The Coronado Expedition
Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived on the banks of the Rio Grande in December, 1540 with 500 soldiers and as many as 2000 Indian allies from Central America. Coronado was searching for the fabled “Seven Cities of Gold,” based on rumors from a Moorish slave and Franciscan priest. Rather than treasure, he found an arid land, with little water and a limited food supply.
Rumors of Riches
A scouting party explored territory that is now New Mexico in 1539, the year before Coronado arrived. The leader of the party, a priest, returned to Mexico City telling tales of immense riches in seven cities of gold, the Cities of Cibola, which was a reference to seven Zuni pueblos.
Coronado led his expedition to the Zuñi village of Hawikuh the following summer. Though he realized by the time he arrived that the priest had lied about gold, he attacked the Zuñi anyway and seized the town. They devoured the pueblo’s food reserves within a few months. With winter approaching, Coronado needed enough food to sustain over two thousand people. The Zuñi told Coronado about prosperous farming villages on the banks of a river to the east. Coronado immediately led his army to Kuaua, one of a dozen Tiwa pueblos on the Rio Grande.
The Tiwa have farmed the banks of the Rio Grande for hundreds. They settled in the area around 1325 AD. Kuaua was the northernmost of the twelve Tiwa villages. The name means “evergreen,” which is apt based on the location along the banks of the Rio Grande.
The Tiwa pueblos were a verdant oasis in an arid land. Elk and deer roamed the river bosque. Additional game was available on the plains to the east of the Sandias. When archaeologists from the Museum of New Mexico excavated the ruins of Kuaua Pueblo during the 1930s, they discovered a square kiva in the south plaza of the community. The kiva, or ceremonial chamber, contained layers of mural paintings. These murals represent some of the finest examples of Pre-Columbian art ever found in the United States.
1200 people lived in Kuaua when Coronado arrived. Coronado commandeered a Tiwa pueblo for his headquarters. He forced the villagers out with nothing but the clothes on their backs. Initially the Spanish bartered for what they needed, but as supplies ran low, Coronado ordered his men to take whatever they wanted or needed. They took everything from food to women. They even fed the post-harvest corn stalks to their livestock. The Tiwa needed the stalks for cooking and heating during the winter.
The Tiwa retaliated in December, 1540. They killed 40 – 60 horses and mules. Coronado responded by declaring a war of “fire and blood,” which became known as the Tiguex War. The Tiguex War holds the dubious honor of being the first named war between Europeans and Native Americans in what is now the United States.
Coronado launched an attack on a Tiwa pueblo called Arenal. His army killed all of Arenal’s defenders, including burning thirty of them alive at the stake. The Tiwa fled their pueblos and took refuge on a mesa-top stronghold. The Spanish troops couldn’t take the mesa with a direct assault so they laid siege for about 80 days in the early months of 1541. When the Tiwa ran out of food and water they tried to escape. The Spanish sentries heard them and slaughtered most of the men and numerous women. The remaining women were enslaved.
The Tiwa abandoned Kuaua and the other Rio Grande villages within a century of first contact with the Spanish explorers. Their descendants joined the Tiwa-speaking villages of Taos, Picuris, Sandia and Isleta.
One detail that always strikes me when I visit this site is that Coronado spent two winters here while trekking across the southwest looking for gold. He returned to Mexico City empty handed two years later and his expedition was deemed an expensive failure. However, he spent his time in pueblos shaking down the indigenous people. They liked turquoise more than gold. The gold was still in the ground and stream beds. The site of the first gold rush west of the Mississippi was in Golden, New Mexico, which is less than 30 miles east of Kuaua.
The square kiva has been reconstructed, with one layer of an ancient mural recreated. Fourteen examples of the original mural are on display in the Visitor’s Center. The Visitor’s Center also has an interesting display of prehistoric and historic Puebloan and Spanish Colonial artifacts.
Park staff and volunteers encourage visitors to interact with the exhibits. Everything in the museum can be touched and fondled, which encourages a more visceral connection with the past. Pick up the musket and contemplate carrying the heavy beast across New Mexico. Consider wearing the conquistador helmet during a New Mexico summer. Wearing a metal hat would broil your brains, which may explain the aggression of the conquistadors.
Coronado Historic Site
485 Kuaua Rd
Bernalillo, NM 87004
Hours and Days of Operation:
Wed. – Mon., 8:30am – 5pm
$3 for Coronado Historic site.
$5 for a combo ticket for both Jémez and Coronado Historic Sites.
Sunday admission is free for New Mexico residents with ID.