An Arizona archaeologist is hot on the trail of the Coronado expedition

By Mark Brodie
Published: Tuesday, April 9, 2024 - 12:53pm
Updated: Tuesday, April 9, 2024 - 4:28pm

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Deni Seymour
Deni Seymour/YouTube
Deni Seymour

Tucson-based archeologist Deni Seymour has spent around four decades doing research in southern Arizona.

A few years back, she found herself browsing a collection at the Tubac Historical Society when she stumbled upon a nail and horseshoe. Something about the objects piqued her interest. 

It turns out those artifacts may help answer a 500-year-old mystery: What happened to the 16th century Coronado expedition in Arizona and Sonora? 

Seymour has spent the last three years researching the route of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, a major colonizing presence in the American Southwest, as well as Fray Marcos de Niza. 

She recently verified her 11th site —  and is hot on the trail of No. 12. She joined The Show just before she verified the 11th site to talk about what got her interested in Coronado and his expedition to begin with.

Interview highlights

What got you interested in Coronado and his expedition?

SEYMOUR: Ever since I moved to Arizona in 1980 I've been studying Spanish colonial missions and presidios and the Native people who were here at the time, long before the first Europeans. And the real issue probably is that the Coronado expedition is the least understood. I'm always attracted by the challenge. And so it's probably the most challenging historical question in existence — or it was. I find those complex questions and issues, I find that they draw me to them.

How did you go from having one site to now many more than that?

SEYMOUR: So I went from zero to one, and then I went from a couple more, and then a couple more, and then all of a sudden a whole bunch more. So, so we're about ready to find No. 11 now. But basically, there's a couple of different ways. So I found No. 1, and then No. 2 and 3, I talked to a rancher. And one of the artifacts was known, but nobody queued in on it for some reason. What I did was I projected based on a variety of landscape attributes, like for example, water and so on — a whole range of things — where they might have gone and checked a variety of locations until something proved up. And then I had a trajectory. And then the latest ones, where I found the long sought after Chil Talli, I had some documentary evidence from the Coronado expedition that said it was 20 leagues from Suya, which is our first site we found or San Geronimo III.

It was the first site we found. And so given that I knew the general trajectory of the trail. Because by then I had I think five sites, basically, I used the distance from San Geronimo II — that's provided in documents — and through the trajectory of the additional sites, Coronado expedition sites, I had found. Then made some inferences about where it should be. predicted. And I said, if it's here, then this should occur. And at Chilli, it's a ruined roofless house, meaning it's a late prehistoric adobe ruin. And I know where they all are in that area, relative to our trail trajectory, because I've worked there for 40 years.

So I checked each one, and there's only four. And the third one produced Coronado artifacts. And since then, we now have 600 artifacts, but I'm claiming 400 for the Coronado expedition metal artifacts.

What kinds of artifacts have you found?

SEYMOUR: Well, at our first site, we have a bronze cannon that dates to that period. We have what we call carrot head or gable headed nails, which are highly diagnostic of Coronado. They tell us Coronado. We have crossbow, copper crossbow bolt heads, we have copper lace eaglets. And, we have thousands of artifacts from that, San Geronimo III town site. And we also had some, iron projectile points of a variety of types. It's quite a range of material that we have.

Group of people stand outside
Deni Seymour
Researchers working on the Coronado project.

What do the sites look like now? What's there?

SEYMOUR: Fortunately nothing. I mean, you know, most, most archaeological sites in our state are what we call multi-component, meaning that people have lived there forever. And they, they used it during Coronado expedition, and people used it later. And the further you go out from population centers or reliable water, the fewer overlays of later occupations you have. But nonetheless, just about every site in Arizona has been used more than once.

But fortunately, the advantage is that many of the areas where these sites are showing up, have less disturbance, less later activity or more restricted later activity to certain areas, so that there's still something preserved. And so far we're getting — I don't know whether it's lucky that things have not been disturbed through the centuries. But somehow we're finding a sufficient number of items, and the context of those items, remains, has integrity, is how we say it, remains intact.

I mean, it's, it's really absolutely mind-blowing, if you want to put it that way, how rich this record is and how when you put it with the documentary evidence, it helps embellish the story. But also that archaeology expands what we know from the documents and helps us understand, for example, why Coronado and Jaramillo might have taken a slightly different route to avoid the people who had attacked Díaz and his men.

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