Cibola: A Tale of Estebanico, Coronodo, and the Seven Cities of Gold

Cibola is circled in red.

Cibola is circled in red.

About a week ago a client told me she was from Cibola. Now, as a map dealer, Cibola I am well aware of. It appears on most early maps of the American southwest. It was sought after by Coronado, Marcos, and other early conquistadors. By most reports it was never found and is today considered to have been an apocryphal destination associated with the 8th century Spanish legend of the “Seven Cities of Gold”. Of course, now I was confronted with another puzzle, for there it was on the map, the modern map, Cibola County, New Mexico. I had always been meaning to do a post on Cibola – I find legends of the golden cities of the American southwest particularly interesting, and this event was enough to prompt me to further research.

The legend of Cibola emerged in Europe long before Columbus sailed the ocean blue, during the Moorish invasion of Spain. It was said that when the Moors invaded Porto in the early 8th century, the city’s seven bishops took all of their wealth and fled to sea. They landed on an island in the Atlantic called “Antilla”. There, each of the seven bishops established a city. The island of Antilla actually appears on many early portolan charts of the Atlantic. It is a rectangular island, usually but not always set on a north south axis, with seven deep bays, each of which holds a magnificent city.

Antilla appears on the far left of this 1455 map by Pareto.  Spain and Morocco are on the right.

Antilla appears on the far left of this 1455 map by Pareto. Spain and Morocco are on the right.

When Columbus began exploring the Americas, many naturally assumed that one or several of the islands he encountered might be the legendary Antilla. Some geographers, noting that the shape of Porto Rico resembles the shape of Antilla on early maps, associated the two islands. Of course, in time, the name Antilla became Antilles, and is still in use today to refer to the West India Islands. Nonetheless, at the time, explorers were a little disappointed that none of the Caribbean islands yielded Antilla’s most striking and well known commodity – riches.

The closest any early Conquistador came to discovering mineral wealth in the West India Islands was most likely Columbus who, landing on Hispaniola, found natives wearing golden earrings and other minor adornments. The indigenous peoples of Hispaniola, the Taino, claimed that his wealth came from rich mines far inland in the mountainous valley of Cibao. Columbus sent several expeditions to conquer Cibao, but the gold he expected to find never materialized. Today Cibao is a poor agricultural region in the Dominican Republic. Cibao is important to us because it is the first identifiable usage of a term that resembles “Cibola” in association with a land of gold.

The next major proponent in this story is Estebanico or Estevanico. Estebanico was described by a contemporary as a “black Arab from Azamoor”. Azamoor was coastal city in northwestern Morocco. It was conquered by the Portuguese in the early 16th century and used as a staging point for the collection and resale of African slaves. As a “black Arab from Azamoor” we can make a few assumptions regarding Estebanico. He would have been highly educated, have spoken fluent Arabic and Latin as well as Spanish and Portugese, and have been raised Muslim but forcibly converted to Christianity before being sold in Spain. All of these factors would come to play an important part in Estebanico’s future and in the future of the Americas.

Eventually Estebanico was acquired at the Seville slave market by the wealthy Spanish seaman Captain Andres Dorantes. In 1528 Dorantes, and consequently Estebanico, became part of Panfilo de Narvaez’s ill fated expedition to colonize the New World. Narvaez had just received a land grant that consisted of a substantial territory in what is today northern Mexico and Texas. His colonization expedition sailed from Cuba with the intention of crossing the Gulf of Mexico directly and landing near the mouth of the Rio de los Palmas (Rio Soto la Marina). Unfortunately, the ships instead misjudged the power of the Gulf Stream current and were pushed off course towards northwestern Florida, where they landed. What followed is one of the most mysterious, dramatic, and epic tales in the course of American history. The colonists, struggling to survive, made their way across much of North America, in doing so becoming the first Europeans to encounter many of the indigenous groups in habiting the interior of North America. Eventually a small handful of survivors, including the chronicler of the expedition, Cabeza de Vaca, Dorantes and Estebanico made it back to Mexico.

As they made their way across the continent, the group established itself among the indigenous populations of North America as slaves, merchants, and eventually mystical healers. Estebanico, with his gift for languages and natural affable manner, generally acted as the spokesman for the group and as an intermediary between the indigenous Americans and the Spanish. Not only did this position afford Estebanico considerable personal freedom, it also elevated him to a highly revered position in both communities.

The route of Estebanicao and Cabeza de Vaca across America.

The route of Estebanicao and Cabeza de Vaca across America.

Many of the American Indian groups the natives encountered in modern day Mexico, Texas and New Mexico were hunter gatherers who moved from place to place, following the seasons. From time to time, however, they did hear of larger stable populations who had abundant wealth and built cities, far to the north. This will later have a significant impact on our story.

When the group finally returned to Mexico, they carried with them dramatic tales of their epic journey. The Spanish Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza seized on tales of large and wealthy cities far to the north and sent the Franciscan monk Marcos de Niza to investigate this claim. Marcos was accompanied by Estebanico, who was pressed to serve as the expedition’s guide.

Heading north, Estebanico and Marcos developed a strained relationship over the leadership of the expedition. Estebanico rarely obeyed Marcos and often ranged well ahead of the party. Among the Native America, Estebanico fell into the same role he had performed so admirably and for so long – intermediary and healer. Marcos’s account comments with disgust that Estebanico acquired great stores turquoise and other wealth as well as many [native] women. Ultimately, Estebanico was rarely seen, ranging far ahead and communicating with the friar only via messages attached to crosses. Once such message said that Estebanico had heard word of a great civilization of seven cities, each with multistory buildings, where people wore fine cotton clothing. Estebanico called this place Cibola.

1794 Map of Showing Cibola as a Zuni City

1794 Map of Showing Cibola as a Zuni City

This is the first historic usage of the word Cibola. While we cannot know for certain where the word came from we can make some guesses. We know that the term “Cibola” was not previously known to either the Zuni, whose pueblos they were about to discover, or to the Spanish. For the origins of this term we must look to Estebanico. Estebanico, who had spent time in Cuba and Hispaniola before setting sail for the mainland with Narvarez, must certainly have been aware of the futile gold mining efforts in Cibao. He was also the only person on the expedition fluent in Arabic. The closest word we could find to Cibola, is the Arabic term “Subola” – meaning the path or way. Estebanico may have combined Cibao and “subola”, or simply used the term “subola” to tell Marcos that this was the “way”.

1720 Chatelain Map of North America w/ Cibola Circled in Red

1720 Chatelain Map of North America w/ Cibola Circled in Red

Or, he may have been playing a joke on the Spanish in a bid for freedom. The next report we get suggests that Estebanico encountered the Zuni pueblo and was immediately killed by the natives. There is no further report of Estebanico and from this point forward he is never heard from again – nor is his body found. We can only wonder if, after years traveling the southwest with Cabaza de Vaca, after becoming fluent in a number of American Indian languages, after being revered as a powerful healer, Estebanico decided that returning to the conquistador world as a slave was nowhere near as appealing as living lavishly among the American Indians tribes? Perhaps “Cibola” was nothing more than Estebanico’s joke on Marcos and his “death” at Zuni hands a clever subterfuge that would allow him to leave behind the European world forever – most likely we will never know.

Upon hearing of Estebanico’s death, Marcos claimed to have pressed on to see the city of Cibola himself. What Marcos actually saw is impossible to tell. The Zuni in the region were known to occupy six or seven well spaced pueblos. It has been suggested that Marcos entered the valley at sunset, when the sun’s position over the valley creates the dramatic effect of highlighting the adobe walls such that they looked like gold. More likely Marcos, hearing that Estebanico was killed, decided to flee rather than risk the same fate himself. Whatever may or may not have happened, Marcos returned to Mexico with dramatic claims that he discovered a magnificent city of gold with wide paved boulevards and other wonders.

Fresh from the conquest of the Aztec capital at Mexico, this did not seem too far-fetched to the Spanish conquistadors. A young bravo with dreams of becoming the next Cortez or Pizarro leveraged his wealth and family connections to be given charge the expedition to conquer Cibola. That young man, Hernando Coronado, would proceed to leave a bloody trail of slaughter and death across much of the American southwest. His wanton violence and the European diseases his troop carried devastated the once significant American Indian populations in the region to the point where they never recovered.

Coronodo took Marcos north, following in Estebanico’s footsteps to the Zuni pueblo where Marcos claimed to have seen a great city. Of Estebanico there was no trace. The Zuni pueblo held little of what Coronado sought. There were no deposits of gold, no great cities, no mighty civilizations to conquer. To the nomadic hunter gatherers encountered by Cabeza de Vaca and Estebanico, the Zuni valley with is six or seven multistory pueblos must have seemed a great city – much as it was described. To Coronado, whose men expected to find a repeat of the glories of Tenochtitlan, the site must have been a profound disappointment. Coronado, discouraged but not defeated, decided to try for another legendary city described by the some of the American Indian groups he encountered – Quivara.

As time passed and Coronado was forgotten, the legend of the city of gold seen by Marcos remained alive. The Seven Cities of Gold from Spanish legend and the six Zuni pueblos of New Mexico merged to become a new legend – the Seven Cities of Cibola. Cibola appears on countless early maps of the Americans roughly in the same place it is today. In the early 19th century, following exploration of the region by Humboldt, Fremont, and others, the name Cibola largely disappeared from maps before being resurrected as a county name in New Mexico’s statehood period.


Babcock, W. H., Legendary Islands of the Atlantic, 1922.
Crone, G. R. “The Origin of the Name Antillia” The Geographical Journal, Vol. 91, No. 3 (Mar., 1938), pp. 260-262.
Skelton, R. A, Explorers’ Maps: Chapters in the Cartographic Record of Geographical Discovery.
Portinaro, P., The Cartography of North America: 1500-1800, 1999.
Clissold, S., The Seven Cities of CĂ­bola, (London: Eyre and Spottiswood, 1961).
Resendez, Andres, A Land So Strange: The Epic Journey of Cabeza de Vaca.
Horwitz, T., A Voyage Long and Strange, 2008.
Kennedy, R. G., Hidden Cities: The Discovery and Loss of Ancient North American Civilization, (New York, Free Press), 1994.
Lepore, J., Encounters in the New World: A History in Documents, (Oxford University Press), 2000.

The Mountains of the Moon and the Sources of the Nile

The Mountains of the Moon are one of the most consistent and enduring apocryphal elements in the history of cartography. Cartographers mapped the Mountains of the Moon and two or three associated lakes as the source of the Nile River from the 14th to the early 19th century. We always found it remarkable that this one feature was consistently mapped in the otherwise blank or speculative interior of Africa. From whence did it come?

The source of the Nile River has been a matter of speculation for thousands of years. The ancient Greek historian Herodotus was probably the first to compile and record the various theories of the river’s origins. According to Herodotus, the Ancient Egyptians believed that the Nile had its source in two great mountains within which were eternal springs. From here one branch was said to flow north, dividing Egypt, and another south into Nubia and Ethiopia. The priests of Sais, from whom Herodotus extracted this theory, believe the mountains to lie somewhere between Thebes and Elephantine (Aswan). Cleary, even in Herodotus’ day, the Nile had been explored well into Nubia and this was generally known to be false.

Herodotus also mentions several other theories, one of which we shall mention here. It was believed by some that the Nile River’s annual inundation was caused by snowfall at its source. Herodotus spurned this theory based upon the well known fact that, as one travels south towards the equator it becomes excessively hot. In Herodotus’ day it was believed that the temperatures in the Torrid Zone, as it was called, where so severe and the beasts that dwelt there so ferocious, that the region was all but impassable. How, Herodotus asked, could there be snows in such a place? Despite being wholeheartedly dismissed by Herodotus, this theory is very close to the truth.

Actual course of the Nile River.

Actual course of the Nile River.

Before moving forward with the next major figure in this story, it is perhaps prudent to describe the actual course of the Nile River. Traveling against the Nile’s current, one would head directly south for many thousands of miles, passing through Egypt and Sudan before coming to a divide near the modern city of Khartoum or ancient Meroe.

Coronelli's Map of the Source of the Nile

Coronelli's 1690 Map - the first to show the source of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia.

Following the eastern branch of the river, the Blue Nile, one would travel in a southeasterly direction into modern day Ethiopia, where the river makes a dramatic bend of some 100 miles to the point where it flows southwards from Lake Tana. North of Tana are the spectacular Simian Mountains. One of the highest ranges in Africa, the Simians are one of the few places on the continent to receive significant and regular snowfall. A modern giordano libero traveler to the Simians may be disappointed with the snow – global warming – but inscriptions dating to the 6th century (the Adulite inscription) record how military campaigns marching through the region were knee deep in snowfall.

The other branch of the Nile, the White Nile, splits off to the southwest. Following this branch will eventually lead to Lake Victoria. Victoria is at the base of the Rwenzori Mountains. The Rwenzori, which means “maker of rain” in local dialects, are a small but dramatic range just to the northwest of Lake Victoria. These mountains, like the Simians, experience regular and significant snowfall. They also hold several significant glaciers. Today these are among the most endangered glacial formations on the planet. This region is also one of last surviving habitats for the rare endangered Mountain Gorilla.

Ptolemy's Source of the Nile

Ptolemy's Source of the Nile

Back to our story. The next major compiler of information on the interior of Africa was the 2nd century Alexandrian geographer Claudius Ptolemy. The influence of Ptolemy on the cartographic tradition cannot be understated and lasted well into the modern era. Ptolemy’s Geographica consisted of several books accompanied by maps. Unfortunately Ptolemy’s original maps are lost to us today though mediaeval copies do exist. Ptolemy compiled his geography of Africa based on the writings of Marinus of Tyre. Marinus recorded that around 50 CE the Greek trader Diogenes traveled inland from Rhapta (coastal city in what is today Tanzania) for 25 days before encountering two great lakes and a snowy range of mountains where the Nile draws its source (Lane-Poole 1950: 4).

Though there is some debate on this subject, it seems very clear that Diogenes, traveling directly west from the coast, came upon either Lake Nyassa or Lake Victoria (or both). The nearby snowcapped mountains could only be the Rwenzori range. Others have suggested that Diogenes may have spotted Kilimanjaro, however, this is unlikely given the absence of a major lake in the region as well as that that Diogenes described a range rather than a solitary mountain. In any case, via Marinus’s writings, the travels of the Greek merchant Diogenes found their way into to Ptolemy’s canonical Geographica and we see the first appearance of the Mountains of the Moon.

With such a provocative name, the “Mountains of the Moon”, one must wonder from whence it was derived. There is some speculation (in fact the only we’ve come across) that this is a transliteration into Greek of the Amharic name for the mountains near Lake Tana at the source of the Blue Nile, called to this day, the Simians. In Amharic, “Simian Mountains” translates as “Northern Mountains”. However, a liberal transliteration of the word “Simian” into Greek might come up with “Selene” – the Moon Goddess.

How, one wonders, did the Simian Mountains get confused with the Rwenzori Mountains thousands of miles away? One must remember that Ptolemy was piecing together very sparse second and third hand accounts of merchant voyages, military campaigns, ancient Egyptian records, etc. The southernmost inland city in Africa in Ptolemy’s Geography is Axum in Ethiopia. Lake Tana and the Simien Mountains were still a significant distance further south. Nor are Ptolemy’s coordinates necessarily accurate with regard to latitude. Nor would Ptolemy, more familiar with the great mountain ranges of Europe and Asia, have been familiar with the small but dramatic mountain ranges of Africa. It is not hard to imagine how, from this perspective, two mountain ranges, relatively close, both associated with lakes, and both associated with the source of the Nile, might be assumed to be one and the same. It is thus likely the he simply applied the known name, Simian-Selene, to all mountains associated with the Nile’s source.

In the 4th Century CE, Ethiopia converted to Coptic Christianity. From this critical point onward, regular communication between the Ethiopian Orthodox church and the Coptic centers in Egypt provided the first accurate maps of Ethiopia. Consequently, by the time cartographers in the Middle Ages began translating Ptolemy’s surviving texts and interpreting them into maps, the source of the Blue Nile was known. Though Ptolemy does not specifically note the presence of Lake Tana, it is mapped in even the earliest medieval interpretations of Ptolemy’s work. Thus by the time the first European maps of Africa were being drawn, the mystery of the Blue Nile’s source been solved.

Which left the more mysterious White Nile. Drawing from Ptolemy, cartographers repositioned the Mountains of the Moon and their lakes further south – where they remained until the 19th century. In the late 18th century many cartographers, including such luminaries as Anville and De L’Isle, chose to remove either the Mountains of the Moon, the Lakes of the Nile, or both from their maps of the region. It was not until the exploration of John Speke and Henry Morton Stanley in the mid 19th century until these lakes ultimately reappeared and Ptolemy’s not so apocryphal geography of the Nile was proven eerily correct.

G.W.B. Huntingford, Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, p. 175 (London: the Hakluyt Society, 1980).
Ralph Ehrenberg, Mapping the World : An Illustrated History of Cartography (National Geographic, 2005)
William Desborough Cooley, Claudius Ptolemy and The Nile . . . (London, 1854).