Exploration and Colonization

The Spanish Empire in America

The Spanish had the new world to themselves for almost all of 16th Century with the exception of Brazil, which was Portuguese under the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas.  The Spanish had only one goal:  to exploit the new world
and take from it as many riches as possible.  A decidedly less important goal was to christianize the Indians.  One
 Spanish soldier is said to have commented that "we came here to serve God and the king, and also to get rich." 1

The Spanish had a number of technological advantages which allowed them to quickly overwhelm the Indians, even
though the Indians were superior in number.  The Spanish brought steel weapons and explosives as well as firearms. 
A Spanish priest commented that Gunpowder "frightens the most valiant and courageous Indian and renders him slave
to the white man's command. Additionally, Indians had no domestic animals other than the dog.  The Spanish
brought horses, pigs and cattle, which provided food and leather and also speed in battle, which gave them a
decided advantage, militarily and psychologically, over the Indians.  Additionally, the Spanish kept greyhound dogs
 to guard their camps which were trained to attack Indians and tear the flesh from their limbs.

All Indians encountered in the islands were primarily primitive.  On the mainland, however, they encountered more
advanced civilizations, but which were also vulnerable to European diseases and technology.

1519 – Hernan Cortez landed at Vera Cruz with 600 men.  On Nov. 8, 1519, Cortez reached Tenochtitlan (now
Mexico City) and was graciously received by Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor. Soon after Cortez established
headquarters in the capital he learned the Aztecs had plundered Vera Cruz. Swiftly he seized Montezuma and
forced him to surrender the attackers and executed them. The leader of the Spanish garrison  slaughtered 600
Mexican nobles. As Cortez and his men reached the heart of the city, they were attacked by thousands of Aztec

Montezuma was brought out to pacify his people, but they stoned him, and later he died of his wounds. Cortez' army
was surrounded and apparently doomed, but he and three others managed to get to the chieftain of the Aztecs
and killed him, seizing his banner. Dismayed by this apparent "miracle," the Aztecs withdrew. With fewer than
500 of his men left alive, Cortez in July 1520 made his way back to his Tlaxcalan allies. Cortez besieged
Tenochtitlan again, from ships, the following May. Then, on Aug. 13, 1521, Guatemoc, the new Aztec emperor,
surrendered. Follow this link for more information on the  Aztec Empire. The authentic source of information
on the conquest of the Axtecs is W.H. Prescott's Conquest of Mexico.

Cortez far exceeded his orders when he went into Mexico and conquered the Aztecs. He justified his invasion
to Montezuma II by saying: "We Spaniards have a disease of the heart that only gold can cure."


In 1523, hearing of a vast and wealthy Indian empire to the south, Francisco Pizarro enlisted the help of two friends
to form an expedition to explore and conquer the land. A soldier named Diego de Almagro provided the equipment,
and the vicar of Panama, Hernando de Luque, furnished the funds. A first expedition resulted in disaster after two
years of suffering and hardship. When a second expedition in 1526 fared little better, Pizarro sent Almagro back
to Panama for reinforcements. He and part of the group remained on an island.

Instead of sending help, the governor of Panama sent vessels to bring back the expedition. Pizarro refused to return.
 Drawing a line on the sand, he asked all who wanted a share in his enterprise to join him. Thirteen men crossed
the line. Pizarro's friends persuaded the governor to send one vessel. Pizarro used it to explore the coast of Peru.
He then sailed to Spain to ask authority to conquer Peru. This was granted. He left Spain on Jan. 19, 1530, and
sailed from Panama the following year. He had three vessels, which contained fewer than 200 men and about 40

Pizarro spent a year conquering the coastal settlements. Then he marched inland to the city of Cajamarca. There he
met with emissaries of Atahualpa, the Inca emperor. Atahualpa accepted an invitation to visit the Spanish
commander and arrived attended by crowds of unarmed Incas. Pizarro's followers were armed and waiting.
When Atahualpa refused to convert to Christianity or to accept the Spanish king as his sovereign, Pizarro and
his men seized the Inca emperor, and the Spaniards slaughtered 2,000 Indians.

Atahualpa offered as ransom to fill with gold a room 17 by 22 feet (5 by 7 meters) to a point as high as a man
could reach and to fill it twice over with silver. Pizarro accepted the ransom. However, he reneged on his promise
to release the Incan Emperor, rather accusing him of a number of crimes, including the murder of his brother.
 (The latter was true, but it had been
something of a palace coup which was not uncustomary in Inca culture.
 Pizarro's "court" found Atahualpa guilty, and sentenced him to death by burning.  This was particularly offensive
to Atahualpa, as his religion taught that one whose body was burned could never find eternal happiness.  Pizarro
offered not to burn him if he converted to Christianity, which he did. After an elaborate baptismal ceremony in
which the Incan emperor was given a new Christian name, a soldier stepped forward with a rope, and strangled
him to death.

Pizarro then marched to Cuzco and set up Manco, Atahuallpa's brother, as nominal sovereign. In 1535 he
founded Ciudad de los Reyes (City of the Kings), which is now Lima. He was assassinated him in Lima on
June 26, 1541. For more information, and excellent source is Capture of an Inca King, written by Pizarro's
Secretary, Francisco de Xeres.

The Spanish sought to displace the "pagan" religion of  the Indians with their own "true" Catholic religion. They
believed God was on their side; and they had a sense of mission that made them very intolerant.  They transferred to
America a system known as the encomienda, a system very similar to a Feudal fief in Europe.  Under this system,
army officers who had won favor became privileged landowners often controlling several groups of Indian villages. 
They were to protect the villages and also to support missionary priests.  In turn, they collected tribute and labor
from the Indians. 

The Spanish had no understanding or tolerance for Indian culture.  Indian men had been hunters and warriors, who
did not labor daily.  The Spanish considered them lazy and indolent, and forced them to work in silver and gold
mines and also to work the fields.  This was women's work for the Indians, and as a result, thoroughly
demoralized them.  Additionally, the Spanish considered them expendable, and frequently worked them to death. 
 This cruel treatment, together with the onset of European diseases, was disastrous.  By 1500, Indians in the
West Indies were practically extinct.  In all of Spanish America, Indian population declined from 50 million to
4 million in less than one hundred years.   Beginning in 1503, the Spanish replaced Indian labor with African slaves. 

The English were at first horrified by Spanish use of black slaves.  They equated Spanish slavery practices with
Spanish Catholicism, and considered one a symptom of the other.

Ultimately, the Spanish empire in America was larger than the Roman Empire at its zenith. Spain dominated
Americas for over 100 years after Columbus; other countries just couldn’t get established.  The Spanish had
control over the wealthier areas of the New World, and also enjoyed political stability at home, while other nations
were embroiled in civil and political conflict. The Spanish maintained a colonial presence in America for over
300 years and ultimately founded many U.S. Cities: including Memphis Tennessee, (originally called San Fernando;
Vicksburg (called Nogales) as well as San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, San Diegho, Tucson, Snata Fe,
San Antonio, Pensacola, and St. Augustine.

Spanish Exploration of North America 

Juan Ponce de Leon (1513): The ruthless Governor of Puerto Rico, explored Florida. He was not, as legend holds,
in search of the Fountain of Youth, although he recorded that Indians had told him of such a fountain. 
His expedition was primarily to capture Indian slaves for work on the Spanish estates in Central and South
America. He named the area "la Florida" in honor of the Easter season, known as "pascua florida." He later
attempted to establish a colony but was attacked by the Calusa Indians. He was wounded in the attack and carried
 back to Puerto Rico where he died of his wounds.

Spanish explorers also scouted the eastern coast of North America, not only to look for further riches, but also to
establish forts to protect treasure shipments from English and French pirates.  A brief colony known as St. Helena
was founded on the South Carolina coast in the vicinity of Winyah Bay, but it didn’t last. The black slaves of the
colony revolted, murdered their Spanish masters, and joined local Indian tribes and were absorbed by them.

Other Spanish adventurers explored the interior of the U.S. in search of plunder, hoping to replicate their amazing
success in South America:

Páfilo de Narváez landed at Tampa Bay in 1528, and marched to the vicinity of modern day Alabama.  His troops constructed boats to carry them back to Mexico, but were shipwrecked on the coast of Texas.  They were forced
to travel overland to Mexico, a trip that took them eight years.


  Hernando de Soto (1539) explored from Florida to North Carolina, then to the Mississippi River which he is credited as having discovered.. His journey carried him to the area of present-day Columbia, South Carolina, where he was met by
the Queen of the Congaree Indians who crossed the river on a litter to greet him and treat him as an honored guest. 
De Soto discovered that the Congarees had a hut with a number of large pearls (apparently a tribal treasure) so he
kidnapped the Queen and demanded the pearls as ransom.  When he received the pearls, he had her murdered. 
His trip through South Carolina took him westward along the banks of the Congaree river, in the vicinity of
present-day Carolina Stadium.  De Soto died near Memphis Tennessee, but 311 of the 600 men who had left
with him managed to float down the Mississippi river and eventually make it back to Mexico.

Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (1540): had heard rumors of gold, and explored the area of New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma, as far as present day Kansas.  The men of his expedition were most likely the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon.

    The Indians were not above telling tales of great riches to be found in distant areas.  The Spanish were prone to believe these tales.  They thus became victims of their own greed.  Even so, there explorations did expand the knowledge of the interior of North America. 

Spanish provinces in North America were solely as buffers to protect their gold empire in South America. Did not set them
up as commercial enterprises. They were worried about the French fur traders around Louisiana, English coming into
Florida, and Russian sealers in California.  The first successful settlement in North America, St. Augustine, Florida,
was actually a fort to guard vessels sailing back to Europe.  They had ample cause of concern.  Sir Francis Drake
 made several raids on Spanish treasure ships.  The amount of gold and silver carried away was well known to other
European nations, and the sheer immensity of it all made it fair game. 

The Spanish removed a tremendous amount of gold. One shipment was approx $15,000,000. They usually sent a
ship at least once a week. Gold financed the Spanish Armada, and made Spain the richest country in Europe; but
it backfired. To be valuable, money must be scarce. With so much money (in form of gold), inflation almost ruined
the Spanish economy.

Spanish never realized need for self-sustaining colonies; were more preoccupied with exploiting gold, etc. from
S. America. They either never understood importance of establishing a viable market economy, or were too occupied
with hauling away loot to care.

(Shi): "The primary reason why England and France surpassed Spain in the development of a presence in America was
that Spain mistakenly assumed that developing a thriving trade in goods with the Native Americans was less important
than the conversion of "heathens" and the vain search for gold and silver."

In 1560’s, French Huguenots (Protestants) established colonies in South Carolina near Beaufort and Florida; but didn’t succeed.  The Spanish considered this sufficient threat to build a fort at St. Augustine in 1565

The Spanish Southwest:  Permanent Spanish settlements were set up in the area of present day New Mexico, Texas and California.  They attempted to pacify the Indians rather than fight them, as the Indians were far more numerous.  They relied on missionaries to do this, primarily Franciscan and Jesuits, who established Catholic missions to convert the Indians to Christianity.  After ten years, the mission became secularized, and the Indians were given Spanish citizenship.

In 1526, the Spanish monarch ordered that two Franciscan friars must accompany each colonial expedition to make sure that "the conquest be a Christian apostolic one and not a butchery."  The Franciscans took their orders to heart.  They destroyed or confiscated items the Indians considered sacred as "pagan" objects, suppressed rituals, ceremonial dances, etc.  

In 1598, Juan de Onate established a settlement in New Mexico and began a search for gold and silver.  He promised the Pueblo Indians that the Spanish would protect them and that Christianity would offer them eternal life.  A large number of Indians bought into this, as they considered the Spanish missionaries to be "powerful witches."  

As part of their submission to Spanish rule, the Indians were required to pay yearly tribute to their encomenderos, typically a bushel of corn and a few other essentials.  A number of them were required to submit to sexual assault as part of their tribute.  Those who disobeyed were often beaten by priests and soldiers.

    The Indians soon discovered that the Spanish were not good at keeping promises, and revolted.  Several soldiers were killed as a result.  Onate put down the revolt ruthlessly, killing 500 Pueblo men and 300 women and children.  Males over age 25 who survived had a foot severed publicly as a warning to others.  Children were taken away and raised by Franciscan friars.  

In 1608, New Mexico was declared a royal province.  In 1610, the capital was moved to Santa Fe. It thus became the first seat of government in the present day United States. The Spanish authorities had planned to abandon New Mexico as no substantial amounts of gold and silver had been discovered; however so many Indians had been christianized, it was impossible to abandon them.  By 1630, there were 50 Catholic Churches and 3000 Spaniards in Mexico.

The Pueblo Revolt:  Over time, resentment among the Pueblo Indians increased in time.  A charismatic leader, known as Popé (which translated literally means "ripe squash.") organized a rebellion involving over 17,000 Pueblo Indians in a number of villages spread over several hundred miles.  He sent messages by a series of ropes with knots indicating the number of days before the assault.  The Spanish intercepted two missionaries and discovered the ropes, so Popé ordered the revolt to begin immediately.  The Indians killed 400 Spaniards, burned churches, tortured and murdered priests, and destroyed Christian relics.  Ultimately, the Spanish were driven out of New Mexico, and were unable to regain control for fourteen years.

The Pueblo revolt, also known as Popé's Rebellion was the first revolt of the lower classes against the ruling class in North America.  It would not be the last. 

Events in Europe

The Protestant Reformation intensified national rivalries and led to serious challenges against not only the Catholic church, but those monarchies that were supporters of the church, primarily Spain.  Many European princes converted to Protestantism with no other motive than to break free of the influence of the Church. 

The Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety Five Theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg.  As Lutheranism spread through Europe, so did ideas of religious liberty. A number of religious offshoots from Lutheranism, including Mennonites, Amish, and Familists ultimately settled in America. 

Interestingly, the Spanish, staunch Catholics, referred to all Protestants, English, German, etc. as "Lutherans."  The term was not so much one of identification as of derogation.

John Calvin, a French religious scholar who had fled to Switzerland published his IInstitutes of the Christian Religion (1536) in which he stated:

bulletAll people were damned by reason of Adam's original sin.
bulletSalvation was available through the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ, but was only available to the "elect" whom God had predestined since the beginning of time.
bulletThe wisdom of God was beyond human understanding, therefore predestination should not be questioned.
bulletPeople serve God through any legitimate calling.
bulletMembers of the laity should participate in church government through the leadership of church elders, the Presbytery.

Calvin's doctrine became the basis for the Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed Churches and the Huguenots of France.  He also profoundly influenced the English Puritans.  Calvin's teachings influence religious belief and practice in the English colonies more than any other single leader of the reformation.

Henry VIII separated Church of England from Catholic church in order to secure a divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. Henry named the Archbishop of Canterbury as the spiritual head of the Church of England, and the King as its absolute head.  Henry had needed a male heir, but Anne gave him a daughter, the future Elizabeth I. Following the death of Henry's other two children, Edward IV and Mary I, Elizabeth became queen.  Since, in the eyes of the Catholic church, she was illegitimate (the church had, of course, never recognized the divorce from Catherine) she could not be Catholic.  Therefore, the Church of England became a Protestant Church.  A number of changes were made:

The Latin Liturgy became the English Book of Common Prayer.

The praying to Saints was dropped.

Clergy were permitted to marry

    Some were not satisfied with church reforms, particularly those influenced by Calvinist teaching.  

One such group wished to "purify" the church of all Catholic influences, and make it more nearly fit a model of Biblical authority.  This group were the Puritans  Still others wished to separate altogether from the Church of England, and were  called Separatists.

   Quite often, American Puritans are referred to as "non-Separatists."  The Pilgrims of New England were separatists.

    Religious controversy prevailed in England for a number of years.  As a result, interest in the New World was not a major concern. 

Challenges to Spanish Empire

 The Spanish retained control of the New World throughout the sixteenth century; but not without the occasional challenge. First to challenge them were the French. French sea captains often attacked Spanish treasure ships. 

1524: Giovanni de Verrazano (Italian sailing for French) sailed in search of a Northwest passage.  He explored area around Cape Fear, N.C., and went as far north as Maine. During a second voyage, 1538, he sailed into Caribbean and met the Caribs, who made short work of him.

Jacques Cartier:led the first French attempt at colonization. In a series of voyages, he explored the Gulf of St. Lawrence and Set up colony near Quebec. the colony did not last.

Religious wars in France caused French Kings to lose interest in North America for a time after this.

Dutch and English then became threats to Spanish; both wanting to steal Spanish gold. Holland had been Spanish, but had become Protestant, and had revolted. A number of Dutch privateers working from Dutch and English ports attacked Spanish shipping and conducted illegal trade with Spanish colonies.

Also, British "Sea Dogges", such as John Hopkins and Frances Drake – attacked Spanish shipping.  Queen Elizabeth avoided open conflict with Spain, but at the same time, encouraged smuggling and piracy of Spanish shipping.  Drake raided Spanish towns in Panama, and later sailed around Cape Horn to attack a Spanish treasure ship from Peru.  He attempted to find a passage back to the Atlantic in vain, so to get away, he spent seven weeks in an area he named "New Albion," (present day California) and  sailed around the world, back to England. King Philip II of Spain demanded that Queen Elizabeth surrender Drake to Spanish authorities.  Instead, Elizabeth knighted him "Sir Francis" on the deck of his ship.

Philip was angry at the plunder of Spanish shipping, and sent the famous Armada to attack England The Armada was destroyed, and England once again saved from invasion. The destruction of the Armada gave England supremacy of the seas, and cleared the way for English colonization of America. England was in its heyday at this point; ready to spread out, take on the world. 

English Exploration

Richard Hakluyt, Oxford clergyman, was one of the first English promoters of colonization. At the request of his cousin, Sir Walter Raleigh, he prepared for Queen Elizabeth A Discourse of Western Planting. Hakluyt argued that colonies would accomplish several things:

bullet   Extend the reformed religion.
bullet   Expand trade
bullet   Supply England’s needs from her own dominions
bullet   Provide bases for war with Spain.
bullet Enlarge the Queen's revenue's and navy.
bullet   Discover a Northwest Passage.
bullet Provide employment for the large number of people who were idle/


Said Hakluyt, England was "swarming at this day with valiant youths rusting and hurtful by lack of employment."                    Full text of the Discourse, only published three centuries later can be found at the link noted.

The first English attempt at colonization: Sir Humphrey Gilbert and his half brother, Sir Walter Raleigh in 1578. Secured a patent to take "heathen and barbarous landes countries and territories  not actually possessed of any Christian prince or people." It is doubtful that the Spanish were included in the patent's use of the word "Christian."

Note: Significantly, the patent provided that those who settled in the colonies and their descendants were to have all the rights and privileges of Englishmen.  Laws were to be in such form as were agreeable to the form and policies of England. 

Gilbert dispatched one voyage which failed, and cost him his entire fortune.  He managed to launch a second voyage in 1583, and founded the colony of St. John's on the coast of Newfoundland. On his return he ran into a storm in the Azores, and was lost at sea. An account of his voyage to Newfoundland is here.

    An accompanying ship reported that Gilbert was on deck calmly reading a book before his ship went down, and proclaimed that "we are as near to heaven at sea as by land."

In 1584, Raleigh persuaded Elizabeth to renew mission, in his name;  sent ship which explored the outer banks of North Carolina.  In 1587, a group of settlers under Governor John White settled at Roanoke Island.  White returned to England to get supplies, but was delayed in England due to war with Spain. When he finally returned in 1590, colony was gone. It has since been known as the "Lost Colony of Roanoke."

First true American of English heritage born here: Virginia Dare.

No one knows what happened to the colony.  It may have been destroyed by hostile Indians or by the Spanish, who watched jealously for any attempt to interfere with their American empire.  Additionally, tree ring samples indicate that the colonists were in North Carolina during the worst seven year drought in 770 years.  It is possible that some moved North to the Virginia colony, or that some actually were absorbed by Indian tribes. There is no indication that any survived. As of death of Elizabeth I in 1603, there was not one English colony in North America.


1Tindall and Shi: America, A Narrative History. p. 26.

2 Tindall and Shi: p. 26

3Tindall and Shi p. 33