Spanish Colonies in the Sixteenth Century

This page could be useful to AP students; I strongly recommend it to anyone aspiring to high scores on their essay because it can be used as comparison to British colonial history.

The Short Story

While the Reformation was taking place in Europe, Spain was busy colonizing the New World, and trying to prevent other Europeans--especially Protestants--from taking a share of it.

Wealth plundered from the Americas funded Spain's "Golden Century" of art and power. The Spanish monarchs of the sixteenth century dominated Europe. The grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, King Carlos I of Spain, better known as the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, dominated the first half of the century. His son, King Philip II of Spain, dominated the second half. (The Philippines were named for him.)

Here is the story of Spain’s colonies in the Americas in the sixteenth century.

Spain colonized the Caribbean islands following the example set by the Portuguese in the Canary Islands, introducing sugar cane, cattle and other European plants and animals, and enslaving the Indians.

A popular myth says that Europeans did not enslave Indians due to their high mortality rate. In reality, European colonists enslaved Indians constantly. Indian slaves did die so quickly, sometimes by suicide, but rather than ceasing to enslave them, Spanish entrepreneurs replaced them as fast as possible with slaves from raid all over the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, everywhere from Venezuela and Central America up to South Carolina. They soon began bringing African slaves to their colonies as well.

Balboa, Ponce de León, and Magellan

Though the sugar business and gold mining were profitable, Spain still wanted to find a good way to Asia. Towards that end, in 1513 Balboa crossed the isthmus of Panama with Indian help, "discovering" the Pacific Ocean.

That discovery led to Magellan’s voyage. In 1519 he went along the coast of South America, looking for its southern end just as the Portuguese had done a few decades earlier with Africa. He eventually made it through what we now know as the Strait of Magellan. Then he sailed across the Pacific, reaching the Philippines. Magellan died there, but his crew pressed on. Finally, one of his ships with fifteen starving sailors returned to Spain in 1522, the first people to have circumnavigated the world. How amazing that must have been! To me, that is one of the greatest accomplishments in human history. (And, really, they were the sailors who proved that the world is round!)

Another early explorer was Juan Ponce de León, who had fought in the conquest of Granada, and then was a crewmember of Columbus’ second voyage. Around 1508 he colonized Puerto Rico, forcing the natives to grow crops and mine gold. Then, in 1513 Ponce de León explored Florida. A few years later he tried to found a colony there, but the natives killed him. According to a famous legend he was looking for the Fountain of Youth, but if anything he was looking for slaves. In fact, Spanish slave raiders had probably already been to Florida before Ponce de León got there.

The Fall of the Aztecs

The Spanish learned of the Aztecs from some of their enslaved Indian captives. With their help, Hernán Cortés, defying his own governor (who wanted the glory of conquest for himself), set out with six hundred men in 1519 (the same year that Magellan set off).

They had no idea what they were getting into. The soldiers (like soldiers during the Reconquista) were unpaid; they fought only for a chance of plunder; the highest ranking soldiers hoped to get encomiendas—the right to a share of the forced labor (slavery) of the conquered people. The original justification for the encomienda system was that it was a fair reward to the soldiers for converting people to Christianity. The Spanish theory of just war held that before the fighting, the non-Christians had to be offered the chance to accept Christianity and Spanish rule, and if they refused, the war was their own fault and anything that the Spanish got was justified.

Arriving on the Mexican shore, Cortés and his soldiers quickly won support from many Native Americans who were unhappy with Aztec rule: in the end, most of the people who fought for Cortés were Native American allies.

Tenochtitlán, about three times as large as the largest city in Spain, stunned Cortés and his soldiers. One of them wrote, “These great towns and pyramids and buildings arising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision…. Indeed, some of our soldiers asked whether it was not all a dream.”

Students often imagine that the Europeans of this era arrived in the Americas with overwhelming firepower because of guns, but in fact the rifles of that time were not very effective as weapons. Their main virtue was the frightening noise they made, a psychological advantage to be sure, but the Spanish soldiers at this time generally fought with crossbows and pikes. Their horses and iron weapons must also have been very impressive.

A famous legend tells that the Aztecs and their emperor Moctezuma (who is also known as Montezuma) believed that the Spanish were gods, but it probably isn’t true. Moctezuma offered the Spanish gold, but Cortés imprisoned him and raided his treasury. After brutal fighting in the streets, the Aztecs drove the Spanish from Tenochtitlán, but then Cortés besieged the city, and a smallpox epidemic struck the Aztecs. Four months later it had killed most of the Aztecs (and also most of Cortés’ Native American allies). The city was destroyed, and the Aztecs were conquered.

Although Cortés had no authorization for his conquest, the Spanish king appointed him governor of Mexico. Cortés’ encomienda in the Oaxaca Valley, where 23,000 families worked for him, made him the wealthiest man in Spain at the time of his death.

This illustration portrays Cortés meeting Moctezuma, and with Cortés is a Native American woman known as La Malinche, his translator, slave, and mistress. Almost all Native American portrayals of Cortés show her with him, and she remains famous in Mexican culture today as a symbol of betrayal—though perhaps that is unfair to her, since she was not Aztec. Keep in mind that the Native Americans did not identify themselves as Native Americans for several centuries! (In fact, she’d already been a slave in a different Native American society before she was given to Cortés.) For some people she symbolizes complete victimization because she cooperated with her oppressor. Others consider her the founder of the Mexican people, because her son by Cortés was one of the first mestizos. The mestizos, people of mixed Native American and European ancestry, became the majority of Mexico’s population by 1700, and many later Mexicans considered themselves mestizos. All of these ideas have a bit of truth in them, an example of how the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs, like other European encounters with Native Americans, was no simple event.

Francisco Pizarro studied Cortés’s methods and used them about a decade later to conquer the Incas in Peru, killing their last emperor, Atahualpa. Men like Cortés and Pizarro were known as conquistadors (Spanish for "conquerors). After Cortés and Pizarro, no large empires remained in the Americas to challenge Spanish dominance. Smaller Indian societies would sometimes have more success.

Pánfilo de Narváez and Cabeza da Vaca

Cortés and Pizarro were exceptional: things usually didn’t go so well for aspiring conquistadors. Pánfilo de Narváez, for example, once tried to overthrow Cortés in Mexico; when that failed, he tried to conquer Florida with a few hundred men. They didn’t find any gold, and the Apalachee Indians (for whom the Appalachian Mountains were later named) defeated them. Narváez and his men fled Florida, but their boats broke apart near the coast of Texas, where most of them drowned. (This happened near the present city of Galveston.)

There were many other failed conquistadors, but this story gets particularly interesting because four of Narváez’s men survived, led by Cabeza de Vaca. They were enslaved by Indians, and then traded from tribe to tribe because Cabeza de Vaca got a reputation for curing smallpox. After an eight year voyage across Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico, he was found by astonished Spanish slave raiders.

Cabeza de Vaca tried to be a conquistador again, and a party of explorers led by him was probably the first Europeans to see Iguasu Falls; but his sympathy for the Indians, and especially his opposition to enslaving them, made him enemies among the ecomanderos and he was sent back to Spain. His description of the lands he saw in his years with the Indians didn’t win him any friends either: he saw no gold, no wealthy cities like Tenochtitlán for conquistadors to plunder.

Coronado and De Soto

That didn’t stop anyone from trying, though. Cabeza de Vaca’s reports inspired two major Spanish attempts to conquer North America.

The first one happened because of a dishonest Spanish priest. After returning from his eight-year adventure, one of Cabeza de Vaca’s men (a Moorish slave) guided the priest to the Zuni pueblos of what is now New Mexico. The Zuni killed the guide for abusing women, and the priest went back to Mexico claiming that he’d seen a city richer than Tenochtitlán.

So, led by the priest, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado set off. After destroying the pueblo, they discovered that the priest had lied to them, and set off on a rampage of rape and destruction among the Pueblo peoples. To get rid of him, the Pueblo peoples told him of a wealthy kingdom in the northeast. Coronado and his met then set off across the Great Plains, eventually reaching what is Kansas today, but without finding any gold or silver. They realized they’d been tricked, and returned to Mexico as failures, continuing to pillage all along their way back.

Today Coronado is famous-—not for all that rape and murder, because that was typical conquistador behavior; but for exploring what has become the American southwest. He was probably the first European to see the Grand Canyon.

The second attempt to conquer North America inspired by the idea that Cabeza de Vaca might've seen or heard of cities of gold was led by Hernando de Soto, who explored the American southeast and the southern Mississippi Valley. He set off in 1539, beginning in Florida and making his way to the Mississippi Valley, where he witnessed the Mississippian civilization still vibrant. Unfortunately, everywhere he went he initiated plagues of smallpox that depopulated the valley and led to the decline of the Mississippian civilization. Believing they were hiding gold, Soto and his men also tortured and killed many people, pillaged graves, burned towns and fields, but found no gold. When Soto died, his men threw his corpse into the Mississippi River, and about half of them survived to return to Mexico.

A century later, when French explorers came to the southern Mississippi Valley region where Soto and his men had pillaged, they found few survivors of the smallpox epidemics. The Indians lived in villages rather than cities, and their chiefs had much less power than their predecessors at the height of the Mississippian civilization. These survivors became known as the Natchez people. The French explorers nearly destroyed the Natchez, whose survivors joined new groups like the Cherokee, Creek, and Chickasaw tribes, all of whom played important parts in the history of the United States. It’s very interesting to reflect that these famous Indian peoples did not exist in 1492! They were new societies created from the remnants of the civilizations ravaged by the conquistadors and their diseases.

One final Spanish explorer from this era who you might want to know about is Cabrillo, who in 1542 explored the coast of California without finding it interesting, enabling the natives there to live nearly two more centuries without much trouble from Europeans. (Imagine what would have happened to them if Cabrillo had found out how much gold was in California!)

Las Casas, Spanish Missionaries, Syncretism, and the Black Legend

Cabeza de Vaca was not the only Spanish person who disapproved of the violent behavior of conquistadors like Cortés, Pizarro, Coronado, and Soto. In particular, Spanish missionaries, who were Catholic monks, opposed the conquistadors, arguing for more peaceful treatment of the Native Americans.

The most famous of them is Bartolomé de Las Casas, who had been a conquistador and even had an encomienda before he renounced them to become a priest. He wrote A Short History of the Destruction of the Indies, a book that has become famous for relating the cruelty of the conquistadors from Columbus to Coronado and Soto. To Las Casas, the conquistadors were so cruel that smallpox was a blessing from God “to free the few Indians who remained from so much torment and the anguished life they suffered from, in all types of labor, especially in the mines….”

The missionaries were not as wanton as the conquistadors, but in their eagerness to save Native American souls from damnation, they attempted to destroy the Native American cultures, destroying temples, forbidding traditional rituals like dances, forcing the Native Americans to build Catholic churches and adopt Catholic rituals. Many Native Americans did in fact adopt some Catholic rituals and ideas, but they almost always continued to practice their own traditions as well, often in secret.

When Spanish and Portuguese missionaries spread Catholicism to the New World, Catholic traditions often combined with Indian and African traditions-—a process known as "syncretism."

One of the most famous examples of syncretism is the Virgin of Guadalupe, a combination of the Virgin Mary and the Aztec "corn mother" goddess. According to Catholic tradition, she appeared to a Mexican peasant in Mexico City in 1531 (jut ten years after Cortés’ conquest). The Virgin of Guadalupe has become one of the most important symbols of Mexico.

Las Casas's account of the conquistadors's cruelty gave rise to what some Spanish have called "the Black Legend.” The idea is that the Spanish weren’t as bad as Las Casas and other critics claimed.

In fact, the British and French used “the Black Legend” to help legitimize their own colonization of the Americas. An Englishman in the late 16th century wrote:

... with all cruel inhumanity [the Spanish] subdued a naked and yielding people, whom they sought for gain and not for any religion or plantation of a commonwealth, did most cruelly tyrannize and against the course of all human nature did scorch and roast them to death, as by their own histories doth appear.

The one falsehood there is that the Spanish were not interested in religion. Many Spanish missionaries worked hard to do so, while also opposing the abuses of the conquistadors.

This picture, from a Protestant edition of Las Casas' work, illustrates the tortures described by Las Casas-—in this case, the Spanish are roasting some Indians. You can see the cruelty of the conquistadors, and you can also see that enemies of the Spanish were eager to use Las Casas’s account for their own purposes.

Even if Las Casas exaggerated, the Black Legend appears to be mostly true, but we’ll soon see that in fact the British were even worse. For example, the Spanish colonizers lamented the plagues of smallpox because they wanted to enslave the Native Americans and profit from their labor, while the British were grateful for the plagues clearing the land for their own farming. There is a reason that the populations of most former Spanish colonies are descended largely from Native Americans, while far fewer in the former British colonies are.

Sadly, Las Casas promoted African slavery as a way to provide labor in the Spanish colonies without so much cruelty to the Native Americans.


The main killer everywhere continued to be smallpox. As the population of the Spanish colonies declined so quickly, the encomienda system became less profitable (because the villages disappeared), and was replaced in many places by haciendas, large rural estates similar to feudal manors. The surviving Indians worked on haciendas like peasants, either for wages or for shares of crops.

As haciendas replaced encomiendas in Mexico, in the Caribbean sugar plantations African slaves replaced Native American slaves. Although in a history of the United States we’re naturally most interested in slavery in the British colonies of North America and in the United States, in fact most of the African slaves brought to the Americas had destinations further south, primarily in the Caribbean and Brazil, where the profitable sugar plantations were.

French and Spanish Rivalry in the Sixteenth Century

In the sixteenth century, Spain’s great European rival was France. The French did not sit idly by while Spain reaped such great wealth in gold and silver from the New World. In fact, in 1523, a French pirate named Jean Fleury stole from the Spanish much of the gold that they’d just stolen from the Aztecs! Spain responded by building large galleons to carry their treasure, armed with cannons and sailing together in convoys (groups of ships) for protection. This was expensive, and Spain paid for it by taxing the gold and silver that the galleons carried. In turn, these taxes encouraged smugglers to take their chances avoiding both the pirates and the tax collectors—some people were both smugglers and pirates, depending on the opportunities they saw in a particular moment!

Meanwhile, France hoped to find a Northwest Passage through the Americas to Asia. For that, they employed an Italian sailor, Giovanni Verrazano, who in 1524 explored the coast of North America. He found the Hudson River and Manhattan Island, but not a Northwest Passage.

A decade later, France tried again, sending Jacques Cartier, who sailed up the St. Lawrence River and founded a colony that failed due to scurvy and Indian retaliation for thefts committed by the French.

After that, for several decades the French gave up settling in the north, but they tried other places. In 1555 Huguenots (French Calvinists) also established a colony where Rio de Janeiro is today. But in 1560 the Portuguese destroyed it. In the 1550s, French pirates ventured into the Caribbean, even plundering Havana, the main port of Cuba.

In 1564, Huguenots founded Fort Caroline in Florida, where the city of Jacksonville is today. The Spanish destroyed it within a year, and then, to prevent the French from returning to Florida, in 1565 Spain founded San Agustín, which has become St. Augustine, Florida, generally regarded as the first successful colony in what would become the United States. One of the reasons for San Augustín’s success was that Spanish missionaries rather than conquistadors had a lot of power there, and they were able to maintain good relationships with local Native Americans, especially through trade.

(In the picture is the Castillo de San Marcos, a “star fort” that the Spanish built at San Agustín in the 18th century. After the English founded the colony that became South Carolina, the Spanish built this fort to help defend Florida. In fact, the English besieged it twice, but both times the Spanish survived. Many famous Native American leaders, including Osceola, were imprisoned here.)

Spain in Chesapeake Bay

Soon the Spanish started several more colonies in North America, including one as far north as the Chesapeake Bay, where the first successful English colony would be a few decades later.

The Spanish captured a Native American from that area named Paquiquineo, who had one of the really remarkable lives in American history, and really should be more famous. After kidnapping him, his captor took him across Portugal and Spain to Madrid in order to introduce him to King Philip of Spain in 1561. The king liked Paquiquineo, and ordered that he be taken back to his people as a Catholic missionary. They went through Mexico City (which had been Tenochtitlán just a few decades earlier), so Paquiquineo saw the colonial Spanish baroque architecture rising in the midst of the ruins of the Aztec pyramids. He may have heard stories about Coronado, de Soto, and Cabeza da Vaca. He got very sick, perhaps from smallpox, and believing he would die, he consented to be baptized as a Catholic and named Luís de Velasco. (That was the name of the viceroy of New Spain at the time.) He spent several years recovering in a Dominican monastery, learning about the Catholic faith.

Finally he met Pedro Menéndez de Avilés, the man who had just destroyed the Huguenot colony at Fort Caroline. Menéndez hoped to establish a fort in the Chesapeake Bay, believing that controlling the bay would be the key to controlling the coast all the way to Canada.

Menéndez sent a ship carrying Don Luís (Paquiquineo) to Chesapeake Bay, but they failed to find it and Don Luís found himself in Spain once again. This time he lived with Jesuits in Seville for several years, then he got himself to Cuba in order to help the missionaries convert the Native Americans in Florida to Christianity.

Don Luís finally got back to his homeland in 1570 with a group of Spanish missionaries and a boy named Alonso. The missionaries settled almost exactly in the spot where the English would establish Jamestown a few years later. The local Native Americans were Don Luís’s family, and they were thrilled to find that he was alive.

Don Luís quickly abandoned the Spanish missionaries, returning to his people, taking several wives, living with his uncle who was a chief. A few months later, in the middle of winter, Don Luís led an attack, killing the missionaries and destroying the Spanish colony. Only the boy Alonso survived; he told of the attack when a ship from Cuba arrived the following summer. Alonso and the Spanish concluded that Don Luís’s conversion to Christianity had been fake, part a clever plan to trick them into taking him back to his people. Failing to find Don Luís, who they never heard of again, the Spanish randomly killed a number of Native Americans and sailed away.

Had that colony survived, the English probably wouldn’t have tried to put their own colonies in the Chesapeake. Instead, its destruction actually gave some English people hope that the Native Americans would welcome them as liberators against the Spanish! However, the main reason that the Spanish didn’t return to the Chesapeake area was that they decided the region had little value to them. It was too far north for valuable tropical crops like sugar, and too far south for valuable furs.

New Mexico

Later, Spain feared that the French would use the Rio Grande as a base to attack Mexico. So, in 1598 the Spanish tried to colonize the Rio Grande, hoping to convert the Native Americans there to Catholicism, and still hoping to find silver. The first attempts were led by Juan de Oñate, a conquistador. They ended in failure under Oñate’s incompetent governance, but in 1607 the viceroy appointed a new governor, who founded Santa Fe (in the state of New Mexico today), far from the main Native American pueblos, and ordered the colonists to grow their own crops rather than exploit the Native Americans. Santa Fe never flourished, but it survived, and we’ll pick up its story again later. (The Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, below, is one of the oldest buildings in the United States.)

Spanish Colonial Government

Having conquered much of the Americas, Spain increasingly focused on settling and ruling it. When thinking about the Spanish colonial governments, the implicit question is why Spain was able to control them so effectively. After all, none of them became independent until several decades after British colonies had won independence in North America. What differences between the Spanish colonies and the English colonies enabled Spain to keep control of their colonies so well, but enabled the English colonies to become independent?

Part of the answer is that Spain kept her colonies divided. Spain organized its colonies into provinces known as “viceroyalties.” At the top of each was a “viceroy,” a governor appointed by the king. To prevent the viceroys from getting too powerful, the kings also appointed councils know as audencias, which drafted laws and conducted trials. The king also appointed an archbishop to each viceroyalty. The viceroys, audencias, and archbishops generally worked against each other rather than together. The governments were incredibly inefficient, and therefore they were also unable to organize any rebellion. Just to be sure, the monarchs would occasionally appoint visitas from Spain, who would thoroughly investigate all three.

Unlike later English colonies, there were no elected or representative assemblies.

A lot of the conflict in Spanish colonies was between missionaries and secular governors: as during the time of the conquistadors, missionaries protested against exploitation of Native Americans but destroyed the native religious culture, while governors were usually unwilling to act against powerful landowners.

Spanish Colonial Society

Few women from Spain made the trip to the New World, so the Spanish frequently took Native American wives. Soon a caste system (“casta” in Spanish) based on skin color developed throughout the Spanish colonies, replacing the simple distinction between conquering Spanish Christians and conquered Native American pagans. At the top were people believed to be purely Spanish, followed by people who were believed to be mostly Spanish but a little Native American, down to pure Native Americans and Africans at the bottom.

In Mexico, we’ve already seen that by 1700 the majority of people were mestizos. In the Caribbean colonies there were smaller numbers of mulattos, people of mixed European and African ancestry. However, the slaves on sugar plantations were usually worked to death. The Africans did not become a self-reproducing, permanent population; instead, the plantation owners constantly imported new slaves from Africa—and worked them to death too.

Religious syncretism flourished in the Caribbean as the African slaves preserved many aspects of their own traditions while adopting Christian traditions as well, leading to “Afro-Caribbean” traditions. The most famous example is the tradition usually called “Voodoo,” though the spelling “Vodou” is more appropriate, which developed primarily in Haiti and was also common in the American South, especially around New Orleans. Similar traditions developed in the islands off the Carolina coast. Some traditions of “Voodoo” in the United States are known as “hoodoo.” For instance, the famous blues song “I Got My Mojo Working” refers to a hoodoo charm. (Don’t imagine that the religious tradition is nothing but the kind of magic and charms that you’d see in movies: there are saints, music, possession experiences: it's a whole religion, not just a few superstitions.) If you're interested, you can learn about many, many more examples of religious syncretism throughout the Caribbean and South America.

Challenges to Spanish Control

Spain (and Portugal) continued to dominate South America, Central America, and Mexico until the 1800s, but by the end of the sixteenth century other countries—especially England, France, and the Netherlands—were establishing colonies in North America, which would eventually become the United States and Canada.

The main events that made it possible for other countries to establish American colonies took place in Europe, not in the Americas. In the second half of the sixteenth century Catholics and Protestants were at war throughout Western Europe. King Philip II of Spain led the Catholics, using his wealth from the New World colonies to sponsor his militant opposition to Protestantism. The Protestants were led by the Dutch, who were rebelling against Spain, and by England under Queen Elizabeth. Meanwhile France was torn apart by a civil war between Huguenots and Catholics, each led by different prominent families.

For a while, Spain seemed invincible. First Philip conquered Portugal, adding it and its colonies to his empire; then, in the 1570s, his navy defeated the Ottomans, previously considered to be the strongest navy in the Mediterranean. (Cervantes, the author of Don Quizote, fought for Philip in the decisive battle over the Ottomans.)

So in the 1580s Philip II prepared to overthrow Elizabeth and reestablish Catholicism in England, to crush the Dutch Revolt, and to make sure the Catholic side won the French Wars of Religion. First, he built a large “armada” of ships intended to transport his army to England. The expense of this was tremendous, but Philip II was confident.

Elizabeth, however, didn’t intend to give up without a fight, so she turned to England’s greatest privateer (a pirate working for a government), Francis Drake. (Elizabeth employed many privateers against the Spanish: they were known as the Sea Dogs.) Fiercely Protestant—-Drake’s family had been victims of Queen “Bloody” Mary’s persecutions in the years before Elizabeth came to power-—for many years before Drake had been harassing Spanish shipping. He had quite an adventurous life, with lots of near brushes with death. He captured two Spanish treasure ships and then he circumnavigated the world, one of the first Europeans besides the Spanish to explore the Pacific Ocean. Then he prepared to face the Spanish Armada.

In 1588, Spain attacked with their supposedly invincible armada, but Drake was ready. He lit some ships on fire and sailed them toward the armada, forcing Spain’s large, slow boats to separate. Separately, they were vulnerable to attack by England’s smaller, faster ships. The weather cooperated with Drake, preventing the armada from regrouping. They had to sail all the way around the British isles, mercilessly harassed by Drake’s ships, before they could return to the safety of Spanish ports. Very few got there alive.

(Below you can Elizabeth gloating. This is known as “the Armada Portrait” because you can see scenes of the destruction of the Armada in the background. Note also that Elizabeth has her right hand on a globe, symbolizing international power. In particular, her fingers rest on the New World, indicating her intention to expand her power there!)

That was the beginning of the end of Spain’s golden age. Its colonial empire didn’t collapse immediately, but Spain was no longer able to prevent France, the Netherlands, or England from establishing colonies in North America. In a peace treaty signed in 1604, Spain explicitly gave England the right to start colonies in North America. The first successful English colony, Jamestown, was founded in 1607.


This has been a long chapter and I can imagine some students will feel overwhelmed. You’ve read of plagues of smallpox annihilating entire peoples; of conquistadors raping and pillaging at will among those broken peoples, enslaving them and importing African slaves as well to work in silver mines and on sugar plantations; of pirates plundering the great ships laden with treasure; of priests trying to save souls and to destroy cultures; of corrupt and intentionally inefficient government; of Native Americans initially trying to use Spanish power to their own advantage in conflicts among themselves, then discovering too late the overwhelming power and ruthlessness of the Spanish, and the failures of their own traditions to protect them from smallpox and conquistadors; and of the gradual creation of new identities to replace the ones destroyed in this collision of cultures.

Some of the territories we’ve covered in this chapter will become important parts of the history of the United States: Florida, New Mexico, California, the Rio Grande; we’ll learn about Texas later too. Because traditional histories of the United States focus on the experience of the British colonists, we usually imagine American history beginning with English colonies on the Atlantic coast and moving west, but with a less “Anglocentric” view we could imagine the history of the United States beginning with these Spanish colonies in the south, and moving north. And of course, with a less Eurocentric view, American history began in the northwest, in Alaska, and proceeded south and east from there! It was into this world of Spanish colonies that the English, French, and Dutch began to venture in the late sixteenth century.


Key Concepts

Key Terms

e. Cortez: the Aztecs (1518-20, last ruler: Moctezuma (“Montezuma”); Tenochtitlan → Mexico City); disease and morale i. the adelanto system used during the reconquista: hidalgo – gentry (lower nobility); the soldiers were mostly bourgeois, fighting for a share of plunder and slaves, supplying themselves (sometimes in debt to investors) ii. diplomacy: people conquered by Aztecs joined him, most of his soldiers were natives (of course they did not realize what was to come) iii. rifle: psychological advantage; mostly steel pikes and crossbows; also horses iv. biggest advantage: disease and morale; conquistadors’ confidence that God was blessing them v. legend: Moctezuma took Cortés for a god vi. encomienda (right to collect tribute from native villages): largest was Cortés’, in the valley of Oaxaca, and at his death, Cortés was the richest man in Spain 19. other explorers: a. John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto): Newfoundland, Chesapeake Bay: basis for English claim to North America (1490s) cod fishing developed off the shores of lands later called Newfoundland and Labrador; these fishermen might have been there before Columbus! b. French guys: Cartier, Verrazano, La Salle c. 1555 French Calvinists established a colony where today is Rio de Janeiro, but in 1560 the Portuguese destroyed it; they also tried “Fort Caroline” in northern Florida in 1562 and Charles Fort in 1564; the Spanish destroyed them in 1565 and 1566; → fortress built at St. Augustine, the first in what is today USA d. the Northwest Passage 20. conquistadors cruelty to Native Americans (generally not good governors, better at fighting than administrating) 21. Spanish missionaries: monks destroyed native temples and prohibited their rituals; Natives who adopted Christianity usually also kept their old religions in secret; syncretism: the Virgin Mary became a “corn mother,” the Virgin of Guadalupe – missionaries complained about conquistadors’ cruelty → Bartolomé Las Casas (former encomendero, renounced after hearing a sermon and became a Dominican monk): A Short History of the Destruction of the Indies → “the Black Legend,” later exploited by Britain and France to legitimize their own colonization 22. hacienda: rural estates; replaced the encomienda as the Native American population fell in the 1600s 23. Spanish colonial government – implicit Q: Why they did not become independent as the British colonies later did 24. viceroyalties (Spanish crown trying to keep central control; implicit contrast to the British colonies); each viceroy appointed by the king; also a council (“audiencia”); no elective assembly; archbishop → divided and inefficient government, Madrid stayed pretty firmly in control; no elective assemblies 25. colonists: almost all single young men from middle class in Castile a. almost no women migrants: mestizos (become the majority by 1700) b. African slaves (cultures: Ashanti, Fulani, Ibo, Malagasy, Mandingo, Yoruba) c. castas 26. sugar, especially in Brazil, in the late 1500s became the largest slave-importing center 27. silver from Peru (especially Potosi) and Mexico, and sugar from the plantations → much increased global trade (spices and cloth from Asia), the commercial revolution and price revolution in Europe → capitalism (in the 1500s the Dutch benefited most, because Spain bought from them), also the wars of the Reformation 28. → European fear of Spanish power → English, Dutch and French pirates → galleons to protect the treasure ships → higher taxes on trade to pay for protection → smugglers (often the same as the pirates) a. Francis Drake b. (French pirate Jean Fleury captured two out of three boats carrying Aztec gold from Mexico to Spain in 1522) 29. King Philip added Portugal to his reign in 1581 a. Francis Drake attacked the Caribbean coast, and the Pacific Ocean, circumnavigating the world b. (with the Dutch Revolt and the French Wars of Religion) → the Spanish Armada c. (Drake was motivated largely by his fierce Protestantism; his family had been victims of “Blood” Mary’s persecutions) 30. Spanish missionaries → the Pueblo Revolt = Popé’s revolt (1680) 31. Florida: St. Augustine (1565); New Mexico: Santa Fe (1609); Texas: San Antonio (1718); in California: San Diego (1769) 32. (rancheros, vaqueros = cowboys, lasso, rodeo, guitar, horned saddle, etc. → eventually adopted by American migrants to the southwest) 33. The Columbian Exchange: OW → NW: smallpox, measles, malaria, yellow fever, horses, sugar, rice, slaves, (later cotton), (iron and guns); NW → OW: corn, beans, potatoes, chocolate, tobacco, peppers, maybe syphilis (silver, gold) a. new crops → population growth in Europe b. the introduction of cassava/manioc to Africa led to population growth there, which benefited the slave trade c. Navajo adopted sheep and looms, becoming richer (Later, some groups of the Apache and most of the Navajo adopted the technology and lifestyles of the pueblo peoples. Others continued to live nomadic lives pursuing bison.) 34. for France: Samuel de Champlain (c. 1600) founds New France (= Quebec): fur trade and Catholic missions

Index to Jonathan's Guide to US History

Index to Jonathan's Guides