Spanish Explorer List

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Fray Marcos de Niza

Fray Marcos de Niza

Fray Marcos de Niza (1495?-1558) – A Franciscan priest who is said to have traveled to the fabled “Seven Golden Cities of Cibola” in what is now the western part of New Mexico. He sailed to the Americas in 1531, and traveled to Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico.

Marcos was born in Nice, Italy in about 1495 and grew up to become a Franciscan friar. In 1531, a group of friars were selected to accompany the Spanish conquistadors to the New World and Marcos De Niza was among them. Fray Marcos first served in Peru, then Guatemala before he was chosen to explore the country north of Sonora, Mexico. The area, based on hearsay stories of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca and other explorers was allegedly filled with wealth. In March 1539, the friar, proceeded by the slave, Estevanico, who had been to the area, started out from Culiacan, Mexico and crossed south-eastern Arizona. The slave and guide, Estevanico, was sent ahead as an advance scout. Separated by several days’ travel from Fray Marcos de Niza, Estevanico approached “Cíbola,” which is thought today, to have been the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh. On his arrival, he announced his intentions to make peace, heal the sick, and told the villagers that he had been sent by white men who would soon arrive and instruct them in divine matters. The village elders, suspicious of his claims that he came from a land of white men because he was dark, and resentful of his demands for turquoise and women, killed him when he attempted to enter the village.

Fray Marcos and the rest would arrive a few days later; but, never went into the village. In September, Fray Marcos returned to Mexico saying that he had seen Cibola from a distance, and described it to be equal in size to Mexico City. He was made provincial superior of his order for Mexico. However, his descriptions of what he had seen soon led Francisco Vázquez de Coronado to make his famous expedition to explore the famous city himself in 1541. With Fray Marcos as his guide, Coronado led his troops into present-day New Mexico, and the Zuni Pueblo. With the reality of what the Spanish found, Fray Marcos returned to Mexico in shame. He died there in March, 1558.

Juan de Onate

Juan de Onate y Salazar

Juan de Onate y Salazar (1550?-1626) – A Spanish conquistador who established the colony of New Mexico for Spain and became New Mexico’s first governor.

Born about 1550, probably in Zacatecas, Mexico, his parents were Spanish-Basque colonists and silver mine owners. His father was the conquistador, colonial official, and silver baron, Cristobal de Onate, who founded the city of Guadalajara, Mexico in 1531. His mother was Dona Catalina Salazar y de la Cadena. Juan Onate grew up to marry Isabel de Tolosa Cortes de Moctezuma, the granddaughter of Hernan Cortes.

After the 1588 defeat of his Armada, Spain’s King Philip II was eager to reestablish his country’s prestige and hoping to repeat the exploits of Hernan Cortes and Francisco Pizarro, ordered the viceroy of New Spain to organize an expedition to seek and colonize a rich civilization thought to lie north of Mexico. Another objective was to spread Roman Catholicism and establish new missions.

In 1595, the viceroy selected Juan de Onate y Salazar to lead and finance the expedition. Despite Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s failure to find golden cities of Cibola a half a century earlier, Onate believed that he would find Gran Quivira. Onate began the expedition in January, 1598 with 400 settlers and soldiers, and their livestock. The expedition crossed the Rio Grande River at the present-day El Paso, Texas in late and on April 30, 1598, he claimed all of New Mexico for Spain. That summer his party continued up the Rio Grande River to present-day northern New Mexico, where he encamped near the Tewa pueblo of San Juan and were helped by the local Indians. Onate’s group built San Gabriel, New Mexico’s first capital and became the province’s first governor. He also sent exploring parties westward to the vicinity of present-day Flagstaff, Arizona, and eastward to the vicinity of present-day Amarillo, Texas. After they realized that the area was not rich in silver, many settlers wanted to return to Mexico, but Onate would not let them go, and executed many of them. He was also incredibly brutal to the local Indians, killing, enslaving, and mutilating hundreds of Indian men, women, and children.

In 1601, Onate himself led an exploration to find Quivira. In June his party followed the Canadian River eastward across the Texas Panhandle, entering Oklahoma, then northeast toward the Wichita Indian villages at the junction of the Arkansas and Little Arkansas Rivers, near present Wichita, Kansas. Like Coronado, he found only mud huts and hostile American Indians, and his disappointed troupe returned to New Mexicoo. While he was gone, most of his settlers returned to Mexico City.

Still determined, Onate made his most ambitious expedition in 1605, following the Colorado River from near the Grand Canyon to the Gulf of California. When he returned to New Mexico in 1606, he found the colony in disarray. Later in 1606, due to continuing problems in the colony and mounting debt, Spain removed him from office and replaced him with Don Pedro de Peralta.

In 1609 he witnessed the founding of Santa Fe. In 1613, he traveled to Mexico City to defend himself against long-standing charges of mismanagement. There, he found himself charged with cruelty, immorality, mismanagement, dereliction of duties, and false reporting. He was fined and was banished from New Mexico for life and from Mexico City for four years. A short time later, he returned to Spain to clear his name and upon appeal, he was was cleared of the charges. Onate, sometimes called the “Last Conquistador,” died on June 3, 1626, in Spain. Gaspar Perez de Villagra, a captain of the expedition, chronicled Onate’s conquest of New Mexico’s indigenous peoples in his epic Historia de Nuevo Mexico from 1610.

Juan Ponce de Leon

Juan Ponce de Leon

Juan Ponce de Leon (1460?-1521) – A Spanish explorer and soldier, Ponce de Leon was the first European to set foot in Florida. He also established the oldest European settlement in Puerto Rico and discovered the Gulf Stream. He is most famous for his search for the legendary Fountain of Youth and other riches.

Born in Santervas, Spain, in about 1460, Ponce de Leon grew up to become a soldier and was fighting Muslims in southern Spain in the early 1490’s. In 1493, Ponce de Leon sailed with Christopher Columbus on Columbus’ second voyage to the Americas. He and his family settled on an island in the Caribbean named Hispaniola (Dominican Republic). He became a military commander at this post and was appointed deputy governor. In 1506, he discovered a nearby island named Borinquen and there, he found large deposits of gold. He returned to the island in 1508 on orders from the king of Spain to explore and colonize it. He renamed the island Puerto Rico and became the island’s governor for two years until the king replaced him with Columbus’ son.

Hurt by the King’s action, Ponce de Leon sailed again, this time north through the Bahamas heading towards Florida. He was in search of new lands and treasures. He had also heard of a mythical fountain of youth. Indians spoke of a legendary, magical spring whose water was believed to make older people young again. Ponce de León explored many areas, including the Bahamas and Bimini, for both gold and the mythical fountain, but he never found either. In early April, 1513, his ships landed on Florida’s east coast near present-day St. Augustine. He claimed the area for Spain and named it La Florida or “place of flowers.” He continued his exploration of the coast. After returning to Puerto Rico, he was caught up in fighting with the Native Americans to put down their rebellions against Spanish rule. He returned to Spain and was named a Captain General by the King of Spain on September 27, 1514. His last expedition was searching for the island of Bimini in 1521. His force of 200 men landed on the west coast of Florida, but, were met by Native American warriors, who wounded many of the men with arrows, including Ponce de Leon. He later died in Havana, Cuba from this wound in July, 1521. He is buried in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Alonso Alvarez de Pineda

Alonso Alvarez de Pineda

Captain Alonso Alvarez de Pineda (1494-1520) – A Spanish explorer and mapmaker, Pineda and his crew were probably the first Europeans in Texas, claiming it for Spain. Little is known of Pineda’s early life, but, in 1517, he was sailing for the Spanish Governor of Jamaica, Francisco de Garay. The Spanish thought there must be a sea lane from the Gulf of Mexico to Asia and In 1517 and 1519, Pineda led several expeditions to map the western coastlines of the Gulf of Mexico, from the Yucatan Peninsula to Panuco River, just north of Veracruz, Mexico.

On June 2, 1519, Alvarez de Pineda entered a large bay with a sizable Native American settlement on one shore. He sailed upriver for 18 miles and observed as many as 40 villages on the banks of the large, deep river he named “Espíritu Santo.” It has been long assumed that he was the first European report of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Álvarez de Pineda continued his journey westward and one of the regions he explored and mapped was the area around Corpus Christi Bay, entering the bay on the feast day of Corpus Christi, hence the name. Shortly thereafter, he sailed up a river he named Las Palmas, where he spent over 40 days repairing his ships. The Las Palmas was most likely the Rio Grande River. The expedition established the remainder of the boundaries of the Gulf of Mexico, while disproving the idea of a sea passage to Asia. It also verified that Florida was a peninsula instead of an island, and allowed Alvarez de Pineda to be the first European to see the coastal areas of western Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas, lands he called “Amichel.” His map is the first known document of Texas history and was the first map of the Gulf Coast region of the United States. The next year, he was killed in a fight with Huastec Indians in Panuco, Mexico.

Compiled by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October, 2017


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Handbook of Texas Online

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