New Spain: Spanish Explorers and Spanish Colonies

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  • 0:07 The New World
  • 0:37 Explorers
  • 3:59 Encomiendas & Haciendas
  • 6:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Clint Hughes

Clint has taught History, Government, Speech Communications, and Drama. He has his master's degree in Instructional Design and Technology.

Who are the most well-known explorers and conquistadors of the New World? In this lesson, we'll look at some of the most infamous explorers. We'll discover the difference between explorers and conquistadors, and then learn about the encomienda system.

Getting Started in the New World!

After Columbus found the New World, even if it was by accident, a wave of explorers went out under the Spanish flag. Off to find riches and glory, these explorers and conquistadors found and conquered much of the new world. After conquering the native people, a system had to be set up for how the land and the people would be ruled and profited off of. In this lesson, we will learn about several explorers and conquistadors, and the encomienda and hacienda system, which was employed by the Spanish in their colonies.

Columbus is credited for discovering America.
Christopher Columbus

First Explorers

Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the New World. Others had possibly been there, but it was Columbus' expedition that set off the Age of Discovery in the Americas. Columbus was actually from Genoa, which today is a part of Italy, but he was funded by and sailed under the Spanish flag.

Amerigo Vespucci was also born in Italy, but he eventually became a Spanish citizen. You might notice what his biggest legacy in the new world is - his name. You see, it was Vespucci who realized that the Americas were, in fact, not in Asia. A very well-educated man, he figured out the Earth's circumference at the equator within about 50 miles of accuracy. It was this information that helped him realize he was far from Asia. In Vespucci's honor, Martin Waldseemüller named the land mass America when he published a map in his Cosmographiae Introductio in 1507.


Conquistadors are soldier/explorers who sailed for personal profit under the banner of the Spanish crown, but they also considered themselves to basically be crusaders. Conquistadors always had priests with them whose duty it was to bring Christianity to the natives they encountered. We will not learn about all of the conquistadors, but let's take a look at a list of the most known, and what they are known for.

America got its name from the explorer Amerigo Vespucci.
Amerigo Vespucci

Francisco Pizarro is most known for his defeat of the Inca in 1535. Pizarro basically took down this great empire with about 150 men. Many factors led to this easy defeat: a mix of deception on Pizarro's part, arrogance on Atahualpa's (the Incan leader) part and the fact that the Inca had just encountered their own civil war.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa came from a poor Spanish family, but he rose to be famous for being the first European to cross Panama and actually see the Pacific Ocean in 1513. When he climbed a peak alone on the expedition, he saw the great water mass and claimed it for Spain. That's right, he claimed the whole thing for Spain!

Juan Ponce de Leon is most famous for searching for and possibly finding the Fountain of Youth. Of course, fame and fact are not the same thing. It was published after his death that this was his reason for exploration. What we know as more dependable information is that he was the first European to step foot in Florida. So, he is the first of the age of discovery in 1513 to step on what is today U.S. soil. So, even if Ponce de Leon didn't find the Fountain of Youth, he did make modern spring break and snow birds possible!

Francisco Vasquez de Coronado is another conquistador known for looking for something thought of as a myth. He was looking for El Dorado - the seven cities of gold. El Dorado was quite possibly a deception on the part of natives. They may have been telling the Spanish about it so that they would go off to find it and leave them alone. It is also possible that it just grew out of old stories of the great cities of some of the early American civilizations. Either way, this quest for gold led Coronado to be the first European to explore the American Southwest in what is today Arizona and New Mexico.

Hernando Cortes conquered the Aztecs in 1521.
Hernando Cortes Illustration

In 1521, Hernando Cortes defeated the Aztecs. This is what he is most known for. I mean, wouldn't you be remembered for walking in and conquering a great empire, partially by being mistaken for a god? Another important accomplishment for Cortes is that he was the first Spanish conquistador to be granted a hacienda.

Encomiendas and Haciendas

Well, conquered people and colonies need a system of management. In the Spanish colonies, that system was made up of the encomienda system and the hacienda.

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