El Malpais
In the Land of Frozen Fires: A History of Occupation in El Malpais Country
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Chapter II:

When Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's expedition crossed the present United States border in 1540, it constituted the first intensive exploration of what is now the Southwest United States. Coronado's trek through the deserts of Arizona and New Mexico was designed and patterned after similar Spanish conquests in Central and South America. Indeed, for the previous 40 years a procession of Spanish conquistadors had been searching for wealth, fame, and adventure. In rapid succession Spain conquered vast chunks of real estate in the Americas. The Aztecs fell to Hernán Cortés in 1521; Francisco de Pizarro devastated the Incas of Peru in 1532; Mexico was subjugated and in the process, Spain instituted in 1535, the first permanent viceroyalty in America. Political power was invested in the viceroy and a judicial tribunal, the Audencia. Because of the behemoth size of Spain's New World holdings, it became an administrative necessity to divide the kingdom into smaller more manageable regions. Mexico City became the seat of Spain's occupied provinces in North America. To the north lay an unexplored empire potentially as lucrative as the wealth found in Peru and Mexico. Exploration into the northern provinces followed without delay.

Spanish expansionism followed dual paths. One path pursued an unrelenting push for exploitation and diversion of Indian wealth into the coffers of Spain. The other route championed Spain's desire to expand Christianity by converting the demonic souls of its new-found subjects to Catholicism. For the first two decades of the sixteenth century, Spain principally engaged the Aztec and Inca Empires. In quick succession it extracted huge deposits of mineral wealth from its victims and began the process of rescuing the souls of the natives. By the third decade, Spanish attention turned northward, beyond Mexico, to the pervasive rumors of treasures in North America.

The Spanish crown nodded in acquiescent to a series of land and sea campaigns, some of which failed disastrously. One expedition commanded by Pánfilo de Narváez set sail from Cuba in the spring of 1528 bound for Florida. Coming to shore near present-day Tampa, the command wandered in search of the rumored wealthy kingdom of Apalachee. They found nothing but trouble. The Indians were unfriendly and poor. Moreover, Navarez's supply ships, which intended to rendezvous with him up the Florida coast returned to Cuba. [1] Disillusioned and fatigued by their ordeal, the commander aborted the mission. The expeditioners decided to seek refuge in Mexico, and they constructed makeshift boats fashioned from the skins of their horses to transport them. Setting a westerly course across the Gulf of Mexico, disaster struck when the ships foundered in a storm. The survivors came to shore on or near Galveston Island in November 1528. A combination of disease, exposure, and Indians attacks whittled the approximately 100 survivors down to four. [2] Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, and Dorantes' Moorish slave, Estevanico, eventually banded together. They began an overland odyssey punctuated by seven long years of living off the land and from handouts of local Indians. In the summer of 1535, Cabeza de Vaca and his motley entourage waded the Rio Grande near the confluence of that river with the Rio Conchos (near Presidio, Texas). Plodding westward, they crossed the backbone of the Sierra Madres where by happenstance they bumped into Spanish military. [3]

The quartet appeared before Nuno de Guzmán, provincial governor of Nueva Galicia. Later Cabeza de Vaca's group visited Mexico City, where they had an interview with Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza. Mendoza listened as de Vaca related how they had acquired "undeniable indications of gold, antimony, iron, and copper, and other metals." [4] Cabeza de Vaca's epic journey spawned lurid stories of immense riches said to be located in Texas and New Mexico. Moreover, de Vaca's report confirmed the presence of a large land mass between Florida and Mexico, provided knowledge about Indians and Indian trails in the region, and led directly to the missionary work of the Southwest. [5]

Spanish authorities reacted cautiously to the gilded report. Two years elapsed before a pair of priests, Fathers Fray Juan de la Asunción and Fray Pedro Nadal, undertook a reconnaissance to locate the Seven Cities of Cibola. The priests may have traveled as far north as the Gila River in Arizona before turning back. The next year Mexico's viceroy commissioned Fray Marcos de Niza to reconnoiter the northern territory. [6] The appointment of Fray Marcos to search for the Seven Cities was based on Marcos' credentials as a navigator, his experiences in dealing with Indians, and his work as a cosmographer. Marcos assembled his diminutive command at Culiacán, located on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The exploratory group included laybrother, Fray Honorato, [7] a few Indians, and Estevanico, the black slave who accompanied Cabeza de Vaca on his eight-year wanderings. [8] Relations between Estevanico and Fray Marcos deteriorated. Estevanico's flamboyant demeanor (he adorned himself with brilliant feathers, plumes, and bells) and his confident attitude of superiority clashed with the pious, dull Marcos. When Estevanico added a cortege of Indian females to his camp, Marcos retaliated by sending the black forward, to examine the land and to keep him apprised of what he discovered. [9]

In order to maintain communications with Estevanico, Fray Marcos deployed a system based on the crucifix. Should Estevanico possess good news he was to send an Indian back to Marcos with a cross the size of a man's palm. If the discovery of a rich province occurred, a runner would return to the friar with a crucifix twice the size of a palm, and if the discovery rivaled New Spain, a larger cross. [10] Imagine the expression on Fray Marcos' face when an Indian courier shortly appeared carrying a cross "as high as a man." The Indian runner declared that Estevanico wanted Fray Marcos to hurry forward, that Estevanico had encountered Indians who had visited a province and a city called Cíbola, and it was "the greatest province in the world." [11]

Marcos hurried on, following the slave's path. More crosses, more Indians, foretold of an immense and wealthy province. When Marcos ranged within two or three days of the province, he encountered an Indian who possessed "the deepest sadness in his whole person." The Franciscan was horrified to learn that truculent Zunis had killed Estevanico and sent the remainder of his fact-finding expedition fleeing for their lives. According to Fray Marcos, he continued his journey with intentions of gaining a glimpse of Cibola's beauty and magnitude. From a hill overlooking Cibola Fray Marcos paused to view the city. Fray Marcos recorded that "The town is bigger than the city of Mexico." [12] According to Marcos' account, he wanted to visit the city "because I knew that I risked nothing but my life, which I had offered to God the day I commenced the journey." He convinced himself, however, that this irrational course would deny everybody in Mexico information on his revelation. Leaving a pile of stones affixed with a small cross to claim the land for Spain, Marcos quickly retraced his steps and returned to Mexico. [13]

In Mexico City Fray Marcos presented a glowing report of his trip claiming he had found the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola, probably an Indian term for the Zuni pueblos. [14] Fray Marcos' account stirred the imagination of the people of Mexico, for he characterized the city of Cibola as "larger than the city of Mexico . . . the doorways to the houses have many decorations of turquoises, of which there is great abundance." [15] One Indian witness, the friar recounted, said Cibola is "a land rich in gold, silver, and other wealth, and has great cities." [16]

Considerable debate has surfaced over whether Fray Marcos actually glimpsed Cibola. The current thought that washes up indicates the friar never came near the Zuni province. One historian-geographer, Carl O. Sauer, maintains Marcos traveled only as far as southern Arizona, that his report was doctored for use by Mendoza to parry any claims by Mendoza's rival Hernan Cortez. Fray Marcos has his supporters too, among them Adolph Bandelier and Herbert Bolton, so the debate is likely to never end. [17]

Fray Marcos' stories, widely circulated in Mexico, were embellished with each accounting. "The country was so stirred up by the news which the friar had brought from the Seven Cities that nothing else was thought about," reported one Spaniard. So pervasive was the rumor of wealth in the northern territory, that Viceroy Mendoza encountered no problems in finding recruits for an expedition into Cibola. The lucky man to head just such an enterprise was Mendoza's good friend and compatriot, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, newly appointed governor of Nueva Galicia (Guadalajara, Mexico). Coronado like many other Spaniards of his day became addicted to the boundless opportunities offered in the New World. He entered Mexico in 1535, casting his fortunes with Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza.

Coronado represented all that Spain could boast in a cavalier: loyal to the throne, brave beyond a doubt, wealthy, light-complexioned, and fair-headed. A gutty crew of 300 Spaniards and 800 Indian allies comprised the ranks. Fray Marcos served as guide. Captain-General Coronado departed from his base at Culiacan, on the west coast of Mexico in the middle of April 1540. Coronado's course took him northward into present-day Arizona. On July 7, scouts informed Coronado he was approaching Cibola, probably at the Zuni village of Hawikuh. The inhabitants of Zuni had been warned of the impending menace and prepared to give the Spaniards a proper welcoming. When the Zunis refused to submit to peaceful overtures, the battle-cry "Santiago" signalled the Spanish attack.

Indians shot arrows and hurled rocks at their adversary but to little avail. Within an hour Coronado drove the Zunis inside their walled fort. Wasting little time, the Spaniards catapulted over the walls, drove the Indians from their shelters, and took possession of Cibola. [18] The Battle of Hawikuh (named for one of the six pueblos that comprised the Zuni settlement) was over. The victory was barren. Cibola represented no Incan Empire. No gold-filled rooms or pendants studded with silver greeted the conquerors. Instead, the Spaniards discovered squalid adobe and stone structures reminiscent of the small villages in Mexico. Nonetheless, Coronado remained indefinitely at Zuni to rest and reconnoiter the countryside and the surrounding pueblos.

Meanwhile, the soldiers who had accompanied Coronado vented their anger at Fray Marcos, for it had been Marcos' exaggerated report that prompted many of the Spaniards to enlist in the expedition. Writing to Viceroy Mendoza from Zuni, Coronado acknowledged concern over the safety of the friar reporting, "such were the curses that some hurled at Fray Marcos that I pray God may protect him from them." Coronado, too, felt betrayed by Fray Marcos writing in the same letter that, "It now remains for me to tell about this city and kingdom and province, of which the Father Provincial [Fray Marcos] gave your Lordship an account. In brief, I can assure you that in reality he has not told the truth in a single thing that he said, but everything is the reverse of what he said, except the name of the city and the large stone houses." [19] The reality of Cibola shattered Fray Marcos' reputation. Now an outcast among friends, he returned to Mexico at the first opportunity. Despite the spurious reporting of Fray Marcos de Niza, he ranks as a primary figure in Spanish conquest. His journey opened the doors for future Spanish explorations in hitherto uncharted lands. [20]

Rumors of strange bearded men sitting atop huge snorting beasts bedecked in brilliant ornate habiliments had been circulating wildly among the pueblos of New Mexico. The pervasive question asked by every Indian was, who were these omnipotent people who wrought havoc and destruction to everything they touched. And what kind of mystical powers did they possess, so deadly that they destroyed their enemies by merely aiming a magic stick?

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Last Updated: 10-Apr-2001