Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda
Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda
According to meager historical references, Captain Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda's life was short but exceedingly eventful and productive. The only actual mention of his date of birth appears in a biography of his immediate superior, Francisco de Garay. It states that Piñeda was born in Spain in 1494 in the village of Centernera.
His adventures began when Garay (who was then governor of Jamaica in the Caribbean) commissioned Alvarez de Piñeda to command a flotilla of four vessels with the express purpose of finding the imagined Southwest Passage water route to the Orient and the subsequent treasures of China and other Asian civilizations. It was a huge responsibility for a captain who was only 25 years of age.
Alvarez de Piñeda took his assignment seriously. He spent the next nine months sailing along the coast of present-day western Florida and all around the gulf to Vera Cruz, Mexico. The remarkable talent of this young explorer was his attention to detail. He not only stopped numerous times along the unfamiliar coastline, but made comprehensive maps of each area he encountered with notes about the settlers and their cultures.
Before leaving the Caribbean, Francisco Garay gave Alvarez de Piñeda instructions to intercept the flotilla commanded by Hérnan Cortés (1485-1547) in Vera Cruz. His plan was to claim that portion of Mexico for Spain and to oust Cortés. This mistake in military judgment was soon evident when Alvarez de Piñeda anchored his ships and sent men ashore to take command. The plan backfired when Cortés captured the landing force and sent Alvarez de Piñeda and his flotilla packing.
They resumed their voyage along the coast of Texas and Alvarez de Piñeda is further credited with the discovery of what is now Corpus Christi. He gave the settlement this name to honor the Catholic feast day of Corpus Christi. He also went ashore at another settlement in south Texas and was instrumental in colonizing the area that is now Brownsville.
Because his vessels were all badly in need of repairs, Captain Alvarez de Piñeda anchored his fleet at the mouth of what he called Rio de las Palmas, now believed to have been the Rio Grande. He remained there 40 days while his men secured the supplies needed for repairing the damaged vessels.
Alvarez de Piñeda used this sailing break to travel inland and discover any inhabitants who might aid him in his mapping work. From archive records of the time, it appears that he traveled about 18 miles (29 km) inland along the river and reported encountering approximately 40 different Indian tribes, many of whom were wearing ornaments made of gold. This encouraged him to make written recommendations to Governor Garay that colonists be sent to the area and, in the name of Spain, to claim the entire coastal landmass from Texas to Florida under the name "Amichel."
Although written accounts of these events are lacking, there was an unexpected discovery that turned speculation into historical fact. In 1974 the Harlingen Naval Reserve Unit was excavating for Civil War artifacts on behalf of the Rio Grande Valley Museum. While digging for these treasures, they came upon a clay tablet with a Spanish inscription that translated into English as: "Here [. . .] Capt. Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda in 1519 with 270 men and 4 of Garay's Ships."
According to Bernal Diaz del Castillo (one of Piñeda's officers), Captain Alvarez de Piñeda died as a result of wounds he received while fighting Indians on the Panuco River. He was 25 years of age when he was reported dead.
Although Piñeda's career was very short, it was of great importance to all who followed him in that he proved—without a doubt—that the coast of the Gulf of Mexico was a solid landmass with no possibility of a water passage to anywhere else on the continent.
Scholars are indebted to Clotilde P. Garcia, M.D., of Corpus Christi, Texas, for much of the known historical information about Alvarez de Piñeda. Her years of research were conducted in order to prepare a paper to qualify for the issuance of a historical marker for Captain Alonso Alvarez de Piñeda in Corpus Christi.