Hernando Cortes
Spanish Explorer and Conquistador

1485 - 1547

Hernando Cortes was born in the village of Medellin in Entremedura, Spain, in 1485. At the age of 14, he left home to study law at the University of Salamanca and returned home two years later. He wandered the seaports of Cadiz, Palos, Sanlucar, and Seville and in 1504 joined an expedition of five ships that sailed for Santo Domingo in the New World. Cortes wanted to become a conquistador (a conqueror as well as an explorer) for Spain.

After arriving in Hispaniola, the center for Spanish exploration, Cortes got himself noticed by Diego Velasquez who had decided to explore and conquer Cuba in 1511. He asked Cortes to join his expedition. The expedition was successful, but it did not satisfy the Spanish craving for gold. Velasquez had heard about a wealthy Aztec Empire in Mexico and wanted someone to lead an expedition there. He needed someone that he could trust and who would remain loyal to him. Cortes was overjoyed that he was asked to be the commander of the expedition to find the Aztec cities.

Cortes rushed to make preparations for departure, because he feared Velasquez might change his mind and appoint someone else to lead the expedition. The expedition consisted of 11 ships, 500 soldiers, 13 horses, and some cannons. His fleet anchored at Trinidad on the south coast of Cuba where more soldiers were hired and additional horses were taken aboard. After sailing across the straits of Yucatan, they landed on the island of Cozumel. Here they met a Spanish castaway, Aguilar, who knew the language of the Indians and became the interpreter for the conquistadores. The expedition sailed around the Yucatan peninsula on March 4, 1519, and stopped at the mouth of a river in the country of Tabasco. Here they met Indians who would not let them come ashore even for water. Cortes and his soldiers got into several tough battles and drove the Indians out of their fortified town. After many Indians were killed, Cortes, through his interpreter, won the peace and friendship of the Indians. Cortes stayed in camp for five days to allow his wounded soldiers to recover and to get their weapons in order.

The fleet set sail again and anchored next at San Juan de Ulua. They were greeted by Indians who gave them food and fine gifts made of gold and silver. The interpreter told them that the Indians had been sent by the great Emperor Montezuma, ruler of the Aztecs.

Cortes was even more determined to conquer the Aztecs after seeing these riches. He also made friends with Cempoala Indians who fought against the Aztecs. The Cempoalas helped Cortes and his men establish a base on the shore at a village Cortes named Vera Cruz when he claimed in the name of Spain. It was very important to have a safe port where Spanish ships could land supplies and reinforcements that Cortes would need to conquer the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan.

Cortes realized that some of his men wanted to return to Cuba. The men did not believe they could walk through 200 miles of jungle and swamps, climb mountains, avoid thousands of hostile Indians and attack the Aztec fortress city which was surrounded by water. To keep his men from deserting, Cortes carried out a desperate and bold scheme. He removed the sails, rigging, compasses, and all other valuables from all but one ship and burned the others.

Without a way to retreat, on August 16, 1519, the expedition started. In addition to the Spaniards, there were 40 Cempoalan warrior chiefs and 200 Indians to drag the cannon and carry the supplies. The men were accustomed to the hot climate of the coast, but they suffered immensely from the cold of the mountains, the rain, and the hail. Although Cortes asked for peace and friendship, and permission to cross their land on the way to Mexico, the Tlaxcalan Indians refused. Throughout the month of September, Cortes and members of his expedition fought many battles with the Tlaxcalans. The Spanish weapons and technology, and the boldness of Cortes, kept his men from being wiped out. Cortes made his last peace offer. He said that if it was refused that every Tlaxcalan would be killed. His peace offer was accepted. The Tlaxcalans brought food, water, and gifts. On October 23, 1519, Cortes set out (with an additional 1,000 Tlaxcalan Indians) to conquer Montezuma and the Aztecs. As Cortes passed through mountain towns and villages, many Indians told of cruel treatment by the Aztecs. These Indians were very willing to help conquer Montezuma.

Cortes and his expedition were awe struck when they finally saw Tenochtitlan, Montezuma's capital city. The cities and towns were even more beautiful and contained more riches than the Spanish expected. Cortes arrested Montezuma and locked him in his palace. At this time, Cortes was called back to Vera Cruz to deal with an uprising. When Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan, he found his men fighting with the Aztecs. Montezuma was stoned and killed by his own people. Many Spaniards were killed or drowned when they tried to carry sacks of gold across the causeway to the mainland. A year later, Cortes returned to the Aztec capital city and for two months fought a bloody battle. On August 13, 1521, Cortes claimed it for Spain.

The King's share of the treasure was sent to Spain and Cortes got his reward. On October 15, 1522, he was given the title of Captain General and Governor of New Spain; the capital, Tenochtitlan, became Mexico City.

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