Legends of gold and treasure played a large and dynamic role in shaping the history of the southwestern U.S. Nothing in the history of man has inspired more acts of mayhem than the promise of wealth for the taking. In the case of the Seven Cities of Cibola (the Seven cities of Gold), the search for these fabled cities shaped the heritage and culture of the West.
The Seven Cities of Cibola were said to be legendary cities of gold located somewhere in the American Southwest. In 1539, the Spanish missionary Fr. Marcos de Niza discovered the Zuni people living in seven villages in present-day Arizona and New Mexico. Unfortunately, de Niza observed the villages from a distance, and therefore, he most likely came to the incorrect conclusion that the cities were full of treasure.
The Spanish took great wealth back to Spain as they conquered the Aztec and Inca people of South and Central America. It was easy for Spanish officials to believe Friar de Niza’s story when he said he’d seen the Seven Cities Cibola. His report created the legend that motivated Spanish expeditions into the southwest for decades to come. Among the explorers was Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, who led a large expedition from northwestern Mexico in 1540. With some three hundred Spanish troops and Native American slaves, Coronado conquered the Zuni pueblos (what they thought of as the province of Cibola, what is now the present day Zuni Reservation in New Mexico), but found no gold.
Ironically, at the same time Coronado was exploring the Great Plains, Hernando de Soto’s expedition was pushing West from Florida. The two expeditions probably passed within a couple hundred miles of each other. Had they met, the history of the Southwest and Southeast might have radically changed. Had the two expeditions met, a series of base camps might have formed that could have led to eventual settlement along the Gulf of Mexico from Florida to Texas.
Thanks to rumors of golden cities, Spanish expeditions explored many areas of the Southwest. Once the areas were explored, settlers quickly followed. Much of the Southwest belonged Mexico before war and outright purchase by the U.S. stripped the lands from Spanish hands. Yet the early history, architecture and heritage of the Southwest was strongly influenced by these early settlers, much of which remains a part of the Southwest even today.
Historians have debated for years over what de Niza might actually have seen. Most scholars agree that de Niza likely listened to local rumors and never actually laid eyes on the Seven Cities of Cibola or Quivira. However, others wonder if somewhere in the Southwest, a hidden settlement remains to be found where the wealth of the city(s) of gold lies waiting.