Christopher Columbus, a Genoese sailor, believed that sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean was the shortest sea route to Asia. Ignorant of the fact that the Western Hemisphere lay between Europe and Asia and assuming the earth's circumference to be a third less than it actually is, he was convinced that Japan would appear on the horizon just three thousand miles to the west. Like other seafarers of his day, Columbus was untroubled by political allegiances; he was ready to sail for whatever country would pay for his voyage. Either because of his arrogance (he wanted ships and crews to be provided at no expense to himself) or ambition (he insisted on governing the lands he discovered), he found it difficult to find a patron. The Portuguese rejected his plan twice, and the rulers of England and France were not interested. With influential supporters at court, Columbus convinced King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to partially underwrite his expedition. In 1492, Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian Peninsula, had fallen to the forces of the Spanish monarchs. With the Reconquista complete and Spain a unified country, Ferdinand and Isabella could turn their attention to overseas exploration.
Columbus and the Spanish Explorations
The voyages of Columbus. Columbus set sail with three small ships and a crew of eighty‐seven men on August 2, 1492, and made landfall on October 12 on an island in the Bahamas that he called San Salvador. Over the next several months, he explored the island that is now Cuba and another island he named Hispaniola (Santo Domingo), where he came across the first significant amount of gold. Ferdinand and Isabella financed a much larger expedition with seventeen ships and more than twelve hundred men soon after his return to Spain. During his second voyage, Columbus explored the islands that are now called Puerto Rico and Jamaica and established the first permanent Spanish settlement on Hispaniola. He made two additional voyages: between 1498 and 1500 to the Caribbean and the northern coast of South America, and between 1502 and 1504 to the coast of Central America.
Columbus's success created the potential for conflict between Spain and Portugal. Ferdinand and Isabella were anxious to protect their claims to the new lands. In May 1493, very soon after Columbus returned from his first voyage, they persuaded Pope Alexander VI to issue an edict giving Spain all lands west of an imaginary line through the Atlantic. Portugal was not satisfied. Through the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), the two countries agreed to move the line further west and give Portugal exclusive right to the territory to the east. Although the result of the shift was unknown at the time, the change put the eastern quarter of South America (Brazil) in the Portuguese sphere; Pedro Cabral reached the Brazilian coast in 1500.
Columbus referred to the lands he discovered as “the Indies” and the people he encountered as “Indians” ( Indios, in Spanish). He never wavered from the belief that he had reached the outlying islands off the Asian mainland. Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian navigator, sailed extensively along the coast of South America as a member of both Spanish and Portuguese expeditions and is considered to be the first to realize that the Indies were in fact a “New World” and not part of Asia. The first map that identified known parts of the Western Hemisphere as “America,” after Vespucci, was published in 1507.
The Spanish conquests of Central and South America. In the half century after Columbus's death, Spain established an extensive empire in the Western Hemisphere that stretched from the region of Mexico to the tip of South America and out into the Pacific Ocean. Ferdinand Magellan's voyage around the world (1519–22), in addition to demonstrating the true circumference of the earth, was the basis for a Spanish colony in the Philippines. In the same year Magellan set sail, Hernan Cortés and about six hundred men landed on the Gulf Coast of Mexico and marched inland to Tenochtitlán (modern Mexico City), the capital of the Aztec empire. He was able to take advantage of the Aztec belief that the Europeans might be returning gods, make strategic alliances with disaffected local tribes, and use his horses and superior firepower to capture the city in 1521. The Spaniards conquered the other native cultures in Central and South America in quick succession. The Toltec‐Mayans of the Yucatan Peninsula and Guatemala fell between 1522 and 1528. Francisco Pizarro, benefiting from internal strife in the Inca empire, took Peru (1531–33) with an army that numbered less than two hundred. From there, Spanish forces moved south down the west side of the continent and east into what would become Columbia.
The early Spanish explorer‐adventurers, the conquistadors , were more interested in finding gold and silver than in colonization, and they relied on the native peoples to work the sugarcane fields of the Caribbean and the mines of Mexico and Peru. While the exploitation of the native peoples had its critics, most notably in the Catholic priest Bartolomé de Las Casas, it was disease rather than harsh treatment at the hands of the Spaniards that devastated the indigenous population. First on Hispaniola and then on the mainland, millions died from smallpox, measles, and other infections. African slaves were brought to the West Indies as early as 1503 because of a critical labor shortage.
Spain in North America. Stories and legends about incredible wealth stimulated the Spanish exploration of North America. The earliest expedition brought Juan Ponce de León to the Florida peninsula in search of the mythical “Fountain of Youth” (1513). In 1528, Panfilo de Narváez sailed along the Gulf Coast of the United States, but was shipwrecked off what is now Texas. A small group of survivors under Álvaro Núñez Cabeza de Vaca made its way across Texas and the Southwest region to Mexico. Between 1539 and 1543, Hernando de Soto led a large force from western Florida to the Appalachian Mountains and then west across the Mississippi River with the major consequence of spreading smallpox throughout the lower Mississippi Valley. The search for the fabled riches of the “Seven Golden Cities of Cibola,” which de Vaca had mentioned in his account, took Francisco Vasquez de Coronado from northern Mexico as far northeast as present‐day Kansas between 1541 and 1543; smaller groups from the main expedition discovered the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. Meanwhile, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo sailed up the west coast and claimed the California area for Spain. The founding of the two oldest cities in the United States—St. Augustine, Florida, (1565) and Santa Fe, New Mexico (1609)—was the chief result of almost a century of Spanish exploration.