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History

Spanish Conquests

Spanish conquest of the southern portion of the continent was substantially facilitated by the strife prevailing among the indigenous peoples of the region. Internal turbulence had been especially acute in the Aztec Empire, the rich domain that fell to Cortes in 1521. The Aztec Empire was the largest and most politically powerful in North America at that time. However, the empire was hated by many of the tribes under its sovereignty, and some of these tribes became willing allies of Cortes. Through this circumstance and superiority in weapons, Spanish victory was ensured. The Maya, another Mexican nation, living mainly on the Yucatan Peninsula, were also disunited and incapable of offering effective resistance to the Spanish. Although tens of thousands of indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America were exterminated during the period of Spanish conquest and rule, the Aztec, Maya, and other peoples survived and multiplied. Their descendants constitute a majority of the present-day population of these areas.

Cortes reached the region now known as Baja California in 1536. Among other important Spanish leaders of exploring expeditions during the first half of the 16th century were Panfilo de Narvaez and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, who explored parts of Florida, the northern and eastern coasts of the Gulf of Mexico, and parts of northern Mexico between 1528 and 1536; Hernando de Soto, who reached and crossed the Mississippi River in 1541; and Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who from 1540 to 1542 explored large areas in the southwestern part of the present-day United States. Saint Augustine, Florida, established in 1565 by Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles, is the oldest permanent European settlement in what is now the United States.

By 1600 the Spanish had subjugated the indigenous peoples of the larger West Indian islands, of the Florida Peninsula, and of southern Mexico (New Spain). For administrative purposes the colonies founded by the Spanish in these areas were grouped in the Viceroyalty of New Spain. After consolidating their control of New Spain, the Spanish authorities gradually pushed northward, completing the conquest of Mexico and taking over large areas in the south of what is now the United States. The colonial policy of Spain in North America was identical in all important respects with its South American colonial policy—that is, economic exploitation. Regarding the colonies merely as a source of wealth, the Spanish rulers imposed confiscation taxation and maintained a monopoly of colonial trade. The Spanish government even forbade commercial trading among its American colonies. This oppressive economic policy and political tyranny created discontent that finally flared into open rebellion.

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