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Background to the Coronado Expedition

Background to the Coronado Expedition: The Spanish Frontier and the Power Struggles of the 1530s

This material is adapted from passages in the novel, Cities of Gold (2002). Copyright, William K. Hartmann

Understanding the Southwest's first contact between Natives and Europeans requires us to see today's borderlands as the conquistadors did -- terra incognito, beyond the northern frontier. Cortés had conquered the Aztecs of Mexico City in 1520 (or as they called themselves in the 1500s, Mexica, pronounced me-SHEE-ca), and Pizarro had conquered the Incas of Peru in 1533. Fabulous wealth had been found in both places. By the mid 1530s, young, would-be conquistadors were dreaming up new schemes of conquest as they cooled their heels in devastated Mexico City, which was essentially destroyed during Cortés' attacks. They simply assumed that another gold-rich empire lay over the horizon waiting its turn to be conquered by Europe and Christianity.

New World Beach

Columbus discovered America in 1492. Spanish activities were headquartered in Cuba for the next few decades. From 1492 until the Coronado Expedition, most Spaniards thought that Cuba, Yucatan, and even Mexico were probably islands (the "Indies") off the east coast of Asia. Painting by William K. Hartmann.

In 1536, a pivotal event transpired. Into Spanish slave-raiding camps in southern Sonora wandered four survivors of a 1528 shipwreck on the Texas coast near Galveston: Álvar Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, and Dorantes' Moorish servant Estevan, and a fourth Spaniard. They had survived among Indian tribes for eight years, wandering in the wilderness of the west Texas and along what is now the U.S.-Mexico border. They worked their way west, establishing themselves as traveling shamans, especially with the help of the charismatic Estevan, whom they called "the black." Somewhere near the present-day border, they picked up rumors of a major trading center, north of their route. Dorantes was even given a copper bell, said to come from this wealthy area. Based on the copper bell, the wanderers surmised that the mysterious northern city had metal-working centers. (This was incorrect. The bell had actually been traded north from central Mexico to the pueblo towns of what is now New Mexico; it had then found its way south, by trade, into the hands of Dorantes. Several examples of such large, incised copper bells are known from archaeological studies.)

Archaeologists have found many copper bells from late prehistoric ruins (ca. 1300-1500) in the of Cabeza de Vaca's route. The small bells (size of a quarter) are more common. The large one matches the description of the bell given to Dorantes. These bells came from village sites in SE Arizona. (Arizona State Museum).Archaeologists have found many copper bells from late prehistoric ruins

Map of NW Mexico and SW United States

Map of NW Mexico and SW United States, showsestimated route of the shipwrecked Cabeza de Vaca party from Texasalong the present day border and S into Sonora. They reached a river where, in order to get to Sonora, they had to travel 17 days N and 17 days W through poor country to get around the Sierra Madre Mountain range. Once they had turned S, they reported good country and prosperous villages with maize, deer meat, and other food. Also, in the mid-1530s, Cortez had already begun probing N along the coast into the Gulf of California.


Eventually, in 1536, the castaways stumbled onto a party of Spanish soldiers on the frontier of "New Spain." By that time, the northern frontier of "New Spain" was far to the south, only half way up present-day Mexico. Here, in the southern part of present-day Sonora, Governor Nuño Guzman's troops were raiding native villages for slaves. Nobody knew what lay further north. The castaways' news of a northern trade center confirmed the dreams of the Spaniards in Mexico City an