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The discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus in 1492 had a profound influence on the Renaissance and on later history. Searching for a route from Europe to Asia, Columbus arrived in the West Indies, a part of the world unknown to Europeans. European nations began establishing colonies in North and South America, a venture that forever changed life on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.


When reports of the Americas reached Europe, they transformed the Renaissance view of the world. Europeans saw the New World as a land of untapped opportunity and fresh ideas. However, exploring the vast continents was a challenging task.

By the time European explorers arrived in the Americas, the region was already inhabited by hundreds of distinct peoples. The newcomers fanned out across the landscape, learning about the geography, resources, and people. Eventually they began staking claims to territory.

The Americas in 1492. Historians estimate that the population of the Americas was 57.3 million in the 1490s, at the beginning of European contact. Mexico, the most populous region, had roughly 21.4 million inhabitants; the Andes Mountains (in present-day Ecuador, Peru, and Chile) had about 11.5 million; while the rest of North America (excluding Mexico) had only about 4.4 million. These indigenous* peoples occupied a wide range of environments, from deserts and open plains to mountains, woodlands, and rain forests.

Some areas, especially those suitable for intensive agriculture, were home to major civilizations. The Aztec and Mayan peoples lived in Mexico and Central America, and the Incas occupied the Andes Mountains of South America. Other flourishing cultures included the Chibcha in Colombia and the Iroquois Confederation, an association of several groups in eastern North America. Many of these peoples excelled at crafts such as weaving, pottery making, wood carving, and metalworking.

Native American societies had developed highly varied and productive systems of agriculture. They practiced terrace farming and irrigation, and raised crops of corn, cassava (a starchy root), and other staple foods. However, unlike societies in Europe, Africa, and Asia, the Native Americans had few domesticated* animals. The peoples of the Andes raised llamas, alpacas, and vicuñas, but most others fished and hunted for game. In the North American plains, for example, herds of wild bison supplied food as well as materials for shelter and clothing.

Native American peoples had close spiritual ties with the land and with the plants and animals that flourished there. Most groups considered the land central to their history and identity. By contrast, the Europeans viewed the land in the Americas and its inhabitants as a source of economic gain. This clash in values led to tragic conflicts as the Europeans sought control over both the indigenous peoples and their territory.

Early European Contact. The first Americans whom Europeans met were not members of the larger civilizations that had developed complex societies and cities. Instead, they were generally farmers, fishers, and hunters from small villages. These early encounters led Europeans to conclude that their own culture was superior to those of the indigenous peoples (whom they called Indians because Columbus thought that he had reached the Indies, or Asia). Belief in their own superiority helped the Europeans justify their attempts to conquer the Americas.

Most of the Europeans who came to the New World believed that the Indians should be converted to Christianity. They also thought that they had the right to make the Indians work for them. Even Bartolomé de Las Casas, a priest who protested against the settlers' harsh treatment and exploitation* of the Indians, felt that the Native Americans should become Christian subjects of the Spanish government.

The first wave of Europeans depended on the indigenous peoples to help them survive in unfamiliar lands. The explorers rarely found themselves in empty wilderness. Even the most thinly inhabited regions contained villages or camps. Some Indian groups offered the newcomers food and shelter and guided them from place to place. They also provided information about the local culture and geography. However, other groups were more wary, or even hostile, toward Europeans who arrived in their territory.

Most Europeans did not attempt to establish long-term relationships with Native Americans. Instead, they often seized food and other supplies and took captives to serve as guides and interpreters. They also captured and sometimes killed Indian leaders and waged all-out wars against certain groups. In time the Europeans managed to overpower most of their indigenous rivals.


Spain—the sponsor of Columbus's historic trip—dominated European activity in the Americas in the 1500s. Portugal, France, and England also launched voyages of exploration, but the Spanish were the first to establish outposts in American territory. Spanish settlers began in the Caribbean and then moved on to Mexico, Florida, and mainland Central and South America. In the process, they encountered and conquered some highly developed civilizations, including those of the Aztecs and the Incas.

The Caribbean. For almost 20 years after Columbus's voyage, Spain concentrated on the island of Hispaniola (now the site of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). The Spanish conquered the tribes in the interior of the island and killed many of the caciques, or local chiefs. In 1502 Spain sent a governor and 2,500 colonists to Hispaniola. But the government was weak, and conflict broke out frequently, not only between colonists and Indians but also among groups of colonists. Many of the Spaniards went to live in Indian villages to survive.

Eventually the Spanish established a system for colonization. In most cases they gained firm control over an area and then used it as a base to take over another region. By 1511 Spanish forces operating from Hispaniola had conquered Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.

The Spanish developed a colonial economy based on agriculture. They set up the encomienda, a system that gave certain Spaniards control over a piece of land and the indigenous people who lived on it. Most of the land grants went to conquistadors* and colonists with important social and political connections. The Spanish forced the Native Americans to work in their plantations and mines and eventually came to depend on local labor.

Gold mining enjoyed a brief period of success, and the Spanish used the profits to import supplies from Europe and to explore the mainland. However, by 1515 the gold deposits had dwindled, and the Native American population had declined due to hardships and disease. Settlers who stayed on the islands turned to raising sugarcane and cattle and began importing African slaves for labor.

The Mainland. Spain's activities on the mainland followed the same pattern as in the Caribbean. After locating precious metals or other valuable goods, the settlers established towns and captured or killed Native American leaders to gain control. Then the government granted encomiendas to prominent Spaniards, and more colonists arrived from Spain to settle in the territory.

Spain's conquistadors gained control of Mexico in 1521 with the capture of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. Their next goal was the Inca empire of Peru. In 1532 conquistadors captured and executed the Inca emperor Atahualpa and divided his enormous treasure among themselves. Because Spain's mainland colonies were larger and wealthier than the Caribbean islands, they developed on a new and impressive scale.

The Spanish established two vast colonies, New Spain (including Mexico and some of the surrounding territory) and Peru (incorporating much of South America). High-ranking Spanish officials called viceroys governed these colonies. Towns and cities multiplied. Many—including Mexico City, the capital of New Spain—grew up on Indian sites. A flood of immigrants arrived from Spain, including many women and children. The Spanish imported large numbers of African slaves, who became an essential element in the colonies' economic success.

The Spanish government closely regulated activities in its American colonies. A department called the Casa de Contratación (House of Trade) oversaw the movement of people, ships, goods, and precious metals between Spain and the colonies. In 1524 the crown set up the Consejo de Indias (Council of the Indies), the highest governing body for the Americas.

Religion and Economy in Spanish America. Early in the 1500s, the Roman Catholic Church gave the Spanish monarchs broad powers over the church in the Americas. The crown could appoint candidates to church offices and construct new churches and other religious institutions. Two forces shaped the activities of the church in the American colonies: the drive to convert the Indians to Christianity and the need to serve two societies, Spanish and Indian.

The religious orders, groups of priests and monks such as the Dominicans and Franciscans, played the most important role in the Spanish American church. Dominicans sailed to Hispaniola in 1510, and Franciscans followed. Missionary activity became even more focused with the arrival of 12 Franciscans in Mexico in 1524. At first the missionaries viewed their role in the Americas in terms of converting the Indians to Christianity. However, their early efforts at large-scale conversion soon gave way to a more gradual approach based on education. The Spanish built impressive monasteries where they provided religious instruction to the Indians. As a result the Roman Catholic Church had a lasting influence in the Americas.

The economy of Spanish America depended mostly on mining and agriculture. The colonists exported silver from mines in Mexico and Peru and imported cloth, clothing, iron, and other goods. They also operated farms with the help of Indian and African laborers. The farms produced enough food to support the growing population.

Other European Settlements. Compared with Spanish America, the colonial ventures of other European countries during the Renaissance were minor. Europeans who tried to settle in North America and on the eastern shores of South America made slow progress.

Some settlements faced hostility from groups of Native Americans. The first English colonists in North America, for example, were unable to maintain friendly relations with local Indians. Other settlements failed because of competition among European nations. France and Portugal both attempted to establish colonies in Brazil, but the Portuguese gained control of the region in the 1560s. The French were also active in Florida until the Spanish established their authority there. In general, Spain's land claims and strong navy limited the success of other European powers in the New World until the early 1600s.

(See alsoEconomy and Trade; Exploration; Geography and Cartography; Slavery. )

see color plate 3, vol. 4

* indigenous

native to a certain place

* domesticated

raised by humans as farm animals or pets

* exploitation

relationship in which one side benefits at the other's expense

Reluctant Guests

Occasionally, Europeans in the Americas became isolated from their own people. In the 1530s Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca was stranded when his expedition to Florida collapsed. He lived with Native Americans for several years and came to appreciate their culture. But he still believed that the indigenous peoples should become Christian subjects of Spain. Most Europeans who lived in Indian societies for a while were overjoyed to be "rescued" by other explorers. However, Gonzalo Guerrero, shipwrecked on the Mexican coast in the 1510s, refused to rejoin the Spanish and even led the Maya against them.

* conquistador

military explorer and conqueror

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