European Discovery of the New World

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Digital History ID 3788
Interpreting Primary Sources:

Columbus reports on his voyage to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain:

These people in the Caribbean have no creed and they are not idolaters, but they are very gentle and do not know what it is to be wicked, or to kill others, or to steal...and they are sure that we come from Heaven....So your Highnesses should resolve to make them Christians, for I believe that if you begin, in a little while you will achieve the conversion of a great number of peoples to our holy faith, with the acquisition of great lordships and riches and all their inhabitants for Spain. For without doubt there is a very great amount of gold in these lands….

The people of this island [Hispaniola], and of all the others that I have found and seen, or not seen, all go naked, men and women, just as their mothers bring them forth; although some women cover a single place with the leaf of a plant, or a cotton something which they make for that purpose. They have no iron or steel, nor any weapons....They have no other weapons than the stems of reeds...on the end of which they fix little sharpened stakes. Even these they dare not use....they are incurably timid....

I have not found, nor had any information of monsters, except of an island which is here the second in the approach of the Indies, which is inhabited by a people whom, in all the islands, they regard as very ferocious, who eat human flesh….

They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks' bells. They willingly traded everything they owned. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.

Questions to Think About

1. How accurate do you consider Columbus's description of the New World?

2. How does Columbus describe the Indians?

3. Why, according to Columbus, should Spain be interested in colonizing the New World?


Depopulation of Native Americans in Florida, 1519-1617
Year Disease Percent Decline Estimated Population
1517     722,000
1520 Smallpox -50 361,000
1528 Measles -50 180,500
1545 Bubonic plague -12.5 158,000
1559 Influenza -5 150,000
1564-70 Influenza -10 135,000
1585 Unidentified -10 121,500
1586 Cape Verde Island fever -20 97,200
1596 Measles -25 72,900
1613-17 Bubonic plague -50 36,450

Questions To Think About

1. How many people were living in the New World when Columbus arrived?

2. Why did the Native American population rapidly decline after the arrival of Europeans?

3. What factors may have contributed to the Indians lack of immunity to disease?

Study Aids

Chronology of Spanish Exploration and Conquest
Date Explorer Accomplishment
1492-1504 Christopher Columbus Discovered West Indies
1513, 1521 Juan Ponce de Leon First European to explore land in present-day United States
1513 Vasco Nunez de Balboa First European to see the Pacific Ocean
1519-1522 Ferdinand Magellan Led first voyage around the world
1519-1521 Hernando Cortes Conquered Aztec empire in Mexico
1528-1536 Alva Nunez Cabeza de Vaca First European to explore American Southwest
1531-1533 Francisco Pizarro Conquered Inca empire
1539-1542 Hernando de Soto Explored Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Oklahoma
1540-1542 Francisco Vasquez de Coronado Explored American Southwest as far north as Kansas

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