Famous Spanish Conquistadors

Instructor: Matthew Helmer

Matt is an upcoming Ph.D. graduate and archaeologist. He has taught Anthropology, Geography, and Art History at the university level.

The conquistadors are controversial historical figures who paved the way for the modern Americas, but ruthlessly conquered indigenous groups. This lesson focuses on the most iconic Spanish conquistadors and their role in establishing European colonies in the Americas.

A Collision of Two Worlds

It is hard for us to picture experiencing European contact in the Americas, since we live in such a globalized world. Imagine traveling across uncharted waters for months, ending up in a land covered with plants, animals, and people you had never seen before. Conversely, imagine groups of alien-looking people arriving on massive ships in your homeland. Until recently, conquistadors were celebrated as brave explorers who first settled the Americas. Today, we recognize a more complicated history of conquest which included warfare, disease, slavery, and eradication of cultural practices.

Who Were the Conquistadors?

The conquistadors were elite South European soldiers who underwent extensive training in navigation, exploration, imperialism, and warfare. The word conquistador actually refers to the Spanish word 'to conquer', which correctly sums up the various goals the conquistadors had. Conquistadors expanded European influence throughout much of the world, between the 15th and 16th centuries. Here, I present the most famous conquistadors and their impact on the Americas.

Conquistadors wanted to be the first to explore new lands to gain prestige for their country, similar to the way the Space Race happened between the United States and the Soviet Union during the 20th century. They also wanted to open new trade routes to Europe, as well as to bring back riches from foreign lands. The conquistadors' mission was also seen as a continuation of the medieval crusades. Conquistadors brought Catholic officials with them to convert people they encountered. This fed in to the overall goal of establishing empires, which had not existed in Europe since Roman times.

Famous Conquistadors

Historical painting of Columbus
Christopher Columbus

Legends of cities of gold fueled the early exploration of North America. Juan Ponce de Leon and Hernando de Soto were the first conquistadors to reach the modern United States from Florida. Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca went from Texas throughout the American Southwest into California. He left a number of vivid accounts of Native American groups throughout the United States which are some of the best written accounts of the contact period.

Statue of Pizarro in Lima
Francisco PizarroHernan CortesAtahualpa

Historical painting of Cortes at Tenochtitlan

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