10 Notable Spanish Conquistadors Throughout History

European Colonizers Who Forcefully Claimed Territory and Wealth

Conquistador Pizarro in battle between Aztec and spanish troups 1863

Grafissimo/Getty Images

By invading and colonizing the New World, Spain built an empire. It amassed a great fortune on goods stolen from Indigenous people and grew to be seen as a formidable global power by murdering and enslaving inhabitants of land it desired. Those who set out to colonize the New World for Spain were known as conquistadors. Learn more about ten of the most infamous conquistadors below.

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Hernan Cortes, Conquistador of the Aztec Empire

Hernan Cortes

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

In 1519, Hernán Cortés set out from Cuba with 600 men on an expedition to the mainland in present-day Mexico. He soon came into contact with the mighty Aztec Empire, home to millions of citizens and thousands of warriors. To gain an advantage over the unsuspecting Aztecs and gather more fighters for his army, Cortés exploited traditional feuds and rivalries among the groups that made up the empire. The violent struggle that ensued becomes known as the Spanish-Aztec War. Thousands of Spaniards swarmed to the New World after the war was over, the Aztec Empire destroyed.

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Francisco Pizarro, Lord of Peru

Francisco Pizzaro

 Amable-Paul Coutan/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Francisco Pizarro took a page from Cortes' book, capturing Atahualpa, Emperor of the Inca, in 1532. Atahualpa agreed to a ransom and soon all the gold and silver of the mighty Empire was given to Pizarro. Playing off existing Inca factions by pitting them against one another, Pizarro attacked weakened settlements, taking many captives, and made himself master of Peru by 1533. The Indigenous people fought back on several occasions, but Pizarro and his brothers used violence to quell these insurrections. Pizarro was killed by the son of a former rival in 1541.

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Pedro de Alvarado, Conquistador of the Maya

Pedro de Alvarado

Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Tlaxcala Town Hall

Known as "Tonatiuh," or "Sun God" for his blonde hair, Alvarado was Cortés' most trusted lieutenant, and the one Cortés tasked with exploring and colonizing lands to the south of Mexico. Alvarado found the remnants of the Maya Empire and, using what he had learned from Cortés, soon used local ethnic groups' mistrust of one another to his advantage.

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Lope de Aguirre, Madman of El Dorado

Lope de Aguirre

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Lope de Aguirre already had a reputation for being violent and unstable in 1559 when he joined an expedition to search the jungles of South America for the legendary El Dorado. While in the jungle, Aguirre began murdering his companions.

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Panfilo de Narvaez, the Unluckiest Conquistador

Defeat of Narvaez at Cempoala

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Pánfilo de Narváez participated in the colonialization of Cuba. After, he was sent to Mexico to rein in the ambitious Hernán Cortés. However, Cortés not only beat him in battle but took all of his men and went on to destroy the Aztec Empire. So, he headed north to present-day Florida. Only four out of 300 men survived this expedition, and he was not among them. He was last seen floating off on a raft in 1528.

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Diego de Almagro, Explorer of Chile

Diego de Almagro
Public Domain Image

Diego de Almagro was a partner with Francisco Pizarro when Pizarro looted the wealthy Inca Empire, but Almagro was in Panama at the time and missed out on the best treasure (although he showed up in time for the fighting). Later, his quarrels with Pizarro led to his leading an expedition south, where he discovered present-day Chile. Returning to Peru, he went to war with Pizarro, lost, and was executed.

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Vasco Nunez de Balboa, Discoverer of the Pacific

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa
Public Domain Image

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa (1475-1519) was a Spanish conquistador and explorer of the early colonial era. He is credited with leading the first European expedition to discover the Pacific Ocean (which he referred to as the "South Sea"). He was a popular leader among his people for the way he manipulated Indigenous populations, cultivating strong ties with some local groups while destroying others.

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Francisco de Orellana, a Greedy Traveler

The conquest of America
Diego Rivera

Francisco de Orellana took part early on in Pizarro's colonization of the Incan Empire. Although he stole much treasure, he still wanted more loot, so he set off with Gonzalo Pizarro and more than 200 Spanish conquistadors in search of the legendary city of El Dorado in 1541. Pizarro returned to Quito, but Orellana kept heading east, discovering the Amazon River and making his way to the Atlantic Ocean: an epic journey of thousands of miles that took months to complete.

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Gonzalo de Sandoval, the Dependable Lieutenant

Gonzalo de Sandoval

Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin/Public Domain

Hernán Cortés had many subordinates in his colonization of the Aztec Empire. There was none he trusted more than Gonzalo de Sandoval, who was barely 22 when he joined the expedition. Time and again, when Cortés was in a pinch, he turned to Sandoval. After destroying the empire, Sandoval took land and gold for himself but died young of an illness.

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Gonzalo Pizarro, Rebel in the Mountains

The Capture of Gonzalo Pizarro

Artist Unknown

By 1542, Gonzalo was the last of the Pizarro brothers in Peru. Juan and Francisco were dead, and Hernando was in prison in Spain. So when the Spanish crown passed the famously unpopular "New Laws" restricting conquistador privileges, the other conquistadors turned to Gonzalo, who led a bloody two-year revolt against Spanish authority before being captured and executed.

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Minster, Christopher. "10 Notable Spanish Conquistadors Throughout History." ThoughtCo, May. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/the-conquistadors-2136575. Minster, Christopher. (2021, May 3). 10 Notable Spanish Conquistadors Throughout History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/the-conquistadors-2136575 Minster, Christopher. "10 Notable Spanish Conquistadors Throughout History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/the-conquistadors-2136575 (accessed March 23, 2023).

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