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Discovering the Americas

The age of exploration emerged when European countries explored new lands for political, religious and economic reasons. Spain looked to expand its knowledge of the world, to discover spices and riches and to expand Christianity. This quest drove many Spaniards to a New World where they vigorously explored and conquered rugged lands on two continents beginning in the late 1400s. While many explorers investigated Mexico and Central America, others tentatively explored what is now the United States of America.

Spanish Conquistadores

  • Alvar Cabeza de Vaca (1490-1557), explored Texas, Arizona and New Mexico.
  • Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521), who was born in Portugal, was the first to lead an expedition that circumnavigated the globe.
  • Francisco Pizarro (1475-1541) conquered the Inca Empire and took part in explorations of the northern Caribbean coast of South America.
  • Vasco Nunez de Balboa (1475-1519), along with other Spaniards such as Pizarro, became the first to look out at what became the eastern shore of the Pacific Ocean.
  • Francisco Vasquez de Coronado (1510-1554), explored Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Colorado, the Grand Canyon and the Texas panhandle while searching for the Seven Golden Cites of Cibola in what is now Arizona. Coronado led Spaniards and Native Americans on an expedition of the southwestern part of the U.S.
  • Hernando de Soto (1500-1542) led the first expedition to reach the Mississippi River. De Soto landed in Florida and led his army across a number of present-day southwestern states. He is known as a courageous leader who helped conquer the New World for Spain.
  • Juan Ponce de Leon (1460-1521) was the first to land in Florida while searching for the "Fountain of Youth" in March of 1513. He discovered the Gulf Stream on a later expedition, which became an important current for trips from Europe to the Americas. He also was the first governor of Puerto Rico.
  • Hernando Cortez (1460-1521), who had already explored Nicaragua, was the first European to explore Florida and the southeastern part of the U.S. He defeated and conquered the Aztec Empire. Cortez explored the lower part of California from 1534 to 1535 and worked to develop mines and farmlands in Mexico.
  • North America and South America were named for Amerigo Vespucci (1454-1512), who helped provide supplies and food to crews for their journey. Vespucci was the first European to see Brazil and to explore the Amazon River. A mapmaker by the name of Martin Waldseemuller recognized Vespucci as the first to see that North and South America were not a part of Asia and suggested that these continents be named after him in honor of his expeditions.

In the 17th century, British forces took control of North America from its European rivals and established colonies along the present-day Northeastern and Southeastern portion of the United States. In the early 1500s, however, brave Spanish adventurers, armed forces and conquerors, in search of resources that would make them more powerful, were the first to explore and discover important resources on what became "Spanish America." Although the Spanish failed to grasp firm control of North America, cultural artifacts and traditions such as the horse introduced by Spanish caballeros, art, language, cuisine and music show that early Spanish and Portuguese settlers left their imprint on contemporary American culture.

Classroom Resources

The Conquistadors
This PBS website includes a "teaching guide" and lesson plans that underscore the history of the Spanish conquistadors and their explorations. It also includes a timeline of explorations and conquests.

1492: An Ongoing Voyage
Sponsored by the Library of Congress, this site includes information about Christopher Columbus whose explorations of the New World were financed by Spain, as well as other explorers. Maps, journal entries and other items are also provided.

The Journey of Alvar Nuñez Cabeza De Vaca (1542)
Read Cabeza De Vaca’s journal as he recounts his explorations of the New World.

The Journey of Coronado
Read a thorough first-hand description of Coronado’s explorations as told by Pedro de Castaneda, who was a member of Coronado’s exploration team.