Conquest of Mexico

Conquest of MexicoNancy Fitch has created an exemplary teaching site on the conquest of Mexico for the AHA. There are many potentially useful paths through the materials she has collected. My approach reflects the limited time available in a survey course. The first task I gave my students was to build an annotated chronology by working through the "narrative overviews" Fitch provides. Since students submitted their notes an hour before class, I was able to put the best of their ideas into a single chronology. Putting the chronologies together had several important advantages. The most obvious is the superior quality of the end product. Since students used the chronologies in their next assignment, they quickly appreciated the value of a good chronology. In addition, the annotations gave them practice with basic notions like origins, turning points, and outcomes. And seeing which, if any, of their own contributions made the cut — and seeing which submissions from their classmates were selected — gave them a way of judging how their work measured up.

At the heart of Fitch's site are her translations of the different accounts of the conquest. Students divvied up these materials and gave oral reports on the portions they had responsibility for. Because we had spent a class discussing the sequence of events and the reasons they seemed to be important, students made informed choices when selecting the materials to report on. And they had some ideas about what to look for. We made no pretense about reconciling the differences we found in the various accounts, although students did express strong opinions, usually favoring the Mexica accounts. Instead our emphasis was upon the larger task the historian faces of trying to work through different and sometimes conflicting accounts.


Americae sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio.
In Theatrum Orbis Terrarum. Antwerp, 1570 

Theatrum Orbis Terrarum ABRAHAM ORTELIUS or Ortel (1527–1598) compiled Theatrum Orbis Terrarum which is often considered the first modern atlas. It went through forty-two editions in seven languages between 1570 and 1612. Americae sive Novi Orbis provides a reasonably accurate view of North America but shows the Pacific Ocean as much too small and situates New Guinea due south of California. It also shows the mythical kingdom of Anian in the Northwest. Marco Polo claimed to have visited it. Prior to this map, cartographers assumed Anian was somewhere in northern Asia. As a matter of fact, it was entirely mythical.


1. Nancy Fitch, “The Conquest of Mexico
2. Barzun, “Cross Section: Madrid”

Nancy Fitch’s treatment of the Spanish conquest of Mexico is very rich but not easy to navigate. We will invest a full week to working our way through it all. We will start with the “narrative overviews.” For the class of Oct. 8 submit an annotated chronology of the conquest, based upon the overviews. For each event provide a one or two-sentence explanation of why it apparently made a difference in the final outcome. [Note: We are looking for shallow, rather than profound, explanations. We are at the beginning of a complex and challenging puzzle, and one which continues to reverberate through our own times. As a result, we have to give ourselves the opportunity to make guesses and to follow hunches and to ask questions which may not lead anywhere.]

Aztec drawingFitch brings together Spanish and Mexican accounts of the same events. We will divide into teams and report on the diverse accounts for the classes of Oct. 10 and Oct. 15. Prepare and submit via e-mail one hour in advance of the class meeting notes you intend to follow in your report. The goals here are to gain some familiarity with what happened and to gain some insight into how tricky it is to reconcile different accounts of the same events. This latter is a challenge historians routinely face.

  • Cortes Meets Moctezuma (Mexica and Spanish Versions); Moctezuma Arrested (Mexica and Spanish Versions); Spaniards Demand Gold (Mexica and Spanish Versions)
  • The Cholula Massacre (Mexica and Spanish Versions); The Cholula Massacre (Mexica and Tlaxcalan Versions); Massacre at Festival of Txcatl (Mexica and Spanish Versions); The Night of Sorrows (Mexica and Spanish Versions
  • Death of Moctezuma (Two Spanish Versions); Spaniards’ Use of Brigantines (Mexica and Spanish Versions); Mexicas Sacrifice Spaniards and Horses (Mexica and Spanish Versions)
  • Spaniards Try a Catapult (Mexica and Spanish Versions); Spaniards Reconquer Mexico (Mexica and Spanish Versions).

In this example, students can complete their assignment on the Spanish conquest of Mexico, which includes a link to an AHA site that gives students and teachers access to digitized primary sources in survey courses in world history and the history of the Americas.