Searching for gold and glory and finding something else.

The Spanish soldier-explorers came to Texas in search of gold and glory. They didn't find gold or much glory, but what one conquistador did find changed him.

"When has it ever happened, either in ancient or modern times, that such amazing exploits have been achieved?"  

- Francisco de Xeressecretary to Conquistador Pizarro, 1547

Whether used as a noun or a verb, exploit might be a good word to ponder in relation to the legacies of the Spanish conquistadors in the Americas. Used as a noun, as in Francisco de Xeres' quote, it means a notable achievement. As a verb, as used in some historical interpretations of the conquistadors' activities, the word carries a different meaning: to take advantage of, especially unethically or unjustly.  

Gold, Glory and God

Consider the history created by the conquistadors in the 15th through 17th centuries. Exploration of the Pacific Ocean, present-day Florida, the Amazon River, and other locations in the Americas have received the notable achievement label. Decimation of the Mayan, Incan, and Aztec Empires through war and disease? Also notable, but not achievements that history has interpreted positively.  

For one Spanish conquistador, a journey that began on a Texas beach ended with a much different kind of notable achievement than either he or the Spanish crown and Catholic Church probably envisioned. His remarkable journey also opened a conversation about unjust advantage and human rights that continues to this day.  

During the Age of Exploration, Spanish conquistadors came to the Americas in search of the three G's: gold, glory, and God. The Spanish crown received the gold and glory and the Catholic Church received the converts. A fourth G was usually on the exploration prize list as well: geography. European powers competed vigorously and violently to claim land in the Americas in order to extend their empires across the oceans.  

Not A New World

North America was not a blank slate at the time conquistadors donned their armor and sallied forth. American Indians had inhabited the “new” world for thousands of years. They had developed complex and vibrant societies, systems, and traditions. Almost a dozen different American Indian peoples, including the Karankawas, lived in the Texas Gulf Coast region by the time conquistador Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca and a few bedraggled crew mates washed up on a Galveston beach in 1528.

Some primary source writings, such as Cabeza de Vaca's letter to King Charles V of Spain and other conquistadors' chronicles and diaries, let us experience those first contact meetings between conquistadors and indigenous Americans – at least from the Spanish perspective.


Not a Great Beginning, Either

It is fair to say that Cabeza de Vaca and the Karankawas had a difficult relationship. That could be said for most relationships between conquistadors and American Indians throughout the 16th century. Mistrust, hostility, cruelty, and exploitation ran rampant on both sides. As Cabeza de Vaca occasionally notes, however, there appeared to be at least some mutual tolerance between the conquistadors and the Karankawa – amidst the general mistrust, hostility, cruelty, and exploitation.

The rest of us, as naked as we had been born, had lost everything, and while it was not worth much, to us it meant a great deal. It was in November, bitterly cold, and we in such a state that every bone could easily be counted, and we looked like death itself. Upon seeing the disaster we had suffered, our misery and distress, the Indians sat down with us and all began to weep out of compassion for our misfortune, and for more than half an hour they wept so loud and so sincerely that it could be heard far away. Cabeza de Vaca, 1542 letter to King Charles V of Spain


A Different Path

Cabeza de Vaca's experiences in Texas didn't follow the same imperial arcs as some of the other Spanish conquistadors. He didn't make a great discovery or blaze a trail anywhere. Starting off as a naked castaway on the beaches of "Misfortune Island" wasn't a great way to begin a conquest, and in some ways his journey just got worse from there. His living conditions were so desperate that he ran away from his captors three times, knowing that he would most likely be killed if they caught him. During his years with the Karankawas and Coahuiltecans, de Vaca went from enslaver to enslaved, from exploiter to exploited. But it's those experiences that make Cabeza de Vaca's story and legacy all the more extraordinary.  


For eight years, Cabeza de Vaca traveled as a slave with various tribes throughout Texas and Mexico. He learned their languages and cultural practices and even developed a following as a shaman. He had arrived in Texas as a conquistador, but he had become…what?  

"Our countrymen, these slave-catchers, were startled when they saw us approaching…In facing these marauders I was compelled to face the Spanish gentleman I myself had been eight years before. It was not easy to think of it …What, your Majesty, is so melancholy as to confront one's former unthinking and unfeeling self? While with them I thought only about doing the Indians good. But back among my fellow countrymen, I had to be on my guard not to do them positive harm. If one lives where all suffer and starve, one acts on one's own impulse to help. But where plenty abounds, we surrender our generosity…"

-Cabeza de Vaca

By living with the Native Peoples, de Vaca began to see them not as inferiors to be conquered, but as human beings with a right to dignity.  

"But when it pleased God our Lord to take us to those Indians, they respected us and held us which we were not a little astonished, while it clearly shows how, in order to bring those people to Christianity and obedience unto Your Imperial Majesty, they should be well treated, and not otherwise."

- Cabeza de Vaca

A Human Rights Debate Begins

By 1550, Spanish conquistadors had claimed both glory and gold. They had also decimated indigenous cultures and left a trail of human destruction in their wake. It was the human part of the conquests that was becoming an issue in Spain. King Charles V gathered a group of scholars and theologians in the city of Valladolid to debate the treatment of American Indians. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda represented the imperial cause and the Catholic Bishop of Chiapas, Bartolomé de las Casas, spoke for the indigenous Americans.

"If you know the customs and nature of the two peoples [Spanish and American Indians], that with perfect right the Spaniards rule over these barbarians of the New World and the adjacent islands, who in wisdom, intelligence, virtue and humanitas are as inferior to the Spaniards as infants to adults and women to men."

- Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda

An Unexpected Discovery

Like many debates, the rhetoric at Valladolid was fiery but the results were negligible. The king suspended all conquests during the five days of the debate, but conquistadors mounted up again after it was over. The Spanish quest for gold, glory, and God continued for another hundred years. The interpretation of the conquistador legacy continues.  

Nine years after the debate at Valladolid, Cabeza de Vaca died in poverty. Although he didn't claim land, find gold, or end civilizations like other Spanish conquistadors, during his time in Texas, Cabeza de Vaca did discover something important—perhaps there is something worth searching for that is even more valuable than gold.

"All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in the spirit of brotherhood."

- United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948

Conquistadors on the Bullock Terrazzo

Launch Master Timeline

Conquistadors Timeline

1492Spain Takes Notice

On August 3, 1492, Christopher Columbus sailed west from Palos, Spain, to explore a new route to Asia. On October 12, he reached the Bahamas. Six months later, he returned to Spain with gold, cotton, American Indian handicrafts, exotic parrots, and other strange beasts. His tales of the native peoples, land, and resources in North America ignited the era of Spanish colonization.

1519Into the Gulf of Mexico

Spanish explorer Alonso Álvarez de Pineda is credited with being the first European to explore and map the Gulf of Mexico. He set out with four ships and 270 men to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean. There are few records detailing his exploration, although one Spanish document does indicate that he sailed around the coast of Florida, into the Gulf of Mexico, and up a river dotted with palm trees and the villages of native peoples. Earlier interpretations of his voyage identified this river as the Rio Grande, but later data shows that it was probably the Soto la Marina, located in Mexico.

1527Failure Sets the Stage

In 1527, with five ships, 600 men, and a supply of horses, Pánfilo de Narváez set out for Florida to claim gold and glory for the Spanish empire. His trip seemed doomed from the beginning. Many of his men died, deserted, or were killed by the American Indians whose people and villages the expedition attacked and pillaged. In an effort to escape, Narváez and the remaining members of the expedition set sail in flimsy rafts that were eventually washed up on the Texas Gulf Coast near Galveston. Narvárez drowned on the voyage, but one of the few survivors, conquistador Cabeza de Vaca, wrote detailed memoirs that became the earliest European descriptions of Texas and its people.

1528A Desperate Account

Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, one of four survivors of the failed Narváez expedition, washed up on the beach of a Texas Gulf Coast island he named "Malhado," which means "misfortune." The name was apt, because for the next several years, Cabeza de Vaca lived one harrowing moment to another as a captive slave of various Texas American Indians. He kept a detailed diary which has become an invaluable primary source describing the life and peoples of early Texas. In 1536, Spanish soldiers returned Cabeza de Vaca to Mexico City. He eventually made his way back to Spain where he published his memoirs, The Narrative of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, in 1542.

1536A Voice for Human Rights

Bartolemé de las Casas was the first priest to be ordained in the Americas. Conscience-stricken by the abuse of American Indians at the hands of Spanish conquistadors, he crusaded on the native peoples' behalf for over five decades. In 1536, de las Casas participated in a debate in Oaxaca, Mexico, where he argued for the American Indians' right to be treated as individuals with dignity and against the Spanish efforts to convert native peoples to both the Catholic faith and the Spanish culture. His blistering work in 1542, A Brief Report on the Destruction of the Indians, convinced King Charles V to outlaw the conversion practices, but riots among land holders in New Spain (Mexico) convinced authorities not to make any changes in their treatment of American Indians.

1541Unexpected Discoveries

Finding gold was one objective of Spanish colonization in North America. Following the report of an explorer who claimed to have seen a gold city in the desert, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado organized an expedition that traveled through the Texas Panhandle. Various historical accounts describe the soldiers' astonishment at the Texas landscape, including Palo Duro Canyon, and the huge, hump-backed cows (buffalo) that roamed the grasslands. Coronado never found any gold in the Panhandle, and the expedition returned to Mexico in 1542.

1542Moscoso Enters East Texas

Hernando de Soto led an exploration of the Gulf Coast area from 1539 until his death in present-day Arkansas in 1542. This expedition marked the first European crossing of the Mississippi River. After de Soto's death, Luis de Moscoso led the explorers into East Texas, home of the powerful Caddo Indians, in an attempt to find an overland route back to New Spain (Mexico). Opinions differ as to the exact route the Moscoso expedition took through Texas, but recent scholarship suggests that they traveled south from East Texas toward present-day Nacogdoches and then into the Hill Country before turning back toward the Mississippi River in Arkansas.

1554Bad Weather and Bad Luck

In November, 1552, fifty-four vessels sailed from Spain under the command of Captain-General Bartolomé Carreño. The ships, including six armed vessels, carried cargo and were headed to various parts of the world including New Spain (Mexico) and the Indies. On April 29, 1554, three ships were wrecked in a storm on Padre Island, near present-day Port Mansfield. In the 1960s and 1970s, excavation efforts retrieved thousands of artifacts such as cannons, silver coins, gold bullion, astrolabes, and tools from the wreckage of the San Esteban and the Espiritu Santo. The third sunken ship, the Santa Maria de Yclar, was destroyed during ship channel construction in the 1950s.

1581Church and State

The Spanish missionary system was intended to convert American Indians to Christianity and teach them how to live according to Spanish ways. Missionaries often accompanied conquistadors on their explorations in North America. The first missionaries passed through far west Texas in 1581 on their way to the pueblos of New Mexico.

1582Jumano of Big Bend

Though unsuccessful in establishing a colony among the Pueblo people, Spanish conquistador Antonio de Espejo left a valuable account of his encounters with the Jumano people of Texas's Big Bend area in 1582 to 1583. The Jumano were trading partners of the Spanish for almost two centuries before famine and war sent their population into a steep decline.

1598Claiming All the Land

After a difficult march through present-day New Mexico and Texas, conquistador Juan de Oñate and hundreds of settlers finally reached the Rio Grande in April. They were so grateful to have survived the journey that they held what some believe was the first "thanksgiving" feast in what would become the United States. During this stop, Oñate officially claimed all the land drained by the Rio Grande as Spanish territory. With this act, the foundation was laid for two centuries of Spanish control of Texas and the American southwest.

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