The Early Spanish Experience in North America

          In his introductory paragraphs to Warpaths: Invasions of North America, Professor Steele rightly points out that the European conquest of the Americas was a much more morally ambiguous undertaking than that presented in commonly-accepted and competing “potent legends.” On one hand, he condemns “the ‘history’” of “Europeans who…converted a worthless wilderness into a rich and fruitful world,” a story which presents “[n]ative inhabitants…as irritating fauna” and “minor obstacles to progress.” At the same time, Steele complains of the “equally ancient and dubious legend” of “a bountiful paradise…of health, plenty, and peace” which was “destroyed by European invaders bringing alien diseases, ecologically disruptive plants and animals, insatiable materialism, and deadly war.” I wonder if Steele considers Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee as typical of the latter.1

          In the first two chapters of his study, however, Steele provides plenty of evidence that the second “legend” is much closer to the truth than the first. He recounts numerous episodes of Spanish indifference to the humanity of the natives they encountered, and details examples of brutality, enslavement, and unprovoked attacks. Not all Amerindians were the peace-loving and naïve forest children of Arcadian myth when Columbus first encountered them, and there was certainly much inter- and intra-tribal rivalry and violence that predated 1492. But the litany of abuses—many of them completely unwarranted and unprovoked—heaped on the native peoples by the Spanish is hard to ignore or excuse. While interactions between the Spanish and Amerindians did not always devolve into open warfare, those “tractable” and “peaceable” tribes who chose not to resist militarily found themselves “’made to work, sow, and do all that is necessary,’” slaves in fact, if not in name.2

          As word spread inland of brutality and atrocities, Spanish explorers were on many occasions met with hostility by previously unknown tribes, and despite a “royal order to give fair treatment to native peoples,” expeditions such as that of Narváez continued to be conducted with a conquistador mentality. Such an approach often ended in disaster for both the initial campaign and for later explorers who had to contend with Amerindians thirsty for revenge.3 Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries had increasing success in “civilizing” the natives, in large part because they found a way to influence “their politics and religion without significantly disrupting their material culture.”4 Ultimately, those tribes who at least superficially adopted civilized European ways were tolerated by the Spanish, while those who resisted continued to be brutally repressed.

          The Spanish were much more successful in the occupation, pacification, and exploitation of Central and South America than they were of the North American southeast (and in many ways, and for many of the same reasons, the North American southwest). I believe there were two primary reasons for this, one relating to the different types of peoples and cultures encountered in the two regions, and the other owing much to European geopolitical rivalries. The Aztec and Inca empires were much more centrally planned and controlled than the loose confederations of bands and tribes in the American southeast. Cortés and Pizarro were able, with relatively few soldiers, to conquer vast empires by seizing the emperors. In such a highly centralized and hierarchical society, conquest was possible by simply replacing the former native ruler with a new European master. The tribes of the American southeast were not nearly as advanced politically as their counterparts farther south, but this lack of sophistication was actually a strong defense against a unilateral defeat at the hands of invaders. The preexisting rivalries and frictions between bands and tribes ensured that no one leader spoke for a large number of natives, thereby forcing the Spanish to deal with numerous small groups of oftentimes hostile Amerindians. Furthermore, in Central and South America, the Spanish were not faced with any competing European interests. They were free to concentrate solely on consolidating their power and their hold on the land and its natives. In Florida, however, they found themselves confronting growing threats from the English and the French as their rivals in Europe began interdicting the flow of wealth from Mexico to Spain. The Spanish were forced to contend with both these conventional military and economic challenges, along with the problem of navigating an increasingly confusing and shifting maze of alliances between tribes and various European newcomers.


1.  Ian K. Steele, Warpaths: Invasions of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 3; Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2007).

2. Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, 1.

3. Steele, Warpaths, 9-12.

4. Steele, Warpaths, 30-31.

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