Spanish explorers, who first swept through the Sonoran Desert in the 16th century, seemed initially to be unimpressed with region. That is, until tales of the Seven Cities of Gold began to circulate. In 1539, the viceroy of New Spain (now Mexico) organized a small expedition that included friar Marcos de Niza, who returned with stories of a golden city that had homes decorated with jewels and semiprecious stones. A second expedition, headed by Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, was quickly dispatched, and the two-year odyssey stretched to the Grand Canyon and as far away as present-day Kansas. In the end, it revealed the legendary golden cities to be nothing more than myths.
Coronado’s failed expedition also fizzled most interest in Arizona for 150 years, with the exception of a few explorers and missionaries, the most famous being Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian Jesuit who began his lifelong calling in 1687 to spread Catholicism through the Sonoran Desert. He introduced Native Americans to European plants, animals, and farming methods as he built a string of colonial missions, two of which became the first permanent European settlements in present-day southern Arizona. It was Padre Kino who mapped and named Phoenix ’s Salt River (Rio Salado), a moniker earned because of the salty taste of the water’s high mineral content.
Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821, and a couple decades later, the Mexican-American War broke out. It ended in 1848, with Mexico ceding what is now the American Southwest, including most of Arizona, as a part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The new Mexican-American population shaped much of the state’s art, culture, and cuisine.