Somewhere to the North there was gold - gold in unthinkable quantities. Over the mountains, legend had it, lay seven cities ripe for plunder, cities whose treasures rivalled the wealth of the Aztec empire that the Spanish conquerors had brought low.
Pushing into America's Midwest
The first aim of the expedition of Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, the young governor of the Mexican state of New Galicia, was to find these rumored 'Cities of Cibola'. The second was to find an overland route to Asia for the Spanish rulers of Mexico. Coronado intended to return to Mexico a rich man and planned his expedition on a large scale. He took a force of 300 Spanish horsemen and hundreds of Indian auxiliaries ahead of a huge support column driving pack mules and herds of horses and livestock.
The lure of gold
The expedition set out due north from Mexico's Pacific coast, Ieaving Culiacán, at the limit of Spanish control in April, 1540. Cibola was said to lie 'beyond mountains', so the expedition travelled upstream to the Colorado Plateau, and then followed the rivers down the other side.
Leaving the support column far behind. Coronado and his advance party suffered extremes of hunger in the high plateau, and some of them died after eating a mysterious poisonous vegetable. Finally, after two months, they came across well-worn trails and saw their first city of Cibola - the dusty Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, hardly the El Dorado they had been expecting.
The Spaniards battered the locals into submission and they then wintered with their supply column which had now caught up with them at Tiguex on the Rio Grande, near modern Bernalillo, New Mexico. There they heard tales told by a Plains Indian slave of a gold-rich city called 'Quivira', said to be situated farther to the north.
A fruitless endeavor
After five frustrating weeks in 'lands as level as the sea' - the Great Plains of the American West - Coronado suspected that his Indian guides were trying to mislead them. Other Indians met on the route, however, waved the expedition northwards when asked about Quivira.
Coronado took a bold decision. He sent most of his force and all the camp followers back to Tiguex and headed north from Palo Duro Canyon, near today's Amarillo in Texas, with only 30 horsemen. The pared-down expedition crossed the Arkansas river near the Great Bend in what is now central Kansas, and continued north-east to the Smoky Hills river before turning back. Coronado returned to Mexico empty handed, having wasted two years in a fruitless search for riches, although he had found the Wichita and Texas Indians and possibly even the Pawnees. The Plains nations had had their first encounter with the European.