Chapter 8 The Spanish and French Stake Their Claim In this chapter



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Chapter 8

The Spanish and French Stake Their Claim

In this chapter ...

* Columbus led the way

* Explorers after Columbus

* Exploring for Spain

* Claiming for France

Claude Levi-Strauss said, “Being human signifies, for each one of us, belonging to a class, a society, a country, a continent and a civilization; and for us European earth-dwellers, the adventure played out in the heart of the New World signifies in the first place that it was not our world and that we bear responsibility for the crime of its destruction.”

Harsh? Perhaps. True. Unquestionably.

Columbus Led the Way


In the previous chapter, we looked at the expeditions of Christopher Columbus. Columbus made four voyages to the “New World.” He was not the only person heading out on voyages of exploration. At the time of Columbus’ journeys, both Spain and Portugal were major sea powers. Why were the Portuguese not involved in the discovery and exploration of North America? The person who can answer that is the Pope.

An offer he couldn’t refuse ...


In 1493, Columbus returned to Spain with word of his great discoveries. Spain’s king and queen immediately set out to make sure these discoveries would stay with Spain. They approached Pope Alexander VI with an offer. They would convert all of the “heathens” to Catholicism if the Pope let Spain have dominion over the new lands. Knowing Portugal could make the same offer, they offered to divide the undiscovered world with Portugal. A line would be established, anything west of that line would go to Spain, east of the line would be Portugal’s.

The Pope agreed and drew the line about 300 miles west of the Portugal’s Cape Verdes Islands in the Atlantic. King John II of Portugal agreed with the concept, but he wanted a bit more space for his sailors to maneuver along the western coast of Africa.

In 1494, Spain and Portugal met in Tordesillas, Spain to discuss the issue. They moved the line to about 1,100 miles (370 leagues) west of the Cape Verdes Islands. Little did the Spanish know that while they gained all of North America, they would lose Brazil in South America. Most of Brazil is east of what would be called the “Tordesillas Line.”

(See Chapter 2: “The Great Migrations” for a look at some of the many groups who may have come to North America before Columbus.)



Columbus did not know how long it would take him to reach the “Spice Islands.” To compensate for this (and keep his crew quit), he faked his mileage in his records. Here is an excerpt from his journal entry of Sunday, September 9, 1492: “Sailed this day nineteen leagues, and determined to count less than the true number, that the crew might not be dismayed if the voyage should prove long. In the night sailed one hundred and twenty miles, at the rate of ten miles an hour, which make thirty leagues.”




The Major Explorers After Columbus


There were quite a few Europeans who would be among the explorers of North America after Columbus. Many of the earliest explorers were Spanish, but a few French and English would travel here, too. There were many motivating factors for these trips of exploration, and the majority of them can be summed up with the phrase: “Gold, Glory and God.”

In many European countries, only the oldest son could inherit the family fortune. So, many a younger son would decide to seek their fortune elsewhere. Very few explorers were in it for the thrill of finding new lands. While this might have been true to some extent, most explorers were hoping for financial reward.


Seeking seafarers


Some of the European explorers of North America were:

* John Cabot (an Italian sailing for England)

* Amerigo Vespucci (an Italian sailing for Spain and Portugal)

* Juán Pónce de León (a Spaniard sailing for Spain)

* Hernán Cortés (a Spaniard sailing for Spain)

* Jacques Cartier (a Frenchman sailing for France)

* Hernando De Soto (a Spaniard sailing for Spain)

* Francisco Vázquez de Coronado (a Spaniard sailing for Spain)

* Jacques Marquette (A Frenchman sailing for France)

* Louis Jolliet (a French Canadian sailing for France)

* René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (a Frenchman sailing for France)

The French and English came to North America because they were not part of the pact between Spain and Portugal. The Spanish would explore the southern parts of the United States and North America. The French would claim much of Canada and the central part of the United States. The English would plant their flag along the Atlantic coast north of Florida.



When Christopher Columbus died, he was still sure he had reached south Asia and not a new continent)




John Cabot: England’s First Steps in the New World


Born in Italy around 1450 as Giovanni Caboto, he would become known by the name his English employers gave him: John Cabot. Like Columbus, Cabot was looking for a quick trade route to Asia. Several people had been unsuccessful trying at the middle latitudes, so Cabot thought he would find a “northwest passage.”

Sailing for King Henry VII of England, Cabot’s ship Matthew left England in 1497. He eventually landed somewhere in Maine or Newfoundland. He was the first explorer to actually land on the North American mainland. The early Spanish explorers only visited islands up to this point. Cabot would claim the area for England on June 24, 1497. He tried to go north, but ice blocked his path.

Cabot returned to England with reports that he had found Asia. He launched a second expedition with five ships in 1499. Only one ship would make it back to England. Little in known of what happened on that voyage, or to Cabot. However, Cabot did establish an English presence in North America.

Viral visitors


For the Abenaki, Cabot meant that fishing fleets would soon reach come to the Grand Banks area off of Maine and Newfoundland. This led to interactions with the Abenaki. These interactions led, inevitably, to exposure to European diseases. The Abenaki had no immunity to such illnesses. This led to many deaths. Disease may have led to the deaths of more American Indians than all of the armies put together.

For the Mi’kmaq (Micmac), Cabot’s visit with them had the same effect. It is said that Cabot took three Mi’kmaqs with him on the return voyage of his first expedition. These contacts would get the Mi’kmaqs into the fur trade with Europeans. Obtaining arms from the Europeans gave them a distinct advantage other nearby tribes.

For the Beothuk tribe, Cabot’s visit would prove to be the first steps toward annihilation. While it was not the case with Cabot, many of the Europeans who followed him would take Beothuks as slaves.

Cabot’s claim of the land for England meant that all of the American Indians of this region would be facing English colonists who thought they had the right to live on the Indians’ land.


Amerigo Vespucci: America’s namesake


Amerigo Vespucci was born in 1454 in Florence, Italy. With Italy not being involved in the exploration business, Vespucci decided to try his luck in Spain. In the late 1490s, he was one of the captains of a fleet of four ships which reached the northern coast of South America. They then headed north into the Caribbean. The fleet had many of the sailors from Columbus’ first trip. Vespucci’s next trip landed in Guyana or Brazil. He sailed to the south and reached the mouth of the Amazon.

His next voyage, around 1501, was for Portugal. This trip again followed the coastline of Brazil. It is possible they went as far south as Argentina. These latitudes were much farther south than those which were known for Asia. As with many of these early trips, exact locations were hard to determine. When he returned, he told his sponsors that because the land was so far south, it might be a new continent. He was perhaps one of the first people to make this assertion.


The name game


There are a variety of stories as to how Vespucci’s name became associated with North and South America. One says that he wrote two long letters to friends. These letters had great details about his trips. They also had explanations about how this had to be an unknown continent because the land went so far south. The letters also glorified his part in these trips. Many experts doubt that Vespucci wrote the letters. But, they were widely copied and distributed throughout Europe.

In 1507, large map was created by German mapmaker Martin Waldsseemüller. This map had the name America on the new continent. The reasoning was that he was the first person to think, and have some first hand evidence) it was a new continent.

For the Indians, Vespucci was a spreader of untruths (although probably not intentional on his part). He often wrote of entire tribes (Caribs) as cannibals. He also wrote that Indians did not have any religions.

Vespucci was the first European to contact the Arawak (Taino) of Bonaire Island. To the Arawak, Vespucci was the forerunner of slave traders. Many of the Arawak of the island were made into slaves after their island failed to impress the Spanish.

To the Arawak of Curacao, Vespucci was the strange man who left sick sailors on their island. To the Arawak and Caribs of this area, Vespucci is the man who gave their country the name it has today. When Vespucci arrived in Lake Maricaibo, he noticed the many Indian houses on stilts in the water. This led him to naming the place “Little Venice” or Venezuela.

Ponce de Leon: Conquering the Tainos


Juán Pónce de León was born in Spain. He traveled with Columbus on his second expedition in 1493. He decided to stay in the “new world” and settled in Hispaniola.

The good people


There were two major indigenous groups inhabiting the islands of the Indies at the time of the first contact with Europeans. One group was the Caribs, the other was the Tainos. The Tainos occupied the island of Hispaniola. “Taino” is believed to be a name Columbus gave to the people. It is believed to mean “good” or “noble.”

When de León arrived in Hispaniola, there were many thousands of Tainos living there. Some estimates place their population well over 200,000. Using force, de León conquered the Taino on the eastern half of the island. For these efforts he was made governor of the region. As part of Spanish rule, the Taino were required to pay a regular tribute of gold. If they could not pay the tax, they faced torture, slavery or death. It would not be long before the Taino were almost extinct on Hispaniola and throughout the Caribbean.


Enslaving Puerto Rico


Searching for more gold, de León decided to go to Puerto Rico. In 1508, he moved there and started a colony. Puerto Rican Taino leaders (Abueybana) initially welcomed the Spanish. Within a year, de León had established Spanish control over much of the island. He was then named Governor. Under de León’s leadership, many Tainos became little more than slaves. They worked in the mines, fields and built towns and Spanish fortifications. Many of the Tainos would die from the diseases they caught from the Spanish. To the Taino, de León was the typical conquistador. He would conqueror the people in order to get anything they had of value.

The search for the fountain of youth?


Around 1511 (after his father Christopher Columbus’ death), Diego Columbus was named Governor of Puerto Rico. Pónce de León decided to strike out on his own, again. Using his own money, he took three ships and sailed north.

Many stories say he was looking for the “fountain of youth.” It was a Lucayo Indian (the Lucayo were a small tribe within the Taino) named Andres Barbudo who helped to spread the stories about the fountain of youth. Barbudo was taken as a slave and sent to Spain. After he learned Spanish, he told many people that his father had gone to Bimini Island and bathed in a special pool. He said that when his father returned home he was much stronger, healthier and felt much younger.

Indians from other tribes, such as the Chicora, also told of special curative waters which could be found in Florida.

On the other hand, some believe de León was looking for riches. In any case, his fleet landed on the mainland on April 2, 1513. It was most likely the Timucua Indians who saw de León and his shipmates come ashore. This would be the first of many contacts the Timucua Indians would have with the Spanish. Over the next three centuries, the Timucua would cease to exist.


Seeking slaves?


Some experts believe it was not the search for a fountain of youth that led Pónce de León to Florida. His trip was really to find more slaves to work the Spanish mines and plantations. Barbudo’s tribe the Lucayo were just wiped out by the slave trade. Pónce de León only used the story to generate interest among the soldiers he needed to take with him.

Most sources say he named this new land “Florida,” which is Spanish for “flowery,” because of its lush vegetation. Others speculate the name was because he landed during a Spanish celebration of Easter called “Pascua Florida.” His exact landfall is disputed, but it was somewhere in northeastern Florida. He sailed south, went around the Keys, and the along the west coast of Florida for a distance.

Pónce de León made trips to other islands, and he tried to colonize Florida with little success in 1521. In fact, his expedition was attacked by the local indigenous tribes. Pónce de León was struck by an arrow, and died from his wound soon thereafter. If he did discover the Fountain of Youth, it obviously did not help.

Influenza, dysentery and smallpox often followed in the footsteps of the first Spanish explorers. By 1520, smallpox had already reached the Mexican mainland and laid waste to a significant number of the Aztec, Maya, and other indigenous inhabitants. Estimates are that over 1,000,000 Taino (Arawak) people have been killed either by disease, warfare or being worked to death by this time.


Hernando Cortez: Conquering the Aztecs


Hernán Cortés was born in Spain. He is also known as Hernándo Cortés. Seeking his fortune, he traveled to Hispaniola when he was 18. He quickly moved to Cuba, where he helped in the conquest of the island by Diego Velázquez. He was rewarded with land, Taino slaves, and a government position. Despite having several disputes with Velázquez, Cortés achieved considerable success in Cuba.

In 1519, under the authority of Cuban Governor Velázquez, Cortés organized and helped finance an expedition to the mainland. Their official purpose was to find captured Spaniards and to establish trade. Just before he was to leave, Velázquez decided to take command of the expedition away from Cortés. Cortés ignored the Governor’s order, and left quickly with several ships, 16 horses and approximately 500 men.


A tussle in Tabasco


Landing first on the Yucatán peninsula, Cortés found a Spaniard named Jerónimo de Aguilar who had been shipwrecked there for seven years and had learned some of the local Maya language. After winning a small battle against some of the local tribes in what is now Tabasco, Cortés was given a native woman who was called Doña Marina or La Malinche.

La Malinche spoke both Maya and the Aztec language of Nahuatl. Cortés was able to talk to almost all of the tribes he met. He spoke Spanish to de Aguilar, de Aguilar spoke Maya to La Malinche, and La Malinche would translate that into the Aztec language. It has been speculated that La Malinche was the daughter of a minor Aztec chieftain. When La Malinche’s father died, her mother remarried and had a son. The son became heir to the family name and fortune. La Malinche was castoff by the family, and eventually became a slave. To some, she is a traitor who helped Cortés conquer Mexico. To others, she was someone who reasoned with Cortés and make things better than they might have been.


All fired up


Cortés moved on up the coastline and established the town of Vera Cruz. In Vera Cruz, he took the bold step of burning his boats. Now, his followers would have to succeed in Cortés’ true plans, the conquest of Mexico.

The Aztecs ruled an empire which spread from the Atlantic to the Pacific and covered much of the central part of Mexico. They were the overlords of many tribes and demanded much of the tribes they ruled. This worked in Cortés’ favor. He was able to find many tribes which hated the Aztecs. One of the tribes Cortés encountered was the Tlaxcala. Initially, the Tlaxcala fought with Cortes. The Tlaxcalans were somewhat successful in their battles with the Spanish. It suddenly occurred to them that they could use the Spaniards against their enemies the Aztecs. They would both join forces to defeat the Aztecs.


In the halls of Montezuma


Moctezuma II (also known as Montezuma) was the Aztec Emperor. He was born around 1480, and became Emperor in 1502. His people knew of Cortés’ arrival. Moctezuma was very concerned because of an Aztec prophecy which told of the return of the fair-skinned god Quetzalcoatl. Quetzalcoatl was supposed to return from the east. Cortés’ arrival coincided when a very special year in the Aztec calendar similar to our millennium. Moctezuma was quite superstitious and he did not want to offend a God, if, in deed, Cortés was Quetzalcoatl. In case he was a man, Moctezuma tried to bribe Cortés to leave with gifts and gold. Rather than making him leave, this whetted Cortés’ appetite even more.

As Cortés and the Tlaxcala march to the Aztec capital, they reach the town of Cholula. Cholula is near modern-day Puebla, east of Mexico City. The people of Cholula are still allied to the Aztecs. They do not surrender to Cortés, and most of the village is killed in the subsequent fighting.



The largest pyramid in the world (by volume) is located in Cholula. It is over 200 feet high and almost 1,500 feet along each side. It is so large that most people mistake it for a hill. The Great Pyramid in Egypt is taller, but only half as wide.



Cortés arrived at the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City) on November 8, 1519. At the time, the city had well over 100,000 residents. Some historians estimate the population could have been over 300,000. In either case, this made it one of the largest cities in the world. The city was in the middle of shallow Lake Texcoco. It could be reach by several causeways. The city is filled with many tall and ornate temples. It is by far the most amazing thing any of the Spaniards had even seen. When many Spaniards first saw the city, they wondered if it was a mirage.

Cortés and his Spaniards were welcomed into the city. Moctezuma, again, lavished them with gifts. This further enflamed the greed of the Spaniards. They soon took Moctezuma hostage with demands of more gold. Cortés forced Moctezuma to pass along his edicts to the Aztecs. A few months pass when Cortés is notified that Pànfilo de Narvàez has arrived from Cuba with a small army. Narvàez is there as the representative of Cuba’s Governor Velázquez. Cortés leaves and travels to the coast to see if he can get Narvàez to join him, instead of arresting him.

Blood bath


While Cortés is gone, the Aztecs conduct one of their many religious rituals. What happens next depends on whose story you believe:

* According to the Spaniards, they are disgusted by the religious practices of the Aztecs, which involved human sacrifices. When the Aztecs refuse to stop the sacrifices, they are killed.

* According to the Aztecs, however, the Spaniards see all of the gold the priests and rulers are wearing. This incites them to kill them all to take the gold.

Regardless of whose story you believe, many of the Aztec leaders and priests are killed in what amounts to a blood bath. Some estimates put the number of dead Aztecs around 500. This event raises the Aztec people’s anger to a fever pitch.

By the time Cortés returns, his Captains have barricaded themselves in the palace for their safety. Cortés gets Montezuma to tell his people to stop their revolt. According to the many historians, Montezuma is killed while he is addressing his people. Historians disagree as to whether the Spaniards or the Aztecs killed him. In any case, the Aztecs rose up, and Cortés and his men fled for their lives. They tried to escape down one of the causeways through the lake. Many of the soldiers were loaded down with gold and drowned when they are pushed into the lake. This battle, on June 30, 1520, is known as “La Noche Triste” (the sad night).

Cortés, his surviving soldiers, and his Indian allies quickly left the area. Slowly, they built their forces back up. Eventually, they returned. This time, Cortés has many small ships and he attacks from the lake, as well as from the causeways. He destroys the aqueduct that brings fresh water into the town. Slowly, but surely, Cortés fights his way into the city. He and his forces finally conquer the city in August of 1521. Cortés will go on to overthrow the entire Aztec empire.

Cortés would destroy many of the ornate temples of the Aztecs. He would build Mexico City on top of the ruins. Eventually, he would be appointed Governor and Captain-General of what would come to be known as New Spain. Forces under Cortés, and others, would eventually conquer all of modern Mexico.

Years later, after losing most of his official positions, Cortés would be given a large land grant, and the title of Marquis, in Oaxaca (southwest of Mexico City). In his later years, he would demonstrate a more benevolent attitude to the native people of Mexico.



Contrary to a commonly held belief, there are many Aztecs living in Mexico. Their language is still spoken throughout much of central Mexico.




Jacques Cartier: Discovering Canada & the Great Lakes


The Mi’kmaq (Micmac) Indians lived in southeastern Canada and hunted, fished, and gathered other foods for sustenance. Their lifestyle varied throughout the year to reflect the seasonal changes. They were known to be expert canoeists. Their light, but very study canoes were made from birch bark.

Not so fast


On the sixth or seventh of July in 1534, the Mi’kmaq saw two ships in the nearby waters. Several hundred of them quickly gathered three or four dozen canoes and headed out to the ship. Having encountered Europeans before, they were interested in trade goods. To their surprise, the cannons on the ship began to fire over their heads. The Mi’kmaq quickly returned to shore. The next day, they returned. This time they made certain that the Europeans could see the beaver pelts they had to trade.

This was the Mi’kmaq’s introduction to French Explorer Jacques Cartier, and his 61 men. In what some have called the first trading between the French and the indigenous people of North America, Cartier traded the Mi’kmaqs beads and knives for their furs. Cartier reported that the Mi’kmaq “bargained away all they had.” While the changes did not happen immediately, the Mi’kmaq’s way of life would change from their choosing to adopt a more trade-based economy.

The Mi’kmaq did not know that Cartier’s mission came with instructions from the King of France which said, “undertaking the voyage of this kingdom to the New Lands to discover certain islands and countries where there are said to be great quantities of gold and other riches.”

Little is known of Cartier’s early career. It has been suggested that he was with Verrazzano in 1524. Jacques Cartier went to Canada three times, in 1534, 1535 and 1541. He would be the first European to visit the St. Lawrence River and he even gave this land its present name.



A lot of the little details, as well as the not so little ones, are not known about many of the early explorers and the tribes they met. Even among historians, there are many disagreements about names, dates and events.



Cartier’s first voyage lasted from April 1534 to September 1534. These Mi’kmaqs were not the first American Indians he had encountered. In mid-June he had seen Indians in Labrador (called the “Land of Cain”). They appeared to be hunting seals and might have been Beothuks. Cartier soon learned that the St. Lawrence was not an entrance to China, as he had hoped. He did continue his explorations inland, though.


Meeting the Iroquois


Cartier continued on in his exploration. He soon encountered some 200 Iroquois Indians in a nearby village. He would misunderstand the Iroquois word for village (kanata) as what the entire area was called. The name later appeared in his journals and maps as Canada. Their leader was called Donnacona. Cartier spent some time here. Some historians have called Donnacona’s tribe Hurons. Donnacona’s normal home was further inland in a village called Stadacona.

Donnacona was quite distressed when on July 24, 1534, Cartier erected a 30-foot cross on Penouille Point. In reality, the cross was placed as a monument for Cartier claiming these new lands for France. Donnacona seemed to grasp this concept quite well. Some historians quote Cartier as explaining to Donnacona the cross was only a landmark, and had no real significance.

As Cartier prepared to leave, he took Donnacona’s sons Domagaia and Taignoagny with him. Some say they went voluntarily, others insist they were kidnapped. In either case, Cartier returned to France in September 1534. His expedition was not much of a success. He had not found a trading route to China. However, he did find some potential clients for France.

Rumors of gold = a ticket home


While in France, Domagaia and Taignoagny learned to speak French. They soon learned that the French were not only looking for China, but they were also looking for gold and jewels. It is an often told story that the brothers then starting telling the French about the land of Saguenay, which was inland from where they lived. Saguenay was a land with plenty of gold. Gold there was nothing more than just rocks. The brothers then told the French they would take them there if they ever went back home. Some people say the brothers made up the story in order to go home. Others suggest the tale of Saguenay was one of the wild tales long told by the natives of Canada. Even others said it was an old tale from the Norse who had visited Canada centuries before. Regardless, the brothers would be home within the year.

The second and third voyages


Cartier’s second voyage to Canada would last from May 1535 to July 1536. This time he had three ships. He followed the St. Lawrence River inland to the Huron village of Stadacona. Stadacona would later become the modern-day city of Quebec. This was the village where Donnacona normally lived. Donnacona tried to convince Cartier not to go any further west. He was not successful.

Cartier went west. Further upstream was the village of Hochelaga. Over 1,000 Indians lived here. Cartier climbed a nearby peak to see the surrounding territory. It was here that he could see that there was no great ocean to the west. He called the peak Royal Mountain, or Mont Real. Thus the name of Montreal was born.

Cartier would travel a bit further into the inlands. During the winter his men developed scurvy from a lack of vitamin C. The Indians knew that by drinking a tea made from the white cedar bark, this problem would be solved. When they realized that Cartier’s men would not learn this on their own, they showed them how to do it.

Cartier continued to hear stories of lands of vast riches, but they were always somewhere over the horizon. Cartier was frustrated with the lack of help he had received from Donnacona. According to some historians, Cartier arranged to remove Donnacona so a more agreeable Indian could take over. While taking part in a special event on May 3, 1536, Cartier seized Donnacona and about a dozen other Indians. He took them back to France when he left in July. All of the Indians would die in France, except for one small girl.

Cartier’s third expedition would last from May 1541 to September 1542. There would be five ships and over 1,000 French this time. When Cartier returned to Stadacona, they received warm welcome. The Indians asked about Donnacona. Cartier told them that everyone but the small girl had decided to stay in France because they had become so rich there.

The relationship between the French and the Indians slowly began to deteriorate. Cartier tried to establish a couple of settlements, with only marginal results. The French would have a couple of skirmishes with distrustful Indians as the winter passed.

Cartier would have no great successes during his third voyage. He would eventually go back to France. Cartier’s greatest overall success was in establishing a French presence in North America. Other explorers after him, (Champlain, etc.) would open up more lands to French colonists. It was there initial efforts which account for French still being spoken in Quebec today.

Hernando De Soto: Creating hostile relations with Southeastern Natives


Hernando de Soto may have been one of the most traveled Spaniards of his era when it came to North and South America. Under Pedrarias Dávila, he participated in the conquest of Central America around 1514. In the 1530s, he was in South America against the Incas with Francisco Pizarro. It was the riches he gained there that helped him finance his most famous expedition, the exploration of the American southeast.

Two views of De Soto


From the indigenous point of view, de Soto was a cruel and harsh taskmaster. He demanded tribute and slaves. He used force to get his demands fulfilled. To the Spanish, on the other hand, de Soto was a very efficient administrator who knew how to keep the peace and keep his treasury full. He helped to spread Spanish rule, and the Spanish faith, across new worlds. De Soto was made Governor of Cuba by the King of Spain. His mandate was simple; colonize North America within four years. For this, he would get a large share of the spoils.

Many of the exact dates, the path they traveled, and the names of the tribes who encountered the Hernando de Soto Expedition are not known. The journals and oral histories used to write history have often disagreed.



On May 25, 1539, Hernando de Soto, 620 Spanish soldiers, over 200 horses and many other animals landed in Florida in the vicinity of Tampa Bay.

This was not the first time this area had been explored. Pànfilo de Narvàez and 400 men landed here on April 12, 1528. His expedition went through central Florida looking for gold. Like many Spanish conquistadors, Narvàez ruled with an iron fist. This would cause problems for de Soto years later. Several months later, only a handful of his men (most notably Cabeza de Vaca) would still be alive. They were the victims of the insects, swamps, weather and native people of Florida.

Juan Ortiz was captured as a part of the Narvàez expedition by an Uzica Indian Chief named Hirrihigua. The Uzica were a part of the Calusa tribe. Ortiz learned some of the local languages. He was able to help de Soto talk to some of the different Indians they would encounter.


“North America belongs to Spain”


Despite much of the land already belonging to the American Indians who already lived there, on June 3, 1539, de Soto formally claimed North America for Spain. Showing his fearless nature, de Soto pushed through the rugged territory. He was determined to find riches. Due to Narvàez’s earlier encounters with the Florida Indians, de Soto did not always receive a warm welcome.

De Soto’s journey may have taken him through these modern-day American states:

* Florida

* Georgia

* Alabama

* South Carolina

* North Carolina

* Tennessee

* Kentucky

* Mississippi

* Missouri

* Arkansas

* Texas

* Oklahoma



(See Chapter 6, ”The Five Civilized Tribes” for additional information about Hernando de Soto’s encounters with the “Five Civilized” tribes.)

For many Indian tribes of the American southeast, meeting de Soto’s expedition would be their first encounter with an European. Many of these encounters would be at the point of a spear. De Soto’s troops engaged in dozens of fights with different tribes. He would often take hostages in order to get the supplies, slaves or treasures that he wanted.


Pearl plunder


De Soto went north through Florida into South Carolina. The “Lady of Cofitachique” was the ruler of a tribe near modern-day Columbus, South Carolina. When de Soto’s troops approached, she greeted them in a friendly manner. She gave them pearls and other gifts. She also let the Spaniards stay in her town. The Spaniards found a large cache of pearls in a burial area. They took these, and decided to move on. As was often the case with de Soto, the Lady, or her niece, was taken as an unwilling guide to other lands. After reaching Cherokee lands to the west, the Lady managed to escape. She also took back many of the pearls de Soto’s expedition had stolen. Some say she hid until de Soto was gone and then returned to her village. Others say she took refuge with the Cherokee fearing de Soto would return to her village and look for her.

De Soto’s expedition continued west and had many battles with the local tribes as their demands for provisions, salves and riches persisted. Finally, on May 21, 1542, de Soto died from a fever in what is now Arkansas. Some say he was buried in secret along the Mississippi River so the Indians would not desecrate his body. Others say de Soto had told some of the local tribes that he was an immortal God, so they would obey his demands. Seeing his dead body would have led to a massacre of the 300 remaining Spaniards. So, he was buried in secret. Luis de Moscoso led the remaining tired conquistadors back to Mexico.

De Soto’s expedition encountered many different tribes, many of which no longer exist. For the American Indians, de Soto was a treacherous, spiteful bully. His expedition brought nothing but poverty, pain, disease, destruction and death. For the Spanish, de Soto’s expedition was only marginally successful. They found none of the expected gold and jewels which had been found in Mexico. While they covered lots of land, it was mostly considered to be too hard to farm, or too close to hostile Indians to be worth exploiting. The expedition did establish the Spanish as the dominate force in the southern part of the United States for the next 300 years.

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado: Exploring the Southwest


His name was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, he was the governor of a northern state in New Spain called Mexico, and he was searching for gold.

Seven golden cities?


In 1536, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca tediously trod into Mexico City. He was one of only a handful of survivors of the Narvàez expedition to Florida in 1528. Cabeza de Vaca and three companions, had struggled on foot across the American Gulf Coast, through Texas, and much of the American southwest to make it back to Mexico City. During his travels, he had heard of the golden area called the “Seven Cities of Cibola.”

Now Coronado and the Viceroy of Mexico were not fools. They knew that many stories of golden cities in what is now the United States had all proven to be just legends. But, still they hungered for gold, so they sent a priest named Marcos de Niza to go north and see if it was true. Marcos de Niza returned and told them it Cibola was a real city.

Appointed by the Viceroy, on April 22, 1540, Coronado left the northern Mexico town of Culiacán with 340 Spanish, 300 Indian allies (from central Mexico), a thousand American Indian and African slaves, and over a thousand horses and mules.

He set out on his mission traveling north for the greater glory of God, Spain ... but mostly for gold.

Coronado’s Expedition passed through the following states in the United States:

* Arizona

* New Mexico

* Texas


* Oklahoma

* Kansas


Coronado’s Expedition may have contacted some of these tribes in the United States:

* Apache


* Pima

* Navaho


* Hopi

* Zuni


* Pueblo

* Ute


* Arapaho

* Comanche

* Kiowa

* Osage


* Cheyenne

* Wichita

* Kansa

They initially stayed close to the eastern coastline of the Gulf of California (known as the Sea of Cortes). They then cut inland into “uncharted” Indian lands. Uncharted may be the correct term, but there were old Indian trading routes through northern Mexico and the American Southwest. The ancient inhabitants of Chaco Canyon were known to have trade goods from Mexico as much has 400 years earlier.



On July 7, 1540, an advance guard reached Cibola. Cibola, in reality, was a group of Zuni pueblos in northwestern New Mexico. The first village they reached was the modern-day ruins of Hawikuh. They were surprised to see the typical Zuni multi-storied adobe buildings. They had expected giant temples, and all they found was a small village made from mud bricks.

Hello. We’re in charge.


A few hundred Zunis approached Coronado’s men. Coronado had the standard greeting read to them. He was there to protect them as a part of the Spanish Empire. They would face no harm as long as they acknowledged the King, and the Holy Father, the Pope. In a translation from a letter written by Coronado, he said “the Indians never consented to submit to either the Pope or the King.”

Armed with shields, bows and arrows, the Zunis attacked the advance guard. According to Coronado at his trial for mistreating Indians, the Spaniards refused to return fire on the Indians. The Zuni were doing them little harm, so they did not respond. It was only after the Zuni came within a few dozen feet that Coronado says he gave the order for the Spaniards to defend themselves.


Fighting for food


According to Coronado, as soon as the Spaniards started fighting, the Indians retreated into their homes. Not having enough food to feed themselves, the Spaniards realized the Zunis would probably not just give them food. So, they carried the attack into the city. The Zuni soon surrendered. Coronado soon learned that the Zuni pueblos were no golden paradise which would make them all wealthy. Marcos de Niza was sent back to Mexico City, as he was no longer believed.

Coronado sent several small groups out in different directions in hope of finding something worth the cost of the expedition. One of these small groups of soldiers was sent to the northwest. They saw several of the Hopi villages in northeastern Arizona. Then they found something which they decided was totally worthless. Spaniards under García López de Cárdenas were the first non-indigenous people to see the Grand Canyon from its rim. Contemplating its relative value, it appeared to them to be only an obstacle to over come. Thus, downhearted, they left.

Coronado took his part of the expedition to the settlements to the east, which the Zunis described to him. They soon reached the area of present-day Albuquerque. They settled here for the winter. While it does appear that Coronado did try to avoid any undue problems with the Pueblos, he still needed food. There not being an overabundance of food in the region, Coronado had to take it from people who did not want to give it.

While in the Albuquerque area, Coronado heard about another city of great riches called Quivira. Quivira did exist. It was many hundreds of miles to the northeast. Whether the Pueblos actually thought its streets were paved in gold, or whether they just overestimated its worth to get rid of the Spaniards, is not known today.


A-quiver over Quivira


They headed out again, this time looking for Quivira. One guide the Spaniards called the Turk seemed to be leading them in ways which did not make sense. Soon they found an Indian who had actually been to Quivira. The Turk was put in chains, and the Spaniards followed the new guide.

As with all of the other stories of massive, bejeweled cities in the United States, Quivira turned out to be just a native village in eastern Kansas. It was probably a Wichita Indian village. While he did discover the vast (and one of the greatest granaries of the world) plains of North America, Coronado did not find gold so plentiful that it hung from the trees. His dreams shattered, Coronado followed his own trail back to Mexico. Through attrition from disease, warfare, starvation, desertion, and being assigned to other tasks, Coronado returned with only a little over 100 men. Coronado did establish a Spanish presence in the American southwest. This would linger in the area until the Americans took over in the mid-1800s.

As with those of Narvàez and de Soto, Coronado’s expedition was a financial failure. Spaniards had invested their gold and jewels in hopes of finding even more gold and jewels. Considering themselves to be the betters of the local inhabitants, they felt it was their rights to reap the harvest of this golden land. It mattered little that what riches there were already belonged to someone. In the United States, no one ever found a fabled El Dorado. But, El Dorado is another city in another continent.

(See Chapter 2, “The Great Migrations” and Chapter 6, “The Five Civilized Tribes” for more information about the Pueblo Indians.)


Marquette, Jolliet, and La Salle: Charting the Mississippi


As described above in the section on Jacques Cartier, France had a foothold in North America along the St. Lawrence River. They called this area, “New France.” Over the next 100 years, they would expand into the area around the Great Lakes.

Marquette and Jolliet


In Sault Ste. Marie in June, 1671, in the name King Louis XIV of France, the King’s representative Simon Daumont de Saint-Lusson took possession of the lands west and south of the Great Lakes.

Representatives of fourteen American Indian tribes witnessed the formal events. The area annexed included:

Sainte Marie du Sault, as also of Lakes Huron and Superior, the island of Manatoulin, and all countries, rivers, lakes, and streams contiguous and adjacent thereunto; both those which have been discovered and those which may be discovered hereafter, in all their length and breadth, bounded on the one side by the seas of the North (Hudson Bay), and of the West (Pacific), and on the other by the South Sea (Gulf of Mexico): declaring to the nations thereof, that from this time forth they are vassals of his majesty, bound to obey his laws and follow his customs: promising them on his part all succor and protection against the incursions and invasions of their enemies: declaring to all other potentates, princes, sovereigns, states, and republics-to them and their subjects-that they cannot and are not to seize or settle upon any parts of the aforesaid countries, save only under the good pleasure of his most Christian majesty, and of him who will govern in his behalf; and this on pain of incurring his resentment and the efforts of his arms.

(Source: France and England in North America by William Parkman (1823-1893).

Whether they knew it or not, tens of thousands of American Indians were now under the claim of France.

Still hoping to get to China


Through the efforts of missionaries, traders and Indian allies, the French learned of a great river called the “Missispi,” south of the Great Lakes. The Governor of New France hoped this might be the route to China which Europeans had spent almost two centuries looking for. Born in Canada, Louis Jolliet (sometimes spelled Joliet) had done considerable exploring in the area around New France as a fur trader. He was one of the witnesses of the formal land claims made in Sainte Marie du Sault.

The New France Governor arranged for him and a French missionary named Jacques Marquette to look for this river. Father Marquette had been a missionary to several American Indian tribes around the Great Lakes. Between them, they spoke many different American Indian languages.

Jolliet hoped to be able to establish trade relations with many of the tribes they encountered. Marquette was interested in converting the Indians to Christianity.

On May 17, 1672, Jacques Marquette, Louis Jolliet and five others left St. Ignace on Lake Michigan in search of the great river. They traveled for most of their trip in two canoes. During their travels, Marquette and Jolliet would meet or see many different American Indian tribes. For some Indians, Marquette and Jolliet were the first Europeans they ever met.

Tribes which may have encountered Marquette and Jolliet during this trip:


  • Chickasaw

  • Choctaw

  • Huron

  • Illini

  • Illinois

  • Kanza

  • Kaskaskia

  • Kaskinampo

  • Kickapoo

  • Koroa

  • Mascoutin

  • Menominee

  • Miami

  • Michigamea

  • Missouri

  • Nadouessi

  • Omaha

  • Osage

  • Oto

  • Pawnee

  • Peoria

  • Quapaw (Akansea)

  • Sioux

  • Tunica

  • Western Shawnee (Chaouanon)

Many of the local tribes warned them against going south. Menominee tribal elders advised them that there are many unfriendly tribes in that direction. Marquette and Jolliet told them the trip had to be made. So with the help of two Miami Indian guides, they decided to travel through Wisconsin. After some travel across land, they arrived at the enormous headwaters of the Mississippi on June 17th and quickly headed south along the river.

Marquette’s mentioning of Wisconsin in his journal is the first time the name appears in a European-American document. Based on the Indian name for the river they were on, he spelled it “Meskousing.” Eventually, the M would be dropped when explorer La Salle could not read Marquette’s handwriting. It would evolve into “Wisconsin.”



They encountered many different tribes, animals and plants. The explorers were startled by the size of the buffalo herds, and some of the fish in the river. They made maps of the river, and the surrounding territories.

After a cautious start, many tribes, such as the Illinois and the Quapaw (or “Akansea” as they called them) would make them honored guests.

The first whites


Marquette and Jolliet were the first white men to be seen in their area in around 100 years. The explorers saw them as potential allies against the Spanish. They also learned that the Mississippi River did empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

The lands of the Quapaw were on what today is called the Arkansas River. Marquette and Jolliet noted the Indians had Spanish trade goods. The Quapaw also warned them of hostile tribes along the river to the south. Not wanting to lose the valuable information they had collected so far, Marquette and Jolliet decided to return to New France to make their report.

To their credit, Marquette and Jolliet evinced a respectful mien of dignity towards the Indians and often impressed many of the Natives they met.

No thievery allowed


Tribal leaders noticed that, unlike the Spanish, they did not try to steal from them. Marquette and Jolliet seemed to treat them as people. Marquette and Jolliet still saw most of the Indians as savages, but they were humans.

The French were to learn much about the interior of the United States from this expedition. They gained valuable insights into the lives of some of the tribes living there. Marquette estimates that the Illini tribe alone had over 8,000 members. And, in the long run, the French presence in the area would solidify their claim on these lands over Spain and the British.

Marquette would die in Michigan in 1675. Jolliet would continue in the fur trade. In 1679, Jolliet would discover a land route to Hudson Bay for the New France government. The presence of the English there would be a thorn in France’s side for years to come.

La Salle


Not long after Marquette and Jolliet, came another French explorer. This one had a patent of nobility. His name: Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, or as he was commonly called, La Salle.

La Salle was given land not long after he arrived in Canada. He became the master of Fort Frontenac (Modern Kingston, Ontario). Soon he was exploring the Great Lakes and building more forts there. He established some preliminary good relations with the Illinois (Peoria) and Miami Indians while he was in the Illinois River area. He tried to make them allies against the Iroquois. He left the area to return to the settled parts of New France for extra supplies. By the time he had returned in 1680, over 500 Iroquois had invaded the territory and destroyed his forts, and many of the Indian allies, as well. He once again returned to Fort Frontenac in 1681.

Chartered by King Louis XIV, La Salle traveled south from Montreal in late 1681, and reached the Mississippi River by 1682. With him were about two dozen French and almost as many of his Indian allies.

La Salle would build several forts as he traveled. Near modern Memphis, La Salle’s armorer got lost while hunting. Being concerned about the nearby Chickasaw Indians, La Salle built a fort for protection while they looked for him. Fort Prudhomme, named after the armorer, would provide La Salle refuge on both parts of his voyage.


Claiming the Mississip


La Salle continued his travels down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. He was the first European to travel the length of the Mississippi River. On April 9, 1682, he claimed all of the Mississippi River basin in the name of King Louis XIV. In King Louis’ honor, he named the area Louisiana. This was a message to British and Spanish settlers to not move into this area. La Salle was disappointed, though. He had hoped the river would eventually lead to a passage to China. La Salle went back up the river and eventually returned to Montreal

Louisiana covered an area from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. It stretched from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachian Mountains. In essence, it was most of the central part of North America.



La Salle would return to France to set up a significant colonization effort for France in the Mississippi River valley. He left France in mid 1684. His fleet of four ships missed the Mississippi River entirely. They landed in a bay south of modern Houston, Texas. Two of his ships would be lost. One captured by Spanish pirates. And, one ship carried disgruntled colonists back to France.

La Salle would explore significant parts of southern, and eastern Texas before he was murdered by his our followers. Most of the remaining French who tried to establish a colony were killed by a coastal Texas tribe called the Karankawas.

La Salle did establish some positive relationships with some of the tribes in the area of the Mississippi River. His travels on the Mississippi cemented Frances claim to this large section of North America. His expedition’s chronicler recorded many details about the various tribes they encountered. These records would prove to be helpful for historians. One of the unexpected results of his various trips was to get the Spanish to be more interested in their northern holdings.


Leaving the Native People Reeling


Over the centuries from the late 1500s to the middle 1800s, American Indian tribes would face continual invasions of their lands and resources.

Each new explorer would start a trickle of other interested parties. These trickles would soon become torrents of explorers, traders, missionaries and settlers. The bounty was irresistible, and the attitude was rampant that it was all free for the taking.

The escalating encounters between the French, British and Spanish would seldom prove to be beneficial to the indigenous people of North America. As each of these major European powers sough to outdo each other, American Indian tribes were inevitably brought into the conflict.

Playing one against the other


Every time one of the European powers would fight over an area, they would work very hard to persuade the local tribes to back them up. These requests would lead to internal strife for many tribes. Distrust was pervasive amongst the naysayers, yet there were always Natives who believed it was in the tribe’s best interest to “take sides.”

Promises of trade goods and protection would be given to the tribes who provided warriors. Soon, one tribe would be fighting another tribe in the name of their European backers. These conflicts would take their toll on the Indians.


Making them sick


Also following the explorers came the creeping tide of disease. Every wave of Europeans brought new illnesses for which the American Indians had no immunities. Common diseases which would harm, yet not destroy, an ordinary European village would devastate an American Indian town.

Some historians believe the total population of North America would be reduced by as much as 90% due to diseases spread by the Europeans.



There were many people who were concerned about the welfare of the indigenous people of the Americas. Even among the Spanish, who were known for their brutality, voices spoke up for more gentle treatment of the Indians. Many of the greatest names in Spanish exploration would be tried in Spain for inhumane treatment of the native people. A few would be found guilty, others would not.

Sadly, “God, Glory and Gold” would be a death knell for most of the original inhabitants of this land.


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