Spain extended its reach in the Americas after reaping the benefits of its colonies in Mexico, the Caribbean, and South America. Expeditions slowly began combing the continent and bringing Europeans into the modern-day United States in the hopes of establishing religious and economic dominance in a new territory.
Juan Ponce de Leon arrived in the area named “La Florida” in 1513. He found between 150,000 and 300,000 Native Americans. But then two-and-a-half centuries of contact with European and African peoples–whether through war, slave raids, or, most dramtically, foreign disease–decimated Florida’s indigenous population. European explorers, meanwhile, had hoped to find great wealth in Florida, but reality never aligned with their imaginations.
In the first half of the sixteenth century, Spanish colonizers fought frequently with Florida’s native peoples as well as with other Europeans. In the 1560s Spain expelled French Huguenots from the area near modern-day Jacksonville in northeast Florida. In 1586 English privateer Sir Francis Drake burned the wooden settlement of St. Augustine. At the dawn of the seventeenth century, Spain’s reach in Florida extended from the mouth of the St. Johns River south to the environs of St. Augustine—an area of roughly 1,000 square miles. The Spaniards attempted to duplicate methods for establishing control used previously in Mexico, the Caribbean, and the Andes. The Crown granted missionaries the right to live among Timucua and Guale villagers in the late 1500s and early 1600s and encouraged settlement through the encomienda system (grants of Indian labor).
In the 1630s, the mission system extended into the Apalachee district in the Florida panhandle. The Apalachee, one of the most powerful tribes in Florida at the time of contact, claimed the territory from the modern Florida-Georgia border to the Gulf of Mexico. Apalachee farmers grew an abundance of corn and other crops. Indian traders carried surplus products east along the Camino Real, the royal road that connected the western anchor of the mission system with St. Augustine. Spanish settlers drove cattle eastward across the St. Johns River and established ranches as far west as Apalachee. Still, Spain held Florida tenuously.
Further west, Juan de Oñate led 400 settlers, soldiers, and missionaries from Mexico into New Mexico in 1598. The Spanish Southwest had brutal beginnings. When Oñate sacked the Pueblo city of Acoma, the “sky city,” the Spaniards slaughtered nearly half of its roughly 1,500 inhabitants, including women and children. Oñate ordered one foot cut off of every surviving male over 15 and he enslaved the remaining women and children.
Santa Fe, the first permanent European settlement in the Southwest, was established in 1610. Few Spaniards relocated to the southwest due to the distance from Mexico City and the dry and hostile environment. Thus, the Spanish never achieved a commanding presence in the region. By 1680, only about 3,000 colonists called Spanish New Mexico home. There, they traded with and exploited the local Puebloan peoples. The region’s Puebloan population had plummeted from as many as 60,000 in 1600 to about 17,000 in 1680.
Spain shifted strategies after the military expeditions wove their way through the southern and western half of North America. Missions became the engine of colonization in North America. Missionaries, most of whom were members of the Franciscan religious order, provided Spain with an advance guard in North America. Catholicism had always justified Spanish conquest, and colonization always carried religious imperatives. By the early seventeenth century, Spanish friars established dozens of missions along the Rio Grande, in New Mexico, and in California.