The French and the Spanish
Toward the end of the fifteenth century, the nations of western Europe began the age of discovery, exploration, and colonization of the "Great Frontier." An eminent historian defined the Great Frontier as "all the lands discovered by Christopher Columbus and his associates." Missouri, standing in the heart of the vast Mississippi Valley region of North America, was a part of that Great Frontier. When the first European explorer entered the Mississippi Valley and encountered the mighty river, he opened the first chapter of the recorded history of Missouri.
In 1539 Hernando de Soto, a wealthy Spanish noble who had been with Francisco Pizarro in the conquest of Peru, landed on the west coast of Florida with 600 men, 213 horses, large herds of swine, packs of dogs, and a quantity of provisions. Strongly motivated to expand Spain's dominion over the New World, to convert the Indians to Christianity and, more importantly, to amass great fortunes of gold and silver, de Soto set forth on a journey that would take him west to the Mississippi. Indian captives told him of rich lands, cities, and people who wore golden helmets when they went into battle farther to the west. De Soto's band crossed into Arkansas on barges just south of present-day Memphis in 1541. On the west bank he learned from the Indians that not far from their encampment were salt and a yellowish metal. He dispatched two of his men to accompany the Indians in search of these materials. They may have reached the Saline River near Ste. Genevieve before they returned with specimens of salt and copper. If so, de Soto's men were the first Europeans to come in contact with the land and the Indians of Missouri.