The wave of exploration that began with Columbus’ voyage in 1492 didn’t take long to reach the land that is now Texas. Spain’s conquest of the Americas began on a series of islands in what is now the Caribbean Sea. New colonial cities on those islands soon became hubs for exploration of the mainland. By 1519, exploration had turned to conquest in what is now Mexico, when Hernán Cortés landed on the Yucatán peninsula then pushed inland to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan.
To the north, on the gulf coast, the focus remained on exploration. A 1519 expedition led by Alonzo Álvarez de Pineda sailed west from Florida toward Mexico, mapping the coastline as they traveled. That map, which is still in existence, shows a long and curving coastline that we can recognize even today. It’s the first map showing the land that became Texas.
There’s no evidence that the Pineda expedition came ashore in Texas, although it’s likely they stopped somewhere along the coast to restock their supplies of food and water. A later group of explorers gets credit for being the first people from the Old World to set foot on the Texas shore. They were survivors of a failed expedition to colonize Florida, shipwrecked in November of 1528 on the Texas coast after fleeing Florida in makeshift boats.
Some 80 men wrecked on a barrier island – perhaps present-day Galveston. The group included a Moorish slaved named Estevanico, the first African to enter what is now Texas. But, the most well-known is Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca. For eight years, he traveled through Texas and the Southwest, living sometimes as a trader, and sometimes as a slave. In 1536, Cabeza de Vaca and a handful of companions traveled across North America to a Spanish outpost on the Gulf of California. He returned with fantastic tales to tell. That story can be read today in La Relacion, an account of his journey, published in 1542. The account also provides valuable information about the lives of Native American groups who lived here when the Age of Contact began.
Word of Cabeza de Vaca’s journey spread quickly. Fascinated by Cabeza de Vaca’s account and enticed by the potential riches in the area, other Spanish explorers left for Texas in hopes of finding treasure. The first was Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, sent by the Viceroy in Mexico City to find the Seven Cities of Cibola. Coronado did not find gold, but his route did cross what is now the panhandle of Texas, where traces of his massive expedition can still be found.
An expedition led by Luis Moscoso de Alvarado, survivors of another failed mission to Florida, entered east Texas – probably in the summer of 1542. They encountered the Caddo Indians, and perhaps reached the Guadalupe River, but many questions remain about the route they traveled in the state.
In 1598, another Spanish explorer, Juan de Oñate, crossed the Rio Grande near present-day El Paso. He was traveling to colonize what is now New Mexico. An inscription carved into a stone there offers a powerful reminder of those early European explorers, and of the change they brought when they came.
Many Spanish explorers came to the region in search of wealth and treasure, but no one found the abundant treasure they sought. By the mid-1500s, the Spanish government’s interest had begun to wane, and by the turn of the century large expeditions to Texas had come to an end.
But the Spanish weren’t the only power with an interest in the Americas. By the beginning of the seventeenth century, France and England had also claimed large areas – the English along the mid-Atlantic coast, and the French in present-day Canada. The French explorer, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, set out for the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, which had already been claimed by Spain. He left France in 1684 with the intention of establishing a French fort at the mouth of the Mississippi River. But La Salle’s expedition strayed far from its original course, and landed at present-day Matagorda Bay, Texas. He lost two ships in the bay, including the La Belle. That ship’s remains were discovered and excavated in modern times, providing artifacts and a wealth of information that we can study today.
La Salle did establish a fort, which was built along Garcitas Creek far from the Mississippi. Like so many other expeditions, La Salle’s ultimately failed. He was murdered by his own men, and by 1689, disease, hunger and attacks from the neighboring Karankawa had killed almost all of the remaining members of La Salle’s entourage.
Despite the failure of La Salle’s Fort Saint Louis, the French presence revived Spain’s interest in the area. An expedition led by Alonzo De León rescued some of the survivors from La Salle’s colony and strengthened Spain’s presence in the area. Then, in 1690, a group of Franciscans established the first missions in East Texas. It was the beginning of a wave of Spanish missions and colonies, including many that can still be seen today.