The Spanish Empire: Trade and Transformation

From 1521 to 1821, the land that is now Utah was claimed by Spain, a country in Europe. The Spanish Empire (also called New Spain) stretched from South America through Mexico all the way to Oregon. Spain colonized these lands for over 300 years.

In Short

Spain’s colonies in North America were not all the same. In present-day New Mexico and California, the Spanish government and Catholic priests created mission towns. In this form of colonization, the Native people of the area joined the Catholic church, received Spanish names, and became the subjects of Spanish rulers. People in mission towns worked for the Spanish economy, and slave labor was common. Different groups of people—those who came from Spain and those who were native to the Americas—mixed together, creating new kinds of families, cultures, and traditions. The words mestizo, Hispanic, and Latino refer to these mixed identities. 

A Spanish Trail Marker

Spanish leaders did not extend the mission system into Utah, which was far from the main Spanish towns near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The lands that became Utah were difficult to reach because of their deep canyons and high mountains. The desert climate made farming difficult, and Spanish explorers didn’t find gold or silver to mine. 

The point of a colony was to make money for the empire, but the lands in this region didn’t have the kind of natural resources that mission towns needed. So instead, Spanish leaders decided to trade with the Native Americans who lived here to make money.

Trade with New Spain brought great change for the Native American peoples who lived across the Great Basin. While Navajo, Ute, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone peoples did not adopt Spanish customs or become Latinos, trade with New Spain transformed their lives forever.

Several push and pull factors brought Spanish conquistadors to the Americas. Conquistadors left Spain hoping to make money in the New World. Priests hoped to convert Native peoples to Catholicism, a form a Christianity. Land for plantations, minerals for mining, religion, and trading opportunities pulled Spanish explorers, priests, and traders throughout the Americas. Much of the present-day American West, including Utah, was part of the Spanish Empire from 1521 until 1821.

In this region, Spanish explorers hoped to find gold, silver, and a river to the Pacific Ocean that would make colonization easy and profitable. They traveled around and learned from Native American guides about the region’s deserts, canyons, mountains, lakes, and rivers. Spanish explorers created the first European maps of present-day Utah and the Great Basin. They renamed Native American trails and other landmarks, giving them Spanish names that are still used today, such as San Juan. And they were the first European people to write down descriptions of the Ute, Paiute, and Navajo peoples that had lived here. 

Early Spanish Explorers

Captain García López de Cárdenas was probably the first Spanish explorer to come close to entering Utah. In 1540, following reports of a large river, Cárdenas and his men reached the south rim of the Grand Canyon before turning back to New Mexico. 

A map of the Dominguez Escalante Expedition, 1776-1777, 1859

More than two hundred years passed before a group of Spanish explorers traveled near present-day Utah. In 1765, the Spanish governor of Santa Fe decided to explore the lands north of New Mexico. He sent Juan Maria Antonia Rivera on two expeditions to learn about the people in the area, make a map, and search for silver. Rivera relied on Ute guides who knew the territory, but he did not find precious metals. Some historians think his group entered Utah near present-day Monticello and became the first Europeans we know of to see the Colorado River.

Eleven years later, Fathers Domínguez and Escalante led their famous 1776 expedition looking for a land route from New Mexico to California. Relying on Ute guides, they traveled from Santa Fe all the way to Utah Lake. They hoped to return and create a Catholic mission with the Ute people they met who lived in what is now called Utah Valley, but this never happened.

How Spanish Trade Transformed Native Societies

Around the year 1750, Spanish leaders in New Mexico made alliances with some Native American groups who lived to their north. They wanted to protect New Mexico’s mission settlements from raiders, and develop trade that would build wealth and peace. 

Over time, Latino traders from New Mexico began traveling into Utah. They traded with Ute and Navajo people, who offered furs, hides, horses, and captives in exchange for European tools, weapons, and other goods.

A map of the Old Spanish Trail Map, Courtesy of the National Park Service (NPA)

During the 1800s, the Spanish trade system expanded throughout much of present-day Utah along what was called the Old Spanish Trail. Based on existing Native American trail networks, this 700-mile trade route started in Santa Fe, went north through what is now Moab, then west, then looped south and went all the way to Los Angeles. The Old Spanish Trail was heavily used by New Mexicans, Native peoples, and Americans from 1829 through the 1840s. 

The Spanish trade system was good for many Ute, Navajo, and mission communities, who gained wealth, horses, weapons, and peace with their allies. However, this trade was harmful to others.  

For example, the traders stole horses from some communities, then sold them to others to make money. They also raided Paiute communities for captives, stealing young people from their families and selling them into slavery in the mission towns. 

Because Utes had better access to guns and horses through their trade ties with New Mexico, they grew more powerful than Native peoples who did not have access to European goods. This created problems, not peace, between Ute, Navajo, Shoshone, Goshute, and Paiute groups across the region. 

In these ways, the Spanish Empire created huge changes for Native American peoples long before European American settlers came to live in Utah permanently. 


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