1513 - 1821

Explorations and Voyages

Spanish Legacy in the United States of America

The presence of Spain in the United States is an extraordinary adventure that began in 1513 and reached into the 19th century. Spanish explorers and voyagers explored a vast area of the territory that today forms the United States of America.


The Antilles, the site of the first Spanish settlements, was the platform for the conquest and colonization of new territories. Different expeditions were sent from these islands that widened the known world for Europeans, and the lands discovered were claimed in the name of the king of Spain.

One of the first exploratory voyages was entrusted to Juan Ponce de León, who discovered Puerto Rico (Boringuen), and, in 1513, headed for Florida. Explorers were drawn by the legends of gold and wealth of those lands.

Juan Ponce de León 


Ponce de León, upon setting foot in Florida, could not have imagined that he was the first European to come ashore in what would, in time, become the United States.

Ponce de León’s itinerary

The Valladolid native Juan Ponce de León, who became governor of Puerto Rico, secured the Crown’s permission to explore the north to find the mythical island of Bimini in 1512. In 1513 he left San Germán in Puerto Rico passing the Bahamas as he headed north. In April 1513 the expedition reached land. It was Easter (“Pascua”) and because of this and the rich vegetation of the land, he called it “Pascua Florida”. After exploring the coast and meeting with the Native Americans in October that same year, he was convinced that Florida was an island.  He returned to Puerto Rico and travelled back to Castile where he obtained a charter for colonization and the title of “Adelantado” of Florida. 

He left behind Juan Pérez de Oturbia and Antón de Alaminos  with the task of finding the island of Bimini. Although they never found the mythical island, their voyage contributed to the exploration of new areas and the establishment of new routes, as well as to an understanding of the currents of the Gulf.

Ponce de León, the first European in the United States, landed on the coast from which the first lunar mission was launched 500 years later.
Diorama of Ponce de León, close to St. Augustine. Legend has it that one of the aims of the second voyage to Florida by Ponce de León was the search for the Fountain of Eternal Youth.

In 1521 Ponce de León returned to Florida, leading an expedition that included missionaries, families, seeds, livestock and tools. The resistance of the indigenous population to the conquest led to several skirmishes and in one of these Ponce de León was wounded. He subsequently ordered the expedition’s return to Cuba, where he died shortly afterwards.

The signature of Ponce de León is found on numerous documents in the Archive of the Indies.
Warm Mineral Springs, in Florida, a spa of curative waters that some researchers identify as the Fountain of Youth sought by Ponce de León.

Ponce de León was the first European to set foot on the territory of the United States. His name is also associated with the search for the mythical Fountain of Eternal Youth. In their chronicles of the Indies, historians relate how the indigenous peoples used salutary waters known for their medicinal properties and that their accounts contributed to sustaining a very widespread myth in the western world, that of “the fountain that rejuvenates or makes old men young again.”

Numerous statues, such as the one in St. Augustine, commemorate the deeds of Juan Ponce de León.

Cabeza de Vaca (1528-1536)

Alvar Núñez de Cabeza de Vaca undertook an extraordinary voyage, a great adventure. 

Cabeza de Vaca’s itinerary

Cabeza de Vaca arrived in Florida with the expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, which, after sailing from Sanlúcar de Barrameda in 1527 arrived in the Bay of Tampa in 1528. Only four men survived this expedition: Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso de Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes and Estebanico.

Cabeza de Vaca wandered around Florida and he sometimes had to carry a burning stick, keeping it alight so as not to die from the cold.

For several years, the four members of the expedition travelled around those inhospitable lands, from Florida to Mexico, eating roots, berries and insects and even living as slaves among the Native American tribes.

“Upon seeing Indians smoking, he observed the effects of smoking tobacco.” And as for them, Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions “walked naked, shedding their skin twice a year, like snakes”.

Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, of noble origins, travelled all around the south of the United States on foot.

In 1536, after wandering westward for months, they encountered groups of Spaniards from the viceroyalty of New Spain. Upon arrival in Mexico, he began to chronicle his odyssey in the book, “Shipwrecks and Commentaries”, published in 1555. Thanks to this work the western world learned about the existence of indigenous peoples, customs, languages, and new lands. In the book Cabeza de Vaca describes the curious customs of the tribes he had visited, along with the endless herds of bison that he called “cows”. Cabeza de Vaca has gone down in history as the first European to traverse the vast territory of the southern United States from east to west.

His chronicles describe the customs of the Indian tribes of Florida, he says: “They eat spiders, ants, worms, small lizards, snakes and vipers, earth, wood, deer excrement and other things that I refrain from mentioning, and I believe that, had there been stones in that land, they would eat them”. He also says that “they were capable of running all day in pursuit of deer. This way they kill many of them, because they pursue them until the deer tire and sometimes they take them alive”.

Cabeza de Vaca wrote the chronicle of his fascinating journey in a book entitled "Shipwrecks and Commentaries".
Cabeza de Vaca was the first European to see the immense herds of bison, which he called “cows”.

Nature is present in his stories, often times alluding to what he remembered from Spain. On bison he writes, "Here there are cows, and they seem to me the size of those in Spain; they have small horns, like Moorish cattle, and very long hair, like fine wool”.

Hernando de Soto 


Hernando de Soto was the first man to explore the southeastern part of the United States.

Hernando de Soto’s itinerary

Born in Jerez de los Caballeros, Badajoz, in 1514, he enrolled in the expedition of Pedrarias heading for Central America. After remaining in the area for several years and making his fortune, he joined the expedition to conquer Peru under the orders of Pizarro. Back in Spain, after hearing the tales of Cabeza de Vaca, in 1535, seduced by the idea of conquering new lands and finding the wealth of Florida, he organized an expedition of over six hundred men, which he commanded as Governor of Cuba and “Adelantado” of Florida. In May 1539, he arrived in Tampa and set out on his journey full of hardships in a hostile land, where he had to contend both with the swampy jungle and the resistance of the Indians to the conquest. The strategy of the Indians was either to trick the Spanish and guide them into bogs or thickets, or set up ambushes, like the chief of the Tuscaloosa, for instance, who led them to the town of Mobile, where a ferocious battle resulted in enormous losses on both sides.

Painting depicting Hernando de Soto and his men discovering the Mississippi, which the Native Americans called “the Great River”.
Hernando de Soto was a member of an illustrious family in Extremadura, the cradle of great Spanish conquistadors.
The Mississippi, the longest river in the United States, was no obstacle for the Spaniards under De Soto, who crossed it in the course of their long expedition.

After crossing the Appalachians and the territory of Georgia and Carolina, De Soto and his men set off westward, sighting and crossing the Mississippi and catching a first glimpse of the great plains. After a three-year search, they found no gold, but they did come across fields of corn and beans and a harsh land populated by hostile Indians. However, De Soto did not give in to disappointment. Overcoming countless hardships and discouragement among his men, he decided to ask Cuba for reinforcements.

The death of Hernando de Soto, buried in the Mississippi, thwarted Spanish plans to settle in the eastern United States, leaving the entire region wide open for English pioneers.

In 1541, in a bout of malaria, death derailed his plans. De Soto was buried in an oak trunk in the Mississippi river, and his demoralized contingent returned to Mexico, abandoning the project for a colony.

Although death prevented De Soto from fulfilling his dreams, he was one of the first travelers and conquistadors to survey a large part of United States territory.

Statue of Hernando de Soto, one of the great names of the Spanish presence in the United States.

Pedro Menéndez de Avilés

No one before him had successfully established a Spanish settlement in Florida. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés alone finally succeeded after many failed attempts by his predecessors.

Menéndez de Avilés’ itinerary

His expedition was a response to the arrival of a colony of French Huguenots in Florida. The presence of rival foreigners in Spanish lands in America and the rivalry among European empires was transferred to America. Thus the continent became the scene of new confrontations. The Spanish crown felt compelled to send new expeditions to achieve the conquest of the discovered territories. As “Adelantado” and Governor of Florida, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés arrived on August 28 1565, with 12 ships and a thousand colonists, monks, civilians and military men. After securing the surrender of the French population he founded the town of St. Augustine. Menéndez then established a string of settlements along the coast as far as the town of Santa Elena, in South Carolina, which Menéndez envisioned as the future colonial capital.

Site near St. Augustine where Pedro Menéndez de Avilés landed and took the first steps in establishing enduring Spanish settlements in Florida.
Statue of Pedro Menéndez de Avilés in St. Augustine as founder of the city.
To counter the threat of French colonization, Menéndez de Avilés led his men through four days of heavy rainfall until they reached the French-occupied Fort Caroline and destroyed it.

The “Adelantado” devoted the following years to consolidating civilian and missionary foundations. He travelled to Spain numerous times to secure funds and families with whom to continue the task. He travelled around the territory of Florida time and again, encouraging the colonists and religious orders and tenaciously upholding the colonial enterprise in lands where the Indians resisted Spanish presence.

The streets of the modern-day city of St. Augustine exemplify an unmistakable Spanish flavor

After years of continuous travel, he returned to Spain to take charge of the “Invincible Armada,” but death took him prematurely. His legacy was the string of towns, missions and forts that he left behind which enabled Spain’s colonization of Florida.

Every street and corner of St. Augustine evokes its Spanish heritage.
The city of St. Augustine in the 16th century, shortly after the Spanish founded it.
Nowadays St. Augustine, the city founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, is a bustling town where much remains of the Spanish heritage.
The Atlantic coast, in the Cape Canaveral area, where Ponce de León landed 500 years ago.


The conquest and colonization of America represented a bilateral cultural exchange. The culture and experience of managing cattle and horse riding were imported from Spain, specifically from the Marshes of the Guadalquivir River.

The Seven Cities of Cibola

The legend of the “Seven Cities of Gold” (or Cíbola, in Spanish) was the major driving force behind Spain’s exploration of the southwest part of the United States.

Fray Marcos de Niza mistook the light of the sunset for gold, asserting that he had seen one of the "Seven Cities of Gold".

Cabeza de Vaca had returned from his incredible adventure with vague stories of rich cities to the north of the Mexican viceroyalty, thus fueling the legend of the “Seven Cities of Gold”, which had supposedly been founded by seven bishops after fleeing the Iberian Peninsula following the Muslim invasion. These rumors incited Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to send Fray Marcos de Niza in 1539 at the head of a party to confirm the veracity of the fable and to inquire into the existence of a passage of transfer between both oceans.

Following fantastic adventures, Niza climbed to the top of a hill overlooking a village. The setting sun made him believe that he was contemplating a city of gold. His return with such news, whether invented or not, caused quite a stir in Mexico: one of the Seven Cities had been sighted, and this event became the final incentive to spur Spain’s expeditions in the southwest.

This arid landscape is the one traversed by Marcos de Niza in search of the legendary cities of gold.

While the myth sometimes acted as the spur, at other times, as in Texas, it was the threat of French occupation that led to incursions such as that of Alonso de León or Domingo Terán de los Ríos. They were initial forays of what were to become the Texas missions, such as that of San Antonio de Valero, better known as “the Alamo”, which consolidated the presence of Spain in what is now the largest State in the Union.

Vázquez de Coronado 


Vázquez de Coronado was the first to explore the Great Plains of central and western United States, pursuing the myth of the “Seven Cities of Gold”.

Vázquez de Coronado’s itinerary

The myth of the Seven Cities of Gold, reinforced by the tales of Cabeza de Vaca and Marcos de Niza, motivated Viceroy Mendoza to organize an expedition to search for them, entrusting its command to the young governor of Nueva Galicia, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. After exploring the coast of Sonora he entered the high plateau and discovered that the legendary cities did not exist. Nevertheless, Coronado drove on, and he dispatched several exploratory parties, one of which, led by López de Cárdenas, discovered the Grand Canyon in Colorado.

Born in an illustrious family, Coronado traversed many states of the present-day United States without finding the riches he sought after.

Where he had hoped to find cities covered with gold, Vázquez de Coronado found only arid lands and hostile indigenous peoples.

That first winter was very hard on the Spaniards because food was running low. The following spring, they set off after another chimera, the “Great Quivira”. But once more the mirage vanished, since all they found there were bison, grasslands and sky.

On the way back to their primitive quarters, Coronado suffered an injury after falling from his horse that plunged him into deep despair and led him to return to Spain. His journey was officially considered a failure, but like De Soto (from whom he had been just a few days’ distance away), he explored vast undiscovered territories, laying the grounds for the future colonization of western United States.

When Vázquez de Coronado arrived at one of the alleged "Seven Cities of Gold", he found that Fray Marcos de Niza had dreamed up the whole thing.
The Grand Canyon was discovered by García López de Cárdenas, who was sent on an exploratory mission by Vázquez de Coronado

Juan de Oñate


Juan de Oñate is an example of tenacity. After many others had failed in the attempt, it was he who managed to consolidate the Spanish presence permanently in the southwestern United States.

Juan de Oñate’s itinerary

Several expeditions had been undertaken to the north to advance the frontiers of New Spain, such as the Rodríguez-Chamuscado expedition or that of Antonio de Espejo, all of them unsuccessful. However, Philip II, bent on the evangelization and colonization of these extensive regions, ordered a new expedition the command of which fell to Juan de Oñate. In 1598 he financed by his own means a large party composed of 200 families, Indians to assist him, and 7,000 heads of cattle, as well as implements for settling the new lands, and he overcame great difficulties in order to set off on his expedition.

Oñate spearheaded a genuine colonizing expedition, with families, livestock, seeds and tools with which to establish a Spanish presence in the southwest.

The caravan was a league long and advanced along the road that would later be the Royal Inland Road, crossing the Río Grande and El Paso, and making its way into the valleys of New Mexico, founding the towns of San Juan de los Caballeros and San Francisco, which became San Gabriel, from where he dispatched exploratory parties in new directions. He began one of these new expeditions in 1604 with the purpose of reaching the Pacific. After crossing Arizona and reaching the Colorado River, Oñate mistook California for an island. A subsequent exploration led by García López de Cárdenas reached the Grand Canyon in Colorado.

The sandstone walls of El Morro bear witness to the arrival of the many travelers who recorded their passage there, such as Juan de Oñate himself.

After crossing the Rio Grande, which opened the way to New Mexico, Oñate and his men held mass by way of thanksgiving, which Hispanic peoples continue to celebrate.

Juan de Oñate fought doggedly to keep morale running high among the colonists, who were reluctant to settle in a land without gold or precious metals. After a decade of immense and tenacious efforts, he was removed from the position, but the flame of colonization had been lit: fields were irrigated, livestock was pastured, and families began to prosper, in good harmony with the Pueblo Indians. The colonization of New Mexico was one of the main results of his exploration and government.

Statue of Juan de Oñate in New Mexico, in homage to the man who opened the way for Spanish presence in southwestern United States.
When crossing over the Rio Grande from New Spain via El Paso, Texas, explorers entered the so-called "Borderlands", uninhabited territories which would become the South-West of the United States. 

Eusebio Franciso Kino, Father Kino

The inclusion of the territory of Arizona into western civilization is the undisputed work of the Jesuit Father Kino.

Father Kino’s basic itinerary

The Jesuit Eusebius Chini, or “Kino”, was commissioned to evangelize the territory of Sonora, the arid “Pimería Alta”, in Arizona, where he founded several missions modeled on the first one, Nuestra Señora de los Dolores, which would be his base of operations for the next twenty-four years, and San Javier del Bac, among others. He was, moreover, a man of great exploratory and scientific curiosity. He traveled to Baja California in 1702 and affirmed that it was not the island it was believed to be, but rather a peninsula.

The Jesuit Father Kino, a tireless traveler, always travelled with a mule laden with gifts to attract the Indians.

As a missionary, his zeal was prodigious, and he expanded agriculture and livestock farming, which changed the lives of the Arizona Indians.

The San Xavier del Bac Mission, called the “White Dove of the Desert” in the southwestern United States.

In brief, Father Kino introduced livestock, plants, religion, language, construction techniques and music, some of European origin and others from New Spain, with the aid of which he successfully founded a network of villages in the most arid southwestern areas of the Viceroyalty. Thanks to this missionary network the nomadic Native Americans gradually settled in the area. Another result of his work was the establishment of a military force to defend the border and explore new territories to the north of the known lands, reaching as far as the north part of the Colorado River. For all these reasons, he is considered to be the first colonizer of Arizona.

One of the many statues of Father Kino in Arizona. He is considered the “Father of Arizona”.


California was the last territory of the United States to be occupied by Spain. It occurred 250 years after the arrival of Ponce de León in Florida.

The Holy Expedition 


The mission ordered by King Charles III to occupy the territory of California was called the “Holy Expedition".

First Spanish expeditions in California

The first European to land in California was Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, who in 1542 led an expedition that discovered San Diego and died shortly afterwards. Later, in 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno received the order to explore the coast, mapping it and drawing up a valuable cartographic document that served as the basis for subsequent expeditions.

The “San Carlos” was one of the supply ships of the Spanish missions in California, based at the San Blas port.
The secret map of the California coast drawn up in 1602 by Sebastián Vizcaíno and jealously guarded by Spain for years, served as a guide for Spanish expeditions of the 18th century.
This is what the original mission El Carmel in Monterey looked like. It was the first of the chain of Spanish missions in Florida.

In the 18th century, Charles III decided that Spain should occupy California, for which he organized the so-called “Holy Expedition” seeking to establish a Mission and a Presidio in Monterey as the bridgehead for the missionary, political and civil expansion of California. On the military side, Gaspar de Portolá led the expedition and on the religious side the Franciscan friar from Mallorca, Junípero Serra.

After founding the mission of San Diego, the expedition began the search for Monterey, which was not found during a first trip because of fog. A fresh attempt, both by land as well as by sea, was made at Serra’s insistence, and this time they found the port of Monterey in the exact location chosen and praised by Vizcaíno as the best coastal port from which to commence the Spanish colonization. There, the Manila Galleon, after several months of arduous navigation in those latitudes, found a place of refuge. That was also were the Carmel Mission was founded, where Junípero Serra made his residence and presided over the California missions. Over twenty missions were founded to evangelize the Indians and integrate them into western culture, as well as several cities, including Los Angeles.

Statue of Rodríguez Cabrillo in San Diego. As early as 1542, he was the first to explore the coast of California.
Charles III is credited with having driven the Spanish presence of California.
Nearly two and a half centuries passed since the navigator Rodríguez Cabrillo landed in San Diego and Junípero Serra founded the Mission of San Diego de Alcalá there.
The discovery of the bay of San Francisco had a casual origin, in the course of the expedition led by Gaspar de Portolá

Junípero Serra (1769)

Without the determination and organizational talent of Franciscan friar Junípero Serra, Spain would not have been able to settle in California.

Itinerary of the expedition commanded by Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra.

He was a man of great human qualities and a striking personality that manifested itself in matters both spiritual and civil. As a missionary, he was tireless. He founded a dozen missions to evangelize and instruct the indigenous people. The stamp he left on California has been recognized by generations of residents and his tomb in Carmel is a testament to a life dedicated to the Spanish vision of the Mission.

The austerity of Junípero Serra, prior of the California missions, is evident in the extreme simplicity of his personal room at the general headquarters of the Monterey mission.
The San Juan Capistrano Mission is one in a great chain of missions established by Spain in California to integrate the Indians into western culture.

In the political sphere, Serra partnered closely with the visitor-general of New Spain, José de Gálvez who, after expelling the Jesuits from Baja California favored the arrival of the Franciscans to create a line of defense along with the Presidios of San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco to protect New Spain along the northwestern border and to add to the Spanish monarchy large territories that were believed to be very resource-rich. This supposition was confirmed in the mid 19th century with the discovery of the gold mines.

Junípero Serra was a man of great humanity, devoted body and soul to the task of evangelizing the California Indians.

Spanish Expeditions to the American Pacific

At the end of the 18th century, Spain embarked on an exploration of the Pacific coasts, as far as the coasts of Alaska.


Subsequent Spanish expeditions in the American North Pacific.
Spain sailed time and again along the California coast, a treacherous coastline, steep and prone to strong currents and headwinds.

After the first expedition to Alta California others followed in the 18th century, which explored the Pacific coastline of North America and Canada, naming and taking possession of numerous bays and inlets.  Noteworthy among the expeditions was that of Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Cuadra, who reached the environs of Alaska aboard the “Sonora”, a small 12-meter schooner; those of Bruno de Heceta, Juan Pérez, Mourelle and Arteaga, who sailed up the Pacific coast as far as the climatic conditions of the region allowed.

On board the small schooner Sonora, Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra carried out an epic voyage to the area around Alaska. The entire crew either died or fell ill.

The expedition that reached the highest latitude was that of Esteban Martínez, who sailed up to the 61st parallel in 1787, the northernmost point reached by Spain on the coast of Alaska, where it came into contact with Russian settlements. Two years later, an incident in Nootka restricted expeditions in the region.

From that moment on, Spain focused on developing and colonizing Alta California by creating several colonization villages that, along with the missions and presidios, formed the base settlements in the northernmost province of the Spanish empire.

Spanish fort on Nootka Sound, the northernmost outpost of the Spanish presence on the Californian Pacific coast.
Spain made its way a long way north, reaching Alaska and the Aleutian Islands, and claiming Spanish sovereignty over them.

Thanks to Spanish voyages and expeditions the mapping of the northwestern coast was completed. In that time the area was considered the farthest maritime coastline as it was farthest from Spain to be reached by ship. They also prepared reports and ethnographic descriptions that on many occasions are the most complete and earliest studies of the different peoples that inhabited these coasts where, years later, modern anthropology would be born with Frank Boas.

Credits: Story

Autor — Borja Cardelús ©. Para el Ministerio de Asuntos Exteriores y de Cooperación del Gobierno de España. www.borjacardelus.com
Créditos de las ilustraciones y de las fotografías © — Borja Cardelús, Eshter Merchán, Bernardo Lara, Juan Carlos Arbex

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