Modern history

Europeans Make Claims to North America

With the help of native translators, warriors, and laborers, Spanish soldiers called conquistadors conquered some of the richest and most populous lands in South America in the early sixteenth century. Others then headed north, hoping to find gold in the southern regions of North America or develop new routes to Asia. At the same time, rulers of other European nations, jealous of Spanish wealth, began to fund expeditions to North America. However, both France and England were ruled by weak monarchs and divided both religiously and politically. Consequently, their early efforts met with little success. By the late sixteenth century, Spanish supremacy in the Americas and the wealth acquired there transformed the European economy. But conquest also raised critical questions about Spanish responsibilities to God and humanity.

Spaniards Conquer indian Empires

Although rulers in Spain supposedly set the agenda for American ventures, it was difficult to control the campaigns of their emissaries at such a distance. The Spanish crown held the power to grant successful leaders vast amounts of land and Indian labor, expanding the encomienda system introduced by Columbus. But the leaders themselves then divided up their prizes to reward those who served under them, giving them in effect an authority that they sometimes lacked in law. This dynamic helped make Cortes’s conquest of the Aztecs possible.

Diego de Velasquez, a Spanish nobleman appointed the governor of Cuba, granted Cortes the right to explore and trade along the coast of South America. He gave him no authority, however, to attack native peoples in the region or claim land for himself. But seeing the possibility for gaining great riches, Cortes forged alliances with local rulers willing to join the attack against the Aztec chief, Montezuma. From the perspective of local Indian communities, Cortes’s presence offered an opportunity to strike back against the brutal Aztec regime.

Despite their assumption of cultural superiority, many Spaniards who accompanied Cortes were astonished by Aztec cities, canals, and temples, which rivaled those in Europe. Bernal Diaz, a young foot soldier, marveled, “These great towns and cues [pyramid-like temples] and buildings rising from the water, all made of stone, seemed like an enchanted vision. . . . Indeed, some of our soldiers asked if it were not all a dream.” Seeing these architectural wonders may have given some soldiers pause about trying to conquer the Indian kingdom. But when Montezuma presented Cortes with large quantities of precious objects, including gold-encrusted jewelry, as a peace offering, he alerted Spaniards to the vast wealth awaiting them in the Aztec capital.

When Cortes and his men marched to Tenochtitlan in 1519, Montezuma was indecisive in his response. After an early effort to ambush the Spaniards failed, the Aztec leader allowed Cortes to march his men into the capital city, where the Spanish conquistador took Montezuma hostage. In response, Aztec warriors attacked the Spaniards, but Cortes and his men managed to fight their way out of Tenochtitlan. They suffered heavy losses and might have been crushed by their Aztec foes but for the alliances they had made among native groups in the surrounding area. Given time to regroup, the remaining Spanish soldiers and their allies attacked the Aztecs with superior steel weapons, horses, and attack dogs and gained a final victory.

The Spanish victory was also aided by the germs that soldiers carried with them. The invaders unintentionally introduced smallpox to the local population, which led to a staggering epidemic. It swept through Tenochtitlan in 1521, killing thousands and leaving Montezuma’s army dramatically weakened. This human catastrophe as much as military resources and strategies allowed Cortes to conquer the capital. He then claimed the entire region as New Spain, asserting Spanish authority over the native groups that had allied with him. The Spanish conquistador then settled in Tenochtitlan while his men constructed the new capital of Mexico City around him.

As news of Cortes’s victory spread, other Spanish conquistadors sought gold and glory in the Americas. Most important, in 1524 Francisco Pizarro, with only 168 men and 67 horses, conquered the vast Inca empire in present-day Peru. Once again, the Spaniards were aided by the spread of European diseases and conflicts among peoples subjected to Inca rule. This victory ensured Spanish access to vast supplies of silver in Potosi (in present-day Bolivia) and the surrounding mountains. Spain was now in control of the most densely populated regions of South America, areas that also contained the greatest mineral wealth.

Spanish Adventurers Head North

In 1526, following Pizarro’s conquest of the Incas, a company of Spanish women and men traveled from the West Indies as far north as the Santee River in present-day South Carolina. They planned to settle in the region and then search for gold and other valuables. The effort failed, but two years later Panfilo de Narvaez—one of the survivors—led four hundred soldiers from Cuba to Florida’s Tampa Bay. Seeking precious metals, the party instead confronted hunger, disease, and hostile Indians. The ragtag group continued to journey along the Gulf coast, until only four men, led by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, made their way from Galveston Bay back to Mexico City.

A decade later, in 1539, a survivor of Narvaez’s ill-fated venture—a North African named Esteban—led a party of Spaniards from Mexico back north. Lured by tales of Seven Golden Cities, the party instead encountered Zuni Indians, who attacked the Spaniards and killed Esteban. Still, the men who returned to Mexico passed on stories about an extensive system of pueblos, where many Spaniards believed mountains of gold were hidden. Hoping to find fame and fortune, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado launched a grand expedition northward in 1540. Angered when they discovered that the fabled “Seven Cities are seven little villages,” Coronado and his men terrorized the region, burning towns and stealing food and other goods before returning to Mexico.

Hernando de Soto headed a fourth effort to find wealth in North America. He had first sailed to America in 1514 and participated in conquests around present-day Panama. There he achieved a reputation for brutality and gained wealth through the Indian slave trade and by looting native treasures. Then in 1539 de Soto received royal authority to explore Florida, and that spring he established a village near Tampa Bay with more than six hundred Spanish, Indian, and African men, a few women, and more than two hundred horses. A few months later, de Soto and the bulk of his company traveled up the west Florida coast with Juan Ortiz. Ortiz, a member of the Narvaez expedition, was an especially useful guide and interpreter. That winter, the expedition traveled into present-day Georgia and the Carolinas in an unsuccessful search for riches (Map 1.4).

On their return trip, de Soto’s men engaged in a brutal battle with local Indians led by Chief Tuskaloosa. Although the Spaniards claimed victory, they lost a significant number of men and horses and most of their equipment. Fearing that word of the disaster would reach Spain, de Soto steered his men away from supply ships in the Gulf of Mexico and headed back north. The group continued through parts of present-day Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and in May 1541 they became the first Europeans to report seeing the vast Mississippi River. By the winter of 1542, the expedition had lost more men and supplies to Indians, and de Soto had died. The remaining members finally returned to Spanish territory in the summer of 1543. 

MAP 1.4

Spanish Explorations in North America, 1528-1542 Spanish explorers in North America hoped to find gold and other treasures. Instead, they encountered difficult terrain and native peoples hostile to Spanish intrusions. Many Spaniards died on these expeditions, and they failed to discover new sources of wealth. But they laid the foundations for Spanish settlements in Florida, northern Mexico, and California, in part by devastating local Indian populations.

The lengthy journey of de Soto and his men brought European diseases into new areas, leading to epidemics and the depopulation of once-substantial native communities. At the same time, the Spaniards left horses and pigs behind, creating new sources of food and transportation for native peoples. Although most Spaniards considered de Soto’s journey a failure, the Spanish crown claimed vast new territories. Two decades later, in 1565, Pedro Menéndez de Avilés established a mission settlement on the northeast coast of Florida, named St. Augustine. It became the first permanent European settlement in North America and served as a model for missions later founded by Spaniards in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and in California.

Europeans Compete in North America

Spain’s early ventures in North America helped inspire French and English explorers to establish their own footholds on the continent. The French entered the race for empire in 1524, when an Italian navigator named Giovanni da Verrazano led a French company along the coast of North America. Landing initially near Cape Fear on the Carolina coast, the expedition headed north, sailing into what would become New York harbor. Verrazano then continued north, claiming lands all along the coast for France.

A decade later, in 1534, the Frenchman Jacques Cartier sailed to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and traded for furs with the Micmac Indians. In two subsequent expeditions, Cartier pushed deeper into the territory known as Canada. Although he failed to discover precious metals or the elusive passage to the Pacific Ocean, Cartier’s adventures inspired a French nobleman, the Sieur de Roberval, and several hundred followers to attempt a permanent settlement at Quebec in 1542. But the project was abandoned within a year because of harsh weather, disease, and high mortality.

English interest in North America was ignited by Spanish and French challenges to claims Cabot had made along the North Atlantic coast in the 1490s. To secure these rights, the English needed to colonize the disputed lands. Since the English crown did not have funds to support settlement, the earliest ventures were financed by minor noblemen who hoped to gain both wealth and the crown’s favor. But early efforts failed. In 1583 inadequate financing doomed Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s effort to plant a colony in Newfoundland, and inadequate supplies along with the harsh climate undercut Sir Ferdinando Gorge’s settlement on the Maine coast the next year.

The most promising effort to secure an English foothold in North America was organized by Sir Walter Raleigh, a half-brother of Humphrey Gilbert. Claiming all the land north of Florida for England, Raleigh called the vast territory Virginia (after Elizabeth I, “the Virgin Queen”). Although he did not set foot in North America himself, in 1585 Raleigh sent a group of soldiers to found a colony on Roanoke Island, off the coast of present-day North Carolina. The colony would establish England’s claims and serve as a launching point for raids against Spanish ships laden with valuables. This venture lasted less than a year before the company returned to England. But in 1587 Raleigh tried again to colonize the area, sending a group of 117 men, women, and children to Roanoke. When supply ships came to fortify the settlement in 1590, no trace of the English settlers remained.

By 1590, then, nearly a century after Columbus’s initial voyage, only Spain had established permanent colonies in the Americas, mostly in the West Indies, Mexico, and South America. St. Augustine remained the only European outpost in North America. The French and the English, despite numerous efforts, had not sustained a single ongoing settlement by the end of the sixteenth century. Yet neither nation gave up hope of benefiting from the wealth of the Americas.

Spain Seeks Dominion in Europe and the Americas

The continued desire of European nations to gain colonies in the Americas resulted from the enormous wealth garnered by Spanish conquests. That wealth transformed economies throughout Europe. Between 1500 and 1650, Spanish ships carried home more than 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver from Mexico and Potosi. About one-fifth of this amount was taken by the Spanish crown for taxes; the rest was spent on goods imported from the Americas, Asia, or other European nations. Very little of this wealth was invested in improving conditions at home. Instead, the elite displayed their wealth in ostentatious ways: elaborate silver candelabras, dresses drenched in jewels, and lavish tapestries imported from Asia. Meanwhile the rapid infusion of gold and silver fueled inflation, making it harder for ordinary people to afford the necessities of life.

In one area, however, employment for the poor expanded rapidly. King Philip II, who ruled Spain from 1556 to 1598, used American gold and silver to fund a variety of military campaigns, ensuring an endless demand for soldiers and sailors. The king, a devout Catholic, claimed to be doing God’s work as Spain conquered Italy and Portugal, including the latter’s colonies in Africa, and tightened its grip on the Netherlands, which had been acquired by Spain through marriage in the early sixteenth century. In response, the English aristocrat Sir Walter Raleigh warned, “It is his [Philip’s] Indian Gold that . . . endangereth and disturbeth all the nations of Europe.”

Despite the obvious material benefits, the Spaniards were not blind to the enormous human costs of colonization, and the conquest of the Americas inspired heated debates within Spain. Roman Catholic bishops and priests, royal officials, and colonial leaders disagreed vehemently about whether Spanish conquerors could simply acquire riches from foreign lands or were required to Christianize those they conquered for the glory of God. While Catholic leaders believed that the conversion of native peoples was critical to Spanish success in the Americas, most royal officials and colonial agents viewed the extraction of precious metals as far more important. They argued that cheap labor was essential to creating wealth. Yet brutal conditions led to the death of huge numbers of Indians, and many church officials insisted that such conditions made it nearly impossible to gain new converts to Catholicism.

By 1550, tales of the widespread torture and enslavement of Indians convinced the Spanish king Carlos V to gather a group of theologians, jurists, and philosophers at Valladolid to discuss the moral and legal implications of conquest. From Mexico, Hernan Cortes sent the king a message, insisting that there was no need to consider the natives’ views since they “must obey the royal orders of Your Majesty, whatever their nature.” But not all the participants at Valladolid agreed. Bartolomé de Las Casas, a former conquistador and Dominican friar, spent many years preaching to Indians in America. He asked, “And so what man of sound mind will approve a war against men who are harmless, ignorant, gentle, temperate, unarmed, and destitute of every human defense?” Las Casas reasoned that even if Spain defeated the Indians, the souls of those killed would be lost to God, while among the survivors “hatred and loathing of the Christian religion” would prevail. He even suggested replacing Indian labor with African labor, apparently less concerned with the souls of black people.

Juan Gines de Sepulveda, the royal historian, attacked Las Casas’s arguments. Although he had never set foot in America, he read reports of cannibalism and other violations of “natural law” among native peoples. Since the Indians were savages, the civilized Spaniards were obligated to “destroy barbarism and educate these people to a more humane and virtuous life.” If they refused such help, Spanish rule “can be imposed upon them by force of arms.” Like Gines de Sepulveda, Theodor de Bry never visited the Americas, yet his depictions of the region shaped European impressions. Although Gines de Sepulveda spoke for the majority at Valladolid, Las Casas and his supporters continued to press their case as Spain expanded its reach into North America.

Theodor de Bry, Engraving of the Black Legend, 1598 In the late 1500s, the engraver Theodor de Bry and his sons began creating a series of copperplate illustrations depicting the exploration of the Americas. Because de Bry had never visited the New World, his illustrations came from descriptions and pictures by explorers. He got a number of cultural facts wrong, but his scenes were detailed and graphic and enormously popular. This illustration depicts Spanish cruelty against Indians. Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale university

At the same time, American riches increasingly flowed beyond Spain’s borders. The Netherlands was a key beneficiary of this wealth, becoming a center for Spanish shipbuilding and trade. Still, the Dutch were never completely under Spanish control, and they traded independently with their European neighbors. Thus gold, silver, and other items made their way to France, England, and elsewhere. Goods also followed older routes across the Mediterranean to the Ottoman empire, where traders could make huge profits on exotic items from the Americas. Thus, while some Europeans suffered under Spanish power, others benefited from the riches brought to the continent. By the late sixteenth century, the desire for a greater share of those riches revitalized imperial dreams among the French and English as well as the Dutch.


• What motives were behind the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas?

• What were the consequences in Europe of Spain's acquisition of an American empire?

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