Although Francisco de Garay never set foot in Texas, his name is often connected to the state's history through error. Deeply ingrained in the state's historiography is the misconception that he landed at the mouth of the Rio Grande (called the Río de las Palmas) in 1523 and explored the river briefly before proceeding to the Río Pánuco. In truth, he landed at the Soto la Marina River, some 150 miles farther south; it was that river, not the Rio Grande, that was known as the Río de las Palmas in colonial times and was so named by Garay himself.
Garay sailed to Hispaniola with Christopher Columbus's second voyage (in 1493) as a settler. He was related to Diego Columbus's wife, María de Toledo, who was related to King Ferdinand. A phenomenal gold strike near Santo Domingo in 1502 is said to have launched Garay on the road to wealth and power; yet, within a few years he was heavily indebted to Genoese bankers-perhaps a driving force in his attempts to discover new lands.
In 1511 Garay sought to conquer the island of Guadalupe and failed. He subsequently served as alguacil mayor, or chief constable (see ALGUACIL), of Hispaniola and alcalde of the Yáquimo fort. In 1514 he voyaged to Spain in quest of a royal concession and was chosen by King Ferdinand as governor of Jamaica and manager of the royal estate there. While the appointment was pending, he purchased two caravels "for the service of Jamaica" and outfitted them in a manner suggesting that he intended a voyage of discovery. If such was his plan, it was held in abeyance while Francisco Hernández de Córdoba and Juan de Grijalva explored the southern Gulf of Mexico from Cuba in 1517 and 1518. The following year, while Hernán Cortés sailed for Mexico, Garay outfitted four ships to explore the northern Gulf shore and placed them under the command of Alonso Álvarez de Pineda.
Álvarez de Pineda explored from the Florida peninsula to Cortés's settlement of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz. After reporting to Garay, he returned immediately to the Río Pánuco to begin a settlement. He died there in 1520 in a Huastec uprising. Diego de Camargo removed the surviving colonists and sailed southward to join Cortés's army of conquest.
Garay, meanwhile, on the basis of Álvarez de Pineda's reconnaissance, sought royal approval for settling Amichel. At last armed with a patent from the Spanish crown, he sailed from Jamaica with eleven ships on June 14, 1523 (by the Julian calendar), to renew the failed settlement on the Pánuco. A contrary wind carried the vessels more than a hundred miles too far north. They anchored at the Soto la Marina River, which Garay named Río de las Palmas. Rejecting advice of his officers to settle there, he directed an overland march to the Pánuco, only to find that the Cortés forces had already established control and founded a town called Santiesteban del Puerto (present-day Pánuco, Vera Cruz).
Garay, faced with desertion of his men and unable to counter the influence of the Cortés faction, then traveled to Mexico City for a meeting with the conqueror. He was hospitably treated while he negotiated with Cortés for colonization rights on the Río de las Palmas. An agreement was reached, and the two principals attended Christmas Eve Mass together. Shortly afterward, Garay became ill of pneumonia. He died on December 27, 1523.