In the year 1527 CE, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and 600 hundred Conquistadors set sail from the shores of Cuba. Their mission, known as the Narvaez expedition, was to colonize the Gulf coast area of modern Florida. However, the well-known Spanish lust for gold seized the crew and upon reaching the shores of their believed destination, the navigators realized they were not positive where they actually were. The expedition’s treasurer Cabeza de Vaca argued that because they were unsure of their exact location only small landing parties should go ashore.
Fate of the Narváez expedition
While de Vaca’s argument was logically sound, it fell on deaf ears as the entire 600 men took what supplies they could carry and immediately went inland to search for gold. Within days the hopelessly lost crew realized their fatal mistake. Not only were they quickly running low on supplies, but their ever increasing encounters with hostile natives meant they were being stalked. Despondent but not without hope and believing Mexico was not far west, the crew decided to walk back. Eight years and several thousand miles later, Cabeza de Vaca and three others arrived in Mexico.
Along the way they found themselves slaves, traders, shamans, and healers to the native populace they encountered. They also became the first Europeans to make contact with the natives of the southern modern United States. Throughout the journey, de Vaca took copious notes of how the native populace lived and interacted – anthropologists look upon these notes as an invaluable insight into the Native American people of the time.
While the expedition found little gold, somewhere in northern Texas they were given a baby’s rattle made of smelted and worked copper. At the time a worked piece of copper was worth its weight in gold, and a piece such as this was worth much more. The natives who presented the rattle told de Vaca that a wealthy tribe to the north had given it to them.
The Legend of Cibola
Shortly after reaching safety, de Vaca sailed back to Spain, where his writings of North American Indians made him famous. While the other two remaining members of the party slipped away into history, it was the fate of the final member that is the basis of the legend of the “Seven Cities of Cibola.”
Estebanico or Estevanico (his exact name is lost to history) was a slave that had taken part in the Narvaez Expedition. After hearing the party’s tales of wealthy cities to the north, the Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza dispatched the Franciscan Monk Marcos de Niza to investigate.
Niza’s guide was this Estebanico: Being a survivor of the previous expedition he was believed to be knowledgeable about the lay of the land. Described as a “Black Muslim from Azamoor” (a coastal city in northwestern Morocco), he was an intelligent, educated man and most likely spoke several languages.
He was already accustomed to the ways of native peoples, and as an adept healer he was warmly accepted by many of the tribes he encountered. However this was not the case for those he was sent to guide, as they were not warmly accepted and he did nothing to help.
In his diary, Friar di Niza noted his disgust of Estebanico by stating he had acquired, “great stores of turquoise and other wealth, as well as many native women.” Despondent and angry, Estebanico originally stayed well ahead of the group but as his relationship with Friar di Niza worsened, he stayed so far ahead of the main party their only communication was by a message tied to a cross. It was on one of these messages that Estebanico said he had heard of seven great cities to the north. The people were very wealthy, he wrote, with multi-storey buildings and fine cotton clothes. Estebanico called these cities Cibola. This was the last message they received from Estebanico as a short time later, the party were told he met the Zuni Indians and they killed him.
While this may be true, one has to wonder if an educated, renowned healer who most likely spoke several native languages was killed by the Zuni, or was protected by them.
No one is certain what really happened to Estebanico as he disappears into history. Without his guide, Friar di Niza had the decision of facing the unknown or returning to the safety of home. According to the report Friar di Niza filed upon his return, he went north where he found a fantastic city of gold, with wide boulevards and many other wonders. However, there is considerable doubt that he found the golden city. Never known for his courage, upon reading of Estebanico’s death it is widely considered Friar di Niza probably made his way home as quickly as possible. However if Friar di Niza did lie, he made the mistake of crafting too grandiose of a story. As the same Viceroy that forced Estebanico to become a guide named Friar di Niza to guide the next expedition.
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The Coronado Expedition to find Cibola
Vazquez de Coronado was hand-picked to lead the expedition. Like many of the leading Conquistadors, Coronado was born to a noble family but as he was not the first-born he would never inherit the family fortune. Consequently, he came to ‘New Spain’ with the belief that, like Cortez and Pizarro before him, he could make his fortune.
In 1539 CE about 300 soldiers and 1000 natives set out to find the seven golden cities of Cibola. In July, they attacked and took over a Zuni village, but far from being made of gold, the Zuni lived in modest adobe homes. The multi-storey homes that Estebanico wrote of were in fact made of dried mud bricks. To the nomadic and desolate native people Cabeza de Vaca encountered, multi-storey homes and some gold made the Zuni very rich. However, the Zuni had little of what the Spanish lusted after.
Enraged at the paltry loot, Coronado was convinced the Zuni people were hiding their treasures; he then began to systematically torture them. After a time though Coronado realized that there simply was no fortune. Instead of giving up, he decided to split his force and send them in different directions. While they found little gold, they became the first Europeans to explore North America’s Southwest. Eventually, their supplies ran low and the expedition returned to Mexico.
The mystery that surrounds the “Seven Cities of Cibola” has never been solved. Was it very impoverished neighbors seeing the modern equivalent of the middle-class and considering them comparitively wealthy? Did Friar di Niza actually venture close enough to see the walls of the homes at sunset? If so, the brownish mud may have shone in such a way to give the hopeful friar the illusion of gold. By saying the people were very wealthy, did Estebanico play a practical joke in his final message? Or, are the cities that made the worked copper yet to be found?
If the latter is the case, then the copper rattle represents a real problem for both anthropologists and archaeologists. The most widely-held theory is the North American populace of the time was not sophisticated enough to produce smelted and worked copper pieces. And while Cabeza de Vaca’s mention of the rattle certainly does not disprove this theory, it does present something of a dilemma for many in the academic community. It also means the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola may be hiding somewhere in America’s Southwest still waiting to be discovered.