Spain’s Fifty Magical Years
By Morgan Bedford
From 1492 until 1542, a dozen men under the flag of Spain created by the right of discovery and conquest one of the great Empires of all time. We are literally talking of a handful of men, not the armies of Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Caesar or Genghis Khan. We are talking of armies of 19 to 250 men and a short but magical 50 years.
Columbus gets credit for discovering “New Spain” in 1492, but after four voyages, he hadn’t scratched the surface of this Empire. The boundaries of New Spain at one time extended north from Panama to Canada, east to Charleston, South Carolina and Florida and the Spanish Caribbean, west to the Philippine Islands and north up the Mississippi above St. Louis. The Empire also included what is today the eleven western states of the United States; were the prime jewels of Mexico.
The capitals of the four judicial units that controlled this Empire were in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Guatemala, and Santo Domingo, whose government moved to Cuba. All of the explorers used Santo Domingo as a base, as had Columbus. Capitals are only geographical names. It is the man that counts. It was only 27 years after Columbus landed on San Salvador Island (Watling Island) that Hernan Cortez took Mexico some 480 years ago.
Who were the incredible explorers who defying all odds created an empire in fifty years out of millions of square miles of jungle and ocean? Cabeza de Vaca from 1528 on explored Florida through Texas to the Gulf of California. Francisco Coronado in 1540, acting on the fabulous report of Fray Marcos de Niza, left Compostela at the head of a 250-man army in search of the “Seven Golden Cities of Cibola” (now identified with the Zuni Pueblos of New Mexico). Coronado searched as far as Kansas and the Grand Canyon. But the fame and fortune that might have been his for colonizing this vast area was not to be his. Coronado returned with less than 30 men.
Hernando De Soto explored all of the Southern U.S., as well as Peru. He took home a fortune. Unfortunately, he came back for more and died while still searching. Hernan Cortez took Mexico in 1519, and also developed Honduras and Lower California. Little more be said here about this intrepid genius. Francisco Pizzaro captured Peru in 1531. The rumor remains that the Incas killed him by pouring molten gold down his throat, apparently in the hope this would satiate his greed. Yet, amazingly, he had begun his conquest with only 30 men.
Antonio de Mendoza was the first and greatest Viceroy of New Spain. In 1540, he inspired the conquests of New Mexico, California and again, the Philippines. Vasco Nuñez discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1513, and his commander, Vasco Balboa, took possession in the name of New Spain later in that same year. Portillo discovered Monterey, California in the mid-1700s. The Franciscan monk, Junipero Serra, founded 21 missions from San Diego northward until he died in 1784. But these discoveries were mere icing on the cake.
When Mexico gained her independence from Spain in 1821, it had a population of six million, of which only some 30,000 were literate. Mexico now has a population approaching 116 million, larger than any European nation—and all because of the early efforts of a handful of lionhearted men who, in an incredibly brief period, would change the course of history and redefine the boundaries of much of the world. It was indeed a magical fifty years.