Oklahoma, Explorers, and the Seven Cities of Gold
The first European exploration of Oklahoma began with a myth and a friar.
After serving in Peru, Friar Marcos de Niza was sent to seek out the fabled golden cities that lie north of New Spain’s frontier. During this time, Spain controlled most of what is modern day Mexico, Latin America, and on down to Peru. Friar Marcos served in Peru for many years before being called to Mexico City to begin his northbound journey. Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza had ordered Friar Marcos to seek out the Seven Cities of Cibola. In 1539, he began his journey. A partner, who had been dispatched a few months earlier, had reached the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, but was killed a short time later by Native Americans. Still, after learning that his partner had died, Friar Marcos pushed on. After a long, hard trek, he finally found the city, but never entered it.
It is believed that this is where the myth of Cibola took shape. It had existed in vague form since the 1520s, but until now, nobody had ever claimed to have been there. Standing at the top of a nearby hill in modern New Mexico, what Friar Marcos witnessed was electrifying. He reported what he saw was a very beautiful city with broad streets and buildings several stories tall. Believing that the same fate would happen to him as happened to his partner, he only observed from a distance. Still, he had no doubt that this was the legendary Cities of Cibola.
The Travels of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado
In their lust for gold and silver, Spanish authorities quickly mounted an expedition to conquer Cibola. In less than a year after Friar Marcos arrived, the twenty seven year old governor of the New Galicia province of New Spain Francisco was ready to go. Vásquez de Coronado assembled 240 mounted soldiers, 60 foot soldiers, and 800 Indians and slaves together for the journey.
Coronado and his men set out to cross the Rio Grande Valley in February of 1540. After four months of hard travel, they reached the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, which they named Cibola. They had heard the story of Friar Marcos’ partner and came ready for battle. They vastly outnumbered the Hawikku warriors. After around 40 deaths, the warriors withdrew under cover of night, allowing Coronado’s men to infiltrate the city with ease.
What they found was not what they expected. While much of what Friar Marcos reported was true, the city did not contain any gold, silver, or riches. What they found was massive adobe pueblos and a flourishing proud native culture.
Coronado’s men remained in Cibola for around three months. During this time, they explored the surrounding areas in search for riches. There was none to be found; however, during one of their expeditionary forays they discovered the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. From Cibola, Coronado moved his men further east to the pueblos near modern day Albuquerque around September. With winter coming on, Coronado decided that it would be best if they wintered there. It was near this place that they learned of another city fabled to be full of gold and silver. The natives dazzled Coronado with tales of the City of Quivira to the north, making him believe that it was the true city of gold. Convinced and with the forced help of a Native American guide, they eventually pushed on eastward, towards modern day Oklahoma.
Coronado’s men followed the Pawnee Indian guide northeast from Cibola into uncharted territory. El Turco, as the Pawnee was named, first led them into the Texas panhandle where they found thousands of buffalo roaming. They arrived in April 1541. By then, Coronado had his suspicions about El Turco. They tortured him until he confessed that they were being led away from both Cibola and Quivira.
From there, they again forced a Wichita slave into guiding the group. In May, Coronado and thirty of his horsemen rode north to Quivira. Their route took them into the Oklahoma Panhandle where they found a featureless land, devoid of any natural landmarks. The only way members of the expedition could find their way back to camp was to leave stakes along their route. This led to the area being named “Llano Estacado”, meaning Staked Plains.
They finally arrived in Quivira in July, 1541. Once again, the men were disappointed in what they found. Quivira, most likely located near Wichita, Kansas, was nothing more than a clustering of small grass covered lodges. Although this was an important trade center, there was no gold to be found at Quivira. Dispirited and angered, Coronado ordered the execution of El Turco. While in Quivira, Coronodo claimed all of the land drained by the Arkansas River for Spain, which brought portions of modern day Oklahoma under a foreign flag for the first time in history.
The Return Home: Oklahoma Inscriptions
Coronado and his men stayed for a brief time before starting their return journey. Again, they traveled west and then south through the Oklahoma panhandle. Portions of this route would eventually become part of the old Santa Fe Trail. In Oklahoma, they passed through the future towns of Tyrone, Hooker, Beaver, Optima, Guymon, Goodwell, and Texhoma.
A stone marker near Beaver records this passing. It can be found on the south west side of the US 64 / US 270 intersections just north of Beaver, Oklahoma.
During their travel across the Oklahoma Panhandle, it is claimed that they left behind several inscriptions. One such inscription is located near Boise City. It reads "Coronatto, 1541".
Another can be found close by near the banks of the Cimarron River. This inscription shows a compass that indicates north as well as the location of two other lookout points that Coronado’s team used, including the Coronatto inscription. The inscription shows a crude symbol of a compass, showing a circle inside a box. Local historians believe that they were carved by a Scotsman named Tomas Blaque and a German named Juan Fisch Aleman. Both are believed to have been mercenaries traveling with Coronado’s group. A short distance away is a carving of a Spanish helmet.
After Coronado pushed through the Oklahoma Panhandle, they returned to their camp at Albuquerque before returning to Mexico in the spring of 1542. With no gold or riches found, the Spanish showed no interest in returning at that time. The Spanish did eventually return around 1765 following the discovery of gold in the Wichita Mountains.
As for Coronado, despite his massive gains in exploration, he returned home without much fanfare. He quietly settled back into his old roles in New Spain before passing on nearly twelve years later.
Oklahoma Historical Society
The Oklahoman Newspaper
Chronicles of Oklahoma