The quest for empire drove countless thousands of Spaniards to the New World, where for 300 years they relentlessly explored the rugged, wild lands of two continents. While many of them focused on the southern latitudes-- Mexico, Central America, and the Amazon-- some explorers were tentatively discovering what is now the United States. The first Spanish explorers did not stray far from the Atlantic coast, although Hernando de Soto blazed a cruel path through much of what is now the southeastern part of the United States. But within 50 years of Columbus' discovery, a few adventurous souls would penetrate deep into the interior West.
A royal palm in Big Cypress National Preserve, near the Everglades in Florida Courtesy 1uffakind.com
Alvar Cabeza de Vaca thought he was going to settle near the coast when his party approached Florida in 1528. But after a series of catastrophes, he and 300 other people were abandoned on shore. The men traveled blindly west, building rafts to cross the Gulf Coast, and by the end of their first year, only four survived, including Cabeza de Vaca. The small band of men spent the next seven years traveling across the arid plains of Texas and the deserts of New Mexico, making them the first explorers of the Southwest.
To the Spanish authorities, Cabeza de Vaca's story of making his way through hostile lands working as a faith healer seemed fantastic. Soon after he issued his report, one of the members of his expedition, a slave named Estevan, embellished the unbelievable tale by adding an account of the "Seven Golden Cities of Cibola," where the inhabitants lived in unbelievable luxury. Now all the riches of Mexico, South America, the Caribbean, and Central America did not seem enough to the Spanish king. He commanded Francisco Vasquez de Coronado to leave Mexico for points north, to find the golden cities.
Palmetto near Walton Beach, Florida Courtesy Bureau of Land Management , Eastern States Office
A Growing Empire
Coronado and his men searched for the mythical land of gold for nearly three years. They encountered many different tribes of Native Americans, who always directed them just a little farther north or a little farther west. He never found the Golden Cities, but he did explore vast areas of Arizona, New Mexico, the Texas Panhandle, and Kansas. His troops were the first Europeans to remark on the vast herds of bison on the plains. One member of his expedition, Garcia Lopez de Cardenas, was the first European to see the Grand Canyon. Although Coronado enlarged the Spanish Empire by several thousand miles, his expeditions were branded a failure, as he found no gold or other treasure to enrich the royal coffers.
A yucca plant rises above a mesquite thicket in the Jornada del Muerto section of the Camino Real National Historic Trail, which crosses BLM lands in New Mexico. Courtesy 1uffakind.com
A handful of Spanish explorers kept looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola between 1563 and 1596. Needless to say, none found it, although they did explore and map vast areas of New Mexico and Colorado. Meanwhile, other Spanish expeditions were exploring the continentÝs Pacific coast.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo made history in 1542 claiming the California coast for Spain. Fifty years later, Juan de Fuca (a Greek sailing under the Spanish flag), claimed the rest of the Pacific Coast, as far north as Vancouver Island. Others, like Sebastian Mel╚ndez Rodr╠guez Cermenho, and the Spanish nobleman SebastiĚn Vizca╠no, mapped the coast carefully as far north as San Francisco.
California coast Courtesy Charles Webber, California Academy of Sciences
The Spanish Empire now covered a huge area of North America, from Vancouver Island all the way south to Mexico, and from the Pacific Coast to the Great Plains. Territories in the east included all of Florida and parts of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Texas.