A Cultural Conquest at Coronado National Memorial
“For Wealth, For God, For Empire.” These were the driving motivators of a journey through the arid desert and rugged mountains of the Arizona landscape now designated as Coronado National Memorial. This exhilarating initial expedition left the Spanish with none of the gold they’d expected to find but resulted in some of the most important cultural collisions and collaborations of the 16th century in the Southwest.
Hundreds of miles north of Mexico City, an unknown land of bountiful wealth was filling the imaginations of explorers. After Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Mexico City in 1536 with a story of seven large cities filled with gold, the Viceroy of New Spain (Mexico) dispatched Francisco Vásquez de Coronado on an expedition of his own.
On Feb. 23, 1540, Coronado’s crew of Spanish soldiers and Mexican-Indian allies set out to unearth the cities for themselves. On July 7, they reached Háwikuh (south of present-day Gallup, New Mexico) only to find a rock-masonry pueblo indicating the area was already inhabited. After failed peace negotiations, the Spaniards attacked, then used the ravaged village as their headquarters, sending troops as far west as the Grand Canyon.
A Conquest Crushed
As they went east toward modern-day Sante Fe, they met “The Turk,” a Plains Indian who told rich tales of great wealth in a land called Quivira. While they waited to launch their next expedition in the spring, a hostile situation developed that forced the abandonment of even more pueblos. However, The Turk remained friendly with the Spaniards and eventually led them to Quivira in 1541.
It was here that the Spaniards’ belief in the seven cities of gold vanished. Although The Turk had indeed led them to Quivira, it was a village of primitive grass huts with no gold to be found. The Turk was eventually executed after admitting his deception, and Coronado’s expedition came to a devastating end as the explorers returned home in the spring of 1542, where they were met with public scorn. Little did they know, however, that their failure would set the stage for the great American West saga.
Exploring the Park Today
The site of the Coronado National Monument features panoramic views of the United States-Mexico border and the San Pedro River Valley, which was the route believed to have been taken by Coronado’s expedition. Today, the park stands as a reminder of the geographical and cultural bonds between the two countries.
If you’re interested in life in this region before the Coronado Expedition, take a tour of the Coronado Cave, which may have housed inhabitants from 8,000 years ago. One of the few undeveloped caves in southern Arizona, it stands 600 feet long and up to 70 feet wide, making for a moderate hike followed by as much exploring as you wish.
For those looking to stay above ground, visiting Montezuma Pass will provide breathtaking views of the San Raphael Valley, the San Pedro Valley, and Mexico. The park also features over 8 miles of trails that run the gamut from an easy 1-mile hike down Coronado Peak Trail to a difficult 4 miles through Crest Trail toward the highest point in the range, Miller Peak.
Even though the Coronado Expedition was inspired by a grand myth, the discoveries it yielded (or lack thereof) impacted the entire region for years to come. Take a road trip to Arizona and witness the stunning, natural beauty and rich history of Coronado National Memorial for yourself.