Melchior Diaz

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, governor of modern day Sinaloa and Nayarit, set out with an entourage of 340 Spanish, 300 Indian allies, and 1000 slaves, both native Americans and Africans, to find the Seven Cities of Cibola described by Fray Marcos de Niza, the Franciscan monk Coronado had sent out earlier to explore the area north of his territory. After many hardships and splinter expeditions, Coronado found seven Zuni Puebloan villages of earth and stone. A far cry from the vivid and richly embellished descriptions Fray Marcos had included in his dispatches.

Meanwhile, the Coronado expedition's main column, with more than 1000 people and several thousand head of livestock, was advancing slowly but steadily up the trail from Culiacan to overtake him with the expectation of great riches. Coronado hoped that supplies, transported on three vessels captained by Hernando Alarcon, would soon reach him somehow from the Gulf of California. He sent Melchior Diaz with the dual purpose of solidifying the Spanish grip on a new settlement (San Hieronimo de los Corazones) in the central Sonoran Desert, and to hurry westward to meet with Alarcon's ships along the coast of the gulf.

ConquistadorsAccording to legend, during his travels Captain Melchior Diaz came across a tribe of giants. Taking twenty-five of his "most efficient men" and some guides, Diaz struck out toward the north and west in search of the seacoast and the ships. "After going about 150 leagues," reports Pedro de Castaneda, "they came to a province of exceedingly tall and strong men--like giants " Evidently, these were the Cocopa, a Yuman tribe.

According to Castaneda, these huge Indians went about mostly naked. "They . . . live," he adds, "in large straw cabins built underground like smoke houses, with only the straw roof above ground. They enter these at one end and come out at the other. More than a hundred persons, old and young, sleep in one cabin. When they carry anything, they can take a load of more than three or four hundredweight on their heads. Once when our men wished to fetch a log for the fire, and six men were unable to carry it, one of these Indians is reported to have come and raised it in his arms, put it on his head alone, and carried it very easily."

While among these Cocopas, the captain learned that ships had been seen at a point three days down toward the sea. But when Diaz' finally reached this place, he saw no sign of a sail, even to the distant horizon. On a tree near the shore, however, his party found this written message: "Alarcon reached this place; there are letters at the foot of this tree." Diaz dug up the letters and learned from them how long Alarcon had waited for news of the army and that he had gone back with the ships to New Spain, i.e., Mexico.

Melchior Diaz decided to push on westward in an attempt to reach the Pacific Ocean. It was near the steaming mud volcanoes (presumably where the geothermic plant is now) outside present day Mexicali that one of the expedition's greyhound dogs began to bully their sheep. Melchior spurred his horse in pursuit, drew back his lance and threw it at the troublesome canine. He missed. The lance buried itself in the ground at an angle that brought the weapon upon him with unfortunate and deadly speed. The butt end of the lance, capped with iron to give balance to the weapon, drove itself into his groin.

Melchior's men carried their captain, suffering terribly from his wound, for twenty days before Diaz finally died. His body is presumably buried in the desert somewhere west of the Imperial Valley.

Coronado's Elegy Upon the Death of Melchior Diaz

Melchior, I heard it in the wind--
We set history on a new path
Such as we have seen rivers bend--
You, I history; like Euclid math.

Your spirit collides with mine over
That great gorge in the earth, and we kneel,
Before God--to know that such power
Sculpted this . . . this . . . shall we come and kneel?

Ah Melchior, why did death (God) take
You at the crease of fame? Why must I
Whisper good-bye to the air and stake
My claims to yours? Oh God, Mary why? Why!

Does the red canyon's path spell your name
Melchior--Does its power contain
That which was you, all you--shall your fame
Ever reach to here, where drops of rain

Make no noise? Do I hear correctly,
That the future will know not of you
But of this canyon?--Your legacy
On this cold world--In three days you grew

A beard and still did not reach the bottom.
But I toast you with our finest mead
And ponder and ask you Melchior:
Who said that we should ever succeed?

  --from Francisco Vasquez de Coronado,
a poem by Patrick Kanouse