By Alfred B. Thomas, Ph. D., University of Oklahoma
Western history does not always recognize the debt it owes to Spanish exploration. True, every schoolboy knows of Coronado and the Spanish missions of Texas, New Mexico and California. But there with Nordic attention diverted to Plymouth and Jamestown, the story usually ends. That large parts of California, Utah, Colorado and Oklahoma were familiar lands to eighteenth century Spaniards long before the so-called "western movement," that Spanish trails reached even the junction of the Platte in western Nebraska, had crossed Kansas plains to the Missouri and pushed east to St. Louis—that tale of one hundred years remains uncelebrated. Up the Missouri to eastern Montana, and along the Yellowstone to western and southern Montana, Spanish explorers had penetrated. When Russia, England and the young United States challenged each others' rights to the Pacific Coast, Spain's flag had seen Vancouver Island. Thus the famous nineteenth century "path finders" from Pike to Fremont but visited regions in the Rockies and on the Plains already opened by Spain's children, the pioneers of western exploration.
The impetus of this wide-spread activity came from the acquisition of Louisiana by Spain in 1763 and the occupation of California six years later. Accordingly, with two such widely separated posts as St. Louis and San Francisco, Spain attempted to ferret out convenient routes to bind more closely her American empire north of the Rio Grande. New Mexico, naturally, with its central location between the Mississippi and the Pacific was the principal objective or point of departure for this remarkable exploratory movement.
The first Spaniard to attempt a route from California to New Mexico was Father Garcés whose journey is one of the two or three outstanding exploits in western history. Leaving Sonora in 1775 in company with Don Juan Bauptista de Anza, who was going to found the great city of St. Francis, Garcés separated from the main party at the Gila-Colorado junction, followed the latter river to Mohave, thence across the Mohave Desert and over the coast range to San Gabriel. Returning and searching for a better way, he
plunged north into the San Juaquin valley in central California, threaded the eastern mountains, recrossed the Mohave Desert, forded the Colorado River and penetrated through Arizona to the Hopi pueblo, of Oraibi. There the Hopi put an end to his Odessey as he verged on his goal—New Mexico. Disappointed he turned westward again to the Colorado and made his way back to his mission in Sonora.1
A route to California from New Mexico not thus available, two other Spanish padres, Dominguez and Escalante, attempted a second exploration, this time from New Mexico in 1776-1777. They followed the compass northwest over the mountains of western Colorado, crossed the Colorado River, and then the Green and discovered Utah Lake. Searching next the ranges before them for a pass to California, they pressed southwestward, reached Sevier Lake and finally came upon passes blocked with the winter's snow. Surrendering to Nature, they bent southward to Santa Fe by way of Zuñi.2 A second immense region had been blocked out by Spanish explorers.
Attention was next directed to the discovery of a route between Sonora and New Mexico. The energetic governor of New Mexico, Don Juan Bauptista de Anza, who had returned from founding San Francisco, in 1780 explored southward along the Rio Grande, turned off near present Hatch, New Mexico and braved the craggy Mimbres Mountains in an attempt to reach the Gila basin. However, lack of water forced him southward before he reached his objective and he had to continue his journey to Sonora along the Camino Real running across northern Mexico to Arispe, his destination.3 This route proving unsatisfactory, Captain Echeagaray in 1788 left San Marcial, Sonora, explored northeast along the Gila River into the Sierras of San Francisco and Mogollon, Gabriel. Returning and searching for a better way, he and came via the Rio de San Francisco, leading to Zuñi,
1On the Trail of a Spanish Pioneer; the Diary and Itinerary of Francisco Garc´es. Elliott Couses, (ed.) 2 Vols. New York. 1900.
2Diario y Derrotero de los RR. PP. Fr. Francisco Atanasio Dominguez y Fr. Silvestre Velez de Escalante. Documentos Para la Historia de Mexico. Segunda serie. Tomo I. pp. 287-554 Mexico, 1854.
3The diary of Governor Anza is published in a volume, (in press, University of Oklahoma) concerning the rule of Governor Anza, prepared by the author based on documents from the archives of Seville, Spain, Mexico City, and Santa Fe, N. M.
New Mexico, upon a pass discovered by Miera in 1747. There, however, Echeagaray had to turn back. Plans for another expedition in 1790-91 did not culminate, but four years later, 1795, Zuñiga again followed the Gila to the Rio de San Francisco and pressed on through Miera's pass to Zuñi, the most western of the New Mexican pueblos.4
While these hardy pioneers were opening up the mountainous regions of Arizona, California, Utah and western Colorado, another group of Spaniards were surveying routes east of New Mexico across the great plains. There an exploration of a road to Texas had been projected since the seventeenth century. However, up until the eighteenth, the Apaches had blocked all attempts. The Comanches, driving them out in 1750 proved equally hostile. Beyond the Comanches, too, in north central Texas were other tribes who stood in the way of inter-colonial communication. After 1763, however, frontier affairs passed into the hands of two able men. In Texas Athanâse de Méziéres during the years, 1769-1780, plied the arts of peace on many expeditions among the northern Indians, one journey in 1778 taking him to the Red River, near Ringgold, Texas. There this peace-maker won to Spanish allegiance hitherto hostile tribes and opened partly the road to New Mexico.5 When he died in 1780 his successor as peace-maker among the northern Comanches was found in Governor Anza.
To handle the Comanches Anza replaced the glove with the mailed fist. In 1779 to repel their devastating raids on his province he marched northward from Santa Fe through San Luis valley in present south central Colorado, crossed the Front Range of the Rockies and came out on the Colorado Plains somewhat southeast of Denver. There defeating a body of Comanches he pressed southward towards New Mexico, encountered a second group a little south of present Pueblo, Colorado, and delivered a second crushing blow. Thereafter he recrossed the Sangre de Cristo range and returned to his capital, completing with Garcés and Domíngues and Escalante, the third major Rocky Mountain exploration a quarter of a
4"The Zuñiga Journal, Tucson to Santa Fe; the Opening of a Spanish Trade Route, 1788-1795." George P. Hammond (ed.) New Mexico Hispanic American Historical Review, IV, pp. 444-464.
5Bolton, Herbert E. Athanase de Meziéres and the Louisiana-Texas Frontier, 1768-1780. 2 Vols. Arthur H. Clark Co., Cleveland.1914.
century before Pike and forty-five years before the advent of Jedediah Smith.6 The humbled Comanches soon sought peace. Thus Anza shortly won their affection and co-operation, completed the work of De Mézières and threw open the vast areas of Kansas, Oklahoma and West Texas to the feet of Spanish explorers.
The first of these to attempt to reach Santa Fe from Texas was Pedro Vial. Leaving San Antonio on October 4, 1786 he went north to the Colorado River and east to the Brazos whence he reached the Red River villages of the Taovayas. Moving along this stream he crossed to the Canadian, finally reaching Santa Fe on May 26, 1787. This route being too devious, in July, Governor Concha sent José Mares with seven companions to San Antonio. On his return Mares aimed directly northwest from San Antonio to the 101st meridian, thence following Vial's route to New Mexico. In 1788 Vial and Fragoso returned to Texas, and in the following year Vial attempted another expedition to Santa Fe. Leaving San Antonio on June 25, he followed the Brazos as far as the 95th meridian and 33rd parallel where he struck off northwest to New Mexico, reaching Santa Fe in slightly less than two months.7
With communication thus established in the New Mexican-Texan sector, the pointer of Spanish exploration now swung to the northeast of Santa Fe toward St. Louis. Well experienced and attended by success, to Pedro Vial fell the honor of opening this avenue of communication. Governor Concha of New Mexico instructed Vial to leave via Pecos, march east to the villages of the Huagages (Osages), thence east-northeast to the Missouri River to St. Louis. With two companions, Vial set out on May 21, 1792 through Pecos, over the Pecos River and to the Canadian by the 29th. Thereafter until the 22nd of June they followed that stream and then turned northeast across western Oklahoma to the Arkansas River. On the 29th they found signs of those Indians who soon captured them. Forced to remain with the savages
6This diary of Governor Anza is published in a volume (in press) prepared by the author concerning the rule of Governor Anza. For other Rocky Mountain explorations, see Hill, JJ. "The Old Spanish Trail," Hispanic American Historical Review, 1V, pp 444-464.
over a month, they finally were permitted on August 16th to continue their journey, without benefit of clothing. A ten days' journey brought them to a Cances village and on the 11th of September they met a party of Spanish traders on the Kansas River who gave them raiment and sent them on to St. Louis.8
In the following summer of 1793 Vial was ready to begin his return journey. The war-like Osages blocking the way to the southwest the party joined some traders going to the Pawnee to toil along the shore, pulling their pirogue for four hundred miles up the turbulent Missouri before they reached a point safe from attack. There on the 24th of August the party separated, apparently near present Nemaha, Nebraska. Vial and his companions moved in a generally southwest direction across present Kansas, crossing the Big Blue River to reach near present Abilene, a friendly Indian camp. These described their hostility with the Osages and Comanches and the alliance with the Pawnees to the north. From this point on the Smoky River, Vial moved along that stream a short distance, then made off to the southwest and touched the Arkansas evidently near present Dodge City. Cutting southwestward from there the party searched for the Canadian which they ran into near Magenta, Texas. Now they traveled ground familiar to Spaniards for two centuries. Passing Tucumcari they followed a Comanche trading trail to Pecos and then on November 15, Vial reached Santa Fe where he submitted his report to Governor Concha.9
Pedro Vial's journey thus caps the process of Spanish
8Houck, Louis. The Spanish Regime in Missouri., 2 Vols. Chicago, 1909. Vial's diary and attendant correspondence is published there in volume one, pp. 350-358. In the translation of this diary on p. 353 Houck has "Magages" which in the Mexico City copy, used below, appears throughout as "Huagages." An emendation in the Mexico City document to the effect that "Huagages" seems to mean Osages is correct. Houck's translation of Vial's instructions, p. 353, omits the fourth point which is translated from the document used below as follows:
"According to all information I have acquired he (Vial) should not meet with other nations between the Huagages and the Missouri, but if on the contrary it should be learned from the Huagages that others intervene, he should try to take two or three of the former with him to serve as interpreters and guides, rewarding them with effects which he carries for this purpose."
Houck's fourth point, should be No. 5, his fifth, No. 6, etc.
exploration northeast of New Mexico in the eighteenth century, marks the first journey to approximate the later Santa Fe route, and finally, rounds out the exploratory movement by which Spain opened up large parts of the west before 1800.
Viceroy of Mexico.10
Most Excellent Señor: According to what I proposed to your Excellency in my letter of September 12 last, I am remitting to your Excellency a copy of the diary which Pedro Vial made on his journey, out and back, from the Villa of Santa Fe, Capital of the Province of New Mexico, and which Colonel Don Fernando de la Concha, Governor of it, has sent to me so that your Excellency may be informed of the particulars which befell him, of the nations which lie between, of the distance from one to the other point. Of the country he crossed he gives no description. It is desirable that similar explorations be made by persons of greater intelligence and broader interests.
May God guard your Excellency many years, Chihuahua, January 9, 1794. Most Excellent Señor, Pedro de Nava. Most Excellent Señor, Conde de Revilla Gigedo.
Diary of the journey undertaken by me, Pedro Vial, at the order of Senor Don Fernando de la Concha, Colonel of the Royal Armies, and Governor of the Province of New Mexico, directed to open communication with St. Louis of Illinois, Province of Louisiana; the young men, Vicente Villanueva and Vicente Espinosa accompanying me.
10Nava to Revilla Gigedo. Historia, Luisiana, Tomo 43. Documento LV, No. 19. Archivo General, Mexico. ff 1-12. Vial's Diary which accompanies Nava's letter in this citation, has not been hitherto published.
24The Spanish name for the Canadian River. Houck, indicating the route of Vial's outward journey (Houck, op. cit., p. 355) mistakenly calls the Rio Colorado the Rio Grande!