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        The Colonization of the United States

        Using video segments from the PBS series Finding Your Roots, this lesson explores Spanish colonialism in the Southwest. The lesson also expands the discussion to include other countries that established colonies in North America.

        Lesson Summary


        The 2012 series Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. explores major historical events through the ancestries of prominent Americans. In Episode 10, Professor Gates explores the ancestries of actors Michelle Rodriguez and Adrian Grenier and author, commentator, and radio talk show host Linda Chavez.  Each individual’s family has deep roots inthe history of the United States. In particular, the family histories of Grenier and Chavez point to long-standing roots in America.

        This hands-on, media-enhanced lesson explores Spanish colonialism in the Southwest, particularly in New Mexico, and uses Spanish colonialism to expand the discussion to include other countries that colonized in North America.  In the Introductory Activity, students brainstorm foreign countries that colonized North America to demonstrate the many countries that established colonies in America over a few hundred years.  In the Learning Activity, students watch video segments from Finding Your Roots that describe thefamily histories of Grenier and Chavez. The video segments provide details about Spanish colonialism in the context of the two prominent individuals’ ancestries. In the Culminating Activity, students pick one of three assignments to complete for homework; students must think beyond the events discussed in class and analyze the long-term effects of colonists in different contexts.


        Aftercompleting this lesson, students will be able to:

        • Describe the long-term effects of Spanish colonization.
        • Analyze different motives for colonization and compare and contrast groups of colonists.
        • Describe the complex relationship between Spanish colonists and Native Americans.

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        (2-3) 45-minute class periods

        Media Resources

        The Last Conquistador Video
        The Pueblo Revolt Video


        For each student:

        For the class:

        The Lesson


        1. Ask students what they think about when they consider the European colonization of the United States.  (Accept all answers; common responses will include Jamestown, the Mayflower, colonies in the Northeast, missions in California, Columbus, Native Americans, etc.)  If it is not mentioned, add Spanish colonialism to the list.
        2. Tell students that groups from all over the world participated in the colonization of the United States, and it occurred over a span of hundreds of years.  Today they will be examining Spanish colonization in the Southwest, specifically in New Mexico.  Ask students to share any knowledge they might have about Spanish colonization. (Accept all answers.)
        3. Ask students to brainstorm what countries colonized different parts of the United States.  They should think about any place names that might indicate which country colonized a certain area (i.e. the French in Louisiana, with cities named New Orleans and Baton Rouge).  Students should identify both the location in the United States and the colonizing country.  Write their answers on the board. Leave the list created on the board for the duration of the lesson – you will refer to it in the Culminating Activity.


        1. Contextualize the next activity by asking students if they can explain what Spanish colonization was. (A period of 400 years, from the late 15th century to the late 19th century, when Spaniards made the journey from Spain to the Americas to spread Christianity, as well as for financial gain.  Students may be familiar with the term“conquistadors,” a word that refers to the soldiers and explorers who made the journey.  The word might refer to either Spanish or Portuguese explorers who came to the New World.)
        2. Explain to students that using video segments from the PBS series Finding Your Roots, which profiles celebrities’ ancestries, you will be exploring Spanish colonization in what is now the United States.
        3. Ask students if they know who Adrian Grenier is.  (Mr. Grenier is a popular actor.) Tell students that they will be learning about some of the early Spanish colonization in the Southwest through Grenier’s family history.
        4. Distribute The Last Conquistador Student Organizer. Tell students that they should complete The Last Conquistador Student Organizer as they watch the following video segment. Play the The Last Conquistador Video.
        5. After the segment has finished playing, review the questions on The Last Conquistador Student Organizer. Why did racial mixing during the time of Spanish colonization happen?  (When the Spanish settlers came to what is now the United States, very few women came with them.  As a result, many Spaniards developed relationships with Native American women, and from many of these relationships, mixed race children were born.)  Who was the“Last Conquistador”?  (The Last Conquistador refers to a man named Juan de Oñate, a Spanish colonist who was known for brutally subduing the Pueblo Indians.) What did the Spanish settlers do as a result of the racial mixing that occurred? (In response to the racial mixing that happened between Spaniards and Native Americans, the Spaniards developed a class system based on color.)  From where do the terms “mulatto” and “mestizo” originate?  What do these words mean?  (These terms were used to describe people of mixed races.  “Mulatto” refers to a person with mixed black and white ancestry, but can also include other ethnicities.  “Mestizo” refers to someone of mixed race.)  What “color” were the people in charge in the Spanish colonies?  (According to the video segment, the “whitest” people were in charge.)  What did people do in order to keep their families “white”?  (In order to keep their families as white as possible, Spaniards entered into incestuous marriages, where they married family members in order to keep their race “pure.”)
        6. Ask students if the racism experienced with the Spaniards and the Native Americans reminds them of other periods in history.  (Accept all answers, but if it is not mentioned, suggest that the situation is reminiscent of the plight of African Americans throughout history, including slavery and the era of Jim Crow.)
        7. Ask students if they know who Linda Chavez is. (Ms. Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity; she is also an author and a political analyst for FOX News Channel).  Tell students that like Adrian Grenier, Chavez has roots that trace back to the era of Spanish colonialism.
        8. Distribute The Pueblo Revolt Student Organizer. Ask students to record their answers on The Pueblo Revolt Student Organizer as they watch the video segment. Play theThe Pueblo Revolt Video.
        9. After the segment has finished playing, review the questions on the The Pueblo Revolt Student Organizer. How did researchers learn about Linda Chavez’s family?  (Researchers discover information about Linda Chavez’s family through marriage documents.  They discover Chavez’s sixth great-grandmother in their search.  They learn that her sixth great-grandmother married a Spanish settler.)  How did the researchers know Linda Chavez’s relative, Maria, was not of full Spanish descent?  (The researchers know Maria was not of full Spanish descent because they could not find records of Maria’s father.  The researchers believe that had she been of pure Hispanic descent, records of Maria’s father would exist.) Who was Diego de Vargas?  (Diego de Vargas was a Spaniard and a key figure in the Pueblo Revolt.  He kept journals that document members of Linda Chavez’s family.  The journals helped researchers trace Chavez’s family roots.) What was the Pueblo Revolt?  When did it occur? (The Pueblo Revolt occurred in 1680.  Native Americans living in what is now New Mexico revolted against the Spaniards who were trying to colonize their area.  The Native Americans wanted to banish the Spanish culture and religion.)  Who prevailed in the Pueblo Revolt?  (The Native Americans succeeded in expelling the Spaniards as a result of the Revolt.)  What was Diego de Vargas’s role in the aftermath of the Revolt?  (In 1692, 12 years after the Pueblo Revolt, Diego de Vargas returned and took control of the territory.  Additional colonists moved to the area, and eventually it was completely under Spanish rule.)  How is Juana related to Linda Chavez?  How was Juana affected by the Pueblo Revolt?  (Juana is Linda Chavez’s seventh great-grandmother.  From what the researchers could gather, Juana was held captive after the Pueblo Revolt.  She gave birth to a daughter, Maria, who presumably had a Native American father.)
        10. Ask students if they recognize any limitations in the research presented to Chavez.  (Accept all answers, but suggest that accounts like diaries, though they are considered primary sources, could contain subjective or biased information.)  Ask students what some benefits of primary sources are. (Accept all answers.)


        1. Return to the list of colonies created in the Introductory Activity.  Ask students to identify some of the long-term effects the colonists had on the country.  (Accept all answers).
        2. Ask students to identify their nationalities, if they can.  (Accept all answers.)  Ask students if they know how and/or when their families came to live in America.  (Accept all answers.)  Do any students have personal anecdotes related to any of the groups of settlers?  Ask students to share any family stories of which they may be aware.
        3. Ask students if they have ever heard the United States called a “melting pot.”  Ask students what they think this means.  (Accept all answers, but suggest that one of the reasons could be that America was colonized by people of varying religions, ethnicities, etc.)
        4. For homework, students can choose to complete one of the following:
        • Research two groups of settlers that came to America between the 16th century and the 18th century and compare/contrast their motives/reasons for coming to the United States.  Students should provide at least three in-depth points comparing and/or contrasting the groups.
        • Create a map of the United States demonstrating the lasting foreign influence in certain areas.  Students should identify what group(s) colonized the area and explain the connection between the settlers and the lasting influence (i.e. names of cities that come from other languages, prevalence of religions, etc.)  Students should also indicate which, if any, Native American tribes lived in the colonized area(s) when the European colonists arrived.
        • Write an essay describing a personal family tradition that can be directly attributed to their heritage/ancestry.  If possible, students should try to interview an older family member (parent, grandparent, aunt, or uncle) who can provide insight into the tradition.  Students should also include basic research examining the existence of the tradition in its native country.


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