Who were the first Europeans to visit Texas?

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The first expeditions to Texas were either unintentional or motivated by a desire for wealth. After an unintentional landing on Galveston Island, Cabeza de Vaca became one of the first Europeans to extensively explore Texas. Spanish exploration ceased until the lure of riches drew many explorers to Texas. These expeditions broadened Spanish understanding of Texas history, geography and native peoples.

1. Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca

Cabeza de Vaca

In 1528, Cabeza de Vaca embarked on an expedition with fellow Spanish explorer Pánfilo de Narváez to conquer and colonize the North American Gulf Coast, beginning a journey that would last more than eight years.

Another expedition, led by Pánfilo de Narváez, set sail from Spain in 1528 to explore the interior of North America. A long series of disasters killed the majority of the expedition. Shipwrecked near Galveston Island was a group of 90 men led by lvar Nuez Cabeza de Vaca. Estevanico, a North African enslaved man, is thought to be the first person of African descent to set foot in North America. Only fifteen of the men survived the winter despite receiving food and shelter from the nearby Karankawa tribe.

Cabeza de Vaca and the remaining survivors would be the first Europeans to see the diversity of the landscape and people of what is now known as Texas for the next eight years. Cabeza de Vaca moved between the mainland and the coast, working as a trader and healer to survive, with the ultimate goal of reaching Mexico City.

Cabeza de Vaca and his companions failed to discover gold or claim new territory for Spain during their eight-year stay in Texas. Instead, they returned with stories of riches heard from American Indians elsewhere in North America. For nearly 70 years, rumors like these fueled Spanish exploration of Texas and the surrounding areas.

2. Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado

Hernando De Soto and his men set out from Florida in search of large cities and plentiful treasure, but they found neither. De Soto died in the spring of 1542, right in the middle of his explorations, leaving Luis de Moscoso de Alvarado in command. Moscoso and his men abandoned their search for riches after burying De Soto on the Mississippi River and headed west to Mexico. They marched into Ais and Caddo territory in present-day East Texas, where Spanish soldiers attacked Caddo towns and stole food supplies from the American Indians. One Caddo cacique, or chief, directed his men to lead the Spaniards into the territory of another, less well-supplied band. When Moscoso discovered the trick, he had the guides hanged and quickly returned to the Mississippi River. They built several small boats there, sailed down the Mississippi River, and then to Mexico along the Gulf Coast. When Moscoso arrived in Mexico in September 1542, he reported that the expedition had failed to find any of the large, wealthy cities that De Soto had sought. His account, combined with Coronado’s failure to find any of the alleged gold cities, reinforced Spain’s decision not to explore the northern frontier further.

3. Antonio de Espejo

Antonio de Espejo

It took 40 years for explorers to return to the northern borders of Spain’s territories. This time, the Spanish were looking for missing men rather than gold.

Antonio de Espejo set out from Nueva Vizcaya, Mexico, in November 1582, to find some friars who had traveled to northern New Mexico to convert the American Indians. Espejo learned early in his expedition that the two friars had been murdered by Tiguex tribe members in present-day New Mexico. Nonetheless, he continued on and explored the north and east. He moved north into Tiguex territory before turning east to reach the Pecos River. He and his men followed the Pecos River south and entered present-day Texas, where they were greeted by Jumano, who acted as Espejo’s guides, leading him through the Trans-Pecos region and back to the Rio Grande.

Diego Pérez de Luxán, a member of Espejo’s expedition, kept a daily journal of the journey. His detailed descriptions of the landscape and American Indians encountered by the Spaniards encouraged further exploration and, eventually, settlement of modern-day New Mexico. His descriptions of the Trans-Pecos region, however, did not inspire the Spanish to further explore what is now Texas.

4. Juan de Oñate

Juan de Oñate would be the final conquistador to cross present-day Texas. His explorations, unlike those of his predecessors, would have a direct and long-term impact on the region.

Juan de Oñate led an expedition to settle present-day New Mexico in early 1598. Unlike some of his predecessors, Oñate was tasked with establishing a colony rather than just claiming land and finding resources. Many of his party’s colonists hoped to strike it rich by mining silver. He crossed the Rio Grande at El Paso del Norte, the modern city of El Paso, on his way north. He formally declared Spanish possession of what is now New Mexico there. Following Coronado’s lead and establishing the colony’s new headquarters near modern-day Santa Fe, Oñate set out east in search of the city of gold, Quivira. He, like Coronado, failed to find riches on the Great Plains.

During his brief visit to the region, Oñate’s expedition discovered nothing that the Spanish were looking for: no gold cities, precious metals, or jewels. His actions, however, would have a significant impact on Texas in the coming decades. El Camino Real del Norte was named after his route through El Paso del Norte, which was already well-known to Native American populations who had used it for trade long before the Spanish arrived. This road would serve as a vital lifeline connecting New Mexico to Mexico City. El Paso del Norte’s location on El Camino Real del Norte made it an important trading and transportation hub in the future.

5. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado 

Coronado

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

Coronado had heard of another golden kingdom to the east, Quivira. He took that route, passing through the Texas Panhandle on his way to the Great Plains. During his expedition, he saw Palo Duro Canyon but found no treasure. In 1542, Coronado returned to Mexico City empty-handed. His failure to find the Seven Cities of Cbola, Quivira, or any other treasures discouraged further Spanish exploration in the region for many years.

Coronado’s interactions with the Zuis at Hawikuh typified the way many conquistadors approached American Indians. The Spaniards read the Requerimiento to them in a foreign language, and if the Native Americans resisted, the Spaniards took what they wanted by force. These tactics resulted in conflict, suffering, and, in some cases, death for many American Indians across the Western Hemisphere.

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