A long, thin line of troops snaked through the buffalo grass atop never-ending mesas.
Their leader's dreams of conquest and the fabled seven golden cities of Cbola were fading before the reality of adobe pueblos, carved-wooden kachinas, and clay pots. Under a hot May sun and the command of Francisco Vsquez de Coronado, the hundreds of Spanish soldiers, servants, and pack animals on the expedition wearily put one foot in front of another, likely hoping for respite.
If Donald Blakeslee, an archaeologist with Wichita State University in Kansas is correct, he has pinpointed the place where the Army's hopes were realized - at least for two weeks. Sifting through the soil of Blanco Canyon, just east of Lubbock, Texas, Dr. Blakeslee and a team of researchers have discovered a concentration of copper cross-bow-bolt points and other artifacts that likely came from Coronado's conquistadors.
"Blanco Canyon historically has been a hypothetical site" for a Coronado camp, says Joseph Sanchez, director of the National Park Service's Spanish Colonial Research Center at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. If Blakeslee's view of the findings holds up, Dr. Sanchez adds, "then this becomes very significant as a pinpointed site" to add to a fact-starved map of the Spanish explorer's route.
For Coronado and his troops, the canyon would have provided a welcome resting place in a hostile land. "The uplands scared Coronado's men to death," Blakeslee says. "They were enormous mesas as flat as anything you can imagine. They had to light bonfires or sound horns to guide hunting parties back to camp. One man is known to have ridden away from camp and never returned."
By contrast, the verdant 26-mile canyon offered grazing for horses, fresh water, and nut trees, wild grapes, and currants.
Blakeslee's discovery, announced recently at a press conference in Washington, D.C., comes amid continued uncertainty about exactly where the 16th-century Spanish explorer traveled.
"The chronicles are vague," Sanchez explains. "Only a few places can be identified for sure:" the Grand Canyon, the Zuni Pueblos, the Pecos Pueblo, and the Taos Pueblo, for example. "But no one knows how they got there. And once they crossed the Pecos River, where did they go from there?"
In 1987, Congress gave the Park Service the daunting task of piecing together what was known about the expedition's route. Lawmakers wanted to see if it was possible to add Coronado's route to the list of national scenic and historic trails.
After several years of scouring historic documents and 80 years worth of scholars' interpretations of the route, Sanchez could do little more than draw a map showing "a series of brown blobs connected by serpentine links. And the blobs in Texas were enormous," Blakeslee says.
While some reference maps show Coronado's route as a distinct line, "you're not describing a trail," Sanchez says. "You're saying: Coronado traveled within 20 to 50 miles of this line."
Meanwhile, interest in finding the true trail was growing among scholars as the 450th anniversary of Coronado's expedition and the sesquicentennial of Columbus's voyages to the New World approached. A specialist in Great Plains archaeology and Indian trails, Blakeslee had already tackled a similar project: mapping the trail of French explorers Paul and Pierre Mallet, who trekked to Santa Fe in 1739, 80 years before the Santa Fe Trail was established. The evidence for their route, one seven-page document, was sketchier than the evidence for Coronado's.
After discussing Texas route possibilities and reviewing what was known about Indian trails in the area during the period, Blakeslee and his colleagues began a rigorous weeding-out process. It left them with a set of paths that put one of Coronado's main campsites somewhere between Lubbock and Amarillo.
Between a chain-mail gauntlet in a local historical society and an iron crossbow bolt found in Banco Canyon by local resident Jimmy Owens, the trail got warmer. But, Blakeslee says, neither item represented conclusive evidence. Warriors among the Plains Indians were known to pick up and pass along chain mail from fallen Spaniards. And documents from the period suggested that Coronado's troops would have used copper crossbow bolts.
Then, late in 1994, Blakeslee returned to the canyon to find that Mr. Owens had found a copper bolt. "We dug a few test pits in places where things had turned up," Blakeslee recalls, but they found nothing characteristic of Coronado's expedition. "I was getting discouraged. This canyon had been occupied for 11,000 years, and we were looking for two weeks!"
Then, last September, Blakeslee returned to the museum with Jay Blaine, an expert in Spanish metal artifacts, and saw a horse bit that predated 1700. It turns out Owens had found the bit - and had a pile of other artifacts in his "junk box," including an intriguing horseshoe and horseshoe nail. The only other nail of its kind was found in 1986 at a Coronado campsite near Albuquerque.
Needing little encouragement, Owens returned to the spot where he found the horseshoe nail and promptly came up with another copper crossbow bolt. Within two days, Owens's metal detector yielded another 16 crossbow bolts. "We knew we had found part of the camp," Blakeslee says.
Since then, his team has found shards of Pueblo pottery, horseshoe fragments, a scabbard tip, buckles, nails, more bolts, and a variety of metal scraps. The bolts alone are convincing, he says: "In the whole rest of the Southwest, archaeological work has uncovered 12 such points, all from Coronado sites. We now have more than 30 from this single site."
"That's a lot of material," Mr. Vierra agrees. "If crossbow points are a good indicator, we can begin to put points on a map to trace the trail."
In June, Blakeslee plans to return to the "Jimmy Owens" site, whose exact location he keeps confidential to prevent looting.
He says he hopes further excavations will help settle a dispute over which of two main Plains campsites Blanco Canyon represents. In addition, he hopes to find the part of the canyon where up to 1,000 Mexican Indian troops - the bulk of Coronado's Army - were camped.
"We have no really coherent descriptions of Indian weapons, clothing, or the gear they had with them after Cortez," Blakeslee says.