First Contacts: Penetration of the Interior

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First Contacts: Penetration of the Interior


Early Voyages. The completion of the conquest of Mexico by Hernando Cortés spurred Spanish conquistadors to look elsewhere in the Americas for sources of wealth. Some were already exploring the Pacific coast of South America and would soon add the Incan Empire to Spains dominions in the New World. For others North America seemed to hold more promise. During the late 1510s Spanish explorers mapped much of the eastern and southern coastline of the continent. In 1513 Juan Ponce de León scanned most of the eastern and southern coasts of Florida, and Alvarez de Pineda completed a survey of the Gulf Coast six years later. During the early 1520s the continents outlines became even clearer as Estevâo Gomes sailed along the Newfoundland and New England coast beyond Cape Cod (15241525), and Pedro de Quejo mapped the southeastern coastline as far north as Delaware (1525). As knowledge of the edges of the continent increased, so did contact with the indigenous inhabitants and rumors of the riches to be found in the interior. In response to these rumors several unsuccessful expeditions attempted to penetrate the interior, and a Spanish colony was established on Sapelo Sound in present-day Georgia for a short time in 1526.

Narváez Expedition. Within two years of the failure of the colony on the Atlantic coast, Pánfilo de Narváez, a veteran conquistador, received a license from the Crown to explore, conquer, and settle lands along the northern Gulf Coast. The conquistadors second in command was Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. The Narváez expedition, which included some four hundred men, eighty horses, and several ships, was impressive when it arrived at Tampa Bay in April 1528, but it proved no more successful in achieving its ends than its predecessors. Within seven months the straggling survivors found themselves stranded without horses, weapons, ships, or food among the Karankawas of coastal Texas near Galveston Island. Having the advantages of numbers and familiarity with the region, the Karankawas enslaved the starving Spaniards.

Cabeza de Vaca and Estévanico. Among the enslaved survivors of the Narváez expedition was Cabeza de Vaca. Over the next several years most of his companions died or were scattered as their captors moved about the countryside, and he lost track of them. Eventually, Cabeza de Vaca gained a measure of freedom from his captors and began traveling about the interior as a shaman, or medicine

man, and merchant. In his travels he encountered many of the indigenous inhabitants of Texas and northern Mexico and learned their customs and languages. He also managed to locate three other survivors of the expedition: Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and Dorantess Moorish slave, Estévanico. In 1534 the four comrades set out to return to Mexico. Their journey took them two years, during which time they learned six Indian languages. They also adopted, of necessity, native clothing and lifestyles and became familiar with Indian religions and customs. This knowledge allowed them to pose effectively as holy men, which garnered them food, lodging, and escorts to lead them from place to place as they made their way toward Spanish Mexico. In fact, when they finally encountered a Spanish party hunting slaves in northwestern Mexico in the spring of 1536, Cabeza de Vaca and Estévanico had become so thoroughly Indian that the two were hardly recognized as fellow Spaniards by the slavers. The four mounted Spaniards were thunderstruck to see me so strangely dressed and in the company of Indians. They went on staring at me for a long space of time, so astonished that they could neither speak to me nor manage to ask me anything. Spanish reticence did not last long, however, and as word of the survivors six-year odyssey spread, enthusiasm for further exploration to the north again mounted.

Early Spanish-Indian Communication. Although the Narváez expedition was a failure, the intelligence gleaned from the survivors had a significant influence on Spanish penetration of the North American interior. Cabeza de Vaca and his companions provided Spanish colonial officials with the first reliable information about New Spains northern frontier. They were the first Europeans to cross the continent north of Mexico and saw more of its inhabitants than any of their predecessors. The cultural and linguistic knowledge acquired by Cabeza de Vaca, and particularly Estévanico, also shaped future communication between the Spanish and native North Americans. In the earliest stages of contact the Spaniards followed precedents established in the conquest of Mexico. Local native inhabitants either voluntarily or through force became interpreters for the European invaders. Once communication was established, the conquistadors relied on the relatively widespread bilingualism of neighboring groups to form chains of translation, one speech sometimes passing through several interpreters and languages before emerging in a form understandable to its intended recipient. As they moved into the interior, the invaders added new native translators to their retinues as they entered new speech communities. The system worked quite well in Mesoamerica because of the widespread intelligibility of Náhuatl, the language of the Aztecs, as an indigenous lingua franca.

Spanish Borderlands. The situation in North America was more complex. Linguistic diversity was greater, and the less sedentary village and band cultures that predominated made the development of widespread pre-contact native linguae francae unlikely. Early European explorers of North America often brought accomplished linguists knowledgeable in a variety of European and Mediterranean languages with them in the vain hope that these men would prove useful as translators. After the conquest of Mexico, Spanish explorers often took Mesoamerican translators with them, expecting that Náhuatl or another Mesoamerican language might be familiar to native North Americans. When they failed to discover recognizable languages among native North Americans, kidnapping and forcibly educating native interpreters seemed the easiest solution. Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, for example, took some Indian interpreters with him on his colonizing venture to South Carolina in 1526. One of them, Francisco de Chicora, had been among the natives captured by Spanish slavers at Winyah Bay in South Carolina in 1521 and transported to Spain. Francisco charmed the Spanish court with stories of his homeland, convincing them of its wealth and beauty. Once Ayllóns ships anchored in Winyah Bay, however, Franciscos true feelings about the Spaniards surfaced. As soon as he and the other Indians got ashore, they fled into the swamps. Cabeza de Vaca and Estévanico gave Spanish explorers of the interior an alternative to untrustworthy native translators. They were, after all, from the Old World; they had been eyewitnesses to the lands and peoples north of Mexico; and they spoke a variety of their languages. Their abilities did not eliminate the need for native interpreters or the practice of kidnapping and training unwilling Indians for the post, but for a while Cabeza de Vaca and Estévanico could serve as a source of information and inspiration for those who followed.

Fray Marcos. In the autumn of 1538 Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza of Mexico sent the Franciscan Fray Marcos de Niza on a reconnaissance to the north. Mendoza hoped to convince one of the white Spanish survivors of the Narváez expedition to serve as Fray Marcoss guide, but all three declined. Instead Mendoza turned to the Moor, Estévanico, to accompany the Franciscan as guide and interpreter. Also with Fray Marcos were several Indians, probably Pirnas, who had accompanied Cabeza de Vaca on his return to Mexico two years earlier. Fray Marcos was thus well equipped to gather information from the inhabitants of the interior. Estévanicos multilingual abilities were well known since he had often served as interpreter for Cabeza de Vacas party. Estévanico was also adept in the use of the sign language that served as a kind of lingua franca among many of the Indians of the southern plains. As Cabeza de Vaca noted, though he and his companions had passed through many and dissimilar tongues, the people always understood us, and we them. We questioned them, and received their answers by signs, just as if they spoke our language and we theirs. In addition, the Pima language, according to Cabeza de Vaca, was in use from south of the Gila River stretching inland one thousand miles.

Indian Slavery

For Most Americans of European descent slavery means the use of African peoples as forced laborers in plantation agriculture. In the European system slaves were property that could be bought or sold, and they had economic value. For Native American peoples it can mean something quite different: the native practice of holding war captives, the European practice of capturing or purchasing Indians for use in plantation agriculture, or the similar use of African Americans by southern Indians for their own farms and plantations. For most native North Americans in precontact America, there was no equivalent to the European practice of slavery. War captives served social rather than economic purposes. Deaths through torture served as revenge and an emotional release for their captors. Adopted captives, on the other hand, enabled a bereaved family to replace members who had died or been killed. An adoptee became a member of the kinship network of the family and assumed all the privileges and obligations of any other birth relative. Those few captives who remained on the fringes of society, without benefit of adoption, were kinless. These individuals had an anomalous status in Indian societies, where kinship determined an individuals status and social role. These marginal individuals often performed menial tasks and were called slaves by early European observers. While they contributed to the economic survival of the group, however, they were not a capital investment; precontact native societies did not value or depend on slave labor. The arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century changed the aboriginal institution of slavery. Spanish slave raiding on the Atlantic coast depleted indigenous populations and introduced peoples in the southeast to the European concept of slavery. Hernando de Soto impressed Indians into service as pack carriers. Later, European colonists in the southeast employed local Indians to capture other natives for sale as slaves and to capture and return runaway Africans. By the eighteenth century some American Indians in the southeast began to adopt European attitudes toward Africans and began to purchase them for use on native farms and plantations.

Source: Theda Purdue, Slavery, Encyclopedia of North American Indians, edited by Frederick E. Hoxie (Boston & New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1996), pp. 596598.

Coronado and De Soto. When Fray Marcos arrived back in Mexico City about one year later, he brought such favorable reports that Mendoza authorized an extensive exploration of the interior under the direction of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado. This time Fray Marcos served as guide since Estévanico had died during his service with the Franciscan. With the Franciscans help and the backing of the viceroy, Coronado pushed far into the interior southwest between 1540 and 1542. About the same time another ambitious Spaniard, Hernando de Soto, penetrated much of the Southeast, relying on the aid of yet another survivor of the Narváez expedition, Juan Ortiz, whom de Soto found living among the Indians of Florida. Ortiz pierced the language barrier separating the expedition from the Apalachees and other Muskogean-speaking peoples. As de Soto noted, This interpreter puts new life into us, for without him I know not what would become of us. So providential was Ortizs appearance that the commander took it as a sign that God had taken this enterprise in His especial keeping. By 1542 Spaniards had covered a vast portion of North America. While Cabeza de Vacas and Estévanicos approach to the inhabitants of the interior differed greatly from that of Coronado or de Soto, the two survivors paved the way for their successors deeper penetration of the continent. Circumstances forced Cabeza de Vaca and Estévanico to learn Indian languages and adopt native lifewaysto understand the Indians on their own terms. The Spanish under de Soto and Coronado, however, had little reason to adapt or learn. Instead, backed by large, well-equipped expeditions, they were able to use the knowledge and experience of Cabeza de Vaca and his companions to impose their will on the native North Americans they encountered. Neither de Sotos nor Coronados expeditions returned triumphant, and a legacy of hatred and distrust lingered after them, but the information they gathered paved the way for more-permanent ventures in the Spanish borderlands.


Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Castaways, edited by Enrique Pupo-Walker, translated by Frances M. López-Morillas (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993);

Carroll L. Riley, Early Spanish-Indian Communication in the Greater Southwest, New Mexico Historical Review, 46 (1971): 285314;

David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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First Contacts: Penetration of the Interior

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