The Discovery and Initial Exploration of North America, Part 2

The Discovery and Initial Exploration of North America, Part 2

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The Cortés Rift

Both Hernán Cortés, the conqueror of New Spain; and Diego Velázquez, the governor of Cuba, were ambitious, resourceful men who were willing to use all the tools at their disposal to get what they wanted. From the moment Cortés led his fleet from Cuba in early 1519 in defiance of Velázquez's direct orders, a rift opened in the politics of North America. It started with a feud between Cortés and Velázquez and grew into a coalition of powerful men who were determined to stop Cortés and his allies by any means possible. For more than two decades, any man who either had great power in North America or who wanted it had to choose which side of the rift to stand on.

It was related in the previous part of this article how Cortés sent a ship with agents to Spain to petition for the right to govern New Spain and how Velázquez sent a notice to his powerful ally in the court, Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca. Fonseca had been King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella's counsellor in matters pertaining to the Indies and had been instrumental in getting Christopher Columbus's commission as Governor of the Indies revoked. He presided over the House of Trade, the forerunner body to the Council of the Indies, and he retained his position through the succession to the reign of King Charles. He was 68 when Cortés left Cuba. According to several contemporary sources, Velázquez paid Fonseca handsomely to serve his interests. It was also considered relevant by those who became involved in the rift that Fonseca was arranging to wed one of his nieces to Velázquez.1

The previous part also related how Velázquez sent Pánfilo de Narváez with a fleet and army to attempt to capture Cortés, how Lucas Vázquez de Allyón, an official from Santo Domingo, went with Narváez, and how Narváez had Allyón arrested and sent to Cuba. We now relate what occurred in Spain.

King Charles's paternal grandfather, Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian, I, died in January 1519. In June, Charles was named to succeed him. The ship carrying Cortés's agents - Puertocarrero and Montejo - and his impressive donation of gold arrived at the port of San Lucar de Barrameda in October.2 Fonseca and others allied with Velázquez had the ship and gold seized, including the agents' personal funds and a gift Cortés had sent to his father, Martin Cortés. Puertocarrero was thrown in prison for a crime he was alleged to have committed two years earlier. Fonseca was able to delay the agents for months, but in early March, Charles did get a chance read the reports from New Spain and see the gold Cortés sent. Although he was greatly pleased with what he saw, he was too preoccupied with preparing for his upcoming coronation to render a judgment on the dispute between Velázquez and Cortés. He embarked for Germany on May 20, 1520, appointing his mentor, Cardinal Adrian of Utrecht, to serve as his regent during his absence. Adrian soon had his hands full with a popular revolt directed against Charles and his taxation policies, however, and he left overseas matters in Fonseca's experienced hands.

During his time in charge, Fonseca tried to do with his pen what Narváez failed to do with his sword. The House of Trade passed a set of ordinances intended to restore the province of New Spain to Diego Velázquez. They called for the release of Pánfilo de Narváez from prison in Veracruz and the appointment of a licentiate, or auditor, to go to New Spain and investigate Cortés.3 As was common with these investigations, the licentiate had the power to assume control of the government during the investigation. Cardinal Adrian signed the ordinances on April 11, 1521; the first countersignatory was Archbishop Fonseca.

Fonseca's licentiate, Cristóbal de Tápia, arrived at Veracruz with two ships, the decree drafted by Fonseca and signed by Adrian, and a supply of letters signed by Fonseca that were to be distributed as necessary to support Tápia's authority. When Tápia disembarked, he announced to Cortés's men at Veracruz that he was the new provincial governor and showed Adrian's decree to Cortés's top official at Veracruz. The latter treated Tápia with respect, but told him it was not his place to decide on his commission. Annoyed, Tápia set out on the road to Mexico to meet with Cortés. Cortés was told of Tápia's arrival and arranged for most of his officials to meet the inspector at Cempoala. There, the officials reviewed Tápia's credentials and noted that although they appeared authentic, none of them bore King Charles's signature. They further told Tápia they suspected collusion on the part of Velázquez and Fonseca, and before they could accept him as their governor, they needed to know the king's view on the subject. Tápia could see from this that assuming the governorship was not going to be a simple matter. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier in Cortés's army who wrote an account of the conquest of New Spain in 1568, "the disappointment affected him to the degree that he fell sick." Cortés compensated Tápia for his efforts by buying some of his Negro slaves, horses, and one of his ships. Tápia left in his other ship five days after his arrival. Many of his men stayed in New Spain to seek their fortunes under Cortés.

Díaz writes that some time after Tápia's departure, a man named Juan Buono arrived in New Spain with a stack of blank form letters signed by Fonseca with offers of political offices for Buono to fill out and dispense as needed to increase support for Tápia's new government. Buono was told that Tápia had gone, but he could go see Cortés in Mexico, which he did. "I do not know what passed between them," Díaz writes, "but I believe Cortés sent him back to Castile with some money in his pocket."

Including the attempt to arrest him in Havana, Hernán Cortés thwarted Diego Velázquez's efforts to eliminate him three times in three years. In each case, Cortés succeeded because of his uncanny ability to read a situation, his boldness in taking chances most other men would not take, his exceptional powers of persuasion, and his knack for knowing when to use flattery, diplomacy, threats, force, bribes, appeals to patriotism, appeals to God, or all of the above. After this defeat, Velázquez no longer contended with Cortés directly, but their feud carried on through Fonseca and other proxies. Before continuing with that story, however, we must backtrack a few years and relate the stories of some conquistadors who were far less successful than Cortés, but who nevertheless played a vital part in the discovery of the land we now know as Texas.

Voyages to Panuco: 1518-1523

As explained in the previous part of this article, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba's 1517 discovery of the Yucatan Peninsula and an advanced, gold-possessing civilization living there caught Spain by storm. Diego Velázquez sent Juan de Grijalva on an expedition in 1518 to further explore this new land. Grijalva's ships explored the coast of the Gulf of Mexico from the Yucatan all the way around to the Panuco River, near present-day Tampico, Mexico. Grijalva found a large native population on the banks of the river. While his ships were anchored offshore, a group of natives boldly attacked from their canoes, forcing the Spaniards to retreat.

The following spring, Hernán Cortés landed at present-day Veracruz. That location had the makings of a good port, but it was infested with mosquitos, so Cortés sent Captain Francisco de Montejo to explore further up the coast for another option. Montejo sailed as far as the Panuco River. Bernal Díaz del Castillo writes, "he could not pass on account of the violence of the currents." Díaz gives no information about whether Montejo saw natives.

Alonso Álvarez de Pineda

Inspired by the reports of Córdoba, and also possibly of Grijalva, Francisco de Garay, the governor of Jamaica,4 commissioned his own voyage of discovery. In 1519, Garay sent Captain Alonso Álvarez de Pineda with three ships and 270 men to explore the unknown region west of Florida.5 Pineda sailed northwest from Jamaica, passed through the Yucatan Channel between Cuba and the mainland, and struck the Gulf coast at the Florida panhandle. The ships then turned east and sailed down to the cape of Florida. There, they reversed direction and followed the coast westward. On June 2, Pineda discovered the Mississippi River, which he named "Espíritu Santo," or "Holy Spirit," because of its discovery on the day of Pentecost.

Pineda kept sailing west and then turned south, following the curve of the coast of present-day Texas. According to Díaz, he disembarked, with two of his ships, at the Panuco River and founded a settlement there. He sent his third ship on ahead. That ship dropped anchor a few miles from Veracruz in late June or early July.6 The Spaniards at Veracruz had been expecting a reprisal from Governor Velázquez because of Cortés's disobedience, so when they saw a Spanish ship so close, they suspected it might be from Cuba. They alerted Cortés, who was in Cempoala. Cortés rushed back and arrested Pineda's small landing party, and the ship left. Pineda's men told Cortés that Francisco de Garay claimed the territory to the north, and they had come there to negotiate the boundary between the two provinces.

The details of what happened to Pineda next are sketchy. At least some of his men stayed at Panuco for more than forty days, and at least one of his ships returned to Jamaica. Pineda himself either went to Jamaica then made an undocumented voyage back to Panuco, or never left Panuco. In either case, a map he made of the Gulf of Mexico was given to Governor Garay. This map, which still exists today in the General Archive of the Indies in Seville, Spain, is a simple line drawing showing the entire Gulf coast from Florida to the Yucatan in roughly accurate proportions. As for Texas, it shows the general northeast-to-southwest shape of the coast, albeit almost as a diagonal line rather than an arc. It shows three bays or inlets, which could signify Galveston Bay, Matagorda Bay, and Corpus Christi Bay. It does not show any barrier islands or other such details, and nothing in the Texas part of the coast is named. Simple though it may be, it is the first document of Texas history, and it qualifies Alonso Álvaro de Pineda as the discoverer of Texas.

1519 Pineda map of the Gulf coast
Figure 1. Pineda's 1519 map of the Gulf coast. (Click the map for a full-size, high-res image.)

Pineda's status as the first European to lay eyes on Texas is secure, but there are some false claims that have been attached to him by overzealous Texans who wish his role to be greater than it was. One such claim is that he named Corpus Christi Bay, giving it that name because he discovered it on the feast day of Corpus Christi. This does match the timeline; the feast of Corpus Christi is 11 days after Pentecost, when Pineda was at the Mississippi River, so in 1519, Corpus Christi fell on June 13. Pineda could well have been in the area of Corpus Christi Bay on that date. This coincidence of dates appears to be the only justification for the myth that Pineda named Corpus Christi Bay, for not only are there no contemporary sources crediting the name to him (not even his own map!) but the earliest known reference to Corpus Christi Bay by that name dates to 1766.

Another popular misconception is that Pineda landed at and/or sailed up the Rio Grande. This is another myth that is utterly without historical support. The reports by Díaz and Cortés, as well as Garay's subsequent activities, make it unmistakably clear that the river Pineda explored was the Panuco.

People who nevertheless believe that Pineda explored the Rio Grande, despite any historical evidence supporting that belief, surely felt validated when a clay tablet was unearthed at that river's mouth at Boca Chica in 1974. The inscription on the broken stone reads, in a mixture of uppercase and lowercase:

the Pineda Stone
Figure 2. The Pineda Stone.

CON 270 HO...
y 4 B...
De GaraY...

By doing some guesswork regarding abbreviations and the broken pieces, this translates to: "Here Alonso Alvares de Piñeda, 1519, with 270 men and 4 ships (barcos), De Garay." The number of men, 270, matches the figure Díaz gives, and while Díaz writes that Pineda had 3 ships, Cortés writes that there were 4. On the surface, the facts are right. Still, most scholars now take the tablet to be a fake. The spelling of Álvarez with an S instead of a Z and the missing accent mark over the capital A are notable, but do not, in and of themselves, raise doubts. On the other hand, the addition of a tilde over the N in the captain's surname is highly questionable. The surname "Piñeda" with a tilde does not exist in Spanish. Historian Donald Chipman has stated that whoever was responsible for the stone probably used the popular reference book, the Handbook of Texas, for his or her information, for it used to erroneously print Pineda's name with a tilde. Furthermore, Randolph B. Campbell also notes that the stroke through the number 7 is a convention that did not begin until the nineteenth century. Finally, if we are correct in assuming that the "B" stands for barcos, it is worth noting that the usual word for large sailing ships in documents from 16th-century Spain is navios.

The Pineda Stone was sent to the Rio Grande Valley Museum in Harlingen, which is now known as the Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum. Unfortunately, as of 2018, it was not on display.7

Another claim, which is that Pineda and his men were the first Europeans to set foot in Texas, can be neither proven nor disproven. Certainly, three or four ships traveling down 400 miles of Texas coastline in what was probably a few weeks' time might have needed to stop and send boats out at various points to collect water, food, or firewood. Furthermore, there are hints that Pineda encountered the Karankawa Indians of the Texas coast - a tribe known for their great height. For example, a map drawn by Diego Ribero in 1529 has a label reading "Tierra de Gigantes," or "Land of Giants," at approximately the latitude of Matagorda Bay - one of the Karankawas' habitations (see Figure 3, below). While there were other navigators who sailed the Texas coast between 1519 and 1529, none of the ones history knows about had an opportunity to report their findings, so Pineda's expedition could well be the source of this information. Still, even if one is inclined to grant that Pineda and his men were probably the first Europeans to set foot on Texas soil, the honor of being the first Europeans to make a documented visit to Texas belongs to others.

Francisco de Garay

From his 1519 voyage, Pineda discovered that Florida is not an island, but is part of the same continent to which New Spain belonged. Even more important, he proved that there is no route to Asia by sailing west from the Caribbean Sea. With this in mind, Governor Francisco de Garay applied for a royal patent to explore, conquer, and colonize the land that Pineda discovered, which he called Amichel. Because of the months that would be required to send his petition to Spain, let alone to have it acted upon and receive an answer, he simultaneously sent a supply ship to support Pineda's position at Panuco.

In 1520, Garay's ship, commanded by Diego de Camargo, arrived at Panuco. Shortly after its arrival, the Huastec natives attacked. About 70 Spaniards fled to Camargo's ship and escaped, but Pineda and the rest of the colonists were killed. Camargo took the ship to Veracruz. Díaz writes that the soldiers had a "morbid" yellow or green color and looked swollen, possibly from liver disease, and many of them, including Camargo, died soon after their arrival.

Back in Jamaica, Garay evidently did not receive any news about his Panuco colony, for he kept sending ships to supply and reinforce it. Díaz writes of a ship with more than 50 soldiers, commanded by Miguel Díaz de Auz, and another ship of 40 soldiers, commanded by an old officer named Ramirez. Both ships, finding no Spanish settlement in Panuco to reinforce, went to Veracruz and joined Cortés's force. "Thus Garay continually sent us reinforcements," Díaz writes, "thinking that his colony was going on well in Panuco."

Garay Receives His Patent

Garay's application to colonize Amichel arrived while Charles was absent from Spain and Archbishop Fonseca was making the important decisions regarding the colonies. Fonseca believed he had solved his Cortés problem by giving Cristóbal de Tápia the authority to assume the governorship of New Spain, but Tápia had not yet arrived at Veracruz. Garay, a potential rival to Cortés, gave Fonseca a Plan B. Of course, Fonseca was in favor of Garay's application.

Cardinal Adrian signed the real cédula, or royal document, on June 4, 1521. It declared that the entire coast of what we now call the Gulf of Mexico had been discovered and that it consisted of three provinces: Florida, discovered by Juan Ponce de León; the territories which the document credits Diego Velázquez for discovering; and the new province discovered by Garay. The name of the latter was decreed to be Amichel. The decree did not describe the boundaries of the three provinces, but gave the job of determining them to the royal inspector, Cristóbal de Tápia.

Tápia clearly had a conflict of interest in first being given the authority to take over the government of New Spain and then being given the power to draw the boundary between New Spain and Amichel. One can only assume that Fonseca and Velázquez intended for Tápia to hand the government of New Spain to Velázquez once he had removed Cortés, or perhaps to remain in power in Mexico with the title of deputy governor. He could then set a provincial boundary between New Spain and Amichel that favored Velázquez. Thus, it appears that Garay was being used as a pawn in the Cortés-Velázquez feud.

Politics aside, the creation of the province of Amichel was another significant step forward in the history of North America in general, and Texas in particular. Amichel was the first known toponym ever applied to any part of present-day Texas, and Francisco de Garay was, in a sense, the first governor of Texas.

Garay Loses His Province

It took two years after the decree was issued for Garay to organize his expedition. Even considering the time it would have taken for him to receive notice that his request was approved plus the time it would take to procure a fleet and men, organizing the expedition should not have taken half that long. Historians do not know what took Garay so long before setting sail, but the delay cost him dearly. In the time it took for Garay to get himself ready, Cortés pounced. Cortés knew that Garay not only claimed Panuco and had made a substantial investment in it, but also that he had recently been granted authority over it. Hernán Cortés, however, was never one to let such formalities stand in his way. He had already laid the groundwork with scouting missions going back as far as 1519, when Pineda's ship arrived at Veracruz, and he considered Panuco to be rightfully his. After he conquered the Aztecs in Mexico, Cortés left Captain Diego de Soto in charge there and personally led a detachment of 300 foot soldiers, some 120 horsemen, and supposedly tens of thousands of Indians to Panuco. His force easily overwhelmed the Huastec resistance. On December 26, 1522, Cortés's men founded the second town in New Spain, Santiesteban del Puerto, on the Panuco River, about 30 miles from the coast. This town is the present-day city of Panuco in the state of Veracruz.

While Garay was losing his opportunity to possess Panuco, he was also losing his claim over it. Cortés's second pair of agents never made it to Spain, but some officials from Santo Domingo who they visited on the way over did. These men had the standing to get an audience with the regent without having to go through Fonseca. A group representing Cortés, which included his father, Martin Cortés, was finally able to see Cardinal Adrian in the first half of 1522. Francisco de Montejo, whose loyalty to Cortés had often been in doubt, ended up being one of his most effective advocates. Adrian read the letters Cortés and the leaders of Veracruz had sent, which were full of complaints against Velázquez and Fonseca. Convinced, Adrian decided that Fonseca was biased on Velázquez's behalf and had failed to inform him about the true state of affairs in New Spain, and he ordered Fonseca to stop meddling in Cortés's affairs.

In August, Emperor Charles returned to his throne in Spain and heard the evidence against Fonseca and Velázquez. Charles not only confirmed his regent's order concerning Fonseca, but also ordered that Velázquez be replaced as governor of Cuba for defying the audiencia real in Santo Domingo and sending Pánfilo de Narváez to go against Cortés. Archbishop Fonseca was so humiliated by Charles's orders that he withdrew to his country estate and, Díaz writes, "fell dangerously ill." Governor Velázquez, likewise, was physically shaken; after a ship arrived at Cuba in May 1523 and read the king's decree, he became sick and depressed. He died on June 12, 1524.

The relevance of all of the above to Panuco is that Cortés, through his letters, agents, and allies, made the case that he had taken Mexico peacefully, had many allies among the natives of New Spain, and had the province well under control, but when Narváez arrived, the natives believed Cortés was going to be taken away. The Mexicans rebelled, and Cortés's native allies forsook him. Because of this, it took months and a huge amount of bloodshed - both Spanish and Indian - to regain control of New Spain. Cortés argued that the presence of a separate Spanish colony in Panuco would likewise be a very destabilizing influence over a province that had once again been brought to order and productivity. Charles agreed.

Garay Finally Goes to Panuco

Oblivious to all of this, Garay personally led his fleet of 13 ships carrying an army of 840 foot soldiers and 136 horsemen8 out of Jamaica on June 14, 1523. On his way to Amichel, he stopped at Cuba. There, he received some bad news and some worse news: he learned that Cortés now claimed Panuco, and he learned that with relatively few men, Cortés had defeated Narváez's army, which was considerably larger than Garay's. Garay met with a royal administrator named Alonso de Zuazo and asked him to go to Panuco to mediate with Cortés on his behalf. Zuazo agreed to meet him there, then Garay resumed his voyage. Garay's ships were blown off-course by contrary winds and landed 100 miles north of Panuco, at the Soto la Marina River, which Garay called the River of Palms, on July 25. He disembarked and prepared to march his army down the coast. He had the ships sail south to meet him at the Panuco River.

After a 100-mile march, Garay and his men found Pineda's old colony on the mouth of the river to be utterly wasted and barren. A Spaniard living in the area, who had been exiled from New Spain as a criminal, told Garay's men what a bad place Panuco was to live, but gave them a good report of New Spain. Garay's men began to desert him. He advanced to Santiesteban, where the authorities captured about 40 of his men who were allegedly raiding and stealing from the natives. When Garay's ships arrived, Cortés's men took control of them, too. Garay, outraged, tried to argue with Cortés's deputies, but they answered by showing him a harsh letter written by King Charles I on April 24, 1523 and addressed to Garay. It read, in part:

"You are ordered not to interfere with the governance and discovery of New Spain, which is now in charge of Hernán Cortés. Therefore you are forbidden to arm, contract, or do anything unless commanded; And if you do, you will be fined with 10,000 ducats."

Garay, now losing men left and right to desertion, proposed to withdraw from Panuco and establish a settlement on the River of Palms. Cortés's men accepted this proposal, but then Garay could not even get enough of his own men to go with him. Despondent, he saw no option but to go to Mexico and throw himself on Cortés's mercy. This he did, and as Cortés always did with a defeated enemy, he treated Garay respectfully and with friendship. In a dinner meeting at Cortés's house, they arranged a marriage between Cortés's daughter and Garay's son. Cortés even granted Garay's request to free Pánfilo de Narváez and allow him to return to Cuba. Cortés gave his blessing to Garay to establish a colony on the River of Palms, and even promised to support him. After this productive meeting, they attended Christmas Eve Mass together. The next morning, however, Garay became sick. He died four days later.

It was subsequently alleged by Cortés's enemies that he poisoned Garay, but this accusation is baseless. Cortés had so thoroughly bested Garay, he had no reason to want him dead. Besides, that was not Cortés's style; he was famous - and frequently criticized by his own men - for being magnanimous and overly generous to his defeated enemies. The fact that he followed through on his promise to release Narváez is further evidence that Cortés did not kill his defeated enemies. Díaz, who was never reluctant to spread gossip, attributed Garay's death to "pleurisy," a condition he said took the lives of many men in New Spain's tropical climate. Díaz also observed that the normal life expectancy of someone who contracted the condition was four days.

The ship carrying Zuazo ran into trouble and had to be run aground on a small, uninhabited island. Zuazo and the other survivors were later rescued by a ship from New Spain. Zuazo went to Mexico, where Cortés gave him a position in the government.

1529 map of the Americas by Diego Ribero
Figure 3. 1529 Map of the Americas by Diego Ribero, the official cartographer of Spain. (Click on the image to show a full-size version.) Note the labels for New Spain (Nueva España), Land of Garay (Tierra de Garay), and Land of Allyón (Tierra de Allyon). Also note, on the west side of a large bay labeled del Espiritu Santo, the Tierra de Gigantes ("land of giants") which is probably a reference to the Karankawas. The Pacific Ocean coast is not fully drawn because much of it was still unexplored and unknown.

Voyages to Florida: 1521-1528

In most respects, Florida is more distant from Texas than Mexico is. Mexico and Texas share a border, while Florida and Texas do not; Austin is closer to Mexico City than to Tallahassee. Certainly, on the whole, Texas history in the 16th through 19th centuries was influenced far more by Mexico than Florida. Still, some of the most important events in the discovery and early exploration of Texas were byproducts of Spanish attempts to colonize Florida, so a working knowledge of those early explorations is indispensable to having a complete picture of the beginning of Texas.

Juan Ponce de León

Owing to its proximity to Hispaniola, which was the original hub of Spain's overseas empire, and Cuba, one of its first successful colonies, Florida's presence was well-known to Spain for at least a decade before Juan Ponce de León, sailing from Puerto Rico, officially discovered it in 1513. Ponce de León's first landing site is usually celebrated as St. Augustine, on the north part of the state's Atlantic coast. He sailed south from there, found a passage through the Florida Keys, and explored partway up the Gulf coast. He assumed that he had discovered another Caribbean island. Making neither any settlement nor any exploration of the interior, he returned to Puerto Rico.

At the time of his Florida expedition, Ponce de León had recently been ousted as governor of Puerto Rico. Afterward, he made regaining the governorship of Puerto Rico his priority. Neither he nor anyone else showed any interest in Florida, and it remained unexplored and unsettled during his second tenure as governor. There were some unauthorized voyages, however - as there had always been - and Ponce de León could see that if he did not solidify his claim to Florida, he could lose it. Consequently, in 1521, he organized a colonizing expedition consisting of about 200 men on two ships. The ships landed somewhere on the coast of southwest Florida, possibly near Charlotte Harbor. Soon after landing, natives attacked the Spaniards. Ponce de León was mortally wounded. The colonists abandoned their settlement and went to Havana, Cuba, where the governor died.

Lucas Vázquez de Allyón

Following Ponce de León's death, the grant to explore and colonize Florida was issued in 1523 to Lucas Vázquez de Allyón. This is the same Allyón who tried to dissuade Velázquez from sending Pánfilo de Narváez to New Spain in 1520 to attempt to overthrow Cortés and who Narváez had arrested and deported. Allyón organized a colonizing expedition consisting of six vessels and 600 men and women. It departed from Santo Domingo in July 1526 and landed near present-day Georgetown, South Carolina, on September 29. The colonists moved south from there and ended up building their settlement about 40 miles south of present-day Savannah, Georgia.

Allyón's colony lasted about three months. Allyón was one of many who died of illness. Of the 600 settlers who founded the first European colony in the present-day United States, about 150 survivors abandoned it and returned to Hispaniola.

Pánfilo de Narváez

After the failures of Garay, Ponce de León, and Allyón, two of Spain's three major provinces on the North American continent remained mostly unexplored and utterly unsettled. The province of New Spain grew under Cortés's leadership, but Panuco remained the northern extent of Spain's presence on the continent.

There was no shortage of would-be conquistadores - men who were eager to have their chance to discover, explore, conquer, and settle new lands, find thousands of pounds of gold, and become the lord of thousands of Spanish settlers and tens of thousands of Indians - in short, to become the next Cortés. One such man was Pánfilo de Narváez, the former deputy to Governor Velázquez. After he was freed from prison at Veracruz, he went to Spain and testified against Cortés in an official proceeding. Despite being humiliated and receiving no redress for his complaints, he nevertheless in 1526 was awarded the governorship of Garay's old province. The name of Narváez's province was not stated in the decree; the name Amichel died with Garay.

This time, the boundaries between Spain's three provinces on the Gulf of Mexico were specified. The Soto la Marina River, or the "River of Palms," as it was then known, was the boundary between Narváez's grant and New Spain, and the cape of Florida was the boundary between Narváez's grant and the territory previously granted to Lucas de Allyón. Thus, the Florida peninsula was divided roughly in half - a division that benefited Narváez, as it gave him proximity to Havana, and it also gave him the side of Florida that had better ports. Narváez's patent was the second time in history a person was appointed to serve as the governor of a territory that included present-day Texas, and Pánfilo de Narváez was, in a sense, the second governor of Texas.

Narváez took a fleet of five ships and 600 men out of San Lucar de Barrameda, Spain on June 17, 1527. He had one layover at Santo Domingo, where he lost some men to desertion, and another in Cuba, where a hurricane killed 60 more. On February 22, 1528, he re-embarked, with five ships and 480 men, from Cuba's south coast. 38 of the expedition's 80 horses died on the excruciatingly slow journey to Florida. The fleet finally landed in Florida on April 9, 1528.

Narváez's pilot, who was named Miruelo, had intended to take the ships into Tampa Bay, but he became lost and landed instead on the west side of the Pinellas Peninsula, a little north of the inlet to Tampa Bay. Narváez then sent Miruelo off in one of the ships to look for his harbor. Still lost, Miruelo sailed north.

A scouting party found some natives who took the Spaniards to their village. There, they found many boxes of Spanish merchandise, obviously from a shipwreck. Their contents included a few small gold items. The Spaniards asked the natives, using signs and gestures, if there was any more gold. The natives told the Spaniards about a city far to the north called Apalache, where there were great amounts of gold and many other things of value - or, at least, this is what the Spaniards interpreted. Several contemporary historians observed that natives in the New World who wanted you out of their country were liable to send you to the country of their enemies by telling you that it had whatever it was you were looking for. We do not know whether the members of the Narváez Expedition considered the possibility that the natives were manipulating them, but we do know that this report of a city of gold made them determined to find Apalache as quickly as possible. There was some discussion of getting back on the ships, finding Miruelo's port - or any port - getting started on a settlement, and then going to look for Apalache, but Narváez and the majority of officers were disinclined to get back on the ships. They believed that Apalache was within easy walking distance, and if the ships simply sailed up the coast while the men walked in parallel, they would all find Miruelo's port together. Building a settlement could wait. One of the ships had already sunk on the coast, so Narváez sent the other three ships sailing north while he marched the army northward.

None of the ships ever saw Narváez or his men again. The three ships, Miruelo's ship, and a sixth ship that was standing by in Havana all found each other, and they also found Tampa Bay. They waited there for Narváez and spent a year sailing up and down the coast looking for him or any sign of his expedition. Finding none, they gave up and went to New Spain.

Turnover in New Spain, 1522-1536

On October 15, 1522, two months after settling the Cortés-Velázquez lawsuits in Cortés favor, Emperor Charles officially awarded the province of New Spain to Cortés and named him governor and captain-general.9 Cortés was just as industrious and ambitious in governing New Spain as he had been in conquering it. He spent the first three years of his reign building cities, discovering mines, putting down native rebellions, and expanding his province through exploration and conquest. Early on, he learned that New Spain had a coast on the Pacific Ocean - or "South Sea," as it was called.

Cortés placed a high priority on exploring his province's other coast, not only to find out what resources it had to offer, but also to serve Spain's long-standing goal of finding a passage to east Asia. Ferdinand Magellan discovered in 1521 that it was possible to sail to Asia around the tip of South America, but that was a long trip. Cortés established a town about 100 miles west of present-day Acapulco and planned to build a shipyard there, which would give him the ability to search for a direct route from New Spain to the Indies. Another possibility was to discover a strait across the continent that would allow passage from the "North Sea," or Atlantic Ocean.

Cortés had the benefit of having several good captains who knew the country and its natives well and had served him with valor. Two such able captains were Pedro de Alvarado and Cristóbal de Olid. Cortés put both of them in charge of expeditions that carried the promise of discovering a strait between the two oceans. Alvarado was set to Guatemala, while Olid was sent to Honduras.

Olid's Rebellion and Salazar's Coup

Cortés believed that the best way to go Honduras would be by sea, so he gave Olid six ships. He instructed him to stop at Havana for provisions. He did, and there some men from Garay's expedition to Panuco joined him. According to Díaz, these men, along with some anti-Cortés men who Olid brought from New Spain, convinced Olid to mutiny and switch his alliance from Cortés to Velázquez. On May 3, 1523, Olid landed at present-day Tela, Honduras.

Eight months after Olid left Veracruz, Cortés got word that he had mutinied and gone over to Velázquez. Cortés set a fleet of five ships under Francisco de las Casas to bring Olid in. Olid managed to capture Las Casas as well as another of Cortés's captains who was leading an unrelated expedition nearby. With Las Casas not reporting back, Cortés became anxious. Olid's mutiny and success at avoiding arrest no doubt reminded Cortés of his own mutiny against Velázquez. He knew that rather than rely on subordinates, he needed to take matters into his own hands. He organized a detachment to make an overland trip to Honduras.

Cortés designated three men to administer the government of New Spain in his absence, one of whom was Alonso de Zuazo, the man who Francisco de Garay had originally asked to negotiate with Cortés on his behalf. After Cortés was underway, he sent two more men back to join the government. These men were Gonzalo de Salazar, who ended up causing severe problems for Cortés, and his protege, Pedro Almindez Chirinos.

While Las Casas was a prisoner, he was able to organize a conspiracy that succeeded in assassinating the renegade Captain Olid. After a long and difficult march on which many Spaniards and their native allies died from hunger and illness, Cortés arrived at Honduras to see that his friend, Las Casas, was in control and Olid was dead. That was the good news.

The bad news arrived on a ship bringing letters for Cortés - some from Zuazo in Mexico, and others from his friends in Spain. Cortés learned that after Salazar and Chirinos returned to Mexico, they staged a coup against Cortés's other deputies. Salazar then declared Cortés dead, held a public funeral for him, and declared himself governor. But that was not all. Even though both Governor Velázquez and Archbishop Fonseca were dead by this time, Cortés's other enemies, which included Pánfilo de Narváez, continued leveling charges at him, including the most serious one of all: treason. They claimed that Cortés was planning to break away from Spain entirely and declare himself sovereign over New Spain. Their evidence included the fact that he always took his own fifth of all the gold and slaves, after the king's fifth was taken out. This unprecedented practice was all the evidence many people needed to believe that Cortés considered himself equal to a king; even Díaz, who was loyal to Cortés, complains about it frequently and bitterly in his narratives. The stories of the rich palaces Cortés was building in the cities of New Spain and even how he was arranging marriages for the gentlemen of his province gave weight to the accusations. At one point, Charles ordered Cortés to be arrested, but one of Cortés's allies, the duke of Bejar, prevailed upon the king to take less drastic measures. The king relented from his order to arrest Cortés, but he still appointed a licentiate to audit him. For all practical purposes, this meant the same thing: he was being removed from office. Additionally, the territory of Panuco was de-annexed from New Spain and put under the control of one Nuño de Guzmán, and Narváez was awarded the remainder of Governor Garay's territory, starting at the River of Palms.

A Succession of Governors

Las Casas brought the truth back to Mexico about Cortés being alive. Salazar responded by arresting Las Casas and most of Cortés's other allies and sending them to Spain or Cuba as prisoners. A few remaining friends of Cortés, however, emboldened by the knowledge that the governor was returning, seized Salazar by surprise and took him and Chirinos prisoner. Cortes then returned to New Spain on June 6, 1526, after an absence of a year and eight months and briefly retook his seat as governor.

The licentiate, Luís Ponce de León (no relation to the discoverer of Florida), arrived about a month later. Cortés ordered a banquet to be thrown for Ponce de León and his men upon his arrival in Veracruz and for the licentiate to be treated with the utmost dignity on his trip to Mexico. On July 4, in a public ceremony, Cortés recognized the licentiate's credentials and literally passed the baton of government to him. The following day, Ponce de León began his inquiry into Cortés's actions as well as the actions of Salazar and his other deputies during his absence. He soon fell ill, however. On July 16, he turned the governorship over to his assistant, Marcos de Aguilar. He died four days later. According to Díaz, the ship that brought Ponce de León carried an infection that killed over a hundred of the men who were on it and spread throughout the city of Mexico. These facts did not matter to Cortés's enemies, who alleged that Cortés had arsenic put in the banquet that the licentiate enjoyed upon his arrival at Veracruz.

New Spain lacked a stable government for the next five years. Aguilar, who was past middle age and who also became ill soon after arriving in the country, died less than seven months after taking office. Once again, Cortés was accused of poisoning him. The crown took action to restore order by creating an audiencia real, or royal court, which would sit in Mexico and exercise authority over New Spain in the same manner that the audiencia in Santo Domingo had governed Hispaniola. Cortés left for Castile to bury his father and to make a personal appeal to the Holy Roman emperor to get his governorship back.

New Spain 1519-1535
Figure 4. Map of New Spain and Neighboring Provinces, 1519-1535.

Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán

As related above, in late 1525 King Charles was swayed by arguments that Cortés was planning to secede and form his own nation, and he implemented a crackdown intended to reign Cortés in. One of his measures was to separate the long-contested territory of Panuco from New Spain and make a new province of it. The governorship of Panuco was awarded to Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, one of Charles's bodyguards who had accompanied him during his visit to Germany and the Netherlands in 1522. Guzmán left Spain on the same ship that carried Luis Ponce de León to Hispaniola. He was delayed there for a while by illness. He arrived at Panuco in May 1527, during the period between Marcos de Aguilar's death and the creation of the audiencia real of Mexico.

Most Spanish conquistadors, including Columbus, Velázquez, Cortés, and Narváez, were guilty of appalling acts of cruelty, especially where the indigenous populations were concerned. That being said, history remembers Guzmán as being in a class all his own. He enslaved staggering numbers of natives, without regard for their willingness to become vassals or convert to Christianity, branded them on their faces, and exported them for sale all over the world. He was also known for his ruthlessness and bloodthirst with his own countrymen. Díaz writes that Guzmán took advantage of the weak and unstable leadership of New Spain and began enlarging his territory, hanging any officials who did not acknowledge his authority. He calls him "a man of a most furious and tyrannical disposition" and writes that he executed many Spaniards "apparently for no reason except to make himself feared."

On December 13, 1527, the government in Castile named the four judges, or oidores, who would compose the audiencia real that would govern New Spain. In addition to the audiencia's administrative powers in that province, it also had judicial authority that extended to all of Spain's provinces on the mainland from the cape of Honduras to the cape of Florida, including present-day Texas. Guzmán, then governor of Panuco, was named the president of the audiencia. The four oidores arrived in Mexico on December 8, 1528. Guzmán arrived a few weeks later. Two of the oidores became ill in Veracruz and died shortly after their arrival in Mexico. As Díaz wryly observes, "It was lucky for Cortés that he was not at Mexico; the death of the two oydors would have been certainly laid to his charge."

Hernán Cortés's greatest fault as a leader was that he took for granted the brave men who fought and labored faithfully for him. He was liberal with his use of gifts and bribes where enemies, rivals, opponents, malcontents, and dissenters were concerned, but to his loyal servants, he was miserly. Díaz writes that after Mexico was conquered and Cortés finished the distribution of the gold, one of his men said he felt like he was the one who had been conquered. With this in mind, and after four years of being governed mostly by greedy deputies, many citizens of New Spain welcomed the audiencia with hope that it would govern with fairness and justice. While the audiencia did take action to compensate the veterans of the Mexican war, it also persecuted Cortés, his captains, and allies. Influenced by the troublesome Gonzalo de Salazar, the deputy who usurped the governorship in 1523 while Cortés was in Honduras, the audiencia brought new charges against Cortés, tried him in absentia and found him guilty, and seized his property. It also seized the property of Cortés's supporters, extorted them, jailed them, and banished them from Mexico. Guzmán's thoroughly corrupt government also ordered many Indians and Moors to be expelled from New Spain and issued a prohibition against communicating with the court in Spain. Despite this last order, letters were smuggled out.

Leaders in Castile saw that the audiencia real of Mexico was a disaster, but they blamed the men, not the institution itself. The decision was made to dissolve the audiencia and appoint a new one, with new oidores and a new president. Guzmán received reports from Spain from which he perceived that he was going to be replaced as president and that Cortés was being received well at the royal court. Fearing retribution from the next regime, Guzmán organized an army for the purpose of conquering a new province to the northwest of Mexico. In late 1529, he left the capitol, abandoning his seat at the head of the government. Employing his standard tactics of killing, torturing, and enslaving natives10 and terrorizing his fellow Spaniards, he became the conquistador of a new province located within the territory of present-day Mexico, but outside of what was then New Spain. On January 25, 1531, the crown recognized him as the governor-general of the province of New Galicia. It included the present-day city of Guadalajara and most of Mexico's Pacific coast from Colima to Sinaloa. He was also reconfirmed as the governor of Panuco.

Cortés and the Second Audiencia

Cortés arrived in Spain in 1528. The emperor's opinion of him at that time was warm, and he ordered him to be received with honor wherever in the kingdom he might go. The citizens of Spain were glad to honor him, for they knew of Hernán Cortés not as the traitor to Diego Velázquez, or the potential rebel against the king, but as the conquistador of Spain's greatest and wealthiest colony. He attended ceremonies and affairs, received gifts from friends and admirers, kept company with women from noble and distinguished families, and did all the other things consistent with being a high-society cavalier. When he arrived at the royal court in Toledo, he bowed before King Charles's feet. On July 6, 1529, the emperor bestowed upon him the title of Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, Order of St. James, and Captain-general of New Spain and the South Seas. A few days later, feeling confident, Cortés applied to the emperor for the title of Governor-general of New Spain. His request was denied. Perhaps Charles noticed the way Cortés was adored by his subjects and the ease with which he circulated in royal society and decided that the danger of him breaking from Spain and forming his own kingdom was all too real.

Cortés returned to Veracruz on July 15, 1530. His title of Marquis conveyed a large hereditary estate with it, ensuring he would be able to maintain a sufficient level of wealth and status. With his office of captain-general, he was authorized to make expeditions and conquests to new territories and to retain a share of the profits. He expended most of his efforts on exploring the Pacific coast and resuming his quest to find a shorter and more direct route to the Indies.

The four judges of the new audiencia took their offices in Mexico on January 12, 1531. Their president arrived that September. The new audiencia heard the flood of complaints against their predecessors without corruption or prejudice. Guzmán had fled and could not be forced to answer, but one of the judges was imprisoned, while the other was arrested and ordered not to leave Mexico. Both of them were ultimately sent to Spain. The new officials also brought the worst of Guzmán's inhuman treatment of the natives of New Spain to an end. There was little they could do about his activities in New Galicia, however, for he ignored their demands for him to appear. He even continued to style himself in correspondence as "Governor of New Spain."

Relations between the audiencia and Cortés were tense from the beginning. The marquis was not accustomed to taking orders and having his affairs decided by others, and the audiencia was unwilling to seek his council, even in matters where he was eminently qualified, such as dealing with the natives and organizing the military. The audiencia even interfered with Cortés's efforts to explore the Pacific Ocean - something he had been explicitly ordered to do by the emperor. The situation became so unworkable that the audiencia asked the emperor to recall Cortés to Spain. Cortés, for his part, began disregarding their instructions, conducting his explorations in the manner that suited him. This defiance of his superiors, which had become a pattern in Cortés's life, fed the ever-present suspicions that he was likely to rebel. Nevertheless, the judges decided over 100 lawsuits in Cortés's favor, proving that while they may have been stubborn, they were not unjust.

Antonio de Mendoza
Figure 5. Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain.

Antonio de Mendoza: The First Viceroy of New Spain

As early as 1530, when the first audiencia's failure to bring order to New Spain was reported to the royal court, Emperor Charles and his wife, Empress Isabella,11 began rethinking the manner by which North America was to be governed. They knew that the continent had so much natural wealth and held so much promise that, if properly managed, it could make Spain the greatest nation the world had ever seen, but so far, the greed, ambition, and lust for power of the men appointed to govern it had left it fractured and barely functional. Governors felt free to disregard royal decrees or to demand proof of documents whose authority should have never been in dispute, knowing that it would take months for the appeals to cross the ocean, be decided on, and be sent back, during which time they could govern as they liked. Charles and Isabella decided that North America needed a more direct and personal representative of the crown - not just a person or tribunal who exercised authority delegated to him or it by the king, but someone who would, for all practical purposes, be the king - someone whose word and orders would prevail as if the king himself had issued them; someone who would be accorded the same amount of obedience and respect that the king would.

The selection of who this viceroy, or "vice king," would be was all-important: he had to have the temperament and wisdom of a king, but his loyalty to Charles and Isabella had to be beyond question. With Charles out of the country, it was left to Isabella to find this man. Naturally, Hernán Cortés wanted the job, and there were those who advocated for him, but he was never a candidate - even looking past the lingering doubts about his loyalty, he was way too invested and involved in the issues of the day to become the ultimate arbiter of them. Isabella offered the position to three men, all of whom declined it, before choosing to offer it to Antonio de Mendoza, a man from a noble family that had supported Charles during the revolt that shook his early years on the throne. The selection of Mendoza was most fortuitous, for by all accounts, he was honest, fair, temperate, and capable. He took a cautious, even-handed approach and did an admirable job of balancing the often-conflicting needs of the conquistadors, the clergy, the settlers, the indigenous populations, and the crown and its officials. He recognized that laws that were right and necessary for one district may be harmful to another. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, writing 16 years after Mendoza's death, called him "the most illustrious and worthy cavalier of praiseworthy memory."

Viceroy Mendoza sailed into Veracruz with a large retinue of friends, officials, and bodyguards. He arrived in Mexico to take his throne on October 15, 1535. His powers were vast, and included the instructions given to every other North American ruler to respect the Church and its officials, to encourage the spread of Christianity, and to treat the natives justly, so that their souls may be saved and they may become willing vassals of Spain. All of the governors and audiencias on the continent, from Florida to Honduras, were subject to him, and his offices included president of the audiencia of Mexico. He was also empowered, should he deem it prudent to do so, to supersede Cortés as captain-general of New Spain.

The first year of Mendoza's reign was rather uneventful. Cortés was building ships and exploring the Pacific coast, and the audiencia of Mexico was functioning as intended. Nuño de Guzmán was operating his slaving enterprise in New Galicia, but the charges against him were being investigated in Spain, and action was being taken to arrest him and bring him to Mexico. The first important event of Mendoza's career, and the next important event in Texas history, occurred in April 1536: news reached Mexico that four men - three Spaniards and a Moor - came walking out of the northern wilderness, naked and barefoot, into the remote slaving outpost of San Miguel de Culiacan in New Galicia. These four men - Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, Alonso del Castillo, and a slave, Estevanico - had been members of the Narváez Expedition, which was last seen eight years earlier in Florida, half a continent away.

The four men were escorted to Mexico, arriving with great fanfare. The citizens of New Spain were joyous to finally hear news of the long-lost Narváez Expedition. By the time the survivors reached the city, they were being welcomed like celebrities, with flower petals being thrown in their path.

Cabeza de Vaca and the other two Spaniards had an audience with Mendoza and Cortés and gave their report. They said that Narváez and his army found Apalache, but it had no gold. The men never saw the ships Narváez sent away, so they had to resort to building boats to leave Florida. All of the boats ended up being wrecked or lost on the coast of present-day Texas. Most of the shipwrecked men died of starvation or illness, and the rest were captured by natives and kept as slaves. After six years, four men were able to escape. They walked all the way to New Galicia.

These four ragged castaways told an incredible story of survival and also, as was their duty, reported on the natives - how many there were, how large their villages were, what kind of dwellings they used, what they ate, whether they were warlike, whether they could be taught the Gospel, etc. - as well as the terrain, the climate, and the natural resources. Out of everything they shared, there was one particular detail that aroused the viceroy's interest more than anything else: somewhere on a road that went to the north, there was a village where metal ore was plentiful and the natives knew how to cast it. This bit of news suddenly had Spain interested in a part of the North American continent it had previously ignored. As this news spread, so did the rumors. Before long, everyone was eager to head north to find the fantastic cities of gold that were waiting to be discovered.

By David Carson
Page last updated: July 11, 2018

Previous: The Discovery and Initial Exploration of North America, Part 1
Next: The Discovery and Initial Exploration of North America, Part 3

1Or, by some accounts, the groom-to-be was the inspector, Tápia, who will enter the narrative soon.

2The historical sources differ greatly on many of the facts of this matter. Bernal Díaz del Castillo's first-hand account of Cortés's actions and movements in New Spain is of immense value, but all of Díaz's information about what occurred in Europe came to him second or third hand, so his version of those events cannot be given much weight.

3The orders also called for an inquiry into Narváez's arrest of Allyón. This order did not benefit Velázquez, but neither did it harm his interests, for he could easily wash his hands of anything Narváez did.

4The official Spanish name for Jamaica was Santiago, but Spaniards also called it Jamaica, a variation on its indigenous name. England seized the island from Spain in 1660 and changed its official name to Jamaica.

5Many of the facts of this expedition are in doubt, as neither Garay, Pineda, nor any of the men wrote any surviving histories of it. Cortés wrote of it, giving few details. Isolated details made it into the royal decree issued to Garay from Spain in 1521. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a member of Cortés's expedition, gives the most information about it, but much of it contradicts what little Cortés has to say. For the most part, our summary uses Díaz's account, as it is the most substantial.

6Cortés states that there were four ships belonging to Garay anchored off Veracruz. He does not mention Pineda.

7Museum staff told us in May 2018 that the area in which the stone was kept was closed for renovations. They were unable to say when the renovations would be completed or when the stone would be available for viewing again. Our request to see the stone by appointment had still gone unanswered as of July 2018.

8These are Díaz's figures.

9He did not, however, receive the coveted title of adelantado, which would have placed him outside the jurisdiction and authority of the audiencia real at Santo Domingo.

10Hubert Howe Bancroft writes of Guzmán's conquest, "Enslavement flourished so that soon almost any number of human beings could be obtained at the rate of five pesos each."

11Just like Charles, Isabella of Portugal was a grandchild of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile. Charles's mother, Joanna, and Isabella's mother were sisters, making Charles and Isabella first cousins. They were married in 1526. As the daughter of the king of Portugal, the marriage between Isabella and Charles cemented the already-strong alliance between Spain and Portugal. It also made the Flemish-born-and-raised Charles more acceptable to his Spanish subjects. Isabella served as Charles's regent in Spain during his absences when he tended to his other obligations in Europe as Holy Roman Emperor.