11.3 European Conquests in the Americas

In 1492, Columbus landed in the islands that are now called the West Indies. In later voyages, he claimed all the lands he visited for Spain. Columbus's voyages set Spain on a course of exploration and colonization in the Americas. Before long, Spain conquered and ruled a vast empire that included the West Indies, much of South America, Central America, Mexico, and other parts of North America. The Spanish conquests transformed the Americas and would have a huge impact on Europe, and even on distant lands in Asia.

Painting by the sea of European men holding banners, flags and a large cross, being bowed to by native Americans in traditional dress holding offerings.

First Tribute to Columbus (1892) by Spanish artist José Garnelo y Alda represents the first meeting with the Taíno. Hypothesize Do you think the encounter actually appeared like this? Why or why not?


  • Analyze the results of the first encounters between the Spanish and Native Americans.
  • Explain how the Aztec and Inca empires were impacted by Spanish conquistadors and European colonization.
  • Describe how Portugal and other European nations challenged Spanish power.
  • Analyze the major features of Spanish colonial government, society and culture.
  • Describe the impact of Spanish colonization of the Americas.

Key Terms

  • Taíno
  • conquistador
  • immunity
  • Hernán Cortés
  • Tenochtitlán
  • Malinche
  • alliance
  • Moctezuma
  • Francisco Pizarro
  • civil war
  • viceroy
  • encomienda
  • Bartolomé de Las Casas
  • peon
  • peninsular
  • creole
  • mestizo
  • mulatto
  • privateer

First Encounters

The Taínos Meet Columbus

When Columbus first arrived in the West Indies in 1492, he encountered the Taíno (TY noh) people. The Taínos lived in villages and grew corn, yams, and cotton, which they wove into cloth. They were friendly and open toward the Spanish. Columbus noted that they were “generous with what they have, to such a degree as no one would believe but he who had seen it.”

Friendly relations soon evaporated. Columbus's men assaulted Taíno men and women, seized some to take back to the Spanish king, and claimed their land for Spain. The Spanish killed any Taínos who dared to resist. Columbus later required each Taíno to give him a set amount of gold. Any Taíno who failed to deliver was tortured or killed.

A wave of Spanish conquistadors (kahn KEES tuh dawrz), or conquerors, who soon arrived in the Americas repeated Columbus's encounter. They first settled on the islands of Hispaniola (now the Dominican Republic and Haiti), Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Throughout the region, the conquistadors seized the Native Americans' gold ornaments and then made them pan for more gold. At the same time, the Spanish forced the Native Americans to convert to Christianity.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments