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People of the Colorado Plateau
Paleoindian and Archaic Peoples
Archaeological Treasures
Prehistoric Farmers
Population Change
The Anasazi "collapse"
Pueblo Peoples
Western Apache
Navajo (Diné)
Southern Paiute
Spanish Exploration
Mormon Pioneers
Anglo Settlement

peoplebutton.gif (1940 bytes)Spanish Exploration

The first Spanish to see any part of the Southwest were shipwreck survivors Alvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and his three companions, including a north African named Estavan. They were also the first to tell the fantastic stories of unbelievably rich cities in the southwest, the fabulous Seven Cities of Cíbola. Estavan was perhaps the first person from the Old World (he was from Morocco) to reach the Colorado Plateau (probably in 1536).  He followed the San Pedro River Valley north until finally reaching the Zuni city Cibola, then known as Hawikuh. Estaban arrived before the rest of the group, and accounts of his fate vary. Some believe he died there. Other reports say that the Zuni rescued him from slavery by reporting that he had died. They then allowed Esteban to live among them and raise a family.

The promise of silver and gold in the southwest triggered the entrada of Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540. He and his small army also reached Hawikuh, took it by force, and made it the center of their operations. Coronado sent Captain Pedro de Tovar and a small force west where they fought a pitched battle with the Hopi. García López de Cárdenas, another member of his entrada, became the first European to see the Grand Canyon.

Coronado’s failure to find great cities of gold and silver put an end to Spanish designs on the region for the next forty years. In 1583 Antonio de Espejo led nine soldiers and more than 100 Zunis on a search for precious metals to the north central part of Arizona. They claimed the territory of the Hopis for Philip II of Spain.

A group of colonists under Juan de Oñate were the first white people to see the San Francisco Peaks, which they named the Sierra Sin Agua (Mountains without water). Driven back to the Zuni pueblos and eventually to the Rio Grande by a bitter winter, Oñate commissioned one of his captains – Marcos Farfán de los Godos – to search for the riches instead.

Farfán and his eight companions came back from the timbered country of the Mogollon Rim with fantastic stories of Indians who lived on the odor of food alone, who slept underwater, and had ears large enough to shade a dozen people. The Viceroy, unamused by his presumption, recalled him to Mexico.

For the next hundred years the only Spanish who bothered to venture west onto the Plateau were Franciscan missionaries eager to save souls. Their progress was slow, dangerous, and, as far as the Hopis were concerned, largely futile. What the Hopi did accept were Old World plants like wheat and peach trees and Old World animals like goats and sheep.

The Spaniards were further discouraged by the raiding of the Apaches and Navajos. The fluid ways of the Apacheans confounded the hierarchical and bureaucratic ways of people that swore absolute allegiance to both the Spanish Crown and the Roman Catholic Church. The Spanish were able to re-conquer the Pueblo Peoples of the Southwest twelve years after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, but they never did gain control of the Navajos or Apaches. Their continued raiding served to discourage significant white settlement on the Colorado Plateau for another 150 years.

On July 29,1776, two Franciscan priests and eight civilians set out from Santa Fe to find and establish a route to the Spanish missions in California. The adventurers journeyed through much of Utah and western Colorado, traveling as far as the Salt Lake Valley before illness and hunger forced them to abandon their search. The route to California remained a mystery, and the explorers returned to Santa Fe early in 1777. Their journals are of interest to land use-historians of the Colorado Plateau; they describe a lush, mountainous land filled with game and timber, strange ruins of stone cities and villages, and rivers showing signs of precious metals. They encountered Indians who were hunters and gatherers as well as those who practiced agriculture at varying levels of sophistication.

Arguably the greatest impact on human land-use by the Spanish was the drastic reduction in Native American populations due to the introduction of European diseases. At the time of Spanish incursions in the 1500s, about 100,000 Native Americans lived in about 100 communities in northern Arizona and central New Mexico. Following the devastating 1780 smallpox epidemic which seemed to have had little effect on Navajos but was disastrous for Hopis, other Pueblos, and probably the Paiutes, Native American populations on the Colorado Plateau had probably become a small fraction of that number. While smallpox and measles were the biggest killers, the web of endemic and epidemic disease was a complex gestalt, one in which the whole was decidedly more ruinous than the sum of its lethal parts.


Beers, H. P. 1979. Spanish and Mexican Records of the American Southwest. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Coues, E. 1900. On the Trail of a Spanish Pioneer: The Diary and Itinerary of Francisco Graces. Vol. 2. Francis B. Harper, New York.

de Buys, W. 1985. Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Gregg, J. 1954. Commerce of the Plains. Bobbs-Merrill, New York, NY.

MacCameron, R. 1994. Environmental Change in Colonial New Mexico. Environmental History Review 18 (Summer): 17-39.

Meyer, M. C. 1984. Water in the Hispanic Southwest: A Social and Legal History, 1550-1850. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.

Schroeder, A. H. 1979. Pueblos abandoned in recent times. Pp. 236-254 In: Ortiz, A., editor. Handbook of North American Indians: Southwest. 9. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Spicer, E. H. 1962. Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, 609 pp.

Sunseri, A. 1973. Agricultural techniques in New Mexico at the time of the Anglo-American conquest. Agricultural History 49: 329-337.