Unlike most other famous conquistadores, Vázquez de Coronado was born in a noble family, and in fact arrived in the Americas as part of the entourage of Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza. He turned out to be a good diplomat with the native elite, especially compared Nuño de Guzmán, who had been just condemned and jailed for being an ass to the indigenous, so Vázquez received several jobs of responsability, among them governor of the modern lands of Jalisco, Sinaloa and Nayari, and later solidified his position by marrying Beatriz de Estrada, the fifteen-year-old daughter of Hernán Cortés's former treasurer. He looked to have a comfy life, but the legend of the Seven Cities of Gold caressed his ears by way of the conquistador negro Estevanico de Dorantes, one of the few survivors of the disastrous expedition by Pánfilo de Narváez. Mendoza sent Estevanico with Friar Marcus de Niza in a preliminary exploration in 1539, and although the black explorer went MIA in its course, Niza returned claiming to have certainly sighted one of the fabulous cities, so Vázquez and Mendoza decided to gather a major expedition and give it a try the following year.
The expedition involved 340 Spaniards and 800 Mexica and Purépecha natives along with hundreds of horses, cows and cannons, as well as a support fleet that would try to shadow them through the Californian coast. Also, as Vázquez had correctly predicted it would be a difficult mission nonetheless, he organized supply lines along the trail and divided the contingent in smaller, independent groups so the grazing lands and water holes could recover. This proved the best decision, as after they went deep into the Nuevo México desert and found the place Niza claimed to be their goal, they only found a group of pauper Zuñi villages, causing such a disappointment that Vázquez angrily kicked Niza back to México. Vázquez deployed groups to search around for months, often not gold, but merely food and water, and in the process contacted the Hopi, Pueblo and Wichita tribes, some of them violently so. Months passed, and by this point it's unlikely anybody in the expedition still harbored real hopes to find any fabulous civilization, but the Gold Fever is a powerful energizer, and they kept until 1542, Vázquez fell of his horse and was badly injured, upon which he saw the writing in the wall and ordered everybody to return.
The quest had been a big fiasco, as El Dorado failed to appear, and only 100 of the original Spaniards returned. Vázquez was left in bankruptcy due to the large inversion and was accused of comitting abuses and war crimes agains the tribes in his zeal to find Cíbola, ironically like Nuño de Guzmán himself, and although he managed to get away with everything through his connections, he later got hit by the abolishing of the encomienda system, meaning he never really recovered his economic status (nor the one he expected to get with a city of gold or two). He died several years later of an epidemic, although his legacy outlived him, and still lives today. His nephew, Juan Vázquez de Coronado, would become famous himself as the conqueror of Costa Rica.
- Coronado, or rather his gold cross, has a memorable appearance in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
- Coronado's ghost appears in Charlie's Ghost Story, played by Cheech Marin.
- Ignacio del Valle's historical novel Coronado features the expedition.