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Cathy Robbins Thinking Aloud

Spain the Global Power

October 25, 2012

Tags: Globalization, Spain, American Indians, The New World, Conquistadores, New Mexico, De Soto, Coronado, Cabrillo

Cabrillo exploration

We think of globalization as a new phenomenon, but 500 years ago, great powers competed for resources across the Americas, in what we call the United States today. In the New World, European nations sought minerals (especially gold), furs, access to trade routes, sea lanes, and land.

Spain had a head start, with its colony in Mexico. In the 1530s, she launched a campaign designed to counter the Russians moving down the from the Pacific Northwest coast, the French from the North (Canada) and the English from the East. Three well-equipped Spanish expeditions headed into what is today the United States. At the eastern end of the continent, Hernando de Soto sailed from Cuba, landing at present-day Tampa in 1539. During the next three years, he used the Panhandle as a base to survey the area from the Carolinas to Texas. Native peoples resisted, and thousands of them died at the hands of the well-armed Spaniards. During his exploration, De Soto crossed the Mississippi and became the first European to sail on its interior.

In 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado launched an expedition into the interior. Looking for gold and the fabled city of Cibola, he marched or sent smaller groups through southern Arizona and New Mexico, to the Texas Panhandle and as far as Kansas. The members of one group were the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. When the native peoples resisted strongly, the Spaniards brutally subdued them. Spain lost this huge colony in 1680, when the Pueblos threw the conquerors out of their homeland. In 1692, the Spaniards returned for good. Today, many consider the Pueblo Revolt “the first American Revolution.”

Finally, in 1542, João de Cabrilho, a Portuguese sailing for Spain, became the first European to visit present-day California. After sailing northward along what the Spaniards had named Baja California, he stopped in a bay and became the first European to drop anchor in what would become San Diego. One account called it “an enclosed harbor which is very good.” Cabrillo’s ships continued along the California coast, perhaps as far as Monterey. He found much of value on this “savage” continent. The Native people built finely- crafted, ocean-going tomols (boats) that were so numerous that Cabrillo (his more familiar Spanish name) called the place Pueblo de las Canoas, “town of the canoes.”

Despite this push to globalization, none of the three conquistadors found a passage to the Indies, gold or fabled cities. All died in the New World, far from home. But their expeditions allowed Spain to claim a large empire northward from Mexico almost to Canada. In 1848, these lands became part of the United States. Half the population of the United States would eventually live in lands that were once part of Spain.