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Coronado: Misfortune's Explorer


    Students will examine the experiences of Francisco Vázques de Coronado and his men, as recorded by Pedro Castañeda, by examining three incidents on their futile journey to find the legendary seven cities of Cíbola.

    Worksheet questions stem from a variety of learning styles so that each student has the opportunity to shine. Teachers may also modify and easily incorporate these worksheets into their predesigned lesson plans.

    The web links provided will help each instructor prepare, present, and highlight primary sources.


Coronado: Misfortune's Explorer

by Vale Fitzpatrick


For the Spanish, the existence of a North American city such as Cíbola, which was purported to contain great wealth, seemed entirely plausible. In fact, they expected such a city to exist based on their experiences in Latin America. For example, Hernando Cortés subjugated the fabulously wealthy Aztec empire in Mexico. While in Peru, Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incan empire, securing its vast wealth for Spain. Thus, it seemed logical to expect the lands north of Mexico to contain great riches. When Cabeza de Vaca brought rumors that such a place existed, Spanish officials were ready to act, backing a large expedition to search for the hidden cities.

Little is known about the author, Pedro Castañeda, other than he was stationed at Culiacan in northern Mexico when Coronado’s expedition was organized. In a 1554 claim against the Spanish treasury, it is discovered that he was a native of Biscayan in northern Spain, and was a father of eight surviving children. At the time he wrote, twenty or more years had passed since the expedition. His stated goal in writing this manuscript was to provide a history of the expedition. Castañeda stated it is a “worthy ambition for great men to desire to know and wish to preserve for posterity correct information.”1 He was further concerned that people with no knowledge of the events were spreading misinformation and misinterpreting events. He was worried that history would forget their accomplishments and how they had toiled and suffered in the futile search for Cíbola. He claimed of his writings that, while “not polished in style,” he had described what happened; “what he heard, experienced, saw, and did.”2

The original Castañeda manuscript has been lost, but a copy made in 1596 survives, and is the only period manuscript of such detail on the Coronado Expedition. Without this account there would be no primary source detailing the Coronado expedition other than a few scattered letters and official reports, leaving this episode lost in the fog of history. The manuscript was translated into English by George Parker Winship in 1896, and is still viewed as the benchmark by which other translations are measured. It is this version which is used for the PSA.

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For his expedition Coronado assembled an army of 370 Spaniards, half of whom were cavalry, and several hundred Indian allies. They marched to Háwikuh, a village in what is now western New Mexico, where they found no city of gold, but hostile Pueblo Indians. Coronado attacked and took the city on July 7, 1540. Coronado refused to give up on rumors of Cíbola and sent out search parties. One expedition lead by Captain Hernando de Alvarado returned with two Indians, the Turk, so called because he looked Turkish, and Ysopete. The Turk encouraged Coronado with tales of lands to the north with abundant gold and silver. With the Turk as his guide, Coronado lead his army in search of Quivira. At the direction of the Turk, the army ascended the Llano Estacado, and marched forward into a sea of grass. Castañeda remarked, “More than 1,500 friendly Indians and servants in traveling over those plains, would leave no more trace where they had passed than if nothing had been there, nothing. The grass never failed to become erect after it had been trodden down, and although it was short, it was as fresh and straight as before.”3 Coronado sent out scouting parties and used ship compasses to navigate as he marched his expedition in a northeasterly direction in search of Quivira. During this journey Coronado ceased to trust the Turk, though he still hopped to find Quivira.

When they reached Palo Duro Canyon, the end of the seemingly limitless Llano Estacado was a welcome relief to the Spaniards. Their luck, however, did not change, and they were struck by a massive thunderstorm. They were lashed by strong winds, stung by rain and pelted by hailstones “as big as bowls and larger.” Further, “the hail dented helmets, knocked holes in tents, broke crockery and stampeded horses.”4

After crossing the Arkansas River, Coronado’s expedition reached the Village of Quivira near the modern town of Lindsborg, Kansas. Instead of legendary cities of silver and gold, Coronado found only the grass huts and cornfields of the Wichita Indians. Coronado was disgusted by the Turk’s lies, and with his soldiers demanding vengeance, ordered the Turk executed.

Depressed with his failure Coronado led his men back to Háwikuh where they wintered before returning to Mexico. There Coronado suffered a serious injury horse racing, when his saddle girth broke and he was trampled, receiving a severe blow to the head. He was “never quite the same.”5 Coronado’s expedition was considered a failure by himself, Viceroy Mendoza, and other officials of New Spain. Although the expedition provided information on land, Indians, and natural resources, it failed to find any riches.

It should be noted that despite the expedition’s failure, Coronado’s leadership was “generally quite good,” and his losses in men and material were quite small-especially compared to the record of Pánfilo de Narváez.6 His expedition helped the Spanish understand the vastness of the territory between New Spain and California. Previous maps showed little territory between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Coronado’s expedition provided basic geographical information that would, in time, enable Spain to establish colonies in Texas and New Mexico.7 Coronado would never earn the riches he desired, but Castañeda’s manuscript ensured that the ill-fated expedition would be remembered.




1Pedro Castañeda, The Journey of Coronado 1540-1542: from the City of Mexico to the Grand Canon of the Colorado and the Buffalo Plains of Texas, Kansas and Nebraska Translator: George Parker Winship (New York: Allerton Book Co., 1904), xxx.

2Castañeda, xxxii.

3Castañeda, 140.

4Castañeda, 69.

5Donald E. Chipman, Explorers and Settlers of Texas (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), 29.

6Donald E. Chipman, Spanish Texas 1519-1821 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 39.

7Chipman, 29.