the first Spanish to see Virginia were sailors, but the first to explore inland may have been the soldiers with Hernando Moyano who attacked Maniateque, near modern Saltville (red X) in Smyth County
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS online (with Virginia_DCR_2004_Boundaries - Virginia DCR 2004)
The Spaniards - not the English - were the first Europeans to explore and to attempt to establish a settlement in what today is Virginia. The Spanish did not name the region after Queen Elizabeth, the "virgin queen." Instead, they considered it to be part of Florida.
Spanish explorers mapped the North American coastline north of Florida up to Cape Breton Island in Canada. In the 1560's, Spanish officials sent a military expedition inland that explored southwestern Virginia, and in 1570 tried to establish a settlement on the York River.
The Spanish explored the eastern coast of North America extensively and established settlements in several locations along the Atlantic Coast in order to:
1562 map showing Chesapeake Bay as Bahia de Santa Maria - but blurring distinction between Susquehanna and Delaware rivers
Source: Library of Congress, 1562 map by Diego Gutiérrez, Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio
The Spanish were the first Europeans to reach Virginia, but not the first to reach North America. About 1,000 years ago, 500 years before Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492, the Vikings built simple fishing camps in Newfoundland and Labrador.
During the 1500's, the English, French, and others also constructed fishing camps in the far north when fishing off the Canadian coast. Those camps remained as isolated, single-purpose communities occupied only during the time when cod were being caught. European colonization of the North American continent, with the establishment of permanent communities occupied throughout the entire year, started in the 16th Century at other sites located further south. The French did not start to settle Canada until 1605 at Port Royal, in Nova Scotia, and 1608 further up the St. Lawrence River at Quebec.
The Spanish focused on North America after continuation of their reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula (the reconquista) was thwarted in North Africa. Local tribes in Morocco were able to defend their territories and culture, including the Muslim faith. The Portuguese could establish only trading forts and enclaves such as Ceuta; they lacked the military capacity to conquer and settle vast territories in Africa, India, or Asia. After Columbus's discovery, the Caribbean islands and Mexico/Peru became Spain's primary targets for exploitation, and many of the efforts to explore/settle North America came from nearby Caribbean bases.1
English explorers looking for fishing grounds first determined the outlines of the North American coast north of New England. The Spanish created detailed maps on the southern part of the East Coast, starting in 1514 as slavehunters stole Native Americans to replace the declining native populations on Hispaniola (modern-day Haiti/Santo Domingo).
Ponce de Leon led the first major European exploration of the North American continent into Florida in 1513, then returned in 1521 with 200 people to start a new settlement near modern-day Tampa. Settlements in Virginia (1607) and Massachusetts (1620) are a century too late to be the location of "the first colony" started by Europeans on the North American continent. Settlement initiatives by the English, starting in 1584 at Roanoke Island, came long after the Spanish had already figured out how to start a colony, and after the Spanish had succeeded in building full-scale towns in North America.2
Estevao Gomes, a Portuguese pilot working for the Spanish, mapped the New England coastline in 1524. He named Cape Cod "Cabo de las Arenas" and brought Native Americans back to Spain as slaves in 1525. Also in 1525, Captain Pedro de Quejo mapped the coastline from Florida to Delaware, sailing along the Virginia shore on that trip but capturing no slaves.
One Spanish slavehunter was Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon, who took a South Carolina native (named Francisco de Chicora) back to Spain in 1521. Ayllon’s first attempt at settlement involved a six-ship expedition with 600 people. It left from Hispaniola in 1526, including his captive Native American. They landed at Winyah Bay (South Santee River), then moved south to Sapelo Sound (modern Georgia) and founded San Miguel de Guadelupe.
Ayllón had invested his personal fortune, but the settlers did not choose their final site until October when it was too late to plant crops. The 600 colonists got sick and hungry, and then Ayllón died. After just three months, the survivors returned to Hispanola. Though it was a failure, the second attempt by any European nation to create a permanent settlement in North America was Ayllón's 1526 colony, San Miguel de Guadelupe in Georgia.
The next major expedition to North America was also led by a Spaniard seeking to become richer from new discoveries. In 1527, Pánfilo de Narváez took 300 soldiers on his expedition through Florida. They landed at the site of modern Tampa and spent the winter at Apalachee (Tallahassee), before traveling west along the Gulf Coast. The resupply ships and the land party failed to link up on the coast, leaving the expedition on its own. Eight years later in 1536, the only four people to survive the trip reached Mexico City.3
The next Spanish investment in exploring North America was Hernando de Soto's party between 1539 to 1543. It traveled inland from Apalachee, going much deeper into the interior of today's southeastern United States, and came close to the modern-day boundaries of Virginia. In 1540, the Spanish camped at the Native American town of Xuala near what is now the town of Morganton, North Carolina, then turned west and headed towards Mexico.4
That expedition brought Spanish goods and diseases into Native American communities, with some perhaps spreading into Virginia. That expedition probably did not initiate pandemic-causing diseases such as smallpox. The soldiers were adults who had survived the killer infections, and had lived though the stage when they could have infected others. The soldiers may well have brought influenza and malaria into the Piedmont region, but the damage done by those diseases would have been limited to just a small number of Native Americans living near the path of the exploration party.
Much later, after English colonists in the Carolinas set up a slave trade to capture Native Americans, pandemic diseases did spread widely. Those pandemics killed most of the people within Native American towns, depopulated the Carolina Piedmont and Tennessee River watershed, and triggered reorganization of Native American groups into the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and other Muskoghean-speaking tribes. That decline in the Native American population reduced the potential to capture slaves locally, and Carolinians then increased imports of slaves from Africa.5
Spain dominated exploration of North America for a century. For the first six decades of the 1500's, France, England, and the Netherlands lacked the capacity to create colonies in the New World and compete with Spain or Portugal, and the pressure to occupy North America was minimal.
The Spaniards focused on pillaging the native tribes in Mexico and South America of their gold and silver, sending shiploads of looted wealth back across the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal chose to focus on Brazil and the slave trade, after dividing its claims to the New World with Spain under the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.
However, European rivals were able to capture Spanish ships carrying New World wealth back home, even when the nations were not officially at war. To support the intercept-the-Spanish-fleet efforts, those European nations did consider establishing bases in North America. The Spanish recognized the need to establish their own North American bases on the Atlantic Ocean to protect Spanish ships, and to block European rivals from establishing rival fortifications on the coast.
The Spanish recognized the threat, but did not have a large enough population in the Western Hemisphere to plant settlements everywhere. The priority locations for Spanish occupation were the Caribbean islands, South America, and Mexico. Expanding to the north and planting settlements up the North American coast was a low priority.
In 1557, Spanish King Felipe II ordered his viceroy in Mexico to build a Gulf of Mexico base, then carve an overland path to a base on the Atlantic Ocean coastline. That base was planned at Santa Elena (Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River); the Spanish were returning essentially to the site of Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon's failed settlement at San Miguel de Guadelupe.
While the Spanish maps recorded latitude correctly, they were inaccurate for longitude; east-west distances were unclear. The basic misunderstanding of longitude led Spanish officials to think they could supply a Gulf of Mexico station by ship from Mexico, and carry supplies overland easier than sail around the dangerous straights around Florida.
Santa Maria de Filipino (Pensacola) was founded in 1559, but abandoned in 1561.6
The Spanish did not try to build bases further north along the Atlantic coast, in the latitude of Virginia, for two reasons:
Spain planned to supply an Atlantic Coast base by a overland route from a Gulf of Mexico base
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
possible paths of Hernando de Soto expedition through the Southeast, 1539-40
(archeological evidence now supports the blue section through Xuala)
Source: National Park Service, Cultural Overview, Ninety Six National Historic Site
The French triggered the Spaniards to build fortifications on the Atlantic Ocean coastline.
In 1562, Jean Ribault built Charlesfort at Port Royal near the modern Marine Corps base at Parris Island, South Carolina (today known for its Marine Corps training base). Jean Ribaut and most of his men returned to France, leaving behind a token force of 27 men.
Resupply from France was interrupted by conflict in Europe (a precursor to what would happen to English colonists left on Roanoke Island in 1587, resulting in the "Lost Colony.") The French garrison lacked food, and mutinied after one person was been exiled and left to starve. That person was rescued from exile, the colonists built a ship to return to Europe, and the French abandoned their first base in North America without ever seeing the Spanish.
After running out of food on the sail home to Europe, the refugees returning home turned to cannibalism. They drew lots to see who would be killed for food. By chance, the person who "won" the lottery and was eaten was the one who had been rescued from starvation by the mutiny. Exploration and occupation of North America was a dangerous business...
In 1564, the French returned to start a new base, this time in part to create a refuge for Protestant Huguenots who were fleeing religious persecution in France. They chose a location south of their old site at Charlesfort. The settlement of La Caroline (named after King Charles IX) was built on the St. Johns River near modern Jacksonville, Florida.
In response, the Spaniards established new towns in what today is Florida and South Carolina, and proceeded to eliminate the French.
As the French threat developed, Pedro Menendez de Aviles (son of Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon) obtained authority from the King of Spain to govern the Atlantic coastline from the Florida Keys to Newfoundland. He had to raise money from private sources - not the royal treasury - to develop his claim.
The Spanish recognized from previous explorations by Pánfilo de Narváez and Hernando de Soto that North American tribes had not accumulated storehouses of gold or silver comparable to civilzations in Mexico and Peru, but when the king authorized a person to be adelantado, the vast control over land and people still offered a path to greater influence and wealth. From the king of Spain's perspective, new towns along the coast would limit the ability of European rivals to sail from American bases and capture Spanish treasure ships - but a key stimulant for Spanish leaders to attempt settlements in North America remained the potential for private profit.
Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sailed from Cadiz with 1,000 people and built St. Augustine in Florida in 1565. The Spanish got lucky when ships sent from France to support La Caroline were wrecked by a storm off the Atlantic Coast. The Spanish quickly attacked and destroyed La Caroline north of St. Augustine on the St. Johns River, then found the French survivors who were stranded and defenseless on a beach south of St. Augustine. The Catholic Spanish quickly executed Jean Ribault and all the rest of the Huguenots (French Protestants) at a site known ever since as Matanzas (Massacre) Inlet.7
In 1566, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés then built the town of Santa Elena near the old French fort at Charlesfort. He made Santa Elena (not St. Augustine) his headquarters, and planned to construct an overland road from Santa Elena to the silver mines at Zacatecas, Mexico. He miscalculated the distance to be just 780 miles, not the actual 1800 miles.
Santa Elena was designed to be an agricultural colony, not a military base. However, after the conflict with the French at La Caroline, the King of Spain sent 250 men under the leadership of Juan Pardo as reinforcements to Santa Elena.8
Spain planned Santa Elena to protect its treasure ships from privateers, and the French bases at Charlesfort (1562) and La Caroline (1564) triggered the founding of St. Augustine in 1565
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
There was not enough food for everyone at the settlement, especially after the unplanned military forces arrived, so Pardo led half the force on an exploration of the interior towards the Spanish settlements in Mexico. In 1567, the Juan Pardo expedition established Fort San Juan near the Blue Ridge at the same town where de Soto had camped in 1540. In 1567, Xuala was called Joara.
Juan Pardo established and attempted to maintain a series of inland forts. The forts would gave Spain some control inland from the coast, but a major benefit was that the soldiers could live off resources not available at Santa Elena. Pardo left his sergeant Hernando Moyano in command at Fort San Juan (Xuala/Joara), moved further inland to build another fort at Guatari near modern Salisbury, North Carolina, and then returned to Santa Elana.
In his efforts to maintain the support of the Native Americans at Fort San Juan (Xuala/Joara), Moyano became ensnared in local disputes between different Native American groups. He took 20 soldiers north, perhaps crossing into what is now Virginia, and attacked the Chiscas tribe's town of Maniateque. That town may have been near modern Saltville in Smyth County.9
As a result of that expedition, it is possible that the first Europeans to enter Virginia - other than occasional sailors seeking water, food, information, loot, and female companionship on the shoreline - were members of that 1567 expedition led by Hernando Moyano. Europeans would not gain a clear understanding of that territory far from the Chesapeake Bay for another 150 years, when explorers such as Dr. Thomas Walker mapped a route through the mountains at Cumberland Gap.
The inland forts of the Spanish were all destroyed within a year under pressure from local Native Americans. The Spanish retained control of the seacoast at Santa Eleana until it was abandoned in 1587, after Sir Francis Drake attacked St. Augustine. St. Augustine, first settled 42 years before Jamestown in Virginia, remains as the oldest continually occupied European place in North America.