Columbus’s landing in the Americas opened a floodgate of Spanish exploration. Inspired by tales of rivers of gold and timid, malleable natives, later Spanish explorers, also known as conquistadores, were relentless in their quest for land, gold, and the conversion of native peoples to Catholicism.
One of these conquistadores was Hernán Cortés. He hoped to gain hereditary privilege for his family, tribute payments and labor from natives, and an annual pension for his service to the crown. Cortés arrived on Hispaniola in 1504, and took part in the conquest of that island. In anticipation of winning his own honor and riches, Cortés later explored the central American mainland, specifically the Yucatán Peninsula. In 1519, with approximately 600 men, horses, and cannon, Cortés moved northward near present-day Veracruz to invade the Aztec (Mexica) Empire.
Later that year, Cortés and his men entered the capital of the empire, Tenochtitlán. They were astonished by the incredibly sophisticated causeways, gardens, and temples in the city, but they were horrified by the practice of human sacrifice that was part of the Aztec religion. Above all else, the Aztec wealth in gold fascinated the Spanish.
Hoping to gain power over the city, Cortés took Montezuma — the Aztec ruler — hostage. The Spanish then murdered hundreds of high-ranking Mexica during a festival to celebrate Huitzilopochtli, the god of war. This angered the people of Tenochtitlán, who rose up against the interlopers in their city. Cortés and his people fled for their lives, running down one of Tenochtitlán’s causeways to safety on the shore.
Smarting from their defeat at the hands of the Aztec, Cortés slowly created alliances with native peoples who resented Aztec rule. It took nearly a year for the Spanish and the tens of thousands of native allies who joined them to defeat the Mexica in Tenochtitlán, which they did by laying siege to the city. Only by playing upon the disunity among the diverse groups in the Aztec Empire were the Spanish able to capture the grand city of Tenochtitlán. In August 1521, having successfully fomented civil war as well as fended off rival Spanish explorers, Cortés claimed Tenochtitlán for Spain, and renamed it Mexico City.
The traditional European narrative of exploration presented the victory of the Spanish over the Aztecs as an example of the superiority of the Europeans over the savage Indians. However, the reality is far more complex. When Cortés explored central Mexico, he encountered a region simmering with native conflict. Far from being unified and content under Aztec rule, many peoples in Mexico resented it and were ready to rebel. One group in particular, the Tlaxcalan, threw their lot in with the Spanish, providing as many as 200,000 fighters in the siege of Tenochtitlán.
Cortés and his men also unwittingly benefited from the Columbian Exchange during their conquest of central Mexico. Along with horses and cannons, the Spanish brought smallpox into Tenochtitlán. Although the Spanish fled the city shortly after their arrival, the virus remained to take a heavy toll on city residents. As the Spanish and their Indian allies laid siege to Tenochtitlán, a number of individuals within the city were already dead or dying of smallpox, which meant that the virus played a much greater role in the city’s demise than did Spanish cannon.
Cortés was also aided by a Nahua woman called Malintzin (also known as La Malinche or Doña Marina, her Spanish name), whom a group of natives had given to Cortés as tribute prior to his invasion of the Aztec Empire. Malintzin translated for Cortés in his dealings with Moctezuma and, whether willingly or under pressure, entered into a physical relationship with him. Their son, Martín, may have been the first mestizo.
Malintzin remains a controversial figure in the history of Spanish colonization in the Americas. Some people view her as a traitor because she helped Cortés conquer the Aztecs, while others see her as a victim of European expansion. In either case, she demonstrates one way in which native peoples responded to the arrival of the Spanish. Without her, Cortés would not have been able to communicate, and without the language bridge, he surely would have been less successful in destabilizing the Aztec Empire. By this and other means, native people helped shape the conquest of the Americas.
Spain’s acquisitiveness seemingly knew no bounds as groups of conquistadores searched for the next trove of instant riches following the conquest of the Aztec Empire by Cortés. One such individual, Francisco Pizarro, made his way to the Caribbean in 1509, drawn by the promise of wealth and titles. He participated in successful Spanish expeditions in Panama before following rumors of Inca wealth to the south.
Pizarro’s invasion of the Inca Empire mirrored that of the Aztec Empire by Cortés in many ways. His first efforts against the Incas in the 1520s failed. However, similar to the Aztecs, unrest between Inca rulers and conquered indigenous groups left the empire vulnerable. Smallpox also wreaked havoc on the empire, as epidemics cut the empire’s population in half by the early 1530s. The disease even killed the Incan emperor and many members of the royal family, which sparked a civil war and the rise of a new ruler named Atahualpa.
Amidst the chaos, Pizarro invaded the Inca Empire in 1532 with less than 200 men, captured the new emperor, and demanded a ransom. One year later, he executed Atahualpa, seized the empire’s capital city of Cuzco, and renamed it Lima. The Inca Empire disintegrated shortly thereafter in the face of Spanish conquest and diseases.
The success of Cortés and Pizarro in Central and South America led other conquistadores to push into North America. Although these individuals failed to discover rich native empires to conquer, Spanish incursions into North America disrupted and altered indigenous cultures in significant ways.
Hernando de Soto had participated in Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca, and from 1539 to 1542, he led gold-seeking expeditions to what is today the southeastern United States. He and his followers explored what is now Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Everywhere they traveled, they brought European diseases, which claimed thousands of native lives as well as the lives of the explorers. In 1542, de Soto himself died from a fever during the expedition. De Soto’s men also tortured, raped, and enslaved thousands of natives. Surviving Spaniards, numbering a little over three hundred, ultimately returned to Mexico City without finding much in terms of gold and silver.
Meanwhile, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado arrived in Mexico (then called New Spain) in 1535. He presided as governor over the province of Nueva Galicia, where he heard rumors of wealth to the north: a golden city called Quivira. Between 1540 and 1542, Coronado led a large expedition of Spaniards and native allies to the lands north of Mexico City, and for the next several years, they explored the area that is now the southwestern United States.
Similar to the de Soto expedition, Coronado and his men failed to find a city of gold, but they left a path of death, disease, and destruction in their wake. During the winter of 1540-41, for instance, the conquistadores waged war against the Tiwa in present-day New Mexico. Coronado and his men did not find much gold or silver. Nor did they find significant native populations that could potentially provide a source of labor for Spanish farms and mines. The expedition left Coronado bankrupt, and the Spanish would then ignore southwestern North America for another half a century.
While Spain ignored much of North America during the early 16th century, it did gain a foothold in present-day Florida, because it viewed that area and the lands to the north as a logical extension of its Caribbean and Central American empire. In 1513, Juan Ponce de León claimed the area around today’s St. Augustine for the Spanish crown, naming the land Pascua Florida (Feast of Flowers, or Easter) for the nearest feast day. Ponce de León was unable to establish a permanent settlement there, but by 1565, Spain was in need of an outpost to confront the French and English privateers, who were using Florida as a base from which to attack treasure-laden Spanish ships heading from Cuba to Spain.
The need for a more robust Spanish outpost in Florida intensified in 1562, when a group of French Protestants (Huguenots) established a small settlement they called Fort Caroline, north of St. Augustine. With the authorization of King Philip II, Spanish nobleman Pedro Menéndez led an attack on Fort Caroline, killing most of the colonists and destroying the fort.
Eliminating Fort Caroline served dual purposes for the Spanish — it helped reduce the danger from French privateers, and it eradicated the French threat to Spain’s claim to the area. The contest between the Spanish and the French over Florida provided an early illustration of how traditional European rivalries, especially religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants, could spill over into the Americas.
In 1565, following the destruction of Fort Caroline, the victorious Menéndez founded St. Augustine, now the oldest European settlement in the Americas. In the process, the Spanish displaced the local Timucua Indians from their ancient town of Seloy, which had stood for thousands of years.
The Timucua suffered greatly from diseases introduced by the Spanish, and their population shrunk from around 200,000 pre-contact to 50,000 in 1590. By 1700, only 1,000 Timucua remained. As in other areas of Spanish conquest, Catholic priests worked to bring about a spiritual conquest by forcing the surviving Timucua — demoralized and reeling from catastrophic losses of family and community — to convert to Catholicism.
Despite the consolidation of Spanish control in Florida by the late 1500s, Florida remained an inviting target for Spain’s imperial rivals. Thus, over the next several decades, the Spanish built additional wooden forts in Florida and, between 1672 and 1695, they constructed the stone fort, Castillo de San Marcos, to better defend St. Augustine against challengers.
This tutorial curated and/or authored by Matthew Pearce, Ph.D
Source: Image of Cortez and Moctezuma, Public Domain, http://bit.ly/2jkF5tK, Derived from Openstax tutorial “Spanish Exploration and Colonial Society” http://bit.ly/2i1FFdT. Some sections modified or removed for brevity., Derived from Openstax tutorial “Portugese Exploration and Spanish Conquest” http://bit.ly/2jcZexC. Some sections modified or removed for brevity.