Spanish conquest of El Salvador

Spanish conquest of El Salvador
Part of the Spanish colonization of the Americas
Guerra de Cuzcatlán.png
A page from the Lienzo de Tlaxcala, depicting the conquest of Cuscatlan
Date1524 – c. 1539
LocationEl Salvador, Central America
ResultSpanish victory
Incorporation of El Salvador into the Spanish Empire
Spain Spanish Empire, including Indian auxiliaries

Indigenous peoples of El Salvador, including:

Commanders and leaders
  • Pedro de Alvarado
  • Gonzalo de Alvarado
  • The Spanish conquest of El Salvador was the campaign undertaken by the Spanish conquistadores against the Late Postclassic Mesoamerican polities in the territory that is now incorporated into the modern Central American nation of El Salvador. El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America, and is dominated by two mountain ranges running east-west. Its climate is tropical, and the year is divided into wet and dry seasons. Before the conquest the country formed a part of the Mesoamerican cultural region, and was inhabited by a number of indigenous peoples, including the Pipil, the Lenca, the Xinca, and Maya. Native weaponry consisted of spears, bows and arrows, and wooden swords with inset stone blades; they wore padded cotton armour.

    The Spanish conquistadores were largely volunteers, receiving the spoils of victory instead of a salary; many were experienced soldiers who had already campaigned in Europe. The Spanish expeditions to Central America were launched from three different Spanish jurisdictions, resulting in rival conquests by mutually hostile Spanish captains. Spanish weaponry included swords, firearms, crossbows and light artillery. Metal armour was impractical in the hot, humid climate of Central America and the Spanish were quick to adopt the quilted cotton armour of the natives. The conquistadors were supported by a large number of Indian auxiliaries drawn from previously encountered Mesoamerican groups.

    The first campaign against the native inhabitants was undertaken in 1524 by Pedro de Alvarado. Alvarado launched his expedition against the Pipil province of Cuscatlan from the Guatemalan Highlands, but by July 1524 he had retreated back to Guatemala.[1] Gonzalo de Alvarado founded San Salvador the following year, but it was eradicated by a native attack in 1526, during a general uprising that spread across the region. Pedro de Alvarado returned to campaign in El Salvador in 1526 and 1528, and in the latter year, Diego de Alvarado reestablished San Salvador and issued encomiendas to his supporters. In 1528, the uprising finally ended when the Spanish stormed the native stronghold at the Peñol de Cinacantan.

    In 1529, El Salvador became embroiled in a jurisdictional dispute with neighbouring Nicaragua. Pedrarias Dávila sent Martín de Estete at the head of an expedition to annex the territory to Nicaragua. Estete captured the leader of a rival Spanish expedition in eastern El Salvador, and marched on San Salvador, before being repulsed by a relief force sent from Guatemala. In 1530, Pedro de Alvarado ordered the establishment of a new settlement at San Miguel, in the east of the country, to protect against further incursions from Nicaragua, and to assist in the conquest of the surrounding area. Indigenous uprisings against the invaders continued, spreading from neighbouring Honduras. The general uprising across the two provinces was put down by the end of 1538, and by 1539 the province was considered pacified. The conquistadores discovered that there was little gold or silver to be found in El Salvador, and it became a colonial backwater with a small Spanish population, within the jurisdiction of the Captaincy General of Guatemala.[2]


    Topographic map of El Salvador

    El Salvador is the smallest country in Central America,[3] extending approximately 261 kilometres (162 mi) east-west and 100 kilometres (62 mi) north-south,[4] covering an area of 21,040 square kilometres (8,124 sq mi); much of its territory occupies a volcanic plateau about 600 metres (2,000 ft) above mean sea level. It is located on the Pacific coast of Central America and is bordered by Guatemala to the west, and Honduras to the north and east. The country is seismologically active, and has a history of devastating earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. The country is divided into four main regions; two mountain ranges run east-west across the country,[5] with a 50-kilometre (31 mi) wide central plateau dividing them.[6] The northern range are the Sierra Madre, rising to an altitude of 2,200 metres (7,200 ft) follow the border with Honduras.[5] The southern range is a volcanic chain composed of more than 20 volcanoes clustered in five groups. The Santa Ana Volcano rises near the Guatemalan border to an altitude of 2,365 metres (7,759 ft); its peak is the highest point in the country.[7] The Pacific Lowlands form a narrow littoral plain running along the south coast.[5] El Salvador has over 300 rivers draining into the Pacific. The Lempa River is the only navigable river, and flows from Guatemala through the Sierra Madre and along the central plateau, before crossing the volcanic chain to drain into the Pacific Ocean,[7] dividing the country into clearly defined western and eastern regions.[8] Most of the other rivers are short, flowing either from the central plateau through gaps in the volcanic chain, or draining the coastal plain.[7]


    El Salvador has a tropical climate with a relatively narrow temperature variation, largely dependent upon altitude, with the average temperature ranging between 18.0 and 32.0 °C (64.4 and 89.6 °F). At the highest altitudes, the temperature can drop below freezing. The country experiences a dry season from mid-November to mid-April and a rainy season from mid-May to mid-October. El Salvador has one of the highest rainfalls in Latin America, varying from an average annual rainfall of 170 centimetres (68 in) on the Pacific coast to 240 centimetres (96 in) in the highlands of the Sierra Madre.[9]

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