Quivira. The legend of a nation with untold wealth, filled with silver and gold, attracted the Spanish explorer Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to the prairie of what would one day be Kansas. Thousands joined him on his expedition, including European men-at-arms, free Mexican Indian allies and enslaved Indian and African natives, and four Franciscan priests, including Father Juan de Padilla, for whom this roadside cross was erected nearly four centuries later.
While in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley, Coronado was tricked into searching for Quivira by an enslaved Pawnee native known to history as “The Turk,” who told him stories of a land where the chief slept beneath golden bells and people ate off plates made from silver and gold. With plunder on his mind, he set out in spring 1541 for the Great Plains, hoping to find a civilization with wealth akin to the Aztec or Inca nations. After nearly a year of searching, he discovered Quivira near present-day Lyons, Kansas. While the land was pleasant and arable, and the people were prosperous, there was only one piece of gold to be found, likely shared with the natives by the expedition itself. After discovering the Turk had been lying to him, probably to mislead the expedition to their deaths in the desert, Coronado had the Turk executed by strangulation, and then returned to New Mexico 25 days later.
Father Padilla accompanied him on the journey, and notably held the first Catholic service in Kansas on June 29, 1541. Young, energetic, and charged with the zeal of proselytizing to a new population, Padilla left Coronado’s expedition in 1542 and returned to Quivira with a small entourage of priests and Indian converts. He set up camp among the native population, who are now known as the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes, to establish the first mission in the present-day United States. He did not get to preach for long. Soon after setting up camp on Wichita land, whether due to a divine calling or his own stubbornness, he ignored warnings not to travel to the rival Kaw nation to continue his missionary work. Two days later, the party was ambushed, and Father Padilla was killed.
This act has led some Catholics to venerate Father Padilla as America’s first martyr. In 1950, the Knights of Columbus erected this 26-foot high marble cross in Father Padilla’s memory, according to their best approximation of where this act took place. It remains a pilgrimage destination for those who choose to honor the moment the Catholic faith came to the United States. Nearby, a historical marker tells the story of the fateful and doomed search for Quivira.