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Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

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The Spanish Conquest of México
The conquest of the Aztec Empire, taking place from 1519 to 1521, is a story that has intrigued millions of people over the years. At the climax of this campaign, Moctezuma, the highly respected leader of the mighty Aztec Empire, came face-to-face with Hernán Cortés, the leader of a small band of professional European soldiers from a faraway land (Spain). Against insurmountable odds, Cortés triumphed over the great empire. As a master of observation, manipulation and strategy, he was able to gradually weave an army of indigenous resistance against the Aztecs, while professing his good intentions toward Moctezuma.

1. The Indigenous People of Central Mexico
2. The Spanish Conquest of Mexico
3. The Federal District in the Twentieth Century
More History of Mexico
The Aztec Empire of 1519 was one of the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdoms of all time. By this time, the island city of Tenochtitlán had become a city of about 300,000 citizens. And the Aztec Empire itself ruled over about 80,000 square miles of territory extending from the Gulf of México to the Pacific Ocean, and southward to Oaxaca. This empire contained some 15 million people, living in thirty-eight provinces. In all, the Emperor received the tribute of 489 communities.

On April 22, 1519, a fleet of eleven Spanish galleons, which had been sailing northward along the eastern Gulf Coast of México, dropped anchor just off the wind-swept beach on the island of San Juan de Ulúa. Under the command of a Spanish adventurer named Hernán Cortés, these vessels bore 450 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses. These horses would be the first horses to walk upon the North American continent. The horse, which eventually became an important element of Indian life, was unknown to the North American Indians who engaged in warfare and hunting without the benefit of this mammal's help.

On June 7, 1519, Cortés led his forces northward to the coastal town Cempoala. As they approached the town, the Totonac Indians started bringing the Spaniards food and gifts. Soon, Cortés and his lieutenants entered the coastal city-state of Cempoala met with Tlacochcalcatl, the chief of the Totonacs who regarded himself as an enemy of Emperor Moctezuma. Cempoala, presently under Aztec domination, was made up of some fifty towns. The chief of the Totonacs, writes Dr. Albert Marrin, the author of Aztecs and Spaniards: Cortés and the Conquest of México, complained that the Aztec "tribute collectors were picking the country clean, like hungry coyotes." And each year, the Totonacs were forced to send hundreds of children to the altars of Tenochtitlán for sacrifice. For this tribute, the hatred of the Totonacs for the Mexica ran deep. For this reason, Tlacochcalcatl forged an alliance with Cortés.

After the Spaniards helped the Totonacs to expel Moctezuma's tribute-collectors from their territory, a new alliance was formed between the natives and their strange visitors. The Totonacs helped Cortés and his men establish a base on the shore. On June 28, 1519, Cortés formally gave this town the name La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross). At this point, Cortés decided to lead his troops westward into the interior of the continent to find and meet with Moctezuma. Cacique Tlacochcalcatl warned Cortés that, on his journey inland, he would confront the people of Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco, two provinces that hated the Mexica equally. With the help of Totonac guides, Cortés planned his march through territory that might represent fertile ground for more alliances.

On August 16, 1519, Cortés assembled his army for the expedition inland. He had a force of at least 400 Spanish soldiers, 150 Cuban Indian servants, 1,300 Cempoalans and other Totonacs led by a chief named Mamexi, and seven pieces of artillery. They also had 15 horses, reserved exclusively for the captains of the army. The Spanish army was thus beefed up with more than a thousand native warriors plus 200 porters, who dragged the cannon and carried supplies. The distance from Cempoala to Tenochtitl_n is 250 miles, as the crow flies. A fairly large force of 150 Spanish soldiers and sailors and two horses under the command Juan de Escalante stayed at the garrison at Villa Rica de Vera Cruz. Roughly 100 soldiers remained in Villa Rica under the command of Gonzalo Sandoval.

Finally, Cortés' army reached the Tlaxcalan republic, which was independent enclave deep in the heart of the Mexica Empire that had managed to resist Aztec control. Surrounded on all sides and blockaded by the Aztecs, they had never yielded to them. By the time that Cortez arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the Tlaxcalan Indians had been subjected to continuous warfare and human sacrifice for many decades. Because of their economic isolation, the Tlaxcalans had no cotton with which to make their clothes. No feathers - used in religious festivities - or precious stones made their way into Tlaxcala.

Tlaxcala was a small, densely populated province. In 1519, the population was about 150,000. Tlaxcala was actually "confederation of four republics," ruling over some 200 settlements. Some historians believe that Tenochtitlán could have overwhelmed Tlaxcala without too much difficulty, and the reason it did not is probably that it wanted a nearby source of victims for the human sacrifices. Therefore the Aztecs maintained an almost perpetual state of war with Tlaxcala, but never actually conquered it. Also, the Aztecs seem to have regarded the frequent battles as a convenient way of testing and training the young Mexica warriors.

This state of perpetual war was very hateful to the Tlaxcalans and by the time that Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala, the confederation represented fertile grounds for an anti-Mexica alliance. However, the Tlaxcalans, very suspicious of the strangers, were in no mood to accommodate the Spaniards and their Indian allies.

After several serious and bloody skirmishes, the Tlaxcalans and Spaniards agreed to a truce and the strangers were invited to meet with King Xicotenga in the Tlaxcalan capital on September 18. Recognizing the fighting abilities and the superior weaponry of the Spaniards, the Tlaxcalan authorities began to see the Spanish forces as potential allies against their great enemies, the Mexica. Cortés, for his part, told King Xicotenga that he was opposed only to the Aztec Empire and that there would be a place for Tlaxcala in Spanish-dominated México. Within a very short time, the Tlaxcalans would become the most loyal native allies of the Spaniards. Their allegiance with the Europeans would be an enduring partnership, lasting several centuries.

On October 23, 1519, Cortés and his army of European mercenaries and indigenous warriors left the Tlaxcalan capital. A thousand Tlaxcalan warriors had been added to the ranks of Cortés force. While Indian laborers carried the cannon and baggage in the center of the formation, Tlaxcalan warriors and Spanish horsemen marched along the flanks and with the rear guard. Although Xicotenga had offered him many more warriors, Cortés did not want a large force of Tlaxcalans that might frighten or enrage the Mexica.

As Cortés traveled westward through mountain towns and villages, many of the Indians living along this path told him of their cruel treatment at the hands of the Aztec overlords. Through these meetings, Cortés began to understand the depth of this hatred and fear. He also recognized that many of these people would be potential allies in a showdown with the Mexica.

On November 2, 1519, Cortés' forces moved through a mountain pass that lay 13,000 feet above sea level. From this path, the Spaniards could see the smoking volcano Popocatepetl (Smoking Mountain) and Ixtaccihuatl (Mountain of White Woman), which reach 17,887 feet and 17,000 feet, respectively. From the mountain pass, the Spaniards witnessed for the first time the great splendor of Tenochtitlán as it spread out on the valley floor. Before long, the mountain pass, with the great Valley of México in full view, descended to lower altitudes, eventually bringing Cortés and his forces to an altitude of 7,400 above sea level along the valley floor.

Finally, on November 8, 1519, Cortés and his large army reached Xoloco, just outside of Tenochtitlán, where they were greeted by hundreds of emissaries of Moctezuma. As they were brought into the city, the Spaniards stared in awe at the architectural precision of the city. Filing across the southern causeway of the capital, Cortés and his men were greeted with much ceremony by a retinue of lords and nobles headed by Moctezuma himself.

The wary Moctezuma made great efforts to play the perfect host, showing his unwanted guests around the city and entertaining them with splendid banquets.

After several days of negotiations and touring, Cortés and his officers took Moctezuma as a hostage. Bringing the King to his barracks, Cortés persuaded him to dispatch messengers to the surrounding communities to collect gold and silver, part of which was sent to the Spanish monarch in the name of Moctezuma and part of which was divided among Cortés' troops. Moctezuma's imprisonment continued for eight months.

Then, on April 19, 1520, more ships appeared off the coast of México. The governor of Cuba had sent soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to arrest Captain-General Cortés for insubordination. Leaving Captain Pedro de Alvarado in charge of his troops, Cortés quickly departed from Tenochtitlán with 266 Spanish soldiers to confront the newly arrived Spanish force on the Gulf Coast. Although Narvaez's troops numbered three times greater, Cortés and his small army defeated Narvaez in a battle near Veracruz, after which most of Narvaez's troops joined Cortés.

When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán, he found out that Pedro de Alvarado had provoked an open revolt by massacring 600 Aztec nobles during the Feast of Huitzilopochtli. Fighting quickly broke out in full force the day after Cortés returned, and the sheer numbers of the Aztec army overwhelmed the Captain-General's army, which numbered only 1,250 Spaniards and 8,000 Mexican warriors. His army was forced to retreat back into the barracks. In the days to follow, as the Indians besieged the palace, Moctezuma was killed by a shower of stones directed by his angry subjects to their captive emperor. Moctezuma was succeeded as emperor by Cuitlahuac, who decided that the Spaniards must be annihilated.

Under a complete siege by Aztec forces in Tenochtitlán, Cortés on July 1, 1520 attempted to break out of the city and cross the lake to the mainland by marching down one of the causeways. As the force left the palace at midnight, Cortés had some 1,250 Spanish soldiers and at least 5,000 Tlaxcalan warriors. While they were crossing the bridge leaving the city, the Aztecs fell upon the army and inflicted heavy damage. In the disorder, Spanish soldiers who had been too greedy and filled their pockets with gold were pushed into Lake Texcoco and drowned.

The army managed to attain a place of relative safety on a hill past the nearby town of Tlacopan but not without losing about 450 Spanish and at least 2,000 Indian soldiers from their ranks. Plagued by hunger, disease, and the pursuing Aztecs, Cortés' army fled to Tlaxcala to obtain reinforcements. On July 8, the army came upon a legion of nearly 200,000 Aztecs sent by Cuitlahuac. There, at the battle of Otumba, the Spanish managed a smashing victory that dissuaded the Aztecs from pursuing the Spaniards and their allies any farther.

By the end of the battle, 850 Spaniards and 4,000 Tlaxcalans had been lost. Only twenty-four of the 95 horses survived the exodus. All the cannon and nearly all the muskets and crossbows had been lost. Even with the many reinforcements that Cortés had brought from the coast, this left only 420 men and 17 horses. All the survivors, including Cortés, were wounded, and very few firearms or ammunition were left. As the battered army approached Tlaxcala, they were greeted by their Indian allies and given refuge.

"Reviewing their narrow escape," writes the author Michael C. Meyer, "many of the Spanish veterans wanted nothing more to do with the Aztecs. It required all of Cortés' force of personality and subtle blandishments to prevent mass defections and rebellion among his men. Cortés, who seems never to have wavered in his determination to retake Tenochtitlán, began to lay plans for the return."

It goes without saying that the Spaniards would not have survived their ordeal without the help of their Tlaxcalan allies. The Tlaxcalan chiefs called on Cortés during this dismal time and laid out their conditions for further assistance. The Tlaxcalans requested "perpetual exemption from tribute of any sort, a share of the spoils, and control of two provinces that bordered their land." Cortés agreed to these conditions and, as the author Richard Lee Marks wrote, "Spain substantially kept its promise" to the Tlaxcalans "and exempted them from tribute for the entire period of the Spanish rule in México, nearly three hundred years."

The Spaniards, however, also received more important support from another, unexpected ally. "While the Spaniards rested and recuperated" in Tlaxcala, wrote Richard Lee Marks, "it occurred to Cortés and his men to wonder why the great armies from Tenochtitlán were not pursuing them." The Aztecs had not attacked or laid siege to Tlaxcala, giving the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans precious time to heal and recover from their catastrophic defeat. Later, Cortés would learn that an epidemic of smallpox had devastated Tenochtitlán.

While the Spaniards were in Tlaxcala, a great plague broke out here in Tenochtitlán. It began to spread during the thirteenth month and lasted for seventy days, striking everywhere in the city and killing a vast number of our people. Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies; we were covered with agonizing sores from head to foot.

At the same time in the Aztec capital, a smallpox epidemic began that killed Cuitlahuac and immobilized much of the population. To replace the king, the caciques of Tenochtitlán chose Cuahtemoc, a nephew of Moctezuma who believed that the Aztec army would be able to annihilate the invaders.

Mr. Marks writes that smallpox spread quickly among the Mexica because they "were in the habit of bathing to alleviate almost any ailment that afflicted them. These baths were either communal or the same bathing water was used consecutively by many. But after someone with an open smallpox sore entered the bath, the disease was transmitted to everyone who followed." The Spaniards, however, never bathed. Although they occasionally washed off the dirt and blood when they had to, "they believed that bathing per se was weakening." And the Tlaxcalans, "always in a state of semi-siege," were not yet exposed to the smallpox.

The Captain-General's army left Tlaxcala on December 26, 1520 on its march to the Aztec capital. Cortés' army had been completely rebuilt. With his army of 600 Spanish soldiers and between 110,000 and 150,000 Mexican warriors, Cortés intended to occupy the city of Texcoco and blockade Tenochtitlán from there. With the city sufficiently weakened, his army would cross the lake on thirteen brigantines constructed for this purpose by the Spaniards.

In January 1521 Cortés once again led his force into the Valley of México. They staged a series of raids throughout the countryside, taking control of various cities surrounding the lake. After witnessing the military and technological advantages of the Spanish forces, many caciques in the Valley decided to join their forces with Cortés' army in order to save their own skin.

When the final assault on Tenochtitlán began on April 28, 1521, Cortés had more than 900 Spaniards, including 118 crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 700 sword and pike men, and eighteen cannons. The cavalry had been beefed up with 86 horses and their riders. Within the ranks of this huge army were at least 75,000 Tlaxcalans, and thousands of other indigenous supporters. It is believe that possible as many as 70,000 Indian laborers carried supplies, built roads and carried on our auxiliary chores. The Aztecs, however, had a population of 250,000 men, women, and children, defending their homes.

Emperor Cuahtemoc, realizing that his horseless troops were no match for the Spaniards in open country, decided that it would be better to wage urban warfare against the enemy. Turning Tenochtitlán into an Aztec Stalingrad, he defeated the initial Spanish assault on the city and drove the enemy back to their siege lines outside the gates. Day after day, week after week, the fighting raged back and forth as the Spaniards and their allies attempted to break the Aztec defense from both land and sea. They did so a few times but were steadily pushed back by the now starving inhabitants of Tenochtitlán.

Cortés became increasingly distressed at his army's inability to break the Aztec spirit. So, after nearly three months of such fighting, the Captain-General ordered a full-scale assault on Tenochtitlán. After five days of intense fighting, the Aztecs - weakened by starvation and disease - were near exhaustion. The Aztecs fought valiantly against a huge coalition but - deprived of fresh water and food supplies from the mainland - they surrendered on August 13, 1521, after an eighty-day siege.

The siege of Tenochtitlán, according to the histories, paintings and chronicles, lasted exactly eighty days. Thirty thousand men from the kingdom of Texcoco were killed during this time, of the more than 200,000 who fought on the side of the Spaniards. Of the Aztecs, more than 240,000 were killed. Almost all of the nobility perished: there remained alive only a few lords and knights and the little children. Dr. Marrin commented that "what had taken centuries to build, would be destroyed in just thirty months."

Indigenous Groups at Contact
The names of the ethnic groups who traveled through or inhabited the Valley of México in the last 2,000 years include the Olmeca, Xicalanca, Tolteca, Chichimeca, Teochichimeca, Otomí, Culhuaque, Cuitlahuaca, Mixquica, Xochimilca, Chalca, Tepaneca, Acolhuaque, and Mexica.

The Otomí. It is believed that the Otomí may have been the earliest inhabitants of the Valley of México. They were the only major indigenous group in the Valley of México who spoke a language other than Náhuatl. They had probably arrived in the Valley from the west after the destruction of Tula. Xaltocan, in the northern part of the Valley, was the capital of Otomí Empire during its prime in the mid-Thirteenth Century. However, the Otomí declined in power and prestige during the Fourteenth Century, after having lost wars with the Mexica.

Culhuaque. The Culuaque Indians inhabited Culhuacan near the tip of the peninsula that separated Lake México from Lake Xochimilco. The Culhuaque Indians settled in Culhuacan sometime around the Twelfth Century and were the original masters of the Mexica before the establishment of Tenochtitlán. In the mid Fourteenth Century, the Mexica defeated the Culhuaque, partly as a result of Tepaneca expansion from Azcapotzalco. Culhuacan was later conquered in 1428 by the Mexica.

Cuitlahuaca. The Cuitlahuaca occupied an insular community called Cuitlahuac (Tlahuac), which was located between Lakes Chalco and Xochimilco). The Cuitlahuaca were surrounded by the Xochimilca, Mixquica, and Chalca to the south, and the Culhuaque, Mexica, and Acolhuaque to the north. They were conquered by the Mexica in the Fifteenth Century.

Xochimilca. The Xochimilca migrated to the southern part of the Valley of México and gave their name - meaning "Plantation of Flowers" - to their primary settlement. Although they conquered some of their neighbors, eventually they declined after fighting wars with Huejotzingo, Tlaxcala, and Cholula on their eastern frontier.

The Colonial Period
For three full centuries (1521-1821), México City and the surrounding jurisdiction underwent a period of integration, assimilation, and Hispanization. This period - which is not the focus of this work - has been discussed in many books. One particularly informative source about the cultural and social development of central México is James Lockhart's The Náhuas After the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central México, Sixteenth Through Eighteenth Centuries (published in 1992 by the Stanford University Press). Another useful source to consult on this topic would be Charles Gibson's The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of México 1519-1810 (published by the Stanford University Press in 1964).

Although Spanish became the primary language of this region, many aspects of indigenous culture and language remained. When the population of the jurisdiction of México was tallied in 1790, 742,186 persons were registered as "indios," representing 71.1% of the total population of 1,043,223. In contrast, people of Spanish origin were tallied at 134,965.

Continue to The Federal District in the Twentieth Century

Copyright 2003 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


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John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."