New Mexico 11 Cárdenas and the Grand Canyon Transcript

Hello and welcome to Distant Echoes episode 11, Cárdenas and the Grand Canyon.

Last time we followed the Coronado expedition as they arrived at the Cibolan pueblo of Hawikuh. From there they were met with disappointment, finding Fray Marcos’ promises to have been false.  This time we’ll talk about some of the side adventures of the expedition.

Meeting with disappointment, they set about exploring to try and find other leads, including visiting the Hopi pueblos.

At the Hopi pueblos, the Spanish had heard rumors of a great river and Coronado had begun to put together an expedition led by Cardenas. They would leave on August 25, 1540.

Cardenas had orders to find this river and explore it to its source, hopefully finding Alcoran who was leading the naval component of the expedition. Coronado’s vanguard was starting to run low on food, and he did not know how much he would be able to procure at Cibola long-term. He was told to take no more than 80 days.

Cardenas traveled to the Hopi pueblos where he was given supplies and guides. From here they were led over what was called “uninhabited” land for approximately 20 days where they arrived at the settlements of the Havasupai.

From there, they traveled on to a large gorge, the Spanish writing the following: “from whose brink it looked as if to the opposite side it must be more than three or four leagues by air line.” From there they would: “They spent three days trying to find a way down to the river, which from above appeared to be only a fathom wide, although, according to what the Indians said, it must be half a league across.”… “The descent was found to be impossible, for at the end of these three days Captain Melgosa with Juan Galeras and another companion, they being the lightest and most agile, undertook to clamber down at a place that appeared to them the least difficult. They kept descending in sight of the men left above until they were most to view … At four o’clock in the afternoon they returned, without having been able to reach the bottom because of the great obstacles they encountered, for what from above had appeared to be easy, proved to be, on the contrary, rough and difficult. They said they had been only a third of the way down, but from the place they reached, the river looked very large; indeed judging from what they saw, it must be as wide as the Indians had said. The men who remained above estimated that some small rocks jutting out from the wall of the canyon must be about as high as a man; but those who went down swore that when they reached them they were found to be taller than the highest highest tower of Seville.”

This gorge they were trying to cross, of course, is the Grand Canyon. Probably somewhere in the vicinity of Grand View. After these 3 days they were starting to run out of water and turned south. After a few days they discovered that there wouldn’t be much in the way of water if they continued and that the Hopi usually stashed water along the way for the return trip for this stretch. They may have made it as far as Havasupai Canyon. But if they did, they did not record a descent. They then began on their return trip.

Meanwhile, back in Hawikuh, Coronado was sending mixed messages about the mineral wealth found. What little gold they had found had been previously brought by the Spanish. He requested more supplies and commented on the people. Including that he had not seen many women. He sent Juan Gallegos back to deliver the message. Fray Marcos also decided to return at this point, possibly out of fear for his life, at least according to Castañeda.

Melchior Diaz was also to accompany Gallegos back to the main army with the orders for Arellano to continue on to Cibola. Some of his men were to also establish a settlement on the Sonora River. 

Arellano had already advanced to Corazones Ike previously agreed upon. He then advanced to Ures where a city was founded. Here he sent a short expedition to the gulf to try and find Alarcon. They found nothing. Running low on supplies, they waited for the end of the rainy season before advancing to the area around Huepac. Here he met Gallegos. It was decided that Diaz and 80 men would remain where the city, named San Geronimo, was to be founded. At this point they noted that the locals were becoming increasingly hostile.

Here we’ll leave Arellano and his men while they prepare to move north. We’ll see what the illusive Alarcon had been getting up to while Coronado tried to find him.

Alarcon had two ships in his fleet at the start of the expedition outfitted with experienced crews. Among them was Domingo Castillo who had mapped the Gulf with Ulloa about one year earlier.

They had initially set out from Alcupoco on May 9. Shortly afterwards, they would get caught in a storm and throw some items overboard from one of the ships when some of the men on board began to fear the whole thing was going to sink. He would stop at Santiago in Manzanillo Bay to repair the damage before returning to Culiacan to resupply and obtained another ship before he set out again, keeping a coast eye on the coast for signs of Coronado. One must remember that the Spanish thought that the coast curved to the east at this time, California was an island, and that the continent was far smaller than it actually was.

On August 26, they would reach shallows in the gulf that had turned Ulloa back. Here the ships would get caught on some shoals for a time, until the tides rose and the ships could get loose. Allowing Alarcon to get loose and surpass the areas explored by his predecessors.


From here he would continue to sail up the coast, seeing no signs of Coronado and his men, who had yet to reach the gulf. Eventually he would reach the mouth of the Colorado River. From here he would leave the ships behind with some men and take a series of launches up the river, hoping to find some signs of Coronado.

These launches were mostly moved via cordeling, that is, by pulling them along by ropes by men on the shore. Mostly they carried supplies and trade goods in the launches. Presumably they also used them as camps. Overall, Alcaron found the Cocopahs who called the river home to be fairly friendly, although he did pose as a demi-god “Son of the Sun” to ensure their cooperation. This was a common tactic among other conquistadores of the era as well. Along the way he would also get an interpreter to travel along with them.


As he traveled north, as was the norm it seems, he heard ever grander stories about what they had at Cibola and how wealthy it was. Eventually, he would hear word of Coronado’s arrival at Cibola. He decided to send a messenger to try and establish communication between the two parties however he could find no volunteers. So, in typical fashion of the man, he decided that he would just have to do the job himself.

However he had sick men and was beginning to run low on supplies. Furthermore, he had been told that the people who lived further inland were hostile and were working to form a coalition to kill Christians. However it is not believed that the Cocopahs knew that Alcaron was a Christian at this point. Apparently he had really leaned into the demi-god persona he was putting on and he had been relatively peaceful. Overall among the expedition and all of its offshoots Alcaron’s little adventure is unique in that it was relatively peaceful. No Settlement No Conquest put it nicely as such:

“The relative calm that held between the Alarcon party and the native people it met, in contradistinction to the experience of the remainder of the Coronado expedition, is attributable to a number of circumstances. Most decisive were several practices the captain and his crews followed routinely, some purposeful and others without conscious forethought. Most conspicuous were gestures of nonbelligerence, mandated by the captain and scrupulously repeated by his crews. As Alarcon wrote afterward about an early encounter along the Rio de Buena Guia [Colorado], “I began to make signs of peace. Taking [my] sword and shield, I threw them into the barca [which was] beached, stepping my feet onto them, making [the Indians] understand by this and other signs that I did not wish to make war with them, and that they should do the same. Having seized a banner, I lowered it and had the men I had with me also sit down.”  Alarcon seems to have been a somewhat more autocratic leader than Vazquez de Coronado and succeeded in achieving adherence to his generally peaceful tactics. If Alarcon’s own narrative can be believed, his force never expressly threatened and was never seriously threatened by the indigenous people it met. At the least hint of menace, Alarcon and his men withdrew. In his subsequent report he put it this way: “I did not want to engage anyone.” Alarcon’s first action on encountering indigenous groups was not a confrontational reading of the requerimiento, as it was for other units of the Coronado expedition.“

Somewhere around Yuma, near the Colorado and Gila river junction he decided to turn around. He erected a cross and buried some notes before he turned around to return to the ships and then to Mexico. On the cross he had inscribed the following note: “Alarcon came this far. There are letters at the foot of this tree.”

Meanwhile, Melchior Diaz, who had been left in charge of San Geronimo was trying to figure out how best to contact the wayward admiral. He decided to once again march to the coast and see if they could find any clues to his whereabouts.

He left Diego de Alcaraz, whom if you remember had been the leader of the slave catchers that had met Cabeza de Vaca only four years earlier, in charge of the city. Meanwhile he would set out with some 25 men, a dog, and some sheep to see if they could find any signs of the missing navy.

With the expedition put together, he set out to the west. Most likely traveling along what would become known as the Camino del Diablo. Eventually they would reach the junction of the Gila and Colorado river where they would find the cross Alarcon had left behind and the letters he had buried, revealing the man’s return to Mexico.

Hoping to catch the man before he returned, Diaz turned north to try and find a place to ford the river. When he found a place, it gave the local Yumans, who had been planning to attack, an opportunity. He had enlisted their help to build rafts. Luckily, if you’re the Spanish at least, during the construction of the rafts the plan was found out. A Spanish guard had seen a group of men sneaking around near the river, potentially trying to cross, and had captured one. Upon interrogation the man spilled the beans on the plan to attack the Spanish while they were divided crossing the river.

Knowing their plan was found out, the Yumans in the area instead launched an attack the next day. According to the Spanish, the attack was to no avail and the Yumans were run down. Of course, no record of the other side’s perception of the attack exists.

With the battle over, he used the rafts that the Yumans had been planning to use instead to cross the river himself. From here, he continued towards the gulf even though Alcaron had probably left by now. But this was where disaster would strike.

One day, sometime in December 1540, while at camp, the dog that had been brought along would begin to chase some of the sheep. Seeing this, Diaz took to his horse and chased after it to try and dissuade the dog. During this chase, he would throw his lance at the dog and miss. He would then run into this lance, which would pierce his groin. Unluckily for Diaz, he would survive the initial accident.

The party would then hurry back towards San Geronimo as quickly as they could, trying their best to keep Diaz alive for the next 20 days. On the way back, they would be harried by native attacks. On January 18, 1541 Diaz would die and be buried somewhere along the route.

The party would then return to San Geronimo which was also having problems. Several mutinies had been attempted and Alcaraz had been forced to hang at least 2 of the men. He would send messengers to Coronado, informing him of Diaz’s death and the situation at the settlement.

As for Alarcon who would not find Coronado, he would stay at the mouth of the Colorado until October 1540 before he would begin to sail towards Mexico. He would stop frequently along the way and make small trips inland to look for any signs of Coronado.

At Colima he would briefly have an encounter with other Spaniards who also had their own ambitions to the north and would have to leave in the middle of the night. As soon as he got back he started planning another expedition to find Coronado. In May 1541 he received his orders to proceed and find the expedition and to found a settlement on the Colorado River. However, due to the outbreak of the Mixton War back in Mexico, he would be called in to defend Spanish territory where he would perish.

With that, I think we’ll leave this little set of side trips in search of the naval component of the Coronado Expedition and bring today’s episode to an end. Next time we’ll see what Coronado had been up to  in the meantime.

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *