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Arizona Experience Store

Early Conquistadors Explore the Southwest

This bust of Cabeza de Vaca is located in Houston, Texas.

Not all American history took place on the Atlantic Coast. Spanish Conquistadors colonized Mexico and explored the American Southwest more than 200 years before America was founded. For perspective, Coronado's expedition through present-day Arizona and New Mexico took place eighty years before the Mayflower landed on Plymouth Rock. Long before the first Thanksgiving, Cabeza de Vaca ate prickly pear with American Indian tribes. Conversely, the first "American" settlers didn’t appear in the area until the early 1800s. Mines and missions still stand as reminders of Arizona's rich Spanish heritage. 

Gold, Glory, and God

The Conquistadors were Spanish colonists who occupied Mesoamerica for over three hundred years, from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. These soldiers came west to expand their wealth, stature, and empire, or for "Gold, Glory, and God." Similar to settlement and westward expansion of America, the colonization of Mexico destroyed thriving cultures and displaced indigenous Indian tribes. Some Conquistadors brought disease, others slaughtered native populations. For the most part, Spanish explorers shared a philosophy of assimilation that did not call for the outright slaughter of indigenous people. Missionaries spread the Christian philosophy, and priests were a part of many exploratory and trading trips. However, many native populations were enslaved and subjugated by missionaries.

The quest for gold was paramount. The need for riches led the Conquistadors toward ever-expanding horizons, including into Arizona. In fact, the land that is now Arizona was thought to be a possible location for the Seven Cities of Cibola, fabled cities made of gold and filled with untold riches.

The search for the Seven Cities sparked Coronado’s explorations of present-day Arizona, but what inspired such a farfetched quest? The earliest explanation may be found in an account of a journey to present-day Florida that began in 1527. This doomed enterprise ended for many in starvation, tragedy, and death. Only a handful of survivors were ever seen again. One, a Spanish nobleman named Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, played an important role in describing the countryside and establishing relations with the American Indians inhabiting the Southwest. His adventures shaped the future of Arizona, though it is unclear whether he actually set foot there.

The Incredible Journey of Cabeza de Vaca

Relación y comentarios del Governador Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (Account and commentaries of Govenor Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca).

Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was one of the first Europeans to explore the southwestern United States. He was born around 1488 to a poor but noble family. In 1527, he left Spain to become the treasurer and second in command of an expedition to what is now Florida led by Pánfilo de Narváez. He was one of only four survivors of the journey.

Upon his return to Spain, Cabeza de Vaca wrote a compelling account of his adventures that was first published in 1542 as La Relación (The Report). His account describes daily activity, food, and interactions with the numerous American Indian tribes they encountered. These keen observations are considered valuable anthropological texts today. They also hold clues to the reason behind the persistent rumors of riches to be found north of Mexico. 

Perilous Waters

Close up view of map depiction was made in 1562, thirty-five years after the Narváez expedition set sail for the Florida coast.

Full view of this map depiction was made in 1562, thirty-five years after the Narváez expedition set sail for the Florida coast.

Pánfilo de Narváez was a Spanish soldier and the cousin of Diego Velázquez, the Governor of Cuba. In 1527 he was granted the authority to conquer and govern the Spanish holdings in what is now the U.S. from the Cape of Florida to the Rio Grande, with Cabeza de Vaca as second in command. Ill winds blew on the journey’s beginning, both literally and figuratively. About one sixth of 600 initial recruits deserted the expedition when it stopped in Hispaniola. Then a hurricane destroyed supplies and killed 60 men. After more misadventures, including running the fleet aground near Cuba, missing port at Havana, getting stuck in the powerful Gulf Stream current, and losing one of five ships while looking for a safe harbor on the Florida coastline, a crew arrived on the west coast of "La Florida" in April 1528.

The party decided to split up, some going by land and some by water. The overland explorers encountered many American Indian settlements, in turn attacking, trading, or being driven off for trying to enslave them. An attack on a settlement of Apalachee Indians a few months after their arrival led to weeks of guerilla warfare by Apalachee warriors. By the time the attacks ceased, nearly all explorers were sick, wounded, or starving.

Prickly pear fruit, known as “tuna” was a popular food item in the late summer and fall. The pads of the prickly pear were eaten all year round.

By August, 1528, it was clear that the expedition was failing. The remaining 242 men spent about six weeks building boats to sail around the coast, killing their horses for meat and raiding nearby Indian settlements for corn. They set sail west in late September. Many more of the party died of disease and starvation before they reached the Mississippi River, where several boats, including the one commanded by Narváez, were lost. A shipwreck tossed the last 40 survivors onto the coast of a barrier island believed to be modern day Galveston, Texas.

The area was home to numerous American Indian tribes, including the Yguazes, Mariames, and Avavares. Upon encountering the natives, Cabeza de Vaca offered gifts and his men were given food. After a period of time the explorers were compelled to work as laborers for the tribes, gathering food and carrying loads. The explorers learned to dig roots and harvest prickly pear, called ‘tuna.’ Many men who tried to escape servitude died of exposure or starvation. Eventually, only four survivors from the original party remained: Alonso del Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza, his Moroccan slave Estevanico (Esteban), and Cabeza de Vaca himself.

Rumors of Riches

Over the next eight years, the party gradually moved westward. Cabeza de Vaca became a trader based among the Charruco, a group of mainland hunter-gatherers, whose homeland may have included portions of the Brazos and Colorado Rivers. In this post, Cabeza de Vaca could roam free among tribes. Usually, this was done in the company of tribes as part of hunting or food gathering missions. He and his fellow explorers came to be considered healers by some tribes, which brought them a unique status and gave them the opportunity to receive unusual gifts and meet many types of people.

Descriptions of his travels may have enflamed ideas that riches could be found in the land north of Mexico. In one passage, Cabeza de Vaca writes: "There, among other things which they gave us, Andres Dorantes got a big rattle of copper, large, on which was represented a face, and which they held in great esteem. They said it had been obtained from some of their neighbors. Upon asking these whence it had come, they claimed to have brought it from the north, where there was much of it and highly prized. We understood that, wherever it might have come from, there must be foundries, and that metal was cast in molds."

Later, he mentions metal riches again: "We showed them our rattle, and they told us that where it had come from there were a great many sheets of the same (metal) buried, that it was a thing they valued highly, and that there were fixed abodes at the place."

He continues in another passage: "Throughout all that country, wherever it is mountainous, we saw many signs of gold, antimony, iron, copper and other metals. Where the permanent houses are it is so hot that even in January the air is very warm. The Indians who live in permanent houses and those in the rear of them pay not attention to gold nor silver, nor have they any use for either of these metal(s)."

Returning Home

Many of the American Indians encountered by Cabeza de Vaca lived in portable wikiups, but as the band traveled westward they met farming communities who built pueblos.

Their exact route south is not documented. They appeared to follow the Rio Grande north and west, perhaps venturing as far north as present-day Southern Arizona and New Mexico. Cabeza de Vaca describes crossing mountains and traveling through vast arid landscapes. It appears the explorers personally met members of Pueblo tribes with riches enough to inspire others to return. He writes: "Among the houses there were several made of earth, and others of cane matting; and from here we traveled more than a hundred leagues, always meeting permanent houses and a great stock of maize and beans, and they gave us many deer and blankets of cotton better than those of New Spain. They also gave us plenty of beads made out of the coral found in the South Sea; many good turquoises, which they get from the north; they finally gave us all they had; and Dorantes they presented with five emeralds, shaped as arrow-points, which arrows they use in their feasts and dances."

In July, 1536, the explorers encountered Spaniards along the Pacific Coast near Culiacán, Mexico. He was quickly brought before the viceroy. His description of the lands and the riches he saw there sparked immediate plans for expeditions to seek gold.

Though Cabeza de Vaca was admired for his courage and craftiness, he had a difficult time readjusting to Spanish culture. He developed a tremendous respect for American Indians during the time he spent in their company. His memoir notes: "Their eyesight, hearing and senses in general are better, I believe, than those of any other men upon earth." He had assimilated so totally into some aspects of Indian culture that, according to his account, it was some time before he could sleep comfortably on a bed or wear clothes.

He returned to Spain in 1537, published his memoirs, and returned as Governor of a colony thought to be in present-day Paraguay. His progressive policies prevented the enslavement or bad treatment of South American Indian tribes. He earned political enemies for these policies, and he was convicted of corruption, banished, and finally returned to Spain.

Marcos de Niza Sees a Golden City

Though Cabeza de Vaca did not publish the accounts of his journey until 1542, news of great wealth in the north spread across colonial Mexico. Eager to locate riches, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza organized an exploration in 1539. Fray (Father) Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan friar, led this venture, accompanied by the Moroccan slave Estevanico (Esteban), a survivor of the Narvaéz expedition. Fray Niza returned to Mexico City only months later, claiming to have seen one of the Seven Cities of Cibola from a distance. Some scholars believe this vision was actually a Zuni pueblo. Why did Fray Niza fail to approach this wondrous city, which he claimed was "bigger than the city of Mexico"? Estevanico reportedly was killed by the Zunis who inhabited the pueblo, and Father Niza wanted to escape a similar fate. 

Whether Fray Niza knowingly exaggerated the grandeur of the city to the north or whether he simply allowed his imagination to run away with him will always remain unknown. What is known is that his account sparked one of the most significant explorations of the American southwest, the expedition led by Francisco Vasquez de Coronado.

Degrazia Paints Cabeza De Vaca

Ettore (Ted) DeGrazia is one of Arizona’s most colorful artists, known worldwide for his vibrant depictions of the Southwest. The son of Italian immigrants, DeGrazia spent his early life in Morenci, where his father worked in the copper mine. When the mine closed in 1920, the DeGrazia family moved back to Italy, only to return when the mine reopened five years later. Degrazia’s exposure to different cultures in an ethnically diverse mining community influenced his art for the rest of his life.

DeGrazia’s work gained attention in the 1950s and 1960s, including the NBC newsreel "Watch the World" and a profile in the 1953 National Geographic article "From Tucson to Tombstone. In 1973, thirteen years after his painting “Los Ninos” appeared on the 1960 UNICEF holiday card, Degrazia published the book DeGrazia Paints Cabeza De Vaca. The book is an interpretative exploration of the experiences of the first non-American Indian traveler to what is now the state of Arizona.

Cactus Patch by Ettore (Ted) DeGrazia

Painting courtesy of DeGrazia Gallery in the Sun.