in the first two centuries of Spanish colonization in the New World, the Chesapeake Bay (red X) was on the edge - far from the focus of Spanish settlements that stretched from Mexico into South America
Source: Library of Congress, Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio (Diego Gutierrez, 1562)
The Spanish - not the English - were the first Europeans to explore and to attempt to establish a settlement in what today is Virginia.
The Spanish considered it to be part of Florida. The southeastern coast of North America was named by Ponce de León in 1513, when he came on land at during "Pascua florida" (the Feast of the Flowers). The first European name was based on the Spanish term for Easter. Only later did a separate group of Europeans apply the name Virginia to honor their Queen Elizabeth, the "virgin queen."
Spanish explorers mapped the North American coastline north of Florida up to Newfoundland, Labrador, and Greenland by 1501. Ponce de Leon made the first major effort to establish a permanent settlement in North America in 1521. In the 1560's, Spanish officials sent a military expedition inland that explored southwestern Virginia, and in 1570 Jesuit priests tried to establish a settlement on the York River.
The English did not arrive at Roanoke Island for the first time until 1584. By the time investors in London started a settlement at Jamestown in 1607, the Spanish had been exploring, conquering, enslaving, converting, and settling at different places in the New World for over a century.
Spanish exploration of the New World was concentrated in the Carribean initially because wind patterns made it easier to sail to latitudes far to the south of Virginia - but Spanish fleets returning to Europe used westerly winds that brought ships past Florida, exposing them to attacks from any pirate base located along the coastline of North America
Source: Atlas of the Historical Geography of the United States, Natural Regions, Glaciated Areas, Ocean Currents and Maritime Explorers' Routes (Plate 1a, digitized by University of Richmond)
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, Americae sive qvartae orbis partis nova et exactissima descriptio (Diego Gutierrez, 1562)
The Spanish were not the first Europeans to reach North America. About 1,000 years ago, five centuries before Columbus sailed to the Caribbean in 1492, the Vikings built simple fishing camps in Newfoundland and Labrador.1
European colonization of the North American continent, with the establishment of permanent communities occupied throughout the entire year, followed quickly after Columbus's discoveries. The Spanish started permanent colonies in the Caribbean, and Santo Domingo (founded 1496) remains the oldest continuously-occupied colonial settlement in the New World.
During the 1500's, the English and French constructed temporary camps when fishing off the coast near Newfoundland. Those camps remained as isolated, single-purpose communities occupied only during the time when cod were being caught and dried for transport back to Europe, but English and French explorers looking for fishing grounds determined the outlines of the North American coast north of New England.
In 1541-3, the French tried to settle on the St. Lawrence River, then returned in 1603 to start again at St. Croix Island and Nova Scotia. In the six decades between those efforts, the French sought twice to build colonies on the southeastern coast of North America.
The settlement at Charlesfort (1562) collapsed before the Spanish attacked it. The French colony at Fort Caroline (1565) ended in a massacre, with Spanish soldiers executing Jean Ribaul and nearly all of the French on a Florida beach. After that exprience, the French avoided conflict with Spain by settling far north of St. Augustine. By choosing St. Croix and then Quebec, the French left an unoccupied zone on the eastern edge of the continent. The English, Dutch, and Swedes focused their North American colonization efforts in the gap between the French and Spanish.
The Spanish were agressive in protecting their claims to the New World, but did not have the resources to occupy all of the land they discovered. The Caribbean islands and Mexico/Peru became Spain's primary targets for exploitation, after the discovery of accumulated wealth that could be looted and large populations that could be exploited. Colonizing the entire North American coastline was not possible; even Caribbean islands were left with few Spanish settlers.
Spanish occupiers came to America immediately after completing their 700-year reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula. The extension of the reconquista to North Africa was blocked when local tribes in Morocco were able to defend their territories and culture, including the Muslim faith.
The Portuguese, led by Prince Henry the Navigator, were the first Iberians to explore far offshore. They conquered Ceuta and set up forts on the West African coast, seeking a path to the Spice Islands. The Portuguese lacked the military capacity and population to occupy the territories they "discovered" in Africa, but found the trade in gold and slaves so rewarding that journeys across the Atlantic Ocean were not worth the extra risk. After rouding the tip of Africa, trade with India and Asia occupied the Portuguese.
The Spanish did establish tiny enclaves in North Africa such as Melilla, but soon redirected their expansion towards North America. It was easier to seek wealth and power in the New World than to fight the Berbers in North Africa. Since the Portuguese were the first to find shipping routes around Africa to the Spice Islands, bypassing the land routes controlled by Muslims, the Spanish looked west. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean because it was the best opportunity for a new route to the spices, one not controlled by Muslims or Portuguese.
the Spanish (yellow dots) sailed west across the Atlantic Ocean because the Portuguese already dominated the potential to go south (white dots) past the Cape of Good Hope at the tip of Africa to the Spice Islands (red oval)
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
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). Most, but not all of the Spanish efforts to explore/settle North America came from nearby Caribbean bases on Hispaniola, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. In contrast to the colonization pattern of the English, the Spanish rarely sent a fleet of ships loaded with colonists directly to North America from Spain.2
in the 1600's the English and French established claims north of St. Augustine, limiting the extent of the Spanish province of Florida
Source: Library of Congress, La Floride (by Nocholas Sanson, 1657)
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. He brought seed to plant and livestock (cattle, pigs, horses, sheep, and goats) to support the 200+ Spanish colonists making the first attempt to create a permanent colony in North America after Columbus's discovery.
The local Calusa tribe successfully resisted the attempt to occupy their territory near modern-day Fort Myers. Ponce de Leon abandoned the colonization project, and soon afterwards he died in Cuba from an arrow wound.
Europeans brought new technology to North America, but needed food from Native Americans to survive initially
Source: Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, Theodor de Bry, Brevis narratio eorum quae in Florida Americae provincia Gallis acciderunt ... : quae est secunda pars Americae (1591)
English settlements in Virginia (1607) and Massachusetts (1620) are over 80 years 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 efforts to start colonies in the 1520's. Almost 20 years before Sir Walter Ralegh sent people to the Outer Banks, the Spanish had succeeded in building St. Augustine, a full-scale and permanently-occupied town in North America.3
The Spanish chose to focus their investment in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, but they did explore North America. After various ships mapped the edge of the continent from the Caribbean to Newfoundland, Spain sent expeditions that explored inland from the Carolina coastline to the Mississippi River and Mexico.
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. That same year, 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 Ayllón. He took a South Carolina native later named Francisco de Chicora back to Spain in 1521, and Chicora spun tall tales about mineral wealth in the New World and succeded in getting a trip back home. 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 near the South Santee River, then moved south to Sapelo Sound (in modern Georgia south of Savannah) and founded a settlement called San Miguel de Guadelupe.
Virginia was mapped as part of the land of Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon in 1529, while Estevao Gomes's name was assigned to New England on the secret master map kept in Spain (Padrón Real) for informing ship captains before they sailed
Source: Library of Congress, Carta universal en que se contiene todo lo que del mundo se ha descubierto fasta agora (by Diego Ribero, 1529)
Ayllón had invested his personal fortune, but the settlers did not choose their final site until October. It was too late to plant crops, and the local inhabitants were not friendly. The 600 colonists got sick and hungry, and then Ayllón died. After just three months, the survivors returned to Hispanola and San Miguel de Guadelupe was a failure. Ayllón's 1526 colony, in what today is Georgia, was the second attempt by any European nation to create a permanent settlement in North America (after Ponce de Leon's failure near what today is Tampa).
the Spanish effort to settle at Winyah Bay/Sapelo Sound in 1526 preceded English settlements on Roanoke Island/Jamestown by nearly 60 years
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The next major expedition to North America was also led by a Spaniard seeking to become richer from new discoveries. In 1528, 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 (modern 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 (including Cabeza de Vaca and a black slave known as Estaban) reached Mexico City.4
The next Spanish investment in exploring North America was Hernando de Soto's party between 1539 to 1543. It traveled inland from Tampa. Finding Juan Ortiz, a survivor of Narvaez expedition, provided de Soto a translator and guide.
Hernando de Soto's group went much deeper into the interior of today's southeastern United States, and came close to the modern-day boundaries of Virginia. In 1540, his explorers camped at the Native American town of Xuala near what is now the town of Morganton, North Carolina.
The Spanish then turned west and headed towards Mexico. De Soto's men were the first Europeans to cross the Blue Ridge, going through the mountains where what is now called the French Broad River cuts through Swannanoa Gap.5
Hernando de Soto came close to Virginia in 1540, and 27 years later a party from the Juan Pardo expedition may have crossed what is the modern state boundary to modern-day Saltville
Map: Library of Congress, Carte de la Louisiane et du cours du Mississipi (1718)
That expedition brought Spanish goods into Native American communities, and some items must have been traded into Virginia. That expedition may not have brought pandemic-causing diseases such as smallpox. The soldiers were adults who had survived the killer infections. The Spanish who made it to Xuala had already lived though the stage of smallpox when they could have infected others.
The soldiers probably brought other diseases, such as influenza and malaria, into the Piedmont region. Those diseases can spread to other people, but would not trigger pandemics that would depopulate the region. 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.
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
Much later, English colonists in the Carolinas set up a slave trade to capture Native Americans. If the Spanish had not already brought depopulating diseases, the English did. Pandemics during the English colonization period killed most of the people within Native American towns.
The drastic decline of population in the Carolina Piedmont and Tennessee River watershed triggered reorganization of Native American communities, leading to formation of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, and other Muskoghean-speaking tribes. The depopulation reduced the potential to capture slaves locally, and Carolinians then increased imports of black slaves from Africa.6
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. The pressure for Spain 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 African 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-treasure-fleet efforts, those European nations did consider establishing bases in North America. The Spanish recognized the need to establish their own North American bases to protect Spanish ships, and to block European rivals from establishing privateering/pirate bases on the Atlantic Ocean coastline.
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 in "Florida" was a low priority.
The Spanish did not try to build bases in the latitude of Virginia, far north along the Atlantic coast from the Caribbean, for two reasons:
1) the treasure fleet sailed east, away from the coast, once it had reached the 34° of latitude
2) supplying bases far north from the island of Hispaniola (today occupied by Haiti and Santa Dominigo) was logistically too difficult
Spanish treasure fleets returning to Europe used the Gulf Stream to go north past Florida (perhaps as far as New York) in order to catch westerly winds across the North Atlantic, so an English colony in Virginia was a threat because it could support potential pirates
Source: Geographicus, Ocean Atlantique ou Mer du Nord (by Pierre Mortier, 1693)
The Spanish did see a need to establish a foothold on the North American continent, in the province they called Florida. Some sort of base would enhance the legitimacy of the Spanish legal claims, pre-empting other European nations from asserting that they had discovered and occupied vacant land with no Christian presence. A base on the Atlantic Ocean might also help rescue shipwrecked Spanish sailors who might manage to reach the mainland and then get Native Americans to bring them to a known Spanish outpost.
In 1557, Spanish King Philip 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).
By choosing that location on the eastern edge of North America, the Spanish returned to the site of Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon's failed settlement at San Miguel de Guadelupe. That location was relatively easy to supply from the Caribbean or even directly from Spain, but not as easy to supply from Mexico as anticipated.
Spanish maps recorded latitude correctly, but they were off the mark for longitude. East-west distances were not calculated with great accuracy until a portable timekeeper was developed by the English in the 1730's. Spanish and English officials in the 1600's assumed the North American continent was more narrow than it really was, and that distances from the Atlantic Coast shoreline to the Ohio and Mississippi rivers were shorter than reality.
The Spanish assumed a base on the Atlantic Ocean coastline would be close enough to Mexico to be supplied in part by an overland route. Their basic misunderstanding of longitude led Spanish officials to think they could establish an outpost somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico, send ships from Mexico to that base, and then carry supplies overland to an Atlantic Ocean base easier than sailing from Mexico through the dangerous straights around Florida.
That led the Spanish to create one settlement on the Gulf Coast, Santa Maria de Filipino (Pensacola). It was founded in 1559, but abandoned in 1561.7
Spain planned to supply an Atlantic Coast base by a overland route from a Gulf of Mexico base, which would be supplied by ship from Mexico
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
The French finally 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 and resulted in the "Lost Colony." Ribault's French garrison lacked food, and there was a mutiny after leaders exiled one person and left him 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 to France 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, the effort was partly an attempt to create a refuge for Protestant Huguenots fleeing religious persecution in France. They built the settlement of La Caroline (named after King Charles IX) at a location on the St. Johns River near modern Jacksonville, Florida. The French had visited that site in 1562 before moving north to Charlesfort.
the French built La Caroline in 1564 on the St. Johns River, near modern Jacksonville
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés obtained authority from Spanish King Philip II to govern lands in Spain's "Florida." Menéndez knew 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 there was still potential for private profit.
An additional incentive for him was that his son had disappeared in a storm near Bermuda when the treasure fleet was returning in 1561. It was possible the son's ship had struggled back to the mainland and he had survived in a Native American community, awaiting rescue.
The king provided little funding for the expedition initially:8
Then the king received reports of new French settlements in Florida, and increased royal support. Pedro Menéndez de Avilés finally sailed from Cadiz on June 29, 1565 with 19 ships and 1,500 people. Sailing from Spain was a different approach than the one used in 1526 by Lucas Vasquez de Ayllón, who had reruited his 600 colonists and had sailed from Hispaniola to start the colony of San Miguel de Guadelupe back in 1526.
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
Menéndez arrived just after Ribault brought new supplies and colonists to La Caroline, so the Spanish sailed south and started there base on August 28, 1565 (St. Augustine's day). The French sought to strike first at the temporary Spanish camp on the Florida coast, but the Spanish got lucky. Ribault's ships were wrecked by a storm, and the Spanish recognized that La Caroline was not protected by enough soldiers. They quickly attacked and captured La Caroline, converting it into their own Fort San Mateo.
The Spanish also discovered that the French soldiers and sailors who had tried to attack the temporary Spanish camp and survived the storm were stranded on a beach south of St. Augustine. The French were defenseless and surrendered without a fight, but received little mercy. The Catholic Spanish executed Jean Ribault and almost all of the rest of the French Protestants (Huguenots), at a site known ever since as Matanzas (Massacre) Inlet.9
Menéndez followed up on the destruction of the French fort on the St. Johns River and the execution of the "trespassing" Huguenots, by constructing the town of St. Augustine in 1565. It is the oldest continuously-occupied European settlement in North America.
in 1565 La Caroline (1) was destroyed, the shipwrecked French were executed at Matanzas Inlet (2), and St. Augustine (3) was founded
Map Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
In 1566, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés moved north after hearing the French were returning to Charlesfort. He built Fort San Salvador and established his second settlement at Santa Elena. He chose to maintain Santa Elena (not St. Augustine) as Spain's primary settlement on the mainland.
From Santa Elena, Menéndez planned to construct an overland road to the silver mines at Zacatecas, Mexico. Longitude was hard to calculate before accurate portable clocks were available, however, and he miscalculated the distance to be just 780 miles rather than the actual 1,800 miles.
Menéndez anticipated Santa Elena would be an agricultural and trading colony generating a profit, not a military base extending Spanish control to the north. However, after the conflict with the French at La Caroline, King Phillip II of Spain sent 250 men under the leadership of Juan Pardo as reinforcements to Santa Elena.10
There was not enough food for everyone at the settlement, especially after the unplanned military forces arrived. A new and larger Fort San Felipe was built at Santa Elena.11
In part to cope with the limited food supply, Juan Pardo led half of the soldiers 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, the site known to de Sota as "Xuala" was called "Joara."
Hernando de Soto stayed at Xuala (near modern-day Morganton, NC, 60 miles south of North Carolina/Virginia border) in 1540, and Juan Pardo returned in 1567 when it was called Joara
Source: Library of Congress, Peruuiae avriferæ regionis typus / Didaco Mendezio auctore. La Florida / auctore Hieron. Chiaues. Guastecan reg. (1584)
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.
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)
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.12
in 1567, Hernando Moyano led a foray from Fort San Juan near modern Morganton to destroy a Chiscas community that may have been near modern Saltville
Map: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
As a result of that expedition to Maniateque, it is possible that the first Europeans to enter Virginia were members of that 1567 expedition led by Hernando Moyano - not counting the occasional sailors seeking water, food, information, loot, and female companionship on the shoreline.
Europeans would not gain a clear understanding of territory that far inland 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 Elena until 1576. Menéndez died in 1574, and his sons-in-law took control but were unwilling to cooperate in managing the colony. The local Native Americans attacked and, after the Spanish retreated to St. Augustine, destroyed the town of Santa Elena and Fort San Felipe.
A new governor of Florida replaced Menéndez's sons-in-law and returned with soldiers in 1577. He built yet another fort there, Fort San Marcos. After Sir Francis Drake attacked St. Augustine in 1586, the Spanish decided to contract their defense perimeter. They abandoned Santa Elena, burned Fort San Marcos, and retreated to St. Augustine. That town, settled 42 years before Jamestown was started in Virginia, remains as the oldest continuously-occupied European place in North America.13
Spanish explorations towards the silver mines at Zacatecas in Mexico may have led to a side trip into Virginia by Hernando Moyano and 20 soldiers in 1567
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online
King John II of Portugal declined to support Columbus' planned expedition to Southeast Asia, but King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Spain funded his 1492 trip - so the first Europeans to settle in the New World were Spanish
Source: Architect of the Capitol, Landing of Columbus