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By Michelle Ong

The first expeditions to Texas were either accidental or spurred by the desire for riches. Cabeza de Vaca was one of the first Europeans to extensively explore Texas after an accidental landing at Galveston Island. Spanish exploration did not continue until the rumor of riches lured many explorers to Texas. These explorations increased Spanish knowledge of Texan geography and native people. Juan de Grivalja first explored Texas at Galveston Island in 1518.

Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda, a mariner, first sighted Corpus Christi in 1519, while mapping the Texas coastland and also visited Galveston Island. Pineda was sponsored by the governor of Jamaica, Francisco de Garay, and spent six months mapping the Gulf Coast from northwest Florida to Tampico, Mexico. A year later, Captain Diego de Camargo founded the town Garay near the mouth of the Rio Grande. Governor Garay attempted to send Piñeda back to establish a colony on the Pácuno River but the expedition ended in tragedy when Indians in the area killed Piñeda and most of his soldiers.


Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and eighty companions accidentally became the first Europeans to travel through Texas when they crashed onto Galveston Island after a storm on November 6, 1528. They were the survivors of Pánfilo de Narváez's expedition that left Spain in 1527 to conquer and govern Florida. Cabeza de Vaca and other survivors were rescued by the Karankawa Indians after being thrown on Texas shore. The survivors were soon reduced to fifteen through the first winter, with many resorting to cannibalism. Cabeza de Vaca wandered through Texas for eight years as a slave, a trader and a healer. When epidemics caused Native hostility, the Karankawas withheld food from the Spaniards to force them to be healers. After several years as a slave for the Karankawas, Cabeza de Vaca left and lived among Coahuiltecan Indians for several years, trading seashells and coral on their behalf. He eventually joined Alonso Castillo Maldonado, Andrés Dorantes de Carranza and the Moorish slave Estevanico and attempted to journey to New Spain heading west across Texas and following the Gulf of California coastline. His oral and written accounts helped increase the exploration of Texas.


When Fray Marcos returned to Mexico, he told stories about the mythical Seven Cities of Cíbola, supposedly established by seven Portuguese bishops in the 8th century. The stories spread and intertwined with the legends of the Seven Islands of Antille, a land that held gold and silver and so much wealth that the women wore belts of pure gold. The land contained fantastic animals including unfamiliar beasts. Cabeza de Vaca also claimed of the possibility of gold in New Mexico and mentioned Indians who told him of a great city in the north. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition of three hundred and seventy Europeans and a thousand Indians, who volunteered as guides, servants and scouts, to Cíbola in 1540. Franciscan friars joined the expedition and were followed by two hundred and fifty men on horseback, several hundred foot soldiers, Indians and thousands of pack animals. But the expedition only found stone and adobe pueblos. The natives of these villages mentioned other villages east and west of Cíbola that possibly contained treasure. Smaller expeditions set out to explore them.

One expedition was led by Captain Alvarado who traveled to Cicúique, present Pecos, New Mexico, where he was given a Native slave known as The Turk, who was from a region he called Quivira. The Turk spoke of riches but purposefully led them through the Texas Panhandle to present day Kansas to return safely to his homeland and gather support to escape his captors. The Turk was executed for his deception.

Juan de Oñate also led an expedition in 1598 in search of wealth in New Mexico and Texas.

In 1684, Captain Juan Domínguez de Mendoza and Fray Nicolás López led an expedition to gather samples of pearls previously found in West-Central Texas during missionary expeditions from New Mexico. They were lured by renewed rumors of the mythical kingdom of Gran Quivira. On their return, the expedition leaders requested that missionaries and soldiers settle the land.

A few other expeditions increased Spanish knowledge of Texan geography. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado led an expedition through the Texas Panhandle in 1541-1543, naming the topography. Another expedition was led by Hernando de Soto through the Southeast region of Texas. When de Soto was killed in 1542 after exploring the banks of the Mississippi River, Luis de Moscoso became the leader of the expedition and decided to travel to New Spain. He ventured through East Texas but found the land poor and lacking food. Moscoso decided to return to the Mississippi where there was corn and other materials necessary to build a boat to sail back to New Spain.

Spain stopped sending these types of expeditions due to the New Laws of 1543, a human rights document aimed at limiting Spanish abuses inflicted on Native Americans. For the remainder of the 16th century, Spanish colonization progressed slowly northward with the final settlement by Juan de Oñate in New Mexico.

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