They set out in tiny ships or on horseback, looking for gold and glory. What they found was a new land -- with adventure, courage, politics, greed, cruelty and treachery along the way.
The History Channel's "Conquest of America," airing tonight and from 9 to 11 p.m. Tuesday, dramatically tells four stories of the earliest adventurers in North America. Two are shown each night.
"We took the word 'conquest' very seriously," said Lisa Wolfinger, series producer with Rocky Collins. "It means something quite different from 'exploration' or 'discovery.' We went looking for stories that truly illustrated the concept of 'conquest.' ... It is part of history and should never be whitewashed."
Each hour of the series focuses on one story in one area of North America so viewers get to know the adventurers as individuals, Wolfinger said.
"We want to bring history to life, so we bring actors in and give them actual text and a lot of freedom. We say, 'Here's the information; let's build a real person.' "
The scripts are based on original historical sources such as trial transcripts, explorers' journals, writings of eyewitnesses, diaries of Europeans and the oral histories of Native Americans.
"Conquest" starts with the story of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado looking for the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola in the Southwest in 1540 and includes scenes reenacted from his trial on charges of unnecessary cruelty to Native Americans.
Reenactments also are presented of Pedro Menendez and Jean Ribault as they battle over territory in the Southeast; Henry Hudson's obsessive quest for a shortcut from Europe to Asia as he explores the Northeast; and efforts in the Pacific Northwest by Russia's Vitus Bering and Nicolai Rezanov, including an unusual betrothal and love story.
The series was shot on locations including sites in Alaska, Maine, California and Florida.
Getting to many of these places, especially in Alaska, wasn't easy, Collins said. There are miles and miles of pristine wilderness and few roads in Alaska, and the roads don't usually extend to the ocean, where much of Bering's story needed to be filmed.
Backpackers of today experience a fraction of what the explorers endured. Hudson's group, for example, suffered through an arctic voyage in the winter, Wolfinger said. "They weren't wearing insulated gloves, and many were barefoot. If you put your mind into that reality, it's astounding."
"Conquest" personalizes the epic beginnings of America over several centuries.
"But the theme that you pick up is that these men [go] out looking for one thing, find something else and don't realize its value. They are disappointed," Wolfinger said. "But now we can look back and see what they did -- opened the door to something else."