When Christopher Columbus sighted land on October 12, 1492, after 10 weeks at sea, he unwittingly changed the course of human history. Columbus and his crew were among the first Europeans to set foot in America, a region that became known as the New World. As his voyage was sponsored by the Spanish monarch, Columbus claimed the New World for Spain, creating a link that survives through language and religion into the present day.

Spreading Spanish Influence

Spain’s influence spread quickly in the New World. As early as 1508, Spanish sailors made the first known European landing in Florida, and by 1540 the Spanish had visited much of Mexico, the southern United States and the northern part of the South American continent, claiming them for the Spanish crown. The Spaniards brought their own language along with their Catholic religion to their new territories and founded new towns and cities, such as St. Augustine, Florida, which was founded in 1565, making it the oldest European city in the United States.

Influencing European Rivals

Spain’s success in the New World encouraged other European countries to search for their own overseas territories. Initially Spain’s neighbor Portugal was their main competitor in the New World, but towards the end of the 16th century, England, the Dutch Republic and France turned their attentions westward. By the mid-1600s all three countries had established settlements in North America.

Impacting Native People

The New World territories the Spanish colonized were not empty, and local people soon felt the impact of the Spanish arrival. The Doctrine of Discovery, a papal ruling from 1493, allowed Catholic countries to claim any territory occupied by non-Christians, and that any non-Christian native peoples held only the right to occupancy, rather than ownership. Spanish military campaigns therefore claimed God's approval in defeating tribes like the Incas and the Aztecs, and destroying empires and societies that had survived for hundreds of years. In addition, millions of native people died from diseases like measles and smallpox, inadvertently imported from Europe by the Spanish.

Exploiting Resources

The Spanish soon discovered that the New World was rich in natural resources. Gold and silver were particularly highly prized, with the Spanish crown claiming one-fifth of all the revenue raised from mines established in South America. Foodstuffs like sugar, spices and cacao were transported back to Europe for sale at a vast profit, as were commodities like skins, tobacco and timber. In addition, the Spanish linked the New World with their colonies in Africa through the slave trade; at least 1,200 Africans were forcibly transported to the New World as slaves every year between the mid-1540s and 1580, estimates David Wheat in an article for the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.