EDINBURG, March 17 - David Arias in his book “Spanish Roots of America” very well explained our long yearning to know why a Spanish soldier with only 20 others from different parts of Spain would embark into an unspeakable desert and saw the Grand Canyon of Colorado, at least two centuries before any other European individual ventured to do so.
So it was from Colorado to Cape Horn, that heroic, impetuous Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) walked that road across the Isthmus and became the first European Hispanic to reach the Pacific Ocean on September 25, 1513 and claimed all of its shores for Spain. He then proceeded to build the first ship ever in what is now the United States of America in order to sail that great ocean. Balboa had been dead more than half a century before other Europeans such as Francis Drake and Sir John Hawkins saw this unknown sea. In one his expeditions Balboa made friends with the natives and even married a chief’s daughter, perhaps becoming the first one of many whom later on inter-married with the native population. To discover our answer to what formed the Spanish explorer of the 16th Century, we must look to his character, to his personality, to his place of origin, and to his ethnic background mixed with its historical settings in the country we call Spain.
For close to 800 years, Spain had waged a Holy War against the Arabs, the invaders of their land; thus Spain was born into war, into conflicts, into fierce fighting during most of the Middle Ages , therefore producing men of steel, forged by centuries of war, years of expansion, and of conquest within their own country. No other European soldier was thus as brilliantly prepared to initiate such well executed exploration of what is now the United States of America as was the Spanish soldier of that time.
That, plus the fact that the Hispanic was fiercely independent, loyal, and saw himself in his core as worthy as any king or noblemen of that period. Before any Spanish soldier embarked on the long and treacherous expedition of exploration into American land, certain conditions needed to be met, a sort of contract between the Spanish authorities and the soldiers themselves was concluded. Both the Spanish authorities and the explorer would sign the agreed conditions, a royal charter was executed, a title was granted such as an “adelantado,” or “Capitán General” or “gobernador” and the explorer would then make preparations to proceed to “hacer la,s Américas.” The group was composed of soldiers, men of fortune, who sometimes placed into the expedition their own horses, their services and their arms; and in some cases when the expedition entailed the establishment of settlements in America, families would also come.
Part of the expedition that joined them also were Christian natives, and old settlers who served as guides, interpreters, and helpers. These natives came in from different parts of America that had already being settled, since these natives were now subjects of the Spanish Crown; and even from Africa as in the case of Esteban Azamor, who came into Texas in 1528 with Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, and was one of the Four Ragged Men who survived the Pánfilo Narváez expedition.
The Spanish Crown looked upon the expedition as an investment in wealth, in men from Spain who would conquer, explore and eventually settle the vast land we now call the United States of America. They saw it as an opportunity to extend its Christian Faith (La Santa Fe) into unknown lands, and as a way also to add to the national treasure. The expeditions were comprised of many individuals, equipment, and required extensive preparations, and men of experience or at least some education, as the Spanish Crown did not want to risk these resources. Such men as Hernán Cortés, Francisco de Coronado, Hernando de Soto, and Juan de Oñate were university educated individuals; while Juan Ponce de León, and Pánfilo Narváez were experienced soldiers with excellent military experience either in Europe or in America.
One must remember that both Spain and Portugal formed the Iberian Peninsula, an area of land that, with the exception of its northern border along the Pyrenees mountains, was totally surrounded by the sea. This geographical setting required some of their people to be excellent sailors, and well-established schools of navigation existed both in Spain as well as in Portugal where the latest navigation discoveries were developed, and boat making was a well-taught science since centuries before the Spanish explorers reached the shores of the United States of America. This fact alone bestowed on Spain a great advantage as the country proceeded to manifest its Divine Destiny of Savoir of the Christian Faith, the conquest, exploration, and eventually settling a great part of what is now the United States of America.
Good reputation among these Spanish explorers was expected, or at least they must be a member of the upper class in many cases, or individuals with some political clout, as well as individuals possessing some wealth some of which they could invest in their venture. Men who came to the New World, then called New Spain or “La Nueva España” included university individuals, cartographers, physicians, merchants, artist, as well as carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, experts in firearms, experts structuring coins from gold, and in gunpowder manufacturing; and one must never forget the “padres” or missionaries who accompany many an expedition. The Spanish Crown was well aware of all of this , and expected regular reports on the status of these expeditions, and so meticulous records were well kept down to the most insignificant event, even to the number of horses, goats, firearms, seeds, females, that left the ports of Spain. No other nation in today’s world has kept such a meticulous account of its Great American Adventure as did Spain during those centuries.
During the early days of exploration the Spanish explorers experienced great hostilities from the natives, more on the north side of the Rio Grande than they did in México or South America. Thus in many cases this hostility made their evangelization and their colonization very difficult. The Apaches and the Comanche in Texas proved to be difficult for the Spanish soldiers to subdue, and many rebellions and uprising were part of the great Spanish adventure into lands now comprising the United States of America, and this fact underlines the great work, sacrifice, and dedication that these men of steel - the Spanish Explorer - faced during the 16th Century to prepare the land and its later inhabitants for a greater future we now all enjoy in the United States of America.
These endless Spanish explorers were men of great wisdom, strong physical qualities, shrewdness, courage, strong motivations, and diplomacy as no other nation has ever produced. As the historian Herbert E. Bolton expressed it: “The ‘Conquistadores’ who threaded the unknown way of the American wilderness were armored knights upon armored horses , proud, stern, hardy, and courageous; men of punctilious honor, loyal to the King and the Mother Church, humble only before the symbols of the ‘La Santa Fe.’”
Certainly these early Hispanic explorers of the United States of America deserve to be highly recognized in the pages of American History; and parks as well as cities should carry many of their names as a tribute to their courage and determination and whose forgotten efforts initiated and forged a nation we now called the United States of America.
Dr. Lino García, Jr., is Professor Emeritus at UTPA, and can be reached at: LGarcia@UTPA.Edu