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Lesson summary: The Spanish empire

A high-level overview of Spanish efforts at early colonization.
Early interactions between the Spanish and Native Americans who lived in Central and South America led to a series of cultural exchanges that affected both the New World and the Old World.

Key terms

Treaty of TordesillasIn 1494, Spain and Portugal moved the line of demarcation several degrees west, establishing Portugal’s claim to Brazil.
Encomienda systemA labor system in which the Spanish crown authorized Spaniards, known as encomenderos, to enslave native people to farm and mine in the Americas.
Caste systemA social system in which class status is determined at birth. The Spanish had mixed-race children in the Americas with enslaved Africans and Native Americans. Status was determined by how “Spanish” one was, so those with little to no Spanish blood were in the lowest class.
Bartolome de las CasasA Spanish priest who criticized Spain’s treatment of Native Americans in its colonies.
Pueblo Revolt (1680)A successful rebellion by Pueblo Native Americans to reclaim Pueblo religious practices, culture, and land that had been stripped away by Spanish colonizers.

The Spanish colonial caste system

A diagram illustrating the Spanish caste system. The Peninsulares had the most power, but were a small group. The Native Americans and African slaves had the least amount of power, but had the largest population.
A diagram illustrating the Spanish caste system.

Core historical themes

Motivations for colonization: Spain’s colonization goals were to extract gold and silver from the Americas, to stimulate the Spanish economy and make Spain a more powerful country. Spain also aimed to convert Native Americans to Christianity.
Development of labor systems: In order to extract natural resources from the Americas, European colonizers created labor systems, like the encomienda system, to exploit Native American labor. When Native Americans began to die from diseases like smallpox, the Spanish and Portuguese began capturing and sending enslaved Africans to the Americas as a labor force.
Interactions with Native Americans: Spanish colonizers attempted to integrate Native Americans into Spanish culture by marrying them and converting them to Catholicism. Although some Native Americans adopted aspects of Spanish culture, others decided to rebel. The Pueblo Revolt was one example of a successful Native American effort to reclaim their religious practices, culture, and land.

Review questions

  • What were the three main motivating factors for Spanish to begin colonizing?
  • What were the implications of the Spanish integrating both Native Americans and enslaved Africans into colonial society?
  • How did Native Americans and the Spanish adapt aspects of the other’s culture?

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