Mexica Exploration and Expansion

In the sixteenth century, Spanish expeditions fanned out from Mexico City to the south, west, and north. Most of these expeditions were undertaken in an effort to exploit New Spain’s precious metals.

The earliest northern efforts, by Nuño de Guzmán and Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, failed to find any gold or silver. The second half of the sixteenth century was more productive. By the 1670s, silver strikes at Zacatecas, Guanajato, and San Luis Potosí had pushed silver production in New Spain past that of Peru. Native laborers and African slaves were brought north to work in and around the mines, and new cities appeared. Still, most of the wealth generated by the mines was funneled through Mexico City, which dwarfed other cities in New Spain in size and importance.

Society in New Spain was diverse. Most early African and Spanish immigrants were men, and many took native wives. Within a few generations, the result was a large class of mestizos and other mixed-race peoples, who contributed immensely to the development of a distinctly Mexican culture and what would eventually become the nation’s character. Spanish and criollo (creole) officials encouraged native participation in religious festivals such as Corpus Christi and the ceremonies that accompanied the arrival of new viceroys. Throughout the colonial period, skin color continued to determine one’s opportunities to a certain extent, but occupation, income, and cultural characteristics became more important over time.

In the seventeenth century, as central Mexico and outlying silver-producing areas grew in wealth and refinement, Spain began the slow, uneven process of exploring its northern frontier and exploiting the native people there. In 1598, Juan de Oñate took possession of New Mexico in an elaborate ceremony, but neither that colony nor other territories like Florida brought any real wealth to the Crown or to the individual nobles involved.

Northern New Spain remained firmly in native hands, though Franciscans, along with smaller numbers of Jesuits and soldiers, maintained tiny outposts throughout the region. Franciscans were particularly skilled at settling in the midst of large, sedentary native communities such as those of the Pueblo. The government of New Spain saw little economic opportunity in New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, and California. Missionary sects had more success in converting the native peoples in these frontier areas, as the missionaries did not have to compete with mine owners or ranchers.

As elsewhere, native people selected which parts of European religion to accept and which to reject and often made room in their indigenous worldviews for European saints and gods. In one partial exception to this rule, Pueblo Indians responded to a crackdown on their indigenous religion by rising up against the Spanish. The Pueblo Revolt of 1680 forced the Spanish to move south of the Rio Grande for more than a decade, while a retaliatory expedition returned to reconquer the area.

The wealth generated by New Spain encouraged other European nations, most notably France and England, to recognize the importance of overseas colonies. In the eighteenth century, northern New Spain was one of several entities competing for land and resources in North America. The French colony of Louisiana and English traders from Charles Town encroached upon Spanish soldiers and missionaries, but the English, in particular, were able to offer more trade goods and better prices than their Spanish counterparts. In the opening decade of the eighteenth century, the easternmost portion of New Spain was devastated in a series of attacks by the English and their native allies.

Mexico’s fertile, populous central valley and the mining and agricultural areas that surrounded it continued to produce great wealth for the Spanish Crown. The portion of New Spain that exists within the borders of today’s United States never prospered in the same way. Still, Spain exerted a cultural influence, particularly in the Southwest, which would be felt for centuries to come.

In the late eighteenth century, during the reign of Charles III, Spain attempted to modernize the institutions of its far-reaching empire. Collectively, these plans were known as the Bourbon reforms. Within New Spain, the reforms rankled elite and popular forces alike. In the first decades of the nineteenth century, a new generation of New Spain’s elites channeled their frustrations into a revolutionary movement that would eventually lead to the creation of the modern nation of Mexico. Matthew Jennings See also: Mexico City; Spanish Colonies on Mainland North America (Chronology). Bibliography Cheetham, Nicholas. New Spain: The Birth of Modern Mexico. London: Victor Gollancz, 1974. Gibson, Charles. The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519–1810. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1964. Meyer, Michael C., and William H. Beezley, eds. The Oxford History of Mexico. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1992.

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