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[photo] Reenactors of the Coronado expedition at Coronado National Memorial: Spanish weaponry included crossbows when they first explored America--the medieval legacy of knights and swords was not far behind the Spanish, who only unified their nation as late as 1492
Photo from National Park Service digital archives

Lewis and Clark followed in the spirit, if not the footsteps, of earlier European explorers. The expeditions of Coronado, La Salle, Lewis and Clark, and John C. Frémont brought back invaluable knowledge of North America's geographic features, flora and fauna, and inhabitants--the American Indians who were the continent's first discoverers and explorers. The Coronado and De Soto expeditions of the Spanish and the French explorations under La Salle, as well as the voyages and expeditions of other European explorers across North America, set the precedent for Lewis and Clark.

First Discoverers: The American Indians were the first discoverers and explorers of the North American continent. Although the most recent evidence points to an American Indian presence more than 13,000 years ago, the date of their initial exploration of North America remains unknown. Crossing a land bridge, which linked Alaska to Siberia during the Ice Age, they spread out from northern Alaska, settled across the North American landmass, and eventually made their way to the furthermost tip of South America. The original inhabitants of North America were familiar with the great rivers and trade routes later used by the European colonists. Often acting as guides to the European explorers, the American Indians taught the newcomers how to cultivate native crops, find hunting grounds and water sources, and explore lands beyond the European colonial horizon. Spain, following Columbus's 1492 discoveries in the Caribbean, was the first European nation to establish permanent colonies in North America. The journeys of Juan Ponce de Leon, the first Spaniard to reach the shores of Florida in 1513 and again in 1521, and the disastrous 1528 Florida expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, were important in expanding Spanish knowledge of the North American continent above Mexico. It was the discoveries of the Coronado and De Soto expeditions, however, which first mapped most of the present southwestern and southeastern United States.

The Coronado Expedition: Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1510-1554) remains the most famous Spanish explorer of the American Southwest. Born in Salamanca, Spain, the second son of an aristocrat, Coronado arrived in Mexico in 1535 seeking his fortune. By 1538 he was appointed governor of the frontier

The Apache were encountered by Coronado's expedition; unlike this photo, they had not yet acquired horses at the time of their firs, encounter with the Spanish
Historic photo: Apache-land (The North American Indian; v.01) by photographer Edward S. Curtis, 1868-1952
Courtesy of McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library

province of Nuevo Galicia. On orders from the Spanish Viceroy in Mexico City, Coronado outfitted an elaborate expedition. Coronado's force consisted of 225 mounted cavaliers, 62 foot soldiers, 800 American Indian allies and 1,000 African and American Indian slaves. Their goal was to find the rumored riches of the "Seven Cities of Cíbola". Fray Marcos, a Spanish friar, had visited just south of the pueblo region in 1539 and declared that Cíbola was "a land rich in gold, silver and other wealth." On February 23, 1540, the Coronado party left Compostela in western Mexico and moved north, roughly following the Pacific Coast before exploring the modern day Mexican regions of Sinaloa and Sonora. Part of Coronado's expedition, under Hernando de Alarcón, ascended the Gulf of California in three ships and explored the regions of the lower Colorado River, reaching the modern-day border of southern California and Arizona.

Twenty-one miles south of Sierra Vista, in the San Pedro Valley, historians believe Coronado entered the present United States, where the Coronado National Memorial, administered by the National Park Service, stands today. Entering the Zuni territory of western Arizona and eastern New Mexico, Coronado's party entered the fabled country of Cíbola on July 7, 1540. The pueblos, while impressive, were not the golden cities of Friar Marcos's account.

[photo] García López de Cárdenes and his small party were the first Europeans to attempt to descend the Grand Canyon (now Grand Canyon National Park); after three days attempting to descend to the Colorado River, they gave up
Photo from National Park Service digital archives

Coronado occupied the pueblo of Háwiku, making it his headquarters until November 1540, from which he sent out smaller exploring parties. He sent Don Pedro de Tovar to northeastern Arizona, to explore the Hopi villages. In August 1540, García López de Cárdenes, Coronado's right hand man, was sent to investigate reports of a river in the West. Cárdenes and 25 Spanish horsemen arrived after 80 days at the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona, becoming the first Europeans to view one of the most spectacular scenes of natural beauty in the American West. Cárdenes and his company were also the first Europeans to attempt to descend the Grand Canyon to the Colorado River, but they were unsuccessful.

American Indian visitors from the pueblo of Cicuye (Pecos Pueblo in Eastern New Mexico) presented Coronado with hides of a strange "humpbacked cow," which were buffalo hides from the plains. Coronado in turn sent Hernando de Alvarado with 20 men to explore the new region about Cicuye and the upper Río Grande. Near the modern town of Pecos, Texas, at the American Indian settlement of Cicúique, Alvarado's party was presented with two captive American Indians. One, whom the Spanish named "the Turk," convinced the explorers to turn northeast towards a region named Quivira, which he claimed was rich in gold and silver. On April 23, 1541, Coronado left Tiguex on the Río Grande with a force totaling 1,500, including Indian allies and servants. Reaching the plains, they encountered great herds of buffalo and made peaceful contact with the Apache nation. Crossing the Canadian River west of the modern New Mexico-Texas line, the party traversed the Texas Panhandle.

The Coronado National Historic Site, maintained by the National Park Service, marks the place where the Coronado expedition entered the modern United Statesfrom Mexico
Photo from National Park Service digital archives

On June 29, 1541, they found the Quivira country, occupied by a native people--probably Wichita Indians. The Quivira villages were composed of scattered round grass lodges, and were not the golden cities the Spanish came searching for. The explorers became exasperated, and in a Quivira village in the vicinity of modern day Lyons, Kansas, the Turk was ordered hung. Although Kansas, abundant in wildlife, reminded the men of Spain, the disappointed Spanish turned back, returning by a new route through the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles.

The majority of his men desired to return to Mexico and in 1542 the Coronado expedition headed home. Coronado returned to Mexico City with about a hundred men of his mostly disbanded expedition. Coronado and his party were the first Europeans and Africans to observe the Zuni and Hopi pueblos, Colorado River, Grand Canyon, and the Gila River. This expedition was also the first to establish a winter camp on the banks of the Río Grande, hunt buffalo on the plains, and explore the North American interior as far as modern day Kansas.

The De Soto Expedition: Hernando De Soto (1500-1542) was a captain under Francisco Pizarro, and made a fortune during the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. De Soto's expedition into the Southeastern United States began from Cuba. The site of De Soto's landing in Florida in May 1539 is disputed between Tampa Bay, Charlotte Harbor and San Carlos Bay. De Soto, leading 600 men, marched north up the Florida peninsula, finding winter quarters at the American Indian town of Apalache, near the modern city of Tallahassee, Florida. In March 1540 De Soto headed north across Georgia, before going up the Savannah River. Here De Soto encountered the Cherokees, visiting their town Xualla in the region of the North Carolina-South Carolina border before crossing the mountains into eastern Tennessee. Turning south into Alabama, by October 1540, De Soto reached Mavila (today Mobile, Alabama), where the ancestors of the Creek Nation resisted the Spanish. In the encounter De Soto's force took the town of Mavila, but the Spanish lost 18 men and 12 horses, while 150 of the Spanish force received wounds, among them De Soto himself. Hearing of riches, on November 17 he turned north, and set up winter quarters at a Chickasaw settlement in northern Mississippi. By March, the Chickasaw were at war with De Soto's party, and destroyed most of the expedition's supplies.

[photo] Reenactors cast as the De Soto party at De Soto National Memorial
Photo from National Park Service digital archives
In April 1541, on the move again, De Soto and his company stood on the east bank of the Mississippi, becoming the first Europeans to encounter the great river. It was in June when he and his men crossed the Mississippi and passed through central and south Arkansas, searching for gold. They reached as far north as the village of Coluca, in northeastern Arkansas, before traveling to the mouth of the Arkansas River. From there, the Spanish followed the Arkansas River upstream until they reached near modern-day Little Rock. De Soto and his party next journeyed west to Tula, near Caddo Gap, before finding winter quarters on the Ouachita River in southern Arkansas. The next spring, resolving to go to the Gulf of Mexico and send for reinforcements, De Soto's party headed south, now with about 300 efficient fighting men. Near the mouth of the Red River in Louisiana, on May 21, 1542, De Soto died from a fever and was buried in the Mississippi River. The remainder of the expedition returned to Mexico.

DeSoto Trail marker, De Soto National Memorial, Florida
Photo from National Park Service digital archives

Today the National Park Service maintains the De Soto National Memorial in Bradenton, Florida, which commemorates the 1539 De Soto expedition. The legacy of the Coronado and De Soto expeditions, according to the historian Herbert Bolton in Coronado, Knight of Pueblos and Plain, "made known to the world in broad outline nearly a third of the area now contained in the United States, and in several important respects had changed current ideas regarding the entire land mass of North America and its geographical relation to the rest of the globe."

French Explorations: The French entered the race for the Americas in 1534 when King Francis I sent Jacques Cartier on a voyage of discovery across the Atlantic Ocean. Cartier first explored Newfoundland before sailing up the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The following year he continued exploring the St. Lawrence as far as present-day Montreal. For the next half-century French fishermen arrived in such numbers around the waters of Newfoundland that they secured French claims to modern-day eastern Canada. It was the fur trade and the wealth it generated that caused King Henry IV, who reigned from 1589 to 1610, to secure the area for France. Samuel de Champlain traversed much of the new territory, establishing Quebec in 1608 and exploring the waterways and paths around Lake Champlain, Lake Huron and the eastern end of Lake Ontario from 1609-15. In 1663 The French King Louis XIV created a royal province out of New France and sent as its administrator Jean Talon, a man of great ability. Talon sent Father Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet (1645-1700), a native-born Canadian fur trader, to explore the Mississippi River, which they entered on June 17, 1673. Marquette and Jolliet reached as far as the mouth of the Arkansas River before turning back.

A 17th-century artist's rendering of La Salle's landing in Texas
Image courtesy of the Texas Historical Commission
When they returned to Quebec in 1674 René Robert Cavelier, also known as Sieur de La Salle, listened to the tales of their adventures with great attention. La Salle envisioned creating a series of trading forts down the Mississippi that would prevent the Atlantic English colonies from expanding westward. In February 1682, La Salle and his party entered the Mississippi from the Illinois River, and by April they entered the Gulf of Mexico, having successfully navigated the great river. Returning to France, he received permission to establish a colony at the mouth of the Mississippi, and with four ships he embarked across the Atlantic, but landed instead at Matagorda Bay, in Texas. It was in eastern Texas where mutinous followers murdered him in 1687. La Salle's vision became a reality when New Orleans was established in 1718, and the French forts along the Mississippi River basin were created to secure the alliances of the local inhabitants.

Other Explorations: Vitus Bering, a Danish navigator sailing in the service of Russia, set out on a great expedition in 1741, and with Aleksei Chirikov, successfully mapped the western coast of Alaska, claiming the land for the Czars. Later the Russians would reach as far as northern California, when, in 1812, Russian fur traders established Fort Ross on Bodega Bay, to the north of San Francisco. England's exploration of North America began when Genovese navigator John Cabot explored the seas around Newfoundland in 1497. The successful English colonization of North America started with the founding of Jamestown in 1607. The Dutch and the Swedes competed with England for control of the Hudson and Delaware River valleys, with the Dutch exploring much of modern New York State from the 1620s until the English conquered their North American holdings in 1664. The Dutch had earlier seized the Swedish possessions.

From approximately A.D. 600 through A.D. 1300 people lived and flourished in the region of Mesa Verde, Colorado, eventually building elaborate stone villages in the sheltered alcoves of the canyon walls that the later Spanish would find deserted; both the American Indians and European newcomers "discovered" each other
Photo from National Park Service digital archives, Mesa Verde National Park

The English exploration of the North American interior was slow and cautious. Captain Abraham Wood, in 1650, explored the forks of the Roanoke River in Virginia. James Neeham and Gabriel Arthur reached the Yadkin River and found a pass through the Carolina Blue Ridge in 1673. It was the English fur traders who pushed west into the Shenandoah Valley in the 1680s. By the following decade they were on the banks of the Ohio River, in disputed territory claimed by France. After the American Revolution, British and British Canadian explorers continued to map the North American continent. Captain George Vancouver was an English explorer whose ships reached the Strait of Juan de Fuca in May 1792. He explored the region about modern-day Seattle, naming Puget Sound, Mt. Rainier, Whidbey Island, and the Hood Canal. David Thompson explored western North America from 1797 to 1812, including much of the western United States (including the Columbia River) and Canada, and mapped the region.


Ambrose, Stephen E. Undaunted Courage Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1996.

Billington, Ray Allen, with James Blaine Hedges. Westward Expansion: A History of the American Frontier. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1949.

Lamar, Howard R. (editor). The New Encyclopedia of the American West. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. (Especially helpful were the articles by Richard A. Bartlett on Coronado and De Soto, Homer E. Socolofsky's article on Colonial Wars, Odie B. Faulk's article on Texas, John L. Loos' article on the Lewis and Clark Expedition).

Milner II, Clyde A., Carol A. O'Connor, Martha A. Sandweiss (editors). The Oxford History of the American West. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994.

National Park Service. Coronado National Memorial Arizona. (pamphlet) Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1974.

Seibert, Erika K. Martin (compiler and editor). The Earliest Americans Theme Study for the Eastern United States (draft). Washington, D.C.: National Historic Landmarks Survey, NRHE, National Park Service, 2002.

Slaughter, Thomas P. Exploring Lewis and Clark: Reflections on Men and Wilderness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

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