The Spanish Invasion
North American Indians still lived in the Stone Age and had only one
four-legged domestic animal, the dog, while the Spanish conquistadors had
armor, powerful steel swords, guns and explosives. And they had the horse,
which gave them tremendous mobility and terrified the Indians, who had never
seen such a fearsome beast. They also had trained war dogs, greyhounds that
could chew the face off a man.
But the Spaniards' most powerful weapons were invisible killers they brought
with them in the blood and breath -- infectious diseases. Because they'd been
isolated from the rest of the world, the Indians had no immunity to European
diseases such as smallpox, diphtheria, influenza, and cholera. Common childhood
diseases like measles and mumps hit them with ferocious force. Smallpox alone
could wipe out an entire tribe in one harrowing visitation -- partly because it
struck almost everyone at the same time, leaving no one to tend to the
In l520 there were approximately 25 million people in Mexico. Eighty years
later there were about l.3 million, largely because of European diseases. It is
no wonder the invasion of North America has been called "the greatest
demographic disaster in the history of the world."
The Spanish had yet another advantage over the Indians: a set of beliefs
ideally suited for conquest. In l492, Spain had just completed a seven
century-long war to drive the Moors out of Iberia. This Catholic crusade
nourished a warrior culture among the lesser nobility of Castile, and they
carried it to the Americas, convinced they had a divine mandate to reduce the
New World infidels into submission.
Columbus also saw himself as an agent of God's purpose. In his lust for gold --
and in the name of his god -- he enslaved and killed Indians all over the
Caribbean. But Columbus was also a product of the Renaissance spirit, a
medievalist with many modern instincts.
He was from Genoa, one of the founding cities of European capitalism and a
center of oceanic trade and cartography. A city of the sea, it formed him and
launched him as a merchant-mariner. Columbus had read Marco Polo, the beginning
of his obsession with China, and he had corresponded with the great Florentine
geographer, Paolo Toscanelli, to get verification for his theory that he could
easily reach Asia by sailing westward.
Toscanelli confirmed Columbus's notion that Japan was only 3,000 nautical miles
west of the Canary Islands. The great geographer was off by l0,000 miles. But
that spectacular error gave Columbus the confidence to set out for China and
Japan. Luckily, two huge continents blocked his way, or he and his men would
have died horribly on the open sea.
Columbus might have been a bad geographer but he was a crack mariner. In
discovering America, he discovered, as well, the clockwise motion of the winds
and currents that would take him and every smart sailor after him, to and from
Hernando De Soto
The renaissance writers and artists celebrated individual accomplishment, and
Columbus's first voyage was one of the great maritime feats of any age. The
point here is that Columbus was too closely associated with new developments in
trade and navigational science to place him with medieval-like knights of the
If you want the prototypical conquistador your man isn't Columbus; it is
Hernando de Soto. Soto, as he was known in his time, became the first European
to penetrate far into the interior of North America. From l539 to 1543, his
army of 600 men traveled 4,000 miles, twice the distance later covered by Lewis
Soto was a toughened veteran of the Spanish conquest in Peru. He'd come to the
Americas at the age of 14, the son of an impoverished squire, and returned to
Spain a rich man and with a reputation for killing Indians for sport. He could
have retired in splendor, but he wanted more -- more gold, more glory. So he
got a commission from the Crown to organize a voyage into unknown North
America. His aim: to find another Inca-style empire. After landing on the west
coast of Florida, he moved north, traveling in princely splendor. His retinue
included a steward, two toastmasters, a butler, a pastry cook, two falconers,
eight grooms, five musicians, two jugglers, and innumerable bearers and
He passed through 10 future states of the United States. He went up into the
Carolinas, across the Appalachians, and down through parts of Tennessee,
Alabama and Mississippi, coming on the Mississippi River near Memphis. Then he
pushed on into Arkansas, before turning back to the Mississippi when he
couldn't find rich civilizations to plunder. There, on the banks of the river,
he came down with a fever and died. Freed from his obsession, his men dumped
his body into the river, and made it back to Mexico on ships made of logs, the
local Indians in hot pursuit.
There's a splendid painting of De Soto by William Henry Powell in a panel in
the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol. Soto is on a white stallion, and he's decked
out in satin and glistening armor, as are his soldiers and lieutenants, as they
ride toward the great river Soto has discovered. The near-naked Indians are in
supplicating positions, in fear and awe of the conquering captain.
The painting is a beautiful lie. First of all, Soto wasn't the first European
to discover the Mississippi. The mouth of the river was first sighted in l5l9 by
another Spanish explorer, Alvarez de Piñeda. And when Soto and his army
reached the Mississippi, they didn't look anything like the way we see them in
this painting. They were a starving band that had been decimated by sickness
and Indian attacks. Soto had buried almost half of his men, and the walking
wounded were carrying the mortally wounded in makeshift slings. A few men still
wore European clothes, but most were dressed like Indians. And they saw the big
river in front of them, not as some magnificent discovery, but as one more damned
obstacle to surmount.
The fighting in the Southeast had been incredibly ferocious. Everywhere De Soto
went he demanded food, clothing, and women for his sex-starved men. When
threats and diplomacy didn't work, he went on hair-raising killing sprees. But
the Indians fought back with suicidal determination; they weren't the
supplicants in Powell's paintings.
In the walled city of Mavila, in present-day Alabama, Atahachi women fought
side by side with their men in what was one of the bloodiest encounters in five
centuries of warfare between Europeans and Indians. Soto's invasion, and the
diseases his men left in its wake, led to the destruction of most of what was
left of Mississippian culture.
Had Soto been more interested in settlement than conquest, the rich
agricultural lands he passed through might have been claimed permanently by
Spain. And today they'd be speaking Spanish all over Dixie.
Franicisco Vázquez De Coronado
As Soto was pushing beyond the Mississippi, another Spanish explorer, Francisco
Vázquez de Coronado, was moving across the continent from the other
direction. At one point, without knowing it, the two explorers came within 300
miles of each other. Coronado headed out from Mexico City with an enormous
expeditionary force looking for cities of silver. But when he entered the lands
of the Pueblo Indians -- the descendants of the Anasazi -- he found nothing but
towns of adobe and stone.
Here he met resistance but crushed it quickly and pushed on, sending exploring
parties all over the Southwest, across Arizona to the Grand Canyon, and beyond,
into California. Then, hearing from an Indian guide that there was a rich city,
called Quivera, far to the north, he followed the guide in search of it.
When he reached Quivera, in northern Kansas, all he found were the
beehived-shaped huts of the primitive Wichita Indians and an endless sea of
grass filled with buffalo. Coronado saw land and people of no value, but for
those with a sense of irony this is a rich moment. The Indians of the plains
who stood staring in wonderment at Coronado's mounted warriors were seeing for
the first time the animal that would eventually revolutionize their lives.
Disgusted by these people who drank buffalo blood, Coronado turned back toward
Mexico, but not before ordering the strangulation of his Indian guide.
Juan de Oñate
For almost 60 years, only a handful of white men ventured back into Pueblo
country. Then, in l598, new rumors reached Mexico City of rich mines along the
Rio Grande, and Juan de Oñate was sent into New Mexico with an
expedition of soldiers and settlers. This time, the Spanish stayed.
The first resistance occurred at Acoma, a pueblo built on top a spectacular,
400 foot high mesa. When Spanish troops stopped there and demanded food, the
warriors attacked them, killing l6 soldiers, including Oñate's nephew.
Oñate retaliated with chilling brutality. A party of soldiers secretly
dragged a cannon up the rock face at the rear of the mesa, turned it on the
town, and blasted away. In three days of fighting, the Spanish leveled Acoma
and killed 800 of its people. Then Oñate staged a public mutilation --
chopping one foot off every surviving young man.
But Oñate was as unsuccessful as Coronado in finding rich mines, and was
soon recalled to Mexico City. At this point, two years before the English
founded Jamestown, the Crown was about to abandon New Mexico. But the powerful
Franciscan order wanted it for missionary territory; so the friars were allowed
to stay, with Crown protection, to establish a Catholic theocracy among the
The age of military conquest ended. The religious and cultural conquest began.
The friars taught the Indians the Spanish language and Spanish ways, and tried
to eradicate Indian religion and culture. When Indians resisted conversion, or
strayed from the faith, the soldiers were called in to intimidate or punish
them. Then repression ignited rebellion. Drought and starvation struck the
Pueblo communities--and they came under increasing attack from their
traditional enemies, the Apaches and the Navajos.
All the while, the colony of some 3,000 Spanish settlers continued to illegally
extract labor and tribute from the Indians. In l680, Popé, a medicine man who
had been whipped for practicing witchcraft, led a lightning attack on the
Spanish settlements. In three weeks, the Pueblos Indians killed 400 foreigners
and drove the rest of them out of New Mexico.
The mutilated bodies of the priests were smeared with human excrement and
thrown over the altars of their desecrated churches. At Acoma, the missionary
father was hurled to his death from the top of the mesa. It was one of the most
successful Indian resistance movements in American history, but the Pueblos
couldn't maintain their independence for long.
Unity dissolved because Popé demanded an end to all things Spanish---and the
Pueblos had come to depend on Spanish farming technology, and on Spanish goats,
sheep, cattle, pigs, and horses. So when Diego de Vargas marched into New
Mexico to reconquer it, it was an easier task then he'd imagined. There was one
uprising; then there were no more.
The Spanish settlers and soldiers helped keep the peace by reducing their
demands for Indian labor, and by marrying Indian wives. And the Franciscans
learned to tolerate Pueblo religious practices.