"Nuestra Herencia" Mural at Chamizal National Memorial; Santa Elena Canyon, Big Bend National Park.
Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary
American Latino Heritage

The National Park Service and American Latino Heritage

By: Joseph P. Sánchez, PhD

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico

Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, New Mexico
Public Domain

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the national park system for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.
--The Mission of the National Park Service

There are serious gaps and inadequacies which must be remedied while opportunities still exist if the System is to fulfill the peoples need always to see and understand their heritage of history and the natural world. You should continue your studies to identify gaps in the system and recommend to the areas that would fill them. It is my hope that we can make a significant contribution in rounding out more of the National Park System in these next few years.
--George B. Hartzog, Jr., Director of the National Park Service, 1972

National Park Service and American Latino Heritage Over Time

From its early years, the National Park Service was cognizant that in our nation of immigrants there were stories of people who migrated to North America long before the first Englishman set foot on the eastern shores of what is now the United States. By the middle of the 20th century, the National Park Service reconsidered the notion that prehistory ended, thereby casting cultures that predate the arrival of the first European into oblivion when Europeans came to discover, explore, and establish colonial settlements in North America. The National Park Service also acknowledged that, in the process of the western expansion of the United States in the 19th century, the histories of previous colonizing powers and cultures were subsumed and forgotten. In the 21st century, the National Park Service is committed to expand the telling of our national story by examining the broader global implications of our national experience.

The National Park Service initially focused on Spanish colonial history as the main vehicle to present the Latino heritage story, anchoring the story in a number of small parks across the country that emphasized exploration and missionization of native groups by Franciscan friars. While exploration and missionization were common themes of Spanish colonial history, settlement, which represented the basis of Latino heritage, was largely ignored. The first National Park Service area with a Spanish colonial theme was El Morro National Monument (proclaimed 1906), which emphasized exploration at a time in Latino history when the settlement that began in 1598 in New Mexico represented the major Spanish colonial enterprise. Similarly, Salinas Pueblo Culture National Monument (proclaimed 1909; name change 1980) focused on the missionization of pueblos but did not mention the colonial settlement from which the mission effort emanated--Santa Fe, New Mexico, which the Spanish founded in 1610.

By the mid-20th century, the National Park System included three other parks related to the Latino heritage--Cabrillo National Monument (proclaimed 1913), Coronado National Memorial (authorized 1941), and De Soto National Monument (authorized 1948). These all centered on exploration and conflict between explorers and American Indian tribes in the 16th century. Still, the story of the Latino diaspora and settlement patterns of Spanish North America as a part of our national story went untold.

Cabrillo National Monument

Cabrillo National Monument
Acharya Photography, Flickr's Creative Commons

Well into the 20th century, Spanish colonial history was misunderstood and suffered from the propaganda created in an earlier time and sustained for over four centuries. The main contributor to misconceptions was the Spanish Black Legend, which promoted the notion that Spanish colonials came to exterminate Indians and destroy cultures. Therefore, they were unworthy of any divine blessings or human acknowledgement. The Spanish Black Legend contributed to the diminished role of Latinos in our national story. Spawned in the 16th-century Spanish-English rivalry that ended in England winning the war of propaganda, the Black Legend perpetuated negative stereotypical notions about Spain and its people who settled the Americas. Thus, the dichotomy of England as the good empire and Spain as the evil empire emerged in American lore, history, and literature.

Negative beliefs about Spain prevailed and became embedded in U.S. history textbooks. Very little in textbooks revealed much about Spanish colonial enterprises, settlement, and governance other than the role of exploration and conquest in our national story. Textbooks do not mention that the Spanish established the “town meeting,” called the cabildo, as early as 1509 in Puerto Rico and other areas in the Caribbean; Mexico City in 1525; San Agustín, Florida in 1565-1570, and New Mexico in 1598-- long before the House of Burgesses in Virginia or the New England Town Meeting. The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, New Mexico's third capital, housed the cabildo from 1610 to the end of the Spanish Period in 1821.

History books influenced a resurgence of the 16th century propaganda in negatively narrating the histories of the Battle of the Alamo (1836), the Mexican War (1846-48), and the Spanish-American War (1898). Such biases are reflected in issues dealing with immigration from Mexico or Latin America. The writing of the history of Spanish colonialism through the lens of Spanish Black Legend stereotypes has had a negative influence on how Latino heritage is viewed. Understanding the underpinnings of negative views of Latino history and heritage in the past contributes to a more positive approach and appreciation of a people who have participated in the local, regional, and national historical process of the development of North America from the earliest European migrations across the Atlantic that began over 500 years ago. Latino heritage and culture are not monolithic. Interpreting the American Latino heritage is ever more challenging when one considers that the Latino culture has many faces basically comprised of five heritages inclusive of Spanish, Indian, African, Asian, and Anglo-American. To make the American Latino heritage national story accessible, relevant, and inclusive, the interpretation of the Latino heritage at National Parks, National Historic Landmarks, National Heritage Areas, and at other historic places requires an understanding of what the Latino identity and experience are in the diverse ethnic and geographical sections of the United States.

In 1992, the commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus' first voyage evoked both negative and positive responses. The National Park Service responded positively by preparing for the event and creating the Spanish Colonial Research Center at the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to conduct research in international archives; develop a database of archival materials; produce publications; establish Spanish-language translation services for National Parks, sister agencies, and local entities; and carry out training courses for interpreters and public events. Translations have made National Parks more welcoming and accessible and encouraged the visitor to learn about the American heritage in all of its dimensions. During the 1990s, the Spanish Colonial Research Center nurtured an Hispanic consciousness within the National Park Service. National Parks associated with Spanish colonial themes became more relevant, fair, inclusive, and accessible through the narration of the Spanish colonial legacy as part of our national experience.

That legacy must be expanded to include the rest of the Latino heritage in American history. Of nearly 400 National Parks, 194 have a direct or indirect association with the American Latino heritage experience. At least four National Historic Trails tell the story of Latino settlement along historic routes between Texas and California: the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior), Camino Real de los Tejas (Texas), Old Spanish Trail, and the Anza Trail. Many National Parks, National Historic Trails, National Heritage Areas, and National Historic Landmarks carry or potentially could interpret Latino heritage themes. In addition, historic sites in communities throughout the nation illustrate the important role of Latino people in the American story. Some of them already are in our National Register of Historic Places, which the National Park Service expands and maintains for the nation. Many more are worthy of recognition. Visitors to these historic places can experience Latino heritage as a part of our national story running from the Spanish colonial period, through 19th- and 20th-century events to the present.

Chamizal National Memorial

In between the Texas-Mexican border stands a memorial where the American and Mexican flags fly together as a symbol of the historic treaty that ended a century-long dispute between the United States and Mexico. The Chamizal National Memorial commemorates the milestone in both nations' diplomatic relations and its influence over the United States' and Mexico’s shared heritage and border culture.

President Lyndon B. Johnson and President Adolfo Lopez Mateos of Mexico at the 1964 unveiling of the new boundary marker.
Courtesy of the National Park Service

Today, the National Park Service is exploring the American Latino heritage experience in both the 19th- and 20th-centuries that represents the broad participation and contributions of Latinos in our national story. National Parks that deal with the Spanish colonial period outnumber those that illustrate any other period of the history of the Latino heritage and experience and too few historic sites that illustrate the breadth of Latino heritage are designated as National Historic Landmarks or listed in the National Register. In order to expand the commemoration of the Latino experience as an integral part of our national story, the National Park Service has developed a special American Latino Heritage Theme Study to enhance current approaches taken to tell about the Latino experience in America. The theme study also serves as a plan to sustain new topics related to the nation’s Latino heritage and assists and encourages the identification, recognition, and understanding of historic places that tell the breadth of the Latino heritage story.

The American Latino Theme Study encourages the NPS and other agencies to define a balanced and complete representation of the nation's Latino heritage. Written by a team of noted scholars, the Latino Theme Study serves as an aid to identify "gaps" that presently exist in the units of the National Park System and in the designation of National Historic Landmarks related to Latino heritage. The theme study also helps interested people in identifying other historic places that are worthy of National Register listing in communities throughout the nation. In the long run, areas associated with Latino heritage themes that are presently outside the National Park Service could potentially be added to the National Park Service System, be designated National Historic Landmarks, and be listed in the National Register. To that end, the National Park Service encourages the public to assist in identifying historic places associated with the American Latino heritage that may be eligible for the National Register or for designation as National Historic Landmarks.

The history of the Latino heritage began with the European discovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus, which introduced European cultural traditions including language, law, governance, religion, lore, science, technology, and a literary tradition to the Americas based on values developed throughout the history of western civilization. Beginning with Columbus' journals and correspondence concerning his four voyages, a written tradition quickly grew in the Americas. Literally millions of pages of documents; maps; and artistic sketches of flora, fauna, and Native Americans of North America can be found in the archives and depositories of Spain, Mexico, the Caribbean, and the United States. From Columbus' first voyage to the end of the colonial period, Spanish place names dotted colonial maps of the Western Hemisphere. As towns were established, roads, walls, bridges, and buildings were among the many structures built in the New World. The Spanish Empire extended from Alaska to the Strait of Magellan and from North Africa across the Americas to the Philippines. In North America, particularly the area of present-day United States, the Spanish colonial heritage dates to the earliest exploration of the Atlantic seaboard. The development of the historical patrimony of North America paralleled the successive national expansions by Spain, England, France, and the United States. Spain's pioneering frontier movement in North America grew out of the conquest of Cuba and the islands in the Caribbean in the east and Mexico on the mainland.

The list of States in the United States with Hispanic cultural and historical influence is impressive. The Spanish Empire significantly touched a vast area stretching along the California coast past Oregon, Washington, and Alaska. In the interior Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Missouri, and Louisiana formed a large trade network centered in the Spanish settlements of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas. Spanish occupation of the Louisiana-Florida frontier influenced trade along the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Arkansas Post and St. Louis. Virginia and the Carolinas are not without their Hispanic past, for explorers and missionaries were among the first Europeans to touch their shores. Similarly, far from the continental United States, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and Guam share varying degrees of the same Hispanic heritage. In many cases, history, ethnic composition, place names, linguistics, and cultural manifestations are a part of the Latino legacy that Spanish colonialism in North America spawned. Because of Spanish colonialism, the United States shares a common heritage with the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

The Caribbean Diaspora in the 15th Century
San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico

San Juan Island National Historic Site
Courtesy of Cocoabiscuit, Flickr's Creative Commons

Among the areas Columbus discovered during his second voyage (1493-96), the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are the oldest American possessions in the historical patrimony of the United States. Salt River Bay near Christiansted National Historic Site is associated with Columbus' discovery of Isla Santa Cruz (St. Croix) on November 1, 1493. There, a party of Columbus' men returning from explorations ashore attacked a group of Caribs in a canoe. The encounter is believed to be the second armed conflict between Europeans and Native Americans, the first being the battle fought at La Navidad on Española by Columbus' men, who spent a year there after the wreck of the Santa María in December 1492. In that encounter, the natives nearly wiped out the Spaniards. In 1509, Juan Ponce de León, first governor of Puerto Rico, negotiated a treaty with the Caribs on St. Croix with intentions of securing their cooperation in providing agricultural produce. A Spanish ship's crew breached the good will when they attempted to enslave a group of Caribs and triggered a war that spread throughout the Antilles. The Spanish attack on the Caribs on St. Croix began their gradual abandonment of the island by 1600. In the next two centuries, other European powers occupied it.

Before establishing mainland colonies, Spain first settled the larger Caribbean islands--Española, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, and Cuba. In 1508, Juan Ponce de León re-explored Puerto Rico and within a year obtained a patent for the conquest and settlement of the island. In 1511, he laid the foundations for the establishment of San Juan, one of the oldest European cities in the Americas. Two years later, however, relieved of his governorship, Ponce de León embarked on another quest for fame and riches in Florida.

The Spanish formally established San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1521, ten years after establishing themselves on the island. The historic district of San Juan represents one of the longest colonial periods in the Western Hemisphere, for the Spanish claim to the island extended from 1493 to 1898. The Spanish constructed the massive coastal fortifications of San Juan to repel European invaders during the age of sail. In the Spanish-American War of 1898, steam-propelled vessels from the United States captured the island and Puerto Rico became one of its territorial possessions.

The Spanish Claim to Florida, Georgia, and the Carolinas, 1513-1821

Divers exploring the Populo shipwreck in the waters of the Biscayne National Park

Divers exploring the Populo shipwreck, Biscayne National Park
Courtesy of the Florida’s Division of
Historical Resources Bureau of Archaeological Research

Engrossed in home affairs, European rivals were not immediately prepared to embark on colonial enterprises to contest Spain's right of first priority. Spain's effective claim to Florida began with Juan Ponce de León's discovery and naming of the flowery peninsula in 1513. Ponce de León led the first European expedition to the Dry Tortugas, today commemorated at Fort Jefferson National Monument.

In the centuries that followed, much shipping passed the Tortugas and a number of Spanish vessels foundered or wrecked in the area. The significant discovery of the Atlantic Gulf Stream by Antonio de Alaminos, who had piloted Columbus' ships on his fourth voyage to Veragua (1502-1504) and later served as pilot major of the fleet under Ponce de León, made Havana a major port of assembly and Florida a strategic stopping place. The current runs through the Florida Strait into the Bahama Channel past the Carolina coast, eastward to the high seas, where it forks in two directions on its way to the Azores and Norway. Once in the Azores, Spanish ships refitted and returned to Spain. Corsairs of Spain's rivals quickly became aware of Spain's richly laden galleons passing through the Florida Strait and moved to occupy the many hideouts in the Bahama Islands. From there they attacked Spanish ships as they toiled through the narrows to pick up the current.  Spain was unable to eliminate the pirate menace in the area, and eventually resorted to using the convoy system to guide the galleons through safely.

As in other parts of the Florida peninsula, Spanish explorers were active along the coast north and south of Cape Canaveral and Biscayne. In the early 16th century, Spanish explorers near Biscayne were unable to dominate the Tequesta tribe. Biscayne National Park interprets Spanish-Tequesta relations, demonstrating that the European presence may have led to political consolidation among them and that Spanish goods, acquired through trade or from coastal shipwrecks or raids against Spanish settlers, were a valuable contribution to their material culture. The Spanish attempt to establish a mission north of the present-day Biscayne in the late 16th century failed because the Tequesta were hostile to it. By the mid-17th century, the Tequesta were experiencing a decline caused by Creek raids and European diseases.

Spain's claim to Florida was long-standing and costly, because the Indians of Florida destroyed nearly every expedition (entrada) between 1513 and 1568. Of approximately 80 men who went with Juan Ponce de León to conquer Florida, nearly all died in battle or from wounds, including the entrada's leader. The 1526 Carolina expedition of Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, who likewise died at the hands of the Floridians, lost all 220 men to warfare, starvation, and drowning at sea as they sought to escape from Florida. Pánfilo de Narváez lost his life and all but five of his 400 men in the 1528 expedition that spent most of its time escaping from Florida.

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto
Public Domain

In 1539, Hernando de Soto led 1000 men to Florida; fewer than 300 men survived.  Soto himself, nearly beaten to death by an Indian chieftain who had feigned friendship, later died from an unknown sickness, and his men laid him to rest in a watery grave in the Mississippi River. De Soto National Memorial marks the generally accepted landing place of the expedition into what is now the southern United States. This expedition was the first to make contact with many Indian groups and to measure the invaluable resources of the area extending from Florida to the Mississippi River and beyond to eastern Texas. Nearly every missionary who went to Florida during that period achieved martyrdom.  Although meeting with disaster, the first European attempts to expand onto North America represented the first steps leading to the eventual European settlement of the continent.

In 1562 and 1564, the French attempt to establish a colony on the Florida coast likewise failed. Commemorated at Fort Caroline National Memorial in Florida, the French story had a similar ending to that of the many Spanish efforts. When the French constructed their fort among the Timucua Indians, trouble developed between them dooming the French enterprise. Meanwhile, to combat the French threat, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sailed from Cuba in 1565 and founded the settlement and fort of San Agustín, the oldest colonial city within the limits of the United States. In 1565, Spanish troops from the newly established Castillo de San Marcos marched against Fort Caroline and took it and the surrounding settlements.

The Spanish hold on Florida increased in the next century to such an extent that in the early 1740s, it magnified the strategic importance of San Agustín in the Spanish-English struggle to control the area.  At the site of the fort the Spanish constructed that year south of San Agustín, Fort Matanzas National Monument commemorates the English attempt to overpower the hard fought Spanish control of Florida.  Spanish efforts to consolidate their power also resulted in the sporadic Spanish occupation of Cumberland Island by the middle of the 16th century. Cumberland Island National Seashore interprets the story of Spanish interest in the area, for the island played a role in the contest between the Spanish and English for possession of Georgia before George Oglethorpe established his Georgian "buffer colony" in 1732.

In 1736, Englishmen established themselves along the Georgia coast at Fort Frederica to block Spanish occupation of the region. The English sought to ally themselves with various Indian tribes against the Spanish, who viewed such alliances as a threat. In early 1740, Oglethorpe attempted to capture Florida and unsuccessfully laid siege to San Agustín. In June 1742, the Spanish retaliatory attack on Fort Frederica by sea floundered. At Bloody Marsh, the English forced the Spanish to retreat. Fort Frederica was known as “Gualquini” in Spanish documents. Today, Fort Frederica National Monument tells the story of the Spanish-English struggle for control over North America.

Early Spanish Colonial Interests in the Gulf Coast

Divers exploring the Populo shipwreck in the waters of the Biscayne National Park

Padre Island National Seashore
Courtesy of the National Park Service

The Atlantic coast of Spanish Florida represented only a small but important claim to a vast region. The European related history of the Gulf Coast dates from the Age of Discovery and covers an immense area, for the Spanish claim included the western coast of Florida that ran from the tip of the peninsula around to Tampa Bay, Pensacola, Mobile, the Mississippi Delta, and the Texas coast past Padre Island to the mouth of the Río Grande. In 1519, Alonso de Pineda explored and mapped the Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida. Among the many estuaries he discovered were those of the Río Grande and the Mississippi. Pineda was the first European to see Padre Island, off the Texas coast.

Padre Island National Seashore preserves the story of Europeans and Native Americans within the context of its mandate to conserve the natural beauty of the island inside the park boundary. Members of the shipwrecked expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, in particular Cabeza de Vaca, were the first Spaniards to live among the Coahuiltecan tribes of Padre Island and the coast. Subsequently, in the 18th century, Spanish missionaries attempted to convert the various Coahuiltecan bands as well as Caddoan and Karankawan tribes in the area through missions established on the mainland.

Although the Spanish designed their mission program to protect the Coahuiltecans from stronger tribes, it also in many ways contributed to their decline. By 1850, the Coahuiltecan bands had all but disappeared from Texas due largely to warfare with the Lipan Apache and Comanche tribes and to Governor Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar’s extermination policies during the period of the Lone Star Republic. In the end, the survivors of the Coahuiltecan bands chose to live south of the Río Grande.

Padre Island’s history in the 17th and 18th centuries took a peculiar twist. Known as Isla Malaquita in the 17th century and sometimes as Isla Blanca or Santiago in the 18th and 19th centuries, it became known as Isla del Padre or the Padre Island Grant, and finally, Padre Island. Sometime in the late 18th century, Spain granted the extensive island then known as Santiago to a Friar Nicolas Balli, a Franciscan, and his nephew, Juan José Balli, who lived in the lower Río Grande. The grant covered the entire island, the northern half owned by Padre Balli and the southern half by his nephew Juan José Balli. Padre Balli used the grant to raise stock.

During the War for Mexican Independence (1810-1821), Padre Balli fled to Santiago. After the revolution, he requested the new government to validate his grant. Although the governor of Tamaulipas approved the grant in 1829, Padre Balli passed away during the proceedings, which had taken two years. Consequently, his half of the grant went in a bequest to the children of his brother, José María Balli. Meanwhile, the Texas Rebellion of 1836 had taken place and the grant had to be proven anew. In 1850, Padre Balli and his nephew received a certification that they had properly obtained title from Mexican officials. After two years of deliberation, the State of Texas confirmed the Padre Island Grant on November 10, 1852.

Hernando de Soto

Looking down a hallway at Fort Barrancas (part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore)
Courtesy of Grauke/O, Flickr's Creative Commons

The discovery of oil and gas underneath the island sparked litigation over the grant. The State of Texas contended that the heirs did not have a survey and plats drawn up and did not send field notes to the General Land Office in accordance with the Constitution of 1876. As a result, the State of Texas argued that the Ballis' claim "shall be forever barred." Finally, in 1944, after a lengthy court battle, title to the entire Padre Island Grant was awarded to Alberto Balli et al--heirs of Padre Balli and his nephew Juan José Balli. The Ballis were at last free to dispose of the grant as they wished.

There are many histories to be told of the Gulf region. Gulf Islands National Seashore preserves the natural beauty of most of the old Spanish claim and retells the story of the Spanish-French struggle for dominance of the region. In 1698, a French expedition under Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d' Iberville, left Brest, France, with four ships. Arriving at the mouth of the Mississippi, he sailed eastward and founded a small post at Biloxi. He went back to France to report that the British traders had made tremendous gains among the Indians, who now posed a dangerous threat to French designs on the area.

Returning in 1699, he established Ship Island as a base of operations for exploration of the present-day Louisiana-Mississippi coast. French interest in the area revived Spanish plans to occupy the Louisiana frontier. In the next century, the Bourbon Family Pact between France and Spain made it possible, for Spanish occupation of Louisiana lasted nearly forty years beginning in1763. Aside from interpreting the historic international rivalry between French, English, and Spanish frontiersmen, Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida and Mississippi preserves Spanish fortifications that were important outposts for Spanish domination of the Caribbean.

The Spanish-Franco-Anglo Struggle for Control of the Mississippi Valley

Natchez Trace Parkway

Part of the animal and hunting trails
that grew into the Natchez Trace,
Courtesy of the National Park Service / © Marc Muench

The history of the interior of Florida, a land stretching from the Georgia-Florida coast to the Mississippi River, formed part of the diplomacy between European powers, the United States, and the American Indians of the area. Although Europeans competed for many frontier areas in North America, the Mississippi River Valley and its adjacent territories became a focal point for control in the late 18th century. Natchez Trace National Parkway preserves the story of an Indian trade route and the many cultures that used it before the contact period and of its later use for Spanish, French, and Anglo-American trade and military ventures. For three decades of early Anglo-American expansion westward in the beginning of the 19th century, it was the main route linking Natchez and Nashville.

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park in New Orleans, Louisiana; Arkansas Post National Memorial in Gillette, Arkansas; and Jefferson National Expansion Memorial in St. Louis, Missouri interpret a broad history of Spanish interest in the Mississippi River and Anglo-American westward expansion. By dint of the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the Spanish took formal possession of New Orleans.

The Spanish tenure at New Orleans was marked with the administration of a multi-ethnic frontier composed of Frenchmen, Cajuns (Acadian refugees from French Canada) and Métis, various Indian tribes, Anglo-Americans, and Black runaway slaves from the United States as well as Spaniards, Canary Islanders, and Caribbean Blacks who served in the Spanish army. The Spanish improved the commercial interests in Louisiana and rebuilt the wooden French Quarter with stone after it burned down in the middle 1790s. The Cathedral, the Cabildo, the Plaza de Armas in present-day Jackson Square and other buildings in New Orleans represent the peak of Spanish colonial administration of the Mississippi Valley. Under provisions of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, New Orleans became part of the United States. In regard to its Spanish colonial heritage, the multi-cultural theme at Jean Lafitte Historical Park is ironically underscored by the fact that the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, during the War of 1812, took place on Juan Rodríguez's plantation. Rodriguez, a plantation owner, also traded in the Caribbean and, at one time, was an associate of Jean Lafitte.

Likewise, the Spanish occupation of San Luis de los Ilinueses (St. Louis) resulted in a history of diplomacy and commerce as the United States expanded toward the Mississippi. Arkansas Post, too, was part of a large Spanish trade network begun by French coureurs de bois among the many Indian tribes along the Mississippi-Missouri-Arkansas river drainages. Arkansas Post National Memorial commemorates the establishment of the 1686 French trading post near the confluence of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers. After France transferred Louisiana to Spain, the trading post continued to serve as a point of contact among the many Spanish Indian allies who cooperated to impede the Anglo-Americans and their Indian allies from advancing westward. Jefferson National Expansion Memorial places the historical theme of the territorial advance of the United States west of the Mississippi, inclusive of the Louisiana Purchase, within the context of the early history of St. Louis under French and Spanish influences.

Spain ceded Louisiana to France in the Treaty of San Ildefonso of 1800, and the French sold it to the United States in 1803. The Louisiana Purchase opened the door to a new phase of westward expansion. The westward movement of the United States represented to many Native American groups a new cycle of conquest that would not end until after the disaster at Wounded Knee in 1890, which resulted in the death of over 150 innocent Sioux as they awaited removal by United States troops. Many others died later from wounds they received in the encounter.

The Opening of the California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas Frontiers in the 16th Century

Coronado Sets Out to the North, by Frederic Remington, 1861-1909

Coronado Sets Out to the North, by Frederic Remington, 1861-1909
Public Domain

Far to the west, another story of European exploration and conquest unfolded. The exploration of North America's interior and Florida have related ties through the ill-fated expedition of 1528 under Pánfilo de Narváez whose surviving men were shipwrecked on the various islands off the Texas coast. Eight years later, four men, led by Cabeza de Vaca, who had wandered for several years through western Texas, southern New Mexico, and northern Chihuahua, reached Corazones, then the northernmost Spanish outpost in Sonora. Once rescued, they told of the many Indian tribes they had seen in their flight to safety.

The upshot was official Spanish interest in what lay in the interior. In 1539, the Spanish sent two reconnaissance parties northward to ascertain the possibilities of finding rich and powerful Indian kingdoms like those of the Aztecs and Incas. Melchior Diaz led one of the scouting parties, which crossed the Colorado River near its confluence with the Gila River into eastern California. The other, under Fray Marcos de Niza, reported on a large Indian district called Cibola, present-day Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico. The two preliminary scouting missions led to a major reconnaissance of the Greater Southwest.

Within a year, the large Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led expedition of 1100 men left Compostela on the west Mexican coast bound for Cibola in New Mexico. Crossing the Sonora River Valley, they entered the present-day United States through southeastern Arizona. Near where the explorers crossed is Coronado National Memorial, a site dedicated to the first expedition to explore the Greater American Southwest that provided Europeans their first glimpse of a six-state area stretching from eastern California to Arizona , New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and central Kansas.

The entrada gave Europeans their first views of the Grand Canyon, as seen by García López de Cárdenas; of the Hopi Pueblos as seen by Pedro de Tovar; of Acoma Pueblo, Pecos Pueblo, the Río Grande, the Pecos River, and the large buffalo herds of the Great Plains as described by Hernando de Alvarado; of the first notice of the Great Divide, the watershed that separates waters flowing toward the Pacific Ocean from those flowing east to the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico reported by Juan Jaramillo in his narrative; and many other wonders. The expedition marked the first intensive contact between the Spanish and Pueblo and Great Plains tribes. It provided another first, one that would establish the colonial-native relationship in the area for the next 280 years. In two decisive contests caused by the Spanish intrusion and demands for food and provisions in the cold north country, Pueblo groups fell to the powerful military force of the Spaniards.

Ruins at the Pecos National Historical Park

Ruins at the Pecos National Historical Park
Courtesy of Owen and Aki, Flickr's Creative Commons

Forty-eight years after Columbus' voyage, the men of Vázquez de Coronado stood outside a pueblo fortress called Cicuye (Pecos) near the edge of the Great Plains. Long a center of trade between the pueblos of the Río Grande and Great Plains tribes, Pecos was one of the largest pueblos the Europeans saw in 1540. At Pecos National Historical Park, visitors learn about pre-contact Pecos Pueblo and the post-contact period leading to the 17th and 18th century Spanish colonial development of the pueblo-mission complex. The existing ruins of the churches and pueblo testify to the cultural continuity of Pecos before its abandonment in 1838. Epidemics, Comanche and Apache raiders, and the growth of Hispanic towns in the area that drew trade away from Pecos led to economic decline and abandonment. The Pecoseños departed for other pueblos along the Río Grande as well as Jemez Pueblo west of there.

Simultaneous with the expedition of Vázquez de Coronado in the Southwest and the De Soto expedition in the Southeast, Spanish officials launched a third expedition led by Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. Hoping to discover a route to China and the Philippines by following the Pacific coast around from California, Rodríguez Cabrillo set sail to prove his theory. Although sound, his plan failed because of the great distance and the lack of knowledge of the extent of the Pacific Ocean. Departing the west Mexican coast, his expedition sailed along the Baja California coast to San Diego Bay, which he named and claimed for Spain. Proceeding northward beyond San Clemente Island, his ships sailed past the Channel Islands and Monterey Bay until they reached Cape Blanco on the Oregon Coast. Rodríguez Cabrillo and his men were the first Europeans to explore, chart, and give place-names to sites along that long stretch of the Pacific Coast.

Cabrillo National Monument at Point Loma in San Diego commemorates the European exploration of the California coast and the pioneering venture that led to the eventual Spanish settlement of Alta California in the 18th century. Aside from the many mission sites in California, the Martínez house in John Muir National Historic Site, Martínez, California commemorates the late Spanish colonial-early Mexican period settlement. Channel Islands National Park near Santa Barbara interprets that first 16th century Spanish expedition to California. A monument at San Miguel Island marks the approximate burial place of Rodríguez Cabrillo, who died on the voyage after an accident at sea.

In time, the Spanish, and later the Anglo-American expansion into California, had a profound impact on the Native American groups of the West. Channel Island tribes like the Chumash, for example, were able to maintain their institutions longer than did some mainland tribes. By 1815, due to drought and a declining aboriginal trade system, most of the Chumash migrated from the islands, and many of them were absorbed into Spanish mission communities. The California Gold Rush of 1849 contributed to greater decline and near extinction of many California tribes.

Juan de Oñate inscription at the El Morro National Monument

Juan de Oñate inscription at the El Morro National Monument
Courtesy of Ken Lund, Flickr's Creative Commons

Meanwhile, Spanish exploration of the interior continued. By 1610, much of the interior between Florida and California was well known. In 1605, Juan de Oñate, who had founded New Mexico in 1598, led an expedition west from there to the Colorado River. He was the first European to leave his name on a sandstone promontory that would become a landmark for Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo-American explorers. El Morro National Monument in New Mexico preserves their stories along with those of Native Americans, who first discovered the waterhole and subsequently established a pueblo (Atsinna) atop the promontory.

Although many later travelers paused at El Morro to drink from its waterhole and carve their names on the rock, others left no a trace. Over 2,000 inscriptions grace the sandstone promontory at El Morro. Over time, many travelers passed by the rock but did not sign it. Among the first Spanish explorers believed to have stopped there were members of the Francisco Vázquez de Coronado expedition (1540-42). Later, Antonio de Espejo and his men stopped there in 1582 and were the first to describe it, calling the waterhole at El Morro, El Estanque del Peñol. Espejo was one of the first to leave a written description of the volcanic terrain east of El Morro, today preserved as El Malpais National Monument.

The early exploration of New Mexico resulted in an encounter between the many Indian cultures of the Southwest and Hispanic frontiersmen. As early as 1581, Spanish explorers had visited every pueblo from Taos in the north to Senecu in the south; and from Pecos on the east to the Hopi pueblos in the far northwest corner of that frontier. In 1581, Francisco Sánchez Chamuscado and a small exploring party reached the southeastern edge of the New Mexico frontier and learned about a number of pueblos associated with large salt beds behind the present-day Manzano Mountains. The salt beds defined the geographic area known as “Salinas” during the Spanish colonial period and today give Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument its name. Later, in 1598, Juan de Onate visited Quarai and Abo, two of three pueblo sites at present–day Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument, on his round-about trip to Acoma and Zuni. The third site is San Buenaventura known today as Gran Quivira. In 1600, Vicente de Zaldívar, one of the "discoverers" of Abo two years before, fought a battle behind the Manzano Mountains at Agualagu, a pueblo that has long since disappeared.

The Spanish missionization of New Mexico began in earnest among the Río Grande pueblos in 1598. By 1613, Fray Alonso de Peinado was working to missionize Tajique and Chilili in the Manzano Mountain range. Quarai, Abo, and San Buenaventura de las Humanas (Gran Quivira), were evangelized in the early 1620s. Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument in New Mexico well represents the long history of the Salinas Pueblos from prehistoric times to their abandonment in the 1670s. Spanish expansion in New Mexico's frontier that included northeastern Arizona was ongoing. By the end of the Spanish period, New Mexican frontiersmen had begun to move westward toward Arizona. In the first decade of the 19th century, a Spanish expedition from New Mexico had visited Canyon de Chelly and seen the beautiful cliff dwelling ruins and pictographs on the soft sandstone canyon walls. In Arizona, Canyon de Chelly National Monument memorializes the precontact as well as historic perspectives of the area.

Tumacacori National Monument

Tumacacori National Monument
Courtesy of Ken Lund, Flickr's Creative Commons

The Spanish Franciscans directed the missionary work in northeastern Arizona from New Mexico and the Jesuits had the assignment to work in southern Arizona, then known as Pimería Alta. Although the Jesuits had begun their missionary efforts in Florida, they achieved their greatest accomplishments in North America in the Sonora-Arizona frontier. Eusebio Kino, one of the great missionaries of Sonora, led the Spanish advance into Arizona throughout the 1680s and 1690s complementing his missionary efforts among the Pimas and Papagos with his fame as a cartographer of the area. One of his last missions was at Tumacacori in southern Arizona. Tumacacori National Monument commemorates the mission story in the northern end of a chain of missions that led to the Spanish settlement of the Sonora region. Established among the Pima in 1701, Tumacacori also served as a center for Papago settlement. Begun about 1798, the present church held its first service in 1822. After the secularization of the mission, Tumacacori's Papago residents remained until Apache raids forced them to abandon the site in 1848.

The Spanish claim to California, New Mexico, and Arizona began within a generation of Columbus' first voyage, for exploration in the 1530s and 1540s opened the first phase of Spain's assumed title to the area. By the end of the century, Spanish settlers had advanced into Sonora and New Mexico establishing an effective claim by virtue of actual possession. Villas, presidios, mines, ranches, farms, and missions began to grow in both frontiers in the 17th century. Settlement of California would not take place until 1769, when Governor Gaspar de Portola led the founding expedition there.

The Lower Río Grande in the 17th Century

Big Bend National Park

Big Bend National Park
Courtesy of Robbie, Flickr's Creative Commons

In many ways, the search for mysterious kingdoms inspired early Spanish explorers to move northward along Mexico's central plateau toward and beyond the Río Grande. Later, Franciscan missionaries, Hispanic settlers, and military personnel established missions, settlements, and forts south of and along a rugged frontier that stretched from Mexico City to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and from California to Florida. In the interior, a riverine frontier formed along the Río Grande within an area from El Paso to Big Bend and Eagle Pass. Despite its importance to Spanish colonial expansion, the history of the area has had little study. Yet that region was the scene of much activity in the period from 1580 to 1700, and its history is intriguing partly because it pointed the way to the eventual founding of Texas.

Although Spanish entradas to New Mexico explored the area of La Junta de los Ríos, the confluence of the Río Conchos and the Río Grande, Spanish advances east of the Pecos River at its junction with the Río Grande were slow in developing. In 1535, Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions came through the area. Having made their escape from the Texas coast toward the Balcones Escarpment near San Antonio, Texas, the men headed southwest to the Río Grande in the vicinity of Devil's River near present-day Del Río. Proceeding northwestward, they reached the Pecos River. From there they went toward the Chisos Mountains, and once in the area, they approached Santa Elena Canyon in present Big Bend National Park. Natives led them over fifty leagues of desertscape and rough mountains, probably the Davis Mountains.

Finally, the four castaways walked within sight of present Presidio and marched northwestward toward present El Paso or Las Cruces before leaving the river and making their way to safety in Sonora. However, Spanish officials did not take notice of the importance of that segment of the river until 1590, when Gaspar Castaño de Sosa and his settlers crossed the Río Grande near present Ciudad Acuña in an illegal bid to settle New Mexico. As there had been little activity in the area, their interest was short. Slave runners had crossed north of the river for nearly two decades, however, and had gathered knowledge of the region. Thus, by the 1600s, much was known about the Río Grande.

Renewed interest in the river east of Eagle Pass resulted in rumors that the Dutch had entered the Gulf Coast and threatened the Spanish claim to Texas. In summer of 1638, García de Sepúlveda left Cerralvo (Monterrey) and reaching the Río Grande south of Mier traced it to a point near present Brownsville. Later in 1663, Alonso de León, the elder, explored the Río Grande near its mouth to check for any intrusions by foreigners, but found none.

In the interior, a real threat to Spanish interests existed. After 1600, Indians from the north, beyond the Río Grande, increasingly led raids against Spanish settlements in Coahuila, prompting Spanish officials to send punitive expeditions across the river. In 1663, Juan de la Garza led one of the first expeditions northward and fought a battle with the Cacaxtles near Eagle Pass. Two years later, Fernando de Azcue led a second punitive expedition to Eagle Pass with measured success, bringing temporary peace to the area.

Between the 1660s and the 1690s, the origins of the Camino Real de Los Tejas National Historic Trail evolved from a series of expeditions that explored northward of Saltillo, Mexico, through the San Antonio River Valley to the East Texas missions and Los Adaes, the first capital of Texas. Slowly the frontiers of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas moved toward the Río Grande. The history of the Camino Real de los Tejas grew out of Spanish advances into Texas, particularly when Franciscan missionaries advanced the mission frontier beyond the river, and by 1676, the Spanish began to evangelize a tribe known as the Tejas, north of the Río Grande.

The Alamo

The Alamo, or Mission San Antonio de Valero, in San Antonio, is a mission along El Camino Real de los Tejas.
Courtesy of John Koetsier, Flickr's Creative Commons

The search for foreign intruders contributed to the development of the Camino Real de los Tejas. In 1684, the French under René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle, established a fort in east Texas. In the course of establishing his fort, La Salle undertook two expeditions into the interior of Texas, one of which reached the Río Grande somewhere between Del Río and Eagle Pass. Unsettled by the threat, the Spaniards quickly began a series of land and sea expeditions to locate and destroy the French position. In the end, the Indians of east Texas beat the Spaniards to the French.

The Spaniards learned that after La Salle’s own men murdered him that the Indians destroyed Fort St. Louis.The French scare prompted a serious Spanish effort to settle Texas before another European power could do so. The Spanish sent missionaries to found mission fields in east Texas as a means of establishing an effective claim. By 1691, they named Domingo Terán de los Ríos governor of the Province of Texas with instructions to establish eight missions among the Tejas and neighboring tribes. His party crossed the Río Grande at Eagle Pass and continued to the Nueces and on to east Texas. That entrada made history as the founding expedition of Texas proper. The Spanish established the first capital of Texas at Los Adaes in present Louisiana and blazed the road for the establishment of San Antonio, and in 1716, founded the Villa de San Antonio de Bexar.

Within the boundaries of Amistad National Recreational Area along the United States-Mexico boundary near Del Río, Texas, are archeological sites representing Native American occupation of the area from approximately 8,000 B.C. to the time of the first Spanish explorations through the region. A number of pictographs depict the historical themes mentioned above of missions, horses, and people wearing European-style clothing. The early and seemingly ephemeral Spanish presence along the Río Grande between El Paso and Eagle Pass had made an impression among the various tribes of the region.

San Antonio Missions and the Texas Frontier in the 18th Century

Mission Concepción, part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park

Mission Concepción, part of the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park
Courtesy of the National Park Service

The French presence in Louisiana and along the Mississippi-Missouri-Arkansas river drainages complicated Spanish-Indian relations in east Texas. By trading horses and guns and intermarrying with natives, the French had upset the balance of power among Plains tribes. By the first decade of the 18th century, the Spaniards had realized the French impact on their positions south of the Río Grande. Unlike the French, the Spaniards had been reluctant to supply their native allies with horses and guns. The Spanish comprehended the impact of the French arms race too late to form military alliances with the tribes north of the Río Grande. The Spanish response was twofold: the establishment of a military presence among the tribes along a line forming the French southernmost advance in east Texas near Louisiana, and the founding of a mission field in east Texas along the river drainages southwest of Los Adaes Presidio, which the Spanish had constructed near Natchitoches, Louisiana.

For two centuries, evangelization worked with sedentary groups. In Texas, the mission system would adapt to the nomadic cultures of the southern Plains with great difficulty. The independent hunter-gatherer nomads who balked at conversion baffled the missionaries. For thousands of years, the Plains tribes had developed sophisticated survival systems and a true warrior caste unparalleled in the European military tradition. Those and other cultural traits the many Plains tribes shared enabled them to hold out against Spanish, French, and Anglo-American expansion for over three centuries. Consequently, Spanish missionaries generally concentrated their efforts on the weaker tribes, namely the so-called Coahuiltecos that stronger tribes had intimidated or defeated. Although missionaries attempted to work among Caddoan, Comanche, and Lipan Apache tribes, their efforts rarely succeeded.

Between 1690 and 1720, the Spanish centered their missionary effort in east Texas. The establishment of the presidio-mission complex at San Antonio in 1716 by Alonso de Alarcón proved to be a brilliant strategic move on Spain's part. During the 1730s and 1740s, the Spanish mission field spread from east Texas to San Antonio and La Bahia. The Spanish partially abandoned the east Texas missions and moved the missions to San Antonio. San Antonio de Valero, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de la Espada and Purísima Concepción formed a cluster of missions along the Río San Antonio. Supported by a Spanish population center and presidio at the Villa de San Antonio de Bexar, the area became an important trade center. Unlike east Texas, which depended on the French at Natchitoches for supplies and the presidio-mission at La Bahia, which lacked a population base save for the few dozen presidial soldiers with families and missionaries, San Antonio was comparatively self-sufficient. San Antonio Missions National Historical Park interprets the history of the Spanish missionary-military frontier as part of the national story of the United States. Long before there was an Alamo, Hispanic frontiersmen had forged a settlement that would become one of America's great cities.

The Spanish Claim to the Pacific Northwest, 1595-1795

Drakes Bay

Drakes Bay
Courtesy of Jonathan Percy

Meanwhile, on the California coast, Spain advanced its interests. For two centuries after the Rodríguez Cabrillo expedition, Spanish interest in California had been sporadic. After Francis Drake's surprise appearance along the California coast, Spain's need to defend its northern claim received short-lived attention. After a series of explorations along the Pacific coast at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries, California lay fallow for over 165 years, except for Manila Galleons, which made landfall there from time to time. In 1595, one of the Manila Galleon ships under Sebastián Rodríguez Cermeño wrecked off Point Reyes. Today, the National Park Service protects and interprets the remains of Rodríguez Cermeño’s shipwreck in Drakes Bay at Point Reyes National Seashore.

In 1788, José Esteban Martínez stopped American intruders in the area of the Pacific Northwest that Spain had claimed. In 1779, James Cook entered the Pacific Northwest and threatened the Spanish isolation in the region. Immediately, Spanish officials sought to strengthen their claim there by researching the earliest Spanish interest in the area and by sending expeditions north to reassert their claims. In 1790, Spain contended that a maritime expedition commanded by Juan de Fuca had reached the northern coast of present-day Washington State in 1590. Spanish maps showed the Strait of Juan de Fuca as the possible entrance to the Northwest Passage sought by Drake, Cartier, Hudson, Champlain, and others.

For the next two years, 1790-92, Spanish ships, almost in tandem, explored the entire coast north of California. During that period, the Spanish explored, mapped, described, and claimed present-day Sitka, Mt. St. Elias, Prince William Sound in the Gulf of Alaska, Kenai Fjords, Cook Inlet, Katmai, and other sites along the Alaska Peninsula. They named places like Valdez and Cordoba after prominent Spanish officials as well as other long since renamed sites. The Spanish also established short-lived settlements on present Vancouver Island, one of which still bears the name of Port Alberni, and Neah Bay, on the northern coast of Washington State, once represented the northernmost, albeit short-lived, Spanish settlement in the continental United States.

The history of the Spanish claim to the California coast and north to Alaska is among the many themes celebrated at Sitka National Historical Park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska, and at Golden Gate National Recreation Area and Point Reyes National Seashore, Channel Islands National Park, and Fort Point National Historic Site in California.

The Last Years of the Spanish Claim to the Greater Southwest, Louisiana, and Florida

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail ran through the Mojave Desert

The Old Spanish National Historic Trail ran through the Mojave Desert
Courtesy of Racoles, Flickr's Creative Commons

Trade routes crisscrossed the Spanish frontier in North America. Trails like the Natchez Trace, the caminos reales of California, Texas, and New Mexico, Old Spanish Trail in New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and California, as well as the Santa Fe-Chihuahua Trail, represented a growing transportation and commercial development in the late Spanish period. Formed from old Indian trails, some of these routes left a trace in North America that visitors can still see and appreciate in the ruts, rock art, and archeological campsites that remain. They, too, are part of the Spanish colonial patrimony of the United States, born from a colonial period that lasted from 1492 until 1821. Today, the National Park Service administers the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro National Historic Trail, which ran from Mexico City to Santa Fe; the Camino Real de los Tejas National Historic Trail, which ran from Saltillo, Coahuila, Mexico, to Los Adaes in Louisiana via San Antonio, Texas; and Old Spanish National Historic Trail, which ran from Santa Fe to Los Angeles via western Colorado, southern Utah, and eastern California through the Mojave Desert.

By 1790, Mexico City felt the tremors of an independence movement. Already, intellectuals had begun to debate the merits of the American Revolution and the Enlightenment that had produced it. Spanish officials responded by censoring "liberal" literature that had made its way into the Spanish Empire from the United States and Europe. Two decades later, on September 16, 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo raised the cry for rebellion that would bring down the Spanish Empire and begin a new social order. The frontier, which had been following events in Mexico City during the late 18th century, had been concerned with other affairs, namely the defense of the Empire from foreign incursions and the pacification of a wide Indian frontier that stretched from California to Florida.

For one night each year, 8,000 candles are lit on the field at Resaca de la Palma Battlefield in remembrance of the shared heritage between the people living at the Mexican-American border.

For one night each year, 8,000 candles are lit on the field at Resaca de la Palma Battlefield in remembrance of the shared heritage between the people living at the Mexican-American border.
Courtesy of the National Park Service


In the end, the Spanish Empire fell to revolutionaries, not to any of the many native tribes, nor to Englishmen, Frenchmen or Anglo-Americans who had threatened it for so long. The independence movement (1810-1821) swept the Empire like a wind until only Puerto Rico and Cuba remained in Spanish hands. The rest moved toward the development of independent nation-states. Florida quickly fell into the fold of the United States. Texas, a territory of the newly established Mexico, rebelled against Mexican authority in 1836 and formed the Lone Star Republic. New Mexico likewise rebelled in 1836 and remained more or less independent for twenty-five years. California and Sonora (southern Arizona included) underwent a series of rebellions against Mexico's government that resulted in measured autonomy. Not until May 8 and 9, 1846, when two armies lined up against each other on a flat plain in south Texas called Palo Alto just north of present-day Brownsville, was the fate of the frontier sealed.

Palo Alto was the first major engagement of the United States-Mexico War (1846-48). Today, Palo Alto National Battlefield and Resaca de la Palma Battlefield, near Brownsville, Texas commemorate that battle fought on May 8-9, 1846. With the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, 1848, the United States incorporated the vast frontier from California to Texas inclusive of property and population. Pecos National Historical Park expands the theme to include the Civil War battle at Glorieta Pass, sometimes called the “Gettysburg of the West." At Apache Canyon, a Latino unit under Colonel Manuel Chávez, known as the New Mexico Volunteers, routed the Confederate rear guard, which resulted in the defeat of Confederate forces at Glorieta Pass. Pecos National Historical Park interprets the battle and the Confederate invasion of New Mexico. Other sites in the National Park Service tell more stories of Hispanics in the Civil War. Our national story incorporates the Latino Heritage and reflects the richness of our colonial past, particularly in North America.

Enhancing Understanding of the American Latino Experience as an Integral Part of the Story of the United States

The Trujillo Homesteads in Colorado

The Trujillo Homesteads in Colorado
Photo by Thomas H. Simmons, Courtesy of the National Historic Landmarks Program

The National Park Service is committed to increasing the opportunities for historic places associated with American Latino history to be documented, preserved, and interpreted and for the public to better understand and appreciate the role of Latinos in the development of the United States. The Department of the Interior initiated an American Latino Heritage Initiative in early 2011. The National Park Service’s American Latino Heritage Projects website describes some of what the National Park Service is doing to connect and amplify American Latino stories in communities across the United States.

American Latinos and the Making of the United States: A Theme Study will assist government agencies and the private sector with identifying and evaluating Latino-related places for their historic significance in communities nationwide. Theme studies are research documents that help identify potential new National Historic Landmarks and potential new units of the National Park System, all of which must be of national significance. The theme study also assists in identifying historic properties of state and local significance for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.

The Secretary of the Interior continues to designate new National Historic Landmarks that broaden the telling of the Latino heritage story. The National Park Service is supporting the preparation and consideration of additional nominations with the help of the new American Latino Theme Study. One recently designated National Historic Landmark, the Trujillo Homesteads in Colorado, provides an exceptional representation of the expansion of Hispano-American settlement into the American Southwest following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and an illustration of the conflict between cattle ranchers, who were primarily Anglo-Americans, and sheepherders, who were mostly Hispano-Americans. Through archeology, the site has a high potential to yield information addressing nationally significant research questions about ethnicity and race on the western frontier.

The National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey is documenting another recent National Historic Landmark with measured drawings, a written historical document, and large format photography. Demonstrating the significance of American Latinos in the 20th century, Forty Acres in California became the headquarters for the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in 1966, the first permanent agricultural labor union in the United States. Forty Acres is nationally significant for its role in the farm worker movement and for its close association with the influential career of Césario Estrada Chávez (César Chávez).

Many sites outside of the National Park System tell stories that reflect and illustrate the themes related to the Latino heritage. Among them are San Pascual, a battlesite of the Mexican War near San Diego, California, that is forever linked with the story told at Palo Alto National Battlefield near Brownsville, Texas, which was the first battle of the Mexican War. Through the theme study and by working with States, Federal agencies, and American Indian tribes, the National Park Service is encouraging the nomination and listing of more Latino heritage sites in the National Register such as Casa Amadeo, the oldest Latin music store in New York, which played a significant role in the Puerto Rican migration experience. The National Park Service is asking people to look for places of Latino heritage in their communities and elsewhere and to send the name of each significant place, its location, and a few sentences about why it tells an important story via e-mail to American_Latino_Heritage@nps.gov. Over 300 years of Spanish and Mexican influence shaped the cultural landscape of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area in New Mexico. From its earliest Spanish conquistadors to 19th century Hispano-American sheepherders, the Northern Rio Grande Heritage Area preserves and coordinates the rich history of Santa Fe, Rio Arriba, and Taos counties.

Columbus Fountain in Washington, D.C.

Columbus Fountain in Washington, D.C.
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Within National Park Service areas, the American Latino experience is evident and the National Park Service is committed to telling Latino heritage stories. At Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka (1954), for example, threads of court cases leading to the Brown Decision include Latino efforts in their struggle for civil rights. The California case, Mendez v. Westminister (1947), set a precedent in attacking Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) and the separate but equal doctrine that supported open discrimination practices in America's institutions. Following the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848), which ended the Mexican War of 1846, a great number of cases demonstrated how Hispanics in the territories sought to affirm their civil rights and land grant issues through the courts. Many of their arguments, some of which reached the Supreme Court, were based on first, fourth, and fourteenth amendment rights. At Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, which is largely dedicated to interpreting westward expansion, the Latino heritage experience runs a lengthy course through the history of Spain and the United States. The Latino heritage is intertwined with the Louisiana Purchase Treaty of 1803, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1806-07, and the U.S. westward movement.

While the 19th and 20th centuries are still being explored for possible new National Historic Landmark and National Register nominations and National Parks, two sites in the National Park Service System reflect the broad spectrum of our national historic patrimony. The first is the Columbus Memorial Fountain in Washington, D.C. sculpted by Lorado Taft and dedicated in 1912. It features a globe atop a shaft, with figures representing the old and new worlds, with a statue of Christopher Columbus set on the prow of a ship with a winged figurehead symbolizing discovery. The second is Chamizal National Memorial in El Paso, Texas, which commemorates the Chamizal Treaty of 1963 and the peaceful resolution to a century-long border dispute. At Chamizal Memorial, Hispanic culture is celebrated through such activities as "Siglo de Oro" and "Zarzuela" programs with participants from the United States, Spain, and all of Latin America. These two areas are symbolic of the National Park Service's determination to commemorate Latino heritage as part of the national story of the United States of America and its rich historical patrimony that began with Christopher Columbus' first voyage. The National Historic Landmark designation of Forty Acres, César Chávez' headquarters for his fight for equal rights for migrant workers, reflects the commitment to tell the breadth of the Latino story. It is a truism that much of our national story abounds with historical events and places tied to the American Latino heritage.