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Spanish Colonies: 1492–1763



Spain launched a campaign to colonize the New World in the aftermath of Christopher Columbus's discovery of the Americas in 1492. The Spanish Crown dispatched armies and missionaries to transform America into New Spain, a colony that would span from the Mexican peninsula north to California and New Mexico and east to Florida. Conquistadores explored and seized territory, built outposts, hunted for sources of wealth, and subjugated indigenous peoples. Franciscan friars built missions and converted Native Americans to Christianity. The arrival of the Spanish had a devastating impact on the Native American population.

At A Glance

  • 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.
  • Encomienda gave Spanish colonizers the right to demand forced labor and tribute from indigenous peoples.
  • The indigenous people of Florida farmed, lived in towns, traded with neighboring tribes, and practiced their beliefs for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived.
  • In Florida the Spanish hoped to find the Fountain of Youth and cities of gold. Instead, they came into violent conflict with indigenous peoples who refused to conform to European culture.
  • The Pueblo Indians farmed and lived along the banks of the Rio Grande in the Southwest.
  • In search of legendary cities of gold, Spanish explorers pushed north from Mexico into what is now the American Southwest, claiming the Rio Grande Valley for New Spain and declaring its natives subjects of Spain.
  • Native Americans living in California prior to the Spanish invasion lived in villages and did not have to develop agriculture thanks to an abundance of food.
  • Beginning in 1769, Spain colonized California by converting the indigenous population and forcing them to live and work in the missions.