The Spanish in sixteenth century Virginia

Jim Glanville

This columnist recently twice made in Wise County a presentation about the sixteenth century Spanish intrusions into Virginia.


On Friday Oct. 5, he made it to the staff in the office of Spearhead Trails in the old railroad train station in Coburn.

The following day he made it to the members of the Wise County Historical Society in the Wampler Library in Robb Hall at Mountain Empire Community College in Big Stone Gap.

Spearhead Trails are multi-user recreational trails for ATVs, dirt bikers, mountain bikers and hikers in the Southwest Regional Recreation Area. Covering a total of almost 400 miles, there are five trail systems, with four in Wise County and one in Tazewell County.

These trails operate under the Southwest Regional Recreation Authority, which was created in March 2008 the by Virginia’s General Assembly with the mission to foster tourism and “… enhance and sustain job creation in Southwest Virginia.”

The Inn at Wise provided overnight accommodation. This historic hotel was built in 1910 when its predecessor burned down.

The hotel experienced a great heyday during the coal boom and population explosion of 1920s. By 1991, when it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it had become badly dilapidated.

It closed in 1993 and remained shuttered for three decades until reopening in December 2015 after a $12 million grant-funded renovation.

Today the Inn is a splendid place with excellent guest facilities. I highly recommended it as a weekend getaway destination.

Historians agree that Christopher Columbus landed on an island in the Bahamas in October 1492, but it is not settled if that was present day San Salvador (formerly Watling Island) or Samana Cay or possibly somewhere else.

Ponce de León reached present-day Florida in 1513, claimed it for Spain, but failed to establish a colony.

The first major expedition into the American Southeast came just 47 years after Columbus’ first landing. It was led by Hernando de Soto. He landed in 1539 in Tampa Bay with 620 men and 220 horses and traveled for three years causing chaos and slaughter among American Indians before dying beside the Mississippi River.

In the spring of 1540, de Soto’s party was encamped about 40 miles south of the future Virginia state line, at the Yuchi Indian town of Chiaha near present-day Dandridge, Tennessee.

From there de Soto sent two of his men north looking for gold and treasure. One was named Juan de Villalobos, a native of Sevilla, and the other was Francisco de Silvera, a native of Galicia.

These were the first Europeans to set foot on the soil of Virginia by entering the future Lee County via a pass near Phoebe Butt.

Probably because de Soto’s expedition found no wealthy cities, Spain was slow to follow up on this entrada. The follow up, when it came in 1565, was for quite different reasons.

The Spanish took the silver from the mines of Mexico to the port of Veracruz while the gold from Peru, after being carried by pack animal across the isthmus of Panama, was accumulated at the port Cartagena.

The gold and silver were then consigned to an annual treasure fleet that left from Havana, Cuba.

With the prevailing winds blowing towards the west, to travel from Havana to Spain on a sailing vessel required escape from the Caribbean via the Gulf Stream and through the narrow Bahaman channel. English and French pirates waited there for the treasure fleets and captured many vessels.

In 1565 the Spanish settled St. Augustine on Florida’s Atlantic coast with the intent of making it a base from which to attack and control the pirates.

The following year they made a second base at Santa Elena, at modern-day Parris Island, South Carolina.

At this time, the Spaniards’ knowledge of the inland geography of the American Southeast was very muddled. They thought that the mines of Mexico were in the vicinity of Knoxville, Tennessee.

With that thought in mind, the Spanish decided to try to establish an overland pack animal route to a South Carolina port from which treasure-laden ships could sail in relative safety.

Thus Juan Pardo was given the task of leaving Santa Elena and establishing a chain of forts along the Virginia-North Carolina border to secure such a pack animal route.

During the past 25 years, archeologists have unambiguously identified one of those forts as Fort San Juan at Morganton, North Carolina. In the spring of 1567, ensign Hernando Moyano, a deputy of Juan Pardo acting independently, marched a force north and attacked the Yuchi Indian town of Maniatique, which is today’s Saltville, in Smyth County.

This was the first battle in Virginia. A high ranking Yuchi woman from Maniatique, named Luisa Menendez, married a Spanish soldier and can, loosely speaking, be called the first Virginia Indian princess (40 years before Pocahontas).

Though not commonly acknowledged, Virginia was Spanish for decades before it was English.

Shawn Lindsey, the director of Spearhead Trails, recently approached Remnant Yuchi Chief Lee Vest seeking advice about giving some of the trails Yuchi names. I am voting for the “Luisa Trail” as one name.

My Wise County presentations were videotaped and will eventually show up on YouTube. Stay tuned to this column for links.

Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.

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