(This is a guest post by former Hispanic Division Reference Specialist Juan Manuel Pérez)
For many people, the history of the United States starts this way: Christopher Columbus crossed the ocean blue in 1492, and in 1620 the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth Rock. Yet, by 1620, Spain had explored and settled in many areas of what is today the United States of America. The Spanish played an important role in this country’s history and Hispanic heritage continues to be significant within U.S. cultural, linguistic, culinary, and social traditions.
Spanish exploration of the present-day United States and Canada began in the 15th century and reached from Florida to Labrador. As early as 1499, Spanish explorers traveled along the coast of Brazil to the Gulf of Mexico and the Florida coast. They also reached the Chesapeake Bay. In 1513, Spanish explorer and conquistador, Juan Ponce de León, while searching for the fabled fountain of youth, landed on the Florida coast on Easter Sunday (Pascua Florida).
In 1519, Alonso Alvarez de Pineda explored the Golf Coast, as far as Texas, being the first to understand that Florida was not an island. He also discovered the mouth of the Mississippi River. Ponce de León entered Mobile Bay (Alabama) and also probably sighted the bay of Corpus Christi, Texas. In 1525, Esteban Gómez explored the Atlantic Coast from Florida to Labrador, passing by the mouths of the rivers Connecticut, Hudson, and Delaware. On his trek, he reached Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Cod, Long Island, New York Bay and entered the Chesapeake Bay at White Haven, Maryland. In the following year, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón reached the Chesapeake Bay, and Fray (friar) Montesinos celebrated the first Catholic Mass in Virginia, near Jamestown. The expedition founded a settlement at San Miguel de Gualdape, opposite present-day Georgetown, South Carolina. In 1528, Pánfilo de Nárvaez led an expedition to Florida. Most of the men perished in bad weather and battles with Indigenous peoples. The survivors, Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso Castillo, and the enslaved African Estebanico, wandered for 8 years throughout the southern U.S., in what is now Texas and New Mexico. They reached Mexico City on July 24, 1536. Years later, in 1542, Cabeza de Vaca wrote an account of his experiences, “Naufragios” (Shipwrecks). This is the first history of the United States. Cabeza de Vaca can also be considered one of the first anthropologists and ethnologists thanks to his detailed description of the Native Peoples and the flora and fauna he came across.
In 1539, Fray Marcos de Niza led an expedition to find the fabled seven cities of Cíbola (Seven Cities of Gold), reaching a region of New Mexico inhabited by the Zuni People. The adobe buildings of the Pueblo Indians glittered in the sun and Fray Niza, seeing this from far away, thought that he had found a city of gold. Hernando de Soto reached Bahía Honda (Tampa Bay) on June 1, leading the largest attempt yet to conquer and settle Florida. He and his companions celebrated Christmas in the area of Tallahassee. This was the first Christmas celebration in the continental U.S. For the next two years, Hernando de Soto explored the regions of Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, then crossed the Appalachian Mountains into Tennessee. He also explored Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas. The source of the Mississippi river was also discovered.
In 1540, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led an expedition of 336 Spaniards, 1,000 to 1,200 Indians, 552 horses, 600 mules, 5,000 sheep and 500 head of cattle through Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and Kansas. Coronado sent García López de Cárdenas to explore the northwest, reaching the Grand Canyon, while another expedition explored the northeast and a third, led by Hernando de Alarcón, reached the Colorado River and Yuma, Arizona. Hernando de Alarcón is possibly the first European to have set foot on California soil, entering the Gulf of California and ascending the Colorado River. Coronado also reached the Río Grande, while one of his lieutenants explored Hopi country in present-day Arizona. The following year, 1541, Hernando de Soto crossed the Mississippi River, reaching Arkansas. A number of pigs left behind by the expedition survived in the wild and are believed to be the ancestors of the famous razor-backs. Vázquez de Coronado reached Palo Duro Canyon, Texas. There, on May 29, Fray Juan Padilla celebrated a thanksgiving Mass. This was the first Thanksgiving celebration in the United States.
In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded St. Augustine, the first permanent European settlement in the United States. With the founding of the city, the Spanish system of local government, “cabildo,” was introduced in the continental U.S. The cabildo was an elected town council, with an elected mayor—“ alcalde.” Thus, when St. Augustine conducted the first elections for the cabildo, they were the first democratic elections held in the continental U.S., and the cabildo became the first legislative assembly. Martín de Argüelles was born there the following year, becoming the first “American” of European ancestry for whom documented proof exists. Menéndez de Avilés also started the construction of a road linking St. Augustine with the San Mateo Fort, near Jacksonville. This was the first road built in the U.S.
In 1570, Jesuits founded a mission in the Chesapeake Bay, and in 1573, Pedro Menéndez Márquez further explored the Chesapeake Bay.
In 1598, Juan de Oñate explored the area north of the Rio Grande, reaching Missouri and Nebraska. He founded San Gabriel de los Españoles, today Chamita, New Mexico. He became New Mexico’s first governor, ruling until 1608. Oñate was at the head of a great expedition composed of 200 soldiers and colonists and 7,000 head of livestock, including cows, horses, sheep, pigs, etc., and 83 three wagons of provisions, ammunition, and many different kinds of seeds. On April 30, near El Paso, a Mass of Thanksgiving was celebrated followed by a great banquet. This was perhaps the first Thanksgiving dinner in the United States. Oñate’s expedition rested on the banks of the Río Grande, near El Paso, while watching a play written by Captain Marcos Farfán de los Godos. This was the first play performed in the United States. Oñate later founded the town of San Juan de los Caballeros, New Mexico. Three missions were also established in New Mexico: Fray Alonso de Lugo founded the mission of Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, near Zia Pueblo, New Mexico; Fray Cristóbal de Salazar founded the Nambé Mission; and Fray Francisco de Zamora founded the mission of San Lorenzo de los Picuries in the Taos region of New Mexico. Just three years later, in 1601, Oñate left San Gabriel at the head of an expedition to explore more of New Mexico, reaching today’s Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. Oñate had with him 70 soldiers, two missionaries, supplies and many horses and mules. In 1602, Sebastián Vizcaíno arrived at San Diego Bay, California, and, later, Monterey Bay, which he named in honor of the Viceroy of Mexico Gaspar de Zúñiga y Acevedo, count of Monterey.
Oñate founded Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1605, as “La Ciudad Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco.” In 1610, a member of Oñate’s expedition, Captain Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, wrote an epic poem about the exploration of what is now New Mexico, “Historia de la Nueva México” (History of New Mexico), perhaps the first history of New Mexico. Santa Fe became the capital, and the Palace of the Governors was built. The palace is the oldest government building in the U.S.
The Mission of San Miguel was completed in the early 1600s, and its church is the oldest religious building in the country still in use today. The mission holds a bell cast in 1356, and two Italian paintings dated 1287.
In 1620, the first shrine in the United States was established and dedicated to Nuestra Señora de La Leche y Buen Parto (Our Lady of the Milk and Safe Delivery) at the Mission of Nombre de Dios, near St. Augustine … and the story continues. Hispanic heritage has been, and continues to be, part of the fabric of the United States. It is as indelible as the famous words: “Pasó por Aquí,” or “[He] Passed This Way” carved on the rock of El Morro in El Morro National Monument, New Mexico by Juan de Oñate on April 16, 1605. Later, other Spanish explorers and Anglo-American settlers also carved their names on it. Today El Morro symbolizes the diversity of peoples and cultures that make up this country. The history of the United States is also written in español.