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Spanish Empire: The Conquistadores (16th Century)

Figure 1.--The first of the great Conquistadores was Hérnan Cortéz. The conquest of Mecico is one of the great adventure stories of all time. Here we see an artist's recreation of him and his men after a prolonged siege storming the Aztec Templo Mayor in Tenochtitlan, modern Mecico City. We are unsure who the artist is.

The Conquistadores were the 16th-century Spanish and Portuguese adventurers and soldiers of fortune who in Columbus' wake conquered the Indian civilizations of New World from Mexico south to the Southrn Cone. They are most notable for conuering the advanced native American empires of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. Their conquests began in tghe Caribbean with Hispaniola and Cuba. These were, however, rather primative groups with limited resources. On Cuba, the Spanish began receiving rumors of immensely wealthy Native American empires on the mainland. This was in part a desire of the Caribean people to encourage the Spanish to move on and in part glimers of informztion gleaned from trade contacts. The legend of the Conquistadores began with Hernán Cortés who led only 500 men with 16 horses conquered Mexico's poweful Aztec Empire with thousands of well-trained, but poorly armed wariors. A force from Mexico under Pedro de Alvarado subsequently conquered the Maya and other groups in Guatemala. Francisco Pizarro led an even smaller force into the hear of the Inca Empire, 180 men and 37 horses. His defeat of the Inca led to Spanish control of much of South merica. A companion, Diego de Almagro, led another force south into Chile. Further more limited expeditions expnded Spanish rule over much of South and Central America and the establishment of the cast Spanish Enpire. The Conquistadores were renowned for their bravery, they were also notorious for their avarice and brutality. Military sucess came with a combination of superior world view, weaponry, division among the Native Americans, and Europeans diseases which would devestate Native American populations. The Spanish monarchy both relied on the Conquistadores for acquiring vast colonial possessions, laying claim to great wealth and a vast colonial empire for Spain. Although at first disappointed with their new lands, the conquest of the Aztecs and Incas brought vast quantities of gold and silver flooding into Spain and through Spain the rest of Europe and had an enormous impact on the still largely feudal European economies. Many other new products were broughtb back to Spain. One of these, the humble potato, had an even more profound impact than the gold and silver. Coronado and Ponce de León expanded the Spanish claim to North America as well. At the same time, Spanish monarchs feared that they commit treason and establish independent kingdoms.


Extremadura is a historical region of Spain encompassing the large southwestern provincias of Cáceres and Badajoz bordering on Portugal. Castile-León lies to the north, Castile–La Mancha to the east, and Andalusia to the south. This is a rugged area and historically one of the poorest and least known regions of Spain. The capital city is Mérida. Located in the central-western part of the Iberian Peninsula. The Day of Extremadura is celebrated September 8. It coincides with the Catholic festivity of Our Lady of Guadalupe. She is the blessed Virgin Mary who appeared five times (1531). A venerated image on a cloak is now enshrined within the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City. The rugged topography mean there was alimited area of arable land. And since agriculture was the primary economic base, Extrmadura wa a generally impverished area of Spain. As a result, many of its ambitious young men led the creation of the Spanish Empire. Many of famed Spanish conquistadores and earlier settlers of the Americas came from Extrmadura (16th century). As a result, many imprtant Latin American cities are named after towns in Extrmadyra. This has meant that many large Latin meican cviuties are named after small towns in Extrmadura. Mérida in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula is Extremadura’s capital city. Trujillo in Peru is named after one of Extremadura’s most beautiful towns. Cities in Colombia, Venezuela and Puerto Rico). are also named Trujillo. There is a Cáceres in Colombia. Medellín is a large Colombian city, named after a small town in Badajoz province. Other Medellíns are fojund in Mexico, Argentina and the Philippines. Interestingly, many Americans who have never heard of Extramadura are familar with it--it was widely featured in the TV blockbuster 'Game of Thrones'.

Individual Conquistadores

Pánfilo de Narváez: Jamaica and Cuba (147?-1528)

Spanish conquistador Pánfilo de Narváez was born in Valladolid, Castile (c1478). He participated in the Spanish conquest of Jamaica (1509) and Cuba (1512). He subsequently led two expeditions, both of which failed. The first was to Mexico to oppose Hernándo Cortés (1520). Cortez's conquest of the Aztec Empire and acquisition of fabulous quantities of gold and silver fueld wild rumors about other rich Native Ameican empires. A factor here was the tactic of Native Americans of spinning wild tales of gold and wealth as away of directing the attention of the Spanish elewhre. After the failure of Ponce de Leon's colonizing expedition, Pánfilo de Narváez launched an expedition to Florida (1528). It was a disaster. Most of the Spanish were killed by the Native Americans or died because of disease and starvation. The expedition included slaves. Esteban (or Estevanico) became the first African to reach North America. He was one of only four survivors. The four men spent 8 years traveling from Florida, across Texas and the Southwest until finally reaching New Spain (Mexico). They were made slaves by the Native American peoples they encountered, but gradully earned the respect of the different tribes who found them so different than the other Spaniards they encountered. They finally encountered Spanish slave raiders near Culiacán (Sinaloa) (1536). Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca when he returned to Spain published an account entitled Naufragios (Shipwrecks) in which he described the experiences of the the four survivors on their 8-year epic journey on foot across the southeastern United States (1542). It is an invaluable account of the Native American peoples of the Southwest just as they encountered the Spanish.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519)

Diego de Almagro: Chile (1475-1538)

Diego de Almagro was born in Almargo, Castile La Mancha (1475). He was illegitimate, hus having a town rather than family name. By some accounts he was a foundling. Some reports claim that he knew who his parents were and they provided some limited aid, but from an early age he was esentially on his own. He did not attend school or learn to read. Becoming a conquistador was his way out of poverty. He appeared in the Americas as part of the compny of Pedrarías Dávila (154). He was tough and determined, the epitome of the Spnish conquistador. He steadily rose in the ranks. Among these small groups of adventures, skill in arms was more important than aristocrtic birth. He was older than most of tge conquistadores, nearly 40 years old by the time he reached Panama. Hejoined Pizarro's expedition to Peru, playing an important role in the conquet of the Inca Empire. Differences with the Pizarros mde him the central figure in the bloody civil war among the conquistadors. He had risen from humble beginnings to a position of great wealth and power in Peru. Almagro, led another force of his own south into Chile (1530s). He found the land and its people harsh and difficult toconquer. Evn more important they had little gold. When he returned to Peru, he begame embittered over his share of Inca Empire spoils. He was defeated and killed by his former friend and leader Francisco Pizarro.

Franciso Pizarro: Peru (147?-1541)

Francisco Pizarro and his brothers led the Conquistadores who conquered the Inca Empire. Francisco Pizarro was one of the most renowned Spanish conquistador who led the Spanish in their conquest of the Inca Empire. He was born in Trujillo, Extremadura (c1471). He was the illegitimate son of a Spanish gentleman (minor nobel). Little is known of his childhood. Pizarro grew up in povrty and was a swinhered as a boy. He was not schooled and like many with his background illiterate. He decided to seek his fortune with Ojeda in the New World (1510). He arrived in Hispaniola and then joined an expedition led by Nuñez de Balboa, serving as his chief lieutenant. The expedition crossed the Istmus of Panama and were the first Europeans to see the Pacific from the New World (1513). Pizarro settled in Panama (1519) where he led a prosperous life compared to his early life in Spain.

Hernán Cortés: Mexico (1485-1547)

Hernán Cortés / Hernado Cortes led the Conquistadores who conquered the Aztec Empire. He was born in Medellin, Extremadura (1485). His family was a member of the minor nobility. He began to study law a few years after Columbus' first voyage at the University of Salamanca (1499). Cortez apparently had little interest in practicing law and studiedonly intermitently for 2 years. He prepared for a Spanish military expedition in Italy, but after becoming sick was not able to participate. After recovering he decided to seek his fortune in the West Indies. He arrived in Hispaniola (1504). He fought in battles against the Arawak Indians. Diego Velazquez who was to become the future governor of Cuba launched a campaign to establish a Spanish colony in Cuba. Cortez fought the Indians as part of the campaign and Velasquez was impressed with him.

Pedro de Alvarado (c1485-1541): Guatemala

Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras was born in Badajoz, Extremadura (c1485). He was involved in the conquest of Cuba, the first major Spanish adventure after establidh a colony in Hispsaniola. He was involved Juan de Grijalva's exploration of the coasts of the Yucatán Peninsula and the Gulf of Mexico. And then paricipsated in the epic conquest of Mexico led by Hernán Cortés. A force from Mexico under Pedro de Alvarado subsequently attacked the Maya and other groups in Guatemala. (It would be much longer to complete the conquest og the Maya.) He was the major figure in the conquest of Central America, including Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. He was a highly skilled military leader, he f=did bitg have the poliyical skills of Cortez. He is infamous for his cruelty toward the conquered native peoples--basically mass murder to subgegate the Amner-Ibdian popultion.

Hernando de Soto: Florida (c1500-42)

Hernando de Soto in part based on the account of Cabeza de Vaca, landed another expedition on the coast of Florida (1539). His expedition of 1,200 men included about 50 African slaves. He explored what is now the southeastern United States (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Carolina). The expedition did not find the gold and rich Native American empire thar de Soto was seeking. The expedition ended in disaster. The expedition included pigs which the Spanish brought along for food. Most escaped into the wild creating a feral population. Some historians believe they played a major role in the epidemic of Europeans dideases which devestated the Native American population of the Southeast. [Mann, pp. 108-10.]

Francisco Vázquez de Coronado: American Southwest (1510-54)

Spanish Conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado is remembered now as the leader of the most incredible Spanish expedition seeking gold. Coronado was born to a noble family in Salamanca, Castille-Leon just north oif Extremadura (1510). As a young man at court he was captivated by the amazing stories of adventure and riches coming from the Americas. He befriended Antonio de Mendoza. The Crown appointed Mendoza viceroy of New Spain (1535). New Spain (modern Mexico) was at the time the center if the developing Spanish Empire. Coronado accompanied Mendoza to New Spain as his assistant. Coronado proved invaluable. He suppressed a slave rebellion and brutally pacified the Native Americans still resisting the Spanish. He married Beatriz Estrada, the wealthy daughter of the colonial treasurer. Mendoza appointed Coronado governor of New Galicia, a province at the edge of Spanish control in western Mexico (1538). The Spanish including Mendoza were fascinated by fantastic accounts of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola to the north of New Spain. Today we know tht these tales were myths. But at the time they did not seem any more fantastic that what the Spanish had found in the Aztec's Tenochititlan. And they not only had Native American accounts, but reports from the survivors of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition. Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca reported the accounts. Mendoza organized a small expedition under Estéban, the slave who have been another survivor of the Pánfilo de Narváez expedition (1539). Fray Marcos de Niza verifed de Vaca's reports. Fray Marcos heard of the cities from Native Americans. (Such accounts were usually designed to get the Spanish to move on. In his report to Mendoza, Fray Marcos claimed that he had seen one of the cities. That was enough for Mendoza. He organized an impressive and very costly expedition, 1,400 men and 1,500 animals. [Hutchins] This included Some 300 Spaniards bolstered by hundreds of native auxileries marched north. With them came slave laborers and horses as well as food on the hoof (herds of sheep, pigs and cattle). Two ships were placed under the command of Hernando de Alarcón to support the expedition. They sailed into the Gulf of California and discovered the mouth of the Colorado River (August 1540). Mendoza put Coronado in command of the land force to seize the fabulous treasure. Coronado's force left Compostela and proceeded north up the west coast of Mexico (February 1540). They reached Culiacán, the northern-most outpost of New Galicia. The expedition continued north, crossing the San Pedro River into what is now Arizona (April 1540). Coronado can not be criticized for not purauing his assignment. He conducted an exaustive search throughout what is now the southwestern United States. It was a brutal expedituon. They found only desolate Native American villages with few valuables. This did not discourage Coronado. He had to be ordered back to Mexico (1542). Governor Mendoza was hard pressed by the Mixtón Rebellion in central Mexico. Only 100 of the men he left with made it back. And by the time he arrived, the Mixtón Rebellion had already been defeated. Coronado's expedition had been a complete and costly failure. He retained his position as governor of Nueva Galicia. The expedition, however, bankrupted him. The Native American tribes at the time did not have horses in any numbers. Horses were a European import. As a result, of the expedition and escaping horses, a ferral population began to develop on the Great Plains which changed the culture of the Plains tribes. The Native Americans now had a more effective way of hunting buffalo. While the expedition was a total failure, it did established Spain's claim to what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States.

Francisco de Orellana: Ecuador and Brazil (1511?-46)

Francisco de Orellana was born in Extremadura (1511?). Birth dates as early as 1490 are sometimes given. He decided as a youth that he wanted to be a conquistador. He signed on with Pizarro's Peruvian expedition. He was related to the Pizarros. Orellana was among Pizaro's small group which defeatd and plunderd the Inca Empire. He was rewarded with land grants in coastal Ecuador. He stood by the Pizarros in the civil wars with Diego de Almagro which brought more rewards. Orellana lost an eye in the civil war fighting, but continued to be a tough, formidable warrior. The lust for gold still dominated his thinking. He thus joined Gonzalo Pizarro's expedition to find El Dorado. The expedition went bad an he found himself sesparated and drifting down the Amazon River. This became perhaps the most controversial expedition of all the conquistadores for several rasons. Pizarro accused him of treson. More interesting for us is the fact that Orellana described vibrant, productive and substantial Amer-Indian populations all along the Amazon. Because this was no longer the case when lazter Conquistadores sailed up the Amazon, historians accused him of telling fanciful tales. In recent years, historians have begun to reassess Orellana's account. And now it is widely believed that slave hunters frice the Amazonian people into the interior, and foirced them to adopt a primitive life style that made yhem imine from slave hunting. As for Orellana, he made it to the Atlantic Ocean and then to a Spanish outpost in Venezuela.


Hutchins, John. M. Coronado's Well-Equipped Army: The Spanish Invasion of the American Soutwest (2014), 256p.

Mann, Chrles C. 1491: New Relevations of the Americas Before Columbus (Vintahe Books: New York, 2006), 538p.


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Created: 9:23 AM 10/12/2014
Last updated: 3:04 AM 3/30/2021