CRM Journal

Research Report

Before the Signatures: Evidence of the Vázquez de Coronado Expedition at El Morro National Monument, West-Central New Mexico(1)

by Clay Mathers, Charles Haecker, James W. Kendrick, and Steve Baumann


Over the last four centuries, the site of Inscription Rock—also known as El Morro National Monument—has become a signature historical monument in both a literal and figurative sense. Lying close to the Continental Divide and located along the well-traveled prehistoric routes between the Pueblos of Zuni and Acoma in west-central New Mexico, Inscription Rock has attracted a wide range of prehistoric and historic-period occupation. The large concentration of petroglyphs and engraved signatures on this imposing sandstone promontory bear witness to the frequency of these visits and activities,(2) and gave rise to one of the site's more popular names.

Two Ancestral Pueblo sites on the mesa top are believed to have been occupied from c. 1275 to 1350 (3) and Native American petroglyphs along the base of Inscription Rock range from the 13th and 14th centuries.(4) The earliest known European inscription at the site dates to 1605.(5) Don Juan de Oñate, the first Spanish Governor of New Mexico, visited the El Morro area in that year and engraved a dated memorial following the return of his expedition from the South Sea (that is, the Gulf of California).(6) (Figure 1)

Figure 1: El Morro landscape, with large rocks in foreground and bluff in background.

Figure 1. Landscape of El Morro in west-central New Mexico. (Courtesy of the authors.)

During the last 500 years, a number of important factors have made El Morro an attractive location for travelers: the excellent grazing resources in the El Morro Valley, the large pool of water or tinaja located at Inscription Rock, the shallow playa lakes that appear periodically in the immediate vicinity, the shelter afforded from bitterly cold west winds, and the site's proximity to the well-traveled routes between Zuni and Acoma.

Until November 2007, the earliest known physical trace of a European presence at the site was the 1605 Oñate inscription. Although historical documents suggest visits by earlier 16th-century Spanish entradas(7)—particularly the 1583 expedition led by Antonio de Espejo(8)—no material evidence of these expeditions had ever been identified at El Morro National Monument.

Following work directed by Charles Haecker in late 2007, funded by the National Park Service (NPS) Heritage Partnership Program and facilitated by El Morro National Monument's Heritage Preservation Division, dramatic new evidence emerged linking El Morro with the earliest major Spanish entrada in the desert Southwest: the 1540-1542 expedition of Capitan General Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. A range of metal artifacts recovered during this three-day investigation point to the presence of the Vázquez de Coronado expedition. These artifacts include three caret-headed nails, a lead (or copper alloy) coin or scale weight, an unusual wrought iron awl or needle, and a small wrought iron chain. Although a number of other Spanish Colonial objects were found in the course of this preliminary survey, such as a rose-head nail, a cast iron escutcheon plate, and two wrought iron nail shafts, none of these artifacts can be dated more precisely at this time. (Figures 2, 3)

Figure 2: Close-up view of a 4.2-cm. caret-headed nail.

Figure 2. Caret-headed nail: one of the artifacts recovered at El Morro linking the park with the 1540-1542 Coronado expedition. (Courtesy of the authors.)

Figure 3: Close-up view of a 1.05-cm. scale weight or coin weight.

Figure 3. Lead (or copper alloy) scale weight or coin weight recovered at El Morro: one of the artifacts recovered at El Morro linking the park with the 1540-1542 Coronado expedition. (Courtesy of the authors.)

Caret-headed nails are considered some of the most diagnostic artifacts associated with the expedition of Vázquez de Coronado, since they are found on a variety of other sites linked with this entrada in both New Mexico and Texas.(9) Furthermore, caret-headed nails were found at the Governor Martin site, near Tallahassee, Florida—a location widely believed to be Hernando de Soto's 1539-1540 winter camp.(10) In addition, Mathers and Haecker(11) have demonstrated recently that caret-headed nails are not only known in a variety of contexts in Central-South America and Europe during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, but that these nail forms appear to be largely, if not altogether, absent in later 16th-century and early 17th-century contexts in many parts of North America. While further research remains to be done, these patterns appear to be widespread and may be applicable not only to the American Southwest and Southeast, but to areas further afield as well.

The lead (or copper alloy) scale weight or coin weight found at El Morro during our survey bears a striking resemblance to an object recovered by Kathleen Deagan at the site of Concepción de la Vega (c. 1496-1502) in the Dominican Republic. The close morphological correspondence between these two artifacts, and their similar function, was confirmed by Deagan after examining photographs of the El Morro weight (pers. comm., March 2009).(12) In addition, a small wrought iron chain, with three closed links and one terminal link left open to form a hook, matches some of the morphological and metrical characteristics of 16th-century chains found elsewhere in the Southwest and in the United Kingdom.(13) Significantly, the closest parallel to the El Morro chain—with respect to manufacturing technique, size, and shape—comes from an unpublished chain recovered from the Jimmy Owens site in the Texas Panhandle, a confirmed Vázquez de Coronado campsite. The form and rather diminutive size of the chains from El Morro and Jimmy Owens strongly suggest their use as horse gear and possibly as bridle chains.(14) Finally, a wrought iron awl or needle with a grooved head found at El Morro has close parallels with a wooden artifact derived from a well deposit at St. Augustine, Florida which dates to 1575 (Deagan pers. comm., March 2009).(15)

Together with the presence of caret-headed nails, these objects imply a Spanish/European presence at El Morro in the first half of the 16th century and strongly suggest an association with the 1540-1542 entrada of Vázquez de Coronado. Contemporary historical documents indicate that after spending four months at the Zuni Pueblos between July and November 1540, the approximately 2800 members of the expedition began to move in a number of separate parties from the Zuni area to the Tiguex (Southern Tiwa Pueblo) region, near present day Albuquerque.(16) Guided by Natives and no doubt using existing trails where possible, it is widely believed that components of the Vázquez de Coronado expedition traveling from Zuni to Tiguex would have followed routes that took them through the El Morro area. The next Spanish expedition to enter New Mexico and the desert Southwest between 1581 and 1582 was a far smaller party of some 31 individuals lead by Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado and Fray Augustín Rodríguez.(17) The Espejo party that visited El Morro in spring 1583 was smaller still, numbering some 21 individuals.(18) It is our belief that during the four decades or more that separate the Vázquez de Coronado entrada from a series of later 16th-century expeditions in the American Southwest (including Sánchez Chamuscado-Rodríguez and Espejo, amongst others), there were a number of detectable changes in material culture. When Early Contact Period assemblages in the American Southwest are examined more systematically, and compared with both contemporary and later assemblages elsewhere, we believe the distinctions between earlier and later 16th-century assemblages (that is, before and after 1550) will become clearer. As recent work is beginning to demonstrate, regional and interregional comparative work of this kind has the potential to contribute significantly to our understanding of the Early Contact Period as a whole.(19)

Future investigations at El Morro National Monument are planned to identify and evaluate possible encampment areas associated with the various components of the Vázquez de Coronado entrada—large and small—that may have visited the area between the summer of 1540 when they entered New Mexico, and the spring of 1542 when the expedition returned to México. In the meantime, El Morro National Monument now has additional historical significance as a site linked with one of the most dramatic and transformational moments in the history of the desert Southwest: the 1540-1542 entrada of Vázquez de Coronado.


About the Authors

Clay Mathers is Executive Director, The Coronado Institute, Albuquerque, New Mexico; Charles Haecker is Archeologist, Heritage Partnership Program, National Park Service, Santa Fe, New Mexico; James W. Kendrick is Archeologist, El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments, Grants, New Mexico; Steve Baumann is Archeologist, El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments, Ramah, New Mexico.



1. The authors would like to extend their profound thanks to following individuals whose support and expertise contributed significantly to this research.

First and foremost, we are grateful to Kayci Cook Collins, El Morro and El Malpais National Monuments Superintendent, who granted permission for our survey and consequently made all of this work possible. We also extend a special thanks to the staff of El Morro National Monument for their patience, support and interest. Christopher Adams at the USDA Forest Service, Gila National Forest, Truth or Consequences, NM, lent his extraordinary expertise, good humor and analytical skills to all aspects of this work; his contribution was considerable and greatly appreciated. Our good friends and colleagues, Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, Research Fellows at the Center for Desert Archaeology, Tucson, AZ; Douglas Scott, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NB, and Jim Bradford at the National Park Service, Intermountain Region, Santa Fe, NM, all provided invaluable assistance by reading and commenting on an extended version of this article; their suggestions were especially helpful and welcome.

Our particular thanks go to the following experts in early European colonial artifacts who helped enormously with identifications, advice and references: Kathleen Deagan at the Florida Museum of Natural History, Gainesville, FL; Steve Wernke and William Fowler at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, TN; John Connaway at the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, MS; Jeffrey Mitchem at the Arkansas Archeological Survey, Parkin, AR; Jeb Card at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL; Nancy Marble at the Floyd County Historical Museum, Floydada, TX; William Botts and Wade Stablein at the National Park Service, Padre Island National Seashore, Corpus Christi, TX; Jonathan Damp at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA; Robin Gavin at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, Santa Fe, NM; Cordelia Snow at the Archaeological Records Management Section, Santa Fe, NM; Julia Clifton at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Santa Fe, NM; Frances Levine at the Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe, NM; David Snow at Cross-Cultural Research Systems, Albuquerque, NM; and David Phillips and Ann Ramenofsky at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM.

In the United Kingdom, we are grateful to Robin Boast at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire; Andrew Myers at the University of Manchester, Manchester, Greater Manchester; John Clark and Geoff Egan at the Museum of London, London; and particularly to Glenn Foard at the English Heritage-Battlefields Trust, Northampton, Northamptonshire, an expert on Late Medieval-Early Modern Period artifacts, a first rate archaeologist, and the very best of colleagues.

2. John M. Slater, El Morro, Inscription Rock, New Mexico. The Rock Itself, the Inscriptions Thereon, and the Travelers Who Made Them (Los Angeles, CA: The Plantin Press, 1961), 49; Polly Schaafsma, Rock Art In New Mexico (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico, 1992), 25, 148-150.

3. Richard B. Woodbury, "Columbia University Archaeological Fieldwork, 1952-1953," Southwestern Lore 19 (1954): 11; Richard B. Woodbury, "The Antecedents of Zuni Culture," Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series 2, 18 (1956): 557-563; Richard Woodbury and Natalie F.S. Woodbury, "Zuni Prehistory and the El Morro National Monument," Southwestern Lore 21 (1956): 56-60.

4. James E. Bradford, An Archeological History of El Morro National Monument, Report Draft on File, National Park Service Intermountain Archeology Program, Cultural Resources Professional Paper 71 (Santa Fe, NM: National Park Service, 2007).

5. Marc Simmons, The Last Conquistador: Juan de Oñate and the Settling of the Far Southwest (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 175.

6. Herbert E. Bolton, "Father Escobar's Relation of the Oñate Expedition to California," The Catholic Historical Review, 1st Series, 5 no. 1 (1919): 19-41; George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, Don Juan de Oñate: Colonizer of New Mexico 1598-1628. Part II. Coronado Cuarto Centennial Publications, 1540-1940. Volume VI (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 1953), 1012-1031.

7. Entrada – entry into, and direct reconnaissance of, new territory by a European-led expeditionary group.

8. Evidence for a visit to El Morro by the expedition of Antonio de Espejo in spring of 1583 is compelling. The narrative account of Diego Pérez de Luxán, a member of the Espejo party, suggests it is very probable that this group did camp in the El Morro area. See George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, Expedition into New Mexico Made by Antonio de Espejo 1582-1583 as Revealed in the Journal of Diego Pérez de Luxán, A Member of the Party (Los Angeles, CA: Quivira Society Publications. Volume I. The Quivira Society, [reprinted New York, NY: Arno Press, 1930 [1967]), 35, 88. Traveling from the Pueblo of Acoma to the Zuni area in March of 1583, Pérez de Luxán indicates—

We set out from this place [El Elado] on the eleventh of the month and marched three leagues and stopped at a waterhole at the foot of a rock. This place we named El Estanque del Peñol. (Hammond and Rey 1930 [1967]:88)

9. Bradley J. Vierra, ed., A Sixteenth-Century Spanish Campsite in the Tiguex Province, Laboratory of Anthropology Note 475 (Santa Fe, NM: Museum of New Mexico, 1989); Bradley J. Vierra, "A Sixteenth-Century Spanish Campsite in the Tiguex Province: An Archaeologist's Perspective," in Bradley J. Vierra, ed., Current Research on the Late Prehistory and Early History of New Mexico. Special Publication 1 (Albuquerque, NM: New Mexico Archaeological Council, 1992), 165-174; Bradley J. Vierra and Stanley M. Hordes, "Let the Dust Settle: A Review of the Coronado Campsite in the Tiguex Province," in Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds., The Coronado Expedition to Tierra Nueva: The 1540-1542 Route Across the Southwest (Niwot, CO: The University Press of Colorado, 1997), 249-261; Donald J. Blakeslee and Jay C. Blaine, "The Jimmy Owens Site: New Perspectives on the Coronado Expedition," in Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds., The Coronado Expedition from the Distance of 460 Years (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, 2003), 203-218; Jonathan E. Damp, The Battle of Hawikku, Archaeological Investigations of the Zuni-Coronado Encounter at Hawikku, the Ensuing Battle, and the Aftermath during the Summer of 1540. Zuni Cultural Resources Enterprise Report 884, Research Series 13 (Zuni, NM: Zuni Cultural Resources Enterprise, 2005); Clay Mathers, Phil Leckman, and Nahide Aydin, "'Non-Ground Breaking' Research at the Edge of Empire: Geophysical and Geospatial Approaches to Sixteenth-Century Interaction in Tiguex Province (New Mexico)," Paper Presented for the Symposium Between Entrada and Salida: New Mexico Perspectives on the Coronado Expedition, Charles Haecker and Clay Mathers, organizers. Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Conference, Albuquerque, New Mexico, January 12, 2008.

10. Charles Ewen, "The Archaeology of the Governor Martin Site. The Data," in Charles R. Ewen and John H. Hann, Hernando de Soto Among the Apalachee: The Archaeology of the First Winter Encampment (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998), 59-98.

11. Clay Mathers and Charles Haecker, Social and Spatial Modeling of Historic Period Expeditions at El Morro National Monument (El Morro, New Mexico) (Denver, CO: National Park Service, forthcoming); Clay Mathers and Charles Haecker, "Between Cíbola and Tiguex: A Vázquez de Coronado Presence at El Morro National Monument, New Mexico," in Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds., The Latest Word from 1540: People, Places, and Portrayals of the Coronado Expedition (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press, in preparation).

12. Our thanks to Kathy Deagan for her help in identifying this object and its possible functions. Also, see Kathleen Deagan, Artifacts of the Spanish Colonies of Florida and the Caribbean, 1500-1800, Volume 2: Portable Personal Possessions (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002), 261, Figure 12.19, object in three o'clock position.

13. In addition to the chain from the Vázquez de Coronado site of Jimmy Owens in the Texas Panhandle, there are examples with similar characteristics from the wreck of the Spanish vessel San Esteban, which went down near Padre Island, Texas in April 1554—see J. Barto Arnold and Robert Weddle, The Nautical Archaeology of Padre Island: The Spanish Shipwrecks of 1554 (New York, NY: Academic Press, 1978), 234-235, Figure 23c. Another parallel comes from a chain attached to a forked stirrup suspender (iron) derived from excavations by the Museum of London in the waterfront area of Southwark on the River Thames. The chain associated with the iron stirrup suspender from Southwark has 'figure 8'-shaped links similar to the El Morro chain and was found in a refuse dump with ceramics dating to c. 1575-1600—see Geoff Egan, Material Culture in London in an Age of Transition: Tudor and Stuart Period Finds c 1450-c 1700 from Excavations at Riverside Sites in Southwark. Museum of London Monograph 19 (London, UK: Museum of London Archaeology Service, 2005), 164-165, Figure 165–Object #854 ABO92.

14. We are particularly grateful to our colleague, William Fouts at the National Park Service, Lassen Volcanic National Park, Mineral, CA, for his expertise in horse gear and for his considerable support for our research.

15. While Kathy Deagan suggests the wooden awl from St. Augustine was used for producing nets or baskets, Mathers and Haecker (in preparation) believe that the metal awl or needle from El Morro was likely to have been employed for leather working. The possible use of wrought iron awls for the production of durable leather and other footwear, particularly aparagates (hemp sandals), is a suggestion made by Richard Flint some years ago in a review of the material inventory of the Vázquez de Coronado expedition (see Richard Flint, The Pattern of Coronado Expedition Material Culture: A Thesis. M.A. Thesis Presented to the Graduate Division of Behavioral Sciences, New Mexico Highlands University, Las Vegas, NM. 1992: 45-46). Because of the large number of expeditionaries participating in this entrada, the duration of the expedition, the expansive area covered, and the difficult terrain that was often traversed, the need for repairing and creating footwear on a regular basis would have been significant. Durable tools such as wrought iron awls and needles would have been particularly useful in piercing hide and in threading plant fibers and sinew through small openings in leather soles to create sandals.

16. Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-1542. "They Were Not Familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects" (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 2005), 400-402.

17. George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, The Rediscovery of New Mexico 1580-1594: The Explorations of Chamuscado, Espejo, Castaño de Sosa, Morlete and Leyva de Bonilla and Humaña. Coronado Cuarto Centennial Publications, 1540-1940. Volume III. (Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico, 1966).

18. George P. Hammond and Agapito Rey, The Rediscovery of New Mexico 1580-1594: The Explorations of Chamuscado, Espejo, Castaño de Sosa, Morlete and Leyva de Bonilla and Humaña, 18.

19. For example, see Clay Mathers, Jeffrey M. Mitchem, and Charles M. Haecker, eds., Native and Imperial Transformations: Sixteenth-Century Entradas in the American Southwest and Southeast (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, forthcoming), 818.