Coronado’s army had a roll-call on February 22, 1540, at Coronado’s headquarters in Compostela, west of Mexico City and near the coast, exactly 192 years before the birth of George Washington. From eyeing a map, the distance from Compostela to the Mexico/Arizona border looks to be at least two or three times the length of the route from the border to the Zuni Pueblo. The army was probably already tired before they even began what I learned as Coronado’s Expedition.
About halfway along the Mexico portion, Coronado divided his following into two groups: a forward exploratory force of 75-80 horsemen, 25-30 footsoldiers, and some native allies, and the bulk of the “army”, still around 3,000 people and 13,000 animals. Coronado led the exploratory force, while the rest of the army followed behind at a slower pace. The whole company would not be together again until they met at the Zuni Pueblo on July 7, 1540.
As Coronado was making his way up Mexico into present day Arizona, the Viceroy sent three fully loaded ships up the Gulf of California, expecting the ships to rendezvous with Coronado at some point and resupply his forces. The ships not only sailed up the Gulf, but sailed up the Colorado River a considerable distance. Failing to find Coronado, they left a message along the banks and returned home.
Coronado’s forces had fought with the Zuni natives when he arrived. Knowing they were no match for the horses, the blunderbusses, and the cannons, the Zunis evacuated to the top of a nearby mesa. While waiting for the rest of the army to catch up, Coronado sent out explorers to the west, hoping to rendezvous with the ships. Those explorers discovered the Hopi homelands, the Colorado River, and the Grand Canyon. They would also find the spot on the Colorado where the Spanish ships had left their message. The two forces had missed each other by the width of Arizona.
Coronado did not discover the Seven Cities of Gold, but the area did have Six Towns of Wealth. The Zuni excelled at farming, trade, diplomacy and craft technology and had, by aboriginal standards, become extraordinarily wealthy. In 1540, they enjoyed one of the highest standards of living of any people in North America, and were widely known among the native tribes from the Pacific Coast to the central Great Plains. From a poor native’s viewpoint, the Zuni towns were probably an approximation of golden cities.
After Coronado reaches Zuni, the historical narrative is better known. It takes until the end of August for the rest of the army to catch up, after which Coronado moves the full army directly east, passing by Acoma Pueblo and through the lava beds of El Malpais, and establishes their entrada along the Rio Grande River at present-day Bernalillo (north of Albuquerque), where they spend the winter of 1540-1541. In the spring, he takes the full army to the Pecos Pueblo. It is the largest pueblo (about 4000 natives) and may have been the center of the Puebloan Empire.
Coronado finds a guide who witnesses to the great wealth in the city of Quivira, about a thousand miles away in modern day Kansas. In the spring of 1541, Coronado leads the full army to somewhere in the Panhandle of Texas. He finds the land rich with everything except water, discusses his options with his officers, and then sends the full army back to Bernalillo, while he follows the guide with a detachment of thirty men. They make it to around the middle of Kansas and is again disappointed to find that Quivira is a little village of straw huts, full of “bestial people”.
The guide, with a little persuasion, confesses that the story was invented to lure the Spanish out into the Great Plains where they were expected to die. Coronado executes the guide by having him choked to death, wanders around for 25 days, desperately searching for any wealth at all, but eventually heads back to the Rio Grande, a thousand miles away.
Wintering again in Bernalillo, 1541-1542, Coronado and his officers decide to take the whole army to Kansas and explore farther east. Unfortunately, in the spring of 1542, Coronado falls off his horse during a horse race, is kicked in the head, and he’s in a coma for several days. When he recovers, he’s a changed man and becomes obsessed with a prophecy that convinces him that he is dying. Suffering a severe attack of homesickness, he decides not to venture any farther and leads his army back to Mexico.
By the time Coronado gets back to the Viceroy, most of his great company has died, fallen away, or has abandoned him; he makes it into Mexico City with less than a hundred men. Coronado is disgraced, tried and acquitted on account of his treatment of the Zunis and other tribes, and dies in obscurity in 1554 at the age of 44.
For an update on my sheep drive question, a reader sent me a copy of a California Agricultural Extension Service report, written in 1930, the states that “To supply the demand for fresh meat, there was a great influx of sheep from neighboring states and from 1852 to 1857, it is estimated that 551,000 sheep were driven into California from New Mexico.”
That’s more than a half million sheep! How many sheepherders did it take? How many of them walked from New Mexico to California and back, more than once?
I’m finding that my perception of history has a distinct lack of scale to it.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.