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The Seven Cities of Gold

By Jay Miller

Last updated on Saturday, January 11, 2003

The Seven Cities of Gold has been a New Mexico fable since before Fray Marcos de Niza claimed to have seen them in 1539. As soon as Cortes and crew finished conquering the Aztec Empire in the early 1520s, they set out to find the legendary Seven Cities of Gold, said to have been established by seven bishops who fled Spain after the Moorish conquest to hide gold, gems, and religious articles in the New World.

When Cabeza de Vaca reached his countrymen in Mexico after wandering through this area following a shipwreck on the Texas Gulf Coast, he told of gems he had seen in villages to the north, "with many people and very big houses." And thus, what is now New Mexico became targeted as the mythical Cibola. In 1539, Fray Marcos was sent on a scouting expedition to look for de Vaca's Cibola, and returned with claims of having seen a village with buildings made of gold.

Historians believe that village was Zuni, which today can't raise enough money for one school building made of frame stucco. It is very possible Zuni wasn't much better off 460 years ago. The Moorish slave Estevan, whom Fray Marcos had sent ahead in an advance party, was killed at Zuni, and it is quite possible the friar turned around at that point and headed home.

The most charitable interpretation has Fray Marcos seeing Zuni from afar, and mistaking the sunset on adobe walls containing bits of silica as being the glimmer of a city of gold. There is no debate that de Niza returned with some very grand stories that led to Coronado's expedition in 1540. That exploration yielded little more than promises from Indians that great riches lay just up the road - and a lot of unpleasant comments from Coronado's troops about the accuracy of de Niza's reporting.

But the fable of the Seven Cities never died, and still, in fact, lives today in stories about the seven caverns of gold beneath Victorio Peak north of Las Cruces, and now in a story being promoted in the Deming and Silver City area about seven caves of gold in the mountains of the region.

This latest entry in New Mexico's gold lore is the product of two Grant County men, Ruben Amador and Rollie Saavedra, who contend that petroglyphs on rocks, boulders and in caves in the area are actually treasure maps left by Fray Marcos de Niza, not by Indians who preceded them. They say the petroglyphs are in Spanish, and tell a Spanish story. Indians, they say, didn't need to carve treasure maps, because to them the treasure was common knowledge.

Amador and Saavedra contend there were seven caves deep in the mountains where gold was mined and traded with the Aztecs. They say a common pictograph in the area is a cross enclosed in a clover, which was de Niza's mark. Amador, a former heavy equipment operator, says he will devote the rest of his life to breaking the code of the petroglyphs, and he predicts he will do it.

Meanwhile, the two have organized a "Codebreaker Tour" of the area, and have attracted the interest of Dick Moyer, tourism director for the Deming Chamber of Commerce, who is attempting to get state tourism money to help promote the tour.

Over at Victorio Peak, 70 miles to the east, Terry Delonas and the Ova Noss Family Partnership have taken White Sands Missile Range officials to court, contending they have been grossly overcharged by the missile range over the years for their congressionally-approved hunt. The Army locked the group out in 1996, after it refused to make any more payments until it received an accounting of how its reimbursements were spent. The case is currently in the Federal Court of Claims in Washington, D.C.

Besides the fascinating stories of what may have transpired inside the hill, Delonas' group also has documented many artifacts from battles and of Indian life in the area.

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