Alonso Álvarez de Pineda commanded a Spanish expedition that sailed along the Gulf of Mexico coastline from Florida to Cabo Rojo, Mexico, in 1519. He and his men were the first Europeans to explore and map the Gulf littoral between the areas previously explored by Juan Ponce De León and Diego Velázquez. Álvarez de Pineda's voyage of "more than 300 leagues" ended when he encountered Hernán Cortés, who perceived him as a rival and arrested the messengers he sent ashore near Cortés's base at Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz on the Bay of Campeche. Álvarez de Pineda then withdrew back up the Mexican coast to the Río Pánuco, where he established a settlement of his own near the site of the future city of Tampico. Despite his pioneering exploration, however, Álvarez remains a shadowy figure. The only original source connecting his name with the reconnaissance ordered in 1519 by Francisco de Garay, Spanish governor of Jamaica, is Bernal Díaz del Castillo, historian of the Mexican conquest. Díaz was present when Cortés confronted Garay's four ships in late July or early August 1519 and relates that Álvarez de Pineda was in command of the vessels. Both Díaz and Cortés, who fails to mention the captain's name, reveal that Álvarez de Pineda already had been in contact with the natives on the Pánuco, and Díaz says that he was settling there.
No account of the voyage itself, by either Álvarez or Garay, has come to light. Garay's report to the Spanish crown, however, is summarized in a 1521 royal cédula granting him the territory, called Amichel, that Álvarez de Pineda had explored in his name. Although the document identifies neither Álvarez nor other participants in the voyage, it comprises the only extant description of the exploration. The four ships, carrying 270 men, sailed from Jamaica by late March 1519-about six weeks after Cortés had sailed from Cuba on the expedition that led to the conquest of Mexico. The stated purpose of Álvarez de Pineda's voyage was to explore the coast between the discoveries of De León on the Florida peninsula and those made on behalf of Velázquez along the southern Gulf, in hope of finding a strait to the Pacific Ocean. After clearing the Yucatán Channel, which separates Cuba and the mainland, the ships continued north until the Florida panhandle was sighted, then turned east, expecting to find the passage that was supposed to separate the "island of Florida" from the mainland. The ships probably neared the end of the Florida peninsula before contrary wind and strong current forced them to turn about, then sailed west and south along the coast until they found Cortés's nascent settlement of Villa Rica, the first European settlement on the North American mainland.
Álvarez de Pineda thus proved that Florida was not an island, as De León had reported it to be in 1513. On or about the feast day of Espíritu Santo (Pentecost), which fell on June 2 in 1519 by the Julian calendar, Álvarez registered the discharge of a mighty river and named it, for the religious occasion, Río del Espíritu Santo. This was the Mississippi, although various writers have attempted to show that it was some other.
Garay's royal cédula describes the coast viewed by Álvarez de Pineda only in the most general terms. Although he undoubtedly examined the Texas coast and was, as is so often proclaimed, the first European to do so, there is no precise description that can be definitely linked to his trip.
After their encounter with Cortés, the cédula relates, the voyagers sailed six leagues up a "very large and fluent river," the banks of which were populated with forty native villages, and there spent forty days cleaning and repairing the ships. This river has been variously taken for the Rio Grande or the Mississippi. Yet Díaz del Castillo's identification of it as the Pánuco is unequivocal.
When the ships departed for Jamaica-to reach the home port in the late fall of 1519-it seems likely that Álvarez de Pineda and a sizable company remained as settlers. In early January 1520 a ship commanded by Diego de Camargo set sail from Jamaica with supplies for the Pánuco colony. Upon arrival, Camargo found the settlement besieged by Huastec Indians. Except for sixty colonists evacuated to Villa Rica by Camargo, Álvarez de Pineda and "all the horses and soldiers" were slain.
When the ships of the 1519 voyage returned to Jamaica, the pilots presented Garay with a map sketch of the entire Gulf coast in more or less accurate proportions. This first known map of the Gulf presumably is the one found in Spanish archives by the noted compiler Martín Fernández de Navarrete, attached to a copy of Garay's royal cédula. It is housed today in the Archivo General de Indias, Seville.
The Río de las Palmas has often been associated with Álvarez de Pineda and the erroneous conclusion drawn that this was the Rio Grande. Actually, the Río de las Palmas was discovered by Garay in 1523, when he sailed for the Pánuco to renew Álvarez's settlement and was carried off course by contrary wind and current. Numerous maps and documents spanning the colonial period show that the river called Las Palmas in colonial times was the Soto la Marina, in Mexico. Nothing but supposition connects either Álvarez de Pineda or the Río de las Palmas to the Rio Grande.