Study Guide

The Columbian Exchange People

  • Christopher Columbus

    Christopher Columbus (1451–1506) was a navigator and explorer whose famous 1492 voyage from Spain to the West Indies marked the beginning of successful European colonization of the Americas. 

    On October 12th, 1492, Columbus and his crews aboard the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria made landfall in the Bahamas. Upon his return to Spain, news of the explorer's discoveries captivated Europe. 

    Though Columbus wasn't the first European to discover the Americas, his four voyages helped open trans-Atlantic navigation and facilitated European conquest of the New World. He made three subsequent journeys to the New World, "discovering" many islands in the Caribbean and mapping the coast of Central and South America.

    Columbus was the initiator and namesake of the Columbian Exchange—the rapid exchange of plants, animals, and diseases between the Old and New Worlds that began with Columbus' journeys. The uneven biological and ecological impacts of the Columbian Exchange largely accounted for the divergent fates of Native Americans, Europeans, and even Africans after 1492. So, the impact of Columbus extended far beyond his "discoveries" of new lands.

  • Francisco Pizarro

    Francisco Pizarro (1475–1541) was one of the most successful Spanish conquistadors. In 1532, Pizarro led a small force of Spanish soldiers and conquered the mighty Inca Empire. He then founded the Spanish colony of Peru, ruling former Inca territories there until he was assassinated by followers of a rival conquistador in 1541.

    The ecological processes of the Columbian Exchange gave Pizarro a vital advantage in his conquest of the Inca Empire. A catastrophic smallpox outbreak in 1525 killed nearly a quarter million Inca, including the emperor and many of his most powerful aides and generals, leading to a power struggle among the survivors that devolved into civil war. 

    When Pizarro invaded a few years later, he faced much less resistance than he would have prior to the epidemic.

  • Hernán Cortés

    Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) was perhaps the most famous of the Spanish conquistadors, the conqueror of the mighty Aztec Empire of Central America. 

    From 1519 to 1521, Cortés commanded the small Spanish expedition that eventually captured the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, allowing Cortés to take over as governor of Mexico. His willful disregard for authority pitted him against his superiors in Cuba and in Spain, and although his exploits were legendary and quite profitable, he died an embittered man in 1547.

    Without the advantageous impacts of the Columbian Exchange, Cortés' conquest of the Aztecs would have been impossible. In 1520, smallpox—a European disease for which the Aztecs had no immunities—ravaged the population of Tenochtitlan, infecting as much as half the population. The smallpox pandemic fatally weakened the Aztecs, allowing Cortés to prevail one year later.

  • Hernando de Soto

    Hernando de Soto (1496–1542) was a Spanish conquistador who led a disastrous expedition of conquest into the North American interior between 1539 and 1542. 

    De Soto, who hoped to follow in the footsteps of Cortés and Pizarro, failed in his hunt for gold on the North American mainland. After leading his men on a fruitless three-year search throughout much of what now makes up the southeastern United States, de Soto died on the banks of the Mississippi River. His men fled back to Mexico.

    While de Soto's journey of conquest was an unmitigated failure, it was nevertheless historically significant. During his travels, de Soto encountered a densely populated and culturally sophisticated Native American civilization in the Mississippi Valley. However, de Soto—and his men and livestock—introduced new diseases to the region that subsequently destroyed those Native American populations. 

    By the time Europeans returned to the area again in the late-17th century, the Mississippi Valley appeared to be a depopulated wilderness.

  • René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle

    René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle (1643–1687) was a French explorer and colonist who established French claims to lands around the Great Lakes region and in the Mississippi Valley. In 1682, he became the first European to travel the length of the Mississippi River, canoeing from the Illinois River to the Gulf of Mexico.


    La Salle's observations during his 1682 journey down the Mississippi provide a stark contrast to those recorded 140 years before by Hernando de Soto in his travels through the same lands. Where de Soto had encountered a densely settled Native American civilization, La Salle found very few human settlements. 

    What La Salle believed to be an ancient wilderness was in fact a new creation. De Soto himself had caused this human catastrophe when he brought new diseases into the Mississippi Valley.

  • John Winthrop

    John Winthrop (1587–1649) was a devoutly religious Puritan elder who led a large migration of Puritans from England to America in 1629 and became the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony one year later. He was probably the most powerful figure in New England in the first half of the 17th century.

    Like all Puritan colonists, Winthrop observed—but didn't fully understand—the incredible susceptibility of nearby Native Americans to European diseases like smallpox. While smallpox repeatedly struck both settlers and Native Americans in colonial Massachusetts, the Native Americans died at much higher rates. 

    Winthrop interpreted the disease-driven Native American holocaust—which weakened Native American resistance to colonial rule and opened up new lands for colonial expansion—as proof of God's special blessing of the Puritan settlement.