On to Quivera!

The largest overland exploring expedition ever undertaken in the Americas set off from Western Mexico in February of 1540. It was organized by a young West Mexican governor, Francisco Váquez de Coronado (1510-54), a Spanish nobleman originally from Salamanca. At one time the expedition may have included several thousand people, five hundred horses, and several thousand head of other livestock. Most of the explorers were “Indian allies” armed with macanas (obsidian tipped clubs) and other lethal native weapons. The European members of the party, several hundred strong, were largely from Spain. They owned their own warhorses, miscellaneous armor, crossbows, and other equipment—in some cases these were all that they owned. And infantrymen had even less.

[right] Map showing the path of Coronado's expedition.

Why did they march off into an unknown world? Largely because it was unknown. This was one of three major Spanish expeditions in the early 1540s—the others were Juan Cabrillo’s exploration of the California coast and Hernando de Soto’s march through what would become the US South--that together would investigate much of what would become the United States. Explorers hoped to find riches, perhaps the fabled lost Christian “Seven Cities of Cibola” in the golden land of Quivera. Perhaps there would be a “New Mexico,” a rival to the Aztec capital Tenochtitlan (Mexico City). The five Franciscan friars were probably more interested in finding souls to convert—Padre Padilla, refusing to return, would die as a martyr to his faith in far off Kansas.

For the explorers, the results were disappointing. Coronado’s men followed the coast of the Gulf of California northward through Sinoloa and Sonora and then headed northeast through southern Arizona into New Mexico, where they wintered near Albuquerque. In May of 1541 they climbed onto the Llano Estacado, a land “level like the sea.” filled with endless grass and bison. Here they became disoriented. Somewhere in a canyon just below the caprock, the expedition established a base camp, from which Coronado led a selected group off through Oklahoma and into Kansas, a singularly disappointing “Quivera.” The main party left after two or three weeks, retreated toward Pecos where they were rejoined by the Kansas explorers. They returned to New Spain discouraged and much poorer. Yet the 1540s explorers had made an important negative discovery by demonstrating that the great Mesoamerican civilizations had no counterparts further north.

Scholars have long debated about exactly where Coronado crossed the High Plains. Now his route is increasingly clear thanks to archaeological, anthropological, and historical detective work. A key piece of this puzzle has been the discovery of a sixteenth-century encampment in Blanco Canyon (about an hour north of Lubbock).

[above] Albrecht Durer’s portrait of a man-at-arms showing the type of horse the average man could afford. This is a true representation of a horse used for war. Graphische Sammlung Albertina from the Mathes Collection.

[above] Mounted Crossbowman, with Cranequin Crossbow, and a Quarrel in his hat. Philipp Lonicerus.  Insignia Sacrae Maiestatis, Principvm Electorum.  Frankfurt: Sig. Feyerabendt, 1579.  From the Mathes Collection.

The Age of Expedition -- Expedition -- Coronado -- Flora and fauna

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