As we discussed last entry, the main (though not only) reason that the Spanish explored portions of what is now the United States was to search for further wealth and success to mirror what they had found in the conquests of the Mexica (Aztec) and Incan empires. By the early seventeenth century, such dreams had been abandoned. So, then, why did Spain still colonize so much of what is now the United States?
We can look to two major reasons, which aren’t always easy to separate. The first was the concern for Native American souls. The second one had to do with imperial security. Let’s look at the first reason first.
Even if no material wealth could be found, there was still a large “harvest of souls,” as one Spanish priest called it. Having preached the gospel to native groups and having baptized many (what the Native Americans meant by submitting to this ritual is not always clear), Spanish clergy now considered many Native Americans in what is now the United States to be Catholics for whom they were responsible. There was also the hope that other native groups could be reached, as well. Missions dotted the landscape in New Mexico, Arizona, Florida, Texas, and (much later) California.
We talked a bit in a previous entry about the role that missions played in the overall colonization plan for Spain’s New World Empire. It is worth repeating, though, that the goal was not just to make Catholics, but also good Spanish citizens. That meant enforcing what the Spanish considered to be “civilized” behavior. Spanish efforts at conversion and civilization could be quite severe, as priests tended to view Native Americans how we might view unruly young children. It didn’t help matters that Native Americans living at missions often did so involuntarily (this is especially true in California). Clergy officials also sought to control all aspects of the lives of mission Indians. This could even include things like locking up men and women in separate dormitories at night—much like an overly anxious youth pastor might do at summer camp! Corporal punishment and sexual abuse – by both soldiers and clergy--were also not uncommon.
With the Christmas season over and a new year’s routines taking hold, I should be back on a regular schedule of posting a new entry toward the beginning of each week.
We left off in the middle of a series of entries discussing the Spanish influence on what would become the United States – an influence that began around a century before Jamestown. We started the story in Central and South America, however, because what happened there is what convinced the Spanish to head north.
The conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) and Inca Empires gave immediate credence to other rumors about lost empires or “cities of gold” just waiting to be found. And there were plenty of rumors to chase! Some rumors may have been a matter of misunderstanding or misinterpretation. However, many seem to have been intentionally misleading on the part of Native American groups. Think about it: a group of people with a bad reputation who make pretty outrageous demands (as we’ll see later this entry) show up in your area. You’re going to try to find a way to move them along as quickly as possible, right? And when you find out they’re looking for gold, silver, etc … well, is it really that surprising that Spanish conquistadors kept hearing stories about vast amounts of gold waiting just beyond the horizon? Better hurry and go find them! No reason to stay here!
We’ll look at a few of these expeditions into what is now the United States next.
If you’ve heard much about the Spanish in the New World, you’ve probably heard the phrase “God, Glory, and Gold.” While no catchphrase can fully capture the complexities of a historical topic or period, this particular phrase is a pretty good place to start, nonetheless. So, let’s look at “God,” “Glory,” and “Gold” in turn as the basis for a brief introduction to the Spanish New World Empire.
As we discussed in a previous entry, the Spanish had just completed the “Reconquista,” toppling the last Muslim kingdom on the Iberian Peninsula in 1492. Probably any European power at the time would have assumed that God was with them in such a struggle, but the Spanish believed that God had manifested his favor in various concrete ways throughout the reconquest. For example, some Spanish soldiers reported seeing St. James fighting on a white horse during several key battles. Then, just as the Reconquista wrapped up, they became aware of an entirely new world. The timing was further evidence for many Spanish of God’s overwhelming favor toward the fledgling kingdom.
Thus, “God” was very much a motivation for Spanish activity in the New World. Spanish clergy of multiple religious orders headed to the New World to convert Native Americans, hoping to create both good Christians and good Spanish citizens. As a reward for driving Islamic powers from Western Europe, Spanish monarchs got to nominate their own choices for church officials within their New World empire; the pope essentially rubber stamped these choices. This meant that in the New World, Spanish missionaries were as much agents of the Spanish Crown as they were of the Catholic Church. While missionaries worked with secular authorities to some extent in all European New World empires, the relationship between the two in Spanish territories was particularly intimate.