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Christopher Columbus and the Rise and Fall of the Spanish Empire

Important Historical Events that Affected Western Colorado

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Christopher Columbus

Christopher Columbus and the Rise of the Spanish Empire, 1492-1821

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Christopher Columbus Discovers a New World Christopher Columbus Discovers a New World, 1492 Diseases from Europe Kill Many Native Americans Diseases from Europe Kill Many Native Americans Hernando Cortes and the Aztec, 1519-1521 Hernando Cortes and the Aztec, 1519-1521 Colony of Mexico, 1535 Colony of Mexico, 1535
England's Navy Defeats the Spanish Armada 1588 England's Navy Defeats the Spanish Armada 1588 Colony of New Mexico, 1610 Colony of New Mexico, 1610 Spain Brings Horses Spain Brings Horses Father Escalante & Dominguez 1776 Father Escalante & Dominguez 1776
Christopher Columbus Discovers a New World, 1492
Christopher Columbus

In 1492 Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean to look for a quicker way to India and Asia. He ended up discovering the Caribbean Islands, North America, and South America. Many Native Americans had been living here for a long time with their own rich cultures. When Christopher Columbus returned to Europe and told about his new discoveries, he opened the door to a flood of explorers and conquistadors from Europe.

Even though some Native Americans like the Aztecs, Incas, and other tribes had created great empires, city states, and buildings, most Europeans viewed the Native Americans as uncivilized savages. People from Spain, Portugal, France, Netherlands, and England traveled across the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding gold, silver, forests for timber, and fields for farming. The Europeans immediately tried to Christianize and force their culture on the Native Americans.

Columbus's Ships
Diseases from Europe Kill Many Native Americans

Little did they know, but the Europeans also brought with them one of the biggest and yet smallest things that would change world history. The Europeans brought the microscopic diseases of small pox, mumps, measles, and other diseases to the Native American peoples. The Native Americans had never been exposed to these diseases and millions of Native Americans in North and South America would die from them. The diseases would kill entire families and villages. This weakened many Native American tribes and cultures.

Native Americans had lived in large areas of North and South America. Some had formed great empires with magnificent buildings and temples. After the diseases went through, many areas had a lot fewer people living on the same land. So many Native Americans died that the Europeans ended up bringing many black slaves from Africa to work on the large plantations in the new world. It was true that the Europeans had better weapons and armor, but the Europeans would have had a much harder time settling and conquering the new land without the horrible effects of the diseases of small pox, mumps, and measles on the Native Americans.

Native Americans Small Pox
Hernando Cortes and the Aztec Empire 1519-1521
Spanish Empire

Hernando Cortes sailed to Central America in hope of finding gold and riches. He ended up discovering the Aztec Empire. The Aztec believed in many different gods. The Aztec also had belief that a white skinned god riding on unknown creatures would come from the eastern seas. When the white skinned Cortes rode in on horses (unknown animals to the Americas) and wearing the bright shiny armor, it matched their predictions and they let Cortes and his soldiers into their main city called Tenochtitlan. Tenochtitlan was an amazing city full of large stone buildings housing many thousands of people and temples for worship. The city was sorrounded by a large lake.

The Aztecs treated the newcomers like gods. After Cortes saw how much gold and fine jewels that the Aztec had, he and his soldiers kidnapped the Aztec leader Montezuma and asked for a large ransom of gold and jewels. The Aztec people gave Cortes lots of gold and jewels, and the Spaniards still kept Montezuma held hostage. Cortes had got in trouble with the Spanish Empire before he left on his current adventure, and Spain had sent a ship to arrest him. So Cortes and some of his men left to meet the ship and tell them of their great discoveries.

Soon the Aztecs got upset and rose against the remaining Spanish soldiers in the city and the Aztec ruler Montezuma. The Spaniards were largely outnumbered and barely escaped Tenochtitlan and went back to the east coast to meet Cortes. The Aztecs were a warrior people and would capture people from nearby tribes and would sacrifice the captured peoples as part of their religion. The Aztec were very much hated and feared by the other Native American tribes. The other tribes saw a chance to get back at the Aztecs and joined the Spaniards. With the new help, the Spaniards were no longer so badly outnumbered and conquered the disease weakened Aztec Empire. Cortez would bring back the large amount of gold and riches to Spain. The Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro did something similar to the Inca Empire in South America. The new riches quickly made Spain the greatest super power of the time.

Montezuma Cortes
Spain's Colony of Mexico, 1535
Spains Colony Mexico

Many other Spanish Conquistadors would travel to the new world to become rich and create a new colony for Spain. With the Aztec Empire conquered, many Spanish explorers like Francisco Vasques de Coronado traveled further north up Central America. Coronado would ride all the way up to current day New Mexico. By 1535, Spain had created the new colony of Mexico. Spain created a class system in Mexico where different people could have different levels of jobs and power. For example only the Spaniards could hold leadership roles, and most mixed race people, Native Americans, and black people were forced into slavery conditions. So many Native Americans died of the new diseases that the Spaniards brought many slaves from Africa to work the plantations (similar to the history of the southern United States).

The Catholic church was very powerful in Spain. In the Americas, the Spaniards would destroy important Native American cultural artifacts, and tear down the city of Tenochitlan and other Native American buildings. In their place they would build Spanish style churches and houses. The Spaniards tried to convert as many people as possible to catholicism, and the Catholic church became powerful in Mexico. They also helped enforce Spanish as the main language. Spain tried very hard to destroy Native American customs, language, and culture.

Spains Flag
England's Navy Defeats the Spanish Armada, 1588
Spanish Armada

If it weren't for the loss of one major sea battle by Spain to Great Britain, the main language of people of Western Colorado and the United States might be Spanish. By the late 1500's, Spain had used the great riches from the new world to become the strongest sea power in the world. They had built lots of large warships with lots of guns and cannons. Spain had become the bully of the seas.

England had decided to break free from the Catholic church and this greatly angered Spain. In 1588, Spain sent an armada of their best warships to crush England's small navy and attempt to invade Great Britain. The English Navy had a lot fewer and smaller boats. The English used their knowledge of the ocean tides off of Great Britain, the speed and maneuverability of their smaller boats, use of fire, and better cannons to upset the Spanish. After the unexpected defeat of the Spanish Armada, Spain had many of its warships destroyed and Spain lost their domination of the sea and settling of the new lands in the Americas. After the battle, England would become one of the dominant countries and would settle more of North America. Spain and Portugal would continue to focus on Central America and South America.

Spanish Armada
Colony of New Mexico, 1598
New Mexico Founders In 1598, Don Juan de Onate became New Mexico's first Spanish governor and lead Spanish settlers to Northern New Mexico. In 1610, Santa Fe was made the capitol of the Spanish colony of New Mexico. In 1680, the Pueblo people revolted and temporarily made the Spanish leave the area. But Don Diego Vargas and a small Spanish army took back the colony of New Mexico and the capitol of Santa Fe in 1692. The area of current day Western Colorado was on the northern edge of the colony called New Mexico and if you lived here during that time Spain would have claimed you would be under the their control. But there were so few Spaniards in the area of western Colorado that the area was still truly controlled by the Native American tribes.
Spain Brings Horses
Horses Conquistadors

Along with the Spanish culture and religions, the Spanish also brought their horses. The horses provided them an advantage fighting the Native Americans in the region. The Spaniards could travel long distances without tiring out their army too much. The Spanish conquistadors started traveling much farther inland and soon formed the colony of Mexico.

It did not take long before the Native Americans would also master using the horse. Before horses, traveling long distances for Native Americans was very difficult. Native Americans' lives changed significantly when they started using the horses. Tribes like the Cheyenne and Souix could follow the buffalo migrations on the Great Plains. The Utes, Apache, and Navajo all became strong horse tribes in the southwest. Tribes that did not learn to use the horse were quickly conquered by the Spaniards and other Native American tribes. It was common for other tribes to try to attack and steal horses from the Spanish and other Native American tribes to gain more power as a tribe. Some of the horses escaped and formed wild herds in many parts of western North America. In fact, you can still find wild herds of horses just north of Grand Junction and the Bookcliffs.

Father Escalante & Dominguez 1776
Escalante & Dominguez In 1776, Father Dominguez and Escalante traveled to the far northern edge of Spain's Colony of New Mexico. They created maps of the areas of western Colorado, Utah, and Northern Arizona. During their trip they created mapped trails and named many landforms. They Escalante Canyon, Dominguez Canyon, and many other landforms were named after them. Along their journey they tried to convert the local Native American tribes like the Utes to the religion of Christianity. Their expedition brought back stories and maps that helped many settlers travel across Utah and the western parts of Colorado.
Map Father Escalante & Dominguez