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Spanish Colonization Previous Next
Digital History ID 3573


Spain grew rich from the gold and silver it found after conquering native civilizations in Mexico and South America. However, conflict with Indians and the failure to find major silver or gold deposits made it difficult to persuade settlers to colonize there. Spanish settlement in that region was largely confined to religious missions, a few small civilian towns, and military posts intended to prevent encroachment by Russia, France, and England. It was not until 1749 that Spain established the first civilian town in Texas, a town that eventually became Laredo; and not before 1769 did Spain establish permanent settlements in California.

Fixated on religious conversion and military control, Spain inhibited economic development in its American colonies. Following the dictates of an economic philosophy known as mercantilism, aimed at protecting its own manufacturers, Spain restricted trade, prohibited manufacturing, stifled local industry and handicrafts, impeded the growth of towns, and prevented civilians from selling to soldiers. The government required all trade to be conducted through Veracruz and levied high excise taxes that greatly increased the cost of transportation. It exercised a monopoly over tobacco and gunpowder and prohibited the capture of wild horses. Still, Spain left a lasting imprint on the Southwest.

Such institutions as the rodeo and the cowboy (the vaquero) had their roots in Spanish culture. Place names, too, bear witness to the region's Spanish heritage. Los Angeles, San Antonio, Santa Fe, and Tucson were all founded by the Spanish. To this day, the Spanish pattern of organizing towns around a central plaza bordered by churches and official buildings is found throughout the region. Spanish architectural styles--adobe walls, tile roofs, wooden beams, and intricate mosaics--continue to characterize the Southwest.

By introducing European livestock and vegetation, Spanish colonists transformed the Southwest's economy, environment, and physical appearance. The Spanish introduced horses, cows, sheep, and goats, as well tomatoes, chilies, Kentucky bluegrass, and a variety of weeds. As livestock devoured the region's tall native grasses, a new and distinctly southwestern environment arose, one of cactus, sagebrush, and mesquite. The Spanish also introduced temperate and tropical diseases, which reduced the Indian population by fifty to ninety percent.

It is equally important that in attitudes toward class and race Spanish possessions differed from the English colonies. Most colonists were of mixed racial backgrounds and racial mixture continued throughout the Spanish colonial period. In general, mestizos (people of mixed Indian and Spanish ancestry) and Indians were concentrated in the lower levels of the social structure.

Even in the colonial period, the New Spain's northern frontier served as a beacon of opportunity for poorer Mexicans. The earliest Hispanic settlers forged pathways that would draw Mexican immigrants in the future.

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