The key theme in understanding the history of the Americas in in the 16th century is the increased presence of European explorers. Only 12 years after Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas in 1492, European fishermen were fishing in Nova Scotia and soon were on the mainland, trading with indigenous peoples for furs. Gaspar Corte-Real “discovered” Newfoundland for the Portuguese. French explorers Giovanni de Verrazano and Jacques Cartier explored the area now known as Canada. Other explorers soon followed.


At the beginning of the 16th century, approximately 40 million indigenous peoples, speaking 500 distinct languages, lived in North America. Their social structures, governments, economies, religious beliefs, technologies, histories, and traditions differed greatly. They engaged in a variety of economic activities adapted to local environments. They hunted and fished, grew crops, irrigated fields, and manufactured tools. Some lived in large, urban centers while others remained in small kinship communities. Some remained in one place year-round, while others moved throughout the year.


This map shows the cultural regions of North America in the 16th century (Source: Wikimedia)

Significant trading networks existed throughout North America. Roads were built along rivers, as native peoples walked alongside the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, Columbia, the Rio Grande and Colorado Rivers and other major streams. Roads were also built along the seacoasts. One such

road ran south along the Pacific Coast from northern Alaska to northwestern Mexico. An offshoot of that road allowed people to journey through the Sonoran Desert to the Colorado Plateau. Roads east of the Mississippi connected towns in present-day Georgia and Alabama. One major road ran north through Cherokee lands, through the Cumberland Gap, to the confluence of the Ohio and Scioto Rivers. Thus, a person could travel from the Atlantic to Pacific Oceans by following roads along the Ohio River to the Mississippi. From there, she could travel to the mouth of the Missouri and along the Missouri westward to its headwaters. From there, a road crossed the Rocky Mountains through South Pass in present-day Wyoming to the Columbia River. Finally, traveling the Columbia River road would connect the traveler to the Pacific Coast road.

Significantly, the complex network of roads allowed for not only the exchange of goods but also ideas. Thus, despite great diversity, North American Indians help certain beliefs in common. Nearly everywhere, people based their identity on family, community, and village. Kinship was basic to human society in America. Each indigenous people group (nation, city-state, town) was an independent, self-governing unit that both organized itself and interacted equally with others. The system of decision-making was based on consensus (rather than majority rule). The community’s interest overrode that of individuals, and it was expected that any member of society who considered a decision to be incorrect would nevertheless abide by it for the sake of community cohesion.

Most of the indigenous peoples in North America lived west of the Mississippi. In the Pacific Northwest, native peoples flourished in an environment with abundant natural resources. The potlach ceremony, a gift-giving feast in which property was distributed to members of the community, emphasized reciprocity as a fundamental value. Their totem poles and elaborate ceremonial masks illustrate their remarkable wood-working skills. The most important of these peoples were the Tinglit (Alaska) and the salmon-fishing nations of the Salish, Makah, Hoopa, Pomo, Karok, and Yurok peoples who lived along the coast in what is now British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, and northern California.

Watch and Learn

Watch this PBS Special to learn more about the wood-working traditions of the native peoples of the American Northwest.


At the beginning of the 16th century, the present-day state of California contained the highest Native American population density north of Mexico. Because of the temperate climate and easy access to food sources, approximately one-third of all Native Americans in North America lived in the region.

The peoples of the American southwest built a complex irrigation system to sustain an elaborate agricultural system. This system, which was completed in the 15th century, included more than eight hundred miles of trunk lines and hundred more miles of branches serving local communities. The longest known canal extended twenty miles! These canals allowed the peoples of the Sonoran Desert to grow crops for consumption and export so that their community became a crossroads in a trade network reaching from Mexico to Utah and from California to New Mexico.

The peoples who lived on the plains of central North America developed both agriculturally based and bison-dependent cultures. Significant social communities thrived in the prairies of Canada (the Crees), in the Dakotas (the Lakota and Dakota Sioux), and to the west and south (the Cheyenne and Arapaho). Even further south were the Ponca, Pawnee, Osage, and Kiowa.

In the American southeast, native peoples built communities in one of the most fertile agriculture regions of the world. They relied on a diet of corn (maize), squash, and beans (referred to as the “three sisters”) as the fundamental food that supported life. While women attended small garden plots, men did much of the work in the principal fields, clearing them, girdling large trees with stone axes and knives and fire, disposing of stumps, and breaking the ground with hoes consisting of wooden handles with stone, conch shells or large animal bones at the ends. Native peoples supplemented their agricultural crops by hunting and gathering. Deer were important, not only for food but for skins, and bears were hunted particularly for their oil, as well as fur and meat. This was the territory of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek nations.

Algonquian speaking native peoples lived in what is present-day Virginia and the Carolina Tidewater area. These included the Powhatan Confederacy in Virginia and the Pamlico and Machapunga tribes who lived in what is now eastern North Carolina.

In the northeast, the most powerful peoples were united in the Iroquois Confederacy (the Haudenosaunee). These people lived in the New York state and lower Great Lakes region. Their village sites were built away from waterways and were sometimes fortified. Like their neighbors to the south, they grew corn, beans, and squash. Pottery was used for cooking and storing tobacco for their pipes.

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Visit this PBS website to learn more about how the Iroquois Confederacy may have
influenced the formation of the United States.


Spain was the first European nation to colonize North America in the 16th century. A first expedition, led by Ponce de Leon (who had been on Columbus’ second trip), landed in Florida in 1513 and claimed that region for Spain. There were many shipwrecks of European vessels along the southern coast of North America in the 16th century and Indians used the silver coins and jewelry from these wrecks for their own pendants, necklaces, and beads. All of this means that the native peoples who lived by the ocean knew a great deal about the Europeans before they actually landed.


A 17th century engraving of Ponce de León (Source: Wikimedia)

Hernando de Soto landed in the vicinity of present-day Tampa Bay in 1539. With 600 men and more than 200 horses, he traveled up the peninsula, wintered in the Appalachian Mountains, then struck out northward to present day South Carolina, westward to present day Alabama, and across the Mississippi into present day Arkansas before finally dying and being buried on the banks of the Mississippi River. On his travels, he visited the Queen of the powerful Cofitachequi in present day South Carolina, and was impressed by the numerous houses, large mounds, and the grand wooden mat-covered temple. The queen and her court wore long pearl necklaces. Her warriors had copper-tipped pikes, maces, battle axes, and thousands of bows and arrows. In what would be a tragically repeated consequence of inter-cultural exchange in the Americas, De Soto and his Spaniards brought small-pox, measles, tuberculosis, chickenpox, scarlet fever, typhus, influenza, whooping cough, and the common cold so that within a few decades the southeast became markedly depopulated and the economic and political structure of Mississippian life collapsed permanently.

At about the same time that De Soto landed in Florida, Vasquez de Coronado commissioned Friar Fray Marcos to journey north from Mexico on an exploration to what is now New Mexico. In the following year, Coronado led an expedition searching for the “Seven Cities of Gold,” reaching just south of Sante Fe (New Mexico) and then back into the Texas Panhandle and on through Kansas to the Nebraska border. On his way back to Mexico, Coronado viciously attacked the Acoma Indian city about 40 miles west of present-day Albuquerque, and, in three days and nights, the Spanish killed 600 people and imprisoned and enslaved many more. Beginning in 1596, Juan de Onate undertook an expedition from Mexico City to El Paso (Texas), Sante Fe, and Quivera (Kansas). This was followed in 1598 by the arrival in the New Mexico area of more than four hundred Spanish settlers (men, women, and children) and their livestock (both cattle and sheep).


A view of the Acoma Pueblo mesa from the northwest The Acoma pueblo, originally built by Kersan Indians on top of this mesa, had buildings that were 3 stories high. It may be the oldest inhabited site in the United States. (Source: Creative Commons)


At the beginning of the 16th century, the Aztec Empire in modern-day Mexico was expanding in both political and military power. The Inca Empire in modern-day Peru had reached the zenith of its growth but was still a highly organized affluent society. More than 60,000 households lived in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan, and the overall population of the empire is estimated to have been about 30 million. Likewise, the Inca Empire in Peru was densely settled. The two American foods – corn and potatoes – were higher in caloric value than any Eurasian crops except rice and this allowed a denser population per square mile than anyplace outside the East Asian rice-paddy region.

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Take a stroll around an Aztec Zoo in 16th century Tenochtitlan.


Columbus and those who followed started a great exchange of foods. Wheat, chick-peas, sugarcane, pigs, cows, and sheep were brought from Europe to the Americas. Europeans took corn, potatoes, chocolate, peanuts, vanilla, tomatoes, pineapples, lima beans, peppers (both red and green), tapioca, and the turkey back to Europe. This exchange of foods is part of what historians have called “The Columbian Exchange.”

European exploration of the Americas connected four continents (Africa, North America, South America, and Europe) in a network of communication, migration, trade, disease, and the transfer of both animals and plants. The long-term effects of this network benefited Europeans to the detriment of both Africans and Native Americans. The indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas suffered intensely as slavery, disease, and death on an almost unimaginable scale destroyed their societies while Europeans reaped the rewards of this exchange. Europeans were enriched by the abundance of natural resources taken from the Americas. Precious metals (especially silver), new food crops, financial profits, and new markets provided the necessary foundation for the Industrial Revolution of the 18th century.

The impact of this exchange reached far beyond goods. As new information about peoples and places that had previously been unknown circulated through European societies, people began to question what they had been taught. People asked new questions and discovered new ways of thinking. These new thoughts and patterns expressed themselves in the 17th century in what is called the “Enlightenment.” The Columbian Exchange, therefore, contributed to a shift in global power leading to the emergence of Europe as a dominant player in the world (militarily and economically).

Watch and Learn

To learn more about the Columbian Exchange, watch Crash Course in World History #23.


The Aztecs, under King Montezuma II, were brutally conquered by Hernando Cortéz and his handful of Spanish soldiers in 1521. Again, in a pattern repeated time and again as Europeans interacted with native peoples, more Aztecs were killed by the diseases brought by the Spaniards than by their swords. Smallpox and measles killed millions of native Americans and had more to do with the collapse of the Aztec power than military operations. The population of Mexico-Tenochtitlan dropped more than 90%, from a population of around 30 million to less than 3 million by 1568.


A drawing accompanying text in Book XII of the 16th-century Florentine Codex (compiled 1555–1576), showing native peoples afflicted with smallpox (Source: Creative Commons)

Within two decades of their first landing in Mexico, the relatively few Spaniards had explored the Americas from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from Kansas to Argentina. The Spaniards superimposed their own civilization into the Americas. Together with the Portuguese, they also introduced slavery. By mid-century, approximately 20,000 African slaves had been brought to Cuernavaca and Vera Cruz. There were productive silver mines in Mexico by the 1540s. Additional mines were constructed throughout South America. The most lucrative were in Bolivia, which produced close to 85% of the world’s silver in the 16th century. The silver from these mines financed the Spanish Empire. Historians estimate that one-fifth of the total Spanish budget came from the American mines. Without the silver from these mines, the Spanish would not have been able to maintain its status as a maritime empire and to strengthen its position relative to other European nations. Convoys carrying gold and silver linked Lima, Cuzco, Panama, Vera Cruz, and Mexico. The harbor at Porto Bello, Panama, became a thriving town and prospered as the Atlantic terminal of trade routes for the Spaniards’ treasure from South America.

In the Caribbean Basin, by 1501, Spanish settlers in Hispaniola (Santa Domingo) employed African slaves in 1501 on their plantations. They also enslaved native peoples. Early in the 16th century, the Spanish kidnapped the native Arawak Indians from the Bahamas for slave labor. In addition, Spaniards transported somewhere in the range of 2,000 to 5,000 Indians from the United States to the West Indies. As smallpox destroyed indigenous populations in the West Indies in 1519, however, reliance on native slaves was replaced by the use of slaves from Africa. The Cuban governor’s report of 1530 showed that one-third of the island’s natives died during the year. The high death rate of Native American slaves led to a growing reliance on the importing of African slaves for labor. The viruses brought by these slaves also afflicted the native peoples of the Islands. By the end of the century, African slaves and Europeans had replaced the indigenous populace of the Caribbean.


This map shows the 16th century Spanish conquests in the Caribbean and Latin America. (Source: Wikimedia)

Watch and Learn

To learn more about the Spanish Empire’s colonization of the Americas, watch Crash Course in World History #25.


The first South American contact of the Spaniards occurred in 1501 when the Bay of Santa Marta and the Gulf of Cartagena in Colombia were explored. According to Spanish chroniclers, the indigenous peoples of the Tairona society lived on the seacoast on a 90-mile strip below an altitude of 3,300 feet and engaged in gold metallurgy. Although fighting between the coastal Indians and the Spaniards was bloody, the latter never conquered the area, as the Taironas withdrew to the mountains where they finally disappeared from the historical record, probably from disease and hunger. The ruins of their original settlements have been in part excavated and have revealed stone buildings reached by roads and paved stairways some of which were 60 feet wide and by bridges of stone blocks. There were rock carvings and farming terraces and artificial mounds for ceremonial use.


Tairona figure pendants in gold (Source: Wikimedia)

Like Mexico, parts of South America were densely settled at the time of European discovery. The Incas, who lived in the Andean mountains, numbered between 25 and 30 million. They were mainly vegetarian, although there were some fish and occasionally communal game hunts for deer, llamas, guanacos, bears, pumas, foxes, and viscacha. Guinea pigs were raised in nearly every household along with ducks. The chief foods, however, were maize, potatoes, squash, beans, manioc (also known as cassava), sweet potatoes, peanuts, tomatoes, avocados, and chili peppers.

Tragically, the smallpox which the Spaniards brought to Mexico and the West Indies spread even faster than they did, bringing death and destruction to the Incan peoples. The reigning Inca leader, Huayna Capa, died of the disease and civil war erupted after his death as his two sons fought each other. It was into this wreckage of an empire that, in 1532, Francisco Pizarro arrived with his soldiers and horses. Relations between the Spanish and Inca quickly deteriorated so that by late 1535 the situation had become intolerable, from the Inca standpoint.

Many other Spanish explorers (known as conquistadores) traveled through the northern region of South America searching for gold. In 1535, Sebastian de Belalcázar, veteran of the Inca conquest and founder of the town Quito in Ecuador, was told of a king who sprinkled his body with gold dust before swimming in a sacred lake. The legend named the mysterious king “El Dorado – the Golden man” and it fanned the lust for the precious metal among all the Spanish explorers. Gonzalo Jimenez de Quesada led an expedition inland from Colombia’s northern coast in 1536. Decimated by fever, malaria, and attacks by native peoples who resented the Spanish intrusion on their land, only 200 of his original 900 men reached the Chibcha villages located in Colombia’s Cundinamarca plateau. He did not find gold, but did establish the city of Santa Fe de Bogotá, now the capital of Colombia.

Others explored this same country, including the German Nikolaus Federmann. Spaniards, including Gonzalo Pizarro and Francisco de Orellana, also headed to the interior. According to legend, when Orellana discovered a great river flowing through the region, he also encountered a tribe whose long-haired women drew a bow better than any man. Orellana gave the name “Amazon” to the river, after the warrior women of the old Greek legend. Toward the end of the century, the hunt for gold shifted toward Guiana and then to the island of Trinidad, where the Spanish met the English adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh, who was also searching for gold.


This map shows the extension of the Inca Empire in the 15th and 16th centuries. (Source: Creative Commons)

Although the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas gave most of the Americas to Spain, part of modern-day Brazil, since it extends into the Atlantic, was designated Portuguese territory. Portuguese explorer Pedro Cabral first charted the coasts of Brazil between 1500 and 1502. The Portuguese called the new land Brazil after a type of wood called pau-brasil; red dye extracted from the wood was very popular in Europe at the time. The colonization process began in 1533, when King João II divided the coastline into fifteen sections, called donatários, each of which stretched about 150 miles along the coast. He gave the land to fifteen courtiers, who were permitted to create cities, grant land, and raise taxes on as much of the inland area as they could colonize. The scheme was flawed, however, as some donátario owners never came to Brazil, while others lacked the capital to invest. When by the 1540s only two donátarios had had any success, the monarchy took over the colony. The first governor-general landed at the capital of Bahia (today’s Salvador) in 1549. The capital remained there until 1763, when it moved to Rio de Janeiro.

Both colonists and Jesuit missionaries arrived with the governor-general. The typical immigrants were young, single men who had been artisans or agricultural laborers. Few families arrived at first, and the colonies had a large imbalance between men and women until the 18th century. The Jesuits, in their efforets to convert Native Americans to Christianity, moved further inland before the settlers did. The priests often clashed with bands of men called bandeirantes, who were often of mixed European-Native American ancestry. The bandeirantes searched across the continent for gold and silver to rival the Spanish finds in Mexico.


In this painting by Jose de Avelar Rebelo, the Jesuit priest Francis Xavier bids King Joao III of Portugal farewell as he leaves on a missionary expedition to Asia. (Source: Wikimedia)

As these groups moved further inland, they expanded the original boundaries of Brazil as set out in the Tordesillas agreement. By the late seventeenth century, Portuguese settlers had occupied the entire Amazon River basin to the Andes Mountains. The colonists also moved as far south as the Rio de la Plata, which is the modern border between Argentina and Uruguay. The settlement resulted in a century of border conflicts between the Spanish and the Portuguese. The two successful donatários of the 1530s, Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, were initially the major sites of economic activity in Brazil. Both donatários were home to many sugar plantations. Cattle farming was also a major occupation, and many settlers, including miners, owned subsistence farms.

Portuguese colonization of Brazil was accompanied by widespread missionary activity. From the beginning of the colony one of its main purposes was to convert the Native Americans to Christianity. Three major Catholic orders of priests, the Dominicans, Franciscans, and later, the Jesuits accompanied the colonizers. When the Spanish first colonized Mexico, priests went with them and reported great successes (though they likely exaggerated). One Spanish priest even boasted that he had baptized 200,000 Native Americans, including 14,000 in one day. When the Portuguese began to colonize, they attempted to emulate the Spanish missionary zeal.

The colony’s religious mission was often used to excuse the brutal excesses of colonial conquest. Soon, however, some of the priests and brothers began to advocate for Native Americans. Bartolomé de Las Casas became the leading critic of Spanish abuses. Though he had originally participated in the brutal conquest and conversion of the Native Americans in Mexico, he grew increasingly horrified by the Spaniards’ brutal methods. He wrote a scathing indictment of the Spanish and sent it back to Europe.


In the following passage, Bartolomé de Las Casas describes some of the abuses carried out by Spanish soldiers against native peoples:

This was the first land in the New World to be destroyed and depopulated by the Christians, and here they began their subjection of the women and children, taking them away from the Indians to use them and ill use them, eating the food they provided with their sweat and toil.

And they committed other acts of force and violence and oppression which made the Indians realize that these men had not come from Heaven. And some of the Indians concealed their foods while others concealed their wives and children and still others fled to the mountains to avoid the terrible transactions of the Christians. And the Christians attacked them with buffets and beatings, until finally they laid hands on the nobles of the villages. Then they behaved with such temerity and shamelessness that the most powerful ruler of the islands had to see his own wife raped by a Christian officer.

And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’

Read a longer excerpt of de Las Casas’ writings (from which this passage was taken).


A Portrait of Bartolomé de Las Casa by an unknown artist (Source: Wikimedia)

Sugar cane was brought to Brazil in 1520. By 1550, sugar mills had been built and shortly thereafter the sugar plantation system was established. Between 1575 and 1600, coastal Brazil was the foremost sugar producing territory in the western world, averaging sixteen hundred tons a year. Soon there were shops on the streets of São Paulo and, after 1580, Portuguese middlemen invaded the whole of Spanish America as shopkeepers and peddlers. Because they were more familiar with the land than the Portuguese and thus were difficult to capture and then control, native peoples were not easily enslaved. Thus, the entire sugar plantation system became dependent on the labor of African slaves, who were brought against their will to Brazil on both Spanish and Portuguese slave ships. By 1583, there were 25,000 Europeans and 14,000 African slaves in the territory.

Click and Explore

Learn more about the sugar industry in 16th century Brazil by visiting this web-page.


Present-day Argentina was “discovered” in 1516 by the Spaniard Juan Diaz de Solis and its coasts were explored by Diego Garcia in 1526. Buenos Aires was founded in 1534 by Pedro de Mendoza, but the village soon died out or was destroyed. The Portuguese rebuilt the city in 1580. Their ships streamed west across the Atlantic laden with rice, fabrics, black slaves, and (occasionally) gold. Arriving at the port in Buenos Aires, they traveled up the Rio de la Plata where they traded for silver coming down the Pilcomayo River.


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