Study Guide

Spanish Colonization Introduction

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Spanish Colonization Introduction

From 1492 to the 1800s, Spanish explorers were the bullies of the New World. 

Beginning with Columbus in 1492 and continuing for nearly 350 years, Spain conquered and settled most of South America, the Caribbean, and the American Southwest. 

Yeah, they kept themselves busy.

Christopher Columbus and his crew arrived in 1492 after sailing the ocean blue in a quest to find a faster trade route to Asia. They wanted riches and the eternal glory of being really cool by discovering the better water highway to Asia. They also wanted to spread what they thought was the Best Religion Ever, Catholicism. 

Maybe the explorers thought they were bringing something great (religion and Catholicism) to the local tribes, but they actually brought diseases that killed millions of Native Americans.

To add insult to smallpox, the Spanish explorers enslaved the Native Americans who weren't killed and then took their natural resources. It was a pretty ugly time period for the Native Americans, who fought back and won some key battles, but in the end they were dealing with so many diseases that they weren't exactly in tip-top fighting shape. 

Sound too good to be true? (For Spain, that is.) Well, it was. 

The growth of a racially-mixed society eventually caused rifts to develop between Spain and its American colonies, and by 1824, all of Spain's New World colonies except Cuba and Puerto Rico had fought for and won their independence.

So, it's hard to say that anything "good" came out of the conquest, but that's the thing with history. It happens whether you like it or not. 

Hate 'em or hate 'em less, the Spanish explorers did leave a deep and lasting mark on the Americas. To see the Spanish legacy, all you have to do is look around you. See those horses and that wheat? The conquest brought those. Ever notice that there are more than 400 million people who practice Catholicism in Latin America today? The conquest did that. Does the phrase "Spanish language" ring any bells? Of course it does because more than 8% of the world speaks it as a first language. 

That's the conquest again. Say what you will about the conquistadors, but you can't say they weren't important.

What is Spanish Colonization About and Why Should I Care?

Ever wonder how we, as modern Americans, got here?

After all, our society doesn't look much like the societies that existed here in the Western Hemisphere during the previous few thousand years. And while the American people today are descendants of peoples from every continent, American culture does look a lot like European culture. Which is funny because Europe is far away. 

European culture in America began not with the English, but with Spain, which over the course of about one hundred years, managed to conquer the native societies of Latin America and install a forceful presence in what's now the United States.

Christopher Columbus is a controversial figure today, celebrated by some as a great hero, while others attack him as a historical villain, responsible for the often-vicious conquest of the Americas by the Spanish who followed in the wake of his "discovery" of this continent. 

Whether you imagine Columbus in the role of hero or villain, there's no denying his importance. Columbus opened the Atlantic to European explorers, adventures, merchants, and the famous conquistadores. And the process that Columbus set in motion led to the foundation of the United States about three hundred years after Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue.

The Spanish were able to colonize much of South and Central America, but the territory that later became the United States stood on the far periphery of Spain's New World empire. Only in the West did the Spanish have a serious presence in territory that's now the United States, and Spanish penetration of California and New Mexico came only in the 17th and 18th centuries. 

Spanish place names and institutions are still found all over California and the Southwest.

But even more important than the physical remains of Spanish society in the United States is the mere fact that the Spanish came here, paved the way for later European nations to come here, and provided the models on which those other societies thrived. There would be no United States without Spain, and it's with Spain that the history of the United States as we know it began.

Spanish Colonization Resources


Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1999)
This is a groundbreaking work that shows how environmental factors played an important role in determining history. It uses Pizarro's conquest of the Incas to illustrate how different cultures developed at different speeds due to the prevailing crops, population densities, and other factors. Diamond gives a great explanation of the clash of civilizations in the New World.

John Elliott, Empires of the Atlantic World: Britain and Spain in America, 1492–1830 (2006)
A comparative look at Spanish and British colonization in the New World puts both in perspective. Written by the most famous historian of Spain, this book combines excellent knowledge of both England and Spain with a comparison of the different goals and methods of the two largest colonial powers.

Robert Hine and John Mack Faragher, Frontiers: A Short History of the American West (2007)
A short, concise, and clear history of the American West from its Spanish foundations on. Has an excellent section on Spanish background of the American West.

William Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico & History of the Conquest of Peru (1845, reprint 2000)
The original and most famous work on the Spanish conquest of the New World. It's over 150 years old, but it's still the most complete work on the topic, and is the basis for any serious study of Cortes, Pizarro, and their ilk.

Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Settling of North America (2002)
Taylor does an excellent job of bringing Spanish America into the history of the United States. Readable and full of detail, this book is a good monograph for understanding how Spanish America played a role in the development of British America.

Hugh Thomas, Conquest: Cortes, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico (1995)
An update of Prescott, this is a huge book that investigates every possible aspect of the conquest of Mexico. Thomas is a well-known Latin American scholar, and his prose is readable and full of insight.


Inkuyo, Land of the Incas (2003)
Flutist Gonzalo Vargas, a proud ancestor of the Incas, founded Inkuyo, a group of talented musicians who shared his desire to perform music from the Andean musical past.

Xavier Quijas Yxayotl, Aztec Dances (2003)
Indulge in the soothing rhythms of traditional Aztec prayers and ceremonial dances.

Various Artists, Panorama: Dances of the Renaissance (2001)
We suggest splurging on this two-disc compilation of vibrant dance tunes to liven up your next Renaissance-themed dinner party.

Various Artists, Grand Tour: Music from 16th and 17th-Century Italy, Spain, and Germany (1996)
Giovanni Bassano, Dario Castello, and Johann Vierdanck are just a few of the accomplished composers represented on this eclectic compilation of orchestra music from the 16th and 17th centuries.

Shirley Rumsey, Music of the Spanish Renaissance (1994)
Classical musician Shirley Rumsey offers her illustrious interpretation of simple yet elegant compositions from 15th and 16th-century Spain.


Cortes in Mexico
Map showing Cortes' route and Conquest of Mexico.

Pizarro in Peru
Map showing Pizarro's route and Conquest of Peru.

The Aztec Capital
Map of Tenochtitlan from 1524.

Movies & TV

The Fountain (2006)
Actor Fernando Mernandez stars as a Mayan priest and the guardian of the Tree of Life in this film about the quest for eternal life and love.

Cabeza de Vaca (1991)
This award-winning film about 16th-century Mexico traces the life of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a survivor from a Spanish expedition who joins the Iguase Indian tribe only to be confronted later by his own people, Spanish conquistadors determined to enslave his adoptive clan.

The Royal Hunt of the Sun (1968)
The Spanish explorer Francisco Pizarro is the focus of this Hollywood production about the conquest of the Inca empire.

Captain from Castile (1947)
Actor Cesar Romero stars as Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortez in this Hollywood adventure about the exploratory expedition that turned violent.

Sacred City of the Mayan Indians (1936)
This movie short is, perhaps, the first documentary film about the Chichicastenango region of Guatemala, the center of a once flourishing Mayan civilization.


Primary Sources Central
The Internet Modern Sourcebook: Colonial Latin America is a site containing links to various primary sources concerning the early Conquest period and Colonial Latin America.

Pre-Columbian Societies
The website of University of Minnesota anthropologist Kevin L. Callahan looks at pre-Columbian civilizations and their scientific, administrative, and political history.

Latin American Network Information Center
Housed at the University of Texas, LANIC is the main center for all things Latin American, and has links to hundreds of other sites.

Historical Documents

Site with links to dozens of translations of primary sources on Colonial Latin America

New World, Old Maps
This page gives examples and discussion of some of the early maps of the New World.

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