Niza, Fray Marcos de
By Richard Flint and Shirley Cushing Flint
Without the work of fray Marcos de Niza, there may never have been a Coronado expedition. It was evidence provided in his 1539 report that triggered launch of the expedition the following year. Had Marcos's report been less glowing in its descriptions of the peoples living northwest of New Spain, investors likely would have been less forthcoming and expeditionaries who paid their own way would have looked for other opportunities elsewhere in the hemisphere.
The friar who set the ball of the Coronado expedition rolling had his origins far away from what has become northwest Mexico and the American Southwest, in the Duchy of Savoy in the southeast of today's France. Marcos was born there, in the city of Nice, in about 1495. He was orphaned and, when he had reached an appropriate age, took religious vows in the "observant" wing of the Order of Friars Minor, or Franciscans. He, thus, came of age speaking a dialect of French and preaching in Latin.
Born when he was, Marcos grew up in a Europe infused with excitement over the revelation of a New World and the peoples who inhabited it. Caught up in that general excitement and the particular fervor of his order for conversion of the peoples of the Western Hemisphere, Marcos traveled to Spain in 1530. Within a very few years, he had become conversant in Castellano, or Spanish as we would call it today, and was sent as a missionary to the Americas.
After brief stops on the island of Hispaniola and in Guatemala, fray Marcos made his way to Peru, perhaps about the time of or shortly after the conquest of Cajamarca led by Francisco Pizarro in late 1532. The friar's time in Peru is one of the murkiest in the documentary record of his career. If, indeed, he reached Peru in 1532 or early 1533, he soon returned to Guatemala and then made the journey to Peru a second time, in 1534, in the company of Pedro de Alvarado, who carried supplies and reinforcements to the Pizarro brothers.
In Peru Marcos became custodio, or superior, of the small group of Franciscans there. There is controversial evidence that during his tenure in Peru Marcos wrote a series of manuscripts outlining the prehistory and conquest of Peru and Ecuador. Whether or not such documents ever existed, it is well attested that Marcos corresponded with the great champion of Indian rights fray Bartolomé de las Casas. Fray Bartolomé included an excerpt of a letter from Marcos concerning activities in Peru in his indictment of Spanish conquests in the Americas, Brevissima relación de la destrucción de las indias (A Brief Account of the Devastation of the Indies).
By fall of 1536, Marcos was once again in Guatemala, and half a year later was in Mexico City. There, the recent arrival of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and three companions after an incredible walk across the continent was still very much a sensation. Those four had brought with them reports that suggested the existence of large, affluent towns far to the north of New Spain. Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza, in an effort to verify those reports, sought to recruit Cabeza de Vaca or one of the others to lead a reconnaissance to the north. But the viceroy's overtures were rejected.
Not one to be discouraged, Mendoza approached the religious establishment for nomination of someone to lead his planned reconnaissance. Both Bishop fray Juan de Zumárraga and fray Antonio de Ciudad Rodrigo, head of the Franciscan province, put forward the name of fray Marcos. The viceroy invited Marcos to make the journey in company with Esteban de Dorantes, the black slave of one of Cabeza de Vaca's companions and himself a survivor of the cross-continent trek. The friar accepted.
Escorted by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, Marcos, Esteban, and a second Franciscan friar, Onorato, departed from Mexico City late in the fall of 1538. After an interval in Nueva Galicia, waiting for a favorable traveling season, that trio and a sizeable escort of Indians left Culiacán, the northernmost Spanish outpost, in March 1539. Within days, though, fray Onorato fell ill and had to be left behind.
By Eastertime Marcos and Esteban, with their cohort of native guides, had reached a native community called Vacapa (BAHcahpah) in what is now southern Sonora. Wanting to learn his distance from the coast of the Mar del Sur, or Pacific Ocean, yet anxious to move the reconnaissance forward, the friar dispatched Indian messengers to the coast and sent Esteban ahead along the northward route. Marcos stipulated that if Esteban received good news, he was to send the friar a sign. "If what [was reported]," the friar wrote later, "was of moderate importance, he would send me a white cross [the size] of one palmo; if it was grand, he would send one two palmos [in size]; and if it was something grander and better than Nueva España, he would send me a large cross."
Just four days later, Indian messengers returned from Esteban carrying a "cross the size of a man" and bringing word of a marvelous place called Cíbola. Despite his now urgent desire to proceed on northward, Marcos awaited the return of his messengers to the coast, as well as the culmination of the Easter observances, before starting in pursuit of Esteban. For weeks thereafter Marcos trailed behind the slave, who continued to send messages of very large and wealthy population centers ahead, messages seemingly confirmed by local native people along the well-traveled route.
Finally, though, came appalling news. Esteban had reached Cíbola and had been killed there. As a result, his Indian escort was fleeing back southward. Marcos later claimed that, after distributing gifts to the Indians who accompanied him, he and a few of them made their way to within sight of Cíbola. There they set up a tiny cross and took formal possession for the king of Spain before turning around and rushing south to deliver their titillating news.
In Nueva Galicia Marcos rejoined Vázquez de Coronado, now governor of the province. Together, they hurried on toward Mexico City to share the friar's report with the viceroy. In early September 1539 Marcos completed a formal, written report. What that report said, in essence, was that yes, indeed, large prosperous towns such as those reported by Cabeza de Vaca did exist. Something, though, disturbed the viceroy about the report. He immediately dispatched a courier to Culiacán, directing its alcalde, or judge-administrator, to ride north as quickly as possible to find out whether he could confirm Marcos's assertions and descriptions.
Meanwhile, Mendoza and Vázquez de Coronado promptly set about raising a force to take Cíbola by force if necessary. By November as many as 2,000 people, European, African, and Native American, were en route in small groups to Compostela, the capital of Nueva Galicia, where official enrollment in a major expedition would take place. In late February 1540 Viceroy Mendoza conducted the formal muster there, and two days later the expedition set out with Vázquez de Coronado as captain general and fray Marcos as principal guide.
After having traveled some 80 miles, the expedition met Melchor Díaz, the alcalde of Culiacán, with discouraging news after his reconnaissance toward Cíbola. Although he and his companions had not been able to reach Cíbola because of severe winter weather, they had extensively questioned indigenous people of the region they had reached, Chichilticale, the last permanently settled place before Cíbola. And they had been unable to verify the friar's report. The result of this news was an angry restlessness among the expeditionaries, which was calmed only with hasty, optimistic speeches made by Marcos himself. He promised that Cíbola would prove to be as grand as he had been saying it was. As Captain Diego López later testified, though, after Díaz's report, he "held no hope that they would come across anything [worthwhile]."
Months later, in July 1540, when the advance guard of the expedition finally reached Cíbola, it, indeed, proved far less magnificent than what the expeditionaries had expected, "a small pueblo crowded together and spilling down a cliff." Anger against Marcos boiled over. There were threats against his life. As Vázquez de Coronado himself put it in a letter he sent to the viceroy about a month after arrival at Cíbola, "[Marcos] has not spoken the truth in anything he said. Instead, everything has been quite contrary, except the name of the ciudad and the large, stone houses.”
This time the friar made no attempt to placate the infuriated expeditionaries and no effort to defend himself against the charge of having lied. "It was publicly known and widely held that fray Marcos had not seen things previously that he had pretended to." It was not safe for him to stay with the expedition. When Captain Juan Gallego was sent south with the captain general's indignant letter to the viceroy, Marcos went with him.
Though Mendoza received fray Marcos with a cool politeness and even took him a year later in the force he led to put down a massive native uprising in Nueva Galicia, the friar's reputation was destroyed. Marcos retreated to a monastery in Xochimilco, where he lived in seclusion and silence until his death in 1558. He suffered an enduring ostracism owing to his reputation as having misled so many aspiring conquistadores.
His most grievous lie was that he had personally seen Cíbola before arriving there in July 1540 with the captain general. His own official report strongly suggests that he had not, and his contemporaries were unanimous in their opinion that he had not reached Cíbola, not even to view from a distance, in 1539.
As a millenarian Franciscan, that is, one who believed in the imminent end of the world and return of Christ, Marcos's conviction that he could personally have a hand in that apocalyptic event may have motivated the lie. He was convinced that the end would come only after all the people of the world had been offered the chance to convert to Christianity. Thus, he could not afford to leave the people of Cíbola, Tiguex, Quivira, and the rest of Tierra Nueva unmissionized. But because of their hostile reaction to Esteban, it was obvious to Marcos that would require force of arms. So his lie got the expedition to Cíbola, which offered the possibility of extending the faith to that part of the world. To have knowledge of the people of Tierra Nueva and not carry the faith to them would, in Marcos's view and that of his fellow millenarians, stymie the coming of God's kingdom on earth, an unconscionable failure for a man such as he.
Bolton, Herbert E. Coronado, Knight of Pueblos and Plains. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1949.
Flint, Richard. Great Cruelties Have Been Reported: The 1544 Investigation of the Coronado Expedition. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 2002.
Flint, Richard. The Coronado Entrada: Aspiring Lords, Unwilling Vassals. Book manuscript in preparation.
Flint, Richard and Shirley Cushing Flint, eds. and trs. Documents of the Coronado Expedition, 1539-1542: "They Were Not familiar with His Majesty, nor Did They Wish to Be His Subjects." Dallas: Southern Methodist University, 2005.
Hallenbeck, Cleve. The Journey of Fray Marcos de Niza. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1949.
Nallino, Michel. “Fray Marcos de Niza: In Pursuit of Franciscan Utopia in the Americas.” Paper presented at the conference “Contemporary Vantage on the Coronado Expedition through Documents and Artifacts,” Las Vegas, New Mexico, 2000.
Weber, David J. Myth and the History of the Hispanic Southwest. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.
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