Spain's Territorial Conquest in the Americas

Tragically, the Spanish and Portuguese displayed a general contempt for non-Christian peoples and their societies. This attitude was reinforced by Papal authority and the assignment to the Catholic kings of temporal sovereignty over lands not governed by Christian rulers. In 1493, Pope Alexander had divided all of the non-Christian world between Portugal and Spain. Under this agreement, Portugal obtained sovereignty over all of the Orient and over the not yet discovered territory in the Americas to be called Brazil. Spain received everything else and moved to consolidate control over the lands found within the Papal grants. From the Spanish base in Cuba, Hernando Cortes was dispatched with a small force in 1519 to attack the Aztec empire. His first foray into the Aztec capital ended in retreat; however, he returned with reinforcements and a large force that included indigenous enemies of the Aztec. This time they took the capital after a siege of four months. The Peruvian empire of the Incas was also overwhelmed by Francisco Pizarro with even less difficulty in 1532 (although Pizarro was forced to fight other Spaniards for the Incan treasures).

The last of the major indigenous tribes to fall was that of the Mayas, who occupied the Yucatan peninsula in southern Mexico. In 1526 a Spanish force led by Francisco de Montejo attempted to subdue the Mayas but was forced to retreat against heavy resistance. A decade later his son returned with a much larger force. What then happened is recorded by historian Henry Bamford Parkes:

Several years of hard fighting gave [Montejo] control of the northern end of the peninsula, where he founded the town of Merida; and the Mayas were gradually reduced to slavery. Montejo burnt alive chieftains who refused to submit, cut off the arms and legs of male prisoners, and hanged the women or threw them into lakes with weights about their necks. ...The subjugation of Yucatan, which had neither gold mines nor a fertile soil, cost the Spaniards more lives than the conquest of the Aztecs and the conquest of the Incas combined.

With much of central and south America subdued, the Spanish turned their attentions northward and began to explore the Mississippi Valley and beyond. Ponce de Leon was killed by indigenous warriors in Florida while searching for the fountain of youth. Hernando de Soto died in a similar quest to find seven mythical cities in North America rumored to hold vast riches. A large force under Francisco Vasquez de Coronado attacked the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, then marched as far north as Kansas. Spanish ships also explored the Pacific coast of North America as far north as Oregon. They conquered the Pueblo tribes late in the sixteenth century and eventually initiated trade with those tribes of the great North American plains they could not hope to conquer. Coronado's army had abandoned a large number of horses and cattle on their return south, and the indigenous tribes were quick to master their use in warfare. These warriors effectively blocked any further advance of Spanish territorial conquest in North America. To the south, the Spanish discovered rich silver mines in the Veta Madre of central Mexico and enslaved most of the indigenous people of that area in order to produce the wealth that fueled the Spanish empire and created a landed aristocracy of European-Americans in the southern Americas. The era of the conquistador was ending. Colonial administrators appointed by the Spanish state were now charged with producing the wealth needed to sustain the empire in the face of the growing power of the Dutch and the English.