1492 – 1734 Early Encounters Spanish Colonies

Key Ideas

1. Women played critical roles in the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

2. Spanish and Native women in the Spanish colonies found many ways to challenge and subvert the patriarchy of Spanish colonial society.

3. Native women played a proactive role in tribal responses to Spanish colonization.

4. The cruelties of the encomienda and enslavement systems fell particularly hard on women.

Introduction

Johann Baptist Homann and Homann Erben. Regni Mexicani seu Novæ Hispaniæ, Ludovicianæ, N. Angliæ, Carolinæ, Virginiæ et Pensylvaniæ, necnon insvlarvm archipelagi Mexicani in America Septentrionali, 1759. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Washington, D.C.

Women in the Spanish Colonies, 1492–1715

The popular narrative of the Spanish conquest and colonization of the Americas is hyper-masculine.

Daring male explorers returned to Spain with tales of vast populations and wealth, and paved the way for brutal male conquistadors to invade and suppress the Native warriors who dared to oppose them. After the early years of invasion, two colonial territories were established: New Spain in North America, and Peru in South America. Spanish elite grew rich off plantations and mines that they staffed with enslaved Native people and Africans, while Franciscan friars forced thousands of Native people to convert to Catholicism through the oppressive mission system.

Section Essential Questions

1. What were the rights and responsibilities of women in colonial Spanish society?

2. How did race, class, and social differences affect the lives of the women in the Spanish colonies?

3. How did women contribute to the establishment of new societies in the New World?

4. What gender specific challenges did women face in the Spanish colonies?

Resources

Queen Isabella I’s instructions on the governance of Hispaniola in 1501 were the blueprint for the development of the Spanish colonies of the Americas.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Spanish conquest, Hispaniola, European history, Native American history, Caribbean history
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This 1522 illustration of the horrors of the encomienda system highlights the way women and children were particularly vulnerable to abuse by their Spanish overlords.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Spanish conquest, encomienda, labor in the New World, Native American history, colonial economy
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This poem by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz highlights the hypocrisy of gender relations in Spanish colonial society.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
colonial culture, colonial Mexico, women religious figures, poetry, nuns in the New World
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This record of the slaving voyage of the English ship James contains records of women and girls who endured the brutalities of the Middle Passage.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
slavery, the Middle Passage, enslaved women and children, the Triangle Trade
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This court document shows how a married woman in the Spanish colonies used her marriage contract to escape an unhappy marriage.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
daily life, legal status of men and women, legal history, women in the Spanish colonies
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The Pueblo Revolt, the Zuni, women in Native American culture, native resistance to European oppression, colonial New Mexico and Santa Fe
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
daily life, legal status of men and women, legal history, women in the Spanish colonies
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Life Stories

The story of the wife of the governor of New Mexico, who was arrested by the Holy Office of the Inquisition.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
enslaved women in New Spain, government of New Mexico, Spanish Inquisition, religion in the colonies, history of sexual violence
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The story of the enslaved Native woman who acted as the primary interpreter for Hernan Cortés during his conquest of the Aztec Empire.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Mexican Amerindian history and culture, slavery in Native and Spanish culture, the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, history of sexual violence, colonial Mexico
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This story documents how the Native market women of colonial Quito fought in court to preserve their rights.
CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS:
Native American history and culture, colonial South America, native women in colonial Peru, daily life, colonial economy and trade
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For more information and resources about the history of the Spanish colonies in North America, see our curriculum guide Nueva York: 1613-1945.