Spanish Colonies: 1492–1763

Government and Society in New Spain

Establishment of New Spain

After the discovery of the Americas in 1492, Spain claimed a wide swath of territory as New Spain and instituted policies to exploit the land for its resources and the indigenous people for their labor.

Sailing under the Spanish flag, explorer Christopher Columbus spotted an island in the Caribbean in 1492. Searching for a direct route to India, he instead found the entryway to the Americas. After learning about these vast and unexplored lands, Spain set out to conquer and colonize them.

Over the next 50 years, Spain would claim millions of acres of what is now North and Central America. At its peak, New Spain spanned from Peru up through Mexico to include what is now the American Southwest and California. It also ran east along the Gulf Coast to Florida and included many islands of the Caribbean.

Map of New Spain, 18th Century

Spain's holdings in North America remained intact until 1763, when Spain ceded Florida to Britain in exchange for return of the Caribbean island of Cuba.
Credit: Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. "Mexico, or, New Spain : divided into the audiance of Guadalayara, Mexico, and Guatimala, Florida." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1701.
Spain followed a systematic approach to conquest. From outposts in the Caribbean, waves of explorers and conquistadores fanned out across the region. A conquistador was a soldier who fought in the name of God and the Spanish Crown. Seeking glory and gold, they seized territory, enslaved and killed indigenous peoples, and built fortresses to deter other European nations from staking claims. To control the newly conquered lands, the Spanish Crown dispatched viceroys, or governors, responsible for enforcing law, expanding the territory, and overseeing mining and ranching operations.

The Catholic Church worked alongside the state in the colonies. Along with the explorers and conquistadores came Catholic priests whose mission was to convert indigenous peoples to Christianity. By 1573 the conversion of the Indians became Spain's highest priority.


Encomienda gave Spanish colonizers the right to demand forced labor and tribute from indigenous peoples.

Residents of settlements in this era were primarily Spanish officials, as few Spaniards were willing to leave their homeland. To obtain workers, the Spanish relied on the institution of encomienda. Encomienda was a grant by the Spanish Crown giving a colonizer the right to demand forced labor and tribute—usually gold or land—from indigenous peoples. In return the colonizer pledged to protect the people and convert them to Christianity. Although technically not slavery, the practice was legally sanctioned and considered cruel by many, including Christopher Columbus, who himself was known to rule with an iron fist in the Caribbean. Encomienda fell out of practice only after the indigenous population was severely depleted by disease and mistreatment. Beginning in 1502 conquistadores imported slaves from Africa to use as plantation laborers in the Caribbean.

New Spain was a frontier society run by European men. They controlled the local indigenous populations through encomienda. Some Spanish women eventually joined their husbands in the colonies, but their role was to run households and rear children. Most conquistadores did not bring families to the New World. Instead, many married indigenous women from ruling families to take control of the preexisting social hierarchy, many of which were maternally dominated.