Coronado Historic Site and the ruins of Kuaua Pueblo, off US 550 near Santa Ana Star Casino Hotel, are named for Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (1510-1554).

He was the first European to extensively explore of what is now New Mexico.

Born in Salamanca, Spain, he arrived in the New World in 1535, and by 1538 he had been named governor of Nueva Galicia in western Mexico.

When the viceroy of New Spain, Antonio de Mendoza (1495-1552), sponsored an expedition north into “La Tierra Incongnita” (The Unknown Land), he named Coronado commander. Along with nearly 300 soldiers, mounted and on foot, and about 1,000 Mexican Indians driving 1,500 head of cattle, goats and sheep, the army set out in late February 1540.

What was probably the first conflict between Europeans and Native Americans in what is now the United States took place when Zuni Indians set upon Coronado and some of his men at the village of Hawikuh in early August 1540. Coronado was injured, but the Spaniards emerged victorious.

The expedition arrived near present-day Bernalillo in December. Again, the indigenous people resisted the occupation of their villages by strangers, and they launched what came to be called the Tiguex War.

The Indians were out-matched by Spanish firearms and armor, and an estimated 200 of them were killed — many lanced and others driven into the Rio Grande, where they drowned or froze to death.

In April 1541, Coronado continued his exploration, probably traveling as far to the east as what is now Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle and as far north as central Kansas. He returned to Tiguex for the winter.

In the spring of 1542, after Coronado was injured in a horse race, some of his officers petitioned for a return to Mexico and the march south began in April. The expedition had traveled about 4,000 miles and had nothing to show for the effort.

In 1543, Coronado was charged with a variety of offenses having to do with his management of the expedition, including waging war and perpetrating “great cruelties” upon the Indians. He was cleared of those charges.

He remained active in public affairs, but his health declined and he died in 1554 at the age of 44 years.

Historian Dan Thrapp wrote: “Coronado was an able leader, strict though scarcely a martinet. He was bold, brave in action and a man not entirely without mercy toward his enemies, although he could be ruthless in the manner of the day.”

Many historians believed the Spaniard’s mission had to do with the discovery of riches, and/or the propagation of the Catholic faith among indigenous people. Historians Richard and Shirley Flint, probably the most comprehensive of Coronado historians, however, found evidence to indicate that neither of those aims was primary in Coronado’s mind.

They wrote: “The results of our detailed multi-decade documentary research in thousands of 16th-century manuscripts have revealed that a very different motivation was behind the Coronado expedition. The expedition was the first of a three-phase effort planned, driven forward and largely underwritten by the Spanish viceroy of New Spain, don Antonio de Mendoza, to complete the Columbian project of reaching Asia by traveling west from Spain.

“The Coronado expedition famously failed in that attempt. As Pedro de Castañeda de Nájera, a member of the expedition, wrote, ‘If those mountain ranges where that river (the Rio Grande) has its headwaters were crossed and (if) the lands from which those people (the Pueblos) originate were entered, magnificent news would probably be obtained. (That is) because, according to the direction, (that land) is the beginning of Greater India (eastern Asia), although (in) remote regions.'”

(Don Bullis is a Rio Rancho resident, New Mexico centennial historian and award-winning author. He was named the Best Local Author in the 2018 and 2019 Rio Rancho Observer Readers’ Choice contests. “Ellos Pasaron por Aqui” is translated as “They Passed by Here.”)