The Search for Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold
In the 15 th century, the Age of Discovery began in Europe. The maritime empires of Spain and Portugal led the way by financing naval expeditions across the world’s oceans. Their rediscovery of the New World, the exploration of the West African coast, and their discovery of the ocean route to the East brought great wealth to the two fledgling maritime empires. Coupled with the thirst for exploration was a hunger for gold, so when local legends spoke of Cibola, the seven cities of gold, this would inevitably spur adventurous conquistadors to launch expeditions in search of the elusive cities.
The legend of Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold, may have had its origins in an earlier legend concerning the fate of Don Rodrigo of Spain when he lost his kingdom to the Muslims in the 8 th century A.D. It is said that the king took seven bishops as well as a number of people and sailed to an island called Antilia. On that island, each bishop built a city, whilst the ships and navigational instruments were burnt to prevent the people from returning to Spain.
Map of North America published by Henry Chatelain for the 1720 edition of his seminal Atlas Historique. It includes references to Quivra (Quivira) just west of the Mississippi, and Cibola in New Mexico. Both Quivira and Cibola are among the “Seven Cities of Gold” sought after by early Spanish explorers in the North America. ( Wikimedia Commons )
The legend was revived in the 1530s, when four survivors of the ill-fated Narváez expedition managed to return to New Spain. This expedition, which began in 1527, was aimed at the colonization of Florida. In 1528, whilst attempting to sail from Mexico to Florida, the crew was shipwrecked on the coast of Texas. The men who survived were captured by the indigenous people. After four years in captivity, the men managed to escape, and for the next four years wandered across what is today the southern United States. When they finally encountered Spanish soldiers at Sinaloa in modern day Mexico, only four men were left, out of an initial force of 600. Through their years of wandering, the men encountered numerous indigenous tribes, and one of the legends they heard was about seven cities laden with gold, said to be located somewhere in the Sonoran Desert.
According to legend, the seven cities of gold could be found in the Sonoran Desert, Arizona. Photo source: BigStockPhoto
In 1539, the Viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza, sent one of the survivors, a North African slave named Esteban de Dorantes, and a Franciscan priest, Marcos de Niza, on an expedition to find the Seven Cities. During this expedition, Esteban was reportedly murdered by the Zunis he encountered, whilst Marcos managed to return to Mexico City, where he reported that he saw one of the cities of Cibola from a distance. He did not enter the city, however, as he was afraid that he would suffer the same fate as Esteban.
A painting by Frederic Remington of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado and his army on the march to find Cibola. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Believing the priest’s story, the Viceroy decided to commission a larger expedition in the following year, this time under the leadership of the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Hence, in February 1940, Coronado led 350 Spanish soldiers and between 900 and 1300 indigenous allies north in search of the Seven Cities. This expedition, which lasted about two years, was an utter failure. Instead of finding great cities with walls made of gold, Coronado and his men only found modest indigenous villages with walls of adobe mud. As a result, many men, including Coronado himself, became bankrupt when the expedition returned to Mexico City empty handed.
Conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado launched an expedition for the Seven Cities of Gold. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Although Coronado and his men failed in their quest to find the Seven Cities of Gold, they would not return empty handed. Their journey took them through the modern day states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Kansas, which Coronado claimed for Spain, thus preventing other European powers from attempting to colonize the American southwest.
Map of the Coronado Expedition route. Led by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, from 1540 through 1542. ( Wikimedia Commons )
Nevertheless, Coronado returned to government furious that he had not brought back the wealth he had promised. Coronado never mounted another expedition and died believing that he had been a shameful failure.