Afterthoughts of Coronado

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If today there is one name associated with the Spanish colonial Southwest that remains familiar to most well-read Americans, it is that of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. As the individual who led the first large scale expedition into the region, 1540-1542, he emerges from the pages of history as a larger than life figure, whose record appears almost mythic in its dimensions. Born into a family of the lesser nobility in the medieval city of Salamanca, Coronado, at age 25, accompanied in 1535 the recently appointed viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, to his new post in Mexico City. As a member of the upper class, Coronado qualified for a well-paid job in the royal government, that of inspector of silver mines. Within three years, Mendoza advanced him to the governorship of New Galicia, a wealthy province in western New Spain centered upon the city of Guadalajara. Shortly after, Coronado married the wealthy and beautiful Beatriz de Estrada, daughter of the late treasurer of the viceroyalty, who was reputed to be an illegitimate son of the king of Spain. “In this left-handed way,” wrote historian Herbert E. Bolton, “Coronado was now linked with royalty.” By the late 1530s, rumors had reached the viceregal capital that treasure-laden cities of the Indians lay far to the north, beyond the frontier. Mendonza was interested but skeptical. So he sent a small party led by Fray Marcos de Niza to have a look.

The report that came back was optimistic, even though it appears that Fray Marcos, after traveling up the east side of Arizona, had managed to view from a distance only one of the six Zuni pueblos. His fertile imagination may have transformed that place into something grand. It was enough for Viceroy Mendoza to select his protege, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, as head of a major expedition to explore the vast north country. Those who joined the lofty enterprise were required to put up a substantial amount of money to fund it, since the royal government was unwilling to do so. Mendoza, though, did contribute some of his own personal funds to meet the expedition’s staggering expenses. Coronado drew upon his rich wife’s dowry for his part. The officers and men, in their eagerness to participate, borrowed huge sums and mortgaged landed property, so that an estimated half million silver pesos was raised to outfit and provision the venture. The outcome produced not the expected vast material rewards, but only disappointment, disillusion and bankruptcy. Coronado’s wanderings through Arizona, across the pueblo country of New Mexico and into the Great Plains as far as Kansas yielded nothing of immediate value. Returning to New Mexico by autumn 1542, the Spaniards settled into their second winter camp on the Rio Grande. Still the ever-powerful conquistador, Coronado contemplated continuing his explorations come spring.

Then tragedy struck. On a church feast day, he and Capt. Rodrigo Maldonado for amusement got up a horse race between them. In midstride, Coronado’s cinch broke, he fell to the ground, and a flying hoof caught him in the head. For days, he lingered near death, then began a slow recovery. Afterward, he was seemingly a changed man — weak, unsure, even in the perpetual daze. Coronado’s only thought now was a swift return home. Back in central New Spain, he faced removal from his governorship of New Galicia. Worse yet was his indictment on 33 charges of mismanaging the high-flying expedition. One of the charges accused him of inflicting unnecessary cruelties upon the Pueblo Indians. The assorted failures hounded Coronado to his death 12 years later at age 44. Although his exploration had revealed much new information on the geography and native people of the present-day Southwest, that fact was little appreciated at the time. Indeed, not until the 20th century did the full Coronado story emerge, to be at last recognized as a dramatic and sobering chapter in North American history. That became evident during the expedition’s 400th observance when New Mexico and neighboring states fielded the two-year long Coronado Centennial (1940-1942). The popular enthusiasm displayed on that occasion led to the wide name recognition Francisco Vasquez de Coronado enjoys to this day.