The 16th-century Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (c. 1510-1554) was serving as governor of an important province in New Spain (Mexico) when he heard reports of the so-called Seven Golden Cities located to the north. 

In 1540, Coronado led a major Spanish expedition up Mexico’s western coast and into the region that is now the southwestern United States. Though the explorers found none of the storied treasure, they did discover the Grand Canyon and other major physical landmarks of the region, and clashed violently with local Indians. With his expedition labeled a failure by Spanish colonial authorities, Coronado returned to Mexico, where he died in 1554.

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado’s Early Life and Career

Born circa 1510 into a noble family in Salamanca, Spain, Coronado was a younger son, and as such did not stand to inherit the family title or estate. As such, he decided to seek his fortune in the New World. In 1535, he traveled to New Spain (as Mexico was then known) with Antonio de Mendoza, the Spanish viceroy, whom his family had ties with from his father’s service as royal administrator in Granada.

Did you know? A string of Indian settlements built near what is now west-central New Mexico (near the Arizona border) by the Zuni Pueblo tribes inspired tales of the Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola, the mythic empire of riches that Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was seeking in his expedition of 1540-42.

Within a year after his arrival, Coronado married Beatriz, the young daughter of Alonso de Estrada, former colonial treasurer. The match earned him one of the largest estates in New Spain. In 1537, Coronado gained Mendoza’s approval by successfully putting down rebellions by black slaves and Indians working in the mines. The following year, he was appointed as governor of the province of Nueva Galicia, a region that comprised much of what became the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit and Sinaloa.

De Coronado’s Search for the Seven Golden Cities

By 1540, reports brought back from explorations made by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and confirmed by missionary Fray Marcos de Niza convinced Mendoza of the presence of vast riches to the north, located in the so-called Seven Golden Cities of Cíbola. 

Excited by the prospect of such immense wealth, Coronado joined Mendoza as an investor in a major expedition, which he himself would lead, of some 300 Spaniards and more than 1,000 Native Americans, along with many horses, pigs, ships and cattle. The main thrust of the expedition departed in February 1540 from Compostela, the capital of Nueva Galicia.

Four arduous months later, Coronado led an advance group of cavalrymen to the first city of Cíbola, which in reality was the Zuni Pueblo town of Hawikuh, located in what would become New Mexico. When the Indians resisted Spanish efforts to subdue the town, the better-armed Spaniards forced their way in and caused the Zunis to flee; Coronado was hit by a stone and wounded during the battle. 

Finding no riches, Coronado’s men set out on further explorations of the region. During one of these smaller expeditions, García López de Cárdenas became the first European to sight the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River in what is now Arizona. Another group, led by Pedro de Tovar, traveled to the Colorado Plateau.

Failure of Expedition and Coronado’s Return to Mexico

Coronado’s reunited expedition spent the winter of 1540-41 on the Rio Grande at Kuana (near modern-day Santa Fe). They fought off several Indian attacks, and in the spring of 1541 moved into Palo Duro Canyon, in modern-day Texas. Coronado himself then led a smaller group north in search of another rumored store of riches at Quivira (now Kansas), only to be disappointed again when all they found was another Indian village.

Coronado returned to Mexico in 1542 and resumed his post in Nueva Galicia, but his wealth had been greatly depleted and his position was far more tenuous than before. Mendoza publicly dismissed the expedition as a failure, and two separate investigations were opened into Coronado’s conduct as its leader. He was largely cleared of all charges, but was removed from his governorship in 1544 and spent the last decade of his life as a member of the city council of Mexico City.