An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

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The Mexican state of Tlaxcala, with a population of 911,696 people (0.97% of the national population), is one of the smallest and most densely populated states in the Mexican Republic. Located in the east central part of Mexico sixty miles from Mexico City, Tlaxcala is made up of 1,555 square miles (4,027 square kilometers), which represents 0.19% of the total surface area of Mexico. Tlaxcala is bordered on its south, east and northwest by the State of Puebla, on its north by Hidalgo, and on its east by Mexico. Its meaning originates from the Náhuatl word meaning "Place of born bread." Tlaxcala, with its sixty municipios, became a state on February 5, 1857.

The Aztec Empire
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
This highland state's elevation is over 6,562 feet. Within the state's border lies La Malinche, Mexico's fifth-highest mountain at 14,637 feet. Although it is Mexico's smallest state, Tlaxcala is rich with tradition, history, and colonial architecture. One of its main attractions is Cacaxtla, an important archaeological site believed to have been built at the zenith of the Olmec Xicalanca culture around AD 700.

The Olmec Xicalanca culture fell into decline after AD 900 and was replaced by the Teo-Chichimecas (also known as Náhuatl Tlaxcalans). Sometime around A.D. 1350, the present-day inhabitants of the area, the Tlaxcalans, drove out the Chichimecas. Defeating the opposition, the Tlaxcalans moved into the Cholula region and set up an autonomous Tlaxcalan state. During the following decades, they made war with and subdued many of their neighbors. In time, the Tlaxcalan Nation would evolve into a "confederation of four republics," each with its own ruling lord, judges and other officials. The Tlaxcalans built defensive walls along the outskirts of their territory and collected taxes and tribute from their subject peoples.

In time, the Tlaxcalans came up against the powerful Mexica (pronounced "me-shee-ka") Indians who inhabited the Valley of Mexico to the west. As the Mexica spread out from their base of power in Tenochtitlán, the Tlaxcalans became their traditional enemies. The Tlaxcalans and Mexica shared a common origin, both of them speaking the Náhuatl language. As a matter of fact, both the Tlaxcalans and the Mexica belonged to the Aztec culture, looking back to the legendary Aztlan (Place of the Herons) as their ancestral homeland in the northwest.

For more than two hundred years, the Tlaxcalan nation lived in the shadow of the Mexica and their rapidly expanding Aztec Empire. Starting in 1325, the Mexica had begun building an empire with their military force. They subdued neighboring city-states and compelled the people to surrender part of their production as tribute. By 1440, the Mexica had spread their influence as far south as Guatemala.

In 1519, the Aztec Empire was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. The Mexica capital 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 Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and southward to Oaxaca and Chiapas. This empire contained some 15 million people, living in thirty-eight provinces. In all, the Emperor received the tribute of 489 communities.

Although the Mexica put together an extensive and powerful empire, Tlaxcala never fell into their hands. When the Spanish conquistadors, under the command of Captain-General Hernán Cortés, reached the Tlaxcalan republic in 1519, Tlaxcala was an independent enclave deep in the heart of the Mexica Empire. At this time, the Tlaxcalan Confederation ruled over some 200 settlements, boasting a total population of about 150,000. Surrounded on all sides and economically blockaded, they had never yielded to the Mexica and had been subjected to almost continuous warfare and human sacrifice for many decades.

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. The clashes between the Tlaxcalans and Mexica were called the "Flower Wars" (Xochiyaoyotl). The chief purpose of these "ceremonial battles" was to furnish captives to be used in their sacrificial rites. It is likely that both the Mexica and Tlaxcalan also saw war as a convenient way of testing and training young warriors for future wars. During this time, it was a common belief in Central Mexico that offering human sacrifice to their gods would ensure the continued movement of the sun and hence the other processes needed to maintain life.

Because of their economic isolation, the Tlaxcalans had no cotton with which to make their clothes. Neither did they have any salt. The salt lakes of Alchichica, not far from Tlaxcala, lay close by but they could not benefit from this. No feathers or precious stones made their way into Tlaxcala. This state of unrelenting warfare had become very hateful to the Tlaxcalans and by the time that Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala, the confederation represented fertile grounds for an anti-Mexica alliance.

On April 22, 1519, a fleet of eleven Spanish galleons, which had been sailing northward along the eastern Gulf Coast of Mexico, dropped anchor just off the wind-swept beach on the island of San Juan de Ulúa. Under the command of the Spanish-born Captain-General Hernán Cortés, these vessels bore 450 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses. The first indigenous peoples that Cortés met with were the Totonac Indians who inhabited the coastal area near the city-state of Cempoala. Although this town of 14,000 was subject to the Aztec Empire, Cacique (Chief) Tlacochcalcatl and his people offered a warm welcome to Cortés, expressing the hope that the Spaniards may help them to gain independence from their Mexica overlords.

The chief of the Totonacs complained that the Mexica tribute collectors had picked the country clean and that hundreds of young Totonac children were brought to the altars of Tenochtitlán for sacrifice. The Cempoalans, impressed by the superior firepower of the Spaniards and the hope of overthrowing Aztec rule, 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 the Mexica monarch, Moctezuma.

Cacique Tlacochcalcatl warned Cortés that, on his journey inland, he would pass through the territory of the Tlaxcalans, who held a deep and uncompromising hatred toward the Mexica. It was his belief that the Tlaxcalans might be willing to ally themselves with the Spaniards. With the help of Totonac guides, Cortés planned his march to Tenochtitlán through territories that might represent fertile ground for more alliances. Finally, on August 16, 1519, Cortés assembled a formidable expedition to move inland from Cempoala. His army now consisted of 400 Spanish soldiers, 15 horses, 1,300 Indian warriors, seven pieces of artillery, and a thousand tamanes (porters), who helped transport baggage and guns across the land. About 150 of the porters were Cuban Indian servants who were brought along from Cuba. The force brought along many dogs that had been well-trained to fight. The distance from Cempoala to Tenochtitlán is 250 miles, as the crow flies.

On August 31, at a point ten miles into Tlaxcalan territory, Cortés' army encountered a hostile force of at least 30,000 Tlaxcalans. Despite the tremendous size of the army, the Spaniards managed to fend them off. Unlike other Indians, the Tlaxcalans seemed to have no fear of the horses and killed two of the animals. That night, the Spaniards, exhausted from their battle, rested in the open, some twenty miles from the capital city of Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcalan council then decided on a night attack against the Spaniards and their allies, but they found to their surprise that Cortés' troops were ready for them and reversed the ambush.

In the next battle, Cortés claimed that he faced a Tlaxcalan army of well over 100,000 warriors. In this battle, some sixty Spaniards and several horses were wounded by the enemy. But, on the following day, Cortés led a punitive expedition, burning some ten Tlaxcalan towns (with a total population of over 3,000). Many Indians were killed in this campaign. After a third day of battles, the Spaniards had lost 45 men who died in battle, died of wounds or succumbed to disease.

Watching the Spaniards prove themselves in battle, the Tlaxcalan King Xicotenga was very impressed and decided to allow Cortés' army to pass through the confederation. As the Spaniards entered the Tlaxcalan capital on September 18, they were welcomed into the town as if they were heroes. For twenty days, Cortés and his army stayed in Tlaxcala. As his men recovered from their wounds, Cortés forged a relationship with Xicotenga and other Tlaxcalan leaders. Xicotenga agreed to provide necessary provisions and manpower to the Spaniards. This change from hostility to alliance was brought on by Cortés' claims that he was opposed only to the Aztec empire and that there would be a place for Tlaxcala in a Spanish-dominated Mexico.

Xicotenga saw in Cortés a powerful ally who could help the Tlaxcalans destroy the Mexica and undermine the power of the Aztec Empire. The alliance between the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans is one of the most important events in Mexican history. This alliance of the Europeans with the Totonac and Tlaxcalan Indians gave birth to a formidable coalition which would eventually lead to the downfall and destruction of the entire Aztec Empire. The allegiance of the Tlaxcalans with the Spaniards would become an enduring partnership, lasting several centuries.

On November 1, 1519, Cortés and his army of European mercenaries and indigenous warriors left the Tlaxcalan capital. As many as 6,000 Tlaxcalan warriors had been added to the ranks of Cortés' force, but most of his Totonac allies had to return to their homes on the Gulf Coast. 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.

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 Mexica 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.

From the mountain passes overlooking the great Valley of Mexico, the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans witnessed for the first time the great splendor of Tenochtitlán as it spread out along the valley floor. Before long, the mountain pass, with the Valley in full view, descended to lower altitudes, eventually bringing Cortés and his forces to an altitude of 7,400 feet above sea level on the valley floor. As they made their way through the valley towards Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards arrived in one town, where the King of Texcoco welcomed them. The Texcocans provided their alien guests with gifts, food, and assistance. Soon after hearing about the Christian religion, many Texcocans, including the king, decided to convert to Catholicism. Before continuing on to the capital, the Spaniards performed several religious services, baptizing the king and other Texcocan nobles.

On November 8, 1519, the coalition army reached Xoloco, just outside of Tenochtitlán, where they were greeted by hundreds of emissaries of Emperor Moctezuma, the ruler of Tenochtitlán and the Emperor of the mighty Aztec Empire. 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 Tlaxcalans, marching alongside their European allies, were equally impressed by the splendor of their hereditary enemies.

Greeted by Moctezuma, the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans were offered housing and provisions by the Mexica. Moctezuma showed his Spanish guests around the city and entertained them with splendid banquets. By this time, Moctezuma and the other Mexica lords had already heard about the devastation that Cortés and his allies had inflicted upon several of the Aztec villages on his journey westward. Moctezuma also recognized the potential danger of a Tlaxcalan-Spanish alliance.

After several days of negotiations and touring, Cortés and his officers suddenly took Moctezuma as a hostage. Bringing the monarch to his barracks in the great city, Cortés persuaded him to dispatch messengers to the surrounding communities to collect gold and silver. Moctezuma's imprisonment within his own capital continued for eight months.

On April 19, 1520, more Spanish ships appeared along the eastern coast. As Cortés suspected, the Governor of Cuba - his personal enemy - had sent soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to arrest Cortés for insubordination. Leaving his friend, Captain Pedro de Alvarado, in charge of his troops in Tenochtitlán, 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 this battle, Cortés - a master of manipulation - persuaded most of Narvaez's troops to join him, after promising them a share of the spoils when Tenochtitlán was brought under Spanish control.

However, when Cortés and his men 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 had broken out, and soon the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies found themselves under siege within the palace of the great city. An attempt to get the Mexica monarch to calm his subjects failed when Moctezuma was killed by a hail of stones.

Moctezuma was succeeded as Emperor by Cuitlahuac, who immediately set out to organize a determined resistance to the Spanish forces. As the month of June approached its end, Cortés realized that he would have to exit the city or face annihilation by a numerically superior force. On July 1, 1520, 1,250 Spaniards and 5,000 Tlaxcalans attempted to flee the city. This night - often referred to as La Noche Triste, the Night of Sadness - was a disaster for both the Spaniards and Tlaxcalan forces. As they fled the city, the Mexica forces fell upon them, killing 450 Spanish soldiers, 4,000 Tlaxcalans and 46 horses.

Plagued by hunger, disease, and the pursuing Aztecs, Cortés' army fled eastward in an attempt to reach Tlaxcalan territory, where they would try to organize reinforcements. However, on July 8, the retreating army came upon a legion of nearly 200,000 Aztecs sent by Cuitlahuac. There, at the battle of Otumba, Cortés' forces managed a smashing victory that dissuaded the Aztecs from pursuing the Spaniards and their allies any farther.

Four hundred and twenty Spaniards and a mere 17 horses limped into Tlaxcalan territory. All the survivors, including Cortés, were wounded, and very few firearms or ammunition were left. As the battered army made its way into Tlaxcala, they were greeted by their Indian allies and given refuge. 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 author Richard Lee Marks writes that 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 Mr. Marks observed, "Spain substantially kept its promise" to the Tlaxcalans "and exempted them from tribute for the entire period of the Spanish rule in Mexico, 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 Mr. 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.

Brought to the shores of Mexico by an African sailor, "the disease had spread with amazing rapidity through the coastal tribes and up into the highland." The disease spread quickly among the Indians, according to Mr. Marks, 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.

"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." In Tlaxcala, Cortés gained great power over the council and began to form a huge new army to attack Tenochtitlán once again. Reinforcements arrived from Vera Cruz to assist in the campaign, while more Tlaxcalans prepared to join Cortés' army. The Captain-General's army left Tlaxcala in late December of 1520 on its march to the Aztec capital.

With an army of 600 Spanish soldiers and more than 110,000 Indian warriors, Cortés intended to occupy the city of Texcoco and blockade Tenochtitlán from there. In the Spring of 1521, the refreshed army systematically conquered most of the Aztec-inhabited towns around Tenochtitlán, all the while receiving more reinforcements. The Spanish and Tlaxcalan force was bolstered by the addition of some 50,000 Texcocans. In addition, another 200 Spanish soldiers had arrived from the coast to help in the offensive.

In May 1521, Captain-General Hernán Cortés, with 900 Spaniards, 118 crossbows and harquebuses, fifteen bronze cannons and three heavy guns, thirteen brigantines, and as many as 150,000 Indian warriors, approached the entrance to Tenochtitlán. The siege of Tenochtitlán lasted from May 26 to August 13, 1521. The Mexica put up a fierce resistance until their people were reduced to eating worms and bark from trees. Towards the end of the siege, recognizing that the Mexica were nearly incapacitated by hunger and dehydration, the Captain-General ordered a full-scale assault on Tenochtitlán.

On August 13, 1521, after a 75-day siege, Tenochtitlán finally fell. In later years, Aztec historians would state that 240,000 Aztecs died in the siege. While many of the warriors died in battle, others, including most of the women and children, died from dehydration, starvation and disease. Of the 150,000 Amerindian allies fighting alongside the Spaniards, more than 30,000 are believed to have perished.

Continue to History of the Tlaxcalans, 2

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


David Adams, The Tlaxcalan Colonies of Spanish Coahuila and Nuevo León: An Aspect of the Settlement of Northern Mexico (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1971).

Ronald Barnett, "The Mighty Tlaxcalans of Mexico," Online: http://www.chapala.com/particles/21w.htm February 1997.

Nicholas Cheetham, New Spain: The Birth of Modern Mexico (London: Victor Golancz Ltd., 1974).

Diego Muñoz Camargo, Historia de Tlaxcala (Alfredo Chavero, ed.: Mexico, 1892).

Diego Muñoz Camargo, Fragmentos de la Historia de Tlaxcala (Mexico, 1871).

Nigel Davies, The Aztecs: A History (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma, 1980).

Charles Gibson, Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century (Yale: Yale University Press, 1952).

Oakah L. Jones, Los Paisanos: Spanish Settlers on the Northern Frontier of New Spain (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979).

Richard Lee Marks, Cortés: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Rivera, The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

Michael C. Meyer, The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Philip Wayne Powell, Mexico's Miguel Caldera: The Taming of America's First Frontier (1548-1597) (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1977).

Philip Wayne Powell, Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War (Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, 1975).

Marc Simmons, "Tlascalans in the Spanish Borderlands,"New Mexico Historical Review 39 (April '64).

Eric R. Wolf, Sons of the Shaking Earth (Chicago: Un of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1959).

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."