New Spain, Same Old Spaniards (1400-1600s). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

New Spain, Same Old Spaniards (1400-1600s). Complete Idiot’s Guide to American History by Alan Axelrod.

  (50,000 B.C.-A.D. 1500S) * (1451-1507) * (1400-1600s) * (1497-1608) * (1608-1733) *

 (1608-1680s) * (1636-1748) * (1749-1763) * (1763-1775) * (1776-1783) * (1787-1797) *

(1798-1812) * (1812-1814) * (1814-1836) * (1817-1842) * (1724-1857) (1834-1846) *

(1846-1860) * (1859-1862) * (1863-1876) * (1862-1878) * (1862-1891) * (1869-1908) *

(1877-1906) * (1898-1918) * (1918-1929) * (1930-1941) * (1941-1945) * (1944-1954) *

(1947-1968) * (1946-1975) * (1968-1974) * (1963-1980) * (1980-1991) * (1992—).



In This Chapter

Spanish voyages after Columbus.

Conquest of the Aztecs and Incans.

Coronado’s search for the Seven Cities of Cibola.

The “Black Legend” and native revolts.

 In the wake of Columbus, the Portuguese scrambled to launch a series of expeditions, including that of Amerigo Vespucci and, in 1500, an expedition to India led by Pedro Alvares Cabral. To put it mildly, Cabral went wide in the South Atlantic and ended up in Brazil.

Yet another Portuguese, Ferdinand Magellan, sailed not under the flag of his native country, but on commission from Spain, charged with proving that the aptly named Spice Islands lay on the Spanish side of the line of demarcation established by the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Magellan sailed west in 1519, found the Strait of Magellan separating the southern tip of South America from Tierra del Fuego, and crossed the Strait into the Pacific. That ocean had been discovered on September 25 or 27, 1513, by Vasco Nunez de Balboa, but it was Magellan who named it. Magellan explored the Philippine Islands and even persuaded the ruler of Cebu, one of the islands, to accept Christianity. That soon embroiled Magellan in a local war, however; and on April 27, 1521, he was killed by natives on Mactan Island. One of Magellan’s captains, Juan Sebastian del Cano, brought his ship, the Victoria, back to Spain, thereby completing (in 1522) the first circumnavigation of the globe.

The voyages of Spain, as well as those of Portugal, were undertaken not for the sake of exploration, but for the purpose of conquest and colonization-and also to convert the “heathen” New World to the cause of Christ. Accordingly, two classes, of professionals were represented among the early Spanish explorers: conquistadors (“conquerors”) and priests.

The Way of the Conquistador. The New World was opened up to Spain just in the nick of time. Like much of Europe, that nation was dominated by primogeniture, meaning that the first son in a family would inherit all titles and property upon the death of the father. This cramped the style of younger sons, who were left to fend for themselves. The problem was that Spain, in effect, had been all used up—all titles were taken, all property was claimed. For the lower classes, prospects were (as they always are) even more limited. The New World represented a new chance, offering a world of opportunity.

Plumed Serpent. The conquistadors followed in the footsteps of Columbus. Puerto Rico was subjugated during 1508-1509 by Juan Ponce de Leon (ca. 1460-1521), who, according to partially credible legend, had come to the New World in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth. (He didn’t find youth, but death: Ponce de Leon was mortally wounded by an Indian arrow in Florida.) Next, Jamaica and Cuba fell easily to the Spaniards in 1510 and 1511.

Far more spectacular was the battle for Mexico. It was led by Hernan Cortes, a minor nobleman who had rejected a university education to become an adventurer in the New World. In 1519, Cortes led an expedition into the present-day region of Tabasco, defeating the Tabascan Indians on March 25. By September 5, he moved against the Tlascalas as well. After triumphing over the Tlascalas, he made them allies in his campaign against their traditional enemies, the powerful Aztecs, who dominated Mexico.

Surprisingly, when Cortes landed at what is today Veracruz, he was met not with hostility, but cordially and humbly greeted by ambassadors of Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor. This fact has mystified generations of historians. Some have concluded that, unlike the ruthlessly brilliant warrior kings who had preceded him, Montezuma II was indecisive and possessed of a weak character. Others have speculated that the Aztecs, having never before seen men mounted on horseback—strange and strangely attired men at that—thought the Spaniards were incarnations of their gods. Some have suggested that Cortes deliberately posed as Quetzalcoatl, the Aztec “plumed serpent” deity. Still other scholars believe that Montezuma II hoped to appease the intruders with gifts of great beauty and value—gems and gold—in the hope that, satisfied, they would simply depart.

If that was Montezuma’s hope, it was a tragic misjudgment. Receiving the gifts, Cortes remarked: “Send me some more of it, because I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.” After an embittered battle, the Aztecs surrendered on August 13, 1521, and the Aztec Mexican empire fell to Hernan Cortes.

Borderlands. Cortes had achieved what all the conquistadors sought: access to unimaginable wealth. However, the only other Spaniard whose success began to approach that of Cortes was Francisco Pizarro, who twice attempted to invade the Incas of Peru during the 1520s and finally achieved his objective on a third try in 1531.

Pizarro, like Cortes, was regarded as a great conqueror, and his exploits stimulated Spanish expeditions into the borderlands—that is, the area of the present United States. The hope was that, somehow, somewhere, another Aztec or Inca realm would be discovered. Indians had told Columbus tales of villages containing vast treasuries of gold. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a member of a calamitous 1520 expedition led by Cortes’s rival, Panfilo Narvaez, journeyed throughout the American Southwest for eight years and brought back to Spain tales of rich pueblos—the Seven Cities of Cibola—though he never claimed to have visited them personally. Another survivor of the Narvaez expedition, a black slave named Estevan, joined an expedition led by Marcos de Niza in 1539 to locate the Seven Cities. Zuni Indians killed the unfortunate Estevan in a battle outside the Hawikuh pueblo, but de Niza returned to Mexico City and there rendered a vivid account of the pueblo and its treasures. Never mind that he had failed to gain entry into Hawikuh.

But, then, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado did not insist on proof. As with so many others who would journey to the American West in the centuries to come, all that was necessary to propel Coronado was a dream of riches. During 1540-42, he traveled throughout the Southwest, as far as present-day Kansas. Early in the expedition, during July 1540, he and his troops rode into the Zuni pueblo of Hawikuh in central New Mexico. Imperiously, he demanded the surrender of the pueblo. In response, the usually peaceful Zuni showered stones upon the conquistadors, knocking Coronado himself unconscious. Within an hour, however, Hawikuh fell, Coronado and his men entered it, and they found—very little. Certainly, there was no gold.

Coronado pressed on, in fruitless search of the elusive Seven Cities. Traveling through the pueblo region along the Rio Grande, he took one Zuni or Hopi town after another, forcing the inhabitants into slavery and taking from them whatever food and shelter they required. In the wake of Coronado’s visit, during the summer of 1541, the pueblos, led by an Indian named Texamatli, rebelled, but were quickly defeated by the forces of Nino de Guzman, governor of New Spain.

Onate the Terrible. With Coronado’s disappointment, the legend of the Seven Cities of Cibola diminished, and Spain’s interest in the American Southwest likewise dimmed. Then, in 1579, the English sea dog Sir Francis Drake landed on the central California coast and laid claim to what he christened “New Albion,” using the old poetic name for England. This spurred the Spanish viceroy at Mexico City to alert the royal court in Madrid that Spain’s New World monopoly was imperiled. Embroiled in costly European wars, the Spanish crown did nothing to reinforce the apparently worthless northern frontier of its colonies for another twenty years. Finally, in 1598, an expedition was launched northward from Mexico under the ambitious Don Juan de Onate. When he reached the site of present-day El Paso, Texas, Onate claimed for Spain-and his own governance-all of “New Mexico,” by which he meant a region extending from Texas to California.

With 400 men, women, and children in tow—plus 7,000 heads of cattle—Onate colonized deep into pueblo country, depositing settlers at various sites. In no place, except at the Acoma pueblo, in western New Mexico, did he meet resistance. At Acoma, as usual, he sent an advance squad of conquistadors to tell the Indians that they were hereafter to consider themselves subjects of the Spanish crown. In response, the Indians killed 13 of the Spanish soldiers. Perched atop a high-walled mesa, the defenders of the pueblo believed their position was impregnable. But in January 1599, Onate’s troops fought their way to the top of the mesa, killed most of the pueblo warriors, then took captive 500 women, children, and noncombatant men. Of the latter, 80 over the age of 25 were condemned to the amputation of one foot and a period of 20 years’ enslavement. (Whether or not Onate considered the usefulness of 80 one-footed slaves is not recorded.) The women—as well as children over age 12—were permitted to retain their extremities, but were likewise enslaved. Children under 12 were considered ripe for conversion to Christianity and were committed to the care of priests. A pair of Hopis who had the ill fortune to be visiting Acoma at this time were seized. The governor caused their right bands to be severed, and he sent the maimed Hopis back to their own pueblo as a bloody warning of the consequences of rebellion.

Birth of the “Black Legend”. In 1514, the Spaniard Bartolome de Las Casas (1474-1566), known as the “Apostle of the Indies,” catalogued with Outrage a litany of his countrymen’s atrocities in his Historia de las Indias (History of the Indies).

Through the writings of Las Casas and other witnesses to Spanish colonial history, a “Black Legend” grew up around Spain in the New World. The conquistadors came to the Americas thoroughly grounded in a bloody tradition of racial warfare, having fought the Moors for eight centuries to gain control of the Iberian peninsula. Moreover, colonizers such as Onate financed operations with their personal funds. When Onate failed to turn up the gold he had hoped for, he relentlessly worked the Indians in an effort to make a profit from agricultural enterprise. As it turned out, the people he had subjugated failed to produce enough food even to sustain the colonists, let alone to sell for profit, and, after Onate’s cruelty became obnoxious even to royal officials, he was fined and stripped of all honors.

The Black Legend was also fostered and sustained by the encomienda system, which dominated Spanish colonial government from the 16th through the 18th centuries. By 1503, the crown began granting loyal colonists a type of deed (called an encomendar) to specific tracts of land with the additional proviso that the Indians living on the land could be used as laborers for a specific number of days per year. The majority of encomenderos abused their Indian charges, brutally forcing them to work for nothing more than mere token wages and showing not the least concern “for their health.

The cruelty of the encomienda system was, to some degree, balanced by the beneficent intentions of the Spanish missionaries. It is true that the Indians were given no choice in deciding whether or not they wanted to be “saved” by conversion to Christianity, but the best of the missionaries, beginning with Las Casas, did have an abiding concern for the spiritual as well as physical welfare of their charges. Ironically, such concern may have served to perpetuate the horrors that Onate and others visited upon the Indians. On economic grounds alone, it is not likely that Spain would have continued to support its colonial outposts north of the Rio Grande. Gold was not forthcoming, and agricultural enterprises produced marginal profits at best and, in most cases, ruinous losses. But all during the Spanish experiment in the Southwest, the friars had been creating a population of new Christians, whose now-sanctified souls, they argued, could not simply be abandoned.

The First American Revolutions. By the middle of the 17th century, after half a century of tyranny, certain of the Pueblo Indian groups were moved to a desperate action. They forged an alliance with their hereditary foes, the Apaches, who were envied and feared for their skill as warriors (the very word apache comes from a Zuni term meaning “enemy”). After several abortive attempts at rebellion, the Apaches seized the initiative and, during the 1670s, terrorized the Spanish Southwest. In this they were soon joined by people of the pueblos, who waged a long and disruptive guerrilla war against their Spanish masters. At last, Governor Antonio de Oterrmin moved against 47 so-called medicine men whom he identified as ringleaders of the rebellion. He hanged three and imprisoned the remainder in Santa Fe, the territorial capital. Among the prisoners was an Indian leader from the Tewa pueblo named Pope. Released after several years of cruel imprisonment, Pope went into hiding in Taos and began covertly organizing what he planned as a final, decisive rebellion.

Despite almost universal outrage among the pueblos, achieving unified action was no easy task. Pope managed to persuade all but the most remote pueblos (which were least oppressed by the Spanish) to join him. Next, in order to coordinate action, he sent runners to the various towns, each bearing a knotted cord designed so that the last knot would be untied in each pueblo on the day set for the revolt: August 13, 1680. So determined was Pope to maintain secrecy that he had his brother-in-law murdered when he suspected him of treachery. Despite such precautions, word of the rebellion leaked to the colonial authorities, and Pope was forced to launch his revolution early, on the 10th. Despite the sudden change in schedule, the rebellion was devastating to the Spanish. The major missions at Taos, Pecos, and Acoma were burned and the priests murdered, their bodies heaped upon the altars of their despised religion. The lesser missions were crushed as well, and ranches were destroyed. Those who did not flee were killed. At last, on August 15, Pope led a 500-man army into Santa Fe. Four hundred settlers and 21 of 33 missionaries perished. Although the armed garrison at Santa Fe consisted of only 50 men, they were equipped with. a brass cannon, which they used to resist the invasion for four days before evacuating—Governor Oterrmin included—on August 21. Some 2,500 survivors of the onslaught fled as far as present-day El Paso, Texas, abandoning all their possessions to looters.

Sadly for the Native people of the pueblos, Pope capped his triumph by installing himself as absolute dictator and one who was as oppressive as any Spanish overlord had been. For the next eight years, he extorted a ruinous tax from his people, executing anyone who resisted. By the time of Pope’s death (from natural causes) in 1688, the pueblo region was in a state of chronic civil war. The Indians were vulnerable, and, a year after Pope’s death, the Zia Pueblo was retaken by the Spanish. In 1692, Governor Don Diego de Vargas laid siege to Santa Fe, entirely cutting off its water and food until it collapsed in surrender. During the course of the next four years, all of the pueblos submitted once again to Spanish rule, except for the Hopis, who were somehow simply overlooked by colonial authorities.

All was not entirely quiet. In 1695, the Pima Indians of lower Pimeria Alta-the region of present-day Sonora, Mexico, and southern Arizona-looted and burned Spanish settlements. The uprising was quickly suppressed, and more than 50 years would pass before the Pimas—these of upper Pimeria Alta, many descended from earlier rebels who had fled north—staged another uprising, which degenerated into a century and a half of smoldering guerrilla wars—first against the Spanish, then the Mexicans, and finally the Americans.

From Black Legend to Black Robes. Enslavement and warfare were not the sole legacies of the Spanish in the American Southwest. The priests—the Indians called them “black robes”—who accompanied the conquistadors not only brought their religion to the Americas, but also created a Euro-Indian culture centered around the many missions they established. The first of these, in New Mexico, were founded during the administration of Onate in 1598. In the course of the next century, Franciscan friars founded more than 40 more, mainly along the Rio Grande. By 1680, missions had been built among most of the Indians in New Mexico as well. As the presence in California of the Englishman Sir Francis Drake had stirred Spanish concerns in 1579, a French landing led by Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, on the Texas coast in 1684 prompted the Spanish to build missions in that area.

Between 1687 and 1711, Father Eusebio Kino established many missions in northern Mexico and Baia California as well as some in southern Arizona, the most famous of which was Mission San Xavier del Bac. But it is for the chain of 21 Franciscan missions, linked together by El Camino Real (“The Royal Road”), extending along the California coast from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north, that the Spanish missionaries are best known. The first, Mission San Diego de Alcala (at San Diego) was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1769. Serra would go on personally to found nine more.

The missions were communities, and, like any other communities, they varied widely in their success. Some faltered and collapsed, while others spawned fertile fields, vineyards, and vast herds of cattle. By bringing large numbers of Indians into a small space, the missions also tended to spread epidemic disease, and they disrupted native culture and traditions.

The way of the conquistador and the way of the Black Robe represent two distinctive aspects of the Hispanic Southwest. But whereas the conquistadors treated the Indians as bestial enemies, to be subdued and enslaved, the Catholic padres regarded them as miscreant children to be supervised and regulated. Neither extreme admitted a full appreciation of their humanity, but both traditions shaped the character of the Southwest in an enduring fashion. Both, too, created enmities between white and red, leaving scars on the history of the region so deep that they would not begin to fade until the end of the 19th century. As to the missions themselves, the last one, San Francisco Solano, in the Sonoma Valley of Northern California, was built in 1823, and the mission system endured until 1833-34, when the revolutionary Mexican Republic-which then encompassed the American Southwest-secularized Church properties.

The Least You Need to Know

The sensational exploits of Cortes in Mexico and Pizarro in Peru inspired exploration of the “borderlands” (the area of the present American Southwest).

 Don Juan de Onate was typical of the oppressive colonial authorities who ruled the borderlands.

 In addition to a hunger for wealth and power, the Spanish colonizers were also driven by a desire to convert the Indians of the New World to Christianity.

Word for the Day. The word primogeniture is Latin, meaning first (primo) birth (geniture). It signifies the right of the firstborn child—almost exclusively the male child—to inherit the whole of his family’s wealth, titles, and privileges.


Word for the Day. Whereas Spanish seafarers favored such grandiose titles as “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” and marquis of this or that, the great British navigators who sailed for Queen Elizabeth I gloried in the title of sea dog, coined during the 16th century and used to describe only the most daring and seasoned salts.


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