Builders of our Country Vol. I - G. Southworth

The Spanish Conquests and Explorations

I. Ponce De Leon

The discovery by Columbus of a supposed sea route to Asia aroused the Spaniards both young and old. Many, attracted by the hope of gold or the love of adventure, left Spain for the new land.

Colony after colony was planted in the West Indies. Colonial governors were appointed; and practically a new, but crude, Spain was established. Then, feeling that nothing was too great to attempt with the long sea voyage safely over, the boldest of the adventurers sailed away again, each bent upon finding what seemed to him most desirable.

One of these Spanish seekers was called Juan Ponce de Leon. He had come to the new land with Columbus on his second voyage and, remaining, had been made governor of Porto Rico. This was very fine, but the Governor had his own reasons for not being perfectly happy. He was growing old; and to enjoy this new life thoroughly, a man should have the vigor of youth.

If only he were young again! With this great wish in his heart, Ponce de Leon one day heard of an island on which was a marvelous fountain. Whoever should drink of the water of this fountain, no matter how old he was, would find himself young again. Here was just what Ponce de Leon wanted above all else. He determined to find the Fountain of Youth at any cost. The Spanish king gave him permission to go in search of the island and, if he found it, to become its governor for life.

So Ponce de Leon had three splendid ships built with his own money and, when they were completed, started on his travels. This was in 1513.

One day the sailors spied land. On approaching, they found it to be a glorious country, full of splendid groves and beautiful wild flowers growing in the tall grasses and along the low shores. And the singing of the birds among the branches sounded sweet indeed.

It was Easter Sunday, called by the church Pasqua Florida, or Flowery Easter; so, in honor of the day, and also because of the beautiful wild flowers, Ponce de Leon named the country Florida. He landed where St. Augustine now stands and took the land in the name of the King of Spain.

He explored the country for many miles along the coast. But beautiful as it was, its birds and wild flowers failed to tell him where to find the Fountain of Youth. So this poor knight had to sail back to Porto Rico, an older and wiser man than when he left.

In 1521 Ponce de Leon sailed again for his flower province to found a colony. But the naives were hostile. When the Spaniards landed, a storm of poisoned arrows greeted them. Many of the soldiers were killed. Ponce de Leon himself was wounded. A few who managed to escape to their ships bore their leader with them. They sailed to Cuba, and there Ponce de Leon died an old man still.

The Fountain of Youth has never been discovered.

II. Hernando Cortez

One day an exploring expedition which had sailed from Cuba returned to that island. The leader had startling news to tell. He and his men had been to Mexico and had found there many wondrous things. The country was ruled by the Aztecs—a race of Indians who worshiped the sun and moon and the god of war. Unlike the natives of the West Indies, the Mexican Indians had beautiful temples and palaces; and they boasted of the endless gold to be had in their country.

So gold had been found at last! Nothing more was needed to make Mexico seem an enchanted country to the greedy Spaniards.

No time was lost in getting ready a new expedition and in choosing for its leader a brave, daring young Spanish soldier named Hernando Cortez.: Unlike Ponce de Leon, Cortez set out, not merely to follow a will-o'-the-wisp, but to make an actual conquest.

It was early in 1519 when Cortez sailed from Cuba. In March he reached Mexico and, after a sharp skirmish with the natives at Tabasco, skirted the coast until he came to the present site of Vera Cruz. There he set up a fortified camp. Then he sank his ships so that his men would be obliged to follow him, and prepared to march to the City of Mexico.

Now there was a tradition among the Aztecs that, many years before, a man had appeared who was of the race of the Children of the Sun. They called him the Wonderchild. He had golden hair and was as fair as day. He stayed with them several years and taught them many things. One day he told them that they would see him no more, but that the men of his race would soon come and conquer the land of the Aztecs. Then he disappeared and was never seen again.

So when Montezuma, the Aztec ruler, heard that the Spaniards were coming toward the City of Mexico, he was indeed frightened. These men must be the race of which the Wonderchild had spoken.

Ruins of an Ancient Aztec Palace


How could he stop their coming to take possession of his capital? Perhaps presents would do. In this hope Montezuma sent messengers with rich gifts of gold and gems to meet the Spaniards and to beg them to turn back. Cortez paid no attention to their entreaties. Instead, he marched on to the city, where Montezuma very graciously received him, thinking, most likely, to make a virtue of necessity. And here week after week the Spaniards stayed, honored guests of the Indian chief, living on the best the land afforded.

But Cortez was not contented to be a guest. He had come to conquer. He had only a handful of soldiers, and Montezuma had thousands at his command. It was a bad situation. Finally he decided to capture the ruler, So one day he invited Montezuma

to an interview; and when he arrived at the palace occupied by the Spaniards, Cortez took him prisoner.

When the Aztecs heard of the fate of their chief they were hot with anger. Still they were afraid to attack the palace for fear of killing Montezuma, whom they worshiped almost as a god.

Just at this time Cortez left for the coast. It seems that the

Spaniards in Cuba had become jealous of Cortez and had sent soldiers to bring him back. Hearing of the plan, Cortez with less than two hundred men made a forced march to their camp and surprised and conquered them. This done, he returned at once to the City of Mexico.

Hernando Cortez.


While he was gone the soldiers left in charge at the capital had attacked the natives at a festival and killed hundreds of them. Then the Mexicans had turned upon their foes and would have slaughtered all, had not Cortez returned just in time. In order to save his men Cortez commanded Montezuma to show himself to the people from the top of the palace. When the natives saw their beloved chief they were delighted. In a moment, however, they were angry again; for Montezuma asked them to make peace. This they refused to do. In the fight that followed, Montezuma received a wound from which he soon died.

After this battle the Spaniards were obliged to flee. Instead of leaving the country, however, they returned and besieged the city for months. At last, in August, 1521, the Aztecs surrendered their capital. Cortez took it in the name of the King of Spain. The superstition of the Aztecs, and the wonderful perseverance of Cortez had made his voyage a success, and Mexico a Spanish land.

III. Balboa and Pizarro

One day, several years before Mexico became a possession of Spain, there came to a certain Indian village on the Isthmus of Panama, a party of Spaniards. At their head marched Balboa, the commander of the Spanish-Panama settlement.

So great a guest must be received with all possible ceremony. The visitors were welcomed to the home of the chief himself, and every honor was showered upon them. The Spaniards, in turn, were on their best behavior. Cordial greetings, compliments, and expressions of lasting friendship filled the air.

Then the Indian chief was moved to show even more plainly his love for the white man. So he gave Balboa seventy slaves and much gold.

As if by magic all was confusion. The greedy Spaniards began to quarrel over the gold, and hot words put a sudden end to the pleasure of a moment before.

With offended dignity the Indians watched and listened. At last the chief's son rose and said, "Brothers, your actions lead us to think you set great value on this yellow stuff, since you quarrel over it. If this be true, why do you not go to the southland, on the shore of the great western sea, where there is more than enough for all?"

[Illustration] from Builders of Our Country - I  by G. Southworth


Why not, indeed? This simple question resulted in Balboa's going in search of the new sea, and in his being the first European to gaze on the waters of the largest ocean on the globe. Then, drawing his sword, the discoverer of the Pacific waded out knee-deep and, standing in the water, claimed it for Spain with all the lands that border it.

'Balboa found the Pacific Ocean, but not the land of gold. The Indian boy's tale of such a country was not forgotten, however; and years later the honor of its conquest fell to the lot of Francisco Pizarro, a soldier in the Spanish settlement on Panama.

Fired by the success of Cortez, two of Pizarro's friends suggested that he go in search of the famed country to the south. They said that they would furnish the money if he would head the expedition. The only condition was that Pizarro divide the spoils of the conquest equally among the three. Pizarro was delighted.

In 1525 he started in search of the golden kingdom of Peru, He invaded the country of the Incas anti found splendid cities filled with rich treasures and beautiful buildings and temples. The Incas were the royal race of Peru. Like the Aztecs they claimed to be descendants of the sun.

Franciso Pizarro


Pizarro had only a few warriors with him, so, although he wanted very much to conquer the country, he dared not attempt it at this time. He went to Spain. There he was received at court as a great future conqueror and had no difficulty in obtaining men and money for his expedition to Peru.

With his small army Pizarro realized that the only way to conquer the Peruvians would be to capture their Inca or chief. He sent one of his bravest men, Hernando de Soto, with some soldiers and requested the Inca to come to the Spanish camp. The Inca, whose name was Atahualpa, hesitated at first, but at last decided to go.

When he reached Pizarro's camp he was subjected to a trick whereby that unscrupulous leader meant to entrap the poor Inca. After receiving him with great show of friendliness, Pizarro had the story of the Bible read to him. As soon as the reading was ended, Pizarro commanded the Inca to become a Christian. As Pizarro fully expected, Atahualpa refused. And using his refusal as an excuse the Spaniards thrust him into prison.

Naturally Atahualpa was very anxious to get out; so in order to obtain his freedom, he promised the Spaniards a room filled with gold and gems. In a short time the Peruvians had filled the chamber with rich treasures. Still the Spaniards were not satisfied. A rumor was abroad that a large army was coming to rescue the Inca and destroy the Spaniards. This was a good excuse for these cruel foreigners. So they killed poor Atahualpa in spite of his pleadings for mercy.

When the natives heard of the horrible death of their ruler, they were justly indignant. Pizarro, however, managed to make peace with them and became lord of the land. Several times the natives tried to get rid of the hated white man, but they soon realized that it was useless.

Pizarro did not live long to enjoy his newly acquired wealth. While he was so busy in Peru he had almost forgotten his two friends, who had helped him to his success. One of them died during these years. The other, Pizarro contrived to have killed because he rebelled against the small share of spoils that the conqueror gave him.

Now the murdered man had a son, and this son swore to avenge the death of his father. Pizarro heard of the plot and tried to escape, but the young man was not to be cheated. He followed his enemy to his very palace, and there he killed him. And so ended the career of Francisco Pizarro.

IV. Hernando de Soto

Not only had Pizarro become a wealthy man through the conquest of Peru, but so had every Spaniard who was with him. Hernando de Soto, the young Spanish soldier, was counted not only among the bravest, but also among the richest of these; and to him, in return for his services, Charles V of Spain gave the governorship of Cuba.

Yet De Soto was not content. He wanted more gold. So in 1539 he fitted out an expedition and, taking six hundred men and two hundred horses, sailed west in the hope of finding a second Peru. The army landed on the eastern coast of Florida and began their march inland.

Hernando de Soto


We have seen that the Spaniards were naturally very cruel. Nor did they intend to mend their ways on this trip, as is shown by the fact that they carried with them fetters to bind the captured, and bloodhounds to bring back runaway prisoners. The soldiers seized the poor natives, chained them in couples and, driving them like beasts, forced them to carry the baggage. If an Indian refused to act as guide or in any way disobeyed, his punishment was terrible. The least he could hope for was to have his hands chopped off. Death by torture was the common fate. It is no wonder that such treatment made the Indians hate the Spaniards and in turn lose no chance to do them harm.

Owing largely to this bitter feeling, De Soto's journey was full of dangers almost from the very start. He had hoped to find a country ~ full of gold and had promised his soldiers great rewards. But they were doomed to disappointment. The Indians would tell them very little and, when forced to act as guides, would of teen lead them into some swamp and, slipping away, leave them to get out as best they could.

Two years were spent in making this tedious march across the States of Florida, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. Still no quantity of gold was found, and still the brave but brutal leader would not turn back.

One spring day in 1541, the Spaniards, worn out and discouraged, were making their way through a dense forest. Suddenly through an opening in the trees they caught the blue gleam of a river. Hurrying to its banks De Soto beheld the mighty Mississippi, the Father of Waters. The object of his long search was gold; but had De Soto found merely what he sought, his name would not have had so large a place in our history. To be known as Hernando de Soto, the first white man to behold the Mississippi River, is a distinction not to be equaled by the finding of untold wealth.

Not realizing what the discovery meant, De Soto was still bent on continuing his search for gold. Perhaps it lay just across this great river. At any rate he would find out. Soon all hands were busy building rafts to carry the little army to the other side.

Spanish Soldiers


There the weary search began again. For many months De Soto wandered over the country on the west bank of the Mississippi. Still no gold. With the disappointment and the hardships he was fast wearing out. Then he caught a fever and soon died.

The condition of his followers was pitiful. Between their sorrow at the loss of their leader and their fear of the Indians, they did not know where to turn.

You see De Soto had told the Indians that he was a Child of the Sun, and that death could not touch him. So they had a wholesome fear of him. What if they should find out now that De Soto was dead! Nothing was more likely than that they would at once attack and kill his men. In some way his death must be kept secret.

So, prompted by fear and moving like ghosts, the men wrapped their leader in a cloak, weighted it down with sand, and at midnight silently lowered him into the quiet waters of the Mississippi River. Then, telling the Indians that he had gone to heaven for a short visit and would soon be back, they broke camp and started for home on foot. Later they made boats and floated down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico.

Of the gay six hundred who sailed away from Cuba in 1539, only three hundred, half-starved and wretched, reached the Spanish settlements in Mexico to tell the story of De Soto's great discovery.