In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. With the help of Christopher Columbus, Spain conquered and settled most of South America, the Caribbean, and the American Southwest. After an initial wave of conquistadors defeated the civilizations of the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas, Spain organized a huge imperial system to exploit the land, labor, and mineral wealth of the New World. The Spanish empire became the largest European empire since ancient Rome, and Spain used the wealth of the Americas to finance nearly endless warfare in Europe, protecting the Americas with a vast navy and powerful army and bringing Catholicism to the New World. The growth of a racially mixed society eventually caused rifts to develop between Spain and its American colonies, and by 1824, all of Spain’s New World colonies except Cuba and Puerto Rico had fought for and won their independence. The arrival of Europeans in the New World in 1492 changed the Americas forever. Over the course of the next 350 years, Spain ruled a vast empire based on the labor and exploitation of the Indian population.
Conquistadors descended on America with hopes of bringing Catholicism to new lands while gaining great riches, such as different precious metals. Religion and self-interest combined to create a potent mixture that drew hundreds of thousands of Spaniards across the ocean with hopes of finding riches and winning souls for God. The first conquests were made by the Spanish and the Portuguese. In the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, ratified by the Pope, these two kingdoms divided the entire non-European world between themselves, with a line drawn through South America. Based on this Treaty, and the claims by Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa to all lands touching the Pacific Ocean, the Spanish rapidly conquered territory, overthrowing the Aztec and Inca Empires to gain control of much of western South America, Central America, and Mexico by the mid-sixteenth century, in addition to its earlier Caribbean conquests.
Over this same time frame, Portugal conquered much of eastern South America, naming it Brazil. Other European nations soon disputed the terms of the Treaty of Tordesillas, which they had not negotiated. England and France attempted to plant colonies in the Americas in the sixteenth century, but these met with failure. However, in the following century, the two kingdoms, along with the Netherlands, succeeded in establishing permanent colonies. Some of these were on Caribbean islands, which had often already been conquered by the Spanish or depopulated by disease, while others were in eastern North America, which had not been colonized by Spain north of Florida. Early European possessions in North America included Spanish Florida, the English colonies of Virginia (with its |North Atlantic off-shoot, The Somers Isles) and New England, the French colonies of Acadia and Canada, the Swedish colony of New Sweden, and the Dutch New Netherland. In the eighteenth century, Denmark–Norway revived its former colonies in Greenland, while the Russian Empire gained a foothold in Alaska. As more nations gained an interest in the colonization of the Americas, competition for territory became increasingly fierce.
Colonists often faced the threat of attacks from neighboring colonies, as well as from indigenous tribes and pirates. The first phase of European activity in the Americas began with the Atlantic Ocean crossings of Christopher Columbus (1492-1504), sponsored by Spain, whose original attempt was to find a new route to India and China, known as “the Indies.” He was followed by other explorers such as John Cabot, who discovered Newfoundland and was sponsored by England. Pedro Álvares Cabral discovered Brazil for Portugal. Amerigo Vespucci, working for Portugal in voyages from 1497 to 1513, established that Columbus had discovered a new set of continents. Cartographers still use a Latinized version of his first name, America, for the two continents.
Other explorers included Giovanni da Verrazzano, sponsored by France; the Portuguese João Vaz Corte-Real in Newfoundland; and Samuel de Champlain (1567-1635) who explored Canada. In 1513, Vasco Núñez de Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and led the first European expedition to see the Pacific Ocean from the west coast of the New World. In an action with enduring historical import, Balboa claimed the Pacific Ocean and all the lands adjoining it for the Spanish Crown. It was 1517 before another expedition from Cuba visited Central America, landing on the coast of Yucatán in search of slaves. In conclusion, the Spaniards took complete control of the colonization of the Americas. After gaining so much power and attempting to “spread” it, other nations of Europe joined the act and began colonizing and dominating regions of the Americas, after defeating the American civilizations.