Photo: Painting of the Coronado expedition

An 1898 painting by Frederic Remington portrays Spanish explorer Francisco Vazquez de Coronado on his ill-fated quest in 1541 to find the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola. The expedition, which included hundreds of soldiers and Native American guides, lasted two years and traversed some 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) of the American West. In the end, no cities of gold were found, and Coronado returned empty-handed and in debt.

Photograph by MPI/Getty Images

By Willie Drye

In 1539, Friar Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan priest, reported to Spanish colonial officials in Mexico City that he’d seen the legendary city of Cibola in what is now New Mexico. It was an electrifying statement—Spanish explorers who were scouring the New World for Native American treasure had heard persistent tales of the fantastic wealth of the so-called Seven Cities of Cibola.

“It is situated on a level stretch on the brow of a roundish hill,” the friar said. “It appears to be a very beautiful city, the best that I have seen in these parts.” The priest acknowledged, however, that he had only seen the city from a distance and had not entered it because he thought the Zuni Indian inhabitants would kill him if he approached.

But when a large and expensive Spanish expedition returned to the area in 1541, they found only a modest adobe pueblo that wasn’t anything resembling what the priest described. The expedition turned out to be a ruinous misadventure for those involved—including famed conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, who led it.

“Virtually everyone, including the leader, returned to Mexico City heavily in debt,” says New Mexico author Richard Flint, who, with his wife, Shirley Cushing Flint, has written five books about Coronado. “A number of those people never recovered financially.”

What Did the Friar See?

For five centuries, scholars have debated what de Niza saw when he claimed he’d found Cibola—or whether he simply told Spanish officials what they wanted to hear.

The great wealth the Spaniards took when they conquered the Aztec of Central America and the Inca of South America only fueled beliefs that still more riches lay somewhere in the interior of what is now the United States. So when Friar de Niza said he’d seen Cibola, Spanish officials were eager to believe him.

“We don’t know what he saw or why he said what he did,” said Denise Shultz, a park ranger at Coronado National Memorial in Hereford, Arizona. A generous interpretation of de Niza’s vision is that he saw the pueblo at dawn or dusk and was fooled by the flattering sunlight at that time of day, which bathed the city in a glow that made him think the buildings were made of gold, she says.

Flint is less charitable about de Niza’s statement. “He probably did not see [the city],” Flint says. Instead, he says, the priest probably only passed along a tale he heard from Indians.

Coronado’s men were furious when they saw the Zuni village. “On beholding it, the army broke forth with maledictions on Friar Marcos de Niza,” one of Coronado’s men said. “God grant that he may feel none of them.”

Instead of returning to Mexico City, Coronado pushed on. For months, his expedition followed an Indian guide hundreds of miles farther to present-day Kansas before giving up the search for Cibola.

“It’s very difficult to say that another person would have done anything different,” Flint says. “But people lost a lot of money, so they weren’t happy.”

“By Spanish standards, they needed a scapegoat,” Shultz says. “He was the captain, so he was the one who wound up taking the brunt of the blame. That’s my interpretation. He failed miserably.”

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