The Chichilticalli Trail Part II – The Pathfinders

Read part I here

While everyone likes to point out that Coronado was following established trade routes, it is not mentioned often enough who chose the route. The route Coronado followed was the same as that traversed by Fray Marcos de Niza the year before, and to a large extent, the same as that followed by Cabeza de Vaca. So by studying the accounts of these two journeys we can get a better understanding of Coronado’s path.

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca

I don’t even pretend to be a Cabeza de Vaca scholar, nor would I want to be, his journey is the only one I know of that is documented worse than Coronado’s. It seems like there are as many proposed routes for Cabeza de Vaca as there are scholars who have studied his journal. But it doesn’t make a lot of difference for our purposes which route he took, I am going to use logic, and not waypoints to make my point here. For the record, the proposed route for Cabeza de Vaca that I favor most is that set forth in the book We Came Naked and Barefoot, I highly recommend this book to anyone interested.

Whether Cabeza de Vaca travelled west through southern New Mexico or northern Chihuahua, makes little difference, he was searching for the people who had corn, he could not have failed to have noticed the Opata of the Bavispe River. His narrative says thus.

After spending two days there, we decided to go look for corn. We did not want to follow the buffalo trails towards the North and go out of our way, since we were always sure that by heading west we would find what we wanted. So we made our way and crossed the entire country until we came to the South Sea. Their stories of great hunger were not enough to frighten us and keep us from doing this, although we did suffer greatly from hunger for seventeen days, as they had said we would. All along the way upriver 1 people 2 gave us many buffalo-skin blankets. 3 We did not eat that fruit [chacan]; our only food each day was a handful of deer fat which we always tried to keep for such times of need. And so we journeyed for seventeen days, at the end of which we crossed the river and traveled for seventeen 4 more.

At sunset, on plains 5 between some very tall mountains, 6 we found some people who eat nothing but powdered straw 7 for a third of the year. Since it was that season of the year, we had to eat it too. At the end of our journey we found a permanent settlement where there was abundant corn. The people gave us a large quantity of it and of cornmeal, squash, beans and cotton blankets. We loaded the people who had led us there with everything and they departed the happiest people in the world. We gave great thanks to God our Lord for having led us there where we had found so much food. Some of these dwellings were made of earth and the others made of reed mats.

After two days were past we determined to go in search of maize, and not to follow the road to the cows, since the latter carried us to the north, which meant a very great circuit, as we held it always certain that by going towards sunset we should reach the goal of our wishes. So we went on our way and traversed the whole country to the South Sea, and our resolution was not shaken by the fear of great starvation, which the Indians said we should suffer (and indeed suffered.) during the first seventeen days of travel. All along the river, and in the course of these seventeen days we received plenty of cowhides, and did not eat of their famous fruit (cha- can), but our food consisted (for each day) of a handful of deer-tallow, which for that purpose we always sought to keep, and so endured these seventeen days, at the end of which we crossed the river and marched for seventeen days more.

At sunset, on a plain between very high mountains, we met people who, for one-third of the year, eat but powdered straw, and as we went by just at that time, had to eat it also, until, at the end of that journey we found some permanent houses, with plenty of harvested maize, of which and of its meal they gave us great quantities, also squashes and beans, and blankets of cotton, with all of which we loaded those who had conducted us thither, so that they went home the most contented people upon earth. We gave God our Lord many thanks for having taken us where there was plenty to eat.

After crossing from the Rio Grande in a westerly direction for 17 days, there is little doubt that this first permanent village with corn, squash, beans and cotton blankets were the Opata. It is very unlikely that they could have passed through southern Arizona to the headwaters of the Rio Sonora, just north of Opata country without learning of the Opata’s presence nearby and going to them. If then this village where Cabeza de Vaca found corn was an Opata village, then it follows that they travelled south along the Rio Bavispe on the next part of their journey, not overland to the Rio Sonora through largely uninhabited country, for he next says.

Among the houses there were several made of earth, and others of cane matting; and from here we travelled more than a hundred leagues, always meeting permanent houses and a great stock of maize and beans, and they gave us many deer (-hides?) and blankets of cotton better than those of New Spain. They also gave us plenty of beads made out of the coral found in the South Sea; many good turquoises, which they get from the north; they-finally gave us all they had; and Dorantes they presented with five emeralds, shaped as arrow-points, which arrows they use in their feasts and dances. As they appeared to be of very good quality, I asked whence they got them from, and they said it was from some very high mountains toward the north, where they traded for them with feather-bushes and parrot- plumes, and they said also that there were villages with many people and very big houses.

So after reaching the Opata, they traveled more than 100 leagues among similar people (Eudeve, Tehuima, Jova), which would no doubt bring them south along one of the tributaries of the upper Yaqui and out of our area of interest. One other item of interest in the above quotation is the mention of the villages with many people and very big houses in some very high mountains to the north, this is the first mention of Cibola and no doubt was the report that got the conquistadors excited as they believed there would be other rich empires to conquer in the new world like those of Mexico and Peru.

Marcos de Niza

Next Marcos de Niza was sent to verify the story. How would he find his way? He brought along Esteban, the black african who had accompanied Cabeza de Vaca across the continent. Esteban guided De Niza back along the same path they had followed up through the Opata villages they had come through three years earlier. From the most northerly Opata village Esteban was familiar with they no doubt had natives guide them along the route towards Zuni. De Niza’s account is actually no easier to follow than is Cabeza de Vaca’s or any of those from Coronado’s expedition, but we can gain some insights.

The Truth Will Set You Free

Much has been written about De Niza’s dishonesty in reporting the facts, from 1540 down to our time this man has been maligned, it is my opinion though that he is a guilty of no more than being overly enthusiastic and was the scapegoat for the conquistadors overinflated expectations. If you read his Relación, there are no outlandish claims there of cities constructed of gold, they are described of being made of mud and stone, it is reasonable to assume that De Niza may have exaggerated some things in his zeal, but there is no evidence of outright falsehoods. William K. Hartmann does an excellent job of pointing out how De Niza was held accountable for things he did not say in the article Pathfinder for Coronado – Reevaluating the Mysterious Journey of Marcos de Niza. I did want to say something about motive though. De Niza had no motive to lie about what he saw and did on his journey north, any lies in this area would be found out when the conquistadors arrived and for that reason alone it doesn’t make sense. Furthermore he was a priest who took his religion seriously, in those days, before our modern era of cynicism, people took religion quite seriously and often lived in fear of divine retribution. So let us examine the account of Marcos de Niza under the assumption that he was telling the truth.

Marcos’s Path

Marcos now follows Estiban back the way he had come down 3 years previous, he writes.

And so I traveled that day, the second day of Easter, and two other days, traveling the same jornadas as had Estevan, at the end of which I reached the people who had given him information of the seven cities and of the country farther away, the which told me that from there it was thirty jornadas to the city of Cíbola, which is the first of the seven, and I had the account not only from one, but from many…

It sounds like he travels into the land of a different people than he had been traveling through, these people are the ones Cabeza de Vaca had first learned of Cibola from in the first place, the people of the corn, the Opata. From here he learns it is thirty “jornadas” (days journey) to Cibola. It is stated in several places that it is 15 days from the edge of the great despoblado (wilderness), also the approximate location of Chichilticalli, to Cibola, therefore he is roughly 15 days south of Chichilticalli at this point, probably somewhere in the upper Yaqui River drainage. He next write.

Next day I continued my journey… I reached another settlement where I was very well received by its people, who tried to touch my robe, and they informed me of the land which was my destination, as particularly as I had been told before, and they told me how people from that village had gone four or five jornadas with Estevan Dorantes. Here I came upon a large cross erected by Estevan to indicate that the news of the good country always increases, and he left word for me to hurry on and that he would await me at the end of the next despoblado. Here I erected two crosses and took possession, in compliance with instructions, because it appeared to me that this was a better land than that which I had passed, and so it was proper to perform there the acts of possession. And after this manner I continued for five days, always finding well populated settlements where I was received with great hospitality and receptions and where I found many turquoises and cowhides, and the same report of the country. They all spoke to me of Cíbola and that province as people who knew that I was going in search of it and they told me how Estevan had preceded me.

It seems as though he has now traveled no more than six days of the fifteen to Chichiliticalli, all through a populated region, as no doubt the Bavispe/Upper Yaqui River Valley would have been. He speaks of how good this land was, as he traveled north he was moving out of the low desert and into Upper Sonoran life zones which were more suited to agriculture in his eyes. Also notice here that Estiban, by way of messengers is promising to wait for him at Chichilticalli, that is, at the end of the next despoblado  Marcos lists two despoblado between this point and Cibola, one of four days right before Chichilticalli, and the great despoblado of fifteen days right after.

Here I received messengers from Estevan, who told me on his part that he had already entered the last despoblado, and was very happy, because he was going more assured of the grandeur of the country; and he sent to me to tell me that, since he separated from me, he had never caught the Indians in any lie, and that until there (i.e., up to that time) everything had been found as they said it would be, and so he anticipated finding the rest.

Here Marcos receives messengers telling him that Estiban has continued on without waiting at Chichilticalli as he had promised. It’s a bit ironic that he next launches into an explanation of how honest the indians are and that they have not lied about anything, when Estiban has just broken his word he gave to Marcos to wait for him.

Here in this valley, as in the other towns I passed, I placed crosses and performed the acts of possession that were proper, conforming to the instructions. The natives of this villa asked me to rest myself with them for three or four days, because there was the despoblado four jornadas from there, and from the beginning of it until arriving at Cíbola made fifteen long days of travel; and they wished to prepare food and to dress themselves properly for it. And they told me that more than three hundred men had gone from there with Estevan, the black, to accompany him and carry his food, and many wished also to go with me, to serve me and because they expected to return rich men. I acknowledged the favor and told them to prepare quickly, because with my desire to see Cíbola, each day seemed to me a year.

It seems as though there were a number of days of travel left out of this account. From the time he was told it was thirty days to Cibola only six days of travel have been accounted for, yet we now are told that Cibola is only nineteen days away. So I am assuming that Marcos was sloppy here and left out his uneventful travels through the remaining Opata villages. At any rate he now appears to have reached the last village before Chichilticalli, this village has long been assumed to be in the area of Tres Alamos on the San Pedro River, but if he traveled up the Bavispe then continued north, then the valley he mentions here relates to the valley of the river called “Nexpa” in Jarmillo’s narrative, and this village would be along the San Simon River, somewhere in the vicinity of San Simon, Arizona (this is based on information in Jarmillo’s narrative that I will discuss in a later article). It makes sense that they would ask him to stay here before going on. This would be the place where the trail left the river valley and traveled east across more deserted country with little water and shade, he would be making this trip the first week of May, which would be hot, dry and difficult. The night after leaving this village may have had to be a dry camp before reaching the Burro Mountains on the second day where there would be springs.

The other thing this account tells us (or at least suggests), is that Jarmillo was wrong in some of his dates, he does say at one point “it is so long since we went there that I may be wrong in some days, though not in the rest”, it is my contention that it was so long since they went there, around twenty years passed between the time he made the trip and wrote about it. Marcos de Niza wrote this shortly after his trip so I tend to believe him over Jaramillo, Marcos says it is four days from the Nexpa to the great despoblado  while Jaramillo says it is two days to the foot of the mountains, an unidentified amount of time to cross the mountains and three more days to the San Juan River where the wilderness begins, making a minimum of five or six days where the more believable number is four. One could make the point that they were traveling at different rates, but they both say that the great despoblado was fifteen days across, so I have to assume that the rate of travel had to be similar.

The forgotten traveler – Melchior Diaz

Estiban and Marcos de Niza were not the only ones to see Chichilticalli before Coronado’s party arrived, it is sometimes left out that Melchior Diaz was sent ahead to verify Marcos de Niza’s account ahead of Coronado’s expedition. And although we only get his account in a secondhand fashion, still what we can learn from this tells us a lot about the location of Chichilticalli. On November 17, 1539 Melchior Diaz with a contingent of fifteen men traveled north to follow in Marcos de Niza’s footsteps, no doubt guided by some indians who had accompanied the friar. The following is from a letter from Viceroy Mendoza to the King.

Some days ago I wrote to Your Majesty that I had ordered Melchior Diaz, who was in the town of San Miguel de Culuacan, to take some horsemen and see if the account given by the father, Friar Marcos, agreed with what he could discover. He set out from Culuacan with fifteen horsemen, the 17th of November last. The 20th of this present March I received a letter from him, which he sent me by Juan de Zaldyvar and three other horsemen. In this he says that after he left Culuacan and crossed the river of Petatlan he was everywhere very well received by the Indians… They say that they suffered from hunger in many places, because it had been a bad year. After going 100 leagues from Culuacan, he began to find the country cold, with severe frosts, and the farther he went on the colder it became, until he reached a point where some Indians whom he had with him were frozen, and two Spaniards were in great danger. Seeing this, he decided not to go any farther until the winter was over, and to send back, by those whom I mentioned, an account of what he had learned concerning Cibola and the country beyond, which is as follows, taken literally from his letter:

“I have given Your Lordship an account of what happened to me along the way; and seeing that it is impossible to cross the uninhabited region which stretches from here to Cibola, on account of the heavy snows and the cold, I will give Your Lordship an account of what I have learned about Cibola…”

Melchior Diaz says that the people whom he found along the way do not have any settlements at all, except in one valley which is 150 leagues from Culuacan, which is well settled and has houses with lofts, and that there are many people along the way, but that they are not good for anything except to make them Christians, as if this was of small account.

Diaz doesn’t refer to Chichilticalli by name (neither does Marcos for that matter), but we know he was there, in fact he spent some time there. We know this from his account because he tells us that the “uninhabited region stretches from here to Cibola”, meaning that he wrote this letter from the edge of the great despoblado which other accounts make clear is the location of Chichilticalli. He was stopped in his northern progress towards Cibola by cold and snow, this corresponds to other accounts that shows that the great despoblado was a mountainous region. It was here, on the edge of the wilderness, near the high mountains that he spent time waiting until winter was over and collecting information about Cibola to send back. The narrative of Casteneda, which we will discuss in more depth later, gives us another clue as to where Diaz overwintered.

…he left orders for Captain Melchior Diaz and Juan de Saldivar to start off with a dozen good men from Culiacan and verify what Friar Marcos had seen and heard. They started and went as far as Chichilticalli, which is where the wilderness begins, 220 leagues from Culiacan, and there they turned back, not finding anything important.

So both the clues in Diaz’s account and Casteneda’s account point to Chichilticalli as the place where Diaz spent the winter of 1539/1540.

Diaz’s distances

Very few distances are given in any accounts related to the Coronado expedition so we have to get excited about any measurements we can get. Diaz tells us that the well settled region along the route was 150 leagues from Culiacan, if we subtract that figure from the 220 leagues that Casteneda tells us is the distance from Chichilticalli to Culiacan we can determine that this populous region is 70 leagues south of Chichilticalli or 241.6 miles which taking the Bavispe puts us right in the heart of Opata country somewhere south of Nacozari Sonora. An area that is consistent with Diaz’s description as being cold in the winter (Nacozari is at an elevation of over 3,400 feet). If we trace the route backwards from some other popular Chichilticalli candidates down the Sonora River we come to the following elevations.

76 Ranch – 3,200 feet
Kuykendall Ruin – 2,500 feet

This populated area probably also corresponds to the area described by Marcos as “it appeared to me that this was a better land than that which I had passed” and the area described by Cabeza de Vaca as “we travelled more than a hundred leagues, always meeting permanent houses and a great stock of maize and beans, and they gave us many deer hides and blankets of cotton better than those of New Spain.” Diaz describes some of their houses as “houses with lofts”, I assume he is describing permanent houses of stone or adobe which would correspond to Cabeza de Vaca’s description of the houses in the same region “Among the houses there were several made of earth”.


There are as many good reasons to consider the upper reaches of the Yaqui River as the route the Coronado expedition used to travel north as there are to consider the Sonora River, yet many people attempting to plot Coronado’s route across Arizona and New Mexico start with a faulty assumption and begin at the US Mexican border near Palominas Arizona. I believe they entered what is today the United States near the San Bernardino Ranch if far southeast Arizona because:

  • Cabeza de Vaca left the Rio Grande heading west looking for corn, which led him to the Opata along the upper Yaqui.
  • Estiban led Marcos de Niza back along the same route
  • The pattern of landmarks fits numerous details in the narratives
  • The Yaqui is higher in elevation than the Sonora and would therefore provide the cold freezing weather Diaz describes.
  • This higher elevation inspired Marcos de Niza to comment on how much better this land was when he moved out of the low desert.

All the information we have points to Chichilticalli being on the edge of the wilderness, not just some uninhabited area between Apache Pass and the Gila River, but a cold mountainous wilderness consistent with the White Mountains. (More on this to come in the next installment)

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “The Chichilticalli Trail Part II – The Pathfinders”

  1. Andy…..

    I noted that your last entry here was in 2009. Do you still have an interest in Chichilticalli, the Coronado Campsite, and Palatkwapi?

    I have a 100+ year old, unpublished, dissertation that deals with these subjects. If you, or any of your readers, have any interest, let me know. I’ve been to the Chichilticalli site discovered by the author in 1900-1910, but, I’m only a researcher, not an archaeologist.


    1. Gary

      Yes, I am still on the trail of Chichilticalli, I am currently reviving this project after a few years hiatus. I would love to take a look at your old manuscript or even to publish it here if you are interested.

      Let me know.


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