Tony Horwitz in his ground-breaking book, A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, actually took the roads less traveled – he re-traced the steps of many of the well-known and lesser-known early Spaniards up and down the Eastern Seaboard and the South. They were searching for gold, the fountain of youth, the Seven Cities of Cibola, and in the process got lost, got killed, died, or went missing among the various native tribes (this can’t be too surprising, remember the part about Europe’s monarchies and popes being unpredictably tyrannical? Spending the rest of your life in rich forests, grasslands that went on forever, or even in the hot southwest desert in comparable freedom was probably a pretty good deal).


1513 – Juan Ponce de Leon discovers Florida and the Gulf Stream. He’s searching for the fountain of youth and gold. Finding neither, he heads back to his familiar stomping ground in the Caribbean and writes about it.

1522 – Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón lands near Cape Fear, and later attempts to colonize what is now South Carolina. The settlers include African slaves who revolted and fled to live among the Native Americans . The colony soon came to an end as de Ayllón and the other colonists died of some kind of fever.

1524 – Giavanni da Verrazzano sails across the Atlantic and lands in what is now New York Harbor. Verrazzano is Italian, but was being paid by Francis I of France. Psych! You thought this section was only about Spanish explorations, right? Wrong!

1528 – Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca (for some reason, every time his name is mentioned, historians feel the need to translate it as “head of a cow” – I don’t think this guy got any respect) and Panfilo de Narvaez land with about 300 men on the west coast of Florida near present day Tampa Bay. After a great deal of mishaps and bad luck – hurricanes, attacks from Native Americans, illness – the pilot of the ship turns yellow and takes off, stranding de Vaca and Narvaez with the soldiers. The stranded men bravely make some rafts, hop on them and try to reach Mexico. Three rafts sink, but the two surviving rafts (carrying 80 men) lands at an island (probably Galveston Island). Narvaez does not survive.

After a very cold winter with very little food, only 15 men still live. In the spring, the men are struggling along the Colorado River. By 1533, there are only three survivors, including de Vaca – and a black Moorish slave,

Remember that name And if you want to learn more, read A Land So Strange by Andres Resendez.

During the next three years of incredible hardship, including capture and enslavement by some Indian tribes along the way (but helped by other tribes) they finally reach the Spanish town of Culiacan in 1536 – more than 8 years after they had landed in Florida. They are the first Europeans to travel in these southwest parts of North America – and most historians agree that de Vaca and his men are the first Europeans to see the bison, or American buffalo – and write about it.

Estevanico is sometimes referred to as Estevan, Esteban, Estebanico, Black Stephen, and Stephen the Moor. This guy has become one of the most interesting people in American history. At times castigated as a conniving, scheming con-man, other times as just a dude trying to save his skin, Estevanico seems to travel with impunity among Spaniard generals, priests, and Native American tribes. That is, until 1539, when he is killed by Zuni warriors. Still, his story is one of the great un-told stories of America, don’t you think?

I wonder how many other Estevanicos, Fernandos, Albertos, and Carlos’ managed to “disappear” into the American hinterlands, perhaps not looking for adventure so much as escaping their Spanish overlords who could be as brutal towards them as they were towards the natives. Finding tribes with available women had to have been a strong incentive – and most of the Spanish soldiers and their shipmates had little reason to return to Europe. After all, they weren’t getting a cut of the gold and silver.

The various tribes they encountered also had what can only be described as an extremely attractive alternative: freedom. No nutty lords, dukes, kings, queens, etc., lots of open space, fresh air, sunshine…it doesn’t take much to imagine that least a few of the early Europeans weren’t  tempted to slip away into the night. Wouldn’t you?

1534 – France sends Jacques Cartier on the first of his voyages to the coast of Newfoundland and makes his way down the St. Lawrence River. He founds what would eventually become Quebec in 1541 but the hard winter and Indian attacks force him to abandon the town.

1539 – Fray Marcos de Niza, a Franciscan priest, is wandering the part of the country now called New Mexico trying to find the Seven Cities which he never finds. With him is his Moorish slave…

(Yup, him again, see above).

1539 – Hernando De Soto, not content with resting on his laurels after decimating the Inca Empire in Peru, lands in western Florida seeking – you guessed it – the fountain of youth. With 10 ships carrying over 600 soldiers, priests, and explorers, he spends four years searching for gold and silver, exploring the area, and brutally killing Cherokees, Seminoles, Creeks, Appalachians, and Choctaws. De Soto dies during the explorations and was buried on the banks of the Mississippi River in late 1542. His grave has never been found.

1540 – Francisco Vásquez de Coronado gets gold fever and sets off to find the Seven Cities of Cibola. With hundreds of soldiers and slaves, he heads into what is now Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas (seriously, Kansas?). Coronado slashes his way through hundreds of Native American Pueblos, but never finds any gold or silver. His expedition was considered a failure. But he still writes about it.

1542 – Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo lands on the California coast, names San Diego Bay and claims all of it for King Charles I of Spain. He gets into a fight with Native Americans who hadn’t ever heard of Charles I and didn’t care; Cabrillo dies of an infection from a broken leg.

1562 – A small group of French troops are abandoned on Parris Island, South Carolina, but leave after a year.

1565 – Pedro Menendez de Aviles arrives in what is now known as Florida  Aviles and his soldiers attack the nearby French colony of Fort Caroline, built about three years before, and murder every man, woman and child. Later, De Aviles explores the coastline of North America as far north as St. Helena Island, South Carolina. De Aviles founded St. Augustine (bonus! This city can now market itself as the oldest city in the United States).

1592 – Juan de Fuca is a Greek navigator who sails for Spain under a Spanish alias; his real name is Apostolos Valerianos. Looking for that elusive Northwest Passage, he sails from Mexico and discovers what is now called Puget Sound and the Georgia Strait waaaay up north in Washington State.

1595 – Sebastian Cermenho sails from the Philippines to California, runs aground near Point Reyes, and names the bay San Francisco.

1598-1604 – Juan de Oñate builds San Gabriel, New Mexico’s first capital. His gang was looking for silver, didn’t find any, and were ready to return to Mexico. But Oñate considers this mutiny and executes many of them. He is also incredibly brutal to the local Indians, killing, enslaving, and mutilating many Indian men, women, and children. Oñate makes it to the future Kansas (again with Kansas?), still convinced there is silver to be found. Most of his settlers return to Mexico City. In 1604, he explores the areas west toward the Colorado River and the Gulf of California.

1604 – Frenchman Pierre Dugua tries to establish Saint Croix Island in Maine. The French colonists were beset with illness, probably scurvy. The island was abandoned, it is still uninhabited.

What about women? The records are filled with the exploits of men, but Spanish women have been noticeably absent – and perhaps they weren’t. A 2008 PBS show, Aztec Massacre, has a tantalizing snippet about women coming on ships the year after Cortes slaughtered the Aztecs in 1519. Resendez, much to his credit, has spent considerable time researching this and several women are included in his book, A Land So Strange. Women were playing an important part in Spanish colonization by the early 1500s.

American historians persist in continuing the fable that ‘first contact’ with North American natives was with the English. This is simply not true. Hundreds of tribes, from the Seminole in Florida to the Yguases in Texas, to even the Algonquins in Virginia, had been exposed to Spaniards and French more than a century before the Mayflower set sail from England. Almost all of the encounters were bad, but sporadic, which means that perhaps the lessons from these encounters were not passed down generation from generation by the natives (think about PALL a bit here, if you want).

Historians, authors, moviemakers, etc. concentrate on the conquest and slaughter of the Big Three: Aztec, Maya, Inca, in MesoAmerica. But the story is much more tragic, for there were dozens if not hundreds of smaller tribes, groups, and villages crushed by the growing waves of Spaniards.

It’s all a little weird, but no weirder than our persistently wrong historical narrative that the English knew little to nothing about the natives they would meet.

Most of these Spaniards and/or the priests who travelled with them kept diaries, wrote journals and letters and even poems and a lot of these – and their authors – made their way back to Spain and Europe, were reproduced, and read.

Long before the Pilgrims, people were reading about the New World and its inhabitants . Amerigo Vespucci got the jump on Columbus in the “Name that Continent” game and in 1506 published The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci, which became a runaway best seller. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca’s book, one of the rarest in the world, was published in 1542.

Published circa 1566, the Apologetic History of the Indies by the Catholic Dominican Priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, famously made the case for more humane treatment of native peoples.

The conquest of Chili was the subject of an epic poem by Alonso de Ercilla in 1569.