When Spain undertook the expansion of European civilization into the New World, the conquistadores were her agents. They were not just military conquerors, although military conquest was part of their work. They were explorers, governors, exploiters, Christianizers; men with a mission to spread their faith; men with a desire to gain wealth and position; men with a curiosity that led them into a gigantic project for which their means were quite inadequate. Some were illiterate; some were trained lawyers. They flourished during the first half of the 16th century and for perhaps another half-century or so on the frontier. When a settled society was achieved, the work of the conquistador was done. He had not only lost his place in the New World, but often the respect of the society he had helped to make possible. Few were the conquistadores who lived a long life, enjoying wealth, position, and honor. Columbus was only the first of the founders of the Spanish American empire to see his titles, positions, and prestige dwindle. Death by assassination or murder was a commonplace end for a conquistador.
Mexico and Peru, the centers of population and wealth, attracted the conquistadores. There men such as Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro gained their fame. These adventurers, however, were not limited by geography.
Mexico. The conquest of Mexico was achieved by the prototype of the conquistadores, Cortés. Contemporary documents such as Cortés's own letters to Emperor Charles V, the authorized history by Gómara, and the story told by the veteran soldier (in his own words one of the first conquistadores of New Spain) Bernal Díaz del Castillo, give a vivid account of the project.
Cortés was born in Medellín, a small town in Extremadura, the province in Spain from which so many conquistadores came. He spent some time at the University of Salamanca but was in Española by 1504. He went to Cuba with the Velázquez expedition of 1511. Cortés had already gained a reputation for audacity when, at about the age of 33, he was put in charge of the third expedition to Yucatán, being prepared by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez. The governor, prompted by his distrust of the dynamic Cortés and by pressures from relatives, shortly withdrew the appointment. Cortés had anticipated this and sailed before the order could be made effective. Agents of the governor sent after him usually were inveigled by Cortés into joining him instead of arresting him. Ultimately, with fewer than 700 Spaniards, 16 horses, a few cannons and muskets, but supported by thousands of Native American allies he had cultivated or conquered or both, Cortés led an expedition toward Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec Empire. Before marching inland Cortés founded the city of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz and the new municipality elected him governor of the area, subject only to the king of Spain.
The Spaniards entered Tenochtitlán peacefully on Nov. 8, 1519. But the conquest was not so easily achieved. While Pedro de Alvarado was in charge of the Spanish forces in the city, their wanton massacres of Aztec nobles during a festival endangered the entire undertaking. Even with reinforcements Cortés could not hold the city. On la noche triste, June 20, 1520, the Spaniards tried to fight their way across the causeways and out of the city. Across the water that was gorged with bodies of dead Spaniards, dead Native Americans, dead horses, and baggage of all sorts, the bedraggled remains of Cortés's forces made their way. Muskets and crossbows were lost in the melee. Through it all, "Cortés showed himself very much a man, as he always was," reported Bernal Díaz.
Six months later Cortés had his troops, sheltered during that time by their allies, the Tlaxcalans, ready to return. He had only 550 Spaniards but many Tlaxcalans were trained to fight with them. When siege did not bring the surrender of the Aztecs, Cortés decided that the only way to achieve victory was to level the city. House by house, temple by temple, the Spaniards moved in. Díaz says the siege lasted 93 days; in August 1520 it ended. Tenochtitlán was gone and with it the treasures of the Aztec king.
Cortés immediately set to work establishing the Spanish dominion. He built Mexico City on the site of the old Aztec capital. He sent his captains out in all directions to command the allegiance of the surrounding tribes. He apparently tried to preserve native institutions and to maintain the caciques in their political roles, but these aims, even though supported by royal order, were unsuccessful in the face of demands by his men for vassals. In October 1522 Cortés was appointed governor and captain general of New Spain. While he was away on an expedition to Honduras, however, the Spaniards in Mexico City began to challenge his rule. In 1529 Cortés went to Spain and got his titles and authority confirmed by the emperor. On his return to Mexico he found established there an audiencia, even though a venal one, also with royal authority. When the audiencia failed to establish order, Charles V appointed a viceroy. Cortés was reduced to conducting exploratory expeditions on the Pacific and to developing his own estates. When he again took his claims to the Spanish court, he was coldly received. He died in Spain in 1547.
In the conquest of Mexico Cortés met the best organized resistance the Europeans ever encountered in America. He multiplied his meager resources by cunning, diplomacy, and force. His men followed him even on vain expeditions such as the one into Central America. W. H. Prescott says of him:
If he was indebted for his success to the cooperation of the Indian tribes, it was the force of his genius that obtained command of such materials. He arrested the arm that was lifted to smite him, and made it do battle in his behalf …. He broughttogether the most miscellaneous collection of mercenaries who ever fought under one standard;… this motley congregation was assembled in one camp, compelled to bend to the will of one man…. It is in this wonderful power over the discordant masses thus gathered under his banner, that we recognize the genius of the great commander no less than in the skill of his military operations.
But Cortés did not stop there. Under his direction a political entity was established that preserved organized society and prepared an empire for Spain.
Peru and Chile. The Spanish American empire gained another valuable area in the empire of the Incas. No letters from the conqueror of Peru to the emperor tell us the details of the conquest. Pizarro never even learned to sign his name. His birth date is unknown, but he was born in Extremadura and was an illegitimate son of a military man. He had no inheritance and no education. The New World could offer nothing but an improvement in his station. He was there in Española by 1509 or 1510 and was a member of the unsuccessful expedition led by Alonso de Ojeda. Subsequently he associated himself with Vasco Núñez de Balboa and was with the group that first sighted the South Sea. As an encomendero in Panama, Pizarro started a business partnership with Diego de Almagro, another soldier of fortune, and Fernando de Luque, a canon of the cathedral. After having undertaken a number of successful business ventures, the three partners obtained permission from Governor Pedrárias to search for the rich lands reputed to be to the south. Pizarro and Almagro were probably men in their 50s when the first attempt was made in December 1524. In 1528–29 Pizarro went to Spain and got full authorization from the king to continue the planned conquest. He brought back with him his four brothers and a cousin.
It was 1530 before an expedition actually invaded the Inca empire. By then a civil war was in progress there over the succession to the throne. The Spaniards entered the fray when Pizarro and his men seized the Inca Atahualpa, at a meeting in Cajamarca. The Inca's attendants had come unarmed to the ceremonial encounter and thousands, unable to defend themselves, were killed. While Atahualpa's ransom was being collected all over the land (and much of the artistic work of the Incas was being melted into gold ingots by the Spaniards), Almagro arrived with reinforcements. The other claimant to the Inca throne, Huascar, was killed in the south by Atahualpa's orders. Shortly after the Spaniards accused Atahualpa of treason and executed him. Thus the Spaniards lost the key to political control of the highly organized Inca empire. They pushed on with military force. In November they took Cuzco and the men immediately set to work plundering the city. Pizarro left his brothers Juan and Gonzalo in charge there and headed for the sea. Near the harbor he founded Lima, the City of the Kings (1535). Attempts to set up Spanish authority on a regular basis, however, foundered on the revolt of Inca Manco (1536) and on dissension among the Spaniards. As a result of wounds received in the suppression of the Inca revolt, the first of the Pizarro brothers, Juan, died.
Almagro and Francisco Pizarro grew more and more apart. Almagro felt ill-treated in the division of titles and wealth, particularly after his profitless expedition to Chile. On his return he captured Cuzco and imprisoned Hernando and Gonzalo Pizarro. The civil wars among the Spaniards were underway. Almagro was persuaded by Francisco Pizarro to release Hernando, supposedly to go to Spain. Instead the Pizarros joined forces; Hernando captured Almagro and had him strangled in 1538. The next year Hernando went to Spain bearing the great treasures of Cuzco. Almagro's supporters, however, were already there to accuse him of murder. Hernando spent the next 22 years in prison. The prisons evidently were of varying degrees of rigor for he was married during that time. Imprisonment may have saved his life; supposedly he lived to the age of 100. None of his brothers did. Francisco Pizarro was assassinated June 26, 1541, by the Almagristas; Almagro's son Diego was captured and beheaded in September 1542. When Gonzalo Pizarro assumed control of Peru, he protested against the enforcement of the New Laws of 1542 and led a rebellion against royal authority represented by Viceroy Blasco Núñez de la Vela. In a battle in January 1546, the viceroy was unhorsed and beheaded.
In another attempt to restore order in Peru, Charles V dispatched the priest Pedro de la Gasca. He was given unlimited authority to do whatever should be necessary. The emissary worked slowly and finally persuaded most of the rebellious group to join the royal forces. Gonzalo Pizarro's army deserted him and he had to surrender without a battle. He was beheaded in 1548. Only then could Spain establish a regular administration in Peru and take advantage of the riches that were hers as a result of the work of the indomitable, if bloody, conquistador Francisco Pizarro.
Just before Gonzalo Pizarro's capture, one of his supporters, Francisco de Carvajal, viewing the military force ranged against them, was reported to have said that it must be led by Pedro de Valdivia or the devil. Valdivia was another native of Extremadura. He was probably of a poor noble family and was somewhat unusual among the conquistadores because he had regular military training. He entered the army in 1520 or 1521 and served Charles V both in Italy and Flanders. He was also an educated man. After the battle of Pavia (1525) he returned to Extremadura, married, and lived as a country squire for 10 years. He went to America in 1535, first to Venezuela, and then to Peru the next year with reinforcements for Pizarro. For three years Valdivia supported Pizarro and received position, property, and wealth as a reward. He did not remain on his land long. In April 1539 Valdivia asked permission from Pizarro to explore and conquer Chile. There the enemy were the intractable Araucan people. Valdivia's attempts to colonize Chile ended with his capture by the Araucan at the end of 1553. The rumors about the manner of his death cannot be verified, but they all included torture and the eating of the body by his captors.
Colombia. The conquest of the home of the Chibcha involved no such bloody siege as that of Tenochtitlán or civil war such as that in Peru. The lives lost in the expedition of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada were not lost in battle.
Jiménez de Quesada was born in Córdoba about the beginning of the 16th century. He was a lawyer and went to America in 1535 as a magistrate in the company of Pedro de Lugo, the newly appointed governor of Santa Marta. He was in his mid-30s when the governor put him in charge of an expedition of about 900 men to explore and conquer a rich country rumored to be south of Santa Marta, high in the mountains. The expedition started up the Magdalena River in 1536. Nature and indigenous tribes, concealed by the jungle and armed with poisoned arrows, made it a harrowing trip. Almost a year elapsed before the expedition reached the upland plains inhabited by the Chibchas. Only about 166 of the Spaniards were still alive. Jiménez de Quesada gave strict orders that peaceful methods must be used for the conquest and that anyone who violated this policy would be punished by death. By the end of 1538 he had established his authority over the numerous population in the Chibcha country. It was challenged early in 1539 by other groups of Spaniards coming in first from Venezuela and later from Peru. Quesada by judicious use of gifts of gold averted civil war and maintained control.
Out of the 166 who had arrived on the plateau, three or four died on exploring expeditions. One man was hanged on a charge of looting the natives. Jiménez de Quesada had received no reinforcements, but with these few men, almost all preserved through his care, he had conquered the area. Leaving the new city of Santafé de Bogotá in 1539, he went to Spain but did not receive the appointment as governor of the territory. With an honorary title, Jiménez de Quesada returned to the New Kingdom of Granada, where he served in minor offices until his death at about 80.
Other Areas. One of the distinctive conquistadores in the Caribbean and in Panama was Balboa, who moved from being a stowaway into the leadership of the expedition supposedly commanded by lawyer Martin Fernández de Enciso. Balboa gained enough authority and power to arrest Enciso and send him back to Spain and then ensured his position by fairness and consideration in dealing with his men. After he discovered the South Sea and was preparing ships to embark on it in search of the rich lands to the south, Governor Pedrárias sent Francisco Pizarro to arrest him. Balboa was accused of treason and beheaded; it was Pizarro who then went on to the rich lands of the Inca.
The search for the fountain of youth was made by a knight. Juan Ponce de León was a member of the Spanish nobility. He was born about 1460 and went through the training of a page and a squire before going to America. On a return trip to Spain he was knighted by King Ferdinand. Before that he had founded a settlement on the island of Puerto Rico and subjugated the native peoples. Rivalry with Diego Columbus cost Ponce de León the governorship, but the Crown authorized him to undertake other explorations if he wished. On March 3, 1513, he set out from Puerto Rico on the expedition associated with the search for the fountain of youth. Most of the early Spanish American chroniclers mention this as a possible reason for the expedition but only in addition to the desire for economic gain. Bartolomé de las casas simply states that Ponce de León went for slaves and pearls. The expedition was unsuccessful: 16th-century Florida had no fountains of youth, good slaves, or pearls. In 1521 Ponce de León tried again. He outfitted a colonizing expedition and sailed up the west coast of Florida. The Native Americans attacked, Ponce de León was wounded, and he died in Havana.
The names of many more conquistadores could be added: Pedro de Alvarado in Guatemala, the licentiate Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón in the Carolinas, Pánfilo Narváez in the Floridas, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in the southwest of the present United States, Hernando de Soto in Florida and the lower Mississippi basin, Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and Domingo Martínez de Irala in La Plata, and probably hundreds of lesser men who assumed the role of the conquistador in a small area. With them came the priests who served as missionaries but often also as explorers, secretaries, and chroniclers. When the age of the conquistadores was past, the missionaries themselves expanded the empire, particularly from northwest Mexico up into California. But the shadows of the conquistadores seem to reach all the way to the caudillos of independent Spanish America.
Bibliography: f. a. kirkpatrick, The Spanish Conquistadores (2d ed. London 1946). w. l. schurz, This New World (New York 1954). Hernando Cortés: Five Letters, 1519–1526, tr. j. bayard morris (New York 1962). b. dÍaz del castillo, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico, 1517–1521, tr. a. p. maudslay (New York 1956). f. lÓpez de gÓmara, Cortés: The Life of the Conqueror by His Secretary, ed. l. b. simpson (Berkeley 1964). w.h. prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico (New York 1843); History of the Conquest of Peru (New York 1847), and later eds. k. romoli, Balboa of Darién (Garden City, N.Y. 1953). r. b. c. graham, The Conquest of New Granada: Being the Life of Gonzalo Jiménez de Quesada (London 1922). i. s. w. vernon, Pedro de Valdivia: Conquistador of Chile (Austin, Tex. 1946).
CONQUISTADORES. Spain authorized military expeditions by conquistadores (conquerors) in the Americas. The conquistadores were armies typically numbering a thousand soldiers, but the term denotes primarily the intrepid leaders of these expeditions. Driven by an insatiable booty mentality reminiscent of medieval crusaders, they expected to secure entitlement, land, power, and tributes during the Spanish entrada (entrance) of the sixteenth century.
As the Spanish penetrated the American mainland, fantastic stories of Cíbola, Gran Quivira, El Dorado, fountains of youth, and amazon women fired their imaginations. Hernán Cortés in 1519 vanquished the Aztecs of Tenochtitlán with the assistance of rival Natives. Juan Ponce de León, who sailed around Florida in 1513, was encouraged by Cortés's triumph to undertake a return expedition to the peninsula in 1521. He died from wounds received in a fight with the Calusas. To the south, the conquest of the Incas by Francisco Pizarro in 1532 revivified the visions of grandeur.
In 1528, Pánfilo de Narváez surveyed the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas, but Apalachee archers and a tempest brought the mission to an end. Four castaways, including Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, Alonso del Castillo, Andrés Dorantes, and the black slave Esteban, survived and managed to reach Galveston Island. They traveled among the Natives until 1536, when Spanish slave hunters found them in the province of Sinaloa, Mexico. In 1539, their observations became entangled with the claims of the Franciscan Fray Marcos de Niza regarding the treasures of Cíbola to intensify the allure of the "northern mystery."
Further expeditions pushed the frontiers of the Spanish empire from Georgia to New Mexico. In 1539, Hernando de Soto, a seasoned veteran of the Incan conquest, maneuvered nine ships and more than six hundred soldiers on a journey in search of another Cuzco. After landing in Florida, De Soto and his companions literally fought their way through the woodlands. They crossed the Mississippi River about twenty-five miles below Memphis and advanced into Arkansas and Oklahoma. However, De Soto died from an illness in 1542. His men left his body at the river before returning to New Spain empty-handed. Francisco Vásquez de Coronado in 1540 commanded an army that crossed the Rio Grande and attacked the Pueblo Indians. Coronado dispatched several reconnaissance parties, and after a two-year quest that ended in the midcontinent grasslands, he conceded that there were no golden cities in North America. In 1598 the last conquistadore, Juan de Oñate, directed a colonization venture into Pueblo lands, thus initiating a new phase of mission building and permanent occupation.
From the Andes Mountains to the Grand Canyon, the conquistadores unleashed a catastrophe of a magnitude unknown before the sixteenth century. Although the Spanish Orders for New Discoveries in 1573 curbed the atrocities, the explorers left behind smallpox, malaria, measles, and sexually transmitted diseases. Their discoveries unveiled the physical and cultural geography of Native America, but their presence turned the New World upside down.
Thomas, Hugh. Who's Who of the Conquistadors. London: Cassell, 2000.
Wood, Michael. Conquistadors. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.
Conquistadores, the conquerors of a New World empire for Spain in the sixteenth century. The conquistadores were men who participated in the conquest of Mexico, Peru, and other regions of what became the Spanish Empire from the early sixteenth century to approximately 1570. They went to the New World seeking a better life for themselves and their families, and often endured incredible hardships in their pursuit of this dream. While the vast majority were laymen, a number of dedicated clerics also participated in the conquests, adding a spiritual dimension to the military ventures.
The conquistadores represented every segment of Spanish society except the high nobility. The early conquistadores and their most celebrated leaders—Hernán Cortés, Francisco Pizarro, Francisco de Montejo, Hernando de Soto, and others—were born in Spain, frequently in Estremadura, and arrived in the New World as young men. Typically they led privately financed expeditions and shared any booty with their men. Most initially saw their exploits as a means to provide wealth which would enable them to return to Spain and live a life of leisure. Except for some participants in the capture and ransom of the Inca Atahualpa, however, few realized their dream, for the rewards of conquest were typically encomiendas, land, and offices, commodities not transferable to Spain. Most conquistadores remained in the New World, some moving every few years in pursuit of "another Peru."
As a group, the conquistadores shared the desire to own a big house and a horse; marry a Spanish wife; be able to entertain family, retainers, and friends lavishly; and live off the labor of natives held in encomienda. Those who were successful diversified their investments and engaged in stock raising, farming, mining, commerce, and officeholding. They and their heirs were a central part of the early colonial aristocracy.
Bernal Díaz Del Castillo, The True History of the Conquest of New Spain, 1517–1521, 5 vols. in 4, translated by Alfred P. Maudslay (repr. 1967).
James Lockhart, The Men of Cajamarca: A Social and Biographical Study of the First Conquerors of Peru (1972).
Elizondo, Carlos. El escorpión de oro: Luces y sombras en la extraordinaria vida de Hernán Cortés. México, D.F.: EDAMEX, 1996.
Grunberg, Bernard. "The Origins of the Conquistadores of Mexico City." Hispanic American Historical Review 74, no. 2 (May 1994): 259-283.
López de Gómara, Francisco and Silvia L. Cuesy. Historia de la conquista de México. México, D.F.: Editorial Océano de México, 2003.
Mark A. Burkholder
con·quis·ta·dor / kôngˈkēstəˌdôr; känˈk(w)istə-; kən-/ • n. (pl. -quis·ta·do·res / -ˌkēstəˈdôrēz; -ās; -ˌk(w)istə-/ or -quis·ta·dors) a conqueror, esp. one of the Spanish conquerors of Mexico and Peru in the 16th century.