As early as 1541 Europeans were right here in southwest Kansas. The event was Francisco Vázquez de Coronado y Luján's exploration of our continent.
Usually referred to "Coronado," he was born to a noble family in 1510 in Salamanca, Spain. In 1535, at the age of 25 he traveled to New Spain (Mexico). While there, he married into a wealthy family wedding 12-year-old Beatriz de Estrada who had eight children by him.
In 1539 Coronado, as governor of Nueva Galicia, New Spain, sent Friar Marcos de Niza and Estevanico into present-day New Mexico and Arizona.
The Friar returned with of tales of the magnificent city of Cíbola on a hill.
This city which rivaled cities in Mexico was where the Zuni presumably killed Estevanico. This ignited Coronado's quest for the "Cities of Cibola" later known as the "Seven Cities of Gold."
Coronado, along with his friend, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza invested much of their own money to find the wondrous place Friar Niza only saw from a distance.
Coronado began his expedition on Feb. 23, 1540 from Compostela, New Spain starting up Mexico's west coast. He led 400 European men-at-arms, 1300 to 2,000 Mexican Indians and four Franciscan friars, the most notable of which was Juan De Padilla.
Slaves, family members and servants also joined their party.
Due to limited resources on the route, Coronado split up the expedition into several smaller bands by the end of March. In April they reached the fabled city of Cibola.
It was a huge disappointment. Coronado, not appreciating Friar Niza's hopeful exaggeration, ordered Niza back to Mexico.
All the while, Coronado's expedition engaged in numerous battles with the Native Americans.
In the spring of 1541, Coronado heard of yet another city of wealth, Quivira, far to the east in what is now Kansas. On his way east, he encountered large flat plains filled with bison in the panhandles of Texas and Oklahoma.
Coronado, unsure he was heading the right direction, send most of his party back to New Mexico. He crossed the Arkansas River six miles east of Dodge City near present day Fort Dodge on June 29, which is the Holy Day of Saints Peter and Paul, so he named the turbulent river El Rio de San Pedro y San Pablo.
On that day, Father Juan De Padilla held the first Christian service in what is now the State of Kansas. The Mass was in thanksgiving for having brought them safely so far.
Coronado’s expedition slowly continued east along the north bank of the river and eventually found the Quivira Indian villages.
Though there were many large prosperous villages, again the information he had received about the Quivira was exaggerated. The only sign of wealth he found was a copper pendant.
The entourage spent 25 days in this settlement where they, along with Father Padilla’s ministries, were well received by the Indians.
Unfortunately for Padilla, he wished to extend his missionary work to surrounding areas.
Despite warnings not to, the father went to the neighboring Kaw, or Kansas Indians, village. Two days into the trip, a group of angry warriors killed his party. Father Juan De Padilla went down in history as America’s first Christian martyr.
Coronado, disappointed in the Quivira, returned to New Mexico and on back to Mexico in the spring of 1542.
Though Coronado remained governor of Nueva Galicia until 1544, he suffered both financially and personally. He died of infection on Sept. 24, 1554 in Mexico City, where he is buried under the altar of the Church of Santo Domingo.
To commemorate Coronado and his party, the Ford County Historical Society installed a 38 foot high pressed concrete cross just east of Fort Dodge in June 1975.