Francisco Vazquez de Coronado
Francisco Vazquez de Coronado was born in 1510 in Salamanca, Spain. His father was corregidor of Burgos, Spain, and patron of a sizable estate. Because of Spain's law of primogeniture, the family heir was Gonzalo, the eldest son, not Francisco. When he was twenty-five years of age, Francisco sought fame and fortune by joining the party of Antonio de Mendoza, the newly designated Viceroy of New Spain. Coronado was a favorite of Mendoza and rose rapidly in prominence in the inner circle of society in Mexico City. In 1537 he married Dona Bertriz, the daughter and heiress of Alonso de Estrada, the former Treasurer of New Spain and an alleged illegitimate son of King Ferdinand of Spain. That same year Coronado distinguished himself in leading an expedition to put down a local uprising near the capital city. Early in 1538, at the age of twenty eight, he was appointed to the city council of Mexico City. In August 1538, Mendoza appointed Coronado Governor of Nueva Galicia.
The governor of Nueva Galicia was the key official in the development of the Northwestern frontier of New Spain. As governor, Coronado replaced strongman Nuno de Guzman, who had fallen out of favor due to his ruthless policies in dealing with the native inhabitants of the region. The Viceroy's primary interest in the northwest at the time of Coronado's appointment was what kind of follow-up should be made as a result of Cabeza de Vaca's account of his journey across North America. Rumors of great wealth in the Seven Lost Cities of Cibola were circulating widely in New Spain and although there were doubts as to their veracity, Mendoza eventually decided that he must mount some sort of an expedition to determine once and for all if there was another rich civilization located to the north of New Spain. The example of Pizzarro and Cortes earlier discoveries was very much in everybody's mind at the time.
Franciscan Fray Marcos de Niza, was sent north with Estephan, one of the men who had accompanied Cabeza de Vaca during his eight year odyssey. Their mission was to be a reconnaissance. If they found anything to substantiate the rumors of wealth a more extensive expedition was to be mounted. Marcos and Estephan left Culiacan early in March 1539. They travelled north through Sinaloa to the small settlement of Vacapa where Estephan was sent ahead while Fray Marcos celebrated Easter with the native inhabitants. Estephan sent back messengers with encouraging word and Fray Marcos followed. The trail led into what is now the American southwest somewhere in the vicinity of the border between Arizona and New Mexico. There Fray Marcos received word that Estephan had been killed by the native inhabitants of a place that Fray Marcos identified as one of the Seven Cities of Cibola. Fray Marcos never ventured into the pueblo where Estephan was killed, but did formally claim all Seven Cities of Cibola on behalf of Viceroy Mendoza and the Charles V, the Spanish Emperor. He named it El Nuevo Reino de San Francisco (The New Kingdom of San Francisco).
On his return to Nueva Galicia in late June 1539, Fray Marcos reported to Coronado at Compostela. He told the governor of a land of riches beyond belief. Coronado and Fray Marcos hurried to Mexico City where they consulted with Viceroy Mendoza in great secrecy. By the end of summer word of Fray Marcos' report had leaked out into the general public and stimulated enormous interest throughout New Spain. A number of prominent persons began lobbying for position to undertake the conquest of the new El Dorado. The Viceroy still harbored serious suspicions, but once again decided that he must act on the report. (One of Mendoza's worries at the time was Hernando de Soto's activities in Florida. Mendoza feared that De Soto might strike westward and reach Cibola before he could.) Ever cautious, the Viceroy ordered Melchior Diaz, Alcade of Culiacan, to take a small group of horsemen and follow-up on Fray Marcos reports. (Due to the distances involved in the communication, Diaz did not leave Culiacan until November 17, 1539.)
In Mexico City the Viceroy began organizing the Cibola expedition with the intention of leading it himself. Some three hundred Spaniards and eight hundred natives joined the venture that was entirely financed with private funds. Both Mendoza and Coronado invested heavily in it. Coronado had to mortgage his wife's property to obtain his share of the money for the venture. Other principal members of the expedition also invested their funds. The rank and file were paid salaries and promised a share in the plunder after the "royal fifth" had been sent off to the king in Spain. In January 1540 Mendoza decided not to lead the adventure after all and appointed Coronado Captain General in charge of the Cibola Expedition. The final review for the Cibola expedition was held in Compostela on February 22, 1540, with both Mendoza and Coronado present. On February 23 the expedition departed Compostela on the historic march which was to last two years.
Fray Marcos was an important part of Coronado's inner circle of command and guided the party north following the trail that he and Estephan had traversed in 1539. At Chiametla, Coronado met Melchior Diaz who was returning south from his scouting expedition. Diaz reported that he had traveled north to the vicinity of the Gila River and had found nothing of interest. He was unable to proceed as far as Fray Marcos and Estephan because of snow but he did question the native population about the region to the north. Much of their information seemed to confirm Fray Marcos' report but they were unaware of any gold or silver. Although Coronado attempted to keep Diaz's report secret at least some word of its disappointing contents leaked out to the rank and file. Fray Marcos stepped in to reassure Coronado and his followers that they were sure to find great wealth if they pressed on to Culiacan.