The Basques have always been known for their adventurous spirit. Their search for fishing grounds took them to Iceland and beyond, reaching the coast of what would become Canada, where they established whale processing sites and developed a pidgin with the local Native Americans (and the Icelanders too). However, they also played a big role in the Castilian conquest of the Americas. Their expertise as seamen made them valuable to both France and Castile. Much of the current shape of the Americas is due to the actions of the many Basques who were part of the conquest.
- From the beginning, Basques were there. Christopher Columbus’ expedition contained Basque seamen. The first Castilian colony in the Americas, Fort Navidad (created from the wreckage of the ship Santa Maria), had a number of Basque settlers, including the Santa Maria‘s boatswain, a Basque from Leikeito nicknamed “Chachu.”
- In the early stages of the conquest and colonization of the Americas, that time between 1492 and 1520 referred to as the “Great Explorations,” Europeans didn’t tend to conquer large regions but rather made expeditions to trade with the local inhabitants. In this setting, Basque shipowners such as Sancho Ortiz de Urruela and Juan de Urrutia obtained permission for such expeditions along the Cumaná coast of modern Venezuela in 1519.
- Dominion over the Americas began with the conquest of the Aztec empire and other parts of what became Mexico. Starting from the newly-formed Mexico City, built upon the ashes of the former Aztec capital Tenochtitlán, expeditions sought to expand the empire. Basques were central to this expansion, with the modern cities of Guadalajara and Zacatecas founded by Cristobal de Oñate (from Gasteiz, 1504-1567). Many other Basques came with him, including Santiago Aguirre, Juan Anuncibay, Alfonso Gaztañaga, Miguel Landeta, and Martin de Renteria.
- As the empire expanded to the north, Basques were there. In 1563, a group led by Francisco de Ibarra, native of Eibar, who set out in search of the mythical land of Cíbola and founded the city of Durango, as the capital of a vast territory that received the name of Nueva Vizcaya. Juan de Oñate, the American Creole son of Cristóbal, followed in his father’s footsteps and conquered New Mexico in 1598. He is infamous for his actions in the Aroma War, where he was said to have cut off one foot of of every male 12 years and older for punishment. Juan de Montaño (Portugalete) took part in the expedition that reached the California peninsula in 1535.
- To the south, Pascual de Andagoya from Andagoia, Araba, captained the first attempt to conquer Peru and the Incan empire. While his attempt in 1522 would end in failure, the news he spread about that kingdom led to its fall a few years later
- After the fall of the Incas, the conquest entered a third phase, distinguished by expeditions to explore and conquer the rest of the Americas. Pedro de Ursua (Baztan, Nafarroa) led an expedition up the Amazon in search of the mythical El Dorado. There were many Basques who joined this expedition, among them the infamous Lope de Aguirre “El Loco” (Oñati, Gipuzkoa). Alonso de Ercilla, of Bizkaian origin, distinguished himself in the conquest of Chile.
- In the Rio de la Plata region, Domingo Martinez de Irala (Bergara, Gipuzkoa) was involved in the founding of Buenos Aires in 1536. Years later, in an effort to link Peru to the Atlantic Ocean, Juan Ortiz de Zarate (Orduña, Bizkaia) led an army to establish such a route. His forces were defeated by the Charrúa in present-day Uruguay, and he had to be rescued by Juan de Garay, who may also have been from Orduña. Garay founded, amongst several cities, the second founding of Buenos Aires.
- This is just a brief overview of some of the Basque who were involved in the conquest of the Americas. Stephen Bass has pulled together an extensive and outstanding history, documenting all of the Basque involvement in the Americas he could find. His Basques in the Americas From 1492 to1892: A Chronology is truly impressive.
Primary source: Álvarez Gila, Óscar. Vascos en la conquista y colonización de América. Enciclopedia Auñamendi. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/vascos-en-la-conquista-y-colonizacion-de-america/ar-28435/
Note: The article in the Enciclopedia Auñamendi states “Juan de Ibarra” was the founder of the city of Durango, Mexico, but everything else I can find says it was “Francisco de Ibarra.” Also, some say he was from Eibar, but other sources say he named Durango after his home town.