About 1,000 years ago, while there was much activity among the Pueblo people of New Mexico, a legend was taking root on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula that would impact those very people a few centuries later.
Historian Warren A. Beck, citing Cleve Hallenbeck in “Land of the Conquistadores,” wrote this: “The Seven Cities of Cibola that the early Spaniards were seeking was a legend, perhaps of Portuguese origin, dating back to 1150. In that year, the Moors captured the city of Mérida, Spain, and among the Christians fleeing from their Moslem conquerors were seven bishops and their congregations.
“They were supposed to have sailed away westward, finally landing on some beautiful island. There they burned their ships and founded seven cities that ultimately became great and wealthy towns; hence, many explorers sought their locations in the New World.”
The legend was helped along by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Baca, who trekked across Texas for eight years in the 1530s. He and three others, including the Moor Estaban, were the survivors of a 1528 Spanish incursion into Florida that failed badly.
They reported to officials in Mexico City in 1536 that they visited many Indian groups along the way and learned of seven cities to the north, cities perhaps made of pure gold. These became known as the Seven Cities of Cíbola.
The first group to go north in search of the treasure was led by Fray Marcos de Niza and guided by Estaban. They got as far as Zuni in what is now western New Mexico.
History holds that Estaban was killed there, and that Niza only saw the village from a distance, but he believed it to made of gold as he observed the adobe walls glistening in the sun. He soon returned to Mexico City and made his report.
Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was next in 1540. He marched to the north, defeated the Zuni people and spent that winter, and the next, along the Rio Grande.
Some believe that he invaded the Pueblo of Kuaua, which is now Coronado State Monument on the west side of the river in Bernalillo. Other think it was a village 2 miles to the south called Coofor, or Alcanfor, which was along what is today NM 528 in Rio Rancho. Nothing of that village remains.
From that base, Coronado explored as far east as what is now central Kansas. He didn’t find any golden cities along his line of march.
A member of his entrada, don Pedro de Tovar, averred that the Seven Cities lacked wealth.
(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 ’19 Rio Rancho Observer Readers’ Choice contests. “Ellos Pasaron por Aqui” is translated as “They Passed by Here.”)
DON BULLIS’ NEWEST BOOK ‘NO MANURE ON MAIN STREET: A Historian’s Diary of Western Movies’ is now available from RioGrandeBooks.com.