Nebraska Spanish Presence
Around the 1530s, Spanish explorer Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca reported seeing bison and bison hides. Historians believe this shipwrecked explorer reached the outer edges of the Great Plains in Texas. There is no evidence to indicate that Cabeza de Vaca ever entered the Great Plains of Kansas or Nebraska. But his knowledge of the bison and the indigenous residents who depended upon them is important in the history of Spain and the Great Plains region. This story, along with others, fueled the imagination of the Spanish, driving them to explore the region in hopes of finding wealth.
Looking for the Seven Cities of Cibola, the legendary cities of gold, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado led a small expedition through the Rio Grande Valley. Over a year into the expedition, in 1541, Coronado reached the city he called Quivira. Scholars believe Quivira was located in the present state of Kansas.1 There, Coronado claimed the Great Plains region for the Spanish Crown. Certainly,
Coronado and his men had no idea the area was so vast, nor did they know who or what existed in the interior of the plains.
Around the same time, Hernando de Soto led an expedition approaching the plains from the east. Reaching the outer edge of the plains, Moscoso de Soto’s successor after his death decided to turn back. However, Moscoso’s party, unable to find their way to the sea, continued to press on westward. In 1544 Luys Hernandez de Biedma, the royal officer appointed by the Spanish Crown and instructed to provide an account of the de Soto’s expedition, wrote to the king. Biedma’s account suggests that the party, under the command of Moscoso, entered the plains region.2 The descriptions of sterile lands, lack of maize, and contact with bison leads some scholars to believe that the Indian guides working for the party hoped the Spaniards would perish on the plains.
The Spanish did not find wealth or a labor force on the plains, as indigenous groups occupying the area did not necessarily establish permanent camp or housing sites. On the other hand, indigenous groups in southwestern United States and Mexico, because of their agrarian lifestyle, fell under Spanish authority much more easily than the nomadic groups on the plains. Battles with Plains Indians occurred as early as 1593, when Spaniards made unauthorized incursions into the area. By this time, Apaches and other groups had already begun to display superior horseback riding skills. The introduction of the horse onto the plains resulted in greater success during hunts and combats. Small parties of Spaniards could not match the fierce, fighting skills of the indigenous peoples. Indian battles and harsh living conditions prevented the Spaniards from settling in the region. More than 100 years had passed before Spanish authorities felt pressure to secure the area.
In 1718 the War of the Quadruple Alliance erupted in Europe. France, England, Holland, and Austria aligned against Spain in an effort to force the withdrawal of Spanish troops from Sicily and Sardinia. This confrontation spilled over in North America, and in particular on the Great Plains. In 1720, Spanish authorities in Santa Fe heard rumors of Frenchmen trading and living among the Pawnee Indians. Fearing the French would advance into Santa Fe and take control of trade along the Santa Fe Trail, Pedro de Villasur led a small party of Spaniards and a French interpreter into Pawnee territory. They made camp along the Platte and Loup rivers, in present-day eastern Nebraska. At dawn Pawnees and Otos massacred the party. Only a few members of the party survived and made their way back to Santa Fe.3 Contact with French traders did not occur until 1739, and Spanish exploration of the plains remained stagnant until the late eighteenth century.
In 1786 the Frenchman Pierre Pedro Vial swore allegiance to the Spanish Crown. In 1792 Vial and a group of men left Santa Fe to find a direct trade route to St. Louis. After a delay in St. Louis, Vial and his men started back to Santa Fe.
However, the strong currents of the Missouri River pushed the men towards the Little Nemaha River, in southeastern Nebraska.4 The group made camp and traded with the Pawnees. Later, the group traversed across the prairie and met up with a group of Pawnees on the Platte River.
In 1800 the Louisiana Territory was firmly back in the hands of the French, and 3 years later control of the area passed to the newly formed United States. The purchase of the Louisiana Territory by the United States alarmed the Spaniards, who previously thought of the area as a buffer zone separating the Spaniards from the English. French control was preferred over U.S. control because Spanish authorities feared that the United States would attempt to assume control of the New Mexico region. In particular, they worried about losing Santa Fe.
In 1803 Spanish authorities received word that Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected president of the United States, had commissioned Meriwether Lewis and William Clark to embark on an expedition westward, toward the Pacific Ocean. Anticipating U.S. incursion into Spanish Territory, the governor of New Mexico complied with orders from Spanish authorities to intercept Lewis and Clark.5 Spanish troops never did intercept the American explorers, but in 1806 Spanish authorities heard that Zebulon Pike intended to explore the prairie. Once again fearing that the United States would attempt to overtake the Spanish Territory, Spanish authorities sent a large contingent of cavalry with orders to intercept Pike.
In the meantime Pike made his way to today’s Webster County, Nebraska. Meeting with Pawnees, Pike demanded that the chief remove the Spanish flag displayed over the entrance of his residence and replace it with the United States’ flag. Pike validated the concerns of the Spaniards in Santa Fe as he pushed on toward the Spanish Territory, where Spanish forces outside of Santa Fe detained him. Soon after, Spanish soldiers escorted Pike and his party to Chihuahua, and later deposited them on the U.S. border near Natchitoches.6 Trade between Spanish, English, and French settlers did not end with the purchase of the Louisiana Territory, but Spanish aspirations of establishing permanent settlements in Nebraska quickly dissipated.
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