Seven Cities of Gold: The Story Behind Arizona’s Earliest Yarnspinners
Excerpt from Arizoniana by Marshall Trimble, the state’s official historian.
Most folks believe the art of pullin’ legs attached to tenderfeet began with the arrival of windjammin’ mountain men, prospectors and cowboys. But it seems that Arizonans have been tellin’ whoppers to newcomers much earlier.
Latter-day liars would be hard pressed to match the native raconteurs who greeted the Spanish explorers. Legends of golden cities provided the inspiration for the great Coronado Expedition into this area in 1540-42. The dashing Spaniard and his hard-riding conquistadores rode roughshod over the local natives in their quest for the mythical golden boulders of the madre del oro. Naturally, the natives quickly learned that the fastest way to rid their villages of the unwanted newcomers was to direct their search elsewhere.
After Coronado overran the pueblo of Hawikuh (near today’s Zuni, New Mexico), local natives told of seven cities to the northwest. Determined to follow every possible lead, Coronado sent an exploring party that led to the discovery of the Hopi villages.
The Hopi were far from thrilled by the presence of outsiders and told them to go further west where a great river flowed. Coronado’s spirits were lifted. The claiming for Spain of the Northwest Passage—the legendary waterway across North America—would be a good consolation prize if the Seven Cities of Gold failed to materialize. So, another expedition was sent forth.
It was a great river alright, but it was twisting its muddy way through the grandest of canyons, a mile below. The mighty river looked to be only six inches wide from the explorers vantage point. No doubt the Spaniards gazed at the scenic wonder in wide-eyed amazement and a couple of daring adventurers even tried, unsuccessfully, to climb to
Next Coronado turned his attention eastward. He didn’t know it but the word was already out—the taller the tale, the more gullible these gold-hungry Spaniards were. Near today’s Albuquerque, a native yarnspinner, nicknamed El Turco, (The Turk) “because he looked like one,” told of a land to the east called Quivira where huge sailing ships with magnificent golden eagles on the bow carried people on a mighty river where also lived fish as large as horses. The common tableware of these people consisted of pure gold and silver. Bells of solid gold hung from the trees in this magical kingdom and were used to lull the people to sleep. Where was this golden paradise called Quivira? El Turco’s response was a grand gesture towards West Texas.
El Turco’s free-wheeling imagination devised a clever scheme intended to lure the Spaniards out into the desolate, waterless wastes of West Texas where they would surely perish. The plan almost worked. The timely arrival of precious rain was all that saved the gold seekers. El Turco paid for that tall tale with his life and the trail-weary Spaniards were beginning to doubt the existence of a fabled waterway or cities of gold.
After two years of searching, the Spanish returned to Mexico City in 1542. The chronicler for the expedition, Pedro deCastaneda, summed it up philosophically noting, “Granted they did not find the gold, at least they found a good place in which to search.”