At the height of its expansion (late 18th and early 19th centuries) the Spanish territories comprised almost half of the present-day United States. In earlier centuries (the 16th and 17th) Spanish settlers had worked their way up the East Coast, creating missions and forts (called presidios) as far as about 500 km from present-day Washington, DC. The Spanish colonisation of the USA left an imprint on many of its territories.
Spanish colonisation of the USA in 1810
The greatest territorial expansion in history
Looking back to the 16th century, the external achievements of the Spanish would have little to envy the Americans of today.
For nearly three hundred years, Spanish ships, soldiers and the Spanish Tercios were respected and feared by all powers of the time, just as the US armed forces have been since 1945. As one US historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, stated in The Oxford History of the American People (1965):
By 1600 [108 years after Columbus’ arrival] Spain had conquered the entire coast of South America, except Brazil [that is, 32,000 km, counting Spanish South America alone; the outline of India measures 6,100 km], and much of the interior as well … In one generation [early 17th century] the Spanish acquired more territory than Rome did in five centuries…
No other conquest like the Spanish conquest is known in the annals of the human species.
The Spaniards organised and administered all the territories they conquered, bringing there the arts and literature of Europe and converting millions to their faith
And it should be added that, at the same time, they taught them writing and elaborated the first grammars of the indigenous languages, which until then were only spoken; just like the British or the Dutch (irony warning!). In addition, they introduced agriculture, animal husbandry, carpentry, masonry, hospitals and schools and many universities; in almost all places they introduced the wheel – which was unknown to almost all the indigenous people of the continent -, the making of textiles – in many areas, also unknown -, blacksmithing, and an endless number of trades among the indigenous people.
(In August 2019 I have published a new article on the fate of the California Indians under Spanish rule and under US power.)
Spanish colonisation of the USA
Consequently, Spain was the introducer to almost all of the Americas – also to the North, long before the Anglo-Saxons – of the intellectual knowledge and technical advances of Europe at the time. In short, they introduced these peoples to modern civilisation.
It is interesting to remember that almost half of the territory of today’s United States (all of the South and from the Mississippi-Missouri to the West) was mapped by Spanish expeditions. The Spanish colonisation of the USA led to the mapping of the American landscape and space thanks to the many voyages of exploration and scientific expeditions that advanced the design of nautical charts and maps and established geography, botany, etc.
The Conquest of the Colorado by Augusto Ferrer-Dalmau Nieto
The Grand Canyon was discovered in 1540 by the Spaniard García López de Cárdenas y Figueroa. San Francisco was established by Franciscans – predominantly Spanish – when they created the San Francisco de Asís mission in 1776, a year in which the 13 East Coast colonies declared their independence from Britain and were unaware of anything beyond the Great Lakes.
In 1513 Juan Ponce de León had discovered for Europe the Florida peninsula (on Easter Day, called in Spain Pascua Florida) and, with it, the territory of what is now the USA, travelling along the entire Atlantic coast of this peninsula. The Spanish colonisation of the USA was underway.
New discoveries by the Spanish
In 1519, Álvarez de Pineda sailed the west coast of Florida and the entire south coast of what is now the USA, including Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico. During the 16th century, Spanish navigators sailed up the East Coast, along the Georgia coast to present-day South Carolina. The Jesuits established four missions in the interior of North Carolina (near present-day Greensboro), not far from the Virginia border, just over 500 km from present-day Washington, DC.
It took the British 71 years to make their first exploration of the Atlantic coast. In 1584 Sir Walter Raleigh landed at Roanoke in present-day North Carolina.
In 1565 Spain established the first permanent European settlement (to this day) in the territory of the USA and Canada, north of present-day Florida. The city of St. Augustine is located on the Atlantic coast and was founded by Pedro Menéndez de Avilés.
Spanish admiral Pedro Menéndez de Avilés by Francisco de Paula Martí
It took the British 42 years more, in 1607, to establish their first permanent settlement at Jamestown (on the coast of present-day Virginia). In 1620, the Mayflower arrived in present-day Massachusetts with the so-called Pilgrim Fathers, forming the second Anglo-Saxon settlement: the city of Plymouth.
France also lagged behind the Spanish colonisation of the USA, both in its exploration of North America (mouth of the St. Lawrence River, 1534) and in its first permanent settlement (Quebec City, 1608).
The Anglo-Saxons found already organised communities
The Spanish presence in Florida lasted 300 years, about 270 years in Arizona, southern California and parts of Alabama, and more than 200 years in New Mexico and parts of Mississippi. When the Anglo-Saxons arrived in all these lands, they found more or less organised communities, with a development far superior to that of the original Indians, most of whom were in the Stone Age, at the stage of hunter-gatherer communities, and only a few at the beginning of land cultivation (i.e., at the dawn of the Neolithic revolution). The above statement refers to the Indians of the present-day US territory.
On 10 July 1821 (a decade after the Napoleonic invasion) Spain ceded Florida to the United States, officially ending its presence in the Union Territories. Spanish colonisation of the USA was over.