The Spaniard Francisco Vazquez de Coronado and his entourage were the first Europeans to enter the territory that became Kansas.1 Coronado and his men left
Mexico City, traveled to New Mexico, and then headed northeastward onto the plains. In 1541 Coronado entered what is now Kansas, where he spent some three months before returning to Mexico. On this trip Vazquez de Coronado and his men were looking for Gran Quivira, a town on the plains about which the Pueblo Indians had told him. Gran Quivira was part of a network of trade that extended to Mexico.2
Five hundred years ago, central Kansas held Indian towns made possible by agricultural improvements and by trade routes that connected Pueblo Indians of the Southwest, the hunters and farmers of the plains, the riverine Indians of the east and south, and the civilizations of the Valley of Mexico.
As Spain consolidated its colonial empire, Kansas was further drawn into its domain. Spanish traders now joined the Indians working the networks to the north, as did occasional Spanish military expeditions. As a result people and products flowed between New Spain and Kansas. Indians who were detribalized (genizaros) through colonial warfare and slave trading not only formed an important population of the Spanish frontier but also drew Kansas’s other Indians into the Spanish empire.
Juan de Onate, the Spanish governor of New Mexico, entered Kansas with his army in 1601 to search again for Gran Quivira.3 Other Spaniards entered Kansas to continue to colonize the Indians who had fled to Kansas after the sixteenth-century Pueblo Revolt. One such group, primarily from the pueblo of Taos, settled in western Kansas. The Spanish attacked their settlement, known as El Cuartelejo, several times.4 The Pedro de Villasur expedition of 1720 crossed Kansas on its way to contemporary Nebraska to attack the Pawnee, who were allies of the French and who had defeated Villasur and his men. In 1806, the Facundo Melgares expedition crossed Kansas to foment trade with the Indians and to contest U.S. control of the land west of the Mississippi.5
Drawn into the conflicts of European and later U.S. governments, Kansas stood between the French and the Spanish. When in 1762 Spain acquired Louisiana from the French, Kansas was part of a massive Spanish land claim in North America. The rise of Napoleon led the king of Spain to return Louisiana to the French in a secret treaty known as the Treaty of San Ildefonso. In 1803 Napoleon sold Louisiana to the North Americans. Spain did not accept the North American claim to land west of the Mississippi. Nevertheless, Spain was soon caught up in the wars of independence in its own North American colonies, and that country could not push its claims, as U.S. power and presence grew.
Kansas became a border zone between the Anglo-Americans on the Mississippi and the Spanish in New Mexico. Building on earlier trading with Santa Fe, Anglo traders from Missouri established in 1821, the year of Mexican independence, the famous Santa Fe Trail that crossed Kansas to New Mexico.6 From New Mexico the nineteenth-century Spanish trail Camino de California (now called the Old
Spanish Trail) continued to the California coast, opening trade with the Pacific.7 Kansas lay near the eastern terminus of overland highways. Traders from the population mix of New Spain and then Mexico European, Indian, and African worked this trail, as did Anglo merchants. Although the United States established a presence in Kansas through settlers and built a new history, the old connections with Mexico were not long in reasserting themselves, even though in 1848 the United States took Mexico’s northern territories.