New World Colonies

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New World Colonies


France and England. The French and the English considered education a vital part of their imperial missions. When Francis I commissioned Jacques Cartiers third voyage to Canada in 1540, he ordered the explorer to collect information about savage peoples who live without knowledge of God and without use of reason ... [and] ... to have them instructed in the love and fear of God and of the holy Christian law and doctrine. The English colonizers of Roanoke Island in the 1580s carried with them a similar missionary imperative to collect information about Native Americans and to begin the process of converting them to Christianity. But neither the French nor the English founded permanent settlements in North America before 1600, and their attempts to build colonies were so short-lived that they neither built schools for colonial children nor fulfilled their mission to instruct Indians in Christian doctrine.

Spain. Unlike France and England, during the sixteenth century Spain developed an enormous colonial enterprise in the New World. New Spain (present-day Mexico) was the heart of the Crowns American empire, and the Spanish made substantial inroads into South America as well. They were less successful in North America. Although explorers such as Juan Ponce de León, Hernando de Soto, and Francisco Vásquez de Coronado had provided a wealth of information about the geography and population of the continent, the lack of large deposits of gold and silver, such as the Spanish had found further to the south, militated against a substantive and systematic effort to plant colonies in North America. Nevertheless attempts were made to build centers of Spanish settlement in North America, and education emerged as an important part of the extension of the Spanish dominion northward.

Florida. As the Spanish treasure fleets lumbered back to Spain laden with New World riches, they stayed close to the Florida coast before picking up the gulf current to Europe. For this reason the Florida coast became a haven for pirates, and the Spanish government decided to build a permanent settlement that would serve as a base for warships that could protect the unwieldy galleons. Despite several earlier failures to build colonies in Florida, in 1565 Pedro Menéndez de Aviles founded St. Augustine, and the outpost became the center of a far-flung Spanish presence in the American South.

New Mexico. Although Coronados expedition in the 1540s had shown that the Southwest lacked precious metals, forty years later two Franciscan friars, Agustín Rodríguez and Antonio Espejo, revisited the Pueblo country to scout out opportunities for missionizing the Indians. They wrote glowing reports of the region, and in 1595 Juan de Oñate asked for and received permission from King Philip II to colonize the area Coronado had written off as too arid and too impoverished for Spanish settlement. In 1598 his party of colonists arrived among the Pueblos, and despite tensions with the local inhabitants as well as the threat of drought and starvation, the small group managed to build an outpost they called San Juan de Yunque.

Converting the Indians. Neither the Florida nor the New Mexico colony developed enough of a population of children to justify the creation of day schools. However, the goal of converting and subjugating the Indians required that Spaniards instruct them in Christianity as well as Spanish language and technology so that the Hispanicized Indians could be incorporated into the stratified social order that colonial officials envisioned. Without an educated Indian peasantry to work for the Spanish upper class the colonies would not have survived because royal officials rarely enlisted enough colonists to make self-contained viable settlements. Two groups undertook the task of converting the Indians, the Jesuits and the Franciscans, and they relied on several legal and religious precedents to guide their efforts.

Papal Proclamations. The papacy had a tremendous influence on the education of native North Americans by Spanish missionaries. Six years before Columbuss first voyage, King Ferdinand of Aragon, who married Isabella of Castile to form the core of the modern Spanish nation, negotiated with Pope Innocent VIII a treaty called Real Patronato, which made Ferdinand the official patron of Catholicism abroad. In exchange for such control over Catholicism, Ferdinand promised the Pope that his government would tolerate no other religions. In 1493 Alexander VI issued a papal bull, or policy statement, called Inter Catera Divinae, which decreed that Indians were capable of converting to Christianity. Pope Julius IIs bull Illius fulciti praesidio (1504) further clarified the relationship between the Church, the Crown, and the Indians. It defined the Crowns duties in the New World as [to] preach the word of God, convert the... infidels and barbarous peoples, instruct and teach the converts in the true faith. In 1537 the bull Sublimis Deus clarified matters further by asserting that Indians are truly men capable of understanding the catholic faith. Another bull issued the same year, Veritas ipsa, reinforced Inter Catera Divinae and ended an ongoing debate among Spanish intellectuals about the essential humanity of the Indians. If they could convert, so the argument went, then they were capable of rational thought and were, therefore, human.


In 1209 The Man Who became known as St. Francis of Assisi decided to dedicate his life to living in poverty and to preaching the Christian word. Two years later Pope Innocent III recognized Francis and his followers as an official Roman Catholic order, and the Pope prohibited the Franciscans from owning property to enforce their vow of poverty. The order worked tirelessly to educate the poor, and its members survived on what they could obtain through begging and menial labor. Franciscans entered the New World following Hernando Cortéss conquest of the Aztecs in 1523. Two years later royal regulations mandated that Franciscan friars accompany each exploration party so that, in the words of the bishop of Mexico, the subjugation of and conversion of Native Americans would be a Christian apostolic [event] and not a butchery.

Source: David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992).


In 1534 Ignatius Of Loyola, a former soldier, met at the University of Paris six other men who shared his interest in Christianity and humanitarianism. Together the group founded the Society of Jesus and dedicated themselves and their order to charitable work, educating the poor, and working as missionaries abroad. New members took vows of poverty and of celibacy and agreed to work in the service of the Pope. Given Spains responsibility to spread Roman Catholicism throughout the New World, the Pope provided hundreds of Jesuit missionaries for the conversion of Indians in the Americas. By 1556 there were more than one thousand black robes, as the Jesuits were called, serving as missionaries around the world.

Source: William J. Bangert, A History of the Society of Jesus (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1972).

Spanish Education. The Spanish church, financed by the War Ministry, undertook the education of native North Americans and drew upon historical, pedagogical, and institutional influences from Spain as well as upon certain aspects of precontact native education. Humanism was important in this respect because its practitioners valued the essential humanity of all people as decreed by Inter Catera Divinae and Veritas ipsa. In addition, the incorporation into Spanish society of conquered peoples that had begun when Ferdinand and Isabella reconquered the Iberian peninsula from its Arabic occupiers was simply extended to the native

inhabitants of the New World. The center of the Spanish educational universe was the University of Alcalá de Henares, where clergymen educated the poor and trained young men for service to the church. The spirit of Alcalá de Henares was transplanted to the New World in 1536 when the College of Santa Cruz de Tlaltelolco was founded in Mexico to train Indian converts as clergymen. At the school Indian men learned reading, writing, theology, Latin, rhetoric, logic, and medicine, but the program was not popular. In 1555 a religious council closed the school and forbade the further ordination of either Indians or mestizos, children of Indian and Spanish parents. In spite of the closure, Spanish professors continued to believe in the importance of educating Indians. Two scholars in particular recommended to the Crown that all Indians be taught religion and the liberal arts because, they reasoned, who are we to show discrimination that Christ never showed[?]

Jesuit Missions in Florida. A few Jesuits had accompanied Pedro Menéndez de Avilés to Florida, and they opened six missions along the southeastern coast of the peninsula and in the interior. Their unwillingness to accept native traditions of polygamy and inheritance and their practice of kidnapping and sending to Cuba the children of prominent chiefs, however, doomed their missions. A revolt by the Guale chiefdom in present-day Georgia forced the Society of Jesus to abandon its project in 1572.

Franciscan Missions in Florida. In 1573 several Franciscans arrived in Florida to resume the project of converting the Indians to Roman Catholicism. Empowered by the Royal Orders of 1573, which encouraged missionaries to persuade rather than to force Indians to convert, and informed by the traditions of humanism, which valued individuals inherent goodness, the Franciscans built several doctrinas, mission settlements, where they gathered the populations of nearby native villages. Although more tolerant than the Jesuits, the Franciscans unwillingness to allow the Indians to dictate the pace and scope of cultural change got them in trouble. In 1597 the Guales again revolted and drove the Franciscans back to St. Augustine. The Franciscans enjoyed better success among the Timicuans who inhabited much of the peninsula. Fathers Francisco Pareja and Gregorio de Movilla even translated Christian texts into the Timucuan language in order to facilitate their conversion. Franciscan missions were spread far and wide, and at no one time were there more than seventy missionaries in the region.

Franciscan Missions in New Mexico. When Juan de Oñate founded San Juan de Yunque, he divided New Mexico into seven missionary districts, but only two missions were built before 1600: San Juan de los Caballeros and San Gabriel. As in Florida, the Franciscans first tried to gather native populations into their missions. With the priests help the Pueblo Indians learned various new skills. Priests also challenged the powers of native healers and shamans and managed to persuade many Pueblos that they and not the indigenous spiritualists had access to the wondrous powers of the heavens. In spite of such achievements, nearly one century later the Pueblos, like the Guales, decided they were better off without the Franciscans, and the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 drove the missionaries and the Spanish colonists out of New Mexico.

The Missions. The construction of missions and the education of the Indians were the first two steps in the Spanish colonial plan to pacify new regions and to prepare them for later settlement by Spaniards. Not only did Indians have to be incorporated into the colonizers faith, but they also had to learn the skills necessary to keep the colonial outposts functioning. Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries took as their model for instruction the Aztec Calmecac school, which, before Columbus, had trained the children of elites to be responsible and intelligent governors.

The Pupils. The children the missionaries selected for their pupils, the catecúmenos, played important roles in mission education because they worked as translators and explained to the other students and to their parents the meaning of the Roman Catholic faith. Once the catecúmenos had demonstrated a sufficient proficiency in reciting the catechism, a short book that consisted of questions and answers about the Christian faith, they were baptized by the friars and became known as cristianos. Some who were particularly adept at the Spanish language and trades earned the right to be called muy españolado (very Spanish). The priests also renamed the children after baptism to conform to Christian practice.

The Lessons. Whether in New Mexico or in Florida, the catecúmenos and cristianos learned many of the same things. In an attempt to transform the native diet into one the Spanish could recognize as their own, the priests introduced sheep and pigs to the missions and taught the children as well as their parents how to care for the animals and how to grow nonnative crops such as wheat, grapes, peaches, and watermelons. The New Mexican missionaries also instructed their charges in new methods of irrigation and introduced women to the virtues of growing, spinning, and weaving cotton. Whereas only a handful of students learned to read and write, most males at least learned a trade. Spanish artisans would take on native apprentices to learn skills such as shoemaking, carpentry, blacksmithing, and tailoring. Over time the students emerged to play important roles in the lives of the colonies and of their tribes, but by 1600 the mission schools in Florida and New Mexico were only beginning to accomplish their goals.


David Hurst Thomas, ed., Columbian Consequences, Volume One: Archaeological and Historical Perspectives on the Spanish Borderlands West (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1989);

David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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