Hernan Cortes | Expeditions, Biography, & Facts (2024)

Spanish conquistador

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Also known as: Fernando Cortés, Hernán Cortéz, Hernán Cortéz, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca, Hernando Cortés

Written by

Ralph Hammond Innes Novelist and writer on history and travel. Author of The Conquistadors.

Ralph Hammond Innes

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Hernán Cortés

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In full:
Hernán Cortés, marqués del Valle de Oaxaca
Also called:
Hernando Cortés or Fernando Cortés
Cortés also spelled:
Cortéz
Born:
1485, Medellín, near Mérida, Extremadura, Castile [Spain]
Died:
December 2, 1547, Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Sevilla (aged 62)
Role In:
Battle of Tenochtitlán

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Hernán Cortés (born 1485, Medellín, near Mérida, Extremadura, Castile [Spain]—died December 2, 1547, Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Sevilla) was a Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire (1519–21) and won Mexico for the crown of Spain.

Cortés was the son of Martín Cortés de Monroy and of Doña Catalina Pizarro Altamarino—names of ancient lineage. “They had little wealth, but much honour,” according to Cortés’s secretary, Francisco López de Gómara, who tells how, at age 14, the young Hernán was sent to study at Salamanca, in west-central Spain, “because he was very intelligent and clever in everything he did.” Gómara went on to describe him as ruthless, haughty, mischievous, and quarrelsome, “a source of trouble to his parents.” Certainly he was “much given to women,” frustrated by provincial life, and excited by stories of the Indies Columbus had just discovered. He set out for the east coast port of Valencia with the idea of serving in the Italian wars, but instead he “wandered idly about for nearly a year.” Clearly Spain’s southern ports, with ships coming in full of the wealth and colour of the Indies, proved a greater attraction. He finally sailed for the island of Hispaniola (now Santo Domingo) in 1504.

Years in Hispaniola and Cuba

In Hispaniola he became a farmer and notary to a town council; for the first six years or so, he seems to have been content to establish his position. He contracted syphilis and, as a result, missed the ill-fated expeditions of Diego de Nicuesa and Alonso de Ojeda, which sailed for the South American mainland in 1509. By 1511 he had recovered, and he sailed with Diego Velázquez to conquer Cuba. There Velázquez was appointed governor, and Cortés clerk to the treasurer. Cortés received a repartimiento (gift of land and Indian slaves) and the first house in the new capital of Santiago. He was now in a position of some power and the man to whom dissident elements in the colony began to turn for leadership.

Cortés was twice elected alcalde (“mayor”) of the town of Santiago and was a man who “in all he did, in his presence, bearing, conversation, manner of eating and of dressing, gave signs of being a great lord.” It was therefore to Cortés that Velázquez turned when, after news had come of the progress of Juan de Grijalba’s efforts to establish a colony on the mainland, it was decided to send him help. An agreement appointing Cortés captain general of a new expedition was signed in October 1518. Experience of the rough-and-tumble of New World politics advised Cortés to move fast, before Velázquez changed his mind. His sense of the dramatic, his long experience as an administrator, the knowledge gained from so many failed expeditions, above all his ability as a speaker gathered to him six ships and 300 men, all in less than a month. The reaction of Velázquez was predictable; his jealousy aroused, he resolved to place leadership of the expedition in other hands. Cortés, however, put hastily to sea to raise more men and ships in other Cuban ports.

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The expedition to Mexico

When Cortés finally sailed for the coast of Yucatán on February 18, 1519, he had 11 ships, 508 soldiers, about 100 sailors, and—most important—16 horses. In March 1519 he landed at Tabasco, where he stayed for a time in order to gain intelligence from the local Indians. He won them over and received presents from them, including 20 women, one of whom, Marina (“Malinche”), became his mistress and interpreter and bore him a son, Martín. Cortés sailed to another spot on the southeastern Mexican coast and founded Veracruz, mainly to have himself elected captain general and chief justice by his soldiers as citizens, thus shaking off the authority of Velázquez. On the mainland Cortés did what no other expedition leader had done: he exercised and disciplined his army, welding it into a cohesive force. But the ultimate expression of his determination to deal with disaffection occurred when he sank his ships. By that single action he committed himself and his entire force to survival by conquest.

Cortés then set out for the Mexican interior, relying sometimes on force, sometimes on amity toward the local Indian peoples, but always careful to keep conflict with them to a strict minimum. The key to Cortés’s subsequent conquests lay in the political crisis within the Aztec empire; the Aztecs were bitterly resented by many of the subject peoples who had to pay tribute to them. The ability of Cortés as a leader is nowhere more apparent than in his quick grasp of the situation—a grasp that was ultimately to give him more than 200,000 Indian allies. The nation of Tlaxcala, for instance, which was in a state of chronic war with Montezuma II, ruler of the Aztec empire of Mexico, resisted Cortés at first but became his most faithful ally. Rejecting all of Montezuma’s threats and blandishments to keep him away from Tenochtitlán or Mexico, the capital (rebuilt as Mexico City after 1521), Cortés entered the city on November 8, 1519, with his small Spanish force and only 1,000 Tlaxcaltecs. In accordance with the diplomatic customs of Mexico, Montezuma received him with great honour. Cortés soon decided to seize Montezuma in order to hold the country through its monarch and achieve not only its political conquest but its religious conversion.

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Spanish politics and envy were to bedevil Cortés throughout his meteoric career. Cortés soon heard of the arrival of a Spanish force from Cuba, led by Pánfilo Narváez, to deprive Cortés of his command at a time (mid-1520) when he was holding the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán by little more than the force of his personality. Leaving a garrison in Tenochtitlán of 80 Spaniards and a few hundred Tlaxcaltecs commanded by his most reckless captain, Pedro de Alvarado, Cortés marched against Narváez, defeated him, and enlisted his army in his own forces. On his return, he found the Spanish garrison in Tenochtitlán besieged by the Aztecs after Alvarado had massacred many leading Aztec chiefs during a festival. Hard pressed and lacking food, Cortés decided to leave the city by night. The Spaniards’ retreat from the capital was performed, but with a heavy loss in lives and most of the treasure they had accumulated. After six days of retreat Cortés won the battle of Otumba over the Aztecs sent in pursuit (July 7, 1520).

Cortés eventually rejoined his Tlaxcalan allies and reorganized his forces before again marching on Tenochtitlán in December 1520. After subduing the neighbouring territories he laid siege to the city itself, conquering it street by street until its capture was completed on August 13, 1521. This victory marked the fall of the Aztec empire. Cortés had become the absolute ruler of a huge territory extending from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean.

In the meantime, Velázquez was mounting an insidious political attack on Cortés in Spain through Bishop Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca and the Council of the Indies. Fully conscious of the vulnerability of a successful conqueror whose field of operations was 5,000 miles (8,000 km) from the centre of political power, Cortés countered with lengthy and detailed dispatches—five remarkable letters to the Spanish king Charles V. His acceptance by the Indians and even his popularity as a relatively benign ruler was such that he could have established Mexico as an independent kingdom. Indeed, this is what the Council of the Indies feared. But his upbringing in a feudal world in which the king commanded absolute allegiance was against it.

Hernan Cortes | Expeditions, Biography, & Facts (2024)

FAQs

Hernan Cortes | Expeditions, Biography, & Facts? ›

Born around 1485, Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés
Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca (/ɛərˈnɑːn kɔːrˈtɛs/ air-NAHN kor-TESS; Spanish: [eɾˈnaŋ koɾˈtes ðe monˈroj i piˈθaro altamiˈɾano]; December 1485 – December 2, 1547) was a Spanish conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought ...
https://en.wikipedia.org › wiki › Hernán_Cortés
was a Spanish conquistador and explorer who defeated the Aztecs and claimed Mexico for Spain. He first set sail to the New World at the age of 19. Cortés later joined an expedition to Cuba. In 1518, he set off to explore Mexico.

What are 5 facts about Hernan Cortes? ›

Five facts about Hernán Cortés are: he conquered the Aztec Empire; he established the colony of New Spain; he owned vast estates with labourers and slaves; he was given the title of Marquis by the king of Spain; and he explored the Pacific coast of America up to California.

Why is Cortés important to history? ›

Hernán Cortés (b. 1485–d. 1547) was a central figure in the military, political, and economic colonization of Mesoamerica in the 16th century, and most notable for his role in the destruction of the Aztec Empire in 1521.

What was Hernan Cortes biggest discovery? ›

In 1536, Cortés explored the northwestern part of Mexico and discovered the Baja California peninsula. Cortés also spent time exploring the Pacific coast of Mexico. The Gulf of California was originally named the Sea of Cortés by its discoverer Francisco de Ulloa in 1539. This was the last major expedition by Cortés.

Did Hernán Cortés have a wife? ›

What is Cortes remembered for? ›

Hernán Cortés (born 1485, Medellín, near Mérida, Extremadura, Castile [Spain]—died December 2, 1547, Castilleja de la Cuesta, near Sevilla) was a Spanish conquistador who overthrew the Aztec empire (1519–21) and won Mexico for the crown of Spain.

How many expeditions did Hernan Cortes go on? ›

Answer and Explanation:

While Herman Cortes traveled from Spain to various countries in the Caribbean, he was technically sent on one main voyage to Mexico.

How many men did Cortes have? ›

In 1519, inspired by rumors of gold and the existence of large, sophisticated cities in the Mexican interior, Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) was appointed to head an expedition of eleven ships and five hundred men to Mexico. At that time the great empire of the Mexica—now known as the Aztecs—dominated much of Mesoamerica.

Was Hernán Cortés a hero? ›

He was a hero in the 16th century, but history remembers him differently. He had many conquests during his life. But he is perhaps most known for his conquer of the Aztec Empire in 1521. He enslaved much of the native population, and many of the indigenous people were wiped out from European diseases such as smallpox.

Who did Cortés sail for? ›

Hernán Cortés was a Spanish conquistador, or conqueror, who is best remembered for conquering the Aztec Empire in 1521 and claiming Mexico for Spain.

Where is Cortes buried? ›

Answer and Explanation: Hernan Cortes is currently buried at the Church of the Immaculate Conception and Jesus the Nazarene, in Mexico City, Mexico. In 1566, his family requested that Cortes be reburied in New Spain, which today is Mexico.

Why did Cortes go back to Spain? ›

In 1528, amid Spanish fears that he was becoming too powerful, he was forced to return to Spain where the king reinstated him as captain general, but not to the position of civil governor. On his return to Mexico, his powers were significantly limited and his activities monitored.

Did Hernan Cortes have a family? ›

HERNANDO CORTES'S HOME AND FAMILY: Cortes was married twice. His first wife, named Catalina, died while he was in Mexico. His second wife was named Juana de Zuniga. Cortes had two sons, Martin and Luis.

Who did Hernán Cortés have a baby with? ›

1595) was the first-born son of Hernán Cortés and La Malinche (doña Marina), the conquistador's indigenous interpreter and concubine. He is considered to be one of the first mestizos of New Spain and is known as "El Mestizo" ( Spanish pronunciation: [el mesˈtiθo]). His exact date of birth is not precisely known.

How many slaves did Cortés have? ›

"Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, may have had more unfree Indians than anyone else in the world. In addition to owning three thousand or more indigenous slaves outright, his estate forced as many as twenty-four thousand laborers a year to work as tribute (they were sent by their home villages for a week at a time)."

What did Hernán Cortés call the woman? ›

1500–1550), also known as Malintzín, "Doña Marina," and, most commonly, "Malinche," was an Indigenous Mexican woman who was given to conquistador Hernan Cortes as an enslaved person in 1519.

Was Cortés a hero? ›

He was a hero in the 16th century, but history remembers him differently. He had many conquests during his life. But he is perhaps most known for his conquer of the Aztec Empire in 1521. He enslaved much of the native population, and many of the indigenous people were wiped out from European diseases such as smallpox.

What route did Hernan Cortes take? ›

Hernan Cortes took an overland route from Veracruz, on the eastern coast of Mexico, to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, located in modern-day Mexico City. He famously burned his ships at Veracruz to show that the only way forward was to victory over the Aztecs: there would be no going home any other way.

What tools did Hernan Cortes use? ›

Answer and Explanation: Hernán Cortés used several tools while navigating across the ocean from Spain to North America. He likely used a compass, very basic maps, quadrant, astrolabe, cross staff, hourglass, and nautical charts.

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