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Treasures of the Catalinas

The Legend: Coronado’s discovers gold at the Cañon

By Robert Zucker

One of the earliest legends in the search for gold in the Santa Catalina Mountains was a  topic in the debate on Coronado’s route during his search for the Seven Cities of Gold (Cibola). His journey apparently ended in failure. But, a legend about Coronado adds a twist to the history.

Five years before Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s expedition in 1535, Spanish explorer Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, two companions, and a black Moorish slave named Estevan (or Estevanico), escaped from imprisonment by natives in Florida. They made their way across the southern land. Along the way, they heard tales of cities of gold called the “Seven Cities of Cibola.” While they were not found, it sparked the imagination, and rumors, of extraordinary wealth in the new land. [1]

Four years later after Cabeza, in 1539, Franciscan explorer and Frenchman Fray Marcos de Niza (Nica) passed through the San Pedro Valley, accompanied by Estevan the slave, to follow up on de Vaca’s exploration for the Seven Cities of Cibola farther north.

Cibola possibly stood at the Pueblo of Zuni on the Arizona-New Mexico boundary. Subsequent trips by others failed to find the rich cities, but a trail through the San Pedro Valley, east of the Santa Catalinas, became established for many years. A marker was placed near the bridge across the San Pedro at Palominas by the Dons of Phoenix to commemorate Fray Marcos de Niza’s passage. [2] Although Niza’s group may have passed by the Santa Catalinas, they paved the way for others who ventured inside.

In retelling the early Spanish stories in the 1930s, one prospector embellished the legend when he included the year 1539 in his history of the Catalina mountains. C.W. McKee believed a priest named Francist (Niza was a Franciscan friar) enslaved the local natives to mine the Santa Catalina Mountains that year and eventually were driven out. McKee, however, was the only one who used that year and name of Francist in his rendition of the legend. [3]

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s Spanish expedition to locate the fabled Seven Cities of Gold between 1540-42 was also a futile search. History says he never found the gold or the riches. And, his actual route is still in dispute.

The legend-part of this story has Coronado’s group making a stop at the Cañada del Oro in the Santa Catalina Mountains. History is not so clear.

In 1871, General J.H. Simpson, [4] who wrote a book on the expedition, was the first to suggest that Coronado’s group stopped at the “Santa Catarina Mountains.” [5] It was here, he proposed, where they “descended the stream two days, and quitted it to the right at a foot of a chain of mountains,” which they followed for two days. [6]

Twenty-five years later, this story was repeated in a compilation of reports of “The Coronado Expedition.” This translated account, originally written by Pedro de Casteñada, who was on the expedition, is similar. But, it leaves it out any reference to the Catalinas:

“From here we went through deserted country for about four days to another river, which we heard called Nexpa, where some poor Indians came out to see the general, with presents of little value, with some stalks of roasted maguey and pitahayas. [7]  We went down this stream two days, and left the stream, going toward the right to the foot of the mountain chain in two day’s journey, where we heard news of what is called Chichiltic Calli.”  [8]

Historian Col. Charles D. Poston, considered to be the Father of Arizona, [9] believed that when the Coronado expedition went down this stream for two days they “stopped here awhile and washed some gold from the sands of the Cañon del Oro [10] on sheep skins.” [11] He went on to say that, “the Spaniards, from this experience, remembering the island of Colchis, [12] named Tucson, Jason in Spanish.” This is supposedly the first use of the name the city bears today. [13] Poston, however, is the only one to suggest the gold discovery and this origin of Tucson’s name. Because of his status, his statements were taken as fact.

The argument is still whether the Nexpa river could be either the Santa Cruz River or the San Pedro River. The Cañon del Oro lies in between.

Juan Camilo Jaramillio, who also chronicled that expedition, mentioned the Nexpa River twice in his account. His original report is no longer accessible, except for an English translation of a faulty French version. Friar Marcos’ earlier description suggests that it was the Santa Cruz River over the San Pedro River. [14]

Most historians disagree, or even acknowledge, if Coronado ever found gold or ever was near Tucson or the Cañon del Oro. Poston didn’t cite his source and none of the translations of the expedition mention such a discovery or name the location. His story, though, is similar to a finding in the same spot a few hundred years later by another military officer.

Dr. Freeman suggested in 1917, that if Coronado’s team traveled along the Santa Cruz, they must have passed the site of the San Xavier mission and the future site of Tucson. When they realized they were going off course, they left the Santa Cruz and went along the western base of the Catalina Mountains until they reached Casa Grande. [15] Freeman does not specify if they went through the Cañon del Oro, but it is on the western slope and does lead to the San Pedro River on the eastern side. The San Pedro eventually leads to the Gila River and then to Casa Grande. The other theory is that after crossing a four-day uninhabited area, the Coronado expedition  only went along the San Pedro River on the east side of the Santa Catalina Mountains. [16] [17]

A few years later, “Calling their finds the ‘Seven Cities of Cibola’... in 1582, Antonio de Espejo reported on the richness of the region and the discovery of mines in what is today central Arizona.” [18] He didn’t mention specific locations.

If Coronado, or his group, ever did scoop up gold from the Cañada del Oro, there is no surviving account.

It would take another hundred years for another tale to become merged into the Catalina Mountains’ history.

[1] “A History of Mining in AZ, The Mission, Means and Memories of Arizona Miners,” Arizona Mining Association website. Page 2. http://www.azmining.com/

[2] Ibid. Page 12-13.

[3] See series “Romantic Story of Mine With Iron Door Began With Conquistadors and Indians,” by Sherry Bowen. Part 1 to 6, The Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, Arizona. December 21, 1932. McKee’s story is told later in this book.

[4] “Coronado’s March in Search of the “Seven Cities of Cibola,” and discussion of their probable location,” by Brevet Brigadier General J.H. Simpson, 1871. Contains the “Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution for 1869,” which includes notes mentioned in these chapters. http://ia600502.us.archive.org/

[5] Santa Catarina was the name used at that time for the Santa Catalina Mountains.

[6] “Coronado’s March In Search of the Seven Cities of Cibola,” by Brevet Brigadier Gen. J.H. Simpson, published in the Executive Documents, U.S. House of Representatives, 1871. Page 325.

[7] Interesting Side Note: Maguey is a desert plant like the agave, century plant and aloe that is grown in the Santa Cruz Valley and other parts of the Sonoran desert. Its fibers could be used for clothing, building materials and juices can be fermented to make alcoholic beverages. Today, agave juice is distilled and processed into tequila. The natives would also consume large amounts of pitaya fruit and then remove the seeds after defecation. The seeds were collected, often roasted, and ingested as a “second harvest.” There is no mention if the pitaya that the Spaniards received were from a “second harvest.”

[8]“Translation of the Narrative of Jaramillo,” in “The Coronado Expedition, 1540-1542,” By Pedro de Casteñada de Najera, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, Antonio de Mendoza, Juan Camilo Jaramillo. U.S. Government Printing Office, 1896. Pages 585-586.

[9] Charles Debrille Poston (1825-1902) was called the Father of Arizona because of his role to help Arizona gain territorial status. He was one of the first white settlers who arrived in 1853 on a mining trip. He died in near poverty in 1902. http://arizonaexperience.org)

[10] Cañon del Oro was the name used at the time for the Cañada del Oro.

[11] Published in “Building A State in Apache Land,” Charles Poston, President of the Arizona Historical Society, from articles in the Overland Express Monthly and the Out West Magazine, July-December (August) 1894. Page 205.

[12] Colchis (Mingrelia), a mining area, from “A History of the Precious Metals, from the earliest times to the present,” by Alex Del Mar, M.E., 1902.

[13] Ibid.

[14] “Chichiticalli,” from the “Bulletin of the American Geographical Society,” Volume 40. 1913. Pages 268-269.

[15]“Coronado’s Expedition in 1540,” address before the Arizona Archeological Society by Dr. Merrill P. Freeman. March 19, 1917. Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley.

[16] This theory is advanced by Bolton 1949; Flint and Flint 2005; Reff 1981, 1997; Riley 1987, 1997; Seymour 2007a, 2008. http://www.seymourharlan.com

[17] “The Conquest of Mexico” in “The Spanish Settlements Within the Present Limits of the United States,” by Woodbury Lowery. Page 299. “…ascended the Sonora and descended the San Pedro Valley, and turning eastward where the lower course of the stream becomes impassable, went through or around the rugged chain of the Santa Catalina Mountains which skirt the eastern side of the San Pedro.”

[18] “A History of Cochise County, Arizona,” By Carl Trischka, reprinted in The Cochise Quarterly, Vol. 1. No. 3, September 1971. “The Coming of the Spaniards,” Page 9-12. http://www.cochisecountyhistory.org/

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