In 1492, Christopher Columbus was credited with discovering the New World. At the time, Columbus was sailing ships under the Spanish flag. Soon after Columbus' landings, many Spanish explorers, also called conquistadors, began sailing to the New World hoping to claim land for their country and to find riches, mythical cities of gold and the Fountain of Youth.

Hernando Cortes

Sketched image of Hernando Cortes
Sketched image of Hernando Cortes

Hernando Cortes is most famous for conquering the Aztec Indians. Cortes was not one to follow orders. He left his post in Cuba and burned his own ships to prevent mutiny along his expedition. The Spaniard marched to Tenochtitlan, which is modern day Mexico City, and captured Montezuma, the chief of the Aztecs. Montezuma was killed by his own people as Cortes tried to use him to quash a rebellion. Cortes was driven from the city by the Aztecs, and only a few of Cortes' men survived. However, Cortes returned the next year. This time the Aztecs surrendered.

Francisco Pizarro

Statue of Pizzaro in Spain
Statue of Pizzaro in Spain

Pizarro conquered the Incas of Central and South America. The Spanish crown made Pizarro governor over Peru, and he was sent to capture the land, gold and riches for Spain. Pizarro and 160 soldiers were able to defeat over 5 million Inca. A small pox outbreak after Pizarro's first encounter with the Incas resulted in the death of the Incas' chief, Huayna Capac. The chief's sons began a civil war to decide who would rule the Incas going forward. Pizarro's modern weapons of guns and repeat firing crossbows, plus the recruitment of other Indian tribes against the Incas were enough to overthrow the entire civilization.

Francisco de Orellana

The Amazon jungle in Peru
The Amazon jungle in Peru

Francisco de Orellana traveled the length of the Amazon in search of the mythical city of El Dorado, the city of gold. Orellana led an expedition along with Pizarro through the Andes mountains. Pizarro and Orellana separated as they desperately searched for food in the Amazon. Orellana's group traveled the length of the entire Amazon until they reached the sea. As they traveled, many men died of starvation; they were also attacked by native tribes and never found El Dorado.

Hernando de Soto

Aerial shot of the Mississippi River
Aerial shot of the Mississippi River

De Soto was part of the army of Pizarro that conquered the Incas. He later traveled through Florida to find the seven cities of gold. While De Soto did not find the cities of gold, he traveled through North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. He was the first Spaniard to see the Mississippi River.

Juan Ponce de Leon

The tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon
The tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon

Ponce de Leon is mostly known for his travels to find the Fountain of Youth. Ponce de Leon never found the fountain; however, he was the first Spaniard to set foot on the state of Florida in April 1513. Ponce de Leon named it Pascua Florida, which means feast of flowers, because he first spotted the land on Palm Sunday. The explorer tried to find Bimini island, which he was told had the famous fountain. He unsuccessfully tried two separate times to find the island and was attacked by natives. Ponce de Leon died of injuries sustained from one of the attacks in 1521.