(SPAIN EXPANDS, to 1600 – continued)

home | 16-17th centuries index

SPAIN EXPANDS, to 1600 (6 of 6)

previous | next

Florida, California, expansion in South America, and settling New Mexico

In 1539, Hernando de Soto, who had been second in command to Pizarro in South America, began his exploration of the Gulf of Mexico area. He had nine ships and 1,000 fighting men aside from his sailors – the best-equipped expedition yet in the Americas. From Cuba, de Soto explored Florida, then he journeyed through Alabama and north into what is now Tennessee, a wetter region than New Mexico and supporting a denser population of Indian farmers. The Indians were friendly to his expedition, but de Soto was often hostile. His expedition pillaged and stole what wealth it could, including pearls. And he told local people that Christians were immortal.

In 1542, near the Mississippi River, de Soto became ill and died. His men buried him in a large hole, and local people disinterred the body and confirmed that de Soto was dead. They attacked what remained of the expedition, and the expedition escaped down the Mississippi and returned to Mexico. 

More Expansion, Silver, and Trouble with Local People

In 1542, Viceroy Mendosa sent a couple of ships north, captained by Juan Cabrillo, to search the coast of California. The Spanish, meanwhile, were fighting a bitter guerrilla war of resistance by the remnants of Maya civilization in the Yucatan peninsula, where the terrain made warfare on horseback difficult. But on the peninsula, in 1542, the Spanish managed to found the city of Merida.

Expansion had been taking place in South America, the Spanish in 1537 having founded the town of Asuncion in a wooded area on the eastern bank of the Paraguay River. At an undeveloped port – today Buenos Aires – in the southeast of South America, a few cattle, horses, sheep and goats that the Spaniards were shipping from Spain escaped and were to thrive and multiply on surrounding prairie. Buenos Aires (pronounced Buenos EYE-ray-es) did not thrive. In 1541 it was abandoned because of the hostility of local Indians, who were to benefit from the horses and cattle, changing their economy and turning themselves into more formidable warriors.

In 1545 rich veins of silver ore were found in the Bolivian highlands in South America. A rush for silver was on, and that same year Spaniards began looking for silver in Mexico. In 1546 they found it in rugged mountains in Zacatecas, around 300 miles north of Guadalajara. In 1548 the town of  La Paz was founded on the route between the mining town of Potosi, also high in the Andes, and Lima, Spain's leading port city in South America. In 1553, Spaniards moving southward along the Pacific Ocean founded Santiago, at the foot of the Andes Mountains.

For years the hunt for silver ore continued. Silver was found in Guerrero, south of Mexico City, and it was found in Sonora in the northwest and in Chihuahua, where numerous boom towns arose in the 1560s.

On the rainy north coast of the South American continent in 1563, men exploring for gold founded a settlement to be called Caracas. Spaniards looking for farmland journeyed southeast to what today is northeast Argentina, and in 1565 they founded Tucuman (Tucumán). By the 1570s, on territory between the Paraguay and Parana (Paraná) Rivers, Spaniards seized Indian lands for farmland. In 1573, colonists expanded south of Tucuman and founded Santa Fe (Holy Faith), and Cordoba. And men interested in farming established a colony at Buenos Aires in 1580.

Meanwhile, Mexico was becoming the greatest silver producing region of the world. And in Mexico, silver mining was dominating the minds of Spain's authorities. They built forts to protect the transport of silver. Indians were forced to labor in the silver mines, and Roman Catholic clergy protested but to no avail. Mexico's agricultural economy suffered from neglect, as did other commerce not connected with silver. Often goods piled up and rotted. In some years hundreds of thousands of Indians starved to death, sometimes where successful harvests were no more than one hundred miles away.

In Mexico in 1579, Spaniards created the province of Nuevo Leon and founded the town of Monterrey. The man in charge, who became the governor of this region, Luis Carvajal, was then accused of being a Jew, and he was denounced and hanged.

Forty years after Coronado's disappointing expedition, some Franciscans, with soldiers for protection, journeyed from Chihuahua into New Mexico to save souls. All were killed by hostile Indians except for a few soldiers who returned and brought with them reports of turquoise and silver ore, of land good for grazing and suitable for farming. A wealthy mine owner from Zacatecas, Don Juan de Oñate, decided to finance a colony in Neuvo Mexico. The government approved, believing it was a good idea to establish an outpost in Nuevo Mexico as protection against England's expansion. They recalled that in 1578 Sir Francis Drake, who had sailed through the Magellan Straits, raided ports from Peru to Panama and had landed on the coast of northern California.

In April 1598, Don Juan de Oñate and 400 soldiers – 130 of them with wives and children – 10 Franciscan friars, 83 carts and 7,000 head of stock, arrived in Nuevo Mexico, Oñate proclaiming Spanish dominion over the area and its inhabitants. Oñate met with curious Pueblo leaders and explained through an interpreter that their submission to Spain's rule would bring them peace, justice, protection from their enemies, new crops and trade, and that conversion to Christianity would bring them an "eternal life of great bliss." In the eyes of the Spaniards present the Indians accepted vassalage to the king of Spain, and the Spaniards looked forward to living in peace with the Indians.

The colonists moved up the Rio Grande to a Pueblo Indian town that they renamed San Juan (Saint John). The soldiers were motivated by the promise that they would be rewarded with land and the monarchy's offer of the title of gentleman, which went with land ownership. The settlement's name then became St. John of the Gentlemen.

The settlers lived crowded together in buildings with Pueblo Indians. Then they convinced Pueblo Indians from across the river to move into San Juan, and they moved across river to buildings that the Pueblo had vacated and renamed that village San Gabriel. The first irrigation ditch dug by the Spaniards in Nuevo Mexico began on August 11, 1589, and construction of the first church began on August 23.

Among the Pueblo Indian societies was one that revolted against Spanish authority. Oñate and his men killed from 600 to 800 of the rebel Indians and managed to hold out until reinforcements arrived on December 24, 1599.


The Aztecs, by Michael E Smith, Blackwell, 1996

Indians of North America, by Harold E Driver, University of Chicago Press, 1961

Images of Savages: Ancient Roots of Modern Prejudice in Western Culture, by Gustav Jahoda, Routlege, 1998

Latin America: the Development of its Civilization, Third Edition, by Helen Miller Bailey and Abraham P Nasatir, 1973

Additional Reading

Shores of Knowledge: New World Discoveries and the Scientific Imagination, by Joyce Appleby

Guns, Germs, and Steel, by Jared Diamond, 1999

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.