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Juan de Padilla

Born: Andalusia, 1500
Died: 1542, what is now Kansas

Father Juan de PadillaBorn in Andalusia, Juan de Padilla, was a soldier before he came a Franciscan friar. He held several positions of authority in Mexico. Padilla was one of four Franciscans to accompany Francisco Vasquez de Coronado on his expedition to colonize New Mexico in 1540. The expedition was encouraged by reports of riches from Cabeza de Vaca and his companions, the survivors of the ill fated Navarez expedition.

Padilla was guardian of a convent at Jalisco at the time the expedition began. He gave up his high position in the church in order to become a missionary to the native people to the north. It was his hope to educate and convert the people to the religion he taught.

Father Padilla was known to be kind and gentle yet full of energy. He punished those who caused unpleasantness in Coronado's camp. At first he worked with the Moqui Pueblos. He spent winter quarters with Coronado on the Rio Grande river, where the army rested before continuing the historic journey to the fabled Quivira. 

At Pecos Coronado became interested in certain stories of a captive Indian prisoner held as a slave who claimed that he was born on the far eastern border of the great plains. The Spaniards called him the Turk, because of his closely shaven head with a small tuft of hair growing on the top. His hair was worn similar to that of the Osage, Kansa, and three other plains tribes. The Turk told the Spaniards that far away in the east there was a rich country called Quivira. He told them about gold, silver, and other precious metals. The Turk wanted an opportunity to return to his tribe.

The Spaniards had found the Mexicans using gold for ornaments and also knew of the reports of wealth from Peru. When the Turk pointed to gold, which he seemed to recognize as valuable, they thought that he was truthful.

Padilla was with the expedition, which started on May 3, 1541. Coronado met with little opposition as he journeyed eastward. At some point the expedition split and 30 horsemen, along with Padilla, went northward in search of Quivira, reaching the Kansas plains in the later days of June. They crossed what is now the richest portion of Oklahoma and the great wheat belt of Kansas. For 25 days in the summer Coronado remained among the grass-hut villages of the Quiviran Indians. Several men published accounts of their movements and all that they observed.

Padilla accompanied Coronado back to the Spanish settlement. In fall 1542 he prepared for the journey on foot of more than 1,000 miles, and taking with him the needed effects for saying mass, with three companions. Their course was more direct than Coronado's first route, beginning in Bernalillo, on the river above present-day Albuquerque, and passing through Pecos and to the northeast, probably entering Kansas near the southwest corner and proceeding on to the land of the Quiviras. They safely reached their destination and were well received by the Indian tribe. Coronado had erected a cross at one of the villages. Padilla began his missionary work. When he decided to leave to work with other tribes, he was killed. He became not only the first missionary in the Mississippi Valley, but the first Christian martyr in what is now the United States of America.

Although the exact place of his death is unknown there is a monument to Padilla in City Park in Herington.

Entry: Padilla, Juan de

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2011

Date Modified: March 2013

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.