When the Age of Discovery began in Europe in the 15th century, the maritime empires of Spain and Portugal financed naval expeditions across the world’s oceans.
Their rediscovery of the New World, the exploration of the West African coast and the ocean route to the East brought so much wealth to the two empires, according to accounts.
But they also hungered for gold, so when they heard from local legends about Cibola, the Seven Cities of gold, their conquistadors launched expeditions to search for the cities.
The fabulous Seven Cities, according to legend, were established initially by seven alleged Bishops who had fled from the Iberian peninsula after the invasion of the Moors.
Fresh talks about the seven cities began in the 1530s when four survivors of the disastrous Narváez expedition managed to return to New Spain. Their expedition which began in 1527 was aimed at the colonization of Florida. However, in 1528, the crew was shipwrecked on the coast of Texas while attempting to sail from Mexico to Florida.
Those who survived were captured by the indigenous people. One of these survivors was Estebanico or Estevanico (his exact name is unknown).
He was a Moroccan slave who had taken part in the Narváez expedition and would later lead the expedition to the Seven Cities of gold ahead of the famous Spanish conquistador, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.
Those who survived were captured by the indigenous people. One of these survivors was Estebanico or Estevanico (his exact name is unknown). He was a Moroccan slave who had taken part in the Narváez expedition and would later lead the expedition to the Seven Cities of gold ahead of the famous Spanish conquistador, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado.
Estevanico was born at the beginning of the 16th century when the Arabs of Morroco were in constant warfare with their Spanish and Portuguese neighbours to the north.
Estevanico was captured during one of these conflicts and sold as a slave in Spain. He was sold to a Spanish nobleman, Andrés Dorantes de Carranca, and was in 1527, taken on the Spanish Narváez expedition to establish a colony in Florida.
Estevanico became one of four survivors among 300 men who explored the peninsula. By late 1528, he was among the now 80 members of the crew who survived and was washed ashore at Galveston Island after an effort to sail homemade crafts across the Gulf of Mexico.
For eight years, Estevanico traveled with Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, and Alonso del Castillo Maldonado across northern New Spain (present-day U.S. Southwest and northern Mexico).
It is recorded that along these eight years, Estevanico and the others found themselves as traders, shamans, slaves, and even healers to the native people they encountered.
Upon reaching an unidentified location in northern Texas, the group was allegedly given a baby’s rattle made of smelted gold and worked copper, and was told by locals that the present had come from a wealthy tribe to the north. This began the legend about seven cities of gold, said to be located somewhere in the Sonoran Desert.
When the team finally arrived in New Spain after being rescued in 1536, they told stories of the so-called wealthy cities, particularly, the seven cities of Cibola.
After hearing these tales, the Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza sent an expedition in 1539 under Estevanico and a Franciscan priest, Marcos de Niza to investigate.
Historical accounts state that Estevanico was chosen to guide or lead the expedition because he was believed to have much knowledge about the land after having survived a previous expedition.
He was also an educated and intelligent man, spoke several languages and was often welcomed by many of the tribes he encountered as compared to the other crew members.
Estevanico and Niza began their journey on March 7, 1539. Two weeks later Niza decided to camp while Estevanico went ahead to scout the trail, according to accounts.
Estebanico, throughout the journey, was always ahead of the group. As his relationship with di Niza worsened, he stayed so far ahead of the group that their only communication was by a message tied to a cross.
Other accounts state that after four days into the search, Native American messengers informed Niza that Estevanico had heard news that he was within a thirty days’ march from Cíbola and he wanted Niza to join him.
Estevanico, however, did not attempt waiting for Niza and in each new village the latter entered, he found a message from Estevanico saying that he had continued ahead. For weeks, Niza chased him but he never caught up with him.
Reports said that Estevanico went through the vast desert region of the Mexican state of Sonora and the area that is now southern Arizona. He became the first Westerner to enter the area of Arizona and New Mexico.
In May, he reached the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, which was apparently the first of the Seven Cities of Cíbola. But the locals at Hawikuh did not give Estevanico the warm reception he had expected and they eventually killed him. His “magic” gourd which he usually used to entice people could not even save him.
The Zunis would later explain that they had killed Estevanico because he claimed there was a huge army with many weapons coming behind him. The chiefs thought he was a spy and they felt that their last resort at being safe was to kill him.
Upon his death, several of his Native American escorts escaped the Zuni village. They informed Niza about Estevanico’s death when they found him.
Niza managed to return to Mexico City, where he reported that he saw one of the cities of Cibola from a distance. He claimed he did not enter the city.
“He said that ultimately, he had witnessed with his own eyes, a city fat greater than the city of Tenochtitlan. There, in this majestic city, the natives were adorned with all sorts of riches: they used silver and fold dishes, decorating their houses and temples with never-before-seen pearls, emeralds, and jewels,” according to an article by Ancient Code.
Varying accounts, however, state that Niza might have lied about seeing Hawikuh since it was in fact only a small pueblo, built of stone, adobe mud, and other local material.
His report, nevertheless, inspired Mendoza to send out a larger expedition the following year, this time under the leadership of the conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado.
In February 1940, Coronado led 350 Spanish soldiers and about 1300 indigenous allies north in search of the Seven Cities. But instead of finding the so-called great cities with walls made of gold, Coronado and his men, for two years, only “found modest indigenous villages with walls of adobe mud.”
They also found traces of Estevanico’s belongings. Thus, as Billy Yates writes in Ancient History, the mystery that surrounds the Seven Cities of Cibola has never been solved.
“Was it very impoverished neighbors seeing the modern equivalent of the middle-class and considering them comparatively wealthy? Did Friar di Niza actually venture close enough to see the walls of the homes at sunset? If so, the brownish mud may have shone in such a way to give the hopeful friar the illusion of gold. By saying the people were very wealthy, did Estebanico play a practical joke in his final message?”
Perhaps, somewhere in America’s Southwest, the so-called Seven Cities of gold are still hidden and waiting to be discovered.