was a Spanish explorer who is famous mainly for his march
across Mexico and his conquering of the Aztec Empire in
Cortés was born in the
Spanish city of Medellín in 1485. When he was a
young man, he studied law, but he soon gave that up to
seek his fortune in the New World that was just being
discovered by Columbus and others.
First he went to the island of
Santo Domingo (now known as the Dominican Republic) in
1504. He was only 19 years old at the time. He stayed
there for seven years, then took part in the Spanish
conquest of Cuba in 1511. He became mayor of Santiago de
Cuba and stayed there until 1518.
Cortés was eager for more
power and conquests, so he talked the Spanish governor of
Cuba into letting him lead an expedition to Mexico in
1519. Mexico had just been discovered by the Spanish
explorer de Córdoba a year before.
At that time, Mexico was ruled by
the Aztec Empire and its leader, Montezuma II.
Cortés arrived in Mexico in March 1519 with a
group of about 600 men and a few horses. He soon learned
of the Aztecs and began to make his way inland to the
Aztec capital city, Tenochtitlán. Along the way,
he made friends with a native group called the
Tlaxcalans, who were enemies of the Aztecs. The
Tlaxcalans helped Cortés against the
In November of 1519, Cortés
and his men reached the Aztec capital and met Montezuma.
The Aztecs may have thought that Cortés was a
god-king, and so they treated him and his soldiers well.
However, Cortés was afraid that the Aztecs might
soon try to get rid of him, so he took Montezuma hostage
and asked for a huge ransom of gold and
It turned out that Cortés
was right and the Aztecs finally drove him and his men
out of their city in June of 1520. But Cortés
regrouped and returned in the summer of 1521 to capture
Soon after, he began to build
Mexico City on the Aztec ruins and brought many Europeans
over to live there. It soon became the most important
European city in North America. Because of his conquests
and all the gold and jewels he had collected,
Cortés was very popular back home in Spain and so
he was made governor and captain general of New Spain in
1523. But he wasn't done exploring.
In 1524, he led a group into
Honduras and stayed in that area for two years. By 1528,
the Spanish government was worried that Cortés was
getting out of control in the Americas, and so he had to
give up his governor's job and was sent back to Spain. He
spoke to the king, who was persuaded to send
Cortés back to Mexico in 1530, but with less power
and freedom than before.
In 1536, Cortés explored the
northwestern part of Mexico and discovered the Baja
California peninsula. He also spent time exploring the
Pacific coast of Mexico. This was the last major
expedition by Cortés. In 1539, he went back to
Spain, and spent much of the rest of his life there
before he died near Seville in 1547.