Spain was the first European country to build an empire in the New World. When Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) landed in the Caribbean islands in 1492, it alerted Spain to the existence of the New World and to prospects of precious metals and wealth to be gained there. Further Spanish expeditions to Hispaniola, Puerto Rico (1508), Jamaica (1509), Cuba (1511), and especially Mexico brought more tidings of gold and silver. Hundreds of Spanish hidalgos (pronounced ee-DAHL-goes; meaning noblemen) rushed to join the expeditions heading for the Americas.
The Spanish hidalgos knew they would have to conquer the native peoples in the New World to fulfill their ambitions of wealth and power. The Spanish queen insisted that the Native Americans be taught Christianity and tutored to become Spanish citizens, but most of the Spanish hidalgos prepared to use brute force. Their rule over the New World was assured by the conquistadors (meaning conquerors), Spanish soldiers, explorers, and adventurers who acted as agents of the Spanish crown. Most of them were minor nobles and military officers fresh from the wars between Christians and Moors (North African Muslims) in Spain.
Hernán Cortés and the Aztecs
The natives of the Caribbean islands quickly learned that the Spaniards wanted gold, so they made up stories about gold mines in faraway places, hoping to make the Spanish go away. Rumors of rich cities with streets paved with gold circulated and grew among the eager Spanish. In 1519 the governor of Cuba appointed Hernán Cortés (1485–1547), the most famous of the Spanish conquistadors, to lead an expedition to explore the interior of Mexico where, he had heard, there was an advanced and wealthy civilization called the Aztecs.
Cortés's goal was to conquer the Aztecs and establish himself as the lord of Mexico's vast civilization. With an army of about 600 conquistadors, Cortés marched to Tenochtitlán, the large and wealthy Aztec city. The once powerful Aztecs had been weakened by epidemics of infectious diseases, and the Spanish army was able to defeat them after a harsh and bloody war. Cortés had the city of Tenochtitlán torn down to the ground
and built present-day Mexico City on top of the ancient metropolis. The beginning of Spanish Mexico commenced in the old Aztec capital.
Pizarro and the Incas
In South America, the Spanish learned of another fabulously wealthy people, the Inca of Peru. The conquest of this civilization was undertaken in 1530 by a group of conquistadors led by Francisco Pizarro (c. 1475–1541). The Inca were a strong and sophisticated civilization, but they had been recently divided by war. The conquistadors brutally destroyed them despite fierce resitance in 1533, finding immense quantities of gold and silver in the kingdom. The conquistadors became very wealthy even after they had given the Spanish king his large share of the Inca fortune.
Most of the Spanish empire lay in what is now Latin America, but Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to explore and settle the southern part of what is now the United States, including Florida , the Southeast, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona , and California . Some of the most famous Spanish conquistadors in these northern areas were Juan Ponce de León (1460–1521), the members of the Pánfilo de Narváez (c. 1480–1528) expedition, Hernando de Soto (c. 1496–1542), and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (c. 1510–1554).
Juan Ponce de León, the European discoverer of Florida, came to the New World in 1493 with Christopher Columbus' second expedition to the West Indies. Ponce de León conquered Puerto Rico in 1508. In 1513 he began his search for the island of Bimini, which, according to the Indians of Hispaniola, had a fountain whose waters could return old men to their youth. Sailing from Puerto Rico, Ponce de León landed on an unknown shore and named the area “La Florida,” either in honor of the Easter season known as “pascua florida,” or because of flowers on the shore. The conquistador and his expedition explored the coast of Florida for about two months, still believing it to be an island. They had many hostile encounters with Indians along the way.
In 1521 Ponce de León, encouraged by more tales of riches, fitted out two ships to establish a settlement in Florida. (Another Spanish explorer had discovered that Florida was not an island in 1519.) Ponce de León's expedition included 200 men, 50 horses, and other domestic animals and farm implements. After landing on the west coast, Ponce de León was shot by an arrow in an Indian attack. He died from his wounds within a few days and the expedition returned home.
Following in his footsteps, in 1526 conquistador Lucas Vasquez de Ayllón (c. 1475–1526) established San Miguel de Guadalupe, the first European settlement in what is now the United States, on the Pee Dee river in South Carolina . The Indians refused to assist the Spaniards and within three months, provisions gave out, sickness spread, Vasquez de Ayllón died, and the disheartened settlers abandoned the project. Thus, the first attempts to settle Spanish Florida ended in failure.
The Narváez expedition
The next attempt to settle Florida was led by the new governor of Cuba and military commander of Florida, Pánfilo de Narváez, who sailed from Santo Domingo in 1528. The Narváez expedition landed at Tampa Bay and split into two sections. One group was to search inland for the rumored cities of gold, while the other was to sail northward and find a good harbor where both groups could meet at a future date. Narváez led the first party inland. Each Indian village appeared poorer than the last, but the inhabitants all told of richer cities to the north. By the time Narváez reached a site near present-day Tallahassee, he realized there was no gold. He headed for the coast to find his ships.
Reaching the sea at Apalachee Bay, Narváez found no ships (they had already returned to Cuba). He and the remaining men built small boats and set sail for Mexico. They sailed along the Gulf Coast to Galveston Island in present-day Texas, where several of the ships sank and Narváez disappeared at sea. Four survivors, led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca (c. 1490–c. 1560), were captured by Indians and passed as slaves from tribe to tribe. They finally escaped and made the difficult journey to Mexico City by foot in 1536, the only survivors of the inland expedition.
De Soto continues the quest
Cuban governor and conquistador Hernando de Soto, hearing of the wealth in Florida, set sail from Havana in 1539. He landed at Tampa Bay, where his ships were immediately attacked by local Indians. The
Spanish defeated them in a short battle and de Soto and five hundred and fifty men began a march into Florida's interior. In 1540, de Soto moved northward, searching for gold. He and his men traveled for four years through the present-day states of Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. They were the first white men to identify the Southeast tribes. They saw the Great Smoky Mountains, and charted and located parts of the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers.
During the arduous journey, the de Soto expedition treated the Indians with great cruelty. Each conquered tribe promised the conquistadors that the Indians farther to the west possessed much gold and silver but, to the Spaniards' disappointment, few precious metals were found. Where the Arkansas River joins the Mississippi, de Soto fell ill and died on May 21, 1542.
The first permanent settlement in the United States
These early expeditions demonstrated to the Spanish that Florida was a formidable wilderness and that Florida Indians were difficult and uncooperative. There were few, if any, stores of gold or silver to attract future conquistadors. While the land was rich in natural vegetation, agriculture was extremely difficult in the sandy coastal soils. Finally, the region was plagued by severe storms and hurricanes during certain seasons of the year, which made shipping hazardous. The Spaniards ignored Florida for the next twenty years. During that time the French established a small settlement there.
The king of Spain had no intention of allowing the French to take over his lands. He ordered Spanish navigator Pedro Menéndez de Avilés (1519–1574), along with a dozen ships and 2,646 men, to expel the French and secure Florida for Spain. Menéndez surprised the French at their settlement, Fort Caroline, and quickly defeated them, cruelly ordering those who survived the battle to be executed. On August 28, 1565, Menéndez's fleet dropped anchor at his new settlement site, which he named San Augustín (later St. Augustine) for the saint whose festival was celebrated on that day. St. Augustine, Florida, still exists today. It was the first permanent European settlement in the United States.
Coronado explores New Mexico
One of the survivors of the Narváez expedition claimed to have found the Seven Cities of Cibola—a mythical set of large, wealthy cities in New Mexico. Based on this story, Spanish nobleman Francisco Vásquez de Coronado mounted an expedition heading for New Mexico from Mexico City in 1540. He quickly found and captured the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh, reportedly one of the cities of gold, but was bitterly disappointed to find no treasures there. Meanwhile, he had sent ships up the west coast of Mexico. The men on these ships landed at the Colorado River and explored it.
Coronado sent out exploring parties to the northeast, which discovered the villages of the Hopi Indians as well as the Grand Canyon. One group went east to the country of the Rio Grande Pueblo, moving as far north as Taos. Lured on by tales of gold, in 1541 Coronado pushed east into the Great Plains in quest of the fabled wealthy country of Quivira. His search led him instead to the homely grass huts of the villages of the Wichita Indians in what is now Kansas . They had no treasures. The disillusioned Coronado returned to Mexico in 1542. He had discovered no cities of gold, but his journey was an important one, for it opened the Southwest to future European exploration and settlement.
The conquistadors' insatiable appetite for gold and silver fueled the exploration of a vast portion of the modern-day United States. The conquistadors, however, left a horrible trail of murder, plunder, and disease behind them. Some historians estimate that 90 to 95 percent of the Indian population of North America was wiped out during the first 150 years of the European colonial period in America. Most of this decimation was caused by diseases such as smallpox, typhus, measles, and influenza, but the Spanish conquistadors also slaughtered thousands of native people in their furious search for gold and silver.