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 Cortés and Montezuma
Source #1
This Day in History (
Aug 13, 1521:
Aztec capital falls to Cortés
After a three-month siege, Spanish forces under Hernán Cortés capture
Tenochtitlán, the capital of the Aztec empire. Cortés' men leveled the city and captured
Cuauhtemoc, the Aztec emperor.
Tenochtitlán was founded in 1325 A.D. by a wandering tribe of hunters and
gatherers on islands in Lake Texcoco, near the present site of Mexico City. In only one
century, this civilization grew into the Aztec empire, largely because of its advanced
system of agriculture. The empire came to dominate central Mexico and by the
ascendance of Montezuma II in 1502 had reached its greatest extent, extending as far
south as perhaps modern-day Nicaragua. At the time, the empire was held together
primarily by Aztec military strength, and Montezuma II set about establishing a
bureaucracy, creating provinces that would pay tribute to the imperial capital of
Tenochtitlán. The conquered peoples resented the Aztec demands for tribute and
victims for the religious sacrifices, but the Aztec military kept rebellion at bay.
Meanwhile, Hernán Cortés, a young Spanish-born noble, came to Hispaniola in
the West Indies in 1504. In 1511, he sailed with Diego Velázquez to conquer Cuba and
twice was elected mayor of Santiago, the capital of Hispaniola. In 1518, he was
appointed captain general of a new Spanish expedition to the American mainland.
Velázquez, the governor of Cuba, later rescinded the order, and Cortés sailed without
permission. He visited the coast of Yucatán and in March 1519 landed at Tabasco in
Mexico's Bay of Campeche with 500 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses. There, he
won over the local Indians and was given a female slave, Malinche–baptized Marina–
who became his mistress and later bore him a son. She knew both Maya and Aztec
and served as an interpreter. The expedition then proceeded up the Mexican coast,
where Cortés founded Veracruz, mainly for the purpose of having himself elected
captain general by the colony, thus shaking off the authority of Velázquez and making
him responsible only to King Charles V of Spain.
At Veracruz, Cortés trained his army and then burned his ships to ensure loyalty
to his plans for conquest. Having learned of political strife in the Aztec empire, Cortés
led his force into the Mexican interior. On the way to Tenochtitlán, he clashed with local
Indians, but many of these people, including the nation of Tlaxcala, became his allies
after learning of his plan to conquer their hated Aztec rulers. Hearing of the approach of
Cortés, with his frightful horses and sophisticated weapons, Montezuma II tried to buy
him off, but Cortés would not be dissuaded. On November 8, 1519, the Spaniards and
their 1,000 Tlaxcaltec warriors were allowed to enter Tenochtitlán unopposed.
Montezuma suspected them to be divine envoys of the god Quetzalcatl, who
Maraline Ellis Salem-­‐Keizer School District 2013-­‐2014 was prophesied to return from the east in a "One Reed" year, which was 1519 on the
Aztec calendar. The Spaniards were greeted with great honor, and Cortés seized the
opportunity, taking Montezuma hostage so that he might govern the empire through
him. His mistress, Marina, was a great help in this endeavor and succeeded in
convincing Montezuma to cooperate fully.
In the spring of 1520, Cortés learned of the arrival of a Spanish force from Cuba,
led by Pánfilo Narvez and sent by Velázquez to deprive Cortés of his command. Cortés
led his army out of Tenochtitlán to meet them, leaving behind a garrison of 80
Spaniards and a few hundred Tlaxcaltecs to govern the city. Cortés defeated Narvez
and enlisted Narvez' army into his own. When he returned to Tenochtitlán in June, he
found the garrison under siege from the Aztecs, who had rebelled after the subordinate
whom Cortés left in command of the city massacred several Aztec chiefs, and the
population on the brink of revolt. On June 30, under pressure and lacking food, Cortés
and his men fought their way out of the capital at heavy cost. Known to the Spanish as
La Noche Triste, or "the Night of Sadness," many soldiers drowned in Lake Texcoco
when the vessel carrying them and Aztec treasures hoarded by Cortés sank.
Montezuma was killed in the fighting–in Aztec reports by the Spaniards, and in Spanish
reports by an Aztec mob bitter at Montezuma's subservience to Spanish rule. He was
succeeded as emperor by his brother, Cuitláhuac.
During the Spaniards' retreat, they defeated a large Aztec army at Otumba and
then rejoined their Tlaxcaltec allies. In May 1521, Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán, and
after a three-month siege the city fell. This victory marked the fall of the Aztec empire.
Cuauhtámoc, Cuitláhuac's successor as emperor, was taken prisoner and later
executed, and Cortés became the ruler of a vast Mexican empire.
The Spanish conquistador led an expedition to Honduras in 1524 and in 1528
returned to Spain to see the king. Charles made him Marqués del Valle but refused to
name him governor because of his quarrels with Velázquez and others. In 1530, he
returned to Mexico, now known as New Spain, and found the country in disarray. After
restoring some order, he retired to his estate south of Mexico City and sent out
maritime expeditions from the Pacific coast. In 1540, he returned to Spain and was
neglected by the court. He died in 1547.
Maraline Ellis Salem-­‐Keizer School District 2013-­‐2014 Source #2
Montezuma Meets Cortés
In 1519 Hernan Cortés sailed from Cuba, landed in Mexico and made his way to
the Aztec capital. Miguel Leon-Portilla, a Mexican anthropologist, gathered accounts by
the Aztecs, some of which were written shortly after the conquest.
Speeches of Montezuma and Cortés
When Montezuma had given necklaces to each one, Cortés asked him: "Are you
Montezuma? Are you the king? Is it true that you are the king Montezuma?"
And the king said: "Yes, I am Montezuma." Then he stood up to welcome
Cortés; he came forward, bowed his head low and addressed him in these words: "Our
lord, you are weary. The journey has tired you, but now you have arrived on the earth.
You have come to your city, Mexico. You have come here to sit on your throne, to sit
under its canopy.
"The kings who have gone before, your representatives, guarded it and
preserved it for your coming. The kings Itzcoatl, Montezuma the Elder, Axayacatl,
Tizoc and Ahuitzol ruled for you in the City of Mexico. The people were protected by
their swords and sheltered by their shields.
"Do the kings know the destiny of those they left behind, their posterity? If only
they are watching! If only they can see what I see!
"No, it is not a dream. I am not walking in my sleep. I am not seeing you in my
dreams.... I have seen you at last! I have met you face to face! I was in agony for five
days, for ten days, with my eyes fixed on the Region of the Mystery. And now you
have come out of the clouds and mists to sit on your throne again.
"This was foretold by the kings who governed your city, and now it has taken
place. You have come back to us; you have come down from the sky. Rest now, and
take possession of your royal houses. Welcome to your land, my lords!"
When Montezuma had finished, La Malinche translated his address into Spanish
so that the Captain could understand it. Cortés replied in his strange and savage
tongue, speaking first to La Malinche: "Tell Montezuma that we are his friends. There
is nothing to fear. We have wanted to see him for a long time, and now we have seen
his face and heard his words. Tell him that we love him well and that our hearts are
Then he said to Montezuma: "We have come to your house in Mexico as friends.
There is nothing to fear."
La Malinche translated this speech and the Spaniards grasped Montezuma's
hands and patted his back to show their affection for him....
Massacre in the Main Temple
During this time, the people asked Montezuma how they should celebrate their
god's fiesta. He said: "Dress him in all his finery, in all his sacred ornaments."
During this same time, The Sun commanded that Montezuma and Itzcohuatzin,
the military chief of Tlatelolco, be made prisoners. The Spaniards hanged a chief from
Acolhuacan named Nezahualquentzin. They also murdered the king of Nauhtla,
Maraline Ellis Salem-­‐Keizer School District 2013-­‐2014 Cohualpopocatzin, by wounding him with arrows and then burning him alive.
For this reason, our warriors were on guard at the Eagle Gate. The sentries
from Tenochtitlan stood at one side of the gate, and the sentries from Tlatelolco at the
other. But messengers came to tell them to dress the figure of Huitzilopochtli. They left
their posts and went to dress him in his sacred finery: his ornaments and his paper
When this had been done, the celebrants began to sing their songs. That is how
they celebrated the first day of the fiesta. On the second day they began to sing again,
but without warning they were all put to death. The dancers and singers were
completely unarmed. They brought only their embroidered cloaks, their turquoises,
their lip plugs, their necklaces, their clusters of heron feathers, their trinkets made of
deer hooves. Those who played the drums, the old men, had brought their gourds of
snuff and their timbrels (a musical instrument similar to a tambourine).
The Spaniards attacked the musicians first, slashing at their hands and faces
until they had killed all of them. The singers-and even the spectators- were also killed.
This slaughter in the Sacred Patio went on for three hours. Then the Spaniards burst
into the rooms of the temple to kill the others: those who were carrying water, or
bringing fodder for the horses, or grinding meal, or sweeping, or standing watch over
this work.
The king Montezuma, who was accompanied by Itzcohuatzin and by those who
had brought food for the Spaniards, protested: "Our lords, that is enough! What are
you doing? These people are not carrying shields or weapons. Our lords, they are
completely unarmed!"
The Sun had treacherously murdered our people on the twentieth day after the
captain left for the coast. We allowed the Captain to return to the city in peace. But on
the following day we attacked him with all our might, and that was the beginning of
the war.
From Miguel Leon-Portilla, ed., The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962),
pp. 64-66, 129-131.
Maraline Ellis Salem-­‐Keizer School District 2013-­‐2014 Source #3
Conquest of the Cities of Gold (
Europe's Interactions
When Cortez arrived in the New World, he had dreams of creating a permanent settlement.
To encourage his men not to leave, Cortez burned the ships that brought them there, and set
out into the Yucatan interior.
Expecting to find tribes like the ones he had encountered in Cuba, Cortez must have been
surprised to discover an empire. These people, the Aztecs, had their own language and belief
system. While Cortez never learned Nahuatl, the native Aztec language, he spoke through
two interpreters. With his two translators and a band of his own men, Cortez traveled deeper
into the uncharted lands. As Cortez journeyed further into the Yucatan interior, he heard
stories of a powerful ruler, a man of gold named Montezuma, the emperor of the Aztec
empire. Cortez' mission became to meet up with Montezuma. Along the way, the Aztecs
began to mistake Cortez for one of their gods, Quetzalcoatl, the man with the white skin.
It took six months for Cortez and Montezuma to finally meet. Before this first meeting,
Montezuma was anxious to meet Cortez, but was unsure about those that accompanied
Cortez. Montezuma had sent forth messengers to send Cortez' man gifts of gold if they would
turn back, but Montezuma's requests were not obeyed. When the two did finally meet in the
city of Tenoshtitlan, the two men and completely different ideas of what was going on.
Cortez saw the power of the Aztec Empire; he saw Montezuma adorned with gold and
precious stones, and he wondered how much more was hidden away elsewhere. Such power,
he thought would surely be suited to his home country of Spain. It became his mission to
convert Montezuma to Catholicism, to make Montezuma loyal to Spain, and to plunder the
wealthy Aztec Empire.
Montezuma was uncertain whether Cortez really was Quetzalcoatl, the god from the east, but
he felt that Cortez must have been sent from the gods. Feeling that he might be holding a long
foretold destiny in his hands, Montezuma wanted to appease Cortez with the religious
practices that were a custom for the Aztec people. It must have troubled Montezuma to hear
Cortez asking for gold and riches. Montezuma must have thought that if the gods wanted their
treasure back, it was theirs to take, even if it saddened the Aztec people.
As Montezuma toured his guest through Tenochtitlan, Cortez saw how many followers
Montezuma had, and wondered if Montezuma wanted to do away with him and his
travelers. Cortez thought it would be wise to make Montezuma his prisoner before
Maraline Ellis Salem-­‐Keizer School District 2013-­‐2014 Montezuma changed his opinion of the Spanish. That night, Cortez talked with
Montezuma and told Montezuma about Catholicism, and hoped that Montezuma would
become loyal to Spain. Montezuma was kind, but refused.
After the fourth day, Cortez took action and made the Aztec ruler his prisoner. Cortez ordered
the Aztec people to give him and his followers all the gold and wealth that they possessed.
The authority that Montezuma had once possessed began to crumble as fights and
skirmishes began to pop up through the great city, which Montezuma made no effort to stop.
During one of the biggest fights in the Tenochtitlan, Montezuma came out into the city, and
was killed. The Aztec accounts. said that the Spanish killed their great ruler. The Spanish
accounts said that the Aztecs killed their own ruler.
After Tinochtitlan's defeat, Cortez went on to conquer the rest of the Aztec Empire. Although
they were outnumbered by a hundred to one, the Spanish's superior weaponry gave them an
advantage. The best weapons proved to be their horses and their cannon. The cannon was
inaccurate and clumsy, but the loud noise did much to frighten the Aztecs who had never
before seen such a device. Also, Cortez told the Aztecs that the horses went into battle of
their own will, and made great care to hide the bodies of the dead horses after battle, giving
the illusion that these fast running beasts were immortal.
Cortez also exploited rivalries against the Aztec cities, and took advantage of the fact that he
was frequently mistaken for a god. In the end, the Aztecs were never really sure whether or not
Cortez was Quetzalcoatl. The Aztecs were always kept uncertain and fearful. But perhaps the
most devastating weapon the Spanish brought with them was the introduction of diseases for
which the Aztecs had no immunity. Smallpox raged through cities, killing off the Aztecs at an
alarming rate. People died from the Smallpox plague with numbers estimated in the hundreds
of thousands. Also to Cortez' advantage, the two sides were fighting two entirely different wars.
The Aztecs wanted to take their prisoners alive, to use them for their religious sacrifices. The
Spanish however, had no qualms about killing the Aztecs, and were bent on controlling this
vast empire by any means necessary.
Maraline Ellis Salem-­‐Keizer School District 2013-­‐2014 Use information from the three sources to complete the following table: Source #1 Source #2 Is it a primary or secondary source? Perceptions about Cortés Cortés’s fears Cortés’s advantages Reasons for Montezuma’s defeat Maraline Ellis Salem-­‐Keizer School District Source #3 2013-­‐2014