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.
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.
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 and food supply. 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
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
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.
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