Spanish Empire—New Spain

1520 to 1820
Conquest of Mexico to Grito de Dolores

Era Summary       Characters       Timeline       Reading Assignments      

Era Summary—New Spain

Spanish Mexico—The history of Mexico since its conquest by Hernando Cortez in 1520, can be divided into two periods. From 1535 to 1821, Mexico was known as Nueva Espana (New Spain) and it was ruled as a Spanish province, under the direction of a Viceroy. In the early 19th century, Mexico broke its ties with Spain and shortly afterward, the government responsible for declaring Independence was overthrown by a group of Liberals, who declared Mexico should be governed as a republic, rather than a constitutional monarchy. The terms on which the Mexican republic was founded, however, lacked consensus or legitimacy so over a century of Civil Wars followed.

This unit covers the first three hundred years of Mexican history, while the region was under the government of Spain. The anarchy and conflict which characterized Republican rule in Mexico stands in stark contrast to almost 300 years of peaceful Spanish governance, beginning with the government of Antonio Mendoza, the first Vicery, ten years after the Conquests of Cortez.

Important topics covered in the the "New Spain" unit include 1) The conquest of Cortez, 2) Spanish government and the early Viceroys, 3) Franciscan and Dominican missions to Mexico and conversion of the natives, 4) Spanish exploration and Missions beyond central Mexico, and 5) Later Viceroys and the first stirings of independence.

Conquest of Mexico—The conquest of Mexico was accomplished by Hernando Cortez, an ambitious adventurer who sought his fortune in the New World and established his reputation during the conquest of Cuba. In 1518 he was put in charge of organizing an expedition to the mainland, but fell out of favor with the governor of Cuba. Fearing loss of his position, he set forth without permission, landed on the Yucatan and made peace with some of the coastal natives. There he learned details of the fabulous city of the Aztecs. One of the female slaves that in the area, whom Cortez called Dona Marina, spoke both Mayan and Aztec languages and she became his advisor and translator. After burning his boats, Cortez marched on the capital city, vanquishing several hostile tribes en route. He also made alliances with natives who were enemies of the Aztecs, including the ferocious Tlaxcalan tribe, who submitted to Cortez only after a decisive battle.

The Spaniards, with their Tlaxcalan allies, marched to Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) unopposed, and soon got the emperor Montezuma under their power. Thus far things had gone well, but they quickly got out of hand. First Cortez had to leave the city to fend off an unfriendly Spanish army sent by the governor of Cuba. While he was gone, his men attacked a group of Aztec priests, and set the whole city in rebellion. Montezuma died; and the Spaniards scarcely escaped with their lives. Even after this disaster, however, Cortez managed to turn the situation around by making more alliances with native enemies of the Aztec. In a few months he was sufficiently recovered to make another attack on the city, but the Aztecs refused to submit until the entire city was destroyed. For the first several years, Cortez ruled Mexico as governor, and placed much emphasis on converting the natives. As soon as the region was pacified, however, the Spanish king appointed a viceroy, and Cortez was richly rewarded but allowed no further role in government.


Rule of the Viceroys—For three centuries, from 1535 until 1821, the Spanish colony of "New Spain" was ruled by Viceroys. The first two Spanish viceroys, who each served for over 15 years, were Antonio de Mendoza and Luis de Velasco. In an age of greed and conquest, they exemplified the best of Spanish character and laid a solid foundation for the government of Mexico. Their treatment of the natives was as just as possible under the circumstances and many submitted to Spanish rule peacefully. Velasco, especially, was noted for protecting the Indians and freeing thousands from slavery in the mines. The early Viceroys were helped in their efforts by a multitude of monks and missionaries who built schools, converted the Indians to Christianity, and helped protect them from the abuses of Spanish adventurers and encomenderos (Spanish landholders).

A few other notable leaders were Vasco de Quiroga, a judge-cleric who led the 2nd Audiencia to Mexico and laid the groundwork for Mendoza and later Viceroys. He did all his power to protect the Indians, and was later appointed as the first bishop of Michoacan. As bishop, he built towns, schools, and hospitals, converted thousands, and was greatly loved by the natives. Juan Zumarraga was the first archbishop of New Spain and worked closely with Mendoza and other good administrators to rule justly and prevent abuses. Pedro de Contreras was other notable leader, who served as both Archbishop and viceroy fifty years after Zumarraga and Mendoza.

In 1542 Charles V promulgated the "New Laws of the Indies" aimed at assuring fair treatment of the natives, but when the Vela, the Viceroy of Peru attempted to enforce them, he was murdered by irate landowners. Mendoza, who recognized that some of the Encomienda owners would refuse some of the provisions, enforced all that he could, and patiently waited for the right time to make further improvements. In general, the Spanish king's edicts and the Church's official teachings on the treatment of the Indians was invariably charitable, but not always heeded.

Friars and MissionariesWhile the early Viceroy's and Bishop's deserve credit for prudent government of New Spain, it was the Franciscan and Dominican friars who arrived in the region shortly after the conquest who deserve much of the credit for the mass conversion of Mexican natives to Christianity. The two orders had somewhat different approaches, but both worked to protect and educate the natives, and their efforts produced astounding results. Peter of Ghent, and the "Twelve Apostles of Mexico" were all Franciscan Friars who arrived with a few years of the Conquests of Cortez, and they set to work, not only converting, Christianizing, and educating the natives, but helping to write their histories. The Franciscan's approach was to freely baptize any natives who agreed to live as Christians and educate them by example into the tenets of the faith. The Dominicans were more concerned with proper teaching and defense against heresy in the new world, but they deserve credit for insisting that the rights of the natives were protected by Spanish law, and that their abusers were punished.

The heroic efforts of the Spanish Friars as educators, historians, and protectors of the natives is not told in most student histories of Mexico, which is a shame because their stories are tremendous. The following list of important missionary historians is taken from Heritage History's 'Catholic Knowledge' unit on World Missions. They summarize the work of just a few of Early Mexico's greatest educators and Scholars.

The complete articles from the Catholic Knowledge game provide more information and are found here:

Spanish in America I: Mexico Read Online
Spanish America II: Peru Read Online

Bourbon 'Reforms'—During the first two hundred years of Spanish rule in Mexico, the Hapsburg kings permitted a great deal of local autonomy and regional government offices were frequently under the control of native born creoles. It was not until the 18th century, under the Bourbons, that an attempt was made to centralize power in the hands of the Spanish king by making all important offices in New Spain, including those which benefitted from access to trading monopolies, available only to Spanish born officers. This policy created a rift between Spanish born peninsulares and native born creoles and inspired many men from the Mexican upper classes to favor independence and join secret political societies.

The Spanish Empire in the new world was far-flung and sparsely populated. Spanish rule was confined mostly to highly populated areas and although vast tracts of North America were claimed by Spain, little was done to develop the northern regions until the 18th century. For many years North American Indians traded with the Spaniards but were not ruled by them. Junipero Serra was a Franciscan monk whose work building missions along the coast of California was especially noteworthy, but as late as 1846, at the opening of the Mexican American War, the Spanish presence in much of the American southwest was very limited.

Independence and Empire—At the turn of the 19th century, the idea of Mexican independence was only entertained by a small, intellectual class of liberals, centered mainly in Freemason lodges. In 1808, however, the Spanish king was deposed by Napoleon, and all of Spain rose in rebellion. The Spanish people refused to acknowledge the illegitimate government and wage a guerilla war against France, leaving the government of the American colonies in confusion. The crisis in Spain provided an opportunity for Mexican revolutionaries to make a strike for independence while the mother country was in disarray. In Mexico, the first outbreak, known as "Grito de Dolores" was led by Miguel Hidalgo, an apostate priest associated with Freemasonry. He was captured and executed for treason, but the Mexican revolutionaries, backed by a strange mix of liberals, soldiers, peasants, and aristocrats, continued to press for independence until Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne of Spain.

Once the Spanish king was back on the, the Independence movement in Mexico faltered, but in 1820 Ferdinand was again over thrown by a liberal coup d'etat. At that point, conservatives and monarchists began to see independence as a means of preserving Mexico from the chaos and anti-Catholic policies of the Spanish liberal regime. Agustin Iturbide, the leader of the Spanish army in Mexico had been fighting revolutionaries for ten years, but after the overthrow of King Ferdinand he feared that Mexico would come under the influence of the Spanish Liberal Republicans. He saw independence was the best way of preserving the status quo so he made an alliance with the revolutionary leader Vincente Guerrero to break Mexico's ties with Spain.

Iturbide made himself emperor, but since he had no children, his real purpose was to maintain the principle of monarchy and hold open the position for Ferdinand VII or his descendants. The revolutionaries, on the other hand, wanted power in their own hands and had only agreed to support Iturbide as a temporary strategy. They rebelled against the emperor at the first opportunity and sent him into exile in Europe, assuring him he would be charged with treason if he returned. The revolutionary leaders appointed themselves heads of state and set about writing a 'Federal' Constitution, favored by their co-conspirators in the United States, that granted a great deal of independence to the states and preserved very little power for the central government.

Characters—New Spain

Character/Date Short Biography

Conquest of Mexico

Ruler of the Aztec empire at the time of the Spanish conquest. Captured by the Spanish and killed during revolt.
Dona Marina
Indian slave woman who acted as consort, advisor, and translator for Cortez during his conquest of Mexico.
Hernando Cortez
Conquistador who landed in Mexico with a small army, and allied with local tribes, conquered the Empire of the Aztecs.
Diego Velasquez
Conquered Cuba for Spain, and was its first governor. First a supporter, then a rival of Cortez.
Panfilo de Narvaez
Spanish explorer who opposed Cortez, and later led a disastrous expedition to Florida of whom only 4 of 600 survived.
Bernal Diaz
Spanish soldier who served under Cortez and wrote 'True History of the Conquest of New Spain', an eye-witness account of the episode.


Nuno de Guzman
Spanish governor of New Spain who tried to limit Cortez's power by enslaving his native allies. Brought down by Churchmen who opposed his violent outrages.
Vasco de Quiroga
Canon lawyer, lead 2nd Audiencia to Mexico that deposed Nuno Guzman from power. Tried to protect the Indians and replace the Encomienda system. Later served as Bishop of Michoacan for 30 years.
Antonio de Mendoza
First Viceroy of New Spain, competent and kind to natives. Laid the groundwork for Spanish dominion over Mexico.
Nunez Vela
First Viceroy of Peru. Murdered during rebellion resulting from his enforment of Charles V's "New Laws of 1542" to outlaw Indian slavery and bring encomienda under control.
Pedrarias Davila
First Governor of the Spanish colony of Darien in Peru. Murderous and unscrupulous rival of Balboa.
Pedro Contreras
Served as Archbishop and Viceroy of Mexico. Later headed the 'Council of the Indies'. Committed to education of the Indians, removed abusive officials, forbid enslavement of natives and founded schools.

Conversion of Natives

Pedro Gante
Franciscan missionary to Mexico and relative of Charles V. Wrote a catechism in Aztec language. Opened first schools for natives in the Americas.
Toribio Motolinia
Franciscan missionary to Central America and the Nahua peoples. Baptised thousands. Wrote a history detailing early encounters of the Amerindian peoples with the Spaniards.
Bartholomew de Casas
Early settler in New Spain who became a Friar, and advocated on better treatment of natives. Wrote ' Account of the Destruction of the Indies'. Later became bishop of Chiapas.
Bernardino de Sahagun
Franciscan missionary to Mexico. Studied Aztec history and language. Ran a school for Nahuati (Aztec) scholars and curated the Florentine Codex, the definitive, illustrated, Aztec history.
Andres de Olmos
Franciscan missionary who wrote the first grammar and dictionary describing the Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztecs.
Junipero Serra
Franciscan Friar who founded over a dozen missions along the coast of California.

North America Conquistadors

Hernando De Soto
Adventurer who aided in conquest of Peru, then explored Southwestern United States. Discovered Mississippi river.
d. 1540
Choctaw chieftain who resisted de Soto at the Battle of Mauvila during his expedition through the southwest.
Francisco de Coronado
Spanish explorer who was a governor in Mexico, and explored regions of the Southwest United States.
Pedro Menendez
Spanish explorer who founded St. Augustine and was the first Spanish governor of Florida.

Mexican Independence

Miguel Hidalgo
Freemason Priest who was a leader of Mexico's war of independence. Famous for !Grito de dolores!
Agustin Iturbide
Spanish General who changed sides and supported Mexican independence. Later made himself emperor.
Jose Maria Morelos
Revolutionary Priest, led independence movement after the death of Hidalgo, Caught and executed for treason!

Timeline—New Spain

AD YearEvent
1492 First voyage of Columbus to the Americas. New World claimed for Spain.
1513 Vasco Nunez Balboa discovers the Pacific Ocean
1519 Ferdinand Magellan embarks on first round-the-world voyage.
1521 Hernando Cortez conquers Mexico for Spain. Rules as governor for six years.
1532 Francisco Pizarro conquers Incan Empire, Silver and Gold Mines found.
1540-42 Explorations of Francisco de Coronado in American Southwest.
1541 Hernando De Soto explores much of the Southeast U.S., discovers the Mississippi.
1551 St. Augustine, first permanent settlement in North America, founded by Pedro Menendez.
1523 Pedro Gante , cousin of Charles V, founds first school for natives in Mexico.
1524 Cortez invites Franciscan Twelve Apostles of Mexico to convert the natives.
1525 Council of the Indies is established to govern American territories.
1527 Nuno de Guzman leads 1st Audiencia to Spain, abuses allies of Cortes.
1529 Toribio Motolinia , missionary to Nuhuas, wrote their history, converted 1000's of natives to Christianity.
1530 Juan de Zumarraga appointed first Archbishop of Mexico.
1531 Vasco de Quiroga heads 2nd Audience, deposes Guzman, protects Indians.
1532-50 Antonio de Mendoza appointed First Viceroy of Mexico.
1532 Francisco Pizarro conquers Peru — Silver and Gold Mines found, Adventurers flock to Peru.
1536 Vasco de Quiroga bishop of Michoacan, served 30 years, built schools, hospitals for natives.
1536 Bernardino de Sahagun founds first college in Mexico, works 50 years on Aztec history with the help of native scholars.
1542 New Laws for the Protection of the Indians promulgated by Charles V.
1547 Andres de Olmos , missionary linguist, wrote Aztec grammar, translated Catechism.
1551 First Universities: University of San Marcos in Lima, University of Mexico in New Spain.
1584 Pedro Contreras served as Archbishop of New Spain, Viceroy, and Inquisitor General. Protector of the Indians.
1585 Bernardino de Sahagun publishes history of the Aztecs, also known as the Florentine Codex: .
1565 First permanent Spanish settlement in Philippines established in Cebu.
1566 Spanish Treasure fleet to New Spain/Philippines sails on regular schedule.
1578 Francis Drake and other Privateers begin attacks on Spanish treasure ships.
1655 Great Britain conquers Island of Jamaica and makes it a haven for Pirates.
1671 Henry Morgan and band of pirates sack and loot Panama City.
1713 Begin 'Bourbon reforms' to intended strengthen monarchial control of colonies and increase revenues: Reduce influence of the clergy and native-born officials, raise taxes, and enforce monopolies.
1738 War of Jenkin's Ear with Britain. Britain presses rights to slave trade in America.
1763 Spain cedes Florida to Britain for return of Cuba after Seven Years War.
1768 Jesuits expelled from Mexico, leaving missions unattended.
1769 Junipero Serra founds over a dozen missions in California.
1808 Overthrow of Spanish king by Napoloen, Peninsular war, incites desire for Mexican 'Independence'.
1810 Grito de Delores. First pro-Independence movement in Mexico led by Freemason/priest Miguel Hidalgo.
1814 Ferdinand VII restored to the Spanish throne. Independence movement looses steam.
1820-22 Liberal Coup in Spain overthrows monarchy, Ferdinand VII imprisoned.
1821 Traditionalists unite under Augustin Iturbide to break ties with 'Liberal' Spain.

Recommended Reading—New Spain

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Noll - A Short History of Mexico   The Conquest of Mexico to Diaz and Mexico of Today (3)
Duncan - Mexico    entire book

Supplemental Recommendations

Winlow - Our Little Aztec Cousin of Long Ago    entire book
Ober - Young Folks' History of Mexico   The Discovery of Mexico to The Viceroys: concluded (16)
Morris - The Story of Mexico   Ancient Mexico to Rule of the Spanish Viceroys (3)
Banks - The Boys' Prescott    entire book


Ober - Vasco Nunez de Balboa    entire book
Ober - Ferdinand De Soto and the Invasion of Florida    entire book
Towle - The Adventures of Pizarro    entire book