NEW Spain as well as Old Spain flamed with desire for the illusory wealth of the great land at the north, which the four castaways of the Narvaez expedition had crossed from sea to sea in their eight years of wandering. Yet, the first white man from Mexico to enter what is now the United States was no gold seeker, but a barefoot Franciscan monk.
Fray Marcos de Nizza had heard an Indian tale of seven gorgeous cities in the north, and he argued that they must be the legendary Seven Cities of the Seven Bishops, who had fled from the conquering Moors across the Sea of Darkness hundreds of years before Columbus sailed over it. The good friar was burning with a pious zeal to find that lost flock of the Christian fold.
Besides a few Indian burden bearers, Fray Marcos took with him as his interpreter the negro who had walked across the continent as a member of the shipwrecked quartet. when the friar came near the present boundary of the United States he sent this Stephen Estevan on ahead to reconnoitre the ground. And it befell that an African slave, decked out in barbarous gaiety with feathers and bells, was the discoverer of the States of Arizona and New Mexico.
Stephen had been instructed to send back small wooden crosses if he heard of small towns, but big crosses if he heard of big cities. When a cross as "high as a man" came from him in a few days, the friar was certain that the trail of the Seven Cities was growing exceedingly warm. In great expectations he hurried on until he came in sight of the terraced houses of the Zuni Indians—those first American skyscrapers. He contented himself with that distant view, when he heard of the after of his dusky courier, who had been killed as a liar, because the red man would not believe that a white man had sent a black man to represent him.
A brilliant cavalcade now went forth from the city of Mexico in quest of the Seven Cities. At its head, in gilded armor and plumed helmet, rode the noble commander, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, attended by a score of dons, who boasted the blood of Spanish grandees, and followed by some 300 other Spaniards and by 800 Indians. With them also were gray-robed friars as eager to save the souls as the cavaliers were to plunder the earthly treasures of the heathen.
Marching up the Pacific Coast, the imposing expedition turned inland to cross a corner of Arizona and brought up in front of . . . the Seven Cities? No; seven poor, queer little Zuni towns in New Mexico, which were quickly turned into a bloody desolation.
The disappointed Coronado sent out detachments east and west to find the Seven Cities. The western party came back with the report that it had been stopped by a strange river which it could not cross, although it looked, from its mile high banks, to be no more than six feet wide. Those baffled, dumfounded men had discovered the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River!
The scouts who had been sent eastward returned with an Indian who told a wondrous yarn of the Kingdom of Quivara, where the fish were big as horses, the canoes had prows of solid god and the king was lulled to sleep beneath a tree hung with golden bells that tinkled in the swaying breeze. Skeptics in the camp warned Coronado against the man, whom they had seen "talking to the Devil in a pitcher of water." The commander was deaf to their warnings. His expedition was facing starvation, and he was ready to grasp at any straw. His followers were in rags and many of his hungering horses and cattle already had run away, to become the forbears of the wild herds that long ranged over the southwest.
With 29 picked men and his red guide, Coronado put off for the mythical Kingdom of Quivara. Out upon the great American plains, the little party rode, amid enormous herds of "hump backed cows," as the buffalo were called. So level was the country that "if a man only lay down on his back he lost sight of the ground." If he missed his way, he had to stand still until the evening and get his direction by watching the sun set.
After living off buffalo meat 35 days and making their way to eastern Kansas, possibly even to Nebraska, what did those deluded seekers of a golden kingdom find? "Not any gold nor any other metal . . . nothing but little villages . . . of skins and sticks." So Coronado ruefully admitted in a report to his great Emperor, Charles V.
The chronicler of that first exploration of our great Southwest, Pedro de Castaneda ended his account with a strangely significant remark: "Those who now go to discover the country which Francisco entered . . . will know the direction in which they ought to go . . . Everything else rests on the powerful Lord of All Things, God Omnipotent, who knows how and when these lands will be discovered and for whom He has guarded this good fortune."
The by-products of man's labors often prove to be the most valuable. Coronado did not find the Seven Cities nor increase the patrimony of Charles V. Nor did De Soto find El Dorado. Those valiant adventurers missed the trashy prizes they sought, but their heroic labors served a wider, longer purpose. They unrolled almost half the map of what was to be a great nation, which writes their names and records their bravery near the top of its history.
James Morgan, Boston Daily Globe, Oct 10, 1927, p. 14