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The Conquest, The Cortes Expedition

Tlaxcalans, Aztec warriors, god Quetzalcoatl, Aztec capital, Mayan language

Grijalva returned to Cuba and relayed to Governor Velazquez the tales of a powerful and wealthy Native American empire located in the interior of Mexico. This news spurred Velazquez to authorize a third expedition, this time commanded by Hernan Cortes.

As Cortes loaded his ships and recruited additional men in Cuba, some of his enemies complained that he was a poor choice to lead the expedition. They convinced Velazquez to cancel Cortes’s commission to lead the force. Cortes ignored the orders and set sail in February 1519 with about 600 men, as well as a few cannons and horses. On the Yucatan Peninsula, the expedition rescued a shipwrecked survivor, Jeronimo de Aguilar, who had been held captive by the Maya for eight years. He would provide the Spaniards with a valuable translator of the Mayan language.

The expedition sailed west along the Yucatan Peninsula and the Gulf Coast, engaging in a major battle against Tabascan warriors at the mouth of the Grijalva River. Cortes quickly realized the value of horses in battling the Native American peoples—the Tabascans had never seen horses and many fled in fear. The expedition sailed north in search of a good harbor and established a town, La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, at what is now the city of Veracruz. Cortes organized an independent government, renounced the authority of Governor Velazquez, and acknowledged only the supreme authority of the Spanish monarchy. In order to prevent any of his men from deserting because of these actions, Cortes destroyed his fleet.

When Cortes started to march inland he had about 500 men remaining. The Spaniards soon encountered the Tlaxcalan people, who lived east of the Aztec Empire and resented Aztec domination. Despite this resentment, the Tlaxcalans initially battled the Spanish invaders. After two weeks of fighting and heavy native losses, the Tlaxcalans surrendered and became allies of the Spaniards against the Aztecs. Until the conquest was achieved in 1521, the Tlaxcalans were important allies of the Spaniards and helped create a combined European/Native American army that numbered in the thousands.

In October 1519 the Spaniards and several thousand of their Tlaxcalan allies marched into Cholula, an ancient city devoted to the god Quetzalcoatl. Cholulan priests and leaders welcomed the Spaniards but demanded that the Tlaxcalans camp outside the city. After three days in the city, the Spaniards were informed of an impending ambush. Cortes reacted by summoning all the nobles of Cholula and locking them in a room, which left the Cholulans leaderless. The Spaniards, with the assistance of the Tlaxcalans, then massacred many of the city’s residents, killing more than 3,000 people in all.

As the Spaniards subdued the region around Cholula and began exploring the road to the Aztec capital, an increasingly desperate Montezuma decided not to oppose the invaders. Although about 4,000 Tlaxcalans accompanied the Spaniards as they marched toward Tenochtitlan, the combined force was still relatively small and vastly outnumbered by the Aztec warriors. On November 8, 1519, Cortes met Montezuma outside the city, the two leaders politely greeted each other, and the Aztecs led the Spaniards into their city. The Spanish soldiers established a headquarters in a large communal dwelling and were allowed to roam through the city, where they found much gold and other treasures in Aztec storehouses.

Despite the friendly reception given the Spaniards, Cortes believed that the Aztecs would attempt to drive him out. To safeguard his position, he seized Montezuma as a hostage and forced him to swear allegiance to the king of Spain, Charles I, and to provide an enormous ransom in gold and jewels. Over the next several months the Spaniards began devising strategies to conquer the entire region.

Meanwhile, Governor Velazquez had dispatched an expedition to Mexico to arrest Cortes and return him to Cuba. In April 1520 Cortes received word that the expedition had arrived on the Gulf Coast. Leaving 200 men at Tenochtitlan under the command of Pedro de Alvarado, Cortes marched with a small force to the coast. He entered the Spanish camp at night, captured the leader, and induced the majority of the Spaniards to join his force.

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