Río Evora de Mocorito. Next, following the same methodology, DiPeso concluded that the second river crossed by the expedition was the Río Sinaloa, for Vázquez knew it by Guzman's old name "Río Cinaloa." But here, DiPeso noted a discrepancy that he resolved by accepting Guzman's and Vázquez de Coronado's "Río Cinaloa." Guzman also referred to the Río Sinaloa as the Río Santiago and Ibarra called it the Río Petatlan. The third river, the Río del Fuerte, was known by Guzman as the Río San Miguel as well as the Río Mayomo; by Vázquez de Coronado as Arroyo de los Cedros; and by Ibarra as the Río Cinaro. The variations, explained DiPeso, were inconsequential because their singular locations were determined by Indian settlements along them, and their names were constant. Besides, he argued, the distance between them was a controlling factor, for the explorers had given estimated figures of time taken to travel between them and/or measurements in leagues. Vázquez de Coronado went so far as to have a man count the steps between the expedition's daily campsites (Hammond and Rey, 1940:240).

For DiPeso, locations of Indian settlements along the rivers or their tributaries were of paramount consideration. For example, on the first river was the village of Mocorito, on the second Guasave and Sinaloa de Leyva and on the third El Fuerte. The fourth river, Río del Mayo, had an Indian town called Conicari. Guzman called this river Río San Francisco de Yaquimi or simply, Río Yaquimi; Vázquez de Coronado referred to it as Lachimi; and Ibarra said it was the Río Mayomo or Río Mayonbo. On one of its tributaries north of Conicari was Tesocoma, referred to by Guzman as Nebame, by Cabeza de Vaca as Corazones and by Vázquez de Coronado as Corazones. And finally, north of Corazones was the Río Yaqui, whose tributary Coronado knew as Río de Senora and Ibarra as Río Oera. Ibarra knew the Río Yaqui as the Río Yaquimi. Crossing to another tributary of the Río Yaqui, the expedition came to the Indian village of Guisamopa, known to Vázquez de Coronado as Ispa. Beyond there, and still on the Río Yaqui drainage, near the Arroyo Babaco, was Vázquez de Coronado's Suya or Ibarra's Senora.

DiPeso's analysis could very well be the key to the historical conundrum concerning Vázquez de Coronado's route through Sonora. By following the documentation almost to a fault, DiPeso determined that the route of Vázquez de Coronado veered northwestward to the Río Bavispe and its confluence with the Río Batepito which he followed to the Río San Bernardino that originates in southwestern Arizona considerably west of the San Pedro River. DiPeso made a strong case for the expedition crossing into Arizona at present Slaughter Ranch not far westward from the Arizona‑New Mexico border. He concluded that the expedition entered New Mexico crossing into the Animas Valley through Antelope Pass and then straddled the Arizona‑New Mexico boundary until reaching Zuni Pueblo. DiPeso wrote,

Padre de Niza, Melchior Diaz, and Coronado's troops all traveled along this section of the old Acoma road seeking Cibola. From the Rio Batepito junction the army may have gone N‑by‑NW up this river to the San Bernardino junction, 43 km., and then up the San Bernardino in a northerly direction, keeping the Sierra de San Luis on the right (E), to the vicinity of the modern Slaughter Ranch, another 17 km. Next they would have continued up the San Bernardino Valley, traveling NE past the site of present‑day Rodeo, New Mexico, and keeping the Chiricahua Mountains on the left (W) and the Peloncillos on the right (E), finally arriving at what is now called Antelope Pass in the latter range, an additional 65 km (DiPeso, 1975:100).

Earlier, in 1872, Brig. General J.H. Simpson, one of the first to attempt to trace Vázquez de Coronado's route in southern Arizona, had assumed that the Spaniards had entered the present United States through the Santa Cruz Valley, stopping at Chichilticale, which he reckoned to be Casa Grande on the Gila River, and then turned northeast across the Pinal and Mogollon Mountains to Zuni. Simpson's account, filled with errors, suggested the westernmost theory of the expedition through Arizona. His discussion of the route through the Mogollon Rim, however, lacks substantive detail (Simpson, 1872:329). The notion persisted for almost seventy years, however, for in 1939, archaeologist Charlie Steen suggested that Fray Marcos de Niza's preliminary expedition in 1539 had entered Arizona through the Santa Cruz River valley and turned northwestward somewhere between Tucson and Phoenix, entering the mountains probably beyond Florence near the Salt River (Steen, 1939). Niza was one of the guides of the Vázquez de Coronado Expedition in 1540.

Other scholars contended that the expedition entered Arizona through the San Pedro River valley because it was most compatible with Spanish documentation and topography, being the easiest route northward. Frederick W. Hodge argued that the expedition traveled north along the Rio Sonora and entered Arizona through the San Pedro River valley, then crossed the Pinaleno Mountains over Railroad Pass, followed the San Simeon valley to a point near present Solomonsville and the Gila River, south of the present White Mountain Apache Reservation (Hodge, 1895:142‑152). Hodge's route took the expedition directly on a northeastward path to the Zuni River. Of this portion of the route, Hodge's explanation, likewise, lacks sufficient detail for analysis. The debate over the location of the expedition's crossing into Arizona from Sonora was only beginning. Hodge had raised a point which would cause much speculation concerning the San Pedro River valley hypothesis.

In 1947 George J. Undreiner re‑examined Fray Marcos de Niza's journey to Cibola and proposed that Niza had entered Arizona on April 13, 1539 by following a route north along the Pima road about 15 miles east of Lochiel soon after which he reached Quiburi, a Sobaipuri village on the San Pedro River. Three days later, Niza visited Baicatcan, another village on the San Pedro, which DiPeso had dated pre‑1698. Herein was the riddle. Pedro de Castañeda, chronicler of the Vázquez de Coronado expedition, stated that after visiting a certain Indian town, the expedition encountered a four‑day despoblado (desert) north of there. Undreiner pointed out that in his preliminary expedition of 1539, Niza, probably at Baicatcan, or at least at Quiburi, learned that two more days of travel would bring him to a despoblado which would take four days to cross. He contended that Niza, after two days of travel, had reached the northernmost Sobaipuri village on the San Pedro and that it was probably near Aravaipa Creek (Undreiner, 1947:415‑486).

On that same point, Albert H. Schroeder responded to historians who had suggested that Vázquez de Coronado's expedition went down the San Pedro River in southeastern Arizona, and, on the basis that Juan Jaramillo, chronicler of the expedition, indicated that the expedition turned east, had routed Niza and Vázquez de Coronado either up Aravaipa Creek or east from the Tres Alamos region (See Bandelier, 1881:1; 1892, pt. II:407; Winship, 1896:387; Bolton, 1949:105; Sauer, 1932:36). Schroeder wrote, "If the former route is accepted it would imply that that portion of the middle San Pedro River, more that two days travel south of the junction with the Aravaipa, would not have been occupied, since it would then be the four‑day despoblado. This is the very area in which DiPeso has suggested, on the basis of archaeological evidence, that occupation may have been unbroken from late prehistoric into historic (1690s) times. Thus, the old routes appear to be in error." (Schroeder, 1955:265). In support of Hodge's hypothesis, Schroeder defends Niza, commenting that "The evidence presented herein not only indicates the good father was telling the truth, but that Coronado and his chroniclers knowingly supported much of his relation pertaining to the trip through this area." (Schroeder, 1955:267). Thus, Schroeder casts his lot with the San Pedro River valley entrance hypothesis.


The debate surrounding the San Pedro River Valley entrance is tied to the location of Chichilticale (sometimes spelled Chichilticalli). Of Chichilticale, Vázquez de Coronado wrote, "I rested for two days at Chichilticale, and there was no chance to rest further, because the food was giving out." (Hammond and Rey, 1940:166). In his account, Pedro de Castañeda reported, "The land changes again at Chichilticale and the thorny trees disappear. The reason is that since the gulf extends as far as that place and the coast turns, so also the ridge of the sierra turns. Here one comes to cross the ridge and it breaks to pass into the plains of the land." (Hammond and Rey, 1940:251). What was Chichilticale? At times the documents refer to it as a valley, other times it appears as a mountain range, a port, or even a despoblado, and finally, as a place or a village. Vázquez de Coronado and Melchior Diaz mentioned the "people of Chichiltcale" (Hammond and Rey, 1940:165). After careful consideration, DiPeso concluded that it was south of the Arizona‑Sonora border closer to the Río Batepito and the San Bernardino valley. He wrote, "Ruins which might be ascribed to those of the `red house' of Chichilticale occur up and down the San Bernardino Valley, and the Stevens Ranch site contains pottery fragments which indicate a trade relationship with the N and the Little Colorado" (DiPeso, 1940:100). By placing Chichilticale in that area, DiPeso suggested that north of the confluence of the San Bernardino River valley was a fifteen day despoblado.

DiPeso's analysis is fairly thorough and deserves lengthy quotation:

De Niza did not mention "Chichiltacale" in his narrative, but Coronado, in his letter to Mendoza... did, and said that it was "fifteen days" journey distant from the sea, although the father provincial had said that it was only five leagues distant and that he had seen it ... [and] which the father said was at thirty‑five degrees...." Either Coronado referred to the journal of place names and locations which de Niza had mentioned (Baldwin, 1926, p. 206) or he was given this information verbally by the priest while on the trail E of Bacadehuachi. The latter had previously scouted out the coast and mentioned the fact that the coast turned W at latitude 35 degrees. It would seem that Coronado's "port of Chichilticale" was that referred to by de Niza after crossing the second despoblado of four days. De Niza mentioned entering a town at the end of this trip in which he was given food. Coronado, in turn, questioned the Indians of Chichilticale (Hammond and Rey, 1940, p. 165) and was told that "they go to the sea for fish, or for anything else that they need, they go across the country, and that it takes them ten days...."

Melchior Diaz, who was sent to check de Niza's report, spent the winter in Chichilticale and said it was 220 leagues from Culiacan (Bolton, 1949, p. 87). Using the proposed routing, this distance would have taken him by way of the Bavispe, a distance of 221.3 leagues. In this Castaneda confirmed the distance (Hammond and Rey, 1940, p. 198).

Castaneda (ibid., pp. 212, 251‑252) wrote that the priests (de Niza and his party) named Chichilticale because of an abandoned mud fortress which had been built by people who broke away from Cibola and which was later destroyed by folk who hunted and lived in rancherias without permanent settlements. He went on to say that the gulf extended as far as this area and turned W at the head of the Gulf of California, which it does on the latitude several minutes above 31 degrees N. This latitude falls across the San Bernardino Valley.

Melchior Diaz attested to the cold (ibid., p. 157). Although he did not mention Chichiltcale directly in his letter to Mendoza, he spoke of the despoblado which separated him from Cibola and recounted his interview with the Cibolans of Chichilticale, who, after Esteban was killed advised the people of that town not to respect the Christians but to kill them (ibid., p. 160).

Schroeder correctly surmised the critical need to define the location of Chichilticale because, for one of many reasons, it determined where the expedition went next. He countered any argument that suggests that Chichilticale lay south of the Arizona‑Sonora border by stating, "The ethnological traits reported by the early Spanish who recorded their travels of 1539 and 1540 through Arizona point to the Yavapai as the people who occupied the area on the north side of the four‑day despoblado, where Chichilticale was located. Internal evidence within these early documents also indicates that Fray Marcos and Coronado followed the San Pedro to its mouth, not just to Tres Alamos or Aravaipa on the San Pedro, and that from there they crossed the Gila and went over to the Salt River as Undreiner suggests." (Schroeder, 1956:32). Schroeder is emphatic about the significance of this point writing, "Thus, the Yavapai remain as the only possible group, separated by four days' travel, that bordered the Sobaipuri on the north in 1539 and 1540." (Schroeder, 1956:33). Furthermore, in contrast to DiPeso's and Hodge's routes from Arizona to New Mexico, he proposed that after departing the mouth of the San Pedro River, the expedition proceeded down the Salt River "almost to the mouth of Tonto Creek, then up Salome Creek and over the north end of the Sierra Anchas and then generally northeast over the Mogollon Rim across to Zuni. There is little or no evidence to indicate they went east from the San Pedro at Tres Alamos or via Aravaipa Creek and then across the present day San Carlos Apache country to Zuni. Such a trail would necessitate a route directed to the north or north‑north‑east, rather than northeast as the documents state." (Schroeder, 1956:32).

Carroll L. Riley and Joni L. Manson also agree, without specifying their argument, that Chichilticale was in southern Arizona or New Mexico (Riley and Manson, 1983:349). Riley, on the basis of historical, anthropological and botanical evidence revolving around linguistics, argued that the location of Chichiltacale was at one of two probable locations: one on the lower Salt River, the other on the upper Gila River (Riley, 1985:153).


Having crossed the despoblado, the anonymous writer of the Relación del Suceso (Hammond and Rey, 1940:284) commented that "the entire route up to within fifty leagues of Cibola is inhabited, although in some places at a distance from the road." This and other commentary by the members of the expedition are open to interpretation. The route to Cibola from the despoblado is fraught with a dearth of information leaving the researcher often with little more than his imagination. The most accepted route of the expedition through Arizona is that proposed by Herbert E. Bolton. Since 1949, the Bolton route has gained in venerability, partly because of his scholarly influence and partly because his field research almost rivaled that of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado's epic march across a large portion of North America. Bolton built on the work of earlier researchers, and was probably influenced, although he denied it, by A. Grove Day's work which was published in 1940.

Day favored the Sonora Valley as a probable point from which Arizona was reached. Furthermore, he opted for the San Pedro River route, specifying that Vázquez de Coronado had entered Arizona through a plain extending to the headwaters of the San Pedro River near present‑day Naco. Somewhere near there, he explained, was the point of departure for crossing the despoblado. Day went on to propose that the expedition crossed the Gila and Salt Rivers by means of an old Indian trail, and then proceeded through the White Mountains to the upper drainage of the Little Colorado near St. Johns to the Zuni River. Although Day did not specifically tell how the expedition crossed the area, he deferred to the work by Sauer and Winship for his information.

Like Day, Bolton relied on Winship and other sources to define his proposed route which he then set out to prove through his fieldwork. Generally, Bolton's route has the expedition leaving the traditionally mentioned Compostela to Culiacán where they followed the coastal plain, veering northeastward between the Gulf of California and the Sierra Madre Occidental crossing rivers until they reached the Sonora River valley. From there, deduced Bolton, they entered Arizona through the San Pedro River Valley. The Bolton route placed the expedition's point of departure through the despoblado near Benson, Arizona, from where it marched northeast through the Galiuro range and crossed the Arivaipa valley, passing through Eagle Pass between the Pinaleno and Santa Teresa mountains. The line of march through the despoblado ran along the Gila River, crossing it at present‑day Bylas, after which it forded the Salt River near Bonito Creek. Next, Bolton proposed that they continued northward, crossed the White River near Fort Apache, ascended the Mogollon Rim by following small streams before emerging on the Little Colorado River near its confluence with the Zuni River. Shortly, the expedition reached Hawikuh (Bolton, 1949:108‑117).

The route has been accepted by some historians, modified by others and contested by yet another group of researchers who offer their own conclusions markedly different from Bolton's. Researchers, namely R.M. Wagstaff, have criticized the Bolton proposal by noting that the distances traveled by the expedition do not conform with Bolton's conclusions. Also, Bolton's identification of rivers, which often appear to be juxtaposed to fit the narrative are misleading. Although Wagstaff did not adequately support the discrepancies he cited, DiPeso attempted to propose an alternative route in which he accounted for rivers and distances.

Employing the same methodology as he had on the rivers in Sonora, DiPeso suggested that the expedition traveled from Antelope Pass to Cibola, meandering in and out of Arizona and New Mexico until they reached Cibola. DiPeso argued that from Antelope Pass the expedition crossed into New Mexico, then veered northwest into Arizona passing present‑day Duncan, Guthrie, and Clifton northward beyond the San Francisco River to Stray Horse Creek which it crossed following the Blue River into New Mexico. Passing through Luna, New Mexico, DiPeso's proposed route placed the expedition near Spur Lake from where they followed a line, almost straight north across Carrizo Wash and beyond the west side of Zuni Plateau to the Zuni River before reaching Cibola (DiPeso, 1974:102).

Preceding Bolton, Carl Sauer's interpretation of the route through Arizona is traced from the San Pedro River to a point north of Benson, around the Galiuro mountains into the upper basin of Arivaipa Creek north to the Gila River by way of Eagle Pass between the Pinaleno and Santa Teresa ranges. Following the San Carlos River, the expedition turned northeast crossing the Natanes plateau and the Black River to a point on the White River near present‑day Fort Apache from where Vázquez de Coronado passed near present McNary. From there, they crossed the Colorado Plateau to the Little Colorado River, thence to the Zuni before reaching Hawikuh (Sauer, 1932:36‑37).

Carroll L. Riley and Joni L. Manson retraced the expedition from San Miguel de Culiacán, first through the eyes of the Marcos de Niza preliminary exploration of 1539, then through the sources of the Vázquez de Coronado expedition. Reanalyzing the Niza route of 1539, Riley and Manson concluded that he reached "a settlement called Vacapa in the Altar‑Magdalena drainage of northwestern Sonora" (Riley and Manson, 1983:348). They proposed that Niza had taken the westernmost path through central Sonora, and traveling north, he had entered Arizona "at some point in the lower San Pedro or perhaps Santa Cruz valley" (Riley and Manson, 1983:348). Also in 1539, Melchior Diaz led a scouting party from Culiacán to northern Sonora and "the ruin of Chichilticale in southern Arizona or New Mexico, but did not try to cross the mountains to Cibola." (Riley and Manson, 1983:349). The two events influenced the route Vázquez de Coronado would take north to Chichilticale. After leaving Culiacán, suggest Riley and Manson, Vázquez de Coronado retraced Diaz's inland route, passed Corazones, the valley of Senora and Chichilticale.

Although Riley and Manson do not offer detail regarding this portion of the route, they proposed two routes leading through Arizona to New Mexico. The first route is based on a series of aboriginal trails that served as a "great trunk road that linked Cibola‑Zuni‑‑and through it, all the Southwest‑‑with Mesoamerica. A second great route tied Cibola to Tusayan and eventually to the Pacific coast. The southern trunk road has long been called the Camino Real. Several sections of the route are uncertain; it has been argued, for example, that in Sonora major trails ran through the Sonora valley, the Yaqui valley or both." (Riley and Manson, 1983:350). They cautioned the reader regarding the route of the southern portion of the "great trunk road" through Arizona to New Mexico: "No agreement exists as to the route of the Camino Real in the upper Southwest, although it undoubtedly terminated at Cibola." (Riley and Manson, 1983:350). The point made by Riley and Manson is that the existence of these trails was known to the Indian guides of Niza, Diaz and Vázquez de Coronado and that they are the key to understanding where the expedition entered Arizona and subsequently influenced the direction taken after Chichilticale, as well as the route the Spaniards took after they had established themselves at Zuni.

As a result of their study regarding the "great trunk road", Riley and Manson clarify that the valleys of the Santa Cruz River, the San Pedro River and the San Bernardino River were part of this major Mesoamerican trade route which was also utilized by explorers associated with the expedition of Vázquez de Coronado. By defining the corridors of the "great trunk road", Riley and Manson narrow down two possibilities: the first running from San Pedro River valley, north to the Gila River, across the Salt River and the Little Colorado to the Zuni River and beyond to Zuni, and the second, following a line proposed by DiPeso from the San Bernardino River valley to the southeastern corner of Arizona, thence into New Mexico where the route meanders in and out of Arizona and New Mexico until it reaches the Zuni River and then to Zuni (Riley and Manson, 1983:352).

Last updated: July 11, 2017

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