The conquest of the continent of North America by the Spaniards was for the most part conducted from Cuba. The expedition of Cortez to conquer Mexico sailed from Havana. In 1520 Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon was granted a royal license to explore the coasts of Florida. In pursuance of this order he sent his lientenant Gordilla to make a preliminary voyage, whose reports were so favorable that Ayllon carried them to Spain, where he secured a royal cedula to explore and settle eight hundred leagues of the Florida coasts. In 1525 he sent out Pedro de Quexos to make a more extensive preliminary survey of the east shores of America. This expedition returned with a very favorable account of the Atlantic coast regions. In June, 1526, Ayllon sailed from Hispaniola with three ships bearing Spanish emigrants for a colony. He beat up the coasts of North America to the mouth of a stream afterwards known as the James River, into which he turned. On its wooded shores he founded a settlement which he called San Miguel, on the spot where the English afterwards built Jamestown. The Spaniards did not succeed at San Miguel. Ayllon soon died of a fever; the colonists quarreled and finally abandoned the enterprise.
The movement which led to the expedition of Coronado had its origin in the myths of “The Seven Cities.” These myths were the more readily believed because of the magnitude of the spoil of the Peruvian Empire, accounts of which had spread over the whole of both Old and New Spain. It was supposed that what Pizarro had accomplished in South America might be duplicated in North America. In this relation it must be remembered that the Spaniards had not then explored the interior of the continent, and that they were in almost total ignorance of its geography, its mineral resources, its productions, its animal life, and its inhabitants.
The myth of “The Seven Cities” appeared first in Mexico in 1530. Nuno de Guzman was then President of New Spain. Attached to his estate was an Indian named Tejo, who was a native of the valley of Oxitipar. This Indian claimed to be the son of a trader, then dead. This trader, so the son said, had gone into the back country to barter fine feathers for whatever ornaments the inhabitants of those regions could be induced to part with. On the journey (or journeys) made for this purpose, the Indian Tejo had accompanied his father. He now told Guzman that they brought back much silver and gold, which the country produced in considerable quantities. He said, also, that he had seen in that northern land some towns as large as the City of Mexico then was. In seven of those towns there were streets given over to shops and workers in the precious metals. Those cities, he said, were far distant, and from his native valley it required forty days to reach them. For the way, he insisted, was through a barren land where no plant-life was to be seen except some desert shrubs the height of a span.
Hoping to find rich countries to plunder, Guzman organized an expedition to discover “The Seven Cities.” He enlisted four hundred Spaniards and collected twenty thousand Indians with which to make conquest of those opulent countries of which he had little doubt the seven towns were the capitals. But the expedition came to nothing. The difficulties encountered in the first stages of the march discouraged the men, and discontent spread through the ranks of the adventurers. For this, and for other causes, Guzman abandoned the enterprise when he had but entered the district of Culican.
Panfilo de Narvaez was prominent in the conquest of Cuba in 1511, and settled in that island. Mexico was subject to Cuba, but Cortez threw off the authority of Velasquez. In an effort to regain and retain his power in Mexico, in 1520, Velasquez appointed Panfilo de Narvaez Lieutenant-Governor of Mexico, and directed him to voyage to that country, take possession of it, and imprison Cortez. Narvaez set out on this mission, and landed at Vera Cruz in April, 1520. On the 28th of May he met Cortez at Campoala, where he was defeated, wounded, and captured. He managed soon to regain his liberty, after which he went to Spain, where, in 1526, he secured a royal patent to conquer and govern Florida.
At that time Florida embraced all that part of North America, along the Atlantic seaboard and bordering on the Gulf of Mexico to the Rio Grande, which river was then called Rio de Palmas by the Spaniards. Narvaez made preparations for the immediate conquest of Florida. He sailed from Spain on the 17th of June, 1527. His course carried him to Cuba, where he overhauled his fleet, to which he added a vessel to replace one lost on the voyage. He then set sail for the Texas coast, but on the 15th of April he landed at Apalache Bay, having been driven from his course by a storm and the force of heavy currents. Supposing that he was not far distant from the point for which he was bound, he sent one ship back for recruits and directed the others to sail along the coast to Panuco, near the mouth of the Rio Crande.
The force of Narvaez consisted of three hundred men; and he had fifty horses. On the 18th of April he began his march through the forests and over the quagmires of Florida. His course was north, but he soon turned toward the west. The natives became hostile. At a large river, reached on the 15th of May, he rested, while Cabeza de Vaca, the royal treasurer of the expedition, went with a small party down to the sea to find the ships. Not a sail was to be seen along the coast solitudes, and upon the return of the party the march was continued. Another large river was encountered, and this Narvaez descended to the sea. No ships were there to greet him.
The Spaniards were discouraged. No gold had been found, and no cities for sack and plunder had appeared. They had seen only naked savages living in cane huts and in poverty. They determined to build boats in which to quit those inhospitable shores, and to keep the sea to the westward. Late in 1528, a forge was set up, and such metal as their equipment afforded was made into tools and nails. With these, five boats were constructed. They were furnished with rigging from ropes made of the long hair saved from the manes and tails of their horses. Sails were provided from their clothing and the hides of their horses. Each boat was capable of carrying forty-five men, none of whom knew much of navigation. They hugged the shore and drew westward, and about the first of November they came into the mouth of a great river whose mighty volume bore them far into the Gulf of Mexico. There two of the boats were lost, one of which was that of Narvaez, while the other carried the friars of the expedition. A great storm threw the remaining boats upon the shore beyond the Sabine in the winter of 1528-29.
How many survivors of the expedition suffered this shipwreck we do not know. Four finally reached the Spanish settlements. They were rescued on the coast of the Gulf of California in April, 1536. They had wandered in the wilds of Texas and the deserts and mountains of Northern Mexico, as we know those regions, for more than seven years. The leader of the band was Cabeza de Vaca, and the others were Maldonado, Dorantes, and a negro slave named Estevan. ((To him history assigns the honor of having first mentioned Quivira to Europeans. He acted as guide on a trip Alvarado made from Cicuye to see the cows. The Spanish captain, however, lost interest in the cows and the country where they roamed. The Turk told him such wondrous tales of gold and silver to be found and to be had in Quivira that chasing the stupid and lumbering buffalo seemed a waste of time and energy that should be used in making an early conquest of the golden land. And the buffalo was not to be seen in vast herds at that season of the year. Those found by Alvarado were in scattered bunches and perhaps along the waters of the Upper Canadian.)) The route passed over by these wanderers can not now be established. How they had escaped and managed to survive they did not themselves know. They had been enslaved by savage tribes, had seen and hunted the buffalo, had acted as medicine men, had risen to influence, and had escaped from one tribe only to suffer the same routine of disaster in another. Cabeza de Vaca went on to Spain, but the others remained in Mexico. The stories of their adventures did not excite great interest, or, rather, was overshadowed by those drifting in from Peru. They were for some time the guests of the Viceroy, Don Antonio de Mendoza, who bought the negro from his master, Dorantes. Cabeza de Vaca had been given a hawk’s bell, made of copper, on which was cast or carved the figure of a human face. He related some accounts of the land to the north, which caused the people to believe rich countries might be found there. And these recalled, revived, and confirmed the stories told by the trader’s son, the Indian Tejo.