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Colonial Experiments, New Spain

Alvar Nunez Cabeza, Incas of Peru, Francisco Vasquez, New Granada, Aztec Empire

Spain was the first European nation to colonize America. Cortes invaded Mexico and (with the help of smallpox and other Native Americans) defeated the Aztec Empire between 1519 and 1521. By 1533 Pizarro had conquered the Incas of Peru. Both civilizations possessed artifacts made of precious metals, and the Spanish searched for rumored piles of gold and silver. They sent expeditions under Hernando de Soto, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, and Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca as far north as what is now Kansas and Colorado. They were looking for cities made of gold and did not find them. But in 1545 they did discover silver at Potosi, in what is now Bolivia, and in Mexico around the same time. New World gold and silver mines were the base of Spanish wealth and power for the next hundred years.

Shortly after the conquests, Catholic missionaries—Jesuits until 1571, Franciscans and Dominicans after that—attempted to convert Native Americans to Christianity. They established missions not only at the centers of the new empire but also in New Mexico and Florida. Spanish Jesuits even built a short–lived mission outpost in Virginia.

After defeating indigenous peoples, Spanish conquerors established a system of forced labor called encomienda. However, Spanish governmental and religious officials disliked the brutality of this system. As time passed, Spanish settlers claimed land rather than labor, establishing large estates called haciendas. By the time French, Dutch, Swedish, and English colonists began arriving in the New World in the early 17th century, the Spanish colonies in New Spain (Mexico), New Granada (Colombia), and the Caribbean were nearly 100 years old. The colonies were a source of power for Spain, and a source of jealousy from other European nations.

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