Spanish Influence on North American English

External History and Encounters with the Natives

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2021

17 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. External History
2.1. First settlements
2.2. Extension to the Pacific Coast
2.3. Extension along the Atlantic Coast

3. Encounters with the Natives
3.1. Cultural Differences
3.2. Violent colonization and its justifications
3.3. Linguistic Exchanges

4. Spanish in North America Today

5. Conclusion


1. Introduction

Hispanic population represents one of the biggest minorities in the United States today. In the year 2019, the Census Bureau estimated that among a total population of 328,2 million there were approximately 60.5 million Hispanics or Latinos living in the United States.1 It is thus of great interest to closely investigate their origins. Spanish language and culture were one of the main influences on North American English through the centuries since North America’s discovery in 1492.

In this paper, I will give a historical overview of the first Spanish settlements in the 15th and 16th century and the following extensions to the Pacific coast as well as along the Atlantic coast. Certainly, the encounters between settlers and native Americans represented a difficult cultural event. By looking into more detail of these encounters, I will analyze cultural differences and draw focus to the aspect of violent colonization and enslavement. The coming together of the Spanish settlers and the native Americans caused furthermore many linguistic exchanges and influences, which will also be shown in my paper. The omnipresence of Spanish and Hispanic population in North America through many centuries can be seen in today’s North American population, even though the Spanish history of the United States is often underrecognized. This will be investigated in the last part of this paper. For this matter I will compare data from the United States Census Bureau from 2000, 2010 and 2019.

The selection of references that was used to support this paper raises no claim of completeness. I consulted general literature from Language in the USA from 2004 over Weber’s The Spanish Frontier in North America in 2009 to the 2014 Handbook of Heritage, Community, and Native American Languages in the United States. Very recent works from Boone, Conrad and Moran from the last three years present more specific topics concerning today’s questions of United States’ society and Spanish influences and history.

2. External History

2.1. First settlements

The first colonial settlements of so-called Spaniards started in 1513 in Florida and continued to spread over North America until the Mexican independence in 1821:

Spain’s tenure in North America began at least as early as 1513, when Juan Ponce de León stepped ashore on a Florida beach, and did not end until Mexico won independence in 1821. Spain governed parts of the continent for well over two centuries, longer than the United States has existed as an independent nation. (Weber 2009: 3)

“Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the city of St. Augustine, the oldest continuously inhabited European settlement in today’s continental United States, in 1565, all well before the 1620 landing of the Mayflower.” (Boone 2019: 3) What followed the first settlements in Florida, were extensions to the mainland and to the Pacific coast: “Between the two coasts, Spain claimed much of the American South and the entire West, at least half of the continental United States. […] its imperial claims in North America alone embraced an area larger than Western Europe.” (Weber 2009: 3) Still, the huge Spanish influence is sometimes disregarded. “Regional histories celebrate these events, but the national history of the United States minimizes their importance and buries them from sight.” (Boone 2019: 3)

There were approximately 75,000 Spanish-speaking people in the Southwest by 1848. By the end of the century, Hispanics reached about 100,000 in number and were concentrated mostly in Texas. This changed in the twentieth century: two massive waves of immigration from Mexico, one following the start of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the other following World War II, and substantial immigration from Central and South America since then have re-Hispanized the Southwest and spread Hispanic language and culture throughout the Southwest and beyond. (cf. Silva-Corvalán 2004: 208)

2.2. Extension to the Pacific Coast

During the extension towards the Pacific, Mexico was strongly influenced by the Spanish Empire: “[…] in 1519 Hernán Cortés began the epic march into Mexico that would quickly take him to the Pacific.” (Weber 2009: 33) The longest period of colonial Spanish was in Texas and New Mexico, as explorations there started as early as 1536. (cf. Silva-Corvalán 2004: 207) “Spanish extended to the new lands as the Southwest became part of the Spanish colonies, and many native Indians became bilingual in their tribal language and the language of the conquerors.” (Silva-Corvalán 2004: 207) After “[…] Álvar Núñez de Cabeza began his journey across Texas and through the southwest in 1527 […]” (Boone 2019: 3), the first permanent settlements were established in New Mexico in 1598 (near Santa Fe) and in Texas in 1659 (near El Paso), followed by the establishment of a mission and a military fortification at San Antonio in 1718. In Colorado, the first permanent settlement was established as late as 1851 by New Mexican farmers. (cf. Silva-Corvalán 2004: 207) California appeared to be too far away from Mexico for the development of a Spanish colony at first. Spain was losing its economic, military, and political power and lacked the population and resources to colonize ‘Upper’ California. The first mission in California was founded in San Diego only in 1769. (cf. Silva-Corvalán 2004: 207) From 1769 until 1823, “Spanish Franciscans had created a chain of missions stretching from San Diego to Sonoma in California […].” (Moran 2020: 6) Catholic missionaries and explorers included “[…] Jesuits, Franciscans, and others who had left France and Spain in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries in the name of God and Crown. Alongside the familiar Protestant origin stories, they built Catholic ones.” (Moran 2020: 4) Through extensions towards the Pacific coast, Spanish language was brought to Florida, Louisiana & the Southwest and became the language of prestige from the mid-1600s until the first half of the 19th century (cf. Silva-Corvalán 2004: 207)

2.3. Extension along the Atlantic Coast

In the meantime, there were also settlements along the Atlantic coast, which caused more confrontation with the Native Americans:

As early as 1500 Spaniards knew the outline of the continent north of present New England as a result of English exploration. It appears, however, that no European visited the coast between Maine and Florida until Spanish slave hunters from the Antilles began to probe the area illegally, beginning in 1514, if not before. Behind these expeditions stood the money and influence of several prominent residents of Española, who justified the enslaving of Indians on the grounds that they were cannibals and sodomites. (Weber 2009: 30f.)

In 1523, Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón settled in South Carolina and in great parts of the Atlantic coast. He recruited and supplied about six hundred colonists, including women and children. (cf. Weber 2009: 31) Subsequently, he founded a settlement on the coast of Georgia in 1526. (cf. Boone 2019: 3) In September 1524 Estevâo Gomes, a Portuguese pilot in Spain’s employ, sailed directly from Spain to America in search of the elusive passage to Asia. Gomes cruised an enormous stretch of the Atlantic coast of North America in a single vessel. In addition to coasting the shoreline of what would become New England, Gomes sailed up the Penobscot River, in present Maine. (cf. Weber 2009: 32) The following map gives an overview over the routes of Spanish explorers between 1513 and 1543.

3. Encounters with the Natives

3.1. Cultural Differences

“From a European perspective, intrepid explorers sailed across the Atlantic to discover a new world. From Native American viewpoints, Europeans came as predators. Both were correct.” (Weber 2009: 26) Cultural differences between Native Americans and Spaniards were one of the most important aspects of the Spanish Expansion in North America, as “[a]t no time in history has there been such a significant degree of culture contact between peoples of completely distinct traditions. —George Foster, 1960.” (Weber 2009: 13) The Native Americans had many social and linguistic differences between themselves, so that the Spaniards were faced with a huge cultural diversity:

The variety of languages, religions, and customs of North American Indians in the sixteenth century appears to have been greater than that of their European contemporaries. Some Indians lived in large urban centers and others in family homesteads, and their social structures, governments, economies, religious beliefs, technologies, histories, and traditions ranged across a wide spectrum. (Weber 2009: 17)

In general, it can be said that “[c]ompared to Spaniards most North American Indian people interacted more intimately with the natural world [and] placed less emphasis on surpluses of food and other goods […].” (Weber 2009: 17) Some of them, belonging to Apache groups, had furthermore “[…] developed a symbiotic relationship with village-dwelling agriculturists, such as the Pueblos of present-day New Mexico.” (Conrad 2021: 5) Even though there were sometimes conflicts between the groups, the Pueblos and the Apache exchanged goods in long-distance trades and their ways of life were mutually beneficial. (cf. Conrad 2021: 5f.)

The Southern Apache had a very interesting way of cultivating their homelands and harvesting and hunting around the year, as they moved their settlements according to the season and crop that would fit the particular landscape the best. (cf. Conrad 2021: 6) “This chain of places ensured that they had a diversified source of food and varied climates well suited to life during particular times of the year – cool highlands in the summer, warmer lowlands in the winter.” (Conrad 2021: 6) This mobility and cultivation of different landscapes to fit personal needs stood in high contrast to European ideas:

[It] was anathema to European and Euro-American understanding of exclusive property rights; or to their understandings of fixed settlements and farming linked to civilization or Christianity; or by the nineteenth century, to their belief that exclusive jurisdiction over a defined territory was the core of what it meant to be a nation. (Conrad 2021: 6)

The native Americans on the other hand, believed that “[…] the users of land [possess] greater rights than the nominal owners of land.” (Weber 2009: 17)

Concerning the native American infrastructure it can be said that the “[…] cultures the Spaniards encountered were not only smaller than states but also lacked some of the institutions of the emerging states of Europe, especially those designed to enforce social order: armies, police, and bureaucracies.” (Weber 2009: 18) Overall, the coming together of Spaniards and native Americans was more than two peoples with differing values and institutions. As the Spaniards brought many advantages with them, such as technology, the contrast between the two groups was even more highlighted. (cf. Weber 2009: 22f.) For Native people, “[…] the history of colonialism […] was one of pain and loss, slavery and dispossessions, but it was also a history of resistance, adaption, and return.” (Conrad 2021: 13) The colonialization of the native American lands was marked by fast discoveries and conquests, supported by individual, religious or imperial motives:

[…] with the powerful motives of individual Spaniards who journeyed into a new world to pursue particular religious, imperial, and personal goals. This heady mixture of motives and circumstances enabled the sons and daughters of Iberia to penetrate a world they dimly understood and to make a stunningly rapid series of discoveries and conquests in lands where natives vastly outnumbered them. In the process, Spaniards began to transform that new world, even as it began to transform them. (Weber 2009: 25)

The fast conquests were also justified with the “Act of Possession”, which was based on “[…] ‘rights of discovery,’ i.e., that the ‘discoverer’ or the agent [who] was present, had complete control of a section of the land, and that it was proclaimed for the monarch […] – all this precluding the presence of thousands-of-year old settlements among native peoples.” (Vélez-Ibáñez 2017:49)

To sum up, several areas were affected (positively and negatively) by Spanish habits and values they brought with them to North America, such as economy, culture, religion, medicine, military, nature, agriculture as well as changes in local animal life. (cf. Weber 2009: 23ff.) When we talk about the colonial history and the encounters of Spaniards and the native Americans, we certainly need to draw the focus to violent colonization and its often-religious justifications.

3.2. Violent colonization and its justifications

The first meetings between Spaniards and the native Americans were of rather violent nature:

Spaniards, who stood in the vanguard of European westward expansion, penetrated some of the most remote corners of the hemisphere within a half century of Columbus’s first landing. As Spaniards moved into lands almost invariably occupied by natives, the first meetings between discoverer and discovered were brutal. (Weber 2009: 28)

The brutal take-over of Native American lands was justified by the Spaniards with the declaration of Pope Alexander VI in 1493, who asserted that he had the right, “by the authority of the Almighty God,” to “give, grant, and assign” the New World to the Spanish so that they might convert its inhabitants. Christianity inspired Spaniards with a powerful sense of the righteousness of their aggression against the Natives. (cf. Weber 2009: 20) The idea was to “[g]ive the natives to understand that there is a God in heaven and the Emperor on the earth to command and govern it, to whom all have to be subjected and to serve. —Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza to fray Marcos de Niza, 1538.” (Weber 2009: 13) Like with any other proselytization one must of course question if it is in the best interest of everyone to do this violently. Apart from the strongly religious nature of Spanish colonization we furthermore need to highlight the aspect of enslavement of the indigenous people for work. “Spanish gentlemen, or would-be gentlemen, might operate farms, ranches, or mines, but [they] had no intention of performing monotonous, backbreaking manual labor if Indians could be made to do it for them.” (Weber 2009: 91) The enslavement of indigenous peoples was excused by the Spaniards in the way that they named large groups of them “Apache”, which were named enemies to the colonial empire:

The use of the term “Apache” in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was in part fueled by colonists’ interests in obtaining slave labor. Declaring that “the entire Apache nation” had resisted Spanish rule, and was therefore “an enemy” to colonial society, served to justify their enslavement. By labeling a wide array of surrounding Indigenous peoples as Apache, the Spaniards and their Native allies could ensure their supply of enslaved laborer would be abundant. (Conrad 2021: 5)


1 United States Census Bureau: Census - Table Results (last accessed 27.08.2021)

Excerpt out of 17 pages


Spanish Influence on North American English
External History and Encounters with the Natives
LMU Munich
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ISBN (Book)
Sprachwissenschaft, North America, Hispanic Influence
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Sarah Ludvigsen (Author), 2021, Spanish Influence on North American English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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