Penetrating "La Tierra Adentro"
The first Spanish colony in the "interior lands" was funded by a nobleman from northern Mexico, Don Juan de Oñate. In 1598, with the King's permission, Oñate led 400 men, women, children, and babies through the desolate Chihuahuan desert, up the Rio Grande, and into the cool Sangre de Cristo mountains of northern New Mexico. Nearly ten years after the Spanish plowed the banks of the Rio Grande and built their first adobe houses, Captain John Smith founded the first British colony, in Jamestown, Virginia.
The next Spanish outpost was founded by a Jesuit missionary, explorer, map-maker, mathematician, and astronomer, Father Eusebio Francisco Kino. In 1687, he established the first of what were to be a string of missions throughout the Pimeria Alta region of the Sonoran desert. From there, he began to explore north into what is now Arizona, following the Colorado and Gila Rivers. In 1700, Father Kino chose a site near a spring and some Pima farms to build San Xavier del Bac, a mission still celebrated for its otherworldly beauty. Seventy-five years later a surveyor chose a site near San Xavier to establish a presidio, or fort. The presidio was named Tucson, a corruption of the Pima name for the area.
Several hundred miles farther west, an energetic and zealous Franciscan missionary, Junipero Serra, founded the first mission in Alta California, in the year-old colony of San Diego. The eight missions he established in the following years dotted the coast all the way north to San Francisco. By 1823, 21 active missions lined the coasts of southern California.
Blazing the Trails
Although each colony was connected by road to Mexico City, no roads connected the colonies. News, people, and trade with Mexico was slow-- for hundreds of years, colonists could expect a caravan only twice a year. Explorers soon set out to find roads through the high mountains and the dangerous deserts which separated the colonies.
Father Francisco Tomás Garcés, a Franciscan priest, spent the years of 1768-1776 in various explorations between Arizona and California, traveling across the brutal Mojave Desert or along the Colorado and the Gila Rivers. In 1774, he and Juan Bautista de Anza, the governor of the Tubac presidio in Arizona, established a safe route to the California missions. Father Garcés also explored the western Grand Canyon, and the Hopi mesas farther to the east.
In August, 1776 a small expedition led by Fathers Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez set out from Santa Fe to find a route to Monterey, California. Following a trail blazed ten years earlier by Manuel Rivera, they entered southwestern Colorado. There they left Rivera’s trail, turned west and ended up south of the Wasatch Mountains of Utah, around present-day Provo. From there they explored west again, to the southwestern corner of Utah, but had to turn around as winter set in. Although they did not find the route to Monterey, others followed in their tracks and established the Old Spanish Trail, which connected Santa Fe with Los Angeles.
As the 18th century drew to a close, the sun began to set on Spain’s empire in North America, and 300 years of Spanish explorations drew to a close. The observations and maps of Spanish explorers were the foundation of our understanding of the geography and the people of the southwestern United States. And though the tales of the conquistadors, missionaries, gold-seekers, visionaries, and colonists who settled the Spanish southwest may be little known, nevertheless they have left an indelible mark on our history and our lands.
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