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7th Grade Social Studies / Lesson 7 - Conquests in America

What will we be learning in this unit?

  • What were the results of the first encounters between the Spanish and Native Americans?
  • How did Spanish conquistadors conquer the Aztec and Incan empires?
  • Why were the Spanish victorious?


  First Encounters

 

  • In 1492, Christopher Columbus landed in the islands that are now called the West Indies, in the Caribbean. There, he encountered the Ta­no people. The Ta­nos lived in villages and grew corn, yams, and cotton, which they wove into cloth. They were friendly and generous toward the Spanish. 
  • Friendly relations soon evaporated, however. Spanish conquistadors, or conquerors, followed in the wake of Columbus. They settled on the islands of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, and Puerto Rico. They seized the gold ornaments worn by the Ta­nos, then made them pan for more gold. At the same time, the newcomers forced the Ta­nos to convert to Christianity.


First Encounters

 

  • Meanwhile, a deadly but invisible invader was at work-disease. Europeans unknowingly carried diseases such as smallpox, measles, and influenza to which Native Americans had no immunity, or resistance. These diseases spread rapidly and wiped out village after village. As a result, the Native American population of the Caribbean islands declined by as much as 90 percent in the 1500s. This cycle of disease and death was repeated in many other places across the Western Hemisphere.


 The Conquistadors

 

  • From Cuba, Spanish explorers probed the coasts of the Americas. They spread stories of empires rich in gold. Attracted by the promise of riches as well as by religious zeal, a flood of adventurers soon followed. 
  • Among the earliest conquistadors was Hernan Corts. Corts landed on the coast of Mexico in 1519 with about 600 men, 16 horses, and a few cannons. As he headed inland toward Tenochtitl¡n, he was helped by Malinche, a young Indian woman who served as his translator and adviser. The Spanish called her Doa Marina. Malinche knew both the Mayan and Aztec languages, and she learned Spanish quickly.
  • From Malinche, Corts learned that many conquered peoples hated their Aztec overlords. The Aztecs, you will recall, sacrificed thousands of captives to their gods each year. Malinche helped Corts arrange alliances with these discontented groups. They would help one another fight the Aztecs.


The Conquistadors

 

  • Meanwhile, messengers brought word about the newcomers to the Aztec emperor Moctezuma. He wondered if the leader of the pale-skinned, bearded strangers might be Quetzalcoatl, the god-king who had long ago vowed to return from the east. Moctezuma sent gifts of gold and silver, but urged the strangers not to continue to Tenochtitl¡n.
  • Corts had no intention of turning back. Fighting and negotiating by turns, he led his forces inland toward the capital. At last, they arrived in Tenochtitl¡n, where they were dazzled by the grandeur of the city.


The Conquistadors

 

  • Moctezuma welcomed Corts to his capital. However, relations between the Aztecs and Spaniards soon grew strained, and the Aztecs drove the Spanish from the city. Moctezuma was killed in the fighting.   
  • Corts retreated to plan an assault. In 1521, in a brutal struggle, Corts and his Indian allies captured and demolished Tenochtitl¡n. An unknown Aztec lamented, "Broken spears lie in the road; / We have torn our hair with grief. / The houses are roofless now, and their walls are red with blood." On the ruins of Tenochtitl¡n, the Spanish later built Mexico City.


 The Conquistadors

 

  • Corts's success inspired other adventurers. Among them was Francisco Pizarro. He arrived in Peru in 1532, just after the Incan ruler Atahualpa won the throne from his brother in a bloody civil war. A civil war is fought between groups of people in the same nation. 
  • Helped by Indian allies, Pizarro captured Atahualpa after slaughtering thousands of his followers. The Spanish demanded a huge ransom for the ruler. The Incas paid it, but the Spanish killed Atahualpa anyway. 
  • Despite continuing resistance, the invaders overran the Incan heartland. From Peru, Spanish forces surged across Ecuador and Chile. Before long, Spain added much of South America to its growing empire.


Reasons for Victory

 

  • How could a few hundred European soldiers conquer huge Native American empires with populations in the millions? Several reasons explain the amazing Spanish success. 
  • Superior military technology was a key factor. The Spaniards' horses frightened some Indians, who had never seen such animals. Spanish muskets and cannons killed Indian soldiers, while metal helmets and armor protected the Spanish from the Indians' arrows and spears.
  • Division and discontent among the Indians aided the Spanish. The Spanish won allies by playing on old hatreds among rival Indian groups. In fact, Indians provided Corts and Pizarro with much of their fighting power.


Reasons for Victory

 

  • Disease brought by the Europeans weakened the Aztecs and Incas. As tens of thousands of Indians died, some of the bewildered and demoralized survivors felt that their gods were less powerful than the god of their conquerors.
  • Many Indians believed that the disasters they suffered marked the world's end. To Aztecs, the destruction of Tenochtitl¡n signaled the end of the reign of the sun god.


Reasons for Victory

  • Native Americans continued to resist the invaders, however. For years, Mayas fought Spanish rule. Long after the death of Atahualpa, revolts erupted among the Incas. Throughout the Americas, Indians resisted Europeans by preserving aspects of their own culture, such as language, religious traditions, and clothing.


  Looking Ahead

  • The Spanish seized gold and silver statues and ornaments from the Aztecs and Incas. After depleting these sources, they forced Native Americans to mine silver in Peru and Mexico. In the 1500s and early 1600s, treasure fleets sailed each year to Spain or the Spanish Philippines loaded with gold and silver. This flood of wealth created both benefits and problems for the economy of Europe.