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In the 16th century, as Spanish colonizers roamed Mexico and the Southern United States, there were persistent rumors floating around of these mythical Seven Cities of Cibola (Gold). These stories were like the more well-known myth of El Dorado, a city rumored to be filled with gold in the Inca or Aztec empire.
The golden cities rumor spread around Spain, and explorers were desperate to be the ones to find them. People carried out expeditions across the land looking for incredible wealth they thought would change their life. While they found plenty of gold later in the 1800s onwards, during the great American gold rushes, the Spanish explorers found nothing but dust.
It led people to question, where did this myth even begin?
Origins of the Seven Cities of Cibola Myth
It allegedly all began with Spanish sailors giving reports of natives speaking about cities with unlimited wealth and riches after they became shipwrecked.
In 1527, a platoon of Spanish ships sailed to Florida as part of the ill-fated Narvaez Expedition, to colonize the area for Spain. But they ended up caught in a storm and shipwrecked. They spent years held captive by natives in the region, travelling around Texas, and becoming well known for their healing abilities.
When they returned to New Spain–Mexico and the American Southwest–they told tales of these wealthy cities from stories they’d reportedly heard from the natives. People believed there was immense hidden wealth in the region.
In 1539, Friar Marcos de Niza, a priest in the Franciscan church, told Spanish officials he had seen a mythical city of Cibola in the land that is now New Mexico. He claimed it was ‘a very beautiful city’ and called it ‘the best I have seen in these parts’.
However, even in his initial statement, de Niza said he had gone nowhere near the city, and only viewed it from afar. He had been too afraid of the Zuni tribe who inhabited it, a Native American tribe who have called the American Southwest their home for several millennia.
Expeditions to the Seven Cities of Cibola
Because of the wild stories claiming there were cities glistening with cold, the Spanish wanted to see if they could have some for themselves. They financed expeditions into the region to find these legendary cities, sure that people would come home laden with gold and precious stones.
The first expedition was a scouting party led by the friar Marcos de Niza, and they took one of the shipwrecked survivors with them, Estevanico. While they travelled, they reportedly ran into natives who enticed them, along with stories about these incredible cities full of gold. They sent Estevanico ahead to scout for them and send word back, but he never returned.
De Niza tried to find their lost member, but was told by natives that they had killed him after he pretended to be a medicine man and ordering people to give him their valuables. After this, De Niza was concerned about the rest of the journey. He allegedly climbed a mesa, viewed their surroundings and then left exploring no further.
Reports say that De Niza had got carried away with his own imagination, telling stories of people eating from gold and silver plates and owning massive pearls and precious stones.
However, he wasn’t far from the truth. He had apparently seen the Zuni-Cibola complex in what is now New Mexico. It was a major trade center, but full of riches? No. The city likely carried great wealth in other forms, being a valuable trading point with a network that stretched all across Mexico and the Southwest of the United States.
Once De Niza returned, his mission a failure, the next person stepped up to conquer the Seven Cities of Cibola. Francisco Vasquez de Coronado travelled to Mexico in 1535 and was a well-known member of the city council by that time. In 1540, Viceroy Mendoza financed him to complete his own expedition. He wanted Coronado to carry out a missionary journey, as opposed to creating conflict.
They took over 300 soldiers with them though, several priests, and around 1,500 animals for their trip north to investigate the rumours. The troop went to New Mexico, settling at Hawikuh, a city south of what is now Gallup, New Mexico. It was supposed to be one of these legendary cities. But, instead of finding residents laden with gold and precious stones, they came across a small pueblo with natives ready to defend it. After a brief battle, the Spaniards took over the village, and the natives fled. They used it as their base for travelling around New Mexico.
Coronado sent scouting missions out in all directions. A few people went to the Hopi civilization in Arizona, and others travelled all the way to the Grand Canyon. Some people went to Acoma, near modern-day Santa Fe and met a man that has gone down in history as ‘The Turk’.
The Turk told them of another land far east, called Quivira and spoke generously about the unbelievable wealth to be found there. This bolstered the Spanish soldiers, renewing their ideas of finding incredible riches. But, as they say in Game of Thrones, winter was coming. Any further exploring would need to wait.
In April 1541, the Turk guided them east for Quivira. However, 40 days of finding nothing meant Coronado lost hope and sent most of his men back to Tigeux. When they finally made it, instead of this mythical land of gold, they were once again disappointed by finding primitive villages and grass huts. After questioning the Turk further, he revealed it had been a ploy to lead the Spaniards away from the Pueblo and hope they died of starvation on the journey.
Enraged, they executed the man and headed home. The journey was long, and many of the men who returned were in financial ruin.
Did They Ever Exist?
It’s obvious now that there were no cities made of gold like the Spanish originally believed. To this day, historians’ debate over whether Friar Marcos de Niza was being truthful or only telling the Spaniards something he believed they wanted to hear. It wouldn’t be the first time people have ridden off into the sunset on a lie.
The Spanish took a lot of riches from the Aztec and Inca Empire when they colonized them. But because they came by it easily, there were beliefs there was further treasure out there. When they heard the friar’s tale, they were quick to take it as gospel.
They didn’t leave empty-handed. They found copper and turquoise mines in Pueblo and made money out of that. The Pueblo tribes like the Zuni are renowned for their turquoise.
But as far as the idea that there were seven cities full of riches and gold waiting to be plundered, that one will have to stay a myth.