"The Latino and/or Hispanic presence in the United States is the second longest, after the Native American."
The history of Latinos and Hispanics in the United States is wide-ranging, spanning more than four hundred years and varying from region to region within the United States. The Latino and/or Hispanic presence in the United States is the second longest, after the Native American. Contemporaneously with their explorations and conquests elsewhere in America, most famously those of Hernán Cortés in Mexico and Francisco Pizarro in Peru, Spaniards pioneered the present-day United States, too. Hispanics (whether criollo or mestizo) became the first American citizens in the newly acquired Southwest territory after the Mexican-American War, and remained a majority in several states until the 20th century.
The first confirmed landing in the continental US was by a Spaniard, Juan Ponce de León, who landed in 1513 at a lush shore he christened La Florida. Within three decades of Ponce de León's landing, the Spanish became the first Europeans to reach the Appalachian Mountains, the Mississippi River, the Grand Canyon and the Great Plains. Spanish ships sailed along the East Coast, penetrating to present-day Bangor, Maine, and up the Pacific Coast as far as Oregon.
From 1528 to 1536, four castaways from a Spanish expedition, including a "black" Moor, journeyed all the way from Florida to the Gulf of California, 267 years before Lewis and Clark embarked on their much more renowned and far less arduous trek.
In 1540 Hernando de Soto undertook an extensive exploration of the present US and in the same year Francisco Vázquez de Coronado led 2,000 Spaniards and Mexican Indians across today's Arizona-Mexico border. Coronado travelled as far as central Kansas, close to the exact geographic center of what is now the continental United States. Other Spanish explorers of the US make up a long list that includes among others, Lucas Vásquez de Ayllón, Pánfilo de Narváez, Sebastián Vizcaíno, Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, Gaspar de Portolà, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Tristán de Luna y Arellano and Juan de Oñate. In all, Spaniards probed half of today's lower 48 states before the first English colonization attempt (Roanoke Island, 1585).
The Spanish didn't just explore, they settled, creating the first permanent European settlement in the continental United States, at St. Augustine, Florida in 1565. Santa Fe, New Mexico also predates Jamestown, Virginia (of Pocahontas fame, founded in 1607) and Plymouth Colony (of Mayflower, Pilgrims and Thanksgiving fame). Later came Spanish settlements in San Antonio, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco, to name just a few. The Spanish even established a Jesuit mission in Virginia's Chesapeake Bay 37 years before the founding of Jamestown.
Two iconic American stories have Spanish antecedents, too. Almost 80 years before John Smith's alleged rescue by Pocahontas, a man by the name of Juan Ortiz told of his similar rescue from execution by an Indian girl. Spaniards also held a thanksgiving, 56 years before the Pilgrims, when they feasted near St. Augustine with Florida Indians, probably on stewed pork and garbanzo beans.
As late as 1783, at the end of the American Revolutionary War, Spain held claim to roughly half of today's continental United States. In the Treaty of Paris France ceded Louisiana (New France) to Spain from 1763 until it was returned in 1800 by the Treaty of San Ildefonso. In 1775, Spanish ships reached Alaska. From 1819 to 1848, the United States and its army increased the nation's area by roughly a third at Spanish and Mexican expense, gaining among others three of today's four most populous states: California, Texas and Florida.
The national amnesia in the US about the historic presence of Hispanics and Latinos is not new. Until well into the 20th century these facts were barely mentioned in U.S. history books. The earliest European history of what is now the United States was Spanish, not English.