In the wake of Coronado


In 1887 the Rev. James H. Defouri, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Santa Fe, published a small book titled “Historical Sketch of the Catholic Church in New Mexico.”
In its pages, he wrote that at the conclusion of the Coronado expedition, as it was preparing to leave New Mexico, many of the soldiers and even some officers who were unwilling to go, deserted the army and remained at Tiguex (the American Indian province in the vicinity of modern Sandia Pueblo). In doing so, they founded the first European colony.
Defouri also indicated that members of this little colony went on to lay the foundations for Santa Fe in 1543. Clearly, he had misread the few documents then available on the Coronado enterprise, thereby starting myths that proved hard to dispel.
Some 60 Spaniards, in fact, wished to remain on the upper Rio Grande, but contrary to Defouri’s claim, they did not do so because Coronado forbade it. Thus there was no mass desertion, and the majority of the expedition participants departed New Mexico in April 1542.
Left behind, nevertheless, were two Franciscan missionaries, Fray Juan de Padilla and the elderly Luis de Ubeda, plus a Portuguese layman, Andres do Campo, along with a handful of Indigenous Mexican assistants and servants.
The central figure in what followed was the friar, Padilla. Born in the southern Spanish province of Andalucia in about 1500, he joined the Franciscan Order as a young man and came to New Spain (Mexico) in 1520 to serve as a missionary.
In that environment, according to the late Fray Angelico Chavez, he developed “a certain visionary spirit.” Its basis was an ancient legend that told of seven Portuguese bishops, who, with their people, fled to a new land beyond the western ocean when the Moors from Africa invaded Iberia.
There they established the Seven Cities of Gold that grew in wealth and fame, while losing contact with Europe. Spaniards traveling in the Caribbean kept a lookout for them, as did Cortez in Mexico. Missionaries, among them Franciscans, also hoped to discover the
Utopian cities.
That was also in the back of Coronado’s mind when he launched his expedition northward. Finding mineral riches and bringing Indigenous populations under the flag of Spain, however, remained his principal objectives.
The previous year, Fray Marcos de Niza, having undertaken a reconnaissance mission to the north, reported back on the existence of seven large cities, but he had seen only two of them at a distance. Were these the Seven Cities of Antiquity?
Coronado meant to find out.
When Fray Juan de Padilla learned of the pending expedition, he sought out the leader, Coronado, and begged to go along as chaplain. His offer was accepted.
The dramatic story is well-told in history books: how Coronado, upon reaching the cluster of Zuni pueblos, found them to be far less than what Fray Marcos had described. They were certainly not the famed Seven Cities.
After spending a harsh winter on the Rio Grande, the Spaniards explored eastward onto the Great Plains, hoping to discover a resplendent kingdom called Quivira, described to them by a Native at Pecos Pueblo.
Upon finding in central Kansas only Wichita tribes living in grass houses, they returned to New Mexico in disappointment once more.
The following spring, as the main expedition was departing this barren north country, Fray Luis de Ubeda began missionary work at the pueblo of Pecos. Fray Juan de Padilla and his small party left for Quivira at the same time. With him was Do Campo, of Portugal, whom the friar seems to have thought would be needed as an interpreter should the Seven Cities be encountered beyond Quivira.
As best as we can tell, Fray Juan and his party located the Wichitas (or Quivirans) in the middle of present day Kansas. But the tribe turned on him and he fell, shot full of arrows.
Do Campo and two of the Mexican “Indians” escaped south and eventually reached the Spanish frontier. In blood-chilling terms, they recounted the death of Fray Juan de Padilla, whose slaying they had witnessed from a hilltop.
Four miles west of Lyons, Kan. on U.S. Highway 56 is a roadside park with a 30-foot marble cross honoring the lamented friar. Kansans claim that Padilla was the first Christian to suffer martyrdom within the boundaries of the United States. The exact spot where he died has never been determined.