Names & Terms in 
   Fasttrack to America's Past
   Section 1:  Discovery and Exploration
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Aztec - a Native American group whose capital, Tenochtitlan, was built on an island in a lake located where Mexico City is now.  By the time Europeans arrived, the Aztecs ruled an empire of about five million people.  They are famous for their high level of civilization and crop irrigation system.  An elaborate calendar governed their civic activities and religious rituals.
    The Aztec are also known for their oppressive treatment of neighboring tribes.  Human sacrifice to their sun god was practiced on a staggering scale.  A thousand or more captives a week were sacrificed in some periods.  Priests cut the hearts from the living victims, who were captured from other Indian groups. 
    The Aztecs and their leader, Montezuma, were overthrown by the Spanish under Hernando Cortes in 1521.

Catholic Church - the Christian church that developed in the Roman Empire after the death of Jesus Christ.  Catholic monasteries kept learning alive during the Middle Ages, and the Church itself was a key force in the political life of European kingdoms.
    Catholic priests were especially active during the Age of Discovery in the missions they started in areas of the New World controlled by Spain and France.  During the 1500s a religious movement in Europe called the Protestant Reformation created new churches that opposed some of the beliefs and practices of the Catholics.  Leaders of the new churches often argued that Christianity should be returned to a more simple form based solely on teachings in the Bible.  They also objected to the power of the Pope, the head of the Catholic Church.
    Over the next few centuries Catholics and Protestants often struggled - sometimes violently - to advance their own interpretations of Christianity.  The disputes affected not only European nations, but also the settlement and early history of America.  Fortunately, a spirit of religious tolerance grew up and spread in the new nation, greatly reducing the old conflicts over faith.
    The beliefs that evolved in the Judeo-Christian tradition (including Jews, Catholics, and Protestants) have had an enormous impact on the development of the moral and political ideas of our civilization.  For example, early Christians rejected, often at the cost of their own lives, the power of the Roman government to demand the worship of Roman leaders.  This concept of the self, with a private consciousness entitled to freedom of thought and belief, is at the core of American political beliefs even today.

Columbian Exchange - the exchange of previously unknown plants and animals between the Old World and the New World after the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492.  Corn and the potato came back to Europe, along with scores of other new plants and animals.  The horse and the cow were introduced to the New World.  Disease, especially smallpox from Europe, was also part of the exchange.

Columbus, Christopher - the famous explorer who discovered the New World in 1492.  Born in Genoa, Italy, he was already a very experienced captain when he conceived his plan to reach the lands of the Far East by sailing west across the Atlantic.  After years of trying to find a backer, he finally convinced king Ferdinand and queen Isabella of Spain to support his voyage.  He took three ships, the Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria.  The exact island where he first landed in the West Indies is still disputed.
    Columbus made three more voyages to the New World, still seeking the Far East and its fabled riches. 
    In recent decades, a considerable debate has emerged about whether Columbus should be honored as a great hero of discovery, or denounced as the first in a long line of Europeans who oppressed the native population.

conquistadors - the Spanish word for the soldiers and their leaders who conquered the Native Americans of the New World in the early 1500s.  With guns and horses, both unknown to the Indians, they had a tremendous military advantage. The writings of the Spanish priest Bartolome de Las Casas revealed the terrible cruelties committed by many of the conquistadors against the Native Americans.

de Las Casas, Bartolome - a  Spanish soldier involved in the conquest of Cuba in the early 1500s who later became a priest in the Catholic Church.  After studying the teachings of the Bible, he concluded that many of the activities of the Spanish in the New World were morally wrong.  As a missionary, he dedicated his life to the protection of Native Americans.  His writings and arguments helped convince the Pope and the king of Spain to issue an order against the enslavement and abuse of Indians.

de Soto, Hernando - a Spanish explorer who took an army of about 600 men through much of what is now the southeast United States in search of gold and other riches.  In 1541 he became the first European to see the Mississippi River.  De Soto overcame incredible difficulties along the way, but his expedition is also known for mistreatment of many of the Indian groups he met.  He died of a fever, and only about half of his army survived.  They never found the gold or riches they sought, but did strengthen Spain's claim to the Gulf Coast region from Florida to Texas.

exploitation - to take unfair advantage of a person or group for one’s own gain, especially in an organized or systematic way. 

Inca - the greatest of the New World empires, located along the west coast of South America in what is now Peru.  Their capital was at Cuzco, high in the Andes mountain range.
    The Incas built thousands of miles of roads that were used by the government to administer the empire. The civilization was maintained without writing, which the Inca never developed.  Many ruins of the ancient towns and buildings can still be seen, and the stone work is impressive.
    A staple of the Inca diet was the potato, native to the Andes.  The sun god was among the sacred figures, and human sacrifice was practiced.  The Inca civilization fell to the Spanish, led by Francisco Pizzaro, in 1533.

Lost Colony, The - a common name for the colony at Roanoke Island (now in North Carolina) that was started in 1587 by the English.  Sir Walter Raleigh was among the key promoters of the venture.  The colony is famous because all its residents disappeared, including the first English child born in North America, Virginia Dare. 
    When a supply ship came in 1590, the only signs of the colonists’ fate were the letters CRO and the word Croatoan, the name of a nearby island, carved on a tree trunk.  The fate of the colonists is still unknown, although archeologists hope to find a clue someday that would solve the mystery.

Magellan, Ferdinand - the famous explorer from Portugal who led a Spanish expedition that was the first to sail around the world.  Magellan and five ships left from Spain in 1519.  Only one ship and 18 men made it home to Spain in 1522.  Magellan was killed in the Philippines in a battle with a group of natives who were enemies of another group he befriended.  But the voyage proved the basic layout of the continents, and helped extend the area claimed by the Spanish.

missions - religious “outposts” in a foreign land aimed at winning converts.  In the centuries after 1492, Catholic priests from Spain established many mission settlements in the New World to convert Native Americans, and teach them Europeans ways of life and agriculture.  They attempted to protect the native population from exploitation by Spanish conquistadors and landowners.  But they have also been criticized in modern times for the role they played in forcing Europeans ways on Indians.  Some of the Spanish missions built in what is now California are popular stops for tourists.

plantation - a large farm that typically raises one or two large cash crops like sugar cane or tobacco.  Often, the term  is applied to farms using forced labor, although sometimes it is applied to any farm, or even a settlement, such as Plymouth Plantation.

Renaissance - in Europe, the period that lasted from about 1350 until about 1600.  The word means the “rebirth” of European civilization after the Middle Ages.  Growing trade, contact with the Arab and Chinese civilizations, and the rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman books all helped trigger the change. 
    The Age of Discovery was part of the Renaissance, and reflects many of its characteristics.  There was a new sense of the beauty of the natural world and the human body, and of the power of the human mind to understand the world.  There was a growing sense that mathematics and science were the keys to discovering new knowledge.
    The magnetic compass and instruments like the astrolabe helped improve navigation of ships.  Better maps were developed.  The printing press, invented in the 1440s, helped spread knowledge and curiosity about distant lands.
    The growth of a new merchant class represented a crack in the old feudal system of nobles and serfs.  The merchant class would play a big role in exploring new lands and financing voyages that opened up the world. In later centuries, this new middle class would shatter forever the absolute hold on political power held by the nobility and royalty of Europe.
    Modern ideas of political equality and democracy did not evolve during the Renaissance.  But several Italian city-states adopted republican forms of government for a time.  In addition, certain ideas found in thinkers and artists of the period, which emphasized the capabilities of the human mind and spirit, lie at the foundation of democratic political theory.

smallpox - a disease common in Europe until modern times that caused disfiguring pustules on the skin, and sometimes death.  It killed millions of Indians in the New World when it spread from ships’ crews to the natives after 1492, because the Indians had none of the resistance that Europeans had built up.  Today vaccines have eliminated the disease, but there are fears it could re-emerge in germ warfare.

Spice Islands - known today as the Molucca Islands, they lie off the coasts of Asia and Australia.  This small group of islands was the main source of valuable spices like pepper in ancient times.  Trade routes carried small amounts of the spices to Europe, where they were highly desired by the wealthy nobility and merchant classes.  One of the key goals of early explorers was to find a sea route from Europe to these islands and other lands of the Far East.


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Copyright 1999, 2015 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.