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European Explorers

The written history of Kansas began with the arrival of Spanish explorers in 1541. The first Spaniard known to visit Kansas was Francisco Vasquez de Coronado. He was looking for gold in the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola in the Land of Quivira. He did not find any riches and returned to what is now Mexico.

Father Fray Juan de Padilla, a Catholic priest who had accompanied Coronado to the area, returned a year later and attempted to convert the Indians to Christianity. The Pawnee Indians considered him a friend of their enemies, the Kansa Indians, and murdered him. 

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This oil painting shows the Coronado expedition in search of the land of Quivira. (Photo courtesy of the Kansas State Historical Society)

Francisco de Leyva y Bonnilla and Antonio Guitierrez de Humana led another Spanish expedition to Kansas in 1593. It ended when the two men had an argument and Humana killed Bonnilla. It is believed Indians killed the rest of the expedition. In 1601, the governor of New Mexico, Juan de Onate, went in search of the 1593 expedition. After questioning some Wichita Indians about the earlier expedition and receiving no clear answers, he gave up the search and returned to New Mexico.

The French laid claim to Kansas in 1682 as part of the territory of Louisiana. Robert de LaSalle, a French explorer, claimed an area from the Rocky Mountains in the west to the Appalachian Mountains in the east for the French Empire. He also claimed the land from Canada southward to the Gulf of Mexico. 

The name Kansas was first used on maps drawn by Frenchmen Louis Joliet and Father Jacques Marquette after the Kansa (or Kaw) Indian tribe they found living there. The French wanted the land not for gold, but for trade. They believed they could make money by trading with the Indians for fur-bearing animals living in Kansas. Frenchman Charles Claude du Tisne came to Kansas and set up trade agreements with the Osage, who had moved to southeastern Kansas in the late 1600s.

In the 1700s, the Comanche and Kiowa nations moved to Kansas. They lived mainly in western part of the state. They hunted the buffalo herds that roamed the plains and were usually on the move following the herds. Hostilities often occurred between Indian tribes and with the French and Spanish explorers who also claimed the land. Eventually, the Plains Apache were forced off their land and they moved to New Mexico. After conflicts with the Comanche and the Kiowa, the Wichita Indians left Kansas and went to Texas. 

Frenchman Etienne Veniard de Bourgmont came to eastern Kansas in the 1720s to trade with the Indians. He traded with the Kansa and gave guns to the Comanches to use against the Spanish. The French built Fort Cavagnial in 1744, near what is now Fort Leavenworth. The fort's troops regulated trade in the area until it was abandoned in 1764. By the 1790s, the Chouteau family had established strong ties for trading with the Indians living in eastern Kansas. In 1800, Spain officially yielded control of the Louisiana territory to France.

Additional Resources

bulletFor a timeline of Spanish activities in North Americas, see Events in the West, 1500-1650.
bulletRead a first hand account of the Coronado expedition.
bulletRead more about Comanche History.

Study Guide Questions

  1. Who was Coronado and why did he come to Kansas?
  2. Why did Father Padilla return to Kansas and what happened to him?
  3. How did the reasons French explorers came to Kansas differ from the Spanish explorers' reasons for traveling to Kansas?
  4. What happened to some of the native Kansas Indian tribes during  this period?

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