Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: Reuben Gold Thwaites  | Date: 1530-1540

Searches for "the Seven Cities of Cibola"

In 1513, a hundred and seven years before the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Balboa scaled the continental backbone at Darien and unfurled the flag of Spain by the waters of the Pacific. With wondrous zeal did Spanish explorers beat up and down the western shore of the Gulf of Mexico, seeking for an opening through. Cortez had no sooner secured possession of Mexico, after his frightful slaughter of the Aztecs, than he began pushing out to the west and northwest—along the "upper coasts of the South Sea"—in search of the strait which Montezuma told him existed.

It is unlikely that Montezuma’s knowledge of North American geography was much greater than that of his conqueror. But in every age and land aborigines have first ascertained what visiting strangers most sought, whether it be gold or waterways, and assured them that somewhere beyond the neighboring horizon these objects were to be found in plenty. Spanish, French, and English have each in their turn chased American rainbows that existed only in the brains of imaginative tribesmen who had little other thought than a childish desire to gratify their guests.

Cortez undertook, at his own charge, several of these expensive exploring expeditions to discover the strait of which Montezuma had spoken, and one of them he conducted in person. In 1528—the year he visited Spain to meet his accusers—we find him dispatching Maldonado northward along the Pacific coast for three hundred miles; and five years later Grijalva and Jimenez were claiming for Spain the southern portion of Lower California. A full hundred years before Jean Nicolet related to the French authorities at their feeble outpost on the rock of Quebec the story of his daring progress into the wilds of the upper Mississippi Valley, and the rumors he had there heard of the great river which flowed into the South Sea, Spanish officials in the halls of Montezuma were receiving the tales of their adventurers, who had penetrated to strange lands laved by the waters of this selfsame ocean.

It was about the year 1530 when the Spaniards in Mexico first received word, through an itinerant monk, Marcos de Niza, of certain powerful semi-civilized tribes dwelling some six hundred miles north of the capital of the Aztecs. These strange people were said to possess in great store domestic utensils and ornaments made of gold and silver; to be massed in seven large cities composed of houses built with stone; and to be proficient in many of the arts of the Europeans. The search for "the seven cities of Cibola," as these reputed communities came to be called by the Spaniards, was at once begun.

Guzman, just then at the head of affairs in New Spain, zealously set forth at the head of four hundred Spanish soldiers, and a large following of Indians, to search for this marvelous country. But the farther north the army marched the more distant became Cibola in the report of the natives whom they met on the way; until at last the invaders became involved in the pathless deserts of New Mexico and the intricate ravines of the foothills beyond. The soldiers grew mutinous, and Guzman returned, crestfallen, to Mexico.

In April, 1528, three hundred enthusiastic young nobles and gentlemen from Spain landed at Tampa Bay, under the leadership of Narvaez, whom Cortez supplanted in the conquest of Mexico. Narvaez had been given a commission to hold Florida, with its supposed wealth of mines and precious stones, and to become its governor. Led by the customary fables of the natives, who told only such tales as they supposed their Spanish tormentors wished most to hear, the brilliantcompany wandered hither and thither through the vast swamps and forests, wasted by fatigue, famine, disease, and frequent assaults of savages. At last, after many distressing adventures, but four men were left—Cabeza de Vaca, treasurer of the expedition, and three others. For eight long years did these bruised and ragged Spaniards wearily roam across the region now divided into Texas, Indian Territory, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and Arizona—through tangled forests, across broad rivers, morasses, and desert stretches beset by wild beasts and men; but ever spurred on by vague reports of a colony of their countrymen to the southwest. At last (May, 1536), the miserable wanderers, first to make the transcontinental trip in northern latitudes, reached the Gulf of California, where they met some of their fellow countrymen, who bore them in triumph to the City of Mexico, as the guests of the province….

In that golden age of romance travelers were expected to gild their tales, and in this respect seldom failed to meet the popular demand. The Spanish conquistadores, in particular, lived in an atmosphere of fancy. They looked at American savages and their ways through Spanish spectacles; and knowing nothing of the modern science of ethnology, quite misunderstood the import of what they saw. Beset by the national vice of flowery embellishment, they were also pardonably ignorant of savage life, and had an indiscriminating thirst for the marvelous. Thus, we see plainly how the Cibola myth arose and grew; and why most official Spanish reports of the conquest of the Aztecs were so distorted by falseconceptions of the conquered people as in some particulars to be of light value as material for history. It was, then, small wonder that Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow adventurers, in the midst of the hero worship of which they were now recipients, should claim themselves to have seen the mysterious seven cities, and to have enlarged upon the previous stories.

Coronado, governor of the northern province of New Galicia, was accordingly sent to conquer this wonderful country, which the adventurers had seen, but Guzman failed to find. In 1540, the years when Cortez again returned to meet ungrateful neglect at the hands of the Spanish court, Coronado set out with a well-equipped following of three hundred whites and eight hundred Indians. The Cibola cities were found to be but mud pueblos in Arizona and New Mexico, with the aspect of which we are to-day familiar; while the mild-tempered inhabitants, destitute of wealth, peacefully practising their crude industries and tilling their irrigated field, were foemen hardly worthy of Castilian steel.


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Chicago: Reuben Gold Thwaites, "Searches for the Seven Cities of Cibola," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.118-122 Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Thwaites, Reuben Gold. "Searches for "the Seven Cities of Cibola"." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.118-122, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Thwaites, RG, 'Searches for "the Seven Cities of Cibola"' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , Great Epochs in American History, Vol.1, Pp.118-122. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from