Published Date

May 1, 2004

This resource was developed in 2004 as part of “The Conquest of Mexico” by Nancy Fitch.

To begin to develop a sense of how complicated the history of the conquest of Mexico is, look at some of what some popular textbooks have to say.  Make a list of what these authors agree upon.  Note where they disagree with each other.  How do the primary sources included here on-line help you to decide which interpretation you think is best?  Make a note of which interpretation you think is best before starting the project.  Do you still agree with what you thought after reading the primary sources?

Note: All of the passages below are quoted verbatim.


Bentley and Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, vol. 2 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000), 596–97.

Spanish interest soon shifted from the Caribbean to the American mainland, where settlers hoped to find more resources to exploit. During the early sixteenth century, Spanish conquistadors (“conquerors“) pressed beyond the Caribbean islands, moving west into Mexico and south into Panama and Peru. Between 1519 and 1521 Hernán Cortés and a small band of men brought down the Aztec empire in Mexico, and between 1532 and 1533 Francisco Pizarro and his followers toppled the Inca empire in Peru. These conquests laid the foundations for colonial regimes that would transform the Americas.

The conquest of Mexico began with an expedition to search for gold on the American mainland. In 1519 Cortés led about 450 men to Mexico and made his way from Veracruz on the Gulf Coast to the island city of Tenochtitlan, the stunningly beautiful Aztec capital situated in Lake Texcoco. They seized the emperor Motecuzoma II, who died in 1520 during a skirmish between Spanish forces and residents of Tenochtitlan. Aztec forces soon drove the conquistadors from the capital, but Cortés built a small fleet of ships, placed Tenochtitlan under siege, and in 1521 starved the city into surrender.

Steel swords, muskets, cannons, and horses offered Cortés and his men some advantage over the forces they met and help to account for the Spanish conquest of the Aztec empire. Yet weaponry alone clearly would not enable Cortés’s tiny force to overcome a large, densely populated society of about twenty-one million. Quite apart from military technology, Cortés ’s expedition benefited from divisions among the indigenous peoples of Mexico. With the aid of Doña Marina, the conquistadors forged alliances with peoples who resented domination by the Mexicas, the leaders of the Aztec empire, and who reinforced the small Spanish army with thousands of veteran warriors. Native allies also provided Spanish forces with logistical support and secure bases in friendly territory.

Brummett, Edgar, Hackett, Jewsbury, Taylor, Bailkey, Lewis, and Wallbank, Civilization: Past and Present, vol. 2, 9th ed. (New York: Longman, 2000), 430–31.

In Mexico the Spaniards profited from internal problems within the Aztec Empire. In the early 1500s unrest ran rampant among many recently subdued tribes, who were forced to pay tribute and furnish sacrificial victims for their Aztec overlords. Montezuma II, the Aztec emperor, professed a fear that the Spaniards were followers of the white-skinned and bearded Teotihuacán god, Quetzalcoatl, who had been exiled by the Toltecs because he forbade human sacrifice and had promised a return from across the sea to enforce his law. Whether this was Montezuma’s true belief or not, the legend probably added to the widespread resentment already verging on rebellion.

In 1519 Hernando Cortés (1485-1574) arrived from Cuba with 11 ships, 600 fighting men, 200 servants, 16 horses, 32 crossbows, 13 muskets, and 14 mobile cannons. Before marching against the Aztec capital, he destroyed his ships to prevent his men from turning back. In a few battles the Spanish horses, firearms, steel armor, and tactics produced decisive victories. Exploiting the Quetzalcoatl legend and the Aztec policy of taking sacrificial victims, Cortés was able to enlist Amerindian allies. As the little army marched inland, its members were welcomed, feasted, and given Amerindian women, including daughters of chiefs, whom Cortés distributed among his men. One woman, Malinche, later christened Doña Marina, became a valuable interpreter as well as Cortés ’s mistress and bore him a son. She helped save him from a secret ambush at Cholula; it had been instigated by Montezuma, who otherwise delayed direct action as Cortés approached Tenochitlán, accompanied by thousands of Amerindian warriors.

In that city of more than 150,000 people, Cortés became a guest of Montezuma, surrounded by a host of armed Aztecs. Undaunted Cortés implemented his preconceived plan and seized the Amerindian ruler in the man’s own palace. Malinche then informed Montezuma, as if in confidence, that he must cooperate or die. The bold scheme worked temporarily, but soon the Aztecs rebelled, renounced their emperor as a traitor, stoned and killed him when he tried to pacify them, and ultimately drove a battered band of terrified Spaniards from the city in the narrowest of escapes. Later, having regrouped and gained new Amerindian allies, Cortés wore down the Aztecs in a long and bloody siege during which some Spanish prisoners were sacrificed in full view of their comrades. Finally, after fearful slaughter, some 60,000 exhausted and half-starved defenders surrendered. Most tribes in Central Mexico then accepted Spanish rule; many who resisted were enslaved.

Bulliet, Crossley, Headrick, Hirsch, Johnson, and Northrup, The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History, Vol. 2 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1997), 505–06.

The most audacious expedition to the mainland was led by an ambitious and ruthless nobleman, Hernándo Cortés (1485-1547). He left Cuba in 1519 with six hundred fighting men and most of the island’s stock of weapons to assault the rich Aztec Empire in central Mexico, bringing the exploitation and conquest that had begun in the Greater Antilles to the American mainland on a massive scale.

Like the Caribbean Indians, the people of Mexico had no precedent by which to judge these strange visitors. Later accounts suggest that some Indians believed Cortés to be the legendary ruler Quetzalcoatl, whose return to earth had been prophesied, and treated him with great deference. Other Indians saw the Spaniards as powerful human allies against the Aztecs, who had imposed their rule during the previous century.

From his glorious capital city Tenochtitlan, the Aztec emperor Moctezuma II (c. 1502-1520) sent messengers to greet Cortés and to try to figure out whether he was god or man, friend or foe. Cortés advanced steadily toward the capital, overcoming Aztec opposition with cavalry charges and steel swords and gaining the support of thousands of Amerindian allies from among the Aztecs unhappy subjects..  When they were near, the emperor went out in a great procession, dressed in all his finery, to welcome Cortés with gifts and flower garlands.

Despite Cortés ’s initial promise that he came in friendship, Moctezuma quickly found himself a prisoner in his own palace, his treasury looted, and its gold melted down. Soon a major battle was raging in and about the capital between the Spaniards and the supporters of the Aztecs. At one point the Aztecs gained the upper hand, destroying half the Spanish force and four thousand of their Amerindian allies and offering their gods a sacrifice of fifty-three Spaniards and four horses, their severed heads displayed in rows on pikes. Reinforced by new troops from Cuba, Cortés was able to regain the advantage by means of Spanish Cannon and clever battle strategies. The capture of Tenochtitlan was also greatly facilitated by the spread of smallpox from the Antilles, which weakened and killed many of the city’s defenders. When the capital fell, the conquistadors overcame other parts of Mexico.

Craig, Graham, Kagan, Ozment, and Turner, The Heritage of World Civilizations, combined vol., 5th ed. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 522.

In 1519 Hernan Cortés (1485-1547) landed in Mexico with about five hundred men and a few horses. He opened communication with nearby communities and then with Moctezuma II (1466-1520), the Aztec emperor. Moctezuma may initially have believed Cortés to be the god Quezalcoatl, who, according to legend, had been driven away centuries earlier but had promised to return. Whatever the reason, Moctezuma hesitated to confront Cortés, attempting at first to appease him with gifts of gold that only whetted Spanish appetites. Cortés succeeded in forging alliances with some subject peoples and, most importantly, with Tlaxcala, an independent state and traditional enemy of the Aztecs. His forces then marched on the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (modern Mexico City), where Moctezuma welcomed him. Cortés soon seized Moctezuma, making him a prisoner in his own capital. Moctezuma died in unexplained circumstances, and the Aztec’s wary acceptance to the Spaniards turned to open hostility. The Spaniards were driven out of Tenochtitlan and nearly wiped out, but they ultimately returned and laid siege to the city. The Aztecs, under their last ruler, Cuauhtémoc (c. 1495-1525), resisted fiercely but were finally defeated in late 1521. Cortés razed Tenochtitlan, building his own capital over its ruins, and proclaimed the Aztec Empire to be New Spain.

Goucher, Leguin, and Walton, In the Balance: Themes in Global History, vol. 2 (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 502–03

Soon after the Spanish colonization of Cuba in 1519, a small army led by Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) conquered Mexico from the Aztecs. Cortés first attacked and then made allies of towns. Particularly strategic were communities which had been subject to the Aztecs, who had heavily taxed the people and practiced human sacrifice.

Many within the Aztec Empire came to believe that Cortés was Quetzalcoatl the god who would return to overthrow the god Tezcatlipoca, who demanded human sacrifice. Cortés was aided by an Indian woman La Malinche or Malintzin, who became an invaluable interpreter for and mistress and confidant of Cortés. What happened next is unclear. The Spaniards claimed that the Aztec king Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people and the Aztecs claimed that Cortés ’s second in command attacked priests, chiefs, and warriors during a celebration and strangled Moctezuma. After heavy losses, Cortés was forced to flee. He returned with thousands of Indian allies, who opposed the Aztecs. After a four month siege, during which time Aztec defenders succumbed as much to disease and starvation as to the force of arms, the new Aztec king Cuautemoc surrendered. By 1535, most of central Mexico was integrated under Spanish control in the kingdom of New Spain.

McKay, Hill, Buckler, and Ebrey, A History of World Societies, vol. 2, 5th ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000), 506–08.

The strange end of the Aztec nation remains one of the most fascinating events in the annals of human societies. The Spanish adventurer Hernando Cortés (1485-1547) landed at Veracruz in February 1519. In November he entered Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) and soon had the emperor Montezuma II (r. 1502-1520) in custody. In less than two years, Cortés destroyed the monarchy, gained complete control of the Mexica capital and extended his influence over much of the Aztec Empire. Why did a strong people defending its own territory succumb so quickly to a handful of Spaniards fighting in dangerous and completely unfamiliar circumstances? How indeed, since Montezuma’s scouts sent him detailed reports of the Spaniards’ movements? The answers to these questions lie in the fact that at the time of the Spanish arrival, the Aztec and Inca Empires faced grave internal difficulties brought on by their religious ideologies; by the Spaniards’ boldness, timing, and technology; and by Aztec and Inca psychology and attitudes toward war.

The Spaniards arrived in late summer, when the Aztecs were preoccupied with harvesting their crops and not thinking of war. From the Spaniards’ perspective, their timing was ideal. A series of natural phenomena, signs, and portents seemed to augur disaster for the Aztecs. A comet was seen in daytime, a column of fire had appeared every midnight for a year, and two temples were suddenly destroyed, one by lightning unaccompanied by thunder. These and other apparently inexplicable events seemed to presage the return of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and had an unnerving effect on the Aztecs. They looked on the Europeans riding “wild beasts” as extraterrestrial forces coming to establish a new social order. Defeatism swept the nation and paralyzed its will.

The Aztec state religion, the sacred cult of Huitzilopochtli, necessitated constant warfare against neighboring peoples to secure captives for religious sacrifice and laborers for agricultural and infrastructure work. Lacking an effective method of governing subject peoples, the Aztecs controlled thirty-eight provinces in central Mexico through terror. When Cortés landed, the provinces were being crushed under a cycle of imperial oppression: increases in tribute provoked revolt, which led to reconquest, retribution, and demands for higher tribute, which in turn sparked greater resentment and fresh revolt. When the Spaniards appeared, the Totonacs greeted them as liberators, and other subject peoples joined them against the Aztecs. Even before the coming of the Spaniards, Montezuma’s attempts to resolve the problem of constant warfare by freezing social positions–thereby ending the social mobility that war provoked–aroused the resentment of his elite, mercantile, and lowborn classes. Montezuma faced terrible external and internal difficulties.

Montezuma refrained from attacking the Spaniards as they advanced toward his capital and welcomed Cortés and his men into Tenochtitlan. Historians have often condemned the Aztec ruler for vacillation and weakness. But he relied on the advice of his state council, itself divided, and on the dubious loyalty of tributary communities. When Cortés–with incredible boldness–took Montezuma hostage, the emperor’s influence over his people crumbled.

The major explanation for the collapse of the Aztec Empire to six hundred Spaniards lies in the Aztecs’ notion of warfare and their level of technology. Forced to leave Tenochtitlan to settle a conflict elsewhere, Cortés placed his lieutenant, Alvarado, in charge. Alvarado’s harsh rule drove the Aztecs to revolt, and they almost succeeded in destroying the Spanish garrison. When Cortés returned just in time, the Aztecs allowed his reinforcements to join Alvarado’s besieged force. No threatened European or Asian state would have conceived of doing such a thing: dividing an enemy’s army and destroying the separate parts was basic to their military tactics. But for the Aztecs, warfare was a ceremonial act in which “divide and conquer” had no place.

Having allowed the Spanish forces to reunite, the entire population of Tenochitlán attacked the invaders. The Aztecs killed many Spaniards. In retaliation, the Spaniards executed Montezuma. The Spaniards escaped from the city and inflicted a crushing defeat on the Aztec army at Otumba near Lake Texcoco on July 7, 1520. The Spaniards won because “the simple Indian methods of mass warfare were of little avail against the maneuvering of a well-drilled force.” Aztec weapons proved no match for the terrifyingly noisy and lethal Spanish cannon, muskets, crossbows, and steel swords. European technology decided the battle. Cortés began the systematic conquest of Mexico.