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American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Topic: ContactTopic: ExplorationTopic: SettlementTopic: PermanenceTopic: Power
Topic: Exploration
Toolbox Overview: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
Resource Menu: Exploration
Text 1. Into the Interior: The Spanish
Text 2. Into the Interior: The French
Text 3. Northwest Passage: The British
Text 4. Illustrating the New World (Pt. II)
Text 5. Catching Up: The British
Text 6. Failed Colonies
Text 7. The Slave Trade

Reading Guide
Inscription Rock, New Mexico
Inscription Rock
New Mexico
Into the Interior: The Spanish
- De Soto: Narrative of exploration in the southeast (Florida), 1539-1543, excerpts (PDF)
- Coronado: Report of exploration in the southwest and Great Plains, 1541
- Escalante & Barrado: Account of exploration in the southwest (New Mexico), 1583 (PDF)
- Villagrá: Account on the exploration of New Mexico, 1610, excerpts (PDF)
- Maps (zoomable):

1570: Western hemisphere (map #3: Ortelius, Americæ sive novi orbis)
1595: Western hemisphere (map #10: Mercator, America sive India nova)

Within several decades of the earliest coastal explorations of North America, European adventurers headed into the interior. "Adventurers" is the fitting word here, for more cautious men would have balked at heading into such vast unknowns. And the unknown brought misery—intense cold and exhausting heat, vast plains and unfordable rivers, antagonized Indians and wily guides, hunger and thirst, disease and death, and often incapacitating discouragement. But they learned the landscape of this New World, enabling them to act upon hard-won experience rather than fables, dreams, and plain naïveté.

Unlike the first-encounter narratives in Topic I (CONTACT), these selections also document the evolving relationships between the Europeans and the Indians. They have come to know each other by now. They are evaluating each other and acting on their evaluations, setting up networks of friend, foe, and in-between.
  • HERNANDO DE SOTO explored the southeast region of North America for Spain, searching for gold, a suitable site for a colony, and an overland route from Mexico to the Atlantic. From 1539 to 1543, starting in Florida with over 600 men, 200 horses, 300 pigs, and a pack of attack dogs, the expedition meandered for thousands of miles through the interior. At every point the Spanish attacked Indian villages, pillaging, murdering, and commandeering food, supplies, and captives. They "discovered" the Mississippi River—a major challenge to cross—and continued west to Texas (without de Soto, who died from fever on the banks of the river). Finally the surviving 300 men reached Mexico with no gold and no colony, having amassed only the hardened antagonism of the Indians. In these selections from the account by a Portuguese member of the expedition, known only as the "Fidalgo (gentleman) of Elvas," we read brief excerpts from the chapters recounting the mainland expedition from Florida to Mexico.
    [A Gentleman of Elvas, Relação Verdadeira dos Trabalhos . . . (True Relation of the Vicissitudes That Attended the Governor Don Hernando de Soto. . . ), 1557]

  • FRANCISCO CORONADO trekked through the southwest for two years (1540-42) with over 300 soldiers and 1,000 Indians for "Glory, God, and Gold." While they did convert some Pueblo Indians to Christianity, they found no gold and no glory (although they did "discover" the Grand Canyon along the way). Failing to subdue the Indians, Coronado responded brutally, laying a winter-long siege to a town, burning resisters at the stake, enslaving hundreds, and driving many Indians to suicide (as did de Soto). In his report to King Charles I from Tiguex (near present-day Albuquerque), Coronado admits his dismay at learning the famed Cibola is just "villages of straw houses," but he describes the region near Tiguex as offering productive land for settlement.
    [Letter from Francisco Vazquez de Coronado to His Majesty . . . , 20 October 1541]

  • PHELIPE DE ESCALANTE and HERNANDO BARRADO, soldiers who accompanied the 1581-82 expedition from Mexico to explore New Mexico, submitted this report to King Philip II to encourage Spanish settlement in the region. The nine men, led by Francisco Chamuscado, visited over sixty pueblos of the native inhabitants, estimating their population as over 130,000. They reported vast herds of "humpbacked cows," lucrative deposits of silver and salt, and "much more wherein God our Lord may be served and the royal crown increased." They warn the king, in fact, that the promise and wealth of this region could be lost if the area is not settled quickly.
    [Escalante & Barrado, Brief and True Account of the Exploration of New Mexico, 1583]

  • GASPAR PÉREZ DE VILLAGRÁ was the official historian of the first Spanish expedition to attempt a settlement in New Mexico. Sixteen years after the small Chamuscado expedition, four hundred soldiers departed from Mexico City to head north across the Rio Norte (Rio Grande), led by the ambitious and single-minded Don Juan de Oñate. More conquistador than colonial official, he was eventually called back to Mexico City in disgrace, having neglected the isolated settlers, alienated the Indians with his cruelty, and squandered imperial resources by searching in vain for gold, silver, and the "western sea." In 1610 Pérez de Villagrá published a thirty-four-canto epic poem to chronicle the expedition—its goals, hardships, courageous soldiers, and, most notably, the warfare and brutality led by Oñate. Considered the first epic poem created by Europeans in North America, The History of New Mexico is a political device as well as a literary account, for Villagra's intended audience-of-one is the king of Spain with his control of the empire's purse. (In this translation, the cantos are rendered into prose. Permission was not granted to exerpt the 1992 translation in verse.)
    [Villagrá, Historia de la Nueva México, 1610]
Although failing to achieve their immediate goals, these explorers claimed vast territories for Spain that would define its relationship with the Indians and with its European rivals for the next two centuries. Study the two zoomable maps of the western hemisphere from 1570 and 1595. Explore the interior of North America in detail for the Europeans' growing knowledge of the continent itself and of their own ignorance of its extent ("parte incognita"). (31 pages, excluding the maps.)

Discussion questions
  1. Characterize the Spanish exploration of the interior of North America. What surprised you? What matches your expectations?
  2. How do the explorers respond to the environment, the Indians, and the hardships of their expeditions?
  3. How do they define success or failure in the expeditions? What are they looking for?
  4. What effect does leadership have on the expeditions? planning and matériel? whether it was undertaken for a specific goal or simply to reconnoiter an area?
  5. How do the expeditions end?
  6. To whom do the chroniclers address their accounts? How are the accounts political "texts"?
  7. Compare the narratives of the interior explorers with those of the early coastal explorers. What are they learning, and what are they learning to look for?
  8. How do the mapmakers represent the European presence and rivalry in North America? How are the maps political "texts"?
  9. How do the two maps of the western hemisphere from the later 1500s compare with those produced earlier in the century (Topic I: CONTACT)? How do they reveal the European mindset for future exploration and colonization?
  10. By 1600, what does the New World appear to offer Europe?
  11. To the native inhabitants, what do the Europeans appear to offer?

Topic Framing Questions
  •  What motivated the Europeans' explorations? What were they looking for?
  •  What led them to deem an expedition a failure or success?
  •  How did the Europeans interpret the natural world they encountered?
  •  How did their experience of the New World comport with their expectations?
  •  How did the relationships of Europeans and Native Americans change after their initial encounters?
  •  What did the "New World" signify to Europe in 1550? in 1600?

De Soto: 16
Coronado:  4
Escalante & Barrado:  4
Villagrá:  7
31 pages, excluding the maps
Supplemental Sites
Parallel Histories: Spain, the United States and the American Frontier, from the Library of Congress, the National Library of Spain, and the Biblioteca Colombina y Capitular of Seville

Map: Spanish explorers' routes, from American Journeys: Eyewitness Accounts of American Exploration and Settlement (Wisconsin Historical Society) (PDF)

De Soto expedition, map and brief overview in Parallel Histories/Historias Paralelas: Spain, the United States, and the American Frontier, from the Library of Congress, the National Library of Spain, et al.

True Relation of the Vicissitudes . . . , full text of the "Gentleman of Elvas" account of the de Soto expedition, from American Journeys

Coronado expedition, brief overview in Parallel Histories/Historias Paralelas

The Journey of Coronado, full text by Pedro de Castañeda, from American Journeys

Escalante & Barrado account, from American Journeys
    -Reference Map (PDF)

Gaspar Pérez de Villagrá, overview from Houghton Mifflin

The Journey of Alvar Nuņez Cabeza De Vaca, 1542, full text, in The West (PBS)

Zoom into Maps, highlighting the 1570 Ortelius map of the western hemisphere, from the Library of Congress

*PDF file - You will need software on your computer that allows you to read and print Portable Document Format (PDF) files, such as Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you do not have this software, you may download it FREE from Adobe's Web site.

Coronado: The West (PBS/WETA)
Escalante & Barrado: American Journeys (Wisconsin Historical Society)
De Soto and Villagrá: National Humanities Center
Maps: Dept. of Geography, University of Alabama

Image: Inscription Rock, New Mexico, 1925; photograph by Edward S. Curtis. Courtesy of Northwestern University Library and the Library of Congress.

Toolbox: American Beginnings: 1492-1690
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