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,

Spanish Mexico

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 rapine greed, cruelty, 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).

In 1542 Charles V promulgated the "New Laws of the Indies" aimed at assuring fair treatment of the natives, but when the Viceroy of Peru attempted to enforce them, he was murdered by irate landowners. Likewise, the Church's official teachings on the treatment of the Indians was invariably charitable, but not always heeded. The racial caste system in Spanish America was another complicating factor, since and there was an influential population of mestizo, or mixed-race citizens, who were often more oppressive of lower-caste Indians than pure-European Spaniards. It is fair to generalize that some of the natives were treated badly, but many others were content to live as Christian peasants and the worst offenses against them were usually the result of local abuses, not official government or Church policy.

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 ruled 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 all 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.

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.


Antonio de Mendoza
First Viceroy of New Spain, competent and kind to natives. Laid the groundwork for Spanish dominion over Mexico.
Juan Diego
Mexican native who saw an apparition of Our Lady and whose cloak was impressed with an image of the blessed virgin.
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.
Pedrarias Davila
First Governor of the Spanish colony of Darien in Peru. Murderous and unscrupulous rival of Balboa.
Juan de Zumarraga
First Archbishop of Mexico. Critic of governor Nuno de Guzman. Worked with Viceroy Mendoza and Franciscan missionaries to protect the Indians.
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.
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.

Conversion of Natives

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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Antonio Montesino
Missionary to Hispaniola, early critic of Spanish mistreatment of the Indians. His sermons caused such outrage he was sent back to Spain, where he exhorted the king to do more to protect the natives.
Junipero Serra
Franciscan Friar who founded over a dozen missions along the coast of California.

Spanish Explorers of the New World

Christopher Columbus
Genoan sailor, sponsored by Isabela of Spain, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean and discovered the Americas.
Martin Alonzo Pinzon
Spanish navigator who sailed with Columbus on first voyage, but later feuded with him.
Alonso de Ojeda
Spanish conquistador who made several daring expeditions to the new world. Associate of Vespucci and Pizarro.
Vasco Nunez Balboa
Helped establish a Spanish colony in Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean.
Amerigo Vespucci
Navigator and map-maker who voyaged to Americas, and recognized it as a new continent, not east Asia.
Ferdinand Magellan
Portuguese explorer who commanded the first fleet to circumnavigate the globe. Died in Philippines.

North America Conquistadors

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.
Ponce de Leon
First Spanish governor of Puerto Rico. Explored inland regions of Florida while searching for the fountain of youth.
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.
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.

South America Conquistadors

Francisco Pizarro
With only 160 men, conquered six thousand Inca and took control of Peru.
Gonzalo Pizarro
Brother of Francisco Pizarro; led an expedition from Quito across the Andes and discovered the Amazon.
Cabeza de Vaca
Explorer who survived the ill-fated Narvaez expedition and captivity by Indians, then wrote of his adventures.

Timeline—New Spain

AD YearEvent
1492 First voyage of Columbus to the Americas. New World claimed for Spain.
1503 First Slaves brought from Africa to Hispaniola to work the mines.
1511-14 Spanish conquest of Cuba
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.
1524 Cortez invites Franciscan Twelve Apostles of Mexico to convert the natives.
1525 Council of the Indies is established to govern American territories.
1530 Juan de Zumarraga appointed first Archbishop of Mexico.
1531 Our Lady of Guadalupe appears to Juan Diego in Mexico.
1532-50 Antonio de Mendoza appointed First Viceroy of Mexico.
1542 New Laws for the Protection of the Indians promulgated by Charles V.
1551 First Universities: University of San Marcos" in Lima, "University of Mexico in New Spain.
1551 St. Augustine, first permanent settlement in North America, founded by Pedro Menendez.
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.
1585 Franciscan Missionary publishes Florentine Codex: history of the Aztecs.
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.
'Reforms' intended to increase revenues, reduce influence of church and local (native-born) officials, enforce monopolies, and increase taxes.
1713 Begin 'Bourbon reforms' to strengthen monarchial control of colonies.
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 leads to Peninsular War in Spain.

Recommended Reading—New Spain

Book Title
Selected Chapters (# chapters)

Core Reading Assignments

Noll - A Short History of Mexico   Aboriginal Mexico to Struggles of the Last Viceroys (6)
Ober - Young Folks' History of Mexico   The Discovery of Mexico to The Viceroys: concluded (16)

Supplemental Recommendations

Winlow - Our Little Aztec Cousin of Long Ago    entire book
Morris - The Story of Mexico   Ancient Mexico to Rule of the Spanish Viceroys (3)
Fitch - Junipero Serra    entire book
Hudson - The Famous Missions of California    entire book
Banks - The Boys' Prescott    entire book
Duncan - Mexico    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
Towle - The Adventures of Magellan    entire book