From the Andean highlands and central Mexico to the northern reaches of the upper Rio Grande, Spanish citizens worked to meet the crown's unquenchable thirst for mineral wealth, new lands, and Catholic converts. However, while Spain's efforts proved successful elsewhere, they were met with sound defeat in the Great Plains. The story of Spaniards in the Great Plains, therefore, is mainly one of Spanish explorers.
The first Spaniards to reach the Great Plains (the specific geography of their route is unknown) were Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Andrés Dorantes, and Castillo Maldonado, along with Estevan, an African Arab. They were the only survivors of the disastrous Panfilo de Narváez expedition. Their eventful journey–from about 1529 to 1536–back to what is now Mexico took them across the Southern Plains of Texas. Cabeza de Vaca and his men arrived in Mexico City claiming to have seen such marvels as herds of buffalo and cities of gold. The reports quickly led the Spanish crown to commission an expedition to secure the purported riches.
In the same manner as other Spanish conquistadors before him, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado set out north from Mexico in 1540 with hopes of attaining great wealth and fame. His initial goal was to find the fabled Seven Cities of Cíbola. He found instead Pueblo villages lacking in any great wealth. Disillusioned at not finding the seven golden cities, he was easily persuaded (by the stories of an Indian slave) to continue his search in a more easterly direction. In 1541 Coronado and thirty of his men struck out across the Llano Estacado looking for Quivira, another illusionary place of wealth. Quivira turned out to be only the grass lodges of the Wichitas, near Great Bend, Kansas. Disappointed again, he retreated to New Mexico. His report to the crown indicated that while the country was of great agricultural potential and similar to Spain, it held no place for Spaniards; simply put, there was no gold.
It was almost two centuries after Coronado before Spaniards again pushed deep into the Great Plains. In 1720 Don Pedro de Villasur was sent to investigate French activities in the Central Plains. His expedition took him as far north and east as the Platte River in central Nebraska, where his party was attacked and defeated by Otoes and Pawnees. This disaster marked the end of the Spanish presence in the Central Plains, except for fur traders, most notably the Missouri Fur Company under Manuel Lisa, who pushed up the Missouri River from St. Louis in the late years of the eighteenth century and early years of the nineteenth century. Spain primarily focused its attention on maintaining sovereignty over the Southern Plains of New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Texas.
While Spaniards persevered as explorers, they failed miserably as Great Plains settlers. Permanent Spanish settlement on the Plains did not begin until 1757. In a deceptive ploy aimed at forming an alliance against their archenemy the Comanches, the Lipua Apaches petitioned the Spanish government to establish a mission on the banks of the San Saba River near present-day Menard, Texas. The settlement was a failure, however, because few Apaches converted to Catholicism, and on March 16, 1758, the Comanches attacked the village, killing all but four residents and burning the mission buildings to the ground. For approximately ten years the Spanish government tried to resurrect the mission community, but to no avail. The settlement was finally abandoned in 1770, thus ending Spain's attempt at founding a mission settlement in the territory of the Plains Indians. In 1786 the Spanish entered into a treaty with the Comanches, which ushered in a period of accommodation and trade, rather than settlement, on the Southwestern Plains.
By 1821, the year in which political control of the Southern Plains was transferred to the newly formed Mexican government and the Santa Fe Trail opened, the region was still unsettled by Spaniards. Hispanos (Spanish Americans) had spread their sheep operations east into the Great Plains from the upper Rio Grande, occupying a territory that would, by 1900, extend out into the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles, but that was the extent of the Spanish influence.
Despite the best efforts of the Spanish crown, permanent Spanish settlements in the Great Plains failed for at least four reasons. First, there was little to attract Spanish citizens to the Great Plains. Expeditions became tedious marches through a vast, seemingly empty land, where nothing of value was found to warrant the price of settlement. Second, the Spanish system of employing Indian labor could not be applied to the mobile people of the Plains. The Plains Indians were too nomadic and too independent to be restricted to settlements. Third, the Plains Indians quickly and violently opposed Spanish infiltration. After the Apaches acquired the horse in 1684 and the Comanches in about 1714, they no longer tolerated the Spaniards invading their land. Finally, despite the fact that they alone among European colonizers were accustomed to arid climates, Spaniards regarded the physical environment as too inhospitable. The barren Llano Estacado of west Texas, for example, was perceived as nothing more than a transition zone, a land to be politically controlled but not necessarily settled. Spain preferred to use the Great Plains as a buffer zone protecting its northern colonies from French and, later, American interference.
Today, the Spanish legacy in the Great Plains has all but faded. Hispanos still live, as minorities, in Plains towns such as Roswell, New Mexico, and Pueblo, Colorado, but their numbers have been surpassed by the inmigration of Latinos since World War II.
Jeffrey S. Smith Kansas State University
Vigil, Ralph H., Frances W. Kaye, and John R. Wunder. Spain and the Plains: Myths and Realities of Spanish Exploration and Settlement on the Great Plains. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1994.
Webb, Walter Prescott. The Great Plains. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1931.
Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 1992.