Podcast Episode 9: A Cross to Bear Transcript

Hello and welcome to Distant Echoes. New Mexico Episode 9: A Cross to Bear.

I know I promised Esteban’s fate at the end of the last episode, instead I wish to share two stories that are inextricably linked to New Mexico, despite neither taking place there.

From Coronado Knight of Pueblos and Plains 

“Settlers at Santa Marta, near the mouth of the great Magdalena River, which pours its waters northward into the Caribbean Sea, heard the legend of the Gilded Man. It told of a tribe in the south, on the high plateau of Bogota, whose chief was installed by an unusual rite of deep religious significance. He was anointed with oil and sprinkled with gold dust, then being pushed on a raft out upon the sacred lake of Guatavita, he dived into the water and washed off the gleaming metal. As part of the ceremony the natives threw into the lake countless gold ornaments and precious stones as offerings to the gods. The gold-sprinkled chief became known to the Spaniards as El Dorado – the Gilded Man.”

The Spanish had many stories of the wealth “mas alla” just beyond the existing frontier. Another Mexico, another Peru. Ruled by another Montezuma or another Atahualpa. These stories got mixed in with another medieval story.

“In the middle ages, so the old tale ran, seven Portuguese bishops, pressed by the conquering muslims, fled west into the Ocean and founded the Seven Cities of Antilia. Where the Antilies get their name. Even the English had a similar version of this story.”

In some ways these stories would become linked to New Mexico and to Esteban.

Last time we wrapped up the tales of three of the four men that walked across Texas, through parts of New Mexico and Arizona. South through Sonora and back into Nueva Galicia in Mexico. Today we’ll finish the story of Esteban.

Cabeza de Vaca talked a lot about the mineral wealth that he thought he saw to the north, these stories set the Spanish imagination aflame. Perhaps those great cities mentioned would be another Mexico full of gold. These stories and the examples of metalworking he brought back would become conflated with the stories of Antilla.

While the Spanish may have tried to get Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes, or Castillo to lead another expedition to explore the far north, it seems that after losing Florida to the De Soto expedition these three men moved on to other ventures. However in 1536, Esteban would be purchased from Dorantes by viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. It is possible that he even freed Esteban, but the record is sketchy.

Cortez and some of his men were also aware of the rumors de Vaca brought back and were preparing their own expeditions north to California, Florida, and New Mexico, which at the time was called Tierra Nueva.

Mendoza would continue to have trouble getting together a venture to confirm the tales that Cabeza de Vaca had spun. Failing to get enough soldiers for the job, he would inevitably turn to making it a missionary venture instead.

Chosen for this venture was Fray Marcos de Niza. Fray Marcos had been involved in ventures all over South and Central America, including being in Peru during Pizarro’s conquests there. After writings of his previous adventures were published, he was summoned to Mexico City arriving around April 4, 1537 where he would meet with Mendoza and be entrusted to Francisco Vasquez de Coronado who would supervise the expedition. As a note, on the website I have uploaded a map of Coronado’s approximate route.

In total, this first expedition would consist of Fray Marcos, Fray Onorato, and Esteban. In March of 1539 they set out from Culiacán. Their goal were simple, to explore the validity of the stories that Cabeza de Vaca had told. Was there mineral wealth to the north? What about great settlements? If so, what were the prospects for encomiendas in these settlements?

Aside from these questions, the Spanish were still looking for a handful of other things they thought were right around the corner: India, China, and the northwest passage.

Things would start out well for the expedition, retracing Cabeza de Vaca’s steps until they reached Petelan where Fray Onorato would fall ill and be forced to return.

From here the two would continue on to Vacapa. At Vacapa Fray Marcos would send messengers to the coast to get knowledge of the people there. Here they would change the plan. To start, Esteban and Bartolome, a boy that had joined the party from one of the villages along the way, would continue onwards and send messages back to Fray Marcos who would wait behind for these messengers to arrive before following behind the two. This would also allow Esteban to arrange for supplies for Fray Marcos.

They decided on the following system for the importance of the messages. If moderately important they were to send back a cross roughly a palmo in length, a palmo being the width of four fingers, if higher importance two palmos in length, and if it was something bigger than Mexico they were to send back a large cross.

Within a few days Esteban sent back a cross as tall as the man carrying it. It was at this moment that the Spanish learned of a great kingdom of several rich cities to the north, Cibola. Sometimes also called Cévola. This is also the first time Cibola appears in the record. Esteban also said he would wait for the friar. While excited, Fray Marcos continued to wait for the messengers from the coast. When they finally arrived, Fray Marcos quickly set out to catch up with his companions.

Along the way Marcos would gather more information about Cibola, including one nearby kingdom or city Marata which had appeared on ancient Greek maps. Had the Spanish finally found familiar Asian territory?

When he caught up to where the message had been sent from, he learned that Esteban had continued onwards despite their earlier agreement. As a result, Fray Marcos continued on and found another large cross at the next village. Here Esteban promised to wait just past the next uninhabited region, which the Spanish called the despoblado.

Here we face a few different questions on why Esteban didn’t wait like he kept promising he would. One theory is that the two men didn’t like each other, Esteban would accept gifts from the villages they visited, including women. Which the friar would most definitely not have approved of. This is countered by the fact that Esteban made sure that the Friar was well taken care of. Another theory is that Esteban wanted all the credit for the discovery of the next Mexico so he was trying to cut Fray Marcos out.

Either way, Fray Marcos continued on the way to Cibola. Writing about what he heard or saw, including that the coast turned to the west, despite the fact that he probably did not travel to the coast. He continued up the Sonora River, down the San Pedro River, across the Aravaipa Valley, and finally across the Colorado Plateau where he finally arrived in the general area of Cibola. Along the way he heard more tales of the wealth of Cibola, including a description of the houses including the fact that ladders were needed for access, which is most likely not a fact he fabricated.

It was here that he would learn that the Cibolans had killed Esteban. Supposedly it went like this: “During this whole night they did not give us [anything] to eat or drink. The next day [when] the sun was one lance [high] Esteban left the building, and some of the principales with him. Immediately many people came from the ciudad. When [Esteban] saw them, he started to flee, and we [did] too. Right away they gave us these arrow wounds and injuries. We fell down and other dead people fell on top of us. We stayed that way until night without daring to stir. We heard great shouts in the ciudad and saw many men and women who were on the lookout on the roofs. We saw no more of Esteban; rather we believe they shot him with arrows as they did the rest who were traveling with him. And [we believe no one] escaped except us.”

Despite the threat of danger, Fray Marcos continued on reaching a cliff overlooking Hawikuh along the way learning of the Hopi pueblos and hearing of their great wealth. Here he supposedly erected a cross before hurrying back to Spanish territory, arriving sometime in June 1539.

But there is a different question here. As would be revealed later, it is possible that Fray Marcos never traveled to Cibola. He gets many details of the “kingdom” and surrounding provinces wrong. It is possible he turned around after learning that Esteban had been killed. Assuming that his falsehoods would be ignored when the Spanish conquered the great civilization.

His report could be summed up as: the civilizations exist, here are their names, approximate locations, and what the people are like.

Even if he did not majorly exaggerate the stories himself he failed to correct rumors. In some ways he may have seen no harm about the exaggerations if they saved souls too.

From No Settlement No Conquest: “Fourth the assertion that he had seen Cibola from a distance might have seemed to him only a technical untruth. After all, Esteban, the friar’s advance eyes and ears, had surely seen it. Marcos had seen it for weeks in his mind’s eye, in conformance with the vivid and detailed descriptions many declared eyewitnesses had given him as he walked northward through Sonora. His images, though, might have reflected a less than perfect understanding of what his informants tried to convey to him. He and they shared no common language, and plenty of occasion existed for misunderstanding. Sometimes interpreters were available, sometimes not. On at least one occasion Marcos and his informants resorted to pantomime.”

Due to these rumors and an ongoing unemployment issue, getting soldiers for a second expedition was far easier.

In the meantime just to really make sure these rumors were true, he sent Melchior Diaz with a small party while announcing Coronado as the leader. He would proceed north until it got too cold to continue. His discovery would be that Cibola was not as wonderful as previously believed. But the viceroy would not receive this information until after Coronado had left.

A competing expedition, De Soto’s, had departed before Marcos had even returned and many were already far planned.

At this point I think it’s important to take an aside to talk about Spanish exploration in the 16th century. To put it simply, the Spanish had a culture of strict primogeniture, or that the oldest son inherits. This meant that if you were the younger son of a notable family, you had to find your own fortune. For many, going to the New World to seek a fortune was an easier path than staying in Spain. From here they could self fund an expedition to conquer new lands, getting to keep most of the precious metals found, as long as they provided the crown their royal fifth.

Another rule about expeditions of this period was that they were looking for encomiendas. An encomienda, put simply, is a vassalship contract. The encomendero would protect his encomiendas and provide them a “good Christian” education. In exchange, the people of the encomienda would provide tribute. Get a big enough encomienda and you could live the easy life.

The Coronado expedition would follow this in a lot of ways. Although Viceroy Mendoza was sponsoring the expedition it was in some ways funded by the Spanish crown. Making it fall somewhere between a fully state funded expedition and the more traditional self-funded expedition the Spanish usually went with.

Included with the expedition would be a naval component that was supposed to help resupply the expedition along the way, this would be led by Hernando de Alarcon. This was in a lot of ways a compromise as Alarcon had the rights for exploration of the coasts of the Pacific. This only occurred once the king stepped in. In all, all wealth found would be evenly split between the two groups.

Let’s take a moment to discuss how Coronado ended up in New Spain and leading the expedition.

Hailing originally from Salamanca in Spain, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado came to Mexico at the age of 25, following Viceroy Mendoza to the New World. He was the younger son of a prominent family. Shortly after his arrival he would marry Doña Beatriz, the wealthy daughter of the former treasurer of New Spain, Alonso de Estrada. This marriage may have linked Coronado to an illegitimate branch of the Spanish Royal family. In 1538, at the age of 28, he became governor of Nueva Galicia after the previous governor was ousted on corruption charges. Only one year after Cabeza De Vaca returned to Spanish territory, a position he would hold throughout the expedition. He was widely regarded as a talented man from a well-off family. By all accounts he was one of the best choices for this expedition, the best part being he was not one of Cortez’s men.

The goal of this expedition was conquest not just exploration like it had been for Fray Marcos. The Spanish had heard of the unbelievably wealthy seven cities of Cibola and they wanted the encomiendas. In total once Coronado was made leader he took command of some 300 Spaniards, mostly from some kind of wealth, several hundred native allies and their families, and several priests, including Fray Marcos. Among these 300 Spaniards were also at least three of their wives.

Another component of the expedition that is rarely talked about is the nearly 1500 Indian allies that accompanied the expedition. While probably joining for a variety of their own reasons, the exact details of their contracts aren’t known. Some were probably promised wealth, others to keep any prisoners they captured, others still may have been looking for promotion up the social ladders in place. These kinds of allies in such numbers were often the real reason for Spanish success despite the usual portrayal of small groups prevailing against the odds.

Let’s talk about the demographics of the expedition as well. Of the 70% of the expedition where the age is known, almost 90% were between the ages of 13 and 29. So it was overwhelmingly young men. Of their equipment, it was American in construction. 90% of their equipment was Mexican Indian rather than European. Including other supplies it is estimated it cost some 600,000 pesos. At the time, a laborer made about 100 pesos a year. To put it another way, the kings ransom paid for Atahualpa was about half of this amount, after the royal fifth was taken out. It was a huge sum and many men on the expedition went into debt.

To try and keep disruption of such a large group, they moved in smaller units and tried to pay for things in advance.

At Compostela, they made one final muster on February 22, 1540 and took a headcount. These records give us a good idea of how well equipped the Spaniards of the expedition were, such as the number of horses and equipment carried. Viceroy Mendoza even traveled to Compostela to see the expedition off. 

From these records we also learn that there were approximately four mares accompanying the expedition. It had long been a rumor that the tribes of the plains received their horses from those that had escaped the Coronado expedition. While there were probably some that had escaped the Spanish, it is unlikely that a viable population could be formed from this expedition. Furthermore, there is no evidence that the plains tribes had horses until the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries hundreds of years after Coronado.

They also had the requerimiento, a document the Spanish had to read in full to encountered people. Basically, it read become a vassal by choice or by force. A full reading of one such document is going up at the same time as this episode.

Leaving Cristobal de Oñate in charge of Nueva Galicia in his absence, Coronado set off towards Culiacan, still one of the northernmost Spanish settlements. Early on progress was slow, about 10 miles a day. When they reached the Rio Santiago, they were further delayed bringing the cattle across. “Here the expedition was delayed three or four days, because it was necessary to take the sheep across the wide river “one by one,” on horseback, in the arms of the Caballeros.”


After crossing the river they continued north, on the way, Lope de Samaniego would be shot by an arrow and killed in an attack from the native americans living in the area. Several other Spaniards would also be wounded. Coronado would round up and hang a group of people in retaliation. To replace Samaniego, Garcia Lopez de Cardenas would be promoted to his place.

Somewhere around this point, Melchior Diaz returned, having made it to the area Chichiltical near the Gila river. He came bearing bad news about the prospects to that area compared to what Fray Marcos had promised. While the officers were ordered to keep said information secret, someone leaked it and spirits were dampened. Furthermore, he brought news that the Cibolans had sent messengers to Chichiltical to kill any Spaniards that made it to the area.

As he approached Culiacan, Coronado was asked to wait to enter the city until after Easter. Before he was allowed in, the city and his expedition put on a mock battle that Coronado, obviously, “won.” Before he was allowed to enter the city to much rejoicing. Although one artilleryman lost his hand during the mock battle. Whether he stayed with the expedition after this accident is not shared.

While not really needed for our story, I think this anecdote deserves to be shared. While they were at Culiacan, the devil himself came and spoke to a soldier in Coronado’s army named Trujillo. If he killed Coronado, he would be allowed to marry Dona Beatriz and inherit her entire fortune. The brave soldier then told this story to Coronado, who rather than having the man put to death, ordered him to stay behind. This is probably what Trujillo had wanted all along.

Coronado had serious concerns about what they would encounter as they went north, Diaz’s reports had not done much to make him feel safe marching ahead. To scout out the terrain ahead, he decided that he would take an advance guard to ensure that things were safe for the main army. The advance guard would be led by Coronado himself while Cardenas would serve as Maestro de Campo. Tristan de Luna y Arellano would lead the main army. The main army was to wait for 20 days before following behind Coronado and stopping at the city of Corazones until further orders were given.

This advance guard would consist of somewhere between 50 and 105 men, 500 to 800 of the native allies, and the friars. They would carry approximately 80 days worth of food. The goal was to have the toughest  and most veteran men ahead of the rest, including Melchior Diaz, Fray Juan Padilla, and Fray Marcos.

I think here is where we will leave Coronado for now with his advance party getting ready to leave Spanish territory and delve into the somewhat unknown land to the north. As a reminder, maps are available at the website.

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