European Exploration and Development

European exploration of North America and what is now Texas began in the 15th century. This is the first of three articles on this topic. Find part two here and part three here. Click here for a timeline view of this period. Updated 3 months ago
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Drawing of European Exploration

Drawing of European Exploration

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado explored the High Plains of Texas in 1540-1542. Drawing by Frederic Remington courtesy Libarary of Congress.

Spanish Explorations

Spain’s exploration of North America was one of the first acts of a vigorous nation that was emerging from centuries of campaigns to oust the Islamic Moors from the Iberian Peninsula.

In early 1492, the Spanish forces retook the province of Granada, completing the reconquista or reconquest. Later in the year, the Catholic royals of the united country, Ferdinand and Isabella, took a major stride toward shaping world history by commissioning Christopher Columbus for the voyage that was to bring Europeans to America. 

As early as 1519, Capt. Alonso Alvarez de Pineda, in the service of the governor of Jamaica, mapped the coast of Texas.  

The first recorded exploration of today’s Texas was made in the 1530s by Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, along with two other Spaniards and a Moorish slave named Estevanico. They were members of an expedition commanded by Panfilo de Narváez that left Cuba in 1528 to explore what is now the southeastern United States. Ill-fated from the beginning, many members of the expedition lost their lives, and others, including Cabeza de Vaca, were shipwrecked on the Texas coast. Eventually the band wandered into Mexico in 1536.

In 1540, Francisco Vázquez de Coronado was commissioned to lead an exploration of the American Southwest. The quest took him to the land of the Pueblo Indians in what is now New Mexico. Native Americans, who had learned it was best to keep Europeans away from their homes, would suggest vast riches could be found in other areas. So Coronado pursued a fruitless search for gold and silver across the High Plains of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. 

While Coronado was investigating Texas from the west, Luis de Moscoso Alvarado approached from the east. He assumed leadership of Hernando de Soto’s expedition when the commander died on the banks of the Mississippi River. In 1542, Moscoso’s group ventured as far west as Central Texas before returning to the Mississippi. 

Forty years passed after the Coronado and Moscoso expeditions before Fray Agustín Rodríguez, a Franciscan missionary, and Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado, a soldier, led an expedition into Texas and New Mexico.  

Following the Río Conchos in Mexico to its confluence with the Rio Grande near present-day Presidio and then turning northwestward up the great river’s valley, the explorers passed through the El Paso area in 1581.

Juan de Oñate was granted the right to develop this area populated by Pueblo Indians in 1598. He blazed a trail across the desert from Santa Barbara, Chihuahua, to intersect the Rio Grande at the Pass of the North. For the next 200 years, this was the supply route from the interior of Mexico that served the northern colonies. 

Texas was attractive to the Spanish in the 1600s. Small expeditions found trade possibilities, and missionaries ventured into the territory. Frays Juan de Salas and Diego López responded to a request by the Jumano Indians for religious instruction in 1629, and for a brief time priests lived with the Indians near present-day San Angelo. 

The first permanent settlement in Texas was established in 1681–1682 after New Mexico’s Indians rebelled and drove Spanish settlers southward. The colonists retreated to the El Paso area, where the missions of Corpus Christi de la Isleta and Nuestra Señora del Socorro — each named for a community in New Mexico — were established. Ysleta pueblo originally was located on the south side of the Rio Grande, but as the river changed its course, the pueblo ended up on the north bank. Now part of El Paso, the community is considered the oldest European settlement in Texas.

French Exploration

In 1682, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, explored the Mississippi River to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. La Salle claimed the vast territory drained by the river for France.  

Two years later, La Salle returned to the New World with four ships and enough colonists to establish his country’s claim. Guided by erroneous maps, this second expedition overshot the mouth of the Mississippi by 400 miles and ended up on the Texas coast. Though short of supplies because of the loss of two of the ships, the French colonists established Fort Saint Louis on Garcitas Creek several miles inland from Lavaca Bay.

In 1687, La Salle and a group of soldiers began an overland trip to find French outposts on the Mississippi River. Somewhere west of the Trinity River, the explorer was murdered by some of his men. His grave has never been found.

In 1689, Spanish authorities sent Capt. Alonso de León, the governor of Coahuila (which at various times included Texas in its jurisdiction), into Texas to confront the French. He headed eastward from present-day Eagle Pass and eventually found the tattered remnants of Fort Saint Louis. 

Indians had destroyed the settlement and killed many colonists. León continued tracking survivors of the ill-fated colony into East Texas. 

Spanish Rule

Father Damián Massanet accompanied León on this journey. The priest was fascinated with tales about the “Tejas” Indians of the region.

Tejas meant friendly, but at the time the term was considered a tribal name. Actually these Indians were members of the Caddo Confederacy that controlled parts of four present states: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Oklahoma.

The Caddo religion acknowledged one supreme god, and when a Tejas chief asked Father Massanet to stay and instruct his people in his faith, the Spaniards promised to return and establish a mission. 

The pledge was redeemed in 1690 when the mission San Francisco de los Tejas was founded near present-day Weches in Houston County. 

Twin disasters struck this missionary effort. Spanish government officials quickly lost interest when the French threat at colonization diminished. And as was the case with many New World Indians who had no resistance to European diseases, the Tejas soon were felled by an epidemic. The Indians blamed the new religion and resisted conversion. The mission languished, and it was difficult to supply it from other Spanish outposts in northern Mexico. In 1693, the Spanish officials closed the mission effort in East Texas. 

Although Spain had not made a determined effort to settle Texas, great changes were coming to the territory. Spain introduced horses into the Southwest. By the late 1600s, Comanches were using the horses to expand their range southward across the plains, displacing the Apaches. In the 1720s, the Apaches moved onto the lower Texas Plains, usurping the traditional hunting grounds of the Jumanos and others. The nomadic Coahuiltecan bands were particularly hard hit. 

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— This multi-part narrative of Texas' past, from prehistoric times to 1980, is based on "A Concise History of Texas" by former Texas Almanac editor Mike Kingston. Mr. Kingston's history was published in the 1986–1987 edition of the Texas Almanac, which marked Texas' sesquicentennial. Robert Plocheck, associate editor of the Texas Almanac, edited and expanded Mr. Kingston's history.

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