Hernando Cortez was born in the small town of Medellin in southwestern Spain in 1485. When he was about 18, he sailed for the island of Hispaniola, then the Spanish headquarters in the West Indies. He was a soldier and a farmer before he sailed for Diego Velasquez to help conquer Cuba in 1511. Velasquez became the governor and Cortez was elected mayor-judge of Santiago.
Conquering the Aztec Empire
When Juan de Grijalva reported his discovery of Mexico in 1518, Velasquez picked Cortez to build a colony there. Velasquez soon suspected Cortez would go beyond his orders and cancelled the expedition. Unfortunately for Velasquez, Cortez had already assembled men and equipment and set sail. He rounded the peninsula at Yucatan and touched Mexico on the coast of what is now the state of Tabasco. During the battle with Indians there, he took many captives including a young Aztec princess. She became his interpreter and advisor.
Cortez continued up the coast. On April 21,1519, he landed near the site of Veracruz. There, to prevent all thought of retreat, he burned his ships. Leaving a small force on the coast, Cortez led the rest of his men into the interior. A warlike tribe of natives attacked his party. The Indians outnumbered the Spaniards 300 to 1.
On November 8, 1519, Cortez reached Tenochtitlan (now Mexico City) and was graciously received by Montezuma, the Aztec emperor. Soon after Cortez established headquarters in the capital, he learned that the Aztecs had plundered Veracruz. He seized Montezuma and forced him to surrender the attackers. Then he had them executed.
Meanwhile Velasquez had sent 1,400 soldiers to arrest Cortez and bring him back to Cuba. Cortez defeated this army and most of the survivors joined Cortez.
He returned to the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan. As Cortez and his men reached the heart of the city, they were attacked by thousands of Aztec warriors. Montezuma was brought out to pacify his people, but they stoned him, and later he died of his wounds. Cortez' army was surrounded and apparently doomed, but he and three others managed to get to the chieftain of the Aztecs and killed him. Confused by this apparent "miracle," the Aztecs retreated. With fewer than 500 of his men left alive, Cortez, in July of 1520, made his way back to his Indian allies.
Cortez attacked Tenochtitlan again by ship the following May. On August 13, 1521, Guatemoc, the new Aztec emperor, surrendered. This was the end of the great empire of the Aztecs.
Cortez spent the next seven years establishing peace among the Indians of Mexico and developing mines and farmlands. In 1528 he went home and was received with great honor by Charles V, but he missed the adventure of the New World.
He returned to Mexico as a military commander. He explored Lower California from 1534 to 1535 and fought the pirates of Algiers in 1541. The same year he led an expedition against the Maya of Yucatan.
Cortez died near Seville on December 2, 1547.
Who Goes There: European Exploration of the New World