With the Christmas season over and a new year’s routines taking hold, I should be back on a regular schedule of posting a new entry toward the beginning of each week.
We left off in the middle of a series of entries discussing the Spanish influence on what would become the United States – an influence that began around a century before Jamestown. We started the story in Central and South America, however, because what happened there is what convinced the Spanish to head north.
The conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) and Inca Empires gave immediate credence to other rumors about lost empires or “cities of gold” just waiting to be found. And there were plenty of rumors to chase! Some rumors may have been a matter of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. However, many seem to have been intentionally misleading on the part of Native American groups. Think about it: a group of people with a bad reputation who make pretty outrageous demands (as we’ll see later this entry) show up in your area. You’re going to try to find a way to move them along as quickly as possible, right? And when you find out they’re looking for gold, silver, etc … well, is it really that surprising that Spanish conquistadors kept hearing stories about vast amounts of gold waiting just beyond the horizon? Better hurry and go find them! No reason to stay here!
We’ll look at a few of these expeditions into what is now the United States next.
After two earlier failed attempts by the Spanish to penetrate the interior of what is now the US Southeast, Hernando DeSoto led an expedition of about 700 men to the region in 1539. He was officially charged with finding a suitable place for a colony, but spent most of his nearly three years in the region looking for gold. While DeSoto never encountered another Peru or Mexico, he did encounter the last vestiges of the mighty Mississippian culture – already in decline, but still organized and powerful (we briefly discussed them in Entry V). DeSoto’s practice of taking slaves (to serve as baggage handlers and interpreters) and his practice of demanding that the tribes he encountered provide his men with food and supplies, made him a lot of enemies. Constant conflict with Native Americans marked the expedition, with DeSoto losing about half his men by the time the expedition sailed home. DeSoto himself died of a fever. The biggest consequence of the expedition was to bring horrific new diseases to the region. In the wake of the DeSoto expedition, native populations crashed and many societies were destabilized.
The same year that DeSoto set out to explore what is now the US Southeast, a Spanish friar named Marco de Niza headed for what is now the Southwest. An important member of his expedition was a Moroccan slave named Esteban. Esteban had been one of four survivors of an earlier failed expedition who had spent years traveling from Florida along the coast back to Mexico (the most famous of whom was Cabeza de Vaca, who left a fascinating account of their journey; you can easily find cheap versions translated into English). During their travels, Esteban and the other companions heard rumors of the Seven Cities of Cibola. It was these cities that the de Niza expedition set off to find.
When they got to what is now Zuni pueblo in what is now New Mexico, Esteban went ahead as a messenger for the expedition. When Esteban was killed by the Zuni, de Niza and the rest of the expedition retreated back to Mexico. Never having entered Zuni, de Niza nonetheless described it as a city shining on a hill (i.e. gold!) A year later, Coronado set out with a much larger expedition to find the Seven Cities. Much like DeSoto, not only did he find nothing, but he ended up in conflict with the Indians in the region – this time, the Pueblos—for much the same reasons that the DeSoto expedition had failed to establish friendly relations. Although there were some skirmishes, the Pueblos’ solution for getting rid of their unwanted guests was to substantiate to the rumors of the seven cities, but tell Coronado that they were much further north. Coronado ended up wandering as far as modern-day Kansas before returning home to Mexico.
By the time Coronado returned home, most were convinced that there simply was not going to be another Mexico or Peru. However, some concluded that there might be other ways to get wealth up north! When the Spanish crown decided to establish a small colony in New Mexico in order to assert its claims in the region, a man named Juan de Onate won the right do so on behalf of the crown. Onate’s father had discovered an important silver mine in Mexico; poring over reports of the geography of New Mexico, Onate believed he could find similar silver deposits. With this goal in mind, he established the colony of New Mexico in 1598. Onate never found any mineral wealth, but the presence of the well-organized pueblos allowed him to set up a system of labor and resource tribute similar to what had been set up in Mexico. The presence of such a large, settled population also excited Spanish religious orders who eventually established churches in each of the Pueblos. The tensions between clergy and colonists over the Pueblos would lead to a very dysfunctional colony; eventually New Mexico would succumb to what some have called “the first American Revolution” (spoiler alert!).
So, there were no more “Mexicos” to be found further north. And yet, we know that the Spanish continued to claim and occupy large swaths of what is now the United States for quite some time. Spain claimed Florida until the 1820s. The majority of the United States west of the Mississippi River fell under Spanish claims at various points, as well. And of course, Mexico would inherit Spanish claims over what is now the US Southwest when it declared independence, not relinquishing them until the United States invaded its southern neighbor in 1846.
But we are still left with one important question: If there were no more “Mexicos” to be found, why did the Spanish stay? We’ll answer that question in the next entry. We’ll also talk a little about life in the Spanish borderlands.