In 1539, Friar Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan priest, famed for his explorations in lands that would later become Arizona and New Mexico, returned to Mexico City and told intriguing stories that he’d seen the legendary gold city of Cibola. It was an electrifying statement. The Spanish conquerors of the Aztec lands were constantly on the hunt for new stashes of gold in this new land. Added to their quests were the persistent tales of the enormous wealth of the so-called “Seven Cities of Cibola” – fabled cities covered with Inca gold.
“It is situated on a level stretch of land on the brow of a round hill,” the friar reported, “It appears to be a very beautiful city – the most opulent I have ever seen.” The priest, however, admitted that he had only seen the city from a distance as the sun was setting on what appeared to be a Zuni stronghold. He didn’t dare approach, knowing that the Zuni tribe had the reputation of being ferocious fighters.
For almost six centuries men have debated what de Niza saw. Did he merely tell Spanish official what they wanted to hear? Did he simply pass along legends told to him by the native tribes of the area?
The great wealth the Spaniards took when they conquered the Aztecs of Central America and the Incas southward only fueled beliefs that still more riches lay beyond their limited confines. If there was so much gold in the Mexican territory, it stands to reason that more gold would exist to the north.
It would be worth an invasion by Conquistadors loyal to the Spanish crown to see if such a complex of cities could be found. Coronado, well known for his leadership and fearless adventurism, was chosen to lead an army into the northern land in search of what de Niza had reported.
Northward into the scorching deserts Coronado marched. There would eventually be settlements in Santa Fe and an outpost at San Xavier del Bac near what would the village of Tucson, but now as Coronado ventured northward all he found were scattered Native America tribes living along the trickling streambeds of rivers to be later named the Gila, the Salt, and the Verde. Across the wide valley where, in three more centuries, a city called Phoenix would rise from the ashes of Indian tribe villages of the Maricopa. The natives were friendly enough and many encouraged him with additional tales of Cibola and promised him that it could be found in the high desert beyond the Mogollon Rim and the forests to the north. To these encouragements were added reports from his forward observers telling of the great lands that lay in front of him. He had instructed them to send back reports. It was the same process that Marco de Niza had used just a year earlier when he came to this wild country.
When he finally climbed the Mogollon Rim and crossed the ponderosa pine forest he found what he was looking for. But, it was not a city of gold, merely a Zuni Indian village pueblo made of sun-baked bricks and sand-colored stucco. Coronado wrote in his log book that the language his men used at that time to describe Marcos de Niza should not be recorded.
Still, Coronado would continue his exploration of the Navajo lands, the great river that cut through the canyons to the north, and on into the plains beyond the mountains – reaching as far as what is now the State of Kansas before turning back.