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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' momentous first voyage shook the world and paved the way for Spanish colonization of the New World. Though Columbus himself refused to believe—to the end of his life—that he had discovered a new continent, others quickly seized on the implications of his four voyages. Today a figure of some controversy, in his own time, Columbus was hailed as a hero. He even tried to force Queen Isabella to make good on her promises to appoint him governor of all his discovered lands, leading to a protracted legal case that still saw his heirs in court over 150 years after his death.
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.
The conquest of the Aztecs from 1519 to 1521 by a small band of Spaniards and their native allies still ranks as one of the most formidable military feats of all time. Cortés used tactics designed to divide the rival native nations of Mesoamerica against each other, using a large force of native allies to aid his attack against the hated Aztecs in their island capital city of Tenochtitlan.
He was just as ruthless with his own troops as he was with the natives in the area, even going so far as to burn his boats to ensure that his men had no choice but to follow him. Cortés set the standard that all later conquistadores followed in the New World, and it was through his efforts and those of Francisco Pizarro and others that the large Native American empires of the New World were subjugated to Spanish rule.
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.
Moctezuma II (1466–1520), also known as Montezuma, was the last emperor of the Aztecs. He was imprisoned by Cortés' Spanish troops and later died in their captivity.
Much of his history is either unknown or known from extremely biased Spanish sources, so it's hard to reach an accurate reading of his character and abilities. What is known is that he wasn't loved by the numerous peoples that he conquered, and his complicity with the Spaniards led initially to strife within the Aztec nobility, and eventually to Moctezuma's own death.
Moctezuma's demise was the climax of the Spanish story of conquest of what is now Mexico. According to different sources, Moctezuma was either a somewhat simple ruler who was unable to comprehend the threat the Spanish posed to his empire, or he was a wily schemer who sought to use the arrival of the Spanish to his advantage but was foiled by his own people. His death and the dismemberment of his empire allowed the Spanish to firmly embed themselves in the New World, and the riches of the Aztecs made their way into the pockets of many conquistadores. Today, Moctezuma is considered a hero by those who see him as the last of the native rulers of Mexico.
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.
Junipero Serra (1713–1784) was a Franciscan friar who founded a series of Missions in what is now California.
Born in Majorca, Spain in 1713, he joined the Order of Friars Minor in 1730 and asked to be sent to the Sierra Gorda mountains of Mexico. Serra later became the "presidente" of missions in Alta California. He helped to found nearly a dozen missions himself, and influenced those who founded the remainder of the 21 California missions stretching from San Diego in the south to Sonoma in the north.
Serra was the father of California's missions and he helped establish Spanish control of the California coast during an era in which Spain's authority over the area was under threat from England and Russia. Serra's missions were influential in converting to Christianity all of the natives along the entire California coast as far north as Sonoma. The missions also constituted the first major European presence on the American Pacific Coast.
California remained an important area of Spanish control until the beginning of the Mexican-American War in 1846, when it was captured by a group of Americans led by John C. Frémont.