Unit 1 - Spain in the New World to 1600

The coat of arms of the Cittie of Raleigh shows a red cross on a white field with a deer in the upper left corner.  The cross represents England and the deer represents Sir Walter Raleigh.

Bristol Mariners seem to have visited Canada in the 1480s, and Christopher Columbus may have learned of, and been inspired by, their voyages. In 1492, William Ayers, an Irishman undoubtedly familiar with English activities, sailed with Columbus on the Santa Maria. In 1497 and 1498 John Cabot, like Columbus a Genoese expatriate, explored eastern Canada under the English flag. By 1502 Englishmen were trading in Newfoundland and parts south, and organizing syndicates, some involving Azorean Portuguese, to exploit the fisheries there. England did not miss the entire European rediscovery of the Western Hemisphere, but did retire early. While England slept, Spain became dominant in the New World and on the high seas.

The Caribbean and the Mainland

In 1493, during his second voyage, Columbus founded Isabela, the first permanent Spanish settlement in the New World, on Hispaniola. After finding gold in recoverable quantities nearby, the Spanish quickly overran the island and spread to Puerto Rico in 1508, to Jamaica in 1509, and to Cuba in 1511. The natives fared badly. Many died in one-sided armed conflict with soldiers and settlers, or in forced servitude in mines and on plantations. Others died of diseases to which they had no immunity. By mid-century, the native Ciboney of Hispaniola and western Cuba were extinct, and other tribes, including the Arawak of Puerto Rico, were nearly so.

Beginning in 1508, Spanish settlements sprang up on the mainland of Central and South America. In 1519, just six years after Balboa had crossed the Isthmus of Panama and claimed the entire Pacific Ocean for Spain, Pedro Arias de Avila, Balboa's father-in-law and executioner, founded the city of Panama on the Pacific coast. The same year, Hernan Cortes led a small force from Cuba to the Gulf coast of Mexico, founded Veracruz , and set about destroying the Aztec empire. Most of Mexico fell within two years. Subsequent conquistadors followed the example set by Cortes. By 1532, Francisco Pizarro, had effected the early stages of his conquest of the Inca empire of Peru. By 1550 Spain had dominion over the West Indies and Central America and its large surviving native population.

New World mines yielded gold and silver for Spain in far greater amounts than France and Portugal had ever been able to extract from West Africa. One-fifth of the total production, the quinto real, went to the Spanish Crown. The average value of silver shipped to Spain rose to a million pesos a year before the conquest of Peru, and to more than 35 million a year by the end of the century. Cacao, cochineal, hides, spices, sugar, timber, and tobacco yielded additional income. Seville, through which all legal trade with the colonies passed, became a great financial center and nearly quadrupled in size between 1517 and 1594.

With such wealth at stake, Spain was concerned about possible interference by other nations. Initially, only Portugal posed a serious threat to Spanish monopoly. At the Pope's insistence Spain and Portugal had ratified the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494. Intended to exclude Spain from Africa and India, and Portugal from the Far East, this treaty also effectively deprived Spain of any legitimate claim to much of present-day Brazil. Shortly after the ratification of the treaty, Portugal gained control of trade with the Spice Islands, and showed occasional interest in Newfoundland. In 1580, to eliminate the threat of Portuguese expansion, Spain annexed Portugal. Although Spain mortgaged Venezuela to a German banking house for a brief period (1528-1547), she was successful in keeping most interlopers out of her holdings from Mexico to Chile for the remainder of the sixteenth century.

North America

The nine-tenths of North America lying north and east of Mexico was another matter. In the early 1500s, Spain made a few attempts to explore Florida and the Gulf coast. Around 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon, conqueror of Puerto Rico, conducted the first reconnaissance of the area. In 1519 Alonso Alvarez de Pineda explored and mapped the Gulf of Mexico. Two years later, Ponce de Leon died in a disastrous attempt to build a settlement in Florida, and Spain withdrew from further serious efforts to establish a permanent presence there for another half-century.

The first Spanish town in what is now the United States was not in Florida, but somewhere between 30 degrees and 34 degrees North. It was built in 1526, by Luis Vasquez de Ayllon, a Spanish official based on Hispaniola. In 1520, Ayllon had ordered a slaving expedition, and in 1526, set out himself with approximately 500 Spanish colonists--including women, children, and three Dominican friars--and a number of African slaves. After a false start, Ayllon built the town of San Miguel de Guadalupe. His venture was doomed from the outset. The principals of the colony quarreled, Indians attacked, slaves rebelled, and Ayllon died. Only 150 survivors returned to Hispaniola. Later, in 1528 a slightly smaller group under Narvaez plundered and skirmished along the Gulf coast from Yampa Bay to Texas, where it disintegrated. Cabeza de Vaca and three other members finally reached Mexico in 1536. From 1539 to 1543 de Soto and, after his death, Moscoso led an ever-shrinking party on a circuitous route through the southeastern and southcentral United States. From 1540 to 1542 Coronado explored the Southwest. In all cases, these Spanish explorers antagonized the Indians and failed to entice settlers to the higher latitudes.


The parts of North America neglected by Spain were attractive on that account to her ancient enemy--France. Although the Treaty of Tordesillas had given France no share of the New World, the French crown ignored the arrangement. Francis I underwrote Verrazzano's exploratory voyage (1524) and the more ambitious enterprises of Cartier and Roberval on the St. Lawrence (1534-1543). Even though war with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire impeded French expansion in the 1520s and 1530s, and the death of Henry II in 1559 led to civil and religious strife that nearly tore the country apart, France was the largest and most populous kingdom in western Europe and still a formidable adversary. Expecting a French challenge in North America, Spain sent a large contingent (1559-1561) to secure a settlement site on the Gulf and an overland route thence to the coast of Georgia or South Carolina. In 1561, Angel de Villafane followed the Atlantic coast north past Cape Fear, looking for suitable sites and any foreigners making unauthorized use of them. Villafane dismissed the area as worthless. The next year, however, Jean Ribault, under the banner of France, built Charlesfort, probably on Port Royal Sound, South Carolina. Charlesfort lasted only a few months, but this French incursion and well-founded rumors about a second, to the south, caused King Philip II of Spain to send Pedro Menendez de Aviles to establish a settlement in Florida, and to expel any Frenchmen in the area.

Menendez arrived in August 1565 and wasted no time laying out the first St. Augustine. In September and October he massacred the French Garrison of Fort Caroline, at the mouth of the St. Johns River. In due course he founded ten outposts in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina (1565-1567); ordered exploration of the North Carolina and Virginia coasts (1570); and personally avenged (1572) the Jesuits' murder by Indians. Menendez, a strong supporter of colonization, was nearly alone in his enthusiasm for the region. His death in 1574 resulted in a decline of Spanish colonies in the area. Through Philip II continued to be interested until his death in 1598, the lack of an on-site manager with the enthusiasm and ability of Menendez made it easier for another country ignored at Tordesillas to reenter the struggle for empire in the New World.

England Redux

The prodigious wealth flowing into Spain from its colonies and crown efforts to monopolize colonial trade prompted international smuggling and piracy. As a seafaring nation with few continental distractions and only one border to defend, England was a natural leader in both enterprises.

Shortly after her accession to the English throne in 1558, Queen Elizabeth disestablished Roman Catholicism once and for all. She further widened the breech with Catholic Spain by rejecting Philip's proposals of marriage, and by overlooking her subjects unofficial trade with Spanish colonies and attacks on Spanish shipping. John Hawkins' first voyage to the Caribbean with African slaves (1562-1563) had been so profitable that the queen herself invested in the second and third. When Hawkins anchored at the Mexican port of San Juan de Ullua on his third voyage in 1568, however, the Spanish retaliated with great force and skill. Only two English ships escaped. The incident poisoned Anglo-Spanish relations for the rest of the century. As a consequence, English depredations increased in frequency. From 1577 to 1580 Sir Francis Drake, who had been with Hawkins, humiliated Spain by circumnavigating the globe, much of which Spain considered its own, plundering as he went. Despite vehement Spanish protests, Elizabeth knighted him.

The passage of time did little to abate English outrage over San Juan de Ullua, nor did it reduce English covetousness of Spanish treasure and trade. In 1578 Elizabeth I revived Cabot's eighty-year-old territorial claim and permitted Humphrey Gilbert to explore and settle any part of North America not then occupied by Christians, that is, nearly all of it. Gilbert disappeared returning from Newfoundland in 1583, but his half-brother, Walter Ralegh, carried on under a slightly different patent of discovery. Ralegh and his associates developed a plan to build a base well north of St. Augustine, from which to attack Spanish shipping in the western Atlantic and exploit the mineral resources of the region. To this end, Amadas and Barlowe reconnoitered the coast in 1584, and the Grenville expedition of 1585 left 108 men on Roanoke Island under Ralph Lane. But Grenville was tardy in resupplying the colonists, and Drake, sailing homeward from victories over the Spanish at Cartagena and St. Augustine, removed them in 1586. Neither the Lane colony nor the 1587 "lost colony" had any noticeable effect on Spanish shipping. However, Spanish colonial expansion and seemingly unending sources of wealth in the New World profoundly affected English colonial policies. Drake pillaged the Caribbean in 1585-1586, broke the Bank of Spain; nearly broke the Bank of Venice, to which Spain was heavily indebted; and ruined Spanish credit. English military intervention in the Netherlands (1584) persuaded Philip to build the Armada; Drake's subsequent affront moved him to launch it. Although Drake's brazen attack on Cadiz in 1587 set Spanish plans back a year, the Armada finally sailed, and when it did, it was largely responsible for preventing timely relief of the 1587 colony on Roanoke Island. Even after the Armada suffered mortifying defeat, and Spanish attempts to find and destroy the Roanoke colony had been indolent and inept, the threat of Spanish reprisal partly dictated the site of Jamestown. Hostility left over from Spanish activities on the Chesapeake in the 1570s may have affected the Virginia colonists' early dealings with the Powhatan Confederation.

Spain did not lose her last foothold in the Americas until the Spanish-American War (1898). Spanish language and culture are still integral to daily life in much of North and South America. But the Spanish star had begun to set over the New World by 1600.

Text based on "Spain in the New World," by John D. Neville.
Edited and expanded by lebame houston and Wynne Dough
Illustrations: Vicki Wallace

Last updated: April 14, 2015

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