New Spain and Spanish Colonization

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New Spain and Spanish Colonization

During the colonial era, from 1492 to 1821, Spain sent explorers, conquerors, and settlers to the New World. The territories that became part of the Spanish empire were called New Spain. At its height, New Spain included all of Mexico, Central America to the Isthmus of Panama, the lands that today are the southwestern United States and Florida , and much of the West Indies (islands in the Caribbean Sea). (It also included the Philippines, off the coast of southeast Asia.)

New Spain was governed as a viceroyalty, a province headed by a representative of the king or queen of Spain. Beginning in 1535, its capital was Mexico City. During the colonial period, Spain claimed other territories in the New World in northern and western South America. Most of these holdings fell under the viceroyalty of Peru, which was administered separately from the viceroyalty of New Spain.


Spain's mission to build an empire in the New World began with the expeditions of a Genoan seafarer named Christopher Columbus (1451–1506), who convinced the Spanish royalty he could find a western route across the Atlantic Ocean to the Indies (Asia). He sailed west in 1492 and six months later landed on islands in the Caribbean Sea. Columbus mistakenly concluded he had reached the Indies and brought news of his new route back to Spain. In 1501, Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), for whom the Americas were ultimately named, sailed far down the coast of South America. Vespucci proved what had long been suspected: Columbus had landed nowhere near Asia, but he had discovered an unknown continent—the New World.

With the aid of several explorers—Vasco Núnez de Balboa (1475–1519), who traveled across the Isthmus of Panama; Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521), who explored Florida; Hernando de Soto (c. 1500–1542), who navigated the Mississippi River; and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (c. 1510—1554), who traveled through northern Mexico and the southwestern United States—the Spanish laid claim to much of both North and South America for their king.

Building an empire

Spain was fast and effective in claiming its huge empire in the Americas. Its conquest of American natives happened within a few decades. Spanish conquistadors , or conquerors, destroyed the two most powerful civilizations of the New World, the Aztecs in present-day Mexico in 1521 and the Incas in Peru in 1535. After winning the battles, the conquistadors killed the leaders of each civilization and took over their leadership,

demanding obedience, labor, and conversion to Christianity of the survivors.

The Spanish sought wealth in the New World. They had found supplies of gold and silver but needed miners to extract the precious metals. They also established plantations, growing sugar and other crops, and needed farm workers. For labor, the new rulers initially relied on the encomienda system, a system of labor in which the Spanish government awarded individual conquistadors with the labor and goods of the native people of a region. Encomienda virtually enslaved the native people.

Spain's arrival in the New World resulted in widespread death and depopulation for the native people of the Western Hemisphere. The conquistadors killed many Native Americans in raids and wars, and they also brought with them deadly epidemic diseases such as measles and smallpox. (See Epidemics in the New World .) In some tribes, the death rate reached 90 percent (nine out of ten people died). This catastrophic death rate disorganized Native American cultures, wiping out political and religious leaders, family life, trade, farming practices, military defense, the arts, and other aspects of their social systems. The Spanish, still requiring laborers, began to import people kidnapped into slavery from Africa.

The government of Spain profited greatly from its share of precious metals found in the New World. Historians estimate that between 1500 and 1650 Spain carried more than 180 tons of gold and 16,000 tons of silver from New Spain to Europe. The extraction of gold during this period was about ten times more than that of all the rest of the world combined. Spain became one of the wealthiest and most powerful nations in the world. But in time, the imported metals caused economic inflation (a major increase in general prices, while income or purchasing power remains the same) in Spain. By the seventeenth century, the American metals were depleted and Spain's economy was in ruins.

New Spain government

In 1524 Spanish King Charles V (1519–1556) created the Council of the Indies to govern the New World territories. In New Spain, he appointed two separate audiencias (courts that combined judicial, legislative, and administrative functions) and then named a viceroy. The viceroy was the chief executive, but his powers were limited by the audi-encia. The government of New Spain drew on many Spanish traditions. Towns established cabildos (town councils) and were headed by local officials. On paper, the Spanish government in Mexico City ruled over all the remote areas of New Spain. In reality, there was considerable local self-government. Communication between Spain and the Indies was slow, and local royal officials were as likely to follow the desires of local rulers as they were to carry out the wishes of the Crown.

The northern borderlands

The desire to conquer new lands and to find more gold and silver led explorers into the vast territories of the north. The expeditions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries expanded Spanish claims into what are now the southeastern Gulf Coast states and the entire Southwest of the United States. It was far too vast a domain to be held militarily, and it produced no golden cities. Thus only isolated outposts were established, the most important of which were in the present states of Texas , New Mexico , and California .

The sparsely populated northern frontier regions had to adapt to frontier life and thus differed in structure from southern New Spain. The most important frontier institutions were the presidios (military garrisons) and the Spanish missions , where Franciscan, Jesuit, and Dominican missionaries attempted to convert Indians to Catholicism and integrate them into colonial society. Towns gradually grew up around some of the missions.

The most successful and prosperous of these settlements was the kingdom of New Mexico. By 1821, it had a total population of roughly forty thousand, far outnumbering the thousand or so “Spanish” settlers that each had colonized Arizona , Texas, and California. The kingdom of New Mexico became a relatively prosperous colony, in comparison to the others in northern New Spain, primarily because the Pueblo Indians were already settled farmers with established towns near water.

The last years of the empire

By the early nineteenth century, New Spain was large and well populated, with slightly over six million people. This was only one million fewer than the population of the United States. Mexico City was the largest city in the Americas. In Spain, only Madrid was larger.

The people of New Spain were divided into castas, or castes. Indians made up 60 percent of the population. People of mixed racial ancestry made up another 22 percent. The remaining 18 percent were Europeans, of whom nearly all were criollos (people of Spanish ancestry, but born in the New World). Only 0.2 percent were peninsulares, or Spanish-born Spaniards, who held all the high offices in the colonial administration, military, and church. The criollos were usually local leaders, holding nearly two-thirds of colonial administrative offices, and filling the lower ranks of the military and clergy. Criollos also owned mines and haciendas (plantations or large estates). The urban poor lived on the edge of starvation, regularly facing food shortages and plagues.

Mexican independence

France invaded Spain in 1808, and two years later Mexico began its war of independence. Spain was severely weakened. The United States absorbed much of West Florida in 1810 and 1814. On two occasions, it invaded the parts of Florida still under nominal Spanish rule to suppress raids on U.S. territory by hostile Indians. In 1821, Spain, unable to control the territory, sold Florida to the United States. That same year, a Mexican rebellion ended Spanish rule there (and in Texas) and the colonial empire of New Spain was dissolved. By 1898, Spain had relinquished all its possessions in North America.

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New Spain and Spanish Colonization

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