Conquistador Map

Print this Conquistador Map for your kids to color when you are studying colonial history.


The map shows the Aztec and Inca empires as they were at the time of conquest.  These lands both became part of the Spanish Empire.  The map also shows the Treaty of Tordesillas line.  This was a boundary line agreed upon by the Spanish and Portuguese and mediated by the Pope in 1494.  Everything to the west of the line would belong to Spain and everything to the east of the line would belong to Portugal.  The line extended all the way around the globe, to the eastern hemisphere as well as the western.


A Little History

The Conquistadors were Spanish mercenary soldiers who sailed the world in search of treasure.  They operated in Asia, Africa, and the Americas.  They are most famous for their conquest of the Aztec and Inca empires.  Their main goals were to get rich and to convert as many people as possible to the Christian religion.  They met both of their goals splendidly.  The cost, however, was great.  Millions of people in the New World died through disease, mistreatment, and the ravages of war.  Tribes disappeared forever, languages went extinct, and civilizations disintegrated.

This is the meeting of Cortes and Montezuma, king of the Aztecs. The Aztecs were at their height, strong and still conquering their neighbors when they fell to the Spanish.

The Conquistadors themselves suffered great misfortunes.  They mistreated one another nearly as badly as they did the natives.  They died of disease, starvation, exposure, torture, and war.  But even worse, their greed led them to commit atrocities that lost them their souls.  They became slaves to the god of gold.

This is Hernan Cortes. He was the one who conquered and destroyed the Aztec Empire. He once said that he and his men were slaves to gold.

Most of what the Conquistadors did was very bad.  But not all.  There were many Catholic priests and regular people who did care about the natives and treated them well.  They were taught to read and taught the Christian religion, which many adopted willingly.  The Spanish put an end to human sacrifice and the treatment of women improved.  The king back in Spain worked hard to improve the lot and the treatment of the natives, even outlawing slavery, but he was not strong enough to enforce his law across the ocean.  And though the population initially took a major dive, over time the better agricultural methods and stable government of the Spanish greatly increased the food supply and the population recovered and then surpassed its initial numbers.

This is Bartolome de las Casas. He was one of the good guys. He was horrified by the treatment of the American Indians and traveled back to Spain to petition the king and then sit in a counsel deciding how to fix the situation in New Spain. He wrote a book chronicling the atrocities he had seen in the Americas.

Sometimes the natives of America are portrayed as innocent, ignorant, and weak victims, which is fairly demeaning to them actually.  They were not weak and they were not stupid.  They understood the nuances of trickery, diplomacy, and treaties as well as the Europeans. Some tribes and kingdoms, such as the Tlaxcala, used negotiation to get exactly what they wanted and improve their own situation.  And though they could not have understood the implications of the European weaponry they were hardly helpless.  Nearly every tribe the Spaniards came across was warlike and violent, training in arms from their youth.  They exacted much blood from the Europeans in all their contests.

These Tlaxcala soldiers are leading Cortes to the attack on the Aztecs. The Tlaxcala made a treaty with the Spanish that if they helped Cortes they would be left unmolested, receive half the spoils, and never be taxed or forced to pay tribute to the Spanish. The Spanish kept this bargain for 300 years.

As for innocence, many of these tribes practiced ritual human sacrifice, ripping the quivering hearts from their still living victims, an abominable practice among any people at any time in history.  They also stepped on the necks of the poor and used their labor for their own enrichment.  They routinely and regularly made war on their neighbors for their own increase of power.  And they had caste systems that kept people from improving their own situation.

This is a depiction of ritual human sacrifice among the Aztec. It is from the Tovar Codex, public domain.

The Spanish conquest experience is a good example of bad guys vs. bad guys, with a few helpless good guys thrown in.  Eventually history righted itself and peace and respect returned, but it took hundreds of years.

Additional Layers

  • Learning the stories of individuals who lived though events in history is a very effective way of really understanding what went on.  Look for biographies and historical novels about Hernan Cortes, Ponce de Leon, Francisco Pizarro, Cabeza de Vaca, Francisco de Orellana, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, and Hernando de Soto.
  • Both Montezuma, leader of the Aztecs, and Cortes, Spanish conquistador, were consumed by greed for land and wealth.  Talk about greed and how it can be a destructive force for a civilization as well as for an individual.
  • The government in Spain, though it tried to stop the abuses in the colonies, did not have the power to protect the Indians.  This situation is a perfect example of why government is necessary and what anarchy looks like; the strong preying unchecked upon the weak.  Talk about why we need government and what its role is.

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