Nicaragua Table of Contents
Central Square in Leon
Courtesy Nicaraguan Tourism Institute
Nicaragua's Caribbean coast was first seen by Spanish explorers in 1508. It was not until 1522, however, that a formal military expedition, under Gil González Dávila, led to the Spanish conquest of Nicaraguan territory. González launched an expedition from Panama, arriving in Nicaragua through Costa Rica. After suffering both illness and torrential rains, he reached the land governed by the powerful chief Nicoya, who gave González and his men a warm welcome. Soon thereafter, Nicoya and 6,000 of his people embraced the Roman Catholic faith. González continued his exploration and arrived in the next settlement, which was governed by a chief named Nicaragua, or Nicarao, after whom the country was named. Chief Nicaragua received González as a friend and gave him large quantities of gold. Perhaps to placate the Spanish, Nicaragua also converted to Roman Catholicism, as did more than 9,000 members of his tribe. All were baptized within eight days. Confident of further success, González moved on to the interior, where he encountered resistance from an army of 3,000 Niquiranos, led by their chief, Diriagén. González retreated and traveled south to the coast, returning to Panama with large quantities of gold and pearls.
In 1523 the governor of Panama, Pedro Arias Dávila (Pedrarias), appointed Francisco Hernández de Córdoba to lead the Nicaraguan conquest effort. Hernández de Córdoba led an expedition in 1524 that succeeded in establishing the first permanent Spanish settlement in Nicaragua. He quickly overcame the resistance of the native peoples and named the land Nicaragua. To deny González's claims of settlement rights and prevent his eventual control of the region, Hernández de Córdoba founded the cities of León and Granada, which later became the centers of colonial Nicaragua. From León, he launched expeditions to explore other parts of the territory. While the rivalry between Hernández de Córdoba and González raged, Pedrarias charged Hernández de Córdoba with mismanagement and sentenced him to death. González died soon thereafter, and the Spanish crown awarded Pedrarias the governorship of Nicaragua in 1528. Pedrarias stayed in Nicaragua until his death in July 1531.
Spain showed little interest in Nicaragua throughout this period, mostly because it was more interested in exploiting the vast riches found in Mexico and Peru. By 1531 many Spanish settlers in Nicaragua had left for South America to join Francisco Pizarro's efforts to conquer the wealthy regions of the Inca Empire. Native Nicaraguans settlements also decreased in size because the indigenous inhabitants were exported to work in Peruvian mines; an estimated 200,000 native Nicaraguans were exported as slaves to South America from 1528 to 1540. Many Spanish towns founded in Nicaragua during the first years of the conquest disappeared. By the end of the 1500s, Nicaragua was reduced to the cities of León, located west of Lago de León (today Lago de Managua), and Granada, located on Lago de Nicaragua.
Data as of December 1993