Fray Marcos de Niza was an Italian Franciscan friar. He emigrated to America in 1540 for exploration of new land, and after serving his order zealously in Peru, Guatemala and was chosen to explore the country north of Sonora, whose wealth was depicted in the accounts of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. In 1537 he arrived in Mexico City at the request of the viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. Preceded by Estevanico, the Moroccan-Berber companion of Cabeza de Vaca in his wanderings and the Black Mexican of Zuni traditions.
Fray Marcos left Culiacán in March 1539, crossed south-eastern Arizona near the present-day Lochiel, penetrated to the Zuni or the Seven Cities of Cibola, and in September returned to Culiacán. He saw Cibola only from a distance, and his description of it as equal in size to Mexico City was probably exact; but he embodied much mere hearsay in his report, Descubrimiento de las siete ciudades, which led Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to make his famous expedition next year to Zuni Pueblo, in present-day New Mexico, of which Fray Marcos was the guide; and the realities proved a great disappointment.
Marcos de Niza was a priest who was sent north from Mexico City by Viceroy Mendoza in 1538-39 to search for wealthy cities that were rumored to be somewhere north of the frontier of New Spain. In early 1539 he left the frontier at Compostela and journeyed north into the unknown for several months. In the summer of 1539 he returned and wrote a report saying he had discovered the cities - in a province called Cibola (the present-day native American pueblo of Zuni, New Mexico). He said he reached the first city and saw it from a distance, but because his companion had been killed there, he returned without entering it.
Most popular writers claim Marcos reported gold in Cibola, but his original report says nothing about gold. Nonetheless, conquistadors in Mexico city were exited by his news and assumed Cibola would be as wealthy as the conquered Aztec empire. Marcos led Coronado's army back to Cibola the next year, in 1540, but he became the scapegoat when Cibola turned out to have no gold, and the soldiers said he was a liar.
In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza and Estevanico (aka “Esteban the Moor”), one of the Narvaez survivors, crossed into what is now Arizona, probably somewhere between the Patagonia and Huachuca mountains. Estevanico went ahead to Hawikuh, a pueblo near today’s village of Zuni, N.M. The residents, unimpressed, pumped him full of arrows, but not before he sent a messenger back to Fray Marcos, who had already heard rumors about the magnificent city of Cibola. The friar traveled just far enough to see Hawikuh from a distance, then hightailed it back home.
Fray Marcos de Niza set out from New Spain (todays Central America) to explore lands to the north in the name of Catholicism and the King of Spain. He journeyed towards the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola but turned back after hearing news that Esteban the Moor, who had gone ahead of the party, had been killed at Hawikuh, one of the seven cities. Indian guides who escaped Estebans fate told the friar how Esteban had entered Hawikuh dressed in robes and holding a copper rattle. Estebans party may have interrupted a summer ceremony; or it may be his flamboyant behavior disturbed the Zunis. According to the Zunis, Esteban crossed a line drawn with sacred cornmeal, and they overpowered and killed him for this transgression. Fray Marcos planted a cross in the earth near Hawikuh, but he never saw any golden Cities of Cíbola. Nevertheless, upon his return to New Spain, he spoke of marvelous golden cities, inspiring the Spanish viceroy to organize another northern expedition in search of gold and souls.
Here, Fray Marcos describes his travels and the fate of Esteban:
For five centuries, scholars have debated what de Niza saw when he claimed he’d found Cibola—or whether he simply told Spanish officials what they wanted to hear. The great wealth the Spaniards took when they conquered the Aztec of Central America and the Inca of South America only fueled beliefs that still more riches lay somewhere in the interior of what is now the United States. So when Friar de Niza said he’d seen Cibola, Spanish officials were eager to believe him.
The conquests of the Aztec and Inka empires in the early 1500s brought great wealth to Spain in the form of gold and silver. Inspired by this wealth and driven by greed for even more wealth, many Spanish expeditions set out to find gold and silver which could be easily plundered from other Native civilizations. Legends which told of Native cities with streets of gold and other forms of wealth were often translated by Spanish explorers as reality which awaited them if they persisted. While the locations of these fabled cities and lost civilizations were nebulous at best, this did not stop the Spanish from mounting expeditions to search for them.