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Hernando Cortés

[Hernán Cortés, also spelled Cortéz] conqueror of the Aztec Empire

Hernando Cortes

Early Life

Hernando Cortés was born in Medellín, near Don Benito, in the Spanish province of Estremadura. At the age of 14 he was sent to the University of Salamanca to study law, but he left after two years to seek adventure and wealth. Hearing about the possibilities for both in the New World, he arranged to accompany Nicolas de Ovando on a trip to Hispaniola, where Ovando was to become Governor. He was delayed by an accident, however, and the expedition left without him. Cortés next sought military service under Gonzalo de Cordova, but illness sidelined him at Valencia, and he was forced to remain there for a year.

Cortés finally made it to the New World in 1504. Settling on the island of Hispaniola (now divided between the nations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic), he initially contented himself with an accumulation of wealth through a variety of commercial enterprises, but his desire for adventure finally caught up with him.

In 1511, Cortés took part in the conquest of Cuba by Diego Velázquez, who was subsequently appointed Governor of Cuba. For his role in the conquest Cortés received a gift of land and Indian slaves, as well as the first house in the new capital of Santiago, and was appointed Clerk to the Treasurer. He was subsequently twice elected "mayor" of Santiago. Over the next few years, Cortés built up his personal fortune and gained prestige amongst his peers.

Conquest of Mexico

In 1517, Francisco Fernández de Córdoba discovered the Yucatán Peninsula, but failed to penetrate the Mexican mainland. In October 1518, Velázquez appointed Cortés as head of an expedition to pick up where Córdoba had left off. But while Cortés was engaged in securing the necessary ships, men, and supplies, Velázquez became suspicious of Cortés's motives and removed him from command. Cortés ignored Velázquez's order, however, and set sail with about 600 Spaniards and 11 ships in February 1519.

Landing in the present-day province of Tabasco in March, Cortés spent time establishing a rapport with the local Indians, who regaled him with information about the powerful Aztec Empire and its ruler, Montezuma. He then sailed on up the Mexican coast and founded the town of Veracruz. Soon after getting himself elected Captain General and Chief Justice, he burned his ships, committing his entire force to survival by conquest.

By August 1519, Cortés was ready to march inland to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City). Along the way he was able to persuade tens of thousands of Indians to join him, most of them willingly because they hated the Aztecs, but some by force.

When Cortés reached Tenochtitlán in November he found that word of his arrival had preceded him. Believing that the Spaniards were the culmination of an ancient prophecy, Montezuma greeted Cortés with gifts and treated him and his men like demigods. Unfortunately for Montezuma and his subjects, Cortés soon proved that he was no benevolent god. Learning that natives had attacked Veracruz, Cortés retaliated by imprisoning Montezuma and forcing him to pledge allegiance to the Spanish crown. After receiving a sizable ransom from Montezuma's subjects, Cortés allowed Montezuma to retake his throne, but only as a puppet ruler.

Cortés had barely solidified his position in Tenochtitlán when he received word that Velázguez had sent Pánfilo Narváez to arrest him for disobedience. Leaving a garrison of 80 Spaniards and a few hundred Indian allies to defend Tenochtitlán, Cortés and the rest of his men rushed to deal with Narváez.

Cortés wasn't gone long, but by the time he returned to Tenochtitlán the city was in rebellion. The man he had left in charge, Pedro de Alvarado, had massacred many leading Aztec chiefs during a festival. So incensed were the citizens at Alvarado's actions, they even stoned Montezuma when he tried to calm the crowd (he died a few days later). Cortés and his men fought valiantly to regain control, but the Spaniards were forced to retreat from the city in June 1520. Although Cortés won the last battle, on the plains of Otumba on July 7, he had too few men left to mount an offensive and was forced to retreat into the province of Tlascala.

Cortés spent the next several months reorganizing his remaining forces and recruiting reinforcements from other Spanish settlements in the West Indies. He began marching on Tenochtitlán in December, and, in May 1521, his army of 1,000 Spaniards and thousands of Indians attacked the city. The Aztecs surrendered on August 13, and Cortés was in firm control of the former Aztec Empire by the end of the year.

map of Cortes' explorations and conquests

Later Life

Having secured most of what we now know as Mexico for Spain, Cortés spent the next few years exploring Central America as far south as Honduras (which he reached in 1526). But while Cortés was busy exploring, the officials he left in charge were busy seizing his property, committing acts of cruelty against the Indians, and sending unflattering reports about him back to Spain.

By 1528, Cortés had lost much of his accumulated wealth and had been stripped of his governing authority. He sailed to Spain that year to plead his case before the king in person, making sure to take a wealth of treasure and a magnificent entourage with him. King Charles I was suitably impressed. Cortés was given the title of Marquis and the service of 23,000 Indians in Mexico. He was not, however, given any governing authority. Returning to Mexico in 1530, he spent the next few years engaged in exploring, farming, and mining.

At one time Cortés was undoubtedly the wealthiest person in all of Spanish America. But his accumulation of that wealth earned him numerous enemies, and those enemies were constantly suing him for one reason or another. The constant litigation took an enormous toll on his wealth, as did his numerous expeditions, almost all of which he paid for out of his own pocket. He was almost penniless when he decided to return to Spain in 1540. He died near Seville on December 2, 1547.


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Museum of History--Hall of Explorers

See Also

Montezuma II

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This page was last updated on 08/28/2018.