1492: An Ongoing Voyage

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Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex EUROPE CLAIMS AMERICA:

The dramatic encounters of European and American peoples from 1492 to 1600 varied considerably from place to place and over time. This section of the exhibit examines the immediate consequences of contact in the five geographical areas of America reviewed previously.

The Indian peoples sometimes greeted Europeans warmly, provided them with food, and taught them important new survival skills. In some cases, they perceived them as being divine, or at least spiritually powerful. Some used the newcomers as allies against old enemies. Others saw them as new enemies, to be grudgingly tolerated or strongly resisted. However, native peoples were quickly disillusioned by treachery or mistreatment at European hands.

The Europeans brought technologies, ideas, plants, and animals that were new to America and would transform peoples' lives: guns, iron tools, and weapons; Christianity and Roman law; sugarcane and wheat; horses and cattle. They also carried diseases against which the Indian peoples had no defenses.

The interaction among groups produced a complex mosaic of relationships. Varying forms of resistance and adaptation among Indian, African, and European peoples occurred throughout the region.


The arrival of Europeans proved disastrous for the people of the Caribbean. Within 20 years, it is estimated that native population of Hispaniola dropped from one million to 30,000.

The Spaniards settled first on the island of Hispaniola and later moved on to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica, forcing the Taínos to mine for gold. The local population quickly declined as a result of mistreatment, flight, disruption of agriculture, and disease. African slaves were imported as early as 1502 to replace the dwindling labor supply.

As mining decreased, the Spanish introduced livestock, crops, and fruit trees. Cattle ranching and sugarcane became important as a stable Spanish society took hold in the large islands. The Caribbean played a crucial role as a staging ground for further exploration and conquest, and as a strategic defensive point for the Spanish empire.


After having organized the expedition in Cuba, Hernando Cortés led the conquest of the Mexica (Aztec) empire from 1519-1521. Tenochtitlán, the capital city, was razed and rebuilt as Mexico, the capital of the viceroyalty of New Spain.

Within thirty years, it had the first printing press in the Americas, a cathedral, and a university. Indian residents far outnumbered the 8,000 or so Spaniards, and perhaps the 5,000 Africans of diverse origins living there by 1550. From the capital, the Spanish spread out to adjoining areas and eventually into today's New Mexico and Guatemala.

Silver mining assured that the economy would flourish. Spaniards used Indian laborers to establish their farms, ranches, and towns, and religious orders mounted intensive missionary campaigns. Despite a great reduction in population, native cultures and communities nonetheless survived, adapting to the new circumstances of Spanish rule.

Testimony from Huejotzingo

A hand-painted document, presented as testimony in a court case against the Spanish crown, provides a record of a people whose vibrant culture was beginning to reflect the influence of a new political and religious system. Ten years after allying with Cortés in the siege of Tenochtitlán, the people of Huejotzingo asked him for help in a legal battle - this time against the extremely burdensome tributes exacted by Spanish administrators sent to rule New Spain.

The paintings are on native amatl, a pre-European paper made of fig tree bark or maguey. They describe tributes paid, including loads of stones, bricks, foodstuffs, and bolts of woven cloth. One sheet depicts a banner made of gold and feathers, bearing an image of the Madonna and Child. According to the painting, eight male slaves and twelve female slaves were sold in order to pay for the gold.

Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex Sheet from the Huejotzingo Codex
Products and services provided as tribute,
including a banner with Madonna and Child.
Huejotzingo Codex
, on Amatl paper, 1531.
Page 2 - Page 3 - Page 4 - Page 5 - Page 6 - Page 7 - Page 8
Harkness Collection.
Manuscript Division

By 1531, the conqueror Hernando Cortés had acquired dominion over far-reaching properties in Mexico and the title of Governor of New Spain. After a lengthy absence from the region, he was asked by the people of the town of Huejotzingo (located in the current state of Puebla) to initiate a lawsuit against certain members of the high court of New Spain, concerning their burdensome utilization of the people and the unjust use of the incomes and profits secured from the town during his absence. The written legal document that ensued and the accompanying testimony -- eight sheets of handsome indigenous drawings on native paper of maguey and amatl -- are known today as the Huejotzingo Codex of 1531.

This poignant and visually stimulating document reveals a highly stratified Nahuatl Indian social structure, with a complex and precise accounting system and an impressive diversity of crops, products, and professions. It contains one of the earliest known images of the Madonna and Child in these types of documents, a representation of a costly banner made of precious feathers and gold. The use of this highly revered form of indigenous artwork to display a Christian symbol introduced by the Iberian religious missionaries is striking testimony to the confluence of Spanish and Indian cultures and belief systems that was to occur later throughout America.

The national symbol of Mexico National Symbol of Mexico
De como el Rey de Tezcuco aviso a Montezumo
de como se acercaba los Espanoles.

Photoreproduction from Fray Diego Durn,
La Historia Antigua de la Nueva España

[19th century manuscript facsimile of the 1585 original].
Peter Force Collection,
Manuscript Division

Rendering of the national symbol of Mexico (eagle, snake, and cactus).


The conquest of Peru was similar to that of Mexico in many ways. Inspired by rumors of a rich empire, Francisco Pizarro and other Spaniards reconnoitered the western coast of South America in the 1520s. In 1532, in the midst of a civil war, the Spaniards seized the Inca emperor Atahaullpa. After exacting a huge ransom in gold and silver, they executed him, but it was some time before they consolidated their conquest.

The Spaniards conquered the Inca capital of Cuzco, but found the imperial city too high and remote. Instead, they established a new capital, Lima, near the coast. Highland communities, therefore, experienced less contact with Spanish culture than did lowland communities. However, all Indian communities were subject to Spanish tribute and labor demands, adapted from the Incan mita system. These often onerous obligations brought disruption, change, and hardship.

Conquista. Milagro del Santiago Conquista. Milagro del Santiago
Photoreproduction from Guaman Poma de Ayala, Nueva Coronica y Buen Gobierno [facsimile of early 17th century manuscript (Paris, 1936)].
General Collections

According to legend, Santiago (St. James) converted Spain to Christianity and after his death his remains were moved to Santiago de Compostela. A later addition to the legend has Santiago riding a white steed and carrying a white banner, appearing in a radiant cloud above Christian troops battling Muslim forces. The notion of Santiago symbolizing Christian triumph over non-Christians was part of the mental world that the conquistadores brought with them to America. Chroniclers report that Santiago was invoked numerous times in battles against indigenous peoples. This illustration shows such a scene.

Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Cuzco, Peru Iglesia de Santo Domingo, Cuzco, Peru
Photoreproduction from original photograph.
Prints and Photographs Division

This church in Cuzco was constructed on top of the remains of an Incan temple. The obvious combination of Christian, Muslim, and Incan cultures are all evident in this photograph.


Portugal's claim to Brazil resulted not only from Cabral's 1500 landing, but also from the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. French efforts to exploit the resources and to establish settlements in the area persisted through much of the 16th century. The Spanish concentrated on the Rio de la Plata region and established the cities of Buenos Aires in 1536 and Asuncion in 1537.

Intense Portuguese colonization of Brazil began in the same decade. The capital, Salvador, was established in 1549 at the Bay of All Saints. The first Jesuits, who would play a crucial role in Brazilian society, arrived the same year. They established missionary settlements called aldeas in which they hoped to bring Tupinambas and other groups into "civilized" society by subjecting them to a disciplined routine and making them full-time farmers. Portuguese efforts to use indigenous labor were never very successful. Gradually they began to import African slaves as sugarcane cultivation got underway in the northeast.

Moulin a sucre Moulin a sucre
Photoreproduction from Joao Rugendas,
Viagem pitoresca atraves do Brasil

[facsimile of 1835 French original (Rio de Janeiro, 1972)].
General Collections

The Portuguese, after first attempting to develop the brazilwood trade, changed, in the mid-16th century to sugarcane production and the importation of African slaves to work in that industry.


The French, Spanish, Portuguese, and English arrived in North America in the 16th century, sporadically and in small numbers. Fishermen plied their trade off the Newfoundland coast from around 1500. Some Europeans hoped to find an alternative route to Asia (the Northwest Passage), wealthy civilizations, or precious metals, but few found what they sought. They did not, however, confront an untamed wilderness, but rather people who often lived in villages and towns.

The European intruders depended almost entirely on the indigenous people, who provided them food and guides, sometimes under duress. They made few serious attempts to settle in the early years. Frequently, the most enduring impact of their expeditions was negative. Their diseases devastated native populations, and violence and wholesale commandeering of food supplies left a legacy of fear and hostility.

The Spanish and French Disrupt Life in Florida

Almost from the outset, European arrivals in the Florida peninsula produced violent confrontations. The Spanish came first, presumably as an extension of slave raiding in the Caribbean islands. Ponce de Leon's expeditions, in 1513 and 1521, failed because of Timucua and Calusa resistance. Subsequent Spanish expeditions moved on without founding any permanent settlements until St. Augustine was established in 1565.

In the early 1560s, French Huguenots established a colony at the mouth of the Saint Johns River. Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, who mapped the area and wrote an account of his experiences, survived the 1565 Spanish attack that destroyed the French colony. Engravings based on his drawings show the site in Florida where the French first landed; Timucua men and women carrying fruit; and a battle scene in which French soldiers aided their ally Outina against his enemy Potanou.

Promontory of Florida Promontory of Florida
Photoreproduction from Theodor de Bry and Charles de la Roncière,
La Floride Française: Scènes de la vie Indiennes, peintes en 1564

[facsimile of the 1564 original (Paris, 1928)].
Rare Book and Special Collections Division

The French initially touched the Florida coast near the St. Mary's River in the early 1560s, attempted settlements in the region, created alliances with the various Indian settlements, and eventually were annihilated by the Spanish in 1565.

Outina over Potanou Outina over Potanou
Photoreproduction from Theodor de Bry and Charles de la Roncière,
La Floride Française: Scènes de la vie Indiennes, peintes en 1564

[facsimile of the 1564 original (Paris, 1928)].
Rare Book and Special Collections Division

The contacts of the French with the Timucua peoples of what is now northern Florida were documented by Jacques Le Moyne. In this view, the alliance of the French with the Chief Outina is used to overwhelm his arch-enemy Potanou.

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