Not quite fifty years after the discovery of America by Columbus the first white men penetrated the interior of the continent as far as Oklahoma. In 1541 there were two Spanish exploring expeditions in the United States, one, under De Soto, threading the forests and swamps of the Mississippi Valley; the other, under Coronado, traversing the vast treeless wilderness of the Great Plains in the western part of the state. Some authorities believe that De Soto's expediation crossed the border of Oklahoma in the valley of the Arkansas River, in the eastern part of the state. That Coronado entered Oklahoma seems reasonably certain, for the records of his journey are much more complete than those of the De Soto expedition. However, neither of them led to the establishment of settlements or colonies, so they are of interest to the people of the present day only because they were the first white men to visit this region. Both expeditions were undertaken in search of gold and precious stones though De Soto also wished to find the fabled fountain of youth. Both ended in disappointment and one, De Soto's, in disaster.
Other Spanish exploring expeditions from Mexico passed into or across Oklahoma during the ensuing century and a half but, like Coronado and De Soto, they left little to remind one of their deeds. An iron spearhead which was plowed up by a farmer in Oklahoma County, a fragment of a steel breastplate which was brought to light in excavating for the foundation of the dam at the water works reservoir near Oklahoma City, and an iron stirrup which was found in Major County are some of the reminders of the Spanish explorers. They doubtless named the more important rivers and streams of Oklahoma but most of these have long since been forgotten. The Cimarron River is the only stream of importance in Oklahoma which has a Spanish name.
No French explorers arrived in Oklahoma until after the last Spanish explorations had been made. Unlike the Spanish explorers, who were always in search of gold, the French explorers were seeking to enlarge trade in furs. The Spanish explorers, who came from Mexico, a dry country with but few rivers, traveled with trains of horses and pack mules. The French explorers, on the other hand, came from Canada and the Mississippi River country, where they were accustomed to travel by water, in canoes. So, when the French explorers came into Oklahoma it was by way of the rivers up which they paddled their canoes. The southern part of the state was explored by ascending the Red River from Louisiana and the central and northern parts of the state were explored by ascending the Arkansas River and its principal tributaries.
The leader of the first French exploring party in Oklahoma was Bernard de La Harpe. His expedition came up the Red River as far as the mouth of the Kiamitia, in 1719, and explored the southeastern part of the state. In 1721, La Harpe returned to Oklahoma, ascending the Arkansas River and exploring the eastern part of the state. Soon after the first French explorers visited Oklahoma, French fur traders and trappers began to visit the various portions of the state which could be reached by canoe navigation. The French explorers left their marks upon the map of Oklahoma in the form of the French names which are still borne by rivers, streams and moutains - such as the Poteau, Illinois, Grand and Verdigris rivers, Sans Bois, Cache and Salaison (Sallisaw) creeks and Mount Cavanal.
Both Spain and France laid claim to the country now included within the bounds of Oklahoma because of the discoveries and explorations which were made by Spanish and French subjects.
Ann Maloney, Bartlesville, OK.
Copyright © 1998 Ann Maloney all rights reserved.