Searching for gold and glory and finding something else

Soon after Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas in 1492, the Spanish began to hear stories of civilizations with immense riches. Hoping to claim this wealth and territory for Spain and themselves, conquistadors, or “conquerors,” sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.

When they ventured onto the mainland, they found an immense landscape that was already home to tens of thousands of American Indians. Conflict between the two groups was frequent, leading to misunderstandings, exploitation, and violence. While their explorations gave Europeans a better understanding of the Americas, the conquistadors who explored the land now known as Texas often failed to find the wealth and resources they were looking for leading the Spanish to focus colonization efforts further south for many years.

Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

When Cabeza de Vaca joined fellow Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez on an expedition to conquer and colonize the North American Gulf Coast in 1528, he began a journey that would take more than eight years to complete.

In 1519, the explorer Alonso Álvarez de Piñeda became the first European to map the Texas Gulf Coast. However, it would be another nine years before any Spaniards explored the Texas interior.

In 1528, another expedition, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, set sail from Spain to explore the North American interior. A long series of disasters left most of the expedition dead. A group of 90 men, headed by Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, shipwrecked near Galveston Island. The party included Estevanico, a North African enslaved man believed to be the first person of African descent to set foot in North America. Despite receiving food and shelter from the nearby Karankawa tribe, only fifteen of the men survived the winter.

For the next eight years, Cabeza de Vaca and the remaining survivors would become the first Europeans to view the diversity of the landscape and people of what we now call Texas. Moving between the mainland and the coast, Cabeza de Vaca worked as a trader and healer to survive, with the ultimate goal to make it to Mexico City.

On his journey south, Cabeza de Vaca rediscovered three Spaniards who had been separated from his party soon after their shipwreck. These men had been enslaved by an American Indian group known as the Mariames. Once reunited, Cabeza de Vaca was also enslaved.

Six years after the expedition began, the four men escaped the Mariames one by one and headed south, where they were taken in by members of the Avavares tribe. After recuperating for eight months, the men set out for Mexico. They followed a winding route that covered approximately 2,400 miles, and took them south of the Rio Grande, across northern Mexico, and eventually south to Mexico City.

In the eight years they spent in Texas, Cabeza de Vaca and his companions failed to discover any gold or claim any new territory for Spain. Instead, they returned with tales they heard from American Indians of riches elsewhere in North America. Rumors like these fueled Spanish exploration of Texas and the surrounding areas for nearly 70 years.


Francisco Vásquez de Coronado

Cabeza de Vaca’s tales of riches were reinforced when a Franciscan friar reported cities of gold in present-day New Mexico. In 1540, Viceroy Antonio Mendoza ordered Francisco Vásquez de Coronado to lead an expedition to the northern reaches of the Spanish empire to conquer the region and claim the wealth for Spain.

Coronado gathered 1,000 men and thousands of horses, mules, sheep and cattle for the expedition. They marched north for two-and-a-half months before reaching the Zuñi pueblo of Hawikuh in present-day northwestern New Mexico.

Instead of streets paved with gold, the party found a city of more than 500 families living in buildings constructed of sandstone and adobe. Coronado read the Zuñis the Requerimiento, a document in Spanish that ordered them to submit to the King of Spain’s rule and convert to Christianity; the Zuñis responded by firing arrows at the Spanish soldiers. Coronado attacked. Despite the Zuñis best efforts to defend their city, the Spanish soldiers stormed Hawikuh’s walls and captured or killed most of the Zuñis who could not escape.

Soon after he seized Hawikuh, Coronado heard rumors of another golden kingdom, Quivira, to the east. He headed in that direction, crossing the Texas Panhandle on his way to the Great Plains. He sighted Palo Duro Canyon during his expedition, but found no treasure. Coronado returned to Mexico City empty-handed in 1542. His failure to locate the Seven Cities of Cíbola, Quivira or any other riches discouraged further Spanish exploration in the region for many years to come.

Coronado’s interactions with the Zuñis at Hawikuh were typical of how many conquistadors approached American Indians. The Spanish read them the Requerimiento in a foreign language and if the Native Americans resisted then the Spaniards took what they wanted by force. These tactics led to conflict, suffering, and often death for many American Indians throughout the Western Hempishere.

Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado

As Coronado was returning to Mexico, another Spanish expedition stumbled into present-day Texas.

Hernando De Soto and his men set out from Florida in search of large cities and abundant treasure, but the expedition found neither of these things. In the Spring of 1542, right in the midst of his explorations, De Soto fell ill and died, leaving Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado in charge of the expedition. After burying De Soto on the Mississippi River, Moscoso and his men abandoned the search for riches and decided to head west to Mexico. They marched into Ais and Caddo territory in present-day East Texas where the Spanish soldiers attacked Caddo towns and stole the American Indians’ food stores to feed themselves. One Caddo cacique, or chief, ordered his men to guide the Spaniards into another, less well-stocked band’s territory. When Moscoso discovered the trick, he had the guides hanged, and then turned back for the Mississippi River soon after.There they built several small boats, sailed down the Mississippi River, and followed the Gulf Coast to Mexico. Upon reaching Mexico in September 1542, Moscoso reported the expedition’s failure to locate any of the large, wealthy cities De Soto sought. His account, combined with Coronado’s failure to locate any of the supposed cities of gold, reinforced Spain’s decision not to further explore the northern frontier.

Antonio de Espejo

It was 40 years before explorers returned to the northern boundaries of Spain’s territories again. This time the Spanish weren’t searching for gold, but for missing men.

In November 1582, Antonio de Espejo set out from Nueva Vizcaya, Mexico, to search for some friars who had traveled to northern New Mexico to convert the American Indians there. Espejo learned early in his expedition that the two friars had been killed by members of the Tiguex tribe in present-day New Mexico. Nevertheless, he continued on and explored the areas to the north and east. He pushed north into Tiguex territory, then headed east until he reached the Pecos River. He and his men followed the Pecos south and crossed into present-day Texas, where they were welcomed by Jumano who acted as Espejo’s guides, leading him through the Trans-Pecos region and back to the Rio Grande.

One of the members of Espejo’s expedition, Diego Pérez de Luxán, kept a daily record of the journey. His detailed descriptions of the landscape and American Indians the Spaniards encountered encouraged further exploration and, eventually, settlement of present-day New Mexico. However, his descriptions of the Trans-Pecos region didn’t inspire the Spanish to explore what is now Texas further.

Juan de Oñate

Juan de Oñate would be the last of the conquistadors to traverse present-day Texas. Unlike his predecessors, his explorations would have a direct and lasting impact on the region.

In early 1598, Juan de Oñate led an expedition to settle present-day New Mexico. Unlike some of his predecessors, who were only tasked with claiming land and finding resources, Oñate was ordered to establish a colony. Many of the colonists in his party hoped to find their own riches mining silver. On his way north he crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte, the site of the modern city of El Paso. It was there that he formally declared Spanish possession of what is now New Mexico. After establishing the colony’s new headquarters near modern-day Santa Fe, Oñate followed in Coronado’s footsteps and headed east in search of the city of gold, Quivira. Like Coronado before him, he failed to find any riches on the Great Plains.

During his brief time in the region, Oñate’s expedition found nothing the Spanish were searching for: no cities of gold, no precious metals, and no jewels. However, his actions would have great impact on Texas in the coming decades. His route through El Paso del Norte—a route already well-known to Native American populations who had used it for trade long before Spanish arrived—became El Camino Real del Norte. This road would serve as a crucial lifeline connecting New Mexico to the capital in Mexico City. Its location on El Camino Real del Norte made El Paso del Norte an important trading and transportation hub in the future.

The Story Continues

The conquistadors collected, recorded, and published a wealth of knowledge about the land we call Texas, but knowledge was not the primary goal of the Spanish crown. Spain wanted riches to fund their political goals in Europe, and the conquistadors found none in Texas. After decades of exploration that frequently led to conflict and violence with local American Indians, the region was largely ignored for another 100 years until the late 1600s when another European presence would seek to insert itself into the complex network of people already living in Texas.

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

Bartolomé 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 Mexico and Texas, conquistador Juan de Oñate and hundreds of settlers finally reached the Rio Grande in April. 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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