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Sarah Bradstreet

The Encomienda System: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day

The encomienda system was a labor system instituted by the Spanish crown in the American colonies. In this system, a Spanish encomendero was granted a number of native laborers who would pay tributes to him in exchange for his protection. Encomienda system APUSH questions will require you to know about the system’s structure and legacy.


Bartolome de las Casas encomienda system APUSH-magoosh

Photo by Hispalois

What is the encomienda system?

In the early 16th century, the Spanish crown set up the encomienda system in the Americas to divide up the American Indian labor force in order to aid the development of their mining ecomony. Under this system a Spanish conquistador, or another prominent male Spaniard (known as an encomendero), was granted the labor of a certain number of Native Americans living in the area. The encomendero provided the laborers protection from warring tribes, and teachings in the Catholic faith. The native laborer paid tributes to the encomendero in the form of gold or other metals, or agricultural products.

The system was intended to be a way to enter into a peaceable and mutually beneficial relationship with the indigenous peoples of America; however, the system quickly devolved into essentially a system of slavery. Native Americans were treated cruelly and forced into hard labor.

The crown attempted to fix the system by passing various laws throughout the century, but the encomenderos refused to comply with these new measures. Eventually, the encomienda system was replaced by the repartimiento system, but it was not abolished until the late 18th century.

Important years to note for the encomienda system:

  • 1503: The first encomiendas are granted to Spanish conquistadors in the Americas.
  • 1512-13: Spain passes the Laws of Burgos in an attempt to end the abuses of the system.
  • 1542: Spain passes the New Law of the Indies, another failed attempt to end the abuse of Native Americans under the encomienda system.

Why is the encomienda system so important?

The encomienda system allowed for a vast accumulation of wealth by the conquistadors and the Spanish crown. They benefited from the discovery of gold and silver in the New World, and the mining of those metals by their laborers. The system resulted in the widespread abuse of indigenous peoples, as well as the theft of their land. Since a person of mixed Native and Spanish ancestry could not be entered into the encomienda system, some of the indigenous started to intermarry with Europeans so as to save their families from a life of forced labor. This practice, along with the forced conversions to Catholicism, resulted in the dilution of tribal identity and culture throughout the Americas.

The encomienda system was also the first racially-based system of slavery in the New World, and can be seen as a precursor to the African slave trade that eventually replaced it.

Who are some historical people related to the encomienda system?

  • Nicolas de Ovando: The royal governor who first established the encomienda system on behalf of the crown
  • Bartolome de las Casas: A former encomendero and priest who advocated for the rights of Native Americans

What is an example encomienda system APUSH question?

“Also, we order and command that no person or persons shall dare to beat any Indians with sticks, or whip him, or call him ‘dog,’ or address him by any name other than his proper name alone; and if an Indian should deserve to be punished for something he has done, the said person having him in charge shall bring him to the visitor for punishment, on pain that the person who violates this article shall pay, for every time he beats or whips an Indian or Indians, five pesos gold; and if he should call an Indian ‘dog,’ or address him by any name other than his own, he shall pay one gold peso, to be distributed in the manner stated.”
-The Laws of Burgos, 1512-1513 (Source)

The Laws of Burgos was an attempt to reform
A) indentured servitude.
B) the repartimiento system.
C) indigenous slavery.
D) the encomienda system.


The correct answer is (D). Spain began the encomienda system in the New World at the beginning of the 16th century. The encomienda system granted a Spanish leader a number of Native American laborers. The Spanish colonists abused the encomienda system, essentially rendering it a system of slave labor. The Spanish crown, against the forced labor of indigenous people, passed the Laws of Burgos in an attempt to reform the system. The attempt failed, as encomenderos ignored the laws and revolted against any attempt to weaken their power of the their laborers.

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About Sarah Bradstreet

Sarah is an educator and writer with a Master’s degree in education from Syracuse University who has helped students succeed on standardized tests since 2008. She loves reading, theater, and chasing around her two kids.

15 Responses to “The Encomienda System: APUSH Topics to Study for Test Day”

  1. Declan McGurk says:

    Thank you, this was a very helpful and well-written article.

  2. Kassianta says:

    Thank you very much for helping to be able to understand and to speak and share what i know about the encomienda system with my classmates.
    This is a wonderful article. 🙂

  3. jdnifok says:

    i cant find the answers!!!1

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      Hi there! 🙂

      Were you referring to our example encomienda system question? The correct answer is (D).
      You can find the explanation immediately below the question.

      Hope this helps! 😀 If you were referring to something else, feel free to reply back to me!

  4. joe santiago says:

    i like thsi is hepls

  5. Christophere SanJuan says:

    Hi quick question that I am not sure if I found here or not, when did the system come to an end?

  6. Stuart Medina says:

    There are many inexact statements in this entry but I’ll focus on one: “Under this system a Spanish conquistador, or another prominent male Spaniard (known as an encomendero), was granted the labor of a certain number of Native Americans living in the area”. This is false. There are many examples of indigenous encomenderos, including female encomenderas. One example is Isabel de Moctezuma. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isabel_Moctezuma. Francisca Pizarro Yupanqui was a mestizo woman who also had Indians under her encomienda.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      Hi Stuart,

      Thank you for bringing this to our attention! I’ve asked my content team to do some research and see what may need to be corrected in this article. I appreciate you saying something so that we can make sure the information we share is accurate and helpful. :)t

  7. Ethan Brooks says:

    What are the specific areas that the encomienda system was used

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      The ecomienda system was used to some extent in many different parts of Spain’s conquered territories in the Americas. A full, perfect record of the exact places where it was used arguably doesn’t exist. However, it is known that ecomienda was used particularly extensively in Peru, Nicaragua, Mexico, and the Caribbean island of Hispanola. The Spanish also used ecomienda in the Philippines, and even in Spain itself. During the Reconquista era of domestic Spanish history, which ran from the 700s to the end of the 15th century, residents of Spain were sometimes forced into labor on Spanish soil under ecomienda.

  8. Mavis says:

    What is a very quick way to define The Encomienda System

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert Magoosh Test Prep Expert says:

      Hi Mavis, this sounds like something you should be able to do yourself 🙂 This article is a brief introduction, but you can also look up this information in your textbook or other online resources.

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