The second generation of conquistadors—who missed the Mexican conquest—pursued a medieval myth of golden cities to be found at a place called Cibola. Shipwrecked soldiers, wandering from Texas through New Spain's northern deserts, heard tales of cities yet farther north. If this was Cibola, it meant a chance to relive the glories and riches of Aztec Mexico.
In 1540, Spanish explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and those he led found Puebloan towns such as Zuni disappointing. Instead of the hoped-for cities of gold, he discovered villages of simple adobe dwellings, where Puebloans relied on farming for a modest livelihood. And, unlike the gold of the Aztecs and the Incas, their riches lay in the songs and ceremonies that kept them in harmony with the spirit world and one another.
Decades passed as New Spain slowly pushed its frontier northward, lured by the discovery of silver deposits. In 1581, Franciscans Fray Augustin Rodriguez and Francisco Lopez visited pueblos in New Mexico and remained behind when the rest of their expedition went home. This episode marked a shift in New Spain's approach. Having failed to produce the riches the Spanish had sought, this northern outpost became a destination for establishing missions and converting the Puebloans to Christianity. Saving souls, the Spanish believed, would serve both God and State.
In 1583, an expedition led by explorer Antonio de Espejo was sent to the Rio Grande valley pueblos in search of Rodriguez and Lopez. The expedition resulted in the first historical record of El Morro. After confirming that the Franciscans had been killed, Espejo headed westward toward Zuni. On March 11, 1583, he recorded his stop at a place he called El Estanque de Penol (pool at the great rock).
In 1598, Don Juan de Onate founded the first European colony in New Mexico. He brought 400 colonists and 10 Franciscans north, along with 7,000 head of livestock. But hard winters, lack of food, and the distance from Mexico caused hardship and discontent among the colonists.
Onate's explorations extinguished the last hopes for quick riches; nonetheless, his name was inscribed at El Morro on April 16, 1605, when he was returning from one of these expeditions. This marked the first known European inscription on the rock.
Scores of other Spanish inscriptions were added as governors, soldiers, and priests passed by El Morro on their way to the western pueblos. These brief notes in stone document New Mexico's Spanish history as it unfolded on those expeditions. Here, on the frontier far from Santa Fe, records of passage—a name and a date attached to the phrase paso por aqui—are incised alongside accounts of battles to avenge the ambush of a detachment or the killing of a priest.
The western pueblos' distance from Santa Fe helped buffer the impact of Spain's religious and secular controls. Nonetheless, years of resentment began to boil over. As a result, in 1680, Puebloans united in a revolt that forced the Spanish out of New Mexico.
The Puebloans remained free of Spanish rule until the reconquest of the territory by Governor Diego de Vargas, an event chronicled in stone at El Morro in 1692. Some ensuing expeditions were more peaceful than others, depending largely on the temperament of the missionaries or governors in charge of them.
By the end of the 18th century, neither Church nor State showed much interest in the isolated territory. Increased warfare with the Navajo, Apache, Ute, and Comanche was part of the reason for the change. As a result, few Spanish travelers passed by El Morro during this period.
Around the turn of the century, the Spanish engaged in a final surge of Navajo campaigns, trailblazing, and visits to the Zuni and Hopi pueblos. For the most part, though, Spain retained little control over the remote western pueblos and the El Morro area.
After the territory fell under Mexican rule in 1821, Mexican colonists devoted their western frontier energies to war with the Navajo north of the Zuni-El Morro area. During this period, indigenous travelers had the rock and its pool mainly to themselves.