Today, the number of Spanish speaking people in the United States is increasing. The reaction to this varies from tolerance to open hostility. Many fail to realize that for a large portion of the country, the Spanish came first.
When we think of Europeans settling in North America, or as some might say conquering North America, we automatically think of the westward expansion. We think about the original thirteen colonies revolting against England and forming the United States. We think of the pioneers crossing the prairies in covered wagons. We think of the Wild West. All of these are a part of American history. Yet at the same time that settlers were moving from the east coast inland, others were settling in the west coast. Most of these spoke Spanish.
After conquering the Aztec empire, the Spanish conquistadors went on to subjugate the other indigenous tribes in southern Mexico. By 1825, Spain ruled as far south as Guatemala and Honduras. The Spanish also explored extensively in what is now the United States. In 1539, Hernando De Soto led a group of soldiers through todays Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee, discovering the mighty Mississippi river. In 1540, Francisco Coronado led an expedition that rode through what are now Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, exploring as far as Kansas. They discovered the Grand Canyon along the way and claimed all the land they saw in the name of Spain.
The area that we now know as Mexico was originally called New Spain and governed by a viceroy appointed by the king. Towards the end 16th century, New Spain began to push its border further north through the conquest of the native people. They eventually had colonies in New Mexico, Texas, California, Florida, and Louisiana.
In the Adams-Onis treaty of 1819, the United States acquired Florida but recognized Spain's sovereignty over California, Texas, and New Mexico. As the website Californios explains, this was the mission period of California, a time when Catholic missions ruled the west coast, with the friars becoming wealthy from the servitude of the natives. The soldiers and settlers that came with the missions became known as Californios.
By 1834, Mexico had won independence from Spain and the mission properties had been seized by the new government. California was then free to trade with the United States. Its most significant trade items were the tallow and hides of cattle. In fact cowhides came to be called California banknotes, since everything else had to be brought by ship and traded for them. This dependence on cattle led to the development of a system of ranchos, or ranches. The owners of these ranches enjoyed a life of leisure, much like that enjoyed by the plantation owners of the American southwest, and for a similar reason.
While the ranch owners valued family and tradition, their wealth came from the work of others. Large numbers of Indians worked as Vaqueros, taking care of the herds of cattle. They have often been called America's first cowboys.
In 1826, the idyllic lifestyle enjoyed by these ranch owners began to change. It was in that year that Captain Jedediah Smith led a band of hunters and trappers overland to California. While they were the first to make the journey, others were to follow. In the 1840s, in keeping with the governmental policy of Manifest Destiny, the United States decided that it wanted California. By this time, Texas had fought a war of independence with Mexico, eventually becoming part of the United States. Twice, in 1835 and 1845, the United States offered to purchase California from Mexico. For perhaps obvious reasons, the Mexican government decided against selling half of its country. This eventually led to war with Mexico in the 1840s and the seizure of California, thus ending Spanish dominance on the west coast.
This is the important part of the history of the Californios and America's other first Spanish immigrants. The United States today is certainly a melting pot of people from different ethnic backgrounds. The country has a rich history of cultural diversity, with different cultures and languages making contributions to varying degrees. It's good to remember that a large part of this history was written in Spanish.