Columbus’s return from the New World created an abundance of activity throughout Europe. Old World monarchs dispatched explorers and small armies to the newly discovered continent to establish outposts, spread religious beliefs, and seek treasure. The advanced Indian civilizations of South and Central America were prime targets for invasion because of their abundance of gold and silver.
As Spain and Portugal battled for legal rights to the New World, Pope Alexander VI, a Spaniard, mediated a compromise that divided the non-Christian world between the two powers. The Treaty of Tordesillas drew an imaginary line from the arctic pole to the Antarctic pole, 100 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, which are located west of the African coastline. The decision gave Spain the rights to anything west of the line and the opportunity to explore and settle the known New World. Brazil, however, though part of the New World, was settled by the Portuguese because it was on the eastern side of the treaty line.
Within a decade after Columbus’s landfall, thousands of Spanish conquistadores, explorers, and settlers ventured across the southern portion of the present-day United States, through Mexico, and southward into Peru. The conquistadores were typically professional soldiers and sailors recruited to fight for church and crown. However, many nobles, peasants, and members of the middle class also joined the excursions in search of adventure and wealth.
The lust for gold was a common motivator that sometimes drove the explorers to perform heinous acts against the Native Americans. Military conquest, diseases, slavery, and deceit broke the Indians’ resistance, while Indian allies, superior weapons, and horses, provided conquistadores the strength and mobility to control vast populations.
The first known European explorer to set foot on what became the United States was Juan Ponce de León. In 1493, the Spanish explorer accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage to America. As a reward for his assistance in suppressing Indian revolts, Ponce de León was named governor of present-day Puerto Rico. After subjugating the Indians on Puerto Rico and amassing a fortune in gold and slaves, he was replaced as governor.
Free to dedicate his attention to exploration, Ponce de León set out to find the fabled island of Bimini. He was driven to discover new lands, gold, slaves, and possibly the legendary Fountain of Youth. Many believed that those who drank from the fountain would be cured of all illnesses and their youthful appearance would be restored. Ponce de León sailed northwest from Puerto Rico until he reached Florida. He followed the coastline south, rounded the peninsula, and explored much of Florida’s west coast.
The king of Spain honored Ponce de León with a knighthood and named him governor of Florida. He was unable to mount a second expedition until 1521, when an attempt was made to colonize Florida. However, the natives no longer passively accepted Spanish domination, and Ponce de León was mortally wounded during an Indian attack. He discovered neither great wealth nor the Fountain of Youth, and failed to establish a permanent settlement in Florida.
In 1540, another Spanish explorer, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado, began a trek through what is now the southwestern United States in search of the fabled treasures of the Seven Cities of Cibola. The expedition consisted of several hundred Spaniards, some African slaves, and about a thousand Indian allies. They discovered the Grand Canyon and the adobe pueblos of the Zuñi in New Mexico, which were later determined to be the source of the Cibola legend. Coronado pushed as far north as the plains of Kansas where vast herds of buffalo roamed, but he never found gold, silver, or other riches, and returned to Mexico City. Although his journeys familiarized the Spanish with the Pueblo people and the geography of the American southwest, Coronado was considered a failure because he did not bring back the fabled riches of Cibola.
During the same period that Coronado ventured through the Southwest, Hernando de Soto landed in Florida and explored the southeastern portion of the present-day United States. His party included more than six hundred soldiers with armor, about half of them mounted on horseback, and was considered to be the best-equipped expedition yet in the New World. De Soto traveled through Florida, into the Carolinas, and westward toward the Mississippi River where he became the first European to view the “Father of Waters.” Disappointed by the lack of riches in the small Indian villages they encountered, the Spanish typically attacked the natives and burned their villages.
In May 1542, de Soto was stricken with a fever and died near Natchez. About half of the expedition ultimately returned to Mexico, empty-handed and dressed in rags and skins, after a four-year ordeal. In 1542, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led an expedition to explore the western coast of California. As a young conquistador, he served in the Spanish army and helped Hernan Cortés conquer the Aztecs. Cabrillo’s experience as an explorer prompted the viceroy of New Spain to select him to lead the exploration of the Pacific coastline, as far north as San Francisco bay. Although he died during the journey, Cabrillo established the Spanish claim to California.
The Spanish explorations opened the New World to European settlers. Hundreds of new villages were established throughout the United States, primarily in the south from Florida through Texas and into California. Some Spaniards took control of existing Indian villages as encomenderos. Through the Spanish system called encomienda, favored officers were given land and ownership of one or more Indian villages. As encomenderos, they served as protectors, but also used the natives as laborers.
As Spain’s control of the New World spread across the land, so did the rumors of the conquistador’s cruel behavior toward the Indians. In an effort to protect the natives and change the actions of the Spanish explorers, Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican priest, documented the questionable behavior in A Brief Relation of the Destruction of the Indies. Although the literature prompted Spanish leaders to make some reforms, it also started the Black Legend of Spanish cruelty that labeled the Spaniards as vicious, inhumane beings who slaughtered thousands of Indians and enslaved the survivors.
Although the Black Legend damaged Spain’s reputation, the Spanish empire in America continued to grow. Spanish culture, laws, religion, and language gradually blended with those of the Indians and African slaves to form new communities and traditions. Spain had most of the New World to itself for about a century before other European nations began serious efforts to establish their own American colonies.
Stories of the New World intrigued French rulers. Although they wanted a share of the American gold and silver, they were more interested in finding a westward route to Asia. In 1524, the French king commissioned Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazano to search for a passageway through the New World. Verrazano spotted the coast of South Carolina and sailed north as far as Nova Scotia, but found no such water route or valuable treasure.
A decade later, French navigator Jacque Cartier led the first European expedition into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. During his second voyage in 1535, Cartier traveled as far as present-day Montreal, wintering at the site of Quebec. The Huron Indians were friendly, but when disease broke out among them, Cartier isolated his men who then developed scurvy. Later attempts in the 1540s by Cartier to establish a colony in North America failed, and France was soon engulfed in a religious civil war that pitted Catholics against Huguenots—as French Protestants were called.
Faced with severe persecution, French Huguenots moved to the New World and established villages in South Carolina and Florida. In the 1560s, the French settlers built a fort and colony on the St. John’s River in Florida. The presence of the fort threatened Spain’s search for treasure, and the French Protestants were a dual affront to the Catholic nation. On August 28, 1565, the Feast Day of St. Augustine, a Spanish army overpowered the Huguenots and renamed the town St. Augustine.
In 1603, King Henry IV brought an end to the French wars of religion, and in 1608 Samuel de Champlain founded Quebec, France’s first sustained settlement in the New World. The region became known as New France and the city was used as a base from which Champlain and other Frenchmen explored the area. Champlain used the friendships he forged with the Indians to start a profitable fur trading business. The French established a lucrative economic network with the Huron and Algonquin Indians, which soon developed into a military alliance against the English settlers to the south.
To take advantage of the popularity of fur, particularly beaver pelts which were prominently displayed on hats, clothing, and accessories, the French government turned its attention to fur trading in the New World. Trappers covered vast territory, from the Great Lakes and present-day Saskatchewan to trails along the Arkansas and Missouri rivers, and even into Texas. The French trappers shipped so many pelts back to France that they nearly extinguished the beaver population in North America.
French missionaries also played a key role in the New World exploration. Catholic missionaries, primarily Jesuits, ventured through remote areas of America to convert Indians to Christianity. Many tribes were wary of the Europeans and reluctantly allowed the missionaries, whom they called the “black robes,” into their villages. While some natives befriended the missionaries, many refused to convert to Christianity.
Nevertheless, the first European contact many of the Indians experienced was with Catholic missionaries. The fur traders generally followed, and they frequently cemented their ties with the Indians by marrying into the tribe.
As the Spanish empire spread over the southern portion of the present-day United States, the mission system was developed to facilitate colonial expansion and to pacify the Indians. Catholic priests and friars ventured into remote areas to build missions where they worked side-by-side with the Indians planting crops, hunting game, and preaching Christianity. The missionaries also taught the Indians about Spanish culture, including language, arts and crafts, and politics.
Each mission typically included a chapel for religious services; housing for the Indians, missionaries, and guests; merchant shops; and storage buildings. Protective walls were constructed around the premises to guard against attacks. Outside the walls, the mission owned thousands of acres of land for farming or pasturing herds of cattle and sheep.
The mission system also included a presidio, or fort, to protect those associated with the mission from hostile Indians or European rivals. Soldiers stationed at the presidios recovered runaways, served as a policing force within the community, and taught the resident Indians a variety of military skills.
After five or ten years, the mission land typically was given to the converted Indians and the mission chapel became the parish church. The Indians were given full Spanish citizenship, including the right to pay taxes. The sizeable mission system also helped the Spanish protect their empire. Once the Indians were Christianized and accepted into Spanish culture, they were trained in European warfare. The network of missions allowed the Spanish to quickly extend their presence in the New World.
As the mission system grew, the Spanish priests sought more control over the Indians and their culture. The missionaries destroyed objects deemed sacred by the Indians and suppressed their ancient spiritual rituals and ceremonial dances. After several decades in the mission system, many Indians resented the treatment they received by the Spanish missionaries and soldiers and revolted.In 1680, a native leader named Popé organized a massive rebellion that included more than 17,000 Indians from many villages across hundreds of miles. The Indians drove the Spanish out of New Mexico, killing missionaries, burning churches, and destroying relics of Christianity. It took the Spanish military fourteen years to reestablish control over the region. Except for a few sporadic Indian raids, the mission system continued to grow and prosper throughout Florida, Texas and California.
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