In 1539, a Franciscan friar named Marcos from Italy led a scouting party from Mexico's interior through Arizona and into New Mexico, where he later claimed to have seen the prosperous land of Cibola. Along the way, he visited what is now the Valley and, the story goes, scratched a short inscription on a rock that, translated into English, says: "Fr. Marcos of Nice crowned all of New Mexico at his expense, 1539."
The inscription, first seen in the 1920s, is located on a hill just south of the parking lot at the Pima Canyon entrance to Phoenix's South Mountain Park. Iron security bars were put there long ago to protect it. Researchers say it's a fake, forged no earlier than 1850 and likely much later. One big clue: The phrase "New Mexico" didn't come into use until the late 1500s. And historians believe Marcos' route didn't pass through South Mountain or anywhere else near Phoenix. The etching's an apt symbol for Marcos de Niza, disgraced as one of the biggest liars in the New World. Researchers argue over whether Marcos promoted the idea that Cibola was loaded with gold, but apparently he did, because early the next year, the Spanish launched a massive expedition to the area led by Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. When no gold was found, Marcos was lambasted by Coronado's soldiers. And now the priest from Nice has a high school named after him in Tempe, not too far from where he didn't scratch his name on a rock, while on his way to a land of gold that didn't exist.