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Western wanderings: our man on the Coronado trail.


Coronado and the lost cities of gold

* In search of the fabled glory of the conquistadores, I'm steering down State Highway 92 in Palominas, Arizona. Palominas has a pink-and-yellow circus tent advertising a Full Gospel Crusade Miracle Service. It also has an ostrich farm, be- cause as we approach the millennium, ostrich farms are spreading across the length and width of our great republic.

Not far from the Miracle Service, the San Pedro River dawdles up from Mexico. It is, here, a desultory trickle of water shaded by cottonwood trees. The Bureau of Land Management has set aside the riverbank as a nature preserve, and I drive down a dirt road to find it. I can tell by the way the car shimmies that although the dirt is crusted dry on top, it is muddy underneath. On the radio someone named Lourdes is dedicating a song to Tom:is because they've had a fight. I worry about ruining my shoes in the mud and want to know what the fight is about. But the desire to follow historic footsteps wins out, so I stop the car and walk around. More than 450 years before, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado strode this riverbank on his journey to immortality.

The journey. In 1535, Coronado, son of a noble Spanish family and protege of the viceroy of Mexico, arrived in Mexico City seeking his fortune. It was a time when ambitious young noblemen found the New World a favorable place to fulfill dreams of imperial conquest. Cortes had lately vanquished the Aztecs, Pizarro the Incas. So when a Franciscan missionary, Fray Marcos de Niza, brought back rumors of a place called Cibola - a kingdom to the north reputed to have seven cities of gold - he was not ignored. The viceroy sent Coronado to explore this promising tierra nueva, or new land.

The resulting expedition has been enshrined as one of the great wildgoose chases of American history. Coronado set out in February of 1540. With him marched 350 Spaniards, 1,000 Mexican Indians, 1,500 horses and mules, and even more cattle and sheep. The journey lasted two years and covered 5,000 miles - from Mexico up through Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma to the Kansas plains. Coronado and his men became the first Europeans to encounter the Zuni and the Hopi. A side expedition became the first to glimpse the Grand Canyon. What they did not find was gold.

There is still a fair amount we don't know about this expedition, including some basic points of territory covered. While most historians agree that Coronado led his men here along the San Pedro River, a few have argued that he entered Arizona to the west, along the Santa Cruz River. The golden kingdom of Cibola turned out to be a Zuni pueblo in New Mexico, which most historians believe is Hawikuh. The site of Quivira, another golden chimera, is not precisely known, but is believed to be somewhere on the Kansas plains. The questions are numerous enough that a few years ago the National Park Service decided against establishing a Coronado National Trail because the conquistador's route could not be fixed with sufficient certainty.

Still, says historian Richard Flint, over the last decade researchers have greatly advanced our understanding of Coronado's expedition. Flint himself has spent almost 20 years working on Coronado, retracing the explorer's route through eastern New Mexico, and probing Spanish archives to learn more about the men who traveled with him. The most tangible discoveries have been the 16th-century crossbow bolt heads unearthed in Blanco Canyon, Texas, in 1993 - the strongest physical evidence yet of Coronado's passage. For Flint, Coronado remains an important man for 20th-century Americans to know, if only because the conquistador and his brethren bear a strong resemblance to us. "They were a very cocksure group of people," he says, "bent on extending their way of living to the rest of the world."

I get back into the car and drive a few miles west toward the Huachuca Mountains, which are denim blue in the afternoon light. Here is where the United States has chosen to locate Coronado National Memorial, although it is almost certain that Coronado would have had no reason to venture into these rough peaks.

Ranger Barbara Alberti says Coronado is a complicated figure to explain. In some ways he was a failure. Having endured a brutal two-year journey with no pot of gold at its end, he returned ailing, his career shattered, and "lacking in many of his former fine qualities," according to one official report.

But in other ways he was a success, and it is that success that we have a harder time justifying. Coronado did not find gold but did change a continent. The country he claimed for Spain became Spanish, its people Spanish subjects. Coronado had been ordered to treat the native peoples with some gentleness, and on occasion he did. On other occasions, the expedition tortured Hopi and Zuni, killed them in battle, and burned other Indians at the stake.

"By the standards of his day," says Flint, "I think Coronado. was one of the better of the conquistadores. By today's standards he becomes a darker figure." Says Alberti, "There is a lot of controversy over whether the expedition was good or bad. But you can't dispute that it happened. We are who we are because of it."

From the visitor center at the memorial, a road bends high into the Huachucas and crests at Montezuma Pass, where you can hike the short trail up Coronado Peak. Along the trail the park service has set up displays about the expedition. A couple of decades old, they evince no ambivalence about Coronado and his kind. They are inscribed in both Spanish and English, the English inflated into florid, Latinate cadences that seem intended to be read aloud by Ricardo Montalban. "They are Conquistadores! With them come the ardent soul of Spain and Mexico!"

We are not as enamored of ardent souls as we once were. The word conquistador echoes with a certain rusty clank. Plumed helmets and cardboard swords no longer figure prominently in elementary school pageants. We are aware that one group's new world is another's ancestral home.

And yet, from the top of Coronado Peak, you find yourself suspending judgment, at least for a moment. The eye sweeps south to Mexico and across the San Pedro Valley to the mountains to the east. Tierra nueva. Somewhere down there is Lourdes and the ostrich farm and the rest of the world called into being by a march of soldiers more than 450 years ago. Coronado's was a journey filled with hardships and unexpected wonders - one that searched for something not found, and found things not appreciated, with consequences that could never have been foreseen. In those ways, bigger than life, it was like life. We are who we are because of it.

Coronado's Southwest

In Arizona, Coronado's entrance into what is now the United States is commemorated at Coronado National Memorial (505/366-5515), about 90 miles southeast of Tucson via 1-10, State 90, and State 92. Highlights include the visitor center, the Montezuma Pass Overlook, and the 1/2-mile trail up Coronado Peak. Lodging and dining is concentrated in Sierra Vista, 20 miles north, and Bisbee, 25 miles east. For information, contact the Sierra Vista Area Chamber of Commerce Convention & Visitors Bureau (800/288-3861) or the Bisbee Chamber of Commerce (520/432-5421).

New Mexico sites include the Acoma Pueblo, 60 miles west of Albuquerque, discovered by a side expedition in 1540; for visitor information, call (505) 470-4967. Hawikuh is not currently open to the public. In Bernalillo, north of Albuquerque, Coronado State Monument (505/867-5351) preserves the ruins of the pueblo of Kuaua, close to where Coronado wintered.

In Floydada, Texas, the Floyd County Historical Museum (806/983-2415) displays crossbow bolt heads believed to be from the Coronado expedition.

Coronado reading. The classic account of the journey is Herbert Bolton's Coronado: Knight of Pueblos and Plains (University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1949; $18.95 paper). Current research is highlighted in The Coronado Expedition to Tierra Nueva, Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint, editors (University Press of Colorado, Niwot, 1997; $45). Stewart Udall and Jerry Jacka's Majestic Journey: Coronado's Inland Empire (Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, 1995; $19.95 paper) is a handsome photo essay on the conquistador's travels.

Centennial Western Wanderings are sponsored in part by Ford Explorer.
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Title Annotation:Mexican explorer Francisco Vasquez de Coronado
Author:Fish, Peter
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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