The Forgotten Story of Spanish Conquerors in North America
Official history says that the Spanish colonizers in America were focused on the territory from Mexico to the end of South America. For centuries, there was the question of why the Spaniards didn't decide to try to conquer further north. Artifacts from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries bring a new light to this topic.
It is known that the Spanish claimed territories in what is today part of the United States of America. In the 16th century, they had explored the southern area of the country. For example, in Florida, the St Augustine fort was established by the Spanish in 1565. The impact of the Spanish way of understanding Roman Catholicism is evident in this region. The Spanish also influenced the economy in this area and attacked local Native Americans.
There are three known conquerors who explored the southern parts of the USA: Juan Ponce de Leon, Hernando De Soto and Francisco Vazquez de Coronado. It seems unbelievable that the Spanish, known as great conquerors and wanderlusts, stopped exploring the continent due to the British domination. Or perhaps they did?
Two (or more) Spanish Galleons
The greatest mystery comes in the form of two wrecks of Spanish galleons discovered on the Oregon Coast, near the mouth of the Columbia River. There are no official Spanish reports about lost expeditions or ships in this area. It is believed that there is also another galleon lost in this region, but it has not been located. There is speculation about several other lost ships in the area and even closer to Alaska, although none of them have been discovered.
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The first ship was lost in 1694, and the second one in 1735. The Spanish galleons sailed on North for the first time in 1542. Some documents show that with time they traveled to Cortes Island, which has a name that reflects the Spanish presence. They also went to British Columbia and at the beginning of the new century – to Alaska.
Areas of Alaska and British Columbia Explored by Spain. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The wreck from 1694 is well known because of the huge blocks of beeswax which were a part of its cargo. The wax was intended to be turned into candles in one of Spanish churches, but nobody knows which one. It was dug out of the sand of the beach near the site where the wreck lies.
The discovered galleons are both well preserved. The ship which sank in 1725 is well known in resources because one of the survivors had a son who wrote down the story of his father. He explained that he was a son of a Spanish sailor who came near the Columbia River on a galleon which had sunk. His father lived with local Native Americans for a while and then he made a decision to travel near the river to find other Europeans. Local oral history says that most of the Spanish soldiers who survived the catastrophe were killed during a battle on the coast.
A Legendary battle
In British Columbia, a legend is still alive connected with the territory of the southern part of the Okanagan Valley. It talks about a fight between Spanish soldiers and natives in the Similkameen Valley. According to the official history books, the first time when the people of the Valley saw Europeans was around 1811 AD.
However, local oral history describes white men with strange helmets and armors, riding something that they called ''elk''. (Horses were unknown for people who lived in Similkameen Valley during those times.) The new people are said to have set up camp near the native village, which is known as Keremeos nowadays. The local history places this event before the middle 1700s. It says the white people killed several natives and tried to make others their slaves.
In 1863, a wooden construction which was judged to be over 100 years old was discovered by explorers in the place of a possible Spanish camp. It looks like a space the Spanish used to shelter men and their horses. Burials of dogs with large mouths and teeth, traditionally used by Spanish to guard prisoners, were also discovered.
Canadian wine region of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. (CC BY 2.0)
The Mysterious Sword
In Penticton Museum, one can find a couple of artifacts that are linked to the Spanish but discovered locally in the Keremeos region. These include a very well preserved Spanish sword, a spearhead, and a Spanish helmet. The results of analysis are very clear – all of the artifacts belonged to Spanish soldiers.
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In local legend, it is said that the sword belonged to the ''Turtle People'', which was the name used by the locals for the Spanish who explored North America in their characteristic armor. However, a different theory explains the identity of the sword as made in Sri Lanka in the 16th century. This does not necessarily refute the Spanish having been the owners though, as this kind of sword could have belonged to a Spanish sailor who was in Asia. The expeditions of the Spanish to Asia through the Pacific were very common.
Armor worn by the Spanish conquistadors. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Other weapons, which may be Spanish as well, are located in Vernon Museum in Canada. The collection of the Kamloops Museum also contains a head of a half-pike, the type of weapon used by Spaniards in the mid-17th century. It is possible that they come from the 16th century, but it is likely that they were created a few centuries later. It is still difficult to confirm if the Spanish sword is just a local tale or real proof of Spanish appearance in this area.
Unprepared Attempts to Obtain Land
With new discoveries, researchers become more certain that the Spanish did not allow the British to hold all the land of North America. They probably made attempts themselves, but it is likely they were not well prepared for the reality of the colder parts of the continent.
The rising number of discoveries which confirm that the Spanish made an attempt to obtain a part of North America still doesn't provide the answers for many intriguing questions. Thus, the story stays a legend in a local museums and tourism brochures. Perhaps the best confirmation would be the discovery of a burial site near the Okanagan, but several groups have tried, and failed, to find it.
Featured image: Hernando De Soto and Spanish Conquistadores seeing the Mississippi River for the first time. (Public Domain)
Davis, Harold E., The Americas in History, 1953.
Vickers, Daniel, A Companion to Colonial America, 2003.
Boff, Leonardo, Quinientos años de evangelización. De la conquista espiritual a la liberación integral, 1992.