Spanish Sea: The Gulf of Mexico in North American Discovery, 1500-1685

By Robert S. Weddle | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 19
Tierra Incógnita: The Northern Gulf in the "Forgotten Century"

AT the end of the sixteenth century, the Gulf of Mexico littoral from Yucatán to the Río Pánuco had been explored and to some extent settled. As the Spanish occupation advanced northward through Nuevo León, it left unconquered and only partially explored a thin stretch of coast between the Pánuco and the Río Grande. Beyond, from the Río Grande to the Florida cape, lay extensive shoreline as yet touched only by a few abortive expeditions, the records of which were inadequate and confusing. Neither Pedro Menéndez de Avilés nor Luis de Carvajal had made good his promise to pacify and settle it. During the first three-quarters of the seventeenth century, no singular expedition extended the conquest or broadened geographical concepts in the Gulf region. Rather, the period was marked by a gradual advance of the frontiers with few decisive thrusts into the unknown. The march of discovery had slowed to a crawl, impeded by Spain's mounting colonial rivalry with other European powers, the record of consecutive disasters in Tierra de Florida, and the ever precarious plight of the Spanish treasury. Yet the quest would be renewed toward the end of the "Forgotten Century" under impetus of a foreign threat of unprecedented boldness.

Carvajal's efforts in his "tragic quadrate" had provided a negative lesson for would-be discoverers. In many ways his undertaking had been cast in the image of Cortés's: his grand design for controlling the continent from sea to sea; his usurpation of prior rights; and his abuse of the natives without regard for royal regulations. The result served notice that the freebooting era of Cortés and Pedrarias Dávila had passed. Totally out of step with the times, Carvajal's bad example

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