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News of Yavapai County

Days Past: How Arizona got on the map, Part 3 stories

Previously: The Coronado Expedition reached the Zuni village of Hawikuh in July 1540. The Zuni tried to send the Spaniards on their way with assurances that they would find cities of gold if they just kept going. Coronado would fall for this line just a few more times.

Hoping to find riches without having to go too much farther, Coronado remained at Hawikuh for three months while scouting parties searched for other villages. He learned of multi-story pueblos to the northwest in a province called Tusayan — the Hopi lands of northern Arizona. Pedro de Tovar went to investigate. The Hopi had heard through the “moccasin telegraph” that unwelcome strangers were on the way, but they discovered resistance against the Spaniards was futile, as it had been for the Zuni at Hawikuh. Futile, too, was the Spanish hope for easy wealth.

The one interesting report Tovar brought back to Coronado was a rumor of a great river that flowed to the west. Might this be a fabled route to the riches of the Orient? Or, more practically, might it be a route to link up with Captain Alarcon’s supply ships which had sailed up the Colorado River as far as present-day Yuma. (One of the fantasies spun by Fray Marcos, along with his tales of seven cities of gold, was that the sea was visible from Hawikuh. Alarcon waited in vain for Coronado’s men who were an impossible several hundred miles away.)

Garcia Lopez de Cardenas and a few soldiers went to Hopi and persuaded guides to take them to the river. The Hopi knew many routes to the river, even to smooth water far to the west. They knew routes down from the rim of a great gorge, which, three hundred years later, would come to be known as the Grand Canyon. They knew the Havasu who lived and farmed in the canyon. They showed Cardenas none of these things.

For what could have been a trek of just five or six days, the Hopi guides took twenty. The route they followed is unknown, as is the spot at which Cardenas saw the river. One of the expedition’s chroniclers said they arrived at a spot “elevated and full of low twisted pines, very cold [even though it was still the warm season] and lying open toward the north.” This is not particularly helpful; for once, the Spaniards’ powers of observation and penchant for detailed journals failed them. Rather, they failed us, since we cannot ascertain exactly where they saw the canyon and the river.

The National Park Service has erected a display at Moran Point on the

Grand Canyon’s East Rim Drive to indicate a spot where Cardenas might have seen the river. [One contemporary scholar suggests the spot could have been some fifty miles farther to the west.] Nevertheless, Moran Point is as good a guess as any, as it fits the Spaniards’ narrative:

“Descent to the river was impossible . . . at the end of three days the most agile men set themselves to climbing down at a place that seemed . . . the least difficult. They descended a long time in view of those who remained above until their forms were lost from sight. . . They did not complete the descent because of great obstacles they found. What from above seemed easy was not, but rather very rugged and rough. They said they had descended a third of the way. . .”

The Hopi guides must have known what they were doing. As they promised, they took Cardenas to a spot where he could see the river. It was also a spot at which there was no way to get down to the river.

Astonished, Cardenas reported that the river appeared to be about six feet wide, but his men said it was many times that. Rocks, which appeared to be the size of a man, were found to be taller than the tower of Seville (some 340 feet). He was off by a factor of fifty to sixty in both estimations. Cardenas and his men had no frame of reference for assessing the canyon. “Bewildered” would be the right word.

Most early explorers who saw the canyon, even if they thought it to be worthless, had something to say about the colors of the rocks, the vastness of the vista, or nature’s architecture of castles, cathedrals and colonnades. Cardenas: nothing. It barely warranted any mention in the record.

Of all the wonderful natural places in the United States that have become National Parks, the Grand Canyon has the distinction of being the first to be “discovered” (by Europeans, at least), and one of the very the last to be explored, mapped and named.

In the next part of our series, scheduled for May 20 we’ll wrap up the story of Coronado’s expedition. Hint: he gets really tired of being told: “Just keep going you’ll find it.”

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International ( This and other Days Past articles are also available at The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to [email protected] Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-277-2003, or via email at [email protected] for information.

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