The Spanish in the New World pt.1

With the voyage of Magellan, the Spanish knew for sure that the Americas were not Asia. By then they had already begun to seize the rich, new lands. First conquistadores, or conquerors, took control of several islands in the West Indies. Then in 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon set out from Puerto Rico. He discovered and explored the land he called Florida, or "land of flowers". Since he had found no gold in Florida, other explorers did not follow his route. Instead, they began to look in other places for new lands to conquer. Remember Cortes and the Aztecs?

Other Conquests

Once the Spanish had a hold in Mexico, other conquistadores searched for new empires. One of them was Francisco Pizarro. He led a band of soldiers south along the west coast of South America to the highlands of the present-day country of Peru. There he defeated the Inca. The Inca had great wealth in gold and other precious metals. The Spanish gathered all they could find, and melted down jewelry and sculptures and sent them to Spain. Peru became the base for more Spanish conquests in South America.

Conquistadores who headed north from Mexico didn't find much treasure. Still they claimed vast amounts of land for Spain. From 1540 to 1542, Francisco de Coronado explored parts of the present states of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kansas. Hernando de Soto (choose “De Soto’s Expedition” at the top of this link) discovered the Mississippi River in 1541.


Spanish in the New World PART 2
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed up the California coast and claimed that country for Spain in 1542.

The Fate of the Indians

Spain rewarded the conquistadores and early officials in the Americas by giving them control over a group of Indian families. This was called the encomienda system. The men who received these privileges were called encomenderos. The Indians had to work for the encomenderos and pay them taxes. In return, the encomenderos had to serve military service for Spain and convert the Indians to Christianity.

The encomenderos put the Indians to work growing sugar cane and tobacco on the islands. In Mexico and Peru, Indians were forced to work in gold and silver mines. The encomenderos treated the Indians like slaves. This poor treatment of the Indians angered the Spanish rulers. They also feared the growing power of the encomenderos. As a result, the rulers stopped giving encomiendas and tried to take back those they had already granted.


The encomienda system eventually died out, partly because the Indian population began to decline as soon as the Spanish arrived in the Americas. Many Indians died because the Spanish brought germs of diseases common in Europe. Europeans themselves were often immune to these diseases. That means their bodies resisted them. People are born with some immunities, or they become immune to a disease after having a form of it. The Indians, however, had no immunity to European diseases. As a result, those diseases had devastating effects on the Indians.


Smallpox was one of the worst diseases the Europeans brought. The disease broke out in the West Indies very soon after the Europeans first arrived in the 1490’s. By 1519, it had killed most of the Indians on Hispaniola (where Columbus landed). It quickly spread to the other islands and then traveled with the Spaniards to the mainland. Cortes’s soldiers brought smallpox to Mexico, where it soon killed half the people of Tenochtitlan. Smallpox weakened the Aztecs and made it easier for Cortes to defeat them. This also happened in Peru. Smallpox spread ahead of the Spaniards, killing many Inca – including the emperor – even before Pizarro arrived.

Indians who did not die of smallpox still had to face other terrible diseases brought to the Americas by Europeans. Measles, typhoid fever, influenza, and bubonic plague – one epidemic followed another throughout the 1500’s.

The Effects

The results were terrible. In some places, especially the islands first visited by the Spanish, the Indian population was completely wiped out. There were as many as 25 million people in Mexico when Cortes arrived in 1519 – but only 1 million in 1605. About 1620, the Indian population of the mainland began to grow again but at a very slow rate.

Slavery of Blacks

As the Indians died, the Spanish found themselves short of workers, especially for the sugar plantations of the islands. So they brought new people from Africa to take the Indians’ places. Since Africans had been in contact with Europeans for much longer, they were less likely than Indians to die from European diseases. The Spanish rulers did not take the Africans under their protection as they had the Indians. So the colonists were able to make slaves of the Africans.

Ruling the Spanish Colonies

Spain very quickly set up an efficient and orderly system of government for all the new territory it claimed. The Spanish colonies in the Americas belonged not to the people of Spain, but to the Spanish Crown. (Crown means the king or queen).

Soon after Columbus returned to Spain, Queen Isabella appointed advisors to help her govern her American lands. In 1524, those advisors became the Council of the Indies. They stayed in Spain but controlled the colonies in the name of the Crown. The council had great power. Its members helped the Crown fill all offices in the Americas. They also supervised the officials after they were appointed. The members of the council drafted laws and even acted as a court of appeals for cases that began in the Americas.

Power within the Spanish Empire was not democratic. That is, the people of the colonies had no part in their government. Nor was the government local. Decisions were made in Spain, not in the colonies. Power within the Spanish Empire was centralized in the Spanish Crown and in the Council of the Indies. That fact had important results for the history of Spanish America. It meant, for one thing, that the colonists had little training in the art of self-government.