Conquest of Chile

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The Conquest of Chile is a period in Chilean historiography that starts with the arrival of Pedro de Valdivia to Chile in 1541 and ends with the death of Martín García Óñez de Loyola in the Battle of Curalaba in 1598, and the destruction of the Seven Cities in 1598–1604 in the Araucanía region.


This was the period of Spanish conquest of territories, founding of cities, establishment of the Captaincy General of Chile, and defeats ending its further colonial expansion southwards. The Arauco War continued, and the Spanish were never able to recover their short control in Araucanía south of the Bío Bío River.


Chile at the time of the Spanish arrivals

Synthesis map of the development of the Inca Empire in Chile in the decades before the Spanish arrival. IncaChileespanol1.0.png
Synthesis map of the development of the Inca Empire in Chile in the decades before the Spanish arrival.

When the Spanish first came to Central Chile the territory had been under Inca rule for less than 60 years. Historian Osvaldo Silva posits the last Inca push towards the south were made as late as in the 1530s. [1] The main settlements of the Inca Empire in Chile lay along the Aconcagua River, Mapocho River, and the Maipo River. [2] Quillota in Aconcagua Valley was likely their foremost settlement. [2] As it appear to be the case in the other borders of the Inca Empire, the southern border was composed of several zones: first, an inner, fully incorporated zone with mitimaes protected by a line of pukaras (fortresses) and then an outer zone with Inca pukaras scattered among allied tribes. [3] This outer zone would according to historian José Bengoa have been located between the Maipo and Maule Rivers. [3]

However the largest indigenous population were the Mapuches living south of the Inca borders in the area spanning from the Itata River to Chiloé Archipelago. [4] The Mapuche population between the Itata River and Reloncaví Sound has been estimated at 705,000–900,000 in the mid-16th century by historian José Bengoa. [5] [note 1] Mapuches lived in scattered hamlets, mainly along the great rivers of Southern Chile. [6] [7] All major population centres lay at the confluences of rivers. [8] Mapuches preferred to build their houses on hilly terrain or isolated hills rather than on plains and terraces. [7] The Mapuche people represented an unbroken culture dating back to as early as 600 to 500 BC. [9] Yet Mapuches had been influenced over centuries by Central Andean cultures such as Tiwanaku. [10] [11] Through their contact with Incan invaders Mapuches would have for the first time met people with state-level organization. Their contact with the Inca gave them a collective awareness distinguishing between them and the invaders and uniting them into loose geopolitical units despite their lack of state organization. [12]

Mapuche territory had an effective system of roads before the Spanish arrival as evidenced by the fast advances of the Spanish conquerors. [13]

First Spaniards in Chile

The first Spanish subjects to enter the territory of what would become Chile were the members of the Magellan expedition that discovered the Straits of Magellan before completing the world's first circumnavigation.

Gonzalo Calvo de Barrientos left Peru for Chile after a quarrel with the Pizarro brothers. The Pizarro brothers had accused Calvo de Barrientos of theft and had him cropped as punishment. Antón Cerrada joined Calvo de Barrientos in his exile.

Diego de Almagro ventured into present-day Bolivia and the Argentine Northwest in 1535. From there he crossed into Chile at the latitudes of Copiapó. Almagros expedition was a failure as he did not find the riches he expected.

Pedro de Valdivia

Expedition to Chile

Pedro de Valdivia Pedro de Valdivia(2).jpg
Pedro de Valdivia

In April 1539, Francisco Pizarro authorized Pedro de Valdivia as his lieutenant governor with orders to conquer Chile. That did not include monetary aid, which he had to procure on his own. Valdivia did so, in association with the merchant Francisco Martínez Vegaso, captain Alonso de Monroy, and Pedro Sanchez de la Hoz. Sanchez was the longtime secretary to Pizarro, who had returned from Spain with authorization from the king to explore the territories south of the Viceroyalty of Peru to the Strait of Magellan, also granting Valdivia the title of governor over lands taken from the indigenous peoples.

The Juan Bautista Pastene expedition to southern Chile in 1544. ExploracionPastene.png
The Juan Bautista Pastene expedition to southern Chile in 1544.

Valdivia came to the Valley of Copiapo and took possession in the name of the King of Spain and named it Nueva Extremadura, for his Spanish homeland of Extremadura. On February 12, 1541, he founded the city of Santiago de la Nueva Extremadura on Huelen hill (present-day Santa Lucia Hill).


Valdivia had rejected the position and titles due him while Pizarro was alive, as it could have been seen as an act of treason. He accepted the titles after the death of Francisco Pizarro. Pedro de Valdivia was named Governor and Captain-General of the Captaincy General of Chile on June 11, 1541. He was the first Governor of Chile.

Valdivia organized the first distribution of encomiendas and of indigenous peoples among the Spanish immigrants in Santiago. The Chilean region was not as rich in minerals as Peru, so the indigenous peoples were forced to work on construction projects and placer gold mining. The "conquest" was a challenge, with the first attack of Michimalonco in September 1541, burning the new settlement to the ground.

Valdivia authorized Juan Bohon to found the city of La Serena in 1544. The Juan Bautista Pastene expedition ventured to unexplored southern Chile in 1544. Arriving at the Bio-Bio River, started the Arauco War with the Mapuche people. The epic poem La Araucana (1576) by Alonso de Ercilla describes the Spanish viewpoint.

The Spanish won several battles, such as the Andalien battle, and Penco battle in 1550. The victories allowed Valdiva to found cities on the Mapuche homelands, such as Concepcion in 1550, La Imperial, Valdivia, and Villarrica in 1552, and Los Confines in 1553.

Lautaro led the Mapuche rebellion that killed Pedro de Valdivia in the battle of Tucapel in 1553.

Aspects of the Spanish conquest

Background of the conquistadores

Most conquistadores were Spanish men. A few where from elsewhere, like Juan Valiente who was a black-skinned African. Juan de Bohon (Johann von Bohon), the founder of La Serena and Barlolomeo Flores (Barotholomeus Blumental) are said to have been Germans. [14] Navigator Juan Bautista Pastene was of Genoese origin. Inés Suárez stands out as a rare female conquistadora.

Founding of cities

The conquest of Chile was not carried out directly by the Spanish Crown but by Spaniards that formed enterprises for those purposes and gathered financial resources and soldiers for the enterprise by their own. [15] In 1541 an expedition (enterprise) led by Pedro de Valdivia founded Santiago initiating the conquest of Chile. The first years were harsh for the Spaniards mainly due to their poverty, indigenous rebellions, and frequent conspiracies. [16] The inhabitants of Santiago in the mid-16th century were notoriously poorly dressed as result of a lack of supplies, with some Spanish even resorting to dress with hides from dogs, cats, sea lions, and foxes. [17] The second founding of La Serena in 1549 (initially founded in 1544 but destroyed by natives) was followed by the founding of numerous new cities in southern Chile halting only after Valdivia's death in 1553. [16]

The Spanish colonization of the Americas was characterized by the establishments of cities in the middle of conquered territories. With the founding of each city a number of conquistadores became vecinos of that city being granted a solar and possibly also a chacra in the outskirts of the city, or a hacienda or estancia in more far away parts of the countryside. Apart from land, natives were also distributed among Spaniards since they were considered vital for carrying out any economic activity. [18]

The cities founded, despite defeats in the Arauco War, were: Santiago (1541), La Serena (1544), Concepción (1550), La Imperial, Valdivia, Villarrica (1552), Los Confines (1553), Cañete (1557), Osorno (1558), Arauco (1566), Castro (1567), Chillán (1580), and Santa Cruz de Oñez (1595).

The destruction of the Seven Cities in 1600, and ongoing Arauco War stopped Spanish expansion southward.

Use of yanacona

Gold mining

Early Spaniards extracted gold from placer deposits using indigenous labour. [19] This contributed to usher in the Arauco War as native Mapuches lacked a tradition of forced labour like the Andean mita and largely refused to serve the Spanish. [20] The key area of the Arauco War were the valleys around Cordillera de Nahuelbuta where the Spanish designs for this region was to exploit the placer deposits of gold using unfree Mapuche labour from the nearby and densely populated valleys. [13] Deaths related to mining contributed to a population decline among native Mapuches. [20] Another site of Spanish mining was the city of Villarrica. At this city the Spanish mined gold placers and silver. [21] The original site of the city was likely close to modern Pucón. [21] However at some point in the 16th century it is presumed the gold placers were buried by lahars flowing down from nearby Villarrica Volcano. This prompted settlers to relocate the city further west at its modern location. [21]

Mining activity declined in the late 16th century as the richest part of placer deposits, which are usually the most shallow, became exhausted. [19] The decline was aggravated by the collapse of the Spanish cities in the south following the battle of Curalaba (1598) which meant for the Spaniards the loss of both the main gold districts and the largest indigenous labour sources. [22]

Compared to the 16th and 18th centuries, Chilean mining activity in the 17th century was very limited. [23]

Southern limit of the conquests

Pedro de Valdivia sought originally to conquer all of southern South America to the Straits of Magellan (53° S). He did however only reach Reloncaví Sound (41°45' S). Later in 1567 Chiloé Archipelago (42°30' S) was conquered, from there on southern expansion of the Spanish Empire halted. The Spanish are thought to have lacked incentives for further conquests south. The indigenous populations were scarce and had ways of life that differed from the sedentary agricultural life the Spanish were accostumed to. [24] The harsh climate in the fjords and channels of Patagonia may also have deterred further expansion. [24] Indeed, even in Chiloé did the Spanish encounter difficulties to adapt as their attempts to base the economy on gold extraction and a "hispanic-mediterranean" agricultural model failed. [25]

Timeline of events

1540December Pedro de Valdivia takes possession of Chile in the name of the King of Spain.
1541February 12 Santiago is founded.
September 11 Destruction of Santiago. Michimalonco leads a Picunche attack on Santiago, the city is severely damaged but the attack is repelled.
1544September 4 La Serena is founded by Juan Bohón.
1549January 11 La Serena is destroyed by natives.
August 26La Serena is refounded.
1551October 5 Concepción is founded.
1552 San Felipe de Rauco, La Imperial and Villarrica are founded.
February 9The city of Valdivia is founded by Pedro de Valdivia.
1553 Los Confines is founded.
December 25The battle of Tucapel takes place, governor Pedro de Valdivia is killed after the battle.
1554February 23The battle of Marihueñu takes place, Concepción is abandoned and destroyed.
October 17 Jerónimo de Alderete is appointed governor of Chile in Spain by the king but dies on his journey to Chile.
1557April 1 Francisco de Villagra defeats the Mapuches and kills their leader Lautaro at the battle of Mataquito.
April 23The new governor García Hurtado de Mendoza arrives in La Serena.
JuneGarcía Hurtado de Mendoza arrives in the bay of Concepcion and builds a fort at Penco, then defeats the Mapuche army trying to dislodge him.
October 10García Hurtado de Mendoza defeats the Mapuche army in the Battle of Lagunillas.
November 7García Hurtado de Mendoza defeats Caupolicán in the Millarupe.
1558January 11 Cañete founded by Mendoza.
February 5 Pedro de Avendaño captured the Mapuche toqui Caupolicán, later executed by impalement in Cañete.
March 27 Osorno is founded.
December 13 Battle of Quiapo, Mendoza defeats the Mapuche and San Felipe de Araucan rebuilt.
1559January 6 Concepción is refounded.
1561 Francisco de Villagra succeeds García Hurtado de Mendoza as governor.
1563 Cañete is abandoned.
July 22 Francisco de Villagra dies and is succeeded as governor by his cousin Pedro de Villagra. San Felipe de Araucan is soon abandoned.
August 29The territories of Tucumán are separated from the Captaincy General of Chile and transferred to the Real Audiencia of Charcas.
1564February Concepción is unsuccessfully sieged by native Mapuches.
1565A Real Audiencia is established in Concepción.
1566January San Felipe de Araucan is refounded.
1567With the founding of Castro the dominions of the Captaincy General of Chile are extended into Chiloé Archipelago.
1570February 8The 1570 Concepción earthquake affects all of south-central Chile.
1575The Real Audiencia of Concepción is abolished.
December 16The 1575 Valdivia earthquake affects all of southern Chile.
1576AprilValdivia is flooded by a Riñihuazo caused by the 1575 Valdivia earthquake.
1578December 5 Valparaíso is plundered by Francis Drake, the first corsair in Chilean waters.
1580June 26 Chillán is founded.
1584March 25 Rey Don Felipe is founded in the Straits of Magellan by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa.
1587 Thomas Cavendish finds Rey Don Felipe as a ruin city.
1594MayFort of Santa Cruz de Oñez is founded and becomes the city of Santa Cruz de Coya the following year.
1598December 21The battle of Curalaba takes place, governor Martín García Óñez de Loyola is killed during the battle.
1599 Los Confines, Santa Cruz de Coya and Valdivia are destroyed.
The Real Situado, an annual payment to finance the Arauco War, is established.
1600 La Imperial is destroyed.
1602 Villarrica is destroyed.
March 13A fort is established in the ruins of Valdivia.
1603February 7The last inhabitants of Villarrica surrender to the Mapuches and became captives.
1604 Arauco and Osorno are destroyed.
February 3The fort at Valdivia is abandoned.

See also


  1. Note that the Chiloé Archipelago with its large population is not included in this estimate.

Related Research Articles

Pedro de Valdivia Spanish conquistador

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Battle of Quilacura was a battle in the Arauco War, fought at night, four leagues from the Bio-Bio River, between the Spanish expedition of Pedro de Valdivia and a force of Mapuche warriors led by Malloquete on February 11, 1546.

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The Battle of Mataquito was fought in the Arauco War on April 30, 1557, between the Spanish forces of the governor, Francisco de Villagra, and Mapuche headed by their toqui Lautaro. It was a dawn surprise attack on Lautaro's fortified camp between a wooded mountain and the shore of the Mataquito River. The battle is notable for ending Mapuche pretensions to expulse the Spanish from Santiago, while also avenging the death of former governor Pedro de Valdivia who had been killed by Lautaro's warriors four years earlier.

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Millalelmo or Millarelmo was a Mapuche military leader in the second great Mapuche rebellion that began in 1561 during the Arauco War. Probably the toqui of the Arauco region, he commanded the Mapuche army of that area at the siege of Arauco from May 20 to June 30, 1562.

Pedro de Avendaño a Spanish soldier that had arrived in Chile with the army of García Hurtado de Mendoza in 1557. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Millarapue. He later served in the garrison of Cañete under captain Alonso de Reinoso. Reinoso eventually found an Indian who betrayed the location of the fugitive Mapuche toqui Caupolicán. Avendaño, with 50 men and the traitorous Indian as a guide, marched in stormy weather into the mountains to Pilmaiquén and captured Caupolicán as he was planning a new counter-offensive against the Spanish, near the modern Antihuala, on February 5, 1558. He brought the toqui back to Cañete where he was eventually executed by empalement at the order of corregidor Reinoso.

In Chilean historiography, Colonial Chile is the period from 1600 to 1810, beginning with the Destruction of the Seven Cities and ending with the onset of the Chilean War of Independence. During this time the Chilean heartland was ruled by Captaincy General of Chile. The period was characterized by a lengthy conflict between Spaniards and native Mapuches known as the Arauco War. Colonial society was divided in distinct groups including Peninsulars, Criollos, Mestizos, Indians and Black people.

The Mapuche people of southern Chile and Argentina have a long history dating back as an archaeological culture to 600–500 BC. The Mapuche society had great transformations after Spanish contact in the mid–16th century. These changes included the adoption of Old World crops and animals and the onset of a rich Spanish–Mapuche trade in La Frontera and Valdivia. Despite these contacts Mapuche were never completely subjugated by the Spanish Empire. Between the 18th and 19th century Mapuche culture and people spread eastwards into the Pampas and the Patagonian plains. This vast new territory allowed Mapuche groups to control a substantial part of the salt and cattle trade in the Southern Cone.

Incas in Central Chile

Inca rule in Chile was brief; it lasted from the 1470s to the 1530s when the Inca Empire was absorbed by Spain. The main settlements of the Inca Empire in Chile lay along the Aconcagua, Mapocho and Maipo rivers. Quillota in Aconcagua Valley was likely the Incas' foremost settlement. The bulk of the people conquered by the Incas in Central Chile were Diaguitas and part of the Promaucae.

Dutch expedition to Valdivia

The Dutch expedition to Valdivia was a naval expedition, commanded by Hendrik Brouwer, sent by the Dutch Republic in 1643 to establish a base of operations and a trading post on the southern coast of Chile. With Spain and the Dutch Republic at war, the Dutch wished to take over the ruins of the abandoned Spanish city of Valdivia. The expedition sacked the Spanish settlements of Carelmapu and Castro in the Chiloé Archipelago before sailing to Valdivia, having the initial support of the local natives. The Dutch arrived in Valdivia on 24 August 1643 and named the colony Brouwershaven after Brouwer, who had died several weeks earlier. The short-lived colony was abandoned on 28 October 1643. Nevertheless, the occupation caused great alarm among Spanish authorities. The Spanish resettled Valdivia and began the construction of an extensive network of fortifications in 1645 to prevent a similar intrusion. Although contemporaries considered the possibility of a new incursion, the expedition was the last one undertaken by the Dutch on the west coast of the Americas.

The origin of the Mapuche has been a matter of research for over a century. The genetics of the Mapuche do not show overly clear affinities with any other known indigenous group in the Americas, the same goes for linguistics where Mapuche language is considered a language isolate. Archaeological evidence shows Mapuche culture has existed in Chile at least since 600 to 500 BC. Mapuches are late arrivals in their southernmost and easternmost (Pampas) areas of settlement, yet Mapuche history in the north towards Atacama Desert may be older than historic settlement suggest. The Mapuche has received significant influence from Pre-Incan (Tiwanaku?), Incan and Spanish peoples, but deep origins of the Mapuche predates these contacts. Contact and conflict with the Spanish Empire are thought by scholars such as Tom Dillehay and José Bengoa to have had a profound impact on the shaping of the Mapuche ethnicity.


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