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America: A.D. 1501 to 1600

Module by: Jack E. Maxfield. E-mail the author


Back to to America: A.D. 1401 to 1500



It was mentioned earlier in this chapter that this century has been called the "Little Ice Age" because of an overall drop in temperature. Although the Thule Arctic Culture was probably little affected, the arctic glacier now extended well down on Greenland, destroying the agricultural base there, which had helped to support neighboring Iceland. (Ref. 224)

Only 12 years after Columbus' first voyage to America, Breton fishermen were working the cod banks off Nova Scotia and soon were on the mainland, trading with the Indians for furs. Gaspar Corte-Real had discovered Newfoundland for Portugal and the French explorers Verrazano and Cartier initiated the "French Kingdoms of the North" to give needed revenues for the luxuries of the court of young Francois I. Giovanni de Verrazano (actually a Genoese) sailed all up the coast from Chesapeake Bay to the Strait of Belle Isle. Jacques Cartier followed in 1534, named the St. Lawrence River and then tried for a sea route to Asia, finding only auks, cod, herring, wolf fish, wapiti, elks, beaver and even a polar bear. Scurvy became rampant among his Frenchmen and the Hurons with whom they dealt. After that period for 50 years there were only trappers and traders, with trading posts at Quebec and Montreal. The name "Canada" is an Indian word meaning "village". (Ref. 39, 122, 150, 222)

THE UNITED STATES (See map on page 1009)

By 1600 there were probably 1,000,000 Indians, speaking some 2,000 languages, in the United States. (Ref. 8) New York state and the lower Great Lakes region were the lands of the Iroquois. Their village sites were built away from waterways and were sometimes fortified. They farmed maize and possibly beans and squash and hunted. Pottery was used for cooking and storing tobacco for their pipes. (Ref. 45) In 1845 settlers near Onandaga, not far from Lake Ontario, found a stone which was inscribed "Leo VI 1520" and this may indicate a Norse settlement proscribed by the then Pope Leo VI, some 14 years before the arrival of Jacques Cartier. (Ref. (Reference)) In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh sent Amandes and Barlow to found a colony at Raleigh, Virginia, but it was subsequently lost, as were two following attempts in 1587 and 1589 by John White on Roanoke Island.

The century ended without even a trading post belonging to Britain in the New World. (Ref. 222)

Although there were the limited French and English efforts just mentioned, Spain owned America in this 16th century, as far as Europeans were concerned. After the Caribbean was ravaged by the dregs of Spanish civilization, as we shall note in the next section, it was the turn of the Gulf Coast of the United States. A first expedition, led by Ponce de Leon (who had been on Columbus' second trip), landed in Florida in 1513 claiming that region for Spain. In the 16th century "Florida" meant the entire area of present day Florida, Georgia, Virginia, Alabama, Mississippi and possibly more. Ponce may not have been the first Spaniard in Florida, as one early writer says that when- Ponce arrived at Charlotte Harbor on the Gulf side, a Spanish-speaking Indian greeted him. This native, however, may have escaped from a passing Spanish ship or come from the Antilles on his own.

Archeological and linguistic evidence discloses numerous pre-Columbian contacts between these two places. In spite of all the stories in children's histories about Ponce de Leon's trip to "find the fountain of youth", he really sailed to Florida to capture slaves and find precious metals, if available. He was authorized to make war on the Lucayhos aborigines, if necessary. Florida was erroneously regarded as just another island and the term Lucayos (or Bimini) frequently included Florida. On his first voyage, Ponce was not very successful, obtaining little more than a handful of Indians, some of whom he trained as interpreters, but when he returned in 1521 he opened war against the Caluysa and they killed him. (Ref. 267)

There were apparently many shipwrecks of European vessels along the southern coasts in the 16th century - some say 10,000 - and the Southeastern Ceremonial Complex of Indians began to use the silver coins and jewelry for their own pendants, gorgets and beads. All of this means that the Algonquians, Siouans, Muskhogeans and Iroquoians living by the ocean knew a great deal about the Europeans before they actually landed. In 1520 Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon commissioned Francisco Gordillo to sail to the northerly part of La Florida and he did so, going clear up to Chesapeake Bay, even making a short exploratory inland trip in the vicinity of Pawley's Island. After some other explorations by subordinates, Ayllon himself set forth in 1526 with 7 ships, 500 men, 100 women and Negroes, 89 horses and interpreters to settle in the region of the Cape Fear River or the Santee River. The enterprise did not prosper as one provision ship wrecked and sank and Ayllon died after an extended sickness. The remaining people relocated farther south near the future George- town, Carolina, where most died of disease, drowning or Indian warfare. A few remnants returned to Hispaniola. A little later Narvaez landed in the vicinity of Tampa Bay and detected gold among the natives' possessions. They claimed it had been obtained in Apalachee, a province in the north. Certainly there was gold in the Appalachian Mountains, but whether the Indians had mined it in truth or obtained the gold from shipwrecks or from Mexico, is not known. Narvaez searched for the source but was unsuccessful. – The only survivors of this expedition were Cabeza de Vaca, the black Moor slave, Esteban and a few others. The first two and one other wandered for 8 years across the southern United States, including Texas, Arizona and New Mexico to the area inhabited by the Pima Indians, finally reaching Mexico City. (Ref. 39, 267)

Leaving Spain in 1538, Hernando de Soto landed in the vicinity of present day Tampa Bay in 1539 following Narvaez' trail with 600 men and more than 200 horses. He went up the peninsula, wintered in Apalachee, then struck out northward to Cofitachiqui, west- ward to present day Alabama and across the Mississippi into Arkansas before finally dying and being buried in the Mississippi River. On his travels he visited the Queen of the powerful Coitachiqui Chiefdom, occupying a central position in present day South Carolina, and was impressed by the numerous houses, large mounds and the grand wooden mat-covered temple. The queen and her court wore long pearl necklaces - those in her possession reputedly weighing all together some thousands of pounds. Her warriors had copper-tipped pikes, maces, battle axes and perhaps 50,000 bows and quivers. The Cofitachiqui language is unknown. Supposedly Cofitachique contained at least 500 houses, as did Caxa in Alabama and Ocale in Florida. All was not sweetness and light, however, as the Spanish say that an army of 10,000 Timucuans contested De Soto's trip through Florida and up to 7,000 warriors assaulted him in Mabila. But de Soto and his Spaniards brought small-pox, measles, tuberculosis, chicken-pox, scarlet fever, typhus, influenza, whooping cough and the common cold so that within a few decades the southeast became markedly depopulated and the economic and political structure of Mississippian life collapsed permanently. Furthermore, the Caluyas and the Cofitachiqui may already have been depleted and some settlements abandoned before De Soto arrived as a result of the migration of infected survivors from a great 1530 plague in Mexico City. (Ref. 267, 39) Thus, before proceeding with a further description of the Spanish invasion, a few more words about the southeastern Indians prior to the advent of Spanish explorers seems advisable.

All southern Indians were essentially farmers and maize was the staff of life. Farming techniques had progressed far beyond any primitive slash and burn type of agriculture. The impression for years has been that the squaws did most of the work, but this is not correct. These Indians lived chiefly in towns and had their fields in the countryside. While women may have attended small garden plots, men did much of the work in the principal fields, clearing them, girdling large trees with stone axes and knives and fire, disposing of stumps, breaking the ground with hoes consisting of wooden handles with stone, conch shells or large animal bones at the ends. The maize was grown quite scientifically, planted at stated intervals in hills. As growth occurred, more dirt was piled up around the hill, keeping down weeds, trapping moisture and ensuring a higher yield. A Timucuan practice in Florida was to plant one crop of maize in the early spring and another in the summer on the same ground. It was also possible to grow dent, sweet, pop and other varieties of corn, which matured at different intervals. Although secondary in importance, hunting and gathering did occur. Deer were important, not only for food but for skins, and bears were hunted particularly for their oil, as well as fur and meat. It is not known whether maize was brought up from Meso-America overland via Texas or by sea through the West Indies. (Ref. 267)

It was in the Virginia and Carolina Tidewater area where mixing of the northern hunting-oriented culture with the southern maize-agrarian civilization can best be documented. The Algonquians, originally spread over Canada, were late arrivals in the Tidewater, becoming in part, the Powhatan Confederacy in Virginia and Pamlico and Machapunga of eastern North Carolina. A feature conspicuously absent in the Tidewater was the temple platform mound. Other Algonquians were the Roanoke, Croatoan and Chowanoc. At the time of white contact there were powerful chiefdoms which might almost be called empires all over the south and southeast, including the Cofitachiqui, Powhatan, Natchez and Calyusa. When the Natchez Sun died, his subjects staged an elaborate funeral which included immolation of his wives. Nearer the east coast local natives had had extensive contact with Europeans for generation before Raleigh's Roanoke fiasco, some from Spanish land contact, such as with Ayllon and otherwise with ships either wrecked or coming ashore for provisions.

In spite of their early failures, Spain did not give up. Tristan de Luna took 1,500 men, women and black slaves to try 2 settlements, one at Pensacola and the other at Saint Elena (Port Royal). Lack of supplies, disease, internal bickering and native hostility again defeated the expectations. St. Augustine was founded by Menendez with more than 1,000 soldiers, farmers, artisans, their wives and Negroes in 1565. At first it was really a military base from which to attack the thousand or so French Huguenots, who had fortified Ft. Caroline just north on the St. Johns River. After these French were finally expelled, St. Augustine, with only a mediocre harbor and sandy, relatively unproductive soil, declined in significance. But from St. Elena, founded in South Caroline in about 1566 on the site of present day Parris Island Marine Corps base, soldiers and missionaries trekked into the interior, planting at least five garrisons in the Carolina back country and on the western side of the mountains. For 6 years a Father Sebastian Montero lived among the pagans, teaching them Spanish and the rudiments of Christianity. St. Elena existed for about 21 years and once had about 400 people in some 60 houses. (Ref. 267, 39)

St. Augustine was burned in 1586 by the English privateer, Sir Francis Drake and he also made an unsuccessful attempt to destroy Santa Elena. He then stopped by Roanoke Island and picked up some of Raleigh's distressed soldiers. The few colonists who remained had either been killed or absorbed by the Indians, when a relief ship finally arrived in 1590.

The Indians bartered skins and furs with the whites. Chief Powhatan reportedly had 4,000 deerskins in a single wardrobe. But the whites took many of the natives captives – Ayllon and DeSoto counting their take in the hundreds. (Ref. 267)

In the southwest, Texas had been claimed for Spain by Alvarez de Pineda in 1519 and by the 1520s large quantities of horses, cattle and sheep had been brought into New Mexico. In the area of that state and Arizona, there were at that time about 40,000 Pueblo Indians. At about the same time that De Soto landed in Florida, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado had Friar Fray Marcos start north from Mexico on an exploration of what is now New Mexico. He used Esteban, the Moor who had wandered previously from Florida to New Spain, as a guide. Esteban's black color was accepted as a novelty by the Indians and some even thought he was a god. In the following year Coronado himself led an expedition searching for the "Seven Cities of Gold", reaching just south of Sante Fe and then back into the Texas Panhandle and on to the region of Independence, Kansas and the Nebraska border. He had 250 horsemen, 70 Spanish soldiers, 1,000 friendly Mexican Indians, baggage animals, sheep, goats and a train of priests. Others of the original party went around the north end of the Gulf of California and followed the Colorado River up to the Grand Canyon. On his way back to Mexico Coronado viciously attacked the Acoma1 Indian city about 40 miles west of present day Albuquerque, in spite of the pope's edict about humane treatment of the Indians, and in 3 days and nights the Spanish killed 600

Acomas and imprisoned and enslaved that many more. But Spaniards fell, too, and Coronado returned with only 1/3 of his original 300 plus white men. That Acoma pueblo, originally built by Kersan Indians on top of a rock mesa with edifices 3 stories high, was already ancient and may have been the oldest inhabited site in the United States. In spite of that bloody fight, those Acomas were converted to Christianity some 30 years later by a barefoot and unarmed Franciscan priest, Father Ramirez. (Ref. 39, 198, 215, 165)

Beginning in 1596 Juan de Onate took an expedition from Mexico City to El Paso and then to Sante Fe and on to Quivera, Kansas and then returned via California, at the top of the Gulf. This was followed in 1598 by the arrival in the New Mexico area by 400 Spanish men, women and children with their 80 wagons and 7,000 head of live stock. Some 3,000 sheep were included. (Ref. 39, 222) In the far west an Englishman did upstage the Spaniards, as Sir Francis Drake anchored in 1579 just north of San Francisco Bay, claiming the land for his queen, calling it Nova Albion (New England). (Ref. 198)2


In 1513 Nunez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and became the first known European to view the Pacific Ocean. Although by the end of the 15th century the Aztec Empire had passed its zenith, in 1519 there were still 60,000 households in Tenochtitlan and the population of the empire has been estimated to have been about 5,000,000 with 25,000,000 to 30,000,000 overall in Mexico. Both Mexico and Peru (as we shall see later) were very densely settled. The two American foods - maize and potatoes – were higher in caloric value than any old world crops except rice and this allowed a denser population per square mile than anyplace outside the East Asian rice-paddy region. Maize alone leads to niacin deficiency and the disease, pellagra, but middle American Indians soaked maize in a lime solution that broke down the molecules to make "hominy grits" and allowed human digestion to synthesize the needed vitamin. In some areas the native tomatoes were cultivated and eaten also and this further supplied the otherwise missing vitamins. It is of interest that in the New World, pellagra became known as "Columbus' sickness". But even before the Spaniards came, soil erosion in Mexico was already becoming a problem.

The Aztecs ate chiefly tortillas. Beans supplied some protein, the tomato (originally a weed in the maize fields) supplied vitamins A and C. They occasionally had wild game and raised small dogs for eating. This dog and the turkey were their only domesticated livestock. They also ate tadpoles, water flies' larvae, white worms, frogs, fresh water shrimp, newts, winged ants, agave worms (Maguey slug) and the iguana. We have mentioned in the last chapter that they were also somewhat prone to eat human flesh. Throughout the Caribbean people ate large, fat spiders and plump insects from decaying wood. Manioc was a Cuban poisonous plant, but properly prepared it was edible. The roots were peeled and grated and the juice squeezed out and subsequently boiled to make a harmless sauce, with the residual sediment making tapioca. The pulp was sieved and shaped into flat cakes, cooked slowly to make a soft, flexible bread called "cassava". When dried, it could be kept 2 or 3 years. The manioc root, itself, although protein deficient, was not eaten by locusts and could be left in the earth as long as 2 years, without deteriorating. (Ref. 211)

NOTE: Insert Map 56. The Aztec, Maya and Inca Empires

Columbus and those who followed started a great exchange of foods. From Europe to the New World came wheat, chick-peas, sugarcane, some vegetables and cows. Back to Europe went maize (soon a staple in northern Spain, Portugal and Italy), potatoes (a source of vitamin C), chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, tomatoes, pineapples, lima beans, scarlet runner, red peppers, green peppers, tapioca and the turkey. (Ref. 211) In Mexico the climate favored the growth of many medicinal plants which were used by Aztec doctors. Among these were narcotics, medications for abortion, diarrhea, skin diseases and fever. It is interesting that the Spanish soldiers, after their arrival, of ten preferred the Aztec physicians to their European educated ones and in the latter part of the century Philip II sent one of his physicians, Francisco Hernandez, to Mexico to study native medicine and make a catalog of medicinal plants. (Ref. 125) We insert parenthetically the fact that the great majority of the Spanish troops were simple men, merely fleeing the poverty of Europe. No important Spanish family took any interest financially, militarily or intellectually in the conquest of the Americas. (Ref. 62)

Every school child knows how the Aztecs, under King Montezuma, were brutally conquered by Hernando Cortez and his handful of Spanish soldiers, in 1521. What is not always realized is that initially the Indians of Mexico welcomed the white, bearded strangers and it is thought by some that the Europeans were considered to be gods, returning as prophesied in some of their ancient legends. At any rate, Cortez landed his ships in the Vera Cruz area, where there were both Huastecs, who spoke a dialect of Maya and the Totonacs, who were vassals of the Aztecs. The former were famous for unusual stone sculptures and may have invented Quetzalcoatl, who became a primary god of the entire region. When Cortez decided to attack the Aztecs after 5 months of reconnoitering, the rebellious Totanacs joined him. (Ref. 236, 45, 273) The numerous Christian friars and priests, who had accompanied Cortez, learning of the Aztec human sacrifices, were adamant in the necessity to chastise and then baptize the heathen Indians. With his Indian mercenaries, picked up along the way, Cortez marched inland toward the capital city. A relief expedition from Hispaniola in 1520 brought small-pox which spread ahead of the Spaniards through the Indian population. It was thus that the disease was raging in Tenochtitlan when Montezuma was killed by his own rivals, who did not want to surrender to the Spaniards. The new leader and many of his followers died within hours of the small-pox, which spread even to Guatemala in the same year. (Ref. 140). Mc Neill (Ref. 139) con firms that smallpox and measles, brought by Europeans, killed millions of native Americans and had more to do with the collapse of the Aztec power than merely military operations. The population of Mexico dropped from a probable 25,000,000 to 30,000,000 to 3 million by 1568. (Ref. 140)

Of course the Aztecs and the immediately adjacent tribes were not the only native inhabitants of Mexico. In the far south Chol-speaking Maya Indians hunted the Chiapas jungle with bows and arrows and incidentally probably encountered many of the old abandoned stone cities of their classic ancestors. The Spanish practically annihilated those people, however, leaving the Chiapas rain-forest essentially vacant. (Ref. 283)

Within two decades of their first landing in Mexico, the relatively few Spaniards had explored the New World from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Kansas to Argentina. Is there any reason to think that previous sailors landing on the Gulf end of the Canary current could not have done the same? (See Chapter 5). The old Mayan Culture had long gone, but some of the remains were found in Yucatan as early as 1517 by Hernando de Cordova, whose landing party at Cape Cotoche was ambushed by Indians. He was attacked again in Champoton where 62 men were killed and many wounded, so that one ship had to be abandoned because of shortage of crew. In 1526 Don Francisco de Montego was given license to conquer and people the "islands" of Yucatan and Cozumel and to take or buy Indians as slaves. In one battle in this hot, dry land, 1,200 Indians were slaughtered and at Chichen Itza a second great battle resulted in the loss of 150 Spaniards and the wounding of almost all the rest. By 1535, not a single Spaniard remained in Yucatan. When some returned in 1537, many were sacrificed and eaten, but eventually in 1540 the Spanish town of San Francisco de Campeche was founded. (Ref. 204) Perhaps some of these Indians were descendants of the ancient Maya, Yucatec-speaking families, using bows and arrows, were living in the rain forests of Guatemala at that time. (Ref. 283)

Year by year the map of the New World was charted in gold, silver and blood. Quickly the Spaniards superimposed their own civilization and by 1539 there was a printing press and by 1551 a university in Mexico City. By mid-century some 20,000 Negroes had been brought to Cuernavaca and Vera Cruz. There were productive silver mines in Mexico by the 1540s. Thomas (Ref. 213) says that while the Spaniards conquered Central and South America on horses, mules sustained the conquest. Convoys carrying gold and silver and linking Lima, Cuzco, Panama, Vera Cruz and Mexico were established with these valuable animals. The great harbor at Porto Bello, Panama, became the most thriving town in the Americas as the Atlantic terminal of the mule track across the isthmus carrying the Spaniards' treasure from South America. (Ref. 95, 8, 213, 150) Additional Notes

Some of the relative values of things in Central America may be seen in Braudel's (Ref. 292) comments about Panama in 1519. A horse was worth 24 1/2 pesos, an Indian slave 30 pesos and a skin of wine 100 pesos. Pedro de Alvarado, who had become governor of Guatemala, heard of rich lands in Peru and led an expedition of 500 men to Quito in 1534, by boat. It is probably an indication of the long time, extensive maritime experience of the people of that area that Alvarado's Indian navigator carried him directly from the Port of Iztopa (near present San Jose, Guatemala) to the Bay of Manta in Ecuador. That was a trip across open ocean of about 1,300 miles, minimum. Land travel, however, would have been at least 1,900 miles, not considering the ups and downs in the mountains, lake detours and the like through mountainous jungles that were actually probably almost impassable. (Ref. 36)

The situation in the Caribbean Basin in this century deserves further discussion. By 1501 Spanish settlers in Hispaniola (Santa Domingo) had already introduced black slaves, the first in the New World. While Columbus was kept in the Spanish court, still under the cloud from his 3rd voyage, Amerigo Vespucci returned from the west Atlantic, proclaiming that there was an entire continent there, a fact which resulted eventually in its being named after him. Columbus was finally allowed a 4th trip, although refused permission to visit his old Santo Domingo domain. He had 150 men in 4 ships and they made the Atlantic crossing on the trade winds, landing on an island just south of Dominica in 21 days3. About 2 weeks later he sent a warning to a large Spanish fleet carrying gold that they should not leave the port of Santo Domingo because of an approaching hurricane. The fleet commander laughed at the warning and started for Spain, only to have his flagship go down and his fleet scattered by the storm. 200,000 castellanos of gold went to the bottom of the Gulf. Columbus' squadron, anchored in a protected area, escaped damage the first night, but did receive some battering the next day.

Columbus initiated further explorations among the Caribbean islands. At Bonacca he intercepted natives in a large, 8 feet wide dugout canoe, carrying 25 men and numerous women and children - all wearing dyed cotton coverings and shirts. The women had colored shawls and the men carried long, flint-edged, wooden swords and copper hatchets. It has since become obvious that these Indians were trading between Bonocca and Honduras. The fleet went on to the mainland, anchoring in a harbor where later the city of Trujillo, Honduras was to be founded and there encountered the Jicaque Indians, dressed as those he had seen in the canoe. This was apparently the remnant of a Mayan Honduran kingdom.

The fleet then sailed south along the coast of Central America, encountering terrible storms, with Columbus quite ill and eventually they passed present day Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where they anchored and traded some with the Talamanca Indians. The Spaniards were impressed with the local fauna, which included deer, pumas and wild turkey. On farther south in Panama they encountered Guaymies Indians, who painted their faces white, black and red and these men even had some real gold. The possibility of mines in that region enticed Columbus into starting a settlement there. When 10 or 12 houses had been built, it stopped raining and the river mouth, where the caravels had been anchored, dried up to the point where the ships were stranded. This was followed by savage Indian attacks which eventually resulted in the loss of 10 men and abandonment of the village. When the rains returned the little fleet took off again for Hispaniola, abandoning one ship, which had been afloat for a year. Two more vessels were leaking badly and when Jamaica was finally reached these were intentionally run aground for the remaining 116 men to use as houseboats, as they were no - longer seaworthy. Two dugout canoes were sent to Santo Domingo for help from Columbus' old enemy, Governor Ovando; half of the remaining men mutinied and tried to leave; the Jamaican Indians quit feeding the Spaniards and relented only when Columbus awed them by predicting the eclipse of the moon of February 29, 1504. The mutineers were finally defeated and- ultimately, after more than a year, all were rescued by a ship from Santo Domingo. Part of the rescued men stayed in the Caribbean to eventually help to settle Puerto Rico, while the others returned to Spain with Columbus. The old Spanish queen was dying and Columbus received no glory.

We have already noted the decimation provoked in the West Indies by small-pox in 1519. Some type of plague, perhaps typhus or influenza, hit the islands again in 1567 with some becoming completely depopulated. (Ref. 260) Early in the century the Spanish abducted the native Arawak Indians from the Bahamas for slave labor and those islands also remained uninhabited for more than a century. (Ref. 274) In addition, Spaniards transported somewhere in the range of 2,000 to 5,000 Indians from the United States to the West Indies. But the Cuban governor's report of 1530 showed that 1/3 of the island's natives died during the year and this was the excuse for the importation of African slaves. The viruses brought by these blacks helped to decimate the Indian natives. Both before and after Menendez founded St. Augustine, Florida Indians (particularly the Calyusas) had gone by canoe to Cuba either voluntarily or against their will, but in any case they died off as fast there as the native Cubans. Menendez married the daughter of Chief Carlos and when she made a trip to Cuba with her court, most of them soon died. In 1570, about 100 years after the arrival of Europeans, the population of Hispaniola had been reduced to 125 people. By the end of the century blacks and whites, along with Indians imported from elsewhere in the New World, had replaced the aboriginal populace of the Greater Antilles.

We should note, that just as in the Pacific, ships were not able to go straight eastward across the Atlantic from the Caribbean, because of the prevailing winds and currents. Spanish ships first made a rendezvous at Havana, then sailed close by the Gulf Coast through the Bahama Channel in the Gulf Stream along the coast to the Carolinas, where westerly winds returned them to Spain. As previously noted, many were wrecked on the mainland coasts. (Ref. 267)



The first South American contact of the Spaniards occurred in 1501 when the Bay of Santa Marta and the Gulf of Cartagena in Colombia were explored. According to the chroniclers the natives were then living on the seacoast on a 90 mile strip below an altitude of 3,300 feet, engaged in gold metallurgy. The Spanish called them the Chairamas, whence came the name of the Tairona society, which may mean a place where metal is melted. The actual mines may have been located farther west and the Chairamas may have obtained it from the Taumacos, who dominated the gold bearing regions. Nevertheless, the fighting between the coast Indians and the Spaniards was bloody and the latter never did really conquer the area, as the Taironas withdrew to the mountains where they finally disappeared, probably from disease and hunger. The ruins of their original settlements have been in part excavated and have revealed stone buildings reached by roads and paved stairways some of which were 60 feet wide and by bridges of stone blocks. There were rock carvings and farming terraces and artificial mounds, perhaps for ceremonial use.

In the next 25 years several Spanish towns were established along this northern coast of South America. In 1528 the Welsers of Augsburg even appeared in Venezuela, but Spanish ill-will and terrible local atrocities brought their financial enterprises to failure. (Ref. 62, 292)

Before the days of the Spaniards some of the desert coast land of Peru was inhabited. Every 25 miles or so the desert is cut by a stream or river, which has created an oasis and made life possible. In the past some of these were the sites of very large cities, but during Hispanicization provincial life turned away to the central Andes and the coast remained practically bare. Like Mexico, parts of South America were densely settled at the time of European discovery. The Andean population was about 25,000,000 to 30,000,000. The people of Peru were mainly vegetarian, although there were some fish and occasionally communal game hunts for deer, llamas, guanacos, bears, pumas, foxes and vizcacha. Guinea pigs were raised in nearly every household along with ducks. The chief foods, however, were maize, potatoes, squash, beans, manioc and sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, avocados and chili peppers. Maize would not grow above 11,000 feet but potatoes and other tubers such as oca and guinoa, would. The potatoes were preserved by combined freezing and drying methods and the result was called "chunu", of greatest importance to highland People4 The slave workers of the silver mines of Potosi (now in south central Bolivia) subsisted almost entirely on chunu. That city was founded in 1545 at the altitude of 13,780 feet and by 1,600 had 100,000 people. Although the Spaniards spent most of their time looking for gold, silver was the real treasure of South America and soon the quicksilver mines of Huancavelica in Peru did not supply sufficient mercury for the amalgam processing in all the American silver mines and additional supplies had to be shipped from Spain and Yugoslavia. (Ref. 292)

Besides the empire of the Incas, South America had the Chimu Kingdom, with a capital at Chan Chan and then some less complex societies, called chiefdoms. Two types of the latter existed: (1) A militaristic society, with hereditary classes governed by war chiefs and with usually four classes; caciques or chiefs; people of rank; farmers; and slaves. (2) Theocratic societies under a shaman who officiated in a temple. War was necessary to maintain cannibal practices and to procure trophy heads, which were important symbols in the magic rituals of Chavin, Paracas, Nazca and Tiahuanaco religions. This rite disappeared in the Inca civilization, which seems to have taken over the area previously occupied by the Chimu princes. The explorer Pizarro does not even mention Chan Chan, but those people left many cultural developments in the central Andes, including administrative organization, communications by road, agriculture, long canals allowing intensive farming and perhaps trade and navigation. Their princes dominated only a few valleys, however, and the Incas exerted a much greater influence on the region as a whole. (Ref. 62)

In the Peruvian coastal areas which had been irrigated, there was already considerable salting of the soil and the population was collapsing. In addition, the small-pox which the Spaniards had brought to Mexico and the West Indies had spread even faster than they did and it was ravaging Peru by 1525. The reigning Inca, Huayna Capa, died of the disease and civil war followed between his two sons. It was into this wreckage of an empire that in 1532 Francisco Pizarro arrived with 106 foot soldiers and 62 horses. As when the Europeans landed in Mexico, Pizarro was at first mistaken for a god, but late in the year he moved his troops inland and seized one of the warring Inca princes, Atahualpa, in the midst of his vast army at Cajamarca. Intimidated by the horses and the obvious fire-power, the Indians put up no resistance, but the prince obtained his temporary release by paying the most fabulous ransom in history - a chamber 8 feet high filled with various objects of gold and jewelry along with 2 similar sized rooms filled with silver. After Pizarro had melted the metal down and distributed part of it among his men, he conveniently garroted Atahualpa on a false charge and appointed still another- royal brother, Tupac Hualpa, as the slain emperor's successor. He did not last long either and was succeeded by Manco. It is no wonder that relations between the two peoples steadily deteriorated so that by late 1535 the situation had become intolerable, from the Inca standpoint.

Manco escaped and assembled an army 100,000 strong to start a resistance to the Spaniards that was to last 36 years. The latter had now been reinforced and were strongly entrenched at Cuzco so that the Incas were unable to reclaim that city. Manco retreated to the juncture of the Andes and the Amazon basin and when pursued even there by a Spanish force, he retreated to Vitcos in the Vilcabamba River valley. Attacked again, he retreated once more while the spoils of Vitcos fell to the Spaniards, including some 20,000 prisoners and 50,000 head of llamas and alpacas. Hidden in the upper Vilcabamba, Manco recouped his forces, while in the meantime Pizarro had been murdered in his palace by some of his own disgruntled soldiers. Some of these then ran and took refuge with Manco and his Incas, where they taught the Indians the Spanish fighting techniques and horseback riding. Later these same Spanish renegades turned on Manco and slew him (1544) leaving the resistance against the Spanish to be led by Manco's son, Sayri Tupac. Some years later Sayri was offered a pardon by the Spanish crown and early in 1558 he married his sister, Cusi Huarcay5. Actually Sayri was never really crowned and died of illness in 1560. All five of Atahualpa's daughters married high ranking Spaniards and the dynasty was eliminated. All of Pizarro's expeditionary forces eventually met disaster. In addition to his own assassination, his three brothers all met violent deaths in one fashion or another. His men either had their heads cut off by the king's executioners or died in brawls or in native battles. The first bishop of Cuzco, Vincente de Valverd, was eaten by the inhabitants of Puna Island, while trying to flee back to Spain. (Ref. 62)

In the meantime many other conquistadores were traveling all over the northern part of South America, looking for gold. In 1535 Sebastian de Balacazar, veteran of the Inca conquest and founder of Quito, was told of a king who sprinkled his body with gold dust before swimming in his sacred lake. The legend named the mysterious king "El Dorado - the Golden man" and it fanned the lust for the precious metal among all the Spanish explorers. Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada led an expedition inland from Columbia's northern coast in 1536, struggling through forests and swamps. Decimated by fever, malaria and attacks by hostile natives, only 200 of his original 900 men reached the Chibcha villages that were strewn across Colombia's Cundinamarca plateau. He found no gold, but did found the city of Santa Fe de Bogota, now the capital of Colombia. Others explored this same country, including the German Nicolaus Federmann and his countryman Philip von Guttan. Spaniards, including Gonzalo Pizarro, brother of Francisco and Francisco de Orellana also headed to the interior and when the latter came down a great river he encountered a tribe whose long-haired women drew a bow better than any man. Orellana gave the name "Amazonas" to the river, after those warrior women of the old Greek legend. Toward the end of the century, the hunt for gold shifted toward Guiana and then to the island of Trinidad, where the Spanish met the English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who was on a similar search. Eventually some gold was found between the years 1525 and 1533 in Colombia and as has been noted, Potosi in Bolivia became for 100 years the biggest source of silver in the world. (Ref. 176, 175, 8)

After conquering the Incas in Peru, the Spanish tried to extend down into Chile about 1536, but they were pretty well stopped by the cannibalistic Araucanian Indians. Pedro de Valdiva did reach far enough south to found the city of Santiago in Chile by 1541. There, eventually as elsewhere in South America, silver mines were found and worked by the natives under Spanish direction. Recent study of skeletons of colonial Indians who mined silver in Tarapaca, of northern Chile, has shown evidence of the occupational illness of pneumoconiosis and silicosis from silver mining. Little is known of the Araucanians who lived on the western slope of the Chilean cordillera and on Chiloe Island prior to the arrival of the Spaniards. There were at least three groups, each speaking a dialect of an exclusive South American language. Estimations of their number, when the Spaniards arrived, vary from 500,000 to 2,000,000. Peaceful relations with them were not really established until the 18th century, although they were farmers and not basically hunters. Only the Quechus and Aymaras tribes were city builders, while the Mapuches lived more agricultural lives. The tribes fought each other and captives were ritually tortured and sacrificed. Cannibalism was practiced. (Ref. 175, 3, 62)

A few last words are indicated before we leave the west coast of South America. In 1526 when Francisco Pizarro left the Panamanian isthmus on his second and most intensive voyage down the coast, he encountered Peruvian merchant rafts coming north – rafts as large as Pizarro's caravel. The first one was a 36 ton raft with 20 Indians, masts with cotton sails, well rigged. The secret of control lay with multiple center-boards (guaras) in line along the center of the vessels, the skillful use of which allowed steering and beating up-wind to some degree. Some of the larger vessels had thatched bamboo huts with 4 or 5 rooms. They often carried salt along with other provisions for the 200 to 300 hundred mile trips between ports. Dry balsa wood would be too water absorbent for these rafts, but green balsa, when put to sea still filled with sap, is very water resistant. The description of these vessels from the early Spaniards is indisputable evidence that the Peruvians were capable of extensive ocean travel. (Ref. 95)


Horses which had been introduced far to the west in Peru by Pizarro were, within a few years, to be found running in large, wild herds even in the pampas of eastern South America. Sugar cane reached Brazil in about 1520 and sugar mills were set up in about 1550, so that soon there appeared the eternal trinity - the master's house, the slaves cabins and the sugar mill. Still the master had to sell his product and it was European trade that commanded production and output in Brazil and elsewhere in the New World. (Ref. 292) As early as 1521 the Portuguese began building forts in Brazil, hoping to reach the legendary empire of gold from the east, across the Chaco. The Guaranis tribes, already used to pillaging the rich Incanized slopes of the eastern Andes, helped the Portuguese expeditions. When the Spaniard Martinez de Irala reached the upper Andes in 1548, that part of Peru and Bolivia were already under Portuguese control. But Asuncion, now in Paraguay, 600 miles inland from the Atlantic, had been settled in 1542 by the Spaniard de Vaca6. Farther south the Spaniards had constant skirmishes with the Diaguites, who now used bow and arrows, but who were soon wiped out by disease. According to one priest, the Diaguites practiced circumcision, which recalls our note on page 212 regarding Mochican pottery vessels depicting circumcised prisoners. South of the Diaguites but still east of the cordillera there was a small group, the Huarpes, who may have been related to the former, but were described as tall, thin, brown men with lots of hair. The Chacos lived on the savannahs farther east and much farther south lived the Comechingons, between about the 29th and 34th parallels. The first Europeans to see them described them ashaving beards and wearing long, wool tunics. The chroniclers added that the Comechingons could mobilize as many as 40,000 warriors, although Engel (Ref. 62) feels that this must be an exaggeration.

Bahia was founded as the administrative capital for the Portuguese in 1549 and between 1575 and 1600 coastal Brazil had become the foremost sugar producing territory in the western world, averaging 1,600 tons a year, shipped to Europe. Soon there were shops on the streets of Sao Paulo and after 1580 Portuguese middlemen invaded the whole of Spanish America as shopkeepers and peddlers. The natives were nomadic and not easily made into a labor force and tended to slip away as the Portuguese arrived, so slave ships shuttled between Angola and Brazil, with payment given in Africa in low grade Brazilian tobacco. Then in half a century Paulist bandeiras spread out from Sao Paulo over half the continent from the Rio de la Plata to the Amazon and Andes in search of slaves, precious stones and gold. (Ref. 260) It has been estimated that by 1583 there were 25,000 whites, 18,000 civilized Indians and 14,000 Negro slaves in the territory. The towns of Brazil, which Braudel (Ref. 260) has described as so many miniature versions of Sparta or Thebes, were run by the men of property, the Spanish cabildos.

Argentina had been discovered even earlier in 1516 by the Spanish Juan Diaz de Solis and the coasts explored by Diego Garcia in 1526. Buenos Aires was founded in 1534 by Pedro de Mendoza but the village soon died out or was destroyed. When it was rebuilt in 1580 it was chiefly by Portuguese merchants. Their ships streamed west across the Atlantic laden with rice, fabrics, black slaves and perhaps some gold, would arrive at Buenos Aires, then go up the Rio de la Plata to Ascension, where they would trade for silver reals coming down the Pilcomayo River. (Ref. 292)

Magellan and 265 men rounded Cape Horn as early as 1520 on their famous globe circling trip, but it was about 1579 that Europeans came in contact with the natives of Patagonia. They were described as being light-skinned men with thick, bushy black, wiry hair, who smeared their bodies with red paint and grease. The Europeans attempted a colony there and brought sheep, which the Patagonians promptly hunted. Today there are no true Patagonians left. Additional Notes

Forward to America: A.D. 1601 to 1700


The seat of the Spanish government in Central America was at Gracias, Honduras briefly in the 1540s, but then moved to Guatemala in 1,549. Lempira was a great Indian leader, who fought against the Spanish conquest for two years in Honduras, beginning in 1537. Trujillo, on the Honduras Caribbean coast, was an early Spanish stronghold, with a massive brick fortress with the cannon pointed seaward. (Ref. 308)


Magellan named the island off the southern tip of South America "Tierra del Fuego" because the natives had not yet learned how to kindle a flame and they had to keep their campfires burning all the time. (Ref. 302) In the service of Spanish merchants, the Portuguese Sebastian Cabot reached the Rio de la Plata about 1530


  1. Late Anasazi people of the Acoma pueblo. (Ref. 277)
  2. Juan de Cabrillo and Bartolome Ferrelo had previously explored the west coast to Oregon
  3. Trager (Ref. 222) has given a gross misstatement on page 161 to the effect that Columbus' 4th voyage took 8 months for the Atlantic crossing
  4. It should be noted that because the Andes Indians had the custom of replanting the smaller potatoes and eating the larger ones, potatoes at that time were generally only peanut-sized. The large potato of today is the product of centuries of more enlightened horticulture. (Ref. 222)
  5. As in ancient Egypt, this incestuous situation was the rule among the imperial family of Peru. (Ref. 62)
  6. Other authorities state that the Spanish entered Paraguay in 1524, intermarrying with the Guarani and founding Asuncion in 1537. (Ref. 175)

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