Marcos de Niza, a controversial Franciscan explorer, may have led the first European expedition to explore purposefully what is today the American Southwest. His report of having seen one of the Seven Cities of Cíbola in 1539 launched the first large-scale Spanish exploration of the interior of North America. Considered a Frenchmen by his contemporaries and apparently born in Nice (hence "de Niza"), Fray Marcos had served in Central America and in Peru before settling in Mexico City in 1537. In the autumn of 1538 Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza entrusted him with investigating rumors of wealth beyond the northern frontiers of New Spain-rumors fueled by the recent return of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. To guide Fray Marcos, Mendoza sent Estevanico, a black slave who had been with Cabeza de Vaca. Niza set out in the spring of 1539. Before the year was out he had returned to Mexico City, claiming to have seen a place called Cíbola, believed by modern scholars to have been one of the Zuni villages. Fray Marcos did not, however, claim to have entered Cíbola. Fearing that he might meet the same fate as Estevanico, whom the Cibolanos had killed, he observed the city from a prudent distance and pronounced it "bigger than the city of Mexico."
Largely on the strength of Fray Marcos's favorable report, Viceroy Mendoza launched one of the most significant of Spain's reconnaissances of the interior of North America, that of Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. Niza traveled to Cíbola with Coronado. When the expedition reached the Zuni villages in July 1540, a disappointed Coronado pronounced Fray Marcos a liar. Only temporarily disgraced, Fray Marcos returned to Mexico City where, for a time, he apparently held the highest local office in the Franciscans, that of provincial. According to one source, he died on March 25, 1558, after suffering bad health for over a decade. Since the sixteenth century, scholars have been divided as to whether or not Fray Marcos saw Cíbola on his 1539 journey or even came close to it. Those who have charged him with lying have offered several explanations. He has been accused of turning back in order to avoid meeting the same fate as Estevanico and then of fabricating his report in order to avoid displeasing the viceroy. He has also been accused of conspiring with Mendoza to strengthen the viceroy's case for exploring in the north. Others, more charitably, have suggested that his imagination played tricks on him.