74. Searching for Coronado's Quivira
By Miguel Pérez
December 30, 2014 - After Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado gave up on New Mexico because the fabled Seven Cities of Cibola turned out to be made of mud instead of gold — and before returning to present-day Mexico — he went all the way up to present-day Kansas.
Marching with more than 1,000 people, with several thousand head of livestock, and often sending small groups of soldiers to explore in different directions, the 1540-42 Coronado expedition covered a huge territory — through today's Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas.
He had initially gone to New Mexico based on the stories of a missionary — Marcos de Niza — who had only seen the "golden cities" from a distance, only to realize that the golden structures de Niza had seen were only adobe buildings glittering in the sunlight.
As the Coronado expedition explored North America, some 274 years before Lewis and Clark made their more celebrated journey, it discovered huge landmarks, including the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. But the golden cities were further north, Coronado was told, in a land called Quivira.
To get to Quivira, another mythical center of wealth now described by an Indian guide known as "the Turk," they would have to march to the northeast through portions of today's Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Other Indian guides had disavowed the Turk's claims of abundant gold. But Coronado, desperate to salvage his expedition from failure and his own reputation from ridicule in Mexico and Spain, followed the Turk's advice.
Besides, the Spanish explorers and their Native American traveling companions already had worn out their welcome from the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, where they had spent the winter of 1540-41, and it was time to move on.
Yet after wandering for weeks on their way to Quivira and enduring the hardships of the uncertain trail, Coronado decided to send the expedition back to the banks of the Rio Grande — in today's Albuquerque area — and to proceed north with only 30 soldiers and a priest.
Mind you, Coronado's epic journey of more than 4,000 miles has been documented with tangible evidence. Archeological surveys have found 16th-century Spanish copper and iron crossbow points, chain mail armor fragments, horseshoes, nails, spurs, and other artifacts along portions of his trail.
But when Coronado finally reached central Kansas in the summer of 1541, he found no gold or wealth in the grass-hut villages of the natives he assumed were "Quivira Indians." They were actually Wichita natives and were mostly hunters and farmers.
A few weeks ago, when the Great Hispanic American History Tour went "Hiking in Search of Coronado's Trail" (see http://www.hiddenhispanicheritage.com/67-hiking-in-search-of-coronados-trail.html) at the Coronado National Memorial in southern Arizona, we saw the valley where his expedition entered the present-day United States. And now, as we entered the land once known as Quivira, in the plains of central Kansas, we saw the place where he finally made a U-turn.
And surprisingly, although Coronado spent only about a month in Kansas, his expedition left huge imprints in the area he explored. When the Great Hispanic American History Tour picked up Coronado's trail again, starting in the Oklahoma Panhandle and going northward to central Kansas, I was pleasantly surprised to find numerous historical markers, monuments and even a small museum — in Lyons, Kansas — commemorating the Coronado expedition.
"Eighty years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, Spanish explorers visited Kansas," states the roadside marker titled "Coronado and Quivira" on U.S. Highway 56 between Lyons and Chase in Rice County, Kansas.
"When Francisco Vasquez de Coronado rode into a Wichita village in 1541, the Wichita numbered around 200,000," another state-erected historical marker explains. "Coronado was searching for Quivira, but he had begun to doubt the stories of this mythical city of gold. He had been told of a land where the king slept each night beneath a tree of golden bells that made soft music in the wind, and the people ate from plates of silver and gold. The allure of finding Quivira was so strong that when he encountered the Wichita, he assumed he had found it."
Another marker, next to a statue of Coronado in Liberal, Kansas, notes that "the Spaniards found no gold, only the grass lodges of the Quiviran Indians, and the guide who misled Coronado was killed."
Whether the Turk just wanted to get back home to Kansas or he purposefully deceived Coronado to drive the Spanish expedition out of New Mexico is not clear, but the stories he created cost him his life. When he allegedly confessed to having misled the explorers in a conspiracy with the Pueblo Indians to lead the expedition astray, enraged Spanish soldiers executed him by strangulation.
After consulting with his soldiers and his priest, Coronado decided to give up the quest for Quiviran treasures and return to New Mexico to rejoin the main expedition for the winter of 1541-42.
"After more than a month spent in exploring central Kansas, the expedition returned to the Southwest, disappointed in the quest for riches but favorably impressed by the land itself," the Liberal marker explains. "Juan Jaramillo, Coronado's lieutenant, wrote: 'It is not a hilly country, but has table-lands, plains and charming rivers. ... I am of the belief that it will be very productive of all sorts of commodities.'"
Coronado also found fertile ground for European farming. Back in New Mexico, on Oct. 20, 1541, he wrote to the king of Spain: "The province of Quivira is 950 leagues from Mexico. ... The country itself is the best I have ever seen for producing all the products of Spain, for besides the land itself being very fat and black and being well watered by the rivulets and springs and rivers, I found prunes (wild plums) like those of Spain, and nuts, and very good sweet grapes and mulberries. I had been told that the houses were made of stone and were several storied; they are only of straw, and the inhabitants are as savage as any that I have seen. They have no clothes, nor cotton to make them of; they simply tan the hides of the cows (buffalo) which they hunt, and which pasture around their village and in the neighborhood of a large river. They eat their meat raw ... and are enemies to one another and war among one another. All these men look alike. The inhabitants of Quivira are the best of hunters and they plant maize."
After another winter in the Albuquerque area, the 32-year-old Coronado suffered another setback, which would send the expedition back to Mexico. He was thrown from his horse in early April 1542 and suffered head injuries, from which he was said to never be able to recover. So a little more than two years after leaving Mexico with much pageantry, the expedition began its march back to Mexico with an injured leader and even more wounded pride.
Coronado led a caravan that historians have characterized as one of the greatest land expeditions the world has known, but when he returned to Mexico without gold in 1542, his mission initially was considered a failure.
Members of his expeditions wrote accounts that would clarify 16th-century Europe's image of North America. They laid claim to vast new territory for Spain. They discovered huge North American landmarks. But Coronado found no treasures for himself, his men, his sponsors or the Spanish crown. He had no new Catholic converts to claim.
Another half-century would pass before the Spanish would return to the land known as Quivira — with one exception.
Juan de Padilla, one of four Franciscan friars on the Coronado expedition, returned to Kansas to preach to the Wichita only a few months after leaving that area with Coronado. But although de Padilla was revered by the Wichita, he was murdered by other Native Americans. In an attack by hostile Indians, he gave up his life to save his native followers. In Kansas, de Padilla is considered the first Christian martyr in the United States.
"In the year 1542, near this place, this pioneer missionary of the Cross gave his life at the hand of those he had come to serve and save," one historical marker explains, evoking Hispanic pride in the plains of Kansas.
As the Great Hispanic American History Tour trekked across central Kansas in search of Coronado landmarks, I was surprised to find that some of the most impressive monuments are for de Padilla and that this Andalusian-born priest is widely recognized here as the pioneer who brought Christianity to Kansas.
Next week, the Great Hispanic American History Tour keeps trekking eastbound, all the way to St. Louis, where a Spanish fort — now the site of a downtown hotel — prevented Great Britain from gaining control of the Mississippi Valley during the Revolutionary War.
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