The Discovery and Initial Exploration of North America, Part 1

The Discovery and Initial Exploration of North America, Part 1

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This three-part article explains how the present-day state of Texas was discovered and explored in the 16th century. The article is not entitled, "The Discovery and Initial Exploration of Texas," however, but "The Discovery and Initial Exploration of North America." The reason for this broader scope is simple: it was not a new state or province that was being explored in the 1500s, but a new hemisphere. The first sailors to see the Texas coast were on a voyage that mapped the entire Gulf of Mexico. The first European feet to touch Texas soil were part of an expedition that began in Florida and ended on Mexico's Pacific coast. The first army to march across Texas was on its way from present-day New Mexico to Kansas. None of the first discoverers and explorers of Texas, from Pineda to Cabeza de Vaca to Coronado, knew that they were in Texas, and few of Texas' first rulers and governors ever visited it. To make sense of the actions of these discoverers, explorers, and governors, we must think on the scale of countries and continents. The discovery of Texas is not a part of the story of the discovery of North America; it is the same story.

King Ferdinand II of Aragon by Sittow
Figure 1. King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Queen Isabella I of Castile
Figure 2. Queen Isabella I of Castile.

Christopher Columbus portrait by Piombo
Figure 3. Christopher Columbus.

Charles I of Spain portrait by de la Cruz
Figure 4. King Charles I of Castile and Aragon.

A New World is Discovered: 1492-1516

The story of how Texas came into existence begins in the 15th century on the Iberian Peninsula of western Europe. In the 1400s, the coastal nation of Portugal, at peace with its neighbors and free from internal upheaval, had a thriving maritime and trading culture. The invention of the caravel - a fast, highly-maneuverable sailing ship - gave mariners the ability to sail further from land and more independently of wind direction than was previously possible. Improvements in navigation and cartography made the oceans smaller and allowed greater distances to be covered on each voyage. Portuguese sailors began searching for an overseas route to the orient to engage in the lucrative spice and silk trade. By 1488, Portuguese ships had sailed the length of Africa's west coast and had discovered the Cape of Good Hope at the continent's southern tip.

Portugal's neighbor to its east was Spain, which was composed of two kingdoms: Castile, ruled by Queen Isabella I, and Aragon, ruled by King Ferdinand II. Though their kingdoms were independent of each other, Ferdinand and Isabella were married and ruled them as one. While Portugal was pressing further along the coast of Africa towards its goal, India, Ferdinand and Isabella were completing their "reconquest" - that is, the expulsion and/or subjugation of Muslims and Jews. This campaign completed in 1492. With their homelands now secure, the Catholic monarchs set their sights on building an overseas empire and trading network like Portugal's. They approved a proposal by an Italian merchant-sailor named Christopher Columbus to search for a route to south and east Asia, or "The Indies," as the region was called, by sailing west across the Atlantic Ocean.

On his first voyage, Columbus discovered the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba. In three more voyages over the next ten years, he discovered and explored other Caribbean islands including Jamaica and Puerto Rico; the northern coast of South America, and the eastern coast of Central America. Columbus always believed that the lands he discovered were part of Asia and referred to them as the Indies. He never saw any part of the North American mainland north of Honduras.

Many explorers flying Spanish flags explored the New World discovered by Columbus. In 1510, Vasco Núñez de Balboa founded the town of Darién in present-day Panama, which the Spanish called "tierra firme": the mainland. Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar founded the first Spanish town on Cuba in 1511. Juan Ponce de León discovered Florida in 1513, the same year that Balboa crossed Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean.

Year by year, Spain's knowledge of the New World expanded, with new territories regularly being discovered and explored. Frequently, however, the explorer who officially "discovered" a territory was not the first one to see it. Much of the economy of the new Spanish provinces depended upon the importation of Indian slaves from unconquered territories. The Catholic monarchs and popes found many aspects of slavery as practiced in the New World troubling, however, and they sought to impose restrictions on governors, slavers, and plantation owners. Consequently, slavers were frequently the first Europeans to discover a new territory, but they since they had to operate in secret, they did not announce their discoveries. Furthermore, Castile had a treaty with Portugal wherein Portugal recognized Castile's claims to virtually all of the western hemisphere except for Brazil. (Castile, for its part, disclaimed Brazil and all of Africa.) This treaty prevented Portuguese explorers from claiming territory in North America, but it did not stop Portuguese slavers from landing there. When Ponce de León landed in Florida, the natives he found there were already familiar with - and afraid of - Europeans, indicating slavers had already been there. Portuguese maps of the east coast of the present-day United States also predate Ponce de León.

During the wave of exploration following Columbus, there was a turnover in the monarchy of Spain. Queen Isabella of Castile died in 1504. Her heir was Juana (or Joanna), her daughter with King Ferdinand of Aragon, but for the past few years, there had been rumors and incidents that called Juana's mental and emotional instability into question. Before Isabella died, she left a will stating her wish that Ferdinand govern Castile upon her death in case Juana was absent, unwilling, or unable to govern.1 Juana and her husband, Philip, resisted Ferdinand, but Philip died in 1506, leaving Juana to fend for herself against her father. Within a year, Juana acquiesced to Ferdinand and allowed him to exercise the office of regent, with powers identical to those of king. After she announced this arrangement to the members of the royal court, Ferdinand declared her insane and had her confined to a monastery.

When Ferdinand died in 1516, Juana's son, Charles, became the 16-year-old king of Castile and Aragon, unifying the two crowns of Spain as Charles I. Juana remained his co-regent in name only, for Charles kept his mother in solitary confinement until her death. After a bit of a rough start, Charles I reigned successfully as king of Spain until 1556, continuing his grandparents' policies of discovery and expansion.

An Overview of Spanish Colonial Policies

Before continuing with the history of the discovery and initial exploration of North America, it will help to summarize the policies and institutions that guided the growth of the Spanish Empire. These policies were formed during the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella and varied little, if at all, throughout the Age of Discovery.

Someone who is reading about Spain's exploration of the New World for the first time might be surprised to find out how formal and bureaucratic of a process it was. Discovering and exploring new lands for Spain was not a casual matter of sailing away on a ship, finding land somewhere, and planting a flag. Aspiring conquistadores needed to obtain the crown's permission to explore, conquer, settle, and govern a certain area, or else they ran the risk of their discoveries and conquests being awarded to someone else. One of the most important criteria the monarch considered was whether the applicant was able to raise the resources and personnel required to give the expedition a chance at success. Ships were expensive, as were crews, armies, horses, weapons, and provisions. With the exception of Christopher Columbus, the royal treasury usually invested little to no funds of its own. In fact, the crown expected to receive a significant windfall from each enterprise, starting with the quinto real, or "royal fifth," of all the precious metals it produced. When the crown granted a patent to a conquistador, it specified the area he was allowed to explore and made other stipulations, such as how much land he was entitled to claim for his personal estate. To ensure that the conquistador did not keep more than his share, the crown usually sent along one or more officials with job titles such as "inspector," "accountant," and "treasurer," who worked directly for the king, not the conquistador.

Another person present on every expedition was the "notary," or scribe. This official carried a copy of the conquistador's exploration patent and each official's royal orders and read them aloud whenever it was necessary to clarify or prove someone's authority. The notary also recorded any decrees made by the conquistador as well as performing general record-keeping duties.

Although expeditions were viewed primarily as financial undertakings that expanded the reach of the king's power while filling his coffers with gold, there was a second motivation of very great importance: spreading the Gospel. Every Spanish citizen in the 1500s was required to be a practicing Roman Catholic, and conquistadors were required to spread the faith and institutions of the Catholic Church wherever they went. This meant that churches were to be built, Crosses were to be erected, priests and bishops were to be installed, and Mass was to be held. Indigenous peoples subjugated by the Spaniards were welcome, but not required, to convert to Catholicism. Whether they converted or not, they were not allowed to continue certain especially odious practices, such as human sacrifice and cannibalism.

One institution that combined Spain's missionary zeal with its love for formality was the requerimiento, or "requirement." This document, written in Castile in 1513 and updated occasionally, gave notice to the indigenous populations of newly-claimed Spanish territories that they were now subjects of the pope and of the crown of Spain and were expected to acknowledge their authority and submit to it. If they did, they would be treated kindly as free vassals, would receive protection from their enemies, and would be welcomed to convert to Catholicism. Those who declined to submit, on the other hand, would be attacked, conquered, and enslaved or killed. King Ferdinand ordered that the requerimiento be carried on every expedition of conquest and read aloud by the notary before making any attack upon the natives. Frequently, the reading of the requerimiento was not taken seriously, and was sometimes performed from the deck of a ship to an empty beach, or the document was read in Spanish or Latin to a group of natives with no one to interpret it. Even at best, when it was read to a native audience and translated into their language, it is hard to guess how much of it the natives understood. Nevertheless, it did, in many cases, result in the peaceful subjugation of natives, rather than their automatic slaughter. In those cases where blood was spilled, the requerimiento served its purpose of removing the responsibility of said bloodshed from the conquistador or the crown and placing it instead on the heads of the willfully disobedient natives. While the requerimiento was, in many ways, a farce, it arose out of a concern that some of the first conquistadors, such as Columbus, were too bloodthirsty and too careless with the lives of people who, some believed, might have eternal souls just like the Spaniards. It was a crude, clumsy, important first step in recognizing the human rights of indigenous peoples.

Another aspect of the discovery and initial exploration of the Americas that may surprise uninitiated readers is how much of a cutthroat enterprise it was. As mentioned above, expeditions were high-risk undertakings, but the rewards were also tantalizing. In the 1500s, there was no competition from other nations, such as England or France, so all conquistadors were loyal Spanish subjects. Nevertheless, no conquistador was safe from acts of treachery or accusations of criminality being perpetrated against him by other loyal Spanish subjects. Christopher Columbus himself lost his title of "Governor of the Indies," and was briefly imprisoned, over accusations of tyranny put forth by his enemies. In 1512, the fourth governor of the Indies, Columbus's son, Diego Colón, suffered a rebellion from the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez, who declared himself independent of Colón's jurisdiction and subject only to King Ferdinand. The most successful conquistador in North America, Hernán Cortés, had so many enemies that the politics of the entire continent for a time amounted to a struggle between the pro-Cortés and anti-Cortés factions.

Disputes and accusations concerning the conquistadors were so common that a bureaucracy was formed, so that the king and queen did not have to adjudicate and become involved in the particulars of every case. In 1493, Queen Isabella designated Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, a recently ordained priest, as her minister over matters pertaining to the Indies. Fonseca assembled a council, known at first as the House of Trade, and later as the Council of the Indies, to manage Spain's overseas dominions. In 1511, a local court, or audiencia, was established at Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, which was the capital of the Spanish New World at that time. Complaints or disputes concerning royal officials were first heard by the judges (oidores) at Santo Domingo and then appealed, if necessary, to the Council of the Indies.

Another bureaucratic term frequently seen in histories of the New World is residencia. This was an examination or audit of an official, such as a governor. Some residencias were routine, but more often than not, they were performed after repeated complaints or accusations against an official. Sometimes the residencia had the character of a genuine inquiry into the conduct of a person who may or may not have done wrong, and other times, a guilty finding was a foregone conclusion, and the residencia was just a required formality. It was frequently performed by an official sent from Spain especially for that purpose. The examiner, or "licentiate," was usually empowered to relieve the person being examined of his office and assume the office in his place upon his arrival, even before any investigation had taken place. As one might imagine, once the licentiate exercised this power, he had an incentive to either find evidence of wrongdoing or keep his investigation unfinished for as long as possible. It was rare for a governor displaced by a licentiate to ever get his office back.

As this section shows, being able to command a fleet of ships and an army of men was only part of what made a successful conquistador. One also had to be an enterprising businessman, a spokesman and advocate for Catholicism, and a savvy politician. It was a difficult job, fraught with just as many perils in court as on the high seas or in the wilderness. Nevertheless, there was never a shortage of men willing to take it on, and it is through the efforts of these men - both in their successes and their failures - that North America was discovered and explored.

Spanish Expeditions to New Spain
Figure 5. Spanish Expeditions to New Spain.

Expeditions to New Spain: 1517-1521

Charles I, who was born and raised in Ghent in the Netherlands (now Belgium), came to Spain in 1517 to accept his crowns of Castile and Aragon. At that time, the only parts of the North American mainland explored by Spain were tierra firme, or Central America, where there was a town, Darién; and Florida, which was unsettled. A Spanish ship had wrecked off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of present-day Mexico in 1511, but all of its crew who made it to land were either killed or enslaved by natives, so that part of the continent was still unknown.

Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba
Figure 6. Francisco Hernández de Córdoba.

Juan de Grijalva
Figure 7. Juan de Grijalva.

A Maya temple at Palenque
Figure 8. A Maya temple at Palenque.

Diego Velazquez de Cuellar
Figure 9. Diego Velázquez de Cuellar, governor of Cuba.

Hernan Cortes
Figure 10. Hernán Cortés.

Montezuma II
Figure 11. 17th-century artist's interpretation of Montezuma II.

Francisco Hernández de Córdoba

In 1517, Francisco Hernández de Córdoba2 obtained the permission and support of Diego Velázquez, the conquistador-governor of Cuba, to sail west with about a hundred men in search of new lands.3 The fleet of three ships, guided by the celebrated pilot Antón de Alaminos, who had previously served as pilot for Christopher Columbus and Juan Ponce de León, discovered the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. The Spaniards saw what appeared to be pyramids and a large city, indicating the possible presence of a much more advanced civilization than any other that Spain had previously encountered in the New World. Córdoba landed and made contact with the Maya natives on March 4 on the peninsula's northernmost point, Catoche, near the present-day city of Cancun. The following day, the Maya attacked. The ambushed Spaniards managed to capture two natives and an idol made of gold and copper on the retreat back to their ships.

For the next fifteen days, Córdoba's ships sailed west around the peninsula. When they disembarked at present-day Campeche to look for water, they were greeted by natives who kept repeating the word, "Castilian" while pointing to the east. Since they believed they were the first Castilians to visit in that place, they were mystified as to how the natives knew what they called themselves. Little did they know that two survivors of the 1511 shipwreck were still in that area. The natives brought Córdoba and his men to their town. There they saw temples with idols and altars with fresh blood on them. The natives warned the Spaniards to leave quickly, which they did.

Next, the ships made their way south to Champoton. Once again, when the Spaniards disembarked to draw water, they were met by natives saying, "Castilian, Castilian" and pointing eastward. They quickly became surrounded by a force of archers numbering in the thousands. These natives launched an attack in which 55 Spaniards were killed and two were captured alive. The survivors, all but one of whom were injured, took to their boats and re-embarked. There were not enough men to operate all three ships, so they evacuated one of the ships and burned it. The other two ships sailed for Florida, where the men were once again attacked by natives, then they landed at Havana. Several more men died on the return voyage or after reaching Havana. Córdoba himself died ten days after his return.

Even though Hernández de Córdoba's expedition suffered defeat and heavy losses on the Yucatan Peninsula, it was a successful voyage of discovery. Córdoba discovered a new land to the west of Cuba: an island, or so pilot Alaminos believed, with an advanced civilization and gold. A speedy return trip with a larger force was assured.

Juan de Grijalva

The news of Córdoba's discoveries spread across the Caribbean islands and stirred the imagination of every Spaniard who heard it. Who were the inhabitants of this new island? Some supposed them to be a long-lost race from the Old World, perhaps descendants of the Jews who were expelled from Jerusalem during the 1st century A.D. Governor Diego Velázquez organized another expedition consisting of four ships and 240 men.4 The chief of the four captains was Velázquez's nephew, Juan de Grijalva. All three of the pilots from Córdoba's expedition went with Grijalva, plus a fourth pilot for the additional ship. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier who survived Córdoba's expedition, also enlisted for this second voyage. It is thanks to his memoirs, written in 1568, that history has so much first-hand information about these voyages. The two Maya that were captured from Campeche, who had been baptized as Julian and Melchor, went as interpreters. According to Díaz, Velázquez's orders to Grijalva were "to procure and bring back all the gold and silver that he could." As to whether to attempt to colonize or settle the land, he was to act as he saw fit.

Grijalva's fleet sailed from Cuba on April 5, 1518.5 Its first landing, on the island of Cozumel, was uneventful. Bypassing Catoche and Campeche, Grijalva proceeded directly to Champoton, where Córdoba's expedition left off. The natives attacked the Spaniards on sight, but the Spaniards were more numerous, better armed, and more prepared than before. The Spaniards drove the natives out of their town, but the natives cleared out their belongings, leaving the Spaniards nothing to sack.

The Spaniards boarded their ships empty-handed and proceeded westward, with the pilot, Alaminos, still insisting that they were navigating around an island. They disembarked at a river at present-day Frontera in eastern Tabasco that they named Rio Grijalva - a name it still bears today. The natives there came out prepared for battle, but they were willing to parley first. The Spaniards presented beads and colored glass to the natives' representatives and, with Melchor and Julian interpreting, explained that they ought to submit to them and to the king of Spain, and that the Spaniards expected some barter in return for their gifts. The representatives departed, then returned later with some food, items of clothing, and some items of gold, specifically some necklaces and some small pieces in the shapes of birds and lizards. The natives said that to the west, there was an abundance of gold. They also used the words "Mexico" and "Culua" (Cholula) several times. Although these natives did not become hostile, they were not in a submissive mood, either. Rather than attempt to follow through on his threats, Grijalva decided to depart and sail west.

The ships continued to explore the Gulf coast further than any vessel had been before. Near present-day Boca del Rio, the Spaniards noticed natives waving white banners at them from the shore. They landed and met with representatives of Montezuma (or Moctezuma), the king of the Aztecs. He ruled from the city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, in the interior of the continent. Montezuma had heard of the Spaniards' defeat at Champoton the previous year and had also heard that they came to barter for gold. Grijalva's Mayan interpreters, Julian and Melchor, did not understand the language of the Aztecs, so the Spaniards and Aztecs communicated with each other mostly through gestures and drawings. The Spaniards obtained some valuable and intricately-worked items of gold from them in exchange for beads and other objects of glass, which the natives esteemed highly. Grijalva claimed the territory for King Charles and Governor Velázquez. He took one of the natives so that he could become an interpreter, baptizing him and giving him the name Francisco.6

Moving on, the expedition explored the vicinity of present-day Veracruz and visited the islands off its coast. By this time, it was obvious even to Alaminos that they had been exploring a continent. Grijalva wanted to place a settlement on it, but his army had sustained some losses and his men were suffering from illnesses and a scarcity of provisions, so he decided to send one of his ships, commanded by Pedro de Alvarado, back to Cuba to show the gold he obtained to his uncle and to request more forces to be sent over to establish a colony. He then took the remaining three ships further up the coast as far as the Panuco River. There, they were attacked again. At that point, Grijalva reluctantly decided to bring the expedition to an end and take the ships back to Cuba.

Thanks to Alvarado preceding him, by the time Grijalva got back, the news of his discoveries had made it across the Atlantic Ocean to Spain. Governor Velázquez, already planning his next move, sent an agent to Spain to secure a commission from the king to conquer and settle the region explored by his captains. King Charles not only granted this commission, but he also formally recognized Velázquez as the governor of Cuba, a position he had obtained illegitimately, by rebelling against Diego Colón. This was neither the first nor the last time that a conquistador who committed great legal sins to enrich himself at a fellow conquistador's expense found forgiveness from the crown by being successful at it.

Hernán Cortés

Velázquez quickly began putting together another expedition to the mainland. It appears that the name "New Spain" started to come into use at this time. For Velázquez, raising the resources was not difficult; his biggest problem was in finding the right commander. Grijalva had the support of many of the soldiers, but Velázquez felt that Grijalva already had his chance to settle the mainland and did not seize it. Several of the governor's other relatives applied for the job, as well as some prominent residents of Cuba who were outside the family. On one hand, Velázquez needed someone who was capable, ambitious, respected, and who had the talent for commanding men. On the other hand, he was worried about selecting someone who was too ambitious and talented, lest he may mutiny and declare himself independent of Velázquez, just as Velázquez did with Colón. Two of Velázquez's closest advisors recommended Hernán Cortés,7 an official who had already served him in various capacities in Cuba. Velázquez had, at times, a strained personal relationship with Cortés, but he also knew him to be capable. Unaware that Cortés had promised his two advisors a share of the treasure he would amass as the expedition's leader, Velázquez accepted their recommendation. On October 23, 1518, he issued a commission to Cortés to lead the expedition. There was, however, a significant omission: Cortés was authorized to explore, to barter with the natives, and to spread Christianity among them, but his orders did not include the authority to establish a colony.

The governor's relatives immediately complained about Cortés's appointment and tried to get him to change his mind. Cortés's two insider contacts advised him to hurry and be on his way before that happened. No sooner did Cortés's ships leave the port city of Santiago than Velázquez found out about the secret deal Cortés made with his advisors. Cortés made a stop at the city of Trinidad to gather men and supplies. One of the men who joined him was an old friend named Alonzo Hernandez Puertocarrero. Cortés was so glad to see him, he bought him a horse, as Puertocarrero was too poor to afford one, and made him one of his captains. Velázquez angrily sent an order to Trinidad, recalling Cortés and placing another man in charge of the expedition. The eloquent and charismatic Cortés assured the people of Trinidad that all was well and even convinced some of the messengers who came to relieve him of duty to join him. He wrote a letter to the governor assuring him of his faithfulness to him and asking him to not be misled by his detractors. Cortés then made a stop in Havana. Velázquez sent men to arrest him there, but Cortés once again convinced the messenger not to carry out his orders. After writing another letter to Velázquez assuring him of his fidelity, he sailed away on February 10, 1519.

Even though Hernán Cortés never visited present-day Texas or governed any part of it, his influence on the discovery and initial exploration of Texas was profound, as most of the men who made Texas history in the early 1500s - including Pineda, Garay, Narváez, and Mendoza - had to contend with him in some way, as the following sections and parts of this article will relate.

Exploration of the Coast

Cortés landed first at Cozumel and ordered a review of his troops. His forces consisted of 11 ships, 508 soldiers, 109 sailors, 16 horses, 13 muskets, 10 heavy artillery, 4 light artillery, and 32 crossbows. He also had Melchor and Francisco to serve as interpreters to the Maya and Aztecs, respectively. Many of the personnel from the previous voyages returned, including Captain Pedro de Alvarado; Antón de Alaminos, the chief pilot; and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who documented the voyage decades later.

At Cozumel, Cortés learned that there were two Spaniards who had been living on the mainland for several years. These men, named Jerónimo de Aguilar and Alonzo Guerrero, were survivors of the 1511 shipwreck who had been taken as slaves by the Maya. It was from them the Maya learned that the foreigners called themselves Castilians. Cortés sent messengers for them with beads with which to obtain their ransom. Aguilar made his way back, but Guerrero had fully adapted to Maya life and chose to remain. Aguilar thus became another interpreter, which was fortuitous for Cortés because Melchor managed to escape a few days later.

On March 4, Cortés sailed from Cozumel. Some of his men went ashore on an island off the coast of present-day Cancun and found four temples containing large female figures. To this day, that island is known as Isla Mujeres, or "Women Island."

The fleet continued to the Rio Grijalva, where Cortés expected the natives to be willing to talk and barter, as they had done the previous year. Instead, they attacked. After defeating the natives in battle, Cortés claimed the Tabasco district for His Majesty, King Charles. His omission of Diego Velázquez's name from his formal claim of possession did not go unnoticed by members of the expedition who were relatives or friends of Velázquez. The natives launched another attack a few days later, but they were soundly beaten. Afterward, some chiefs came bearing gifts, including gold, for the Spaniards and apologizing for the attack. Cortés accepted their gifts and apology and returned the prisoners he had taken, but he also required them to stop worshipping idols - a condition to which they agreed. When Cortés asked where they obtained their gold, they answered, "Culchua" and "Mexico." Francisco said that he did not understand the language of these natives, but he knew that Culchua (Cholula) was in the interior of the country. The natives gave twenty women to the Spaniards as slaves. One of them, who the Spaniards baptized as Doña Marina, was born an Aztec but was given to the Tabasco Maya by her people as a girl, so she knew both languages. With her ability to translate between Mayan and Nahuatl - the language of the Aztecs and their neighbors - combined with Jerónimo de Aguilar's fluency in Mayan and the Spanish that the Aztec, Francisco, had learned in a year, Cortés and his men were thereafter able to communicate effectively with all of the natives they encountered.

At Veracruz

Cortés sailed out of Tabasco on March 23. His next destination was present-day Veracruz, which Grijalva's expedition had identified as a good and safe harbor for the ships, even though the country was infested with mosquitos. Some Aztecs came out to see the Spaniards when they disembarked. They identified themselves as servants of Montezuma and said they were there to welcome them and learn more about them. These natives built shelter for the Spaniards, served them a meal, and gave them gifts. They also painted likenesses of Cortés, Aguilar, a dog, a cannon, and other persons and items to show their emperor. Cortés arranged an artillery demonstration for them, no doubt so the messengers could explain to Montezuma what power the Spaniards possessed. Cortés also gave them some glass and other gifts for them to take to Emperor Montezuma, including a soldier's helmet that he asked to be returned filled with gold dust.

About six or seven days later, one of the messengers returned with more than a hundred men bearing gifts, including a large quantity of valuable and well-crafted items of gold and silver. The soldier's helmet was returned full of gold dust, exactly as Cortés requested. Along with these many fine gifts and gestures of friendship, however, Montezuma's ambassadors returned with a very politely-worded message stating that Cortés was not invited to come see the emperor.

Instead of showing his displeasure with the Aztecs, Cortés patiently explained to Montezuma's representatives how important it was for him to meet the emperor. He gave them additional gifts to take to Montezuma, as well as some to keep for themselves, and sent them to ask again. While he was waiting for them to return, he sent Captain Francisco de Montejo, another veteran of Grijalva's expedition, to sail further along the coast and look for a port where there were fewer mosquitos. Montejo sailed as far as the Panuco River - which was also the furthest point reached by Grijalva - and turned back around. Before he made it back to Veracruz, the messengers had returned with even more gold from Montezuma and his final answer: not only was Cortés not allowed to see him, but he would not allow any more discussion of the matter.8

At this point, the Spaniards disagreed on what to do next. Some believed that they ought to establish a settlement, but others protested that this would violate Governor Velázquez's orders. That faction advocated returning to Cuba with the substantial amount of gold and other treasures they had obtained. In a bold move that shaped his personal destiny was well as the destiny of the North American continent, Cortés, then 34 years old, declared the establishment of the new town of Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz, which was independent of Cuba and Diego Velázquez and subject only to the Spanish crown. As a legal formality, Cortés appointed officials to govern the town, resigned his commission as Velázquez's captain, and then accepted the town leaders' nomination of him as their governor-general.

Cortés's act of mutiny upset many of his men, but he won many of his detractors over through the generous distribution of promises and gold. Some remained opposed to him and announced their intention to return to Cuba. Cortés said he would not force anyone to stay, but after he arrested about a half-dozen of the biggest malcontents, the others stopped talking about wanting to leave. In an attempt to build a spirit of unity and cooperation, two men were appointed to fill the position of alcalde, the first being Cortés's old friend, Alonzo Puertocarrero, and the other being Francisco de Montejo, who was of the Velázquez faction.

With their foothold established on the continent, the Spaniards thought it best to send a ship to Spain with the gold they had obtained thus far. Both Cortés and the leadership of Veracruz wrote letters to King Charles justifying their decision to declare their independence of Cuba and Governor Velázquez, as well as recounting the major findings and events of the expedition to that point.9 The co-alcaldes, Puertocarrero and Montejo, were appointed to serve as Cortés's agents. Because Montejo had been supportive of Velázquez, Cortés paid him a bonus in gold to ensure he would be a good advocate for him. Puertocarrero and Montejo were ordered to sail to Spain without stopping at Cuba. To that end, the most experienced pilot in the New World, Antón de Alaminos, was assigned to their vessel.

Cortes and Montezuma meeting sign in Mexico City
Figure 12. This sign in Mexico City marks the location where Cortés and Montezuma met for the first time.

The March to Mexico

Leaving Veracruz under the command of Juan de Escalante, one of his most loyal captains, Cortés began his march toward Mexico. As he went, he learned that many of the towns and settlements in the Aztec Empire had been brought in by conquest. The natives were unhappy with having to send their tributes to Montezuma, not to mention having to send their sons for his sacrifices. At Cempoala, about 25 miles northwest of Veracruz, Cortés convinced the natives to refuse to pay tribute to the emperor and to arrest his officials and messengers. After they did so, Cortés secretly freed Montezuma's messengers and, feigning ignorance about why they were seized, told them to tell Montezuma he and the Spaniards wanted to help him with his rebel problem. Thus Cortés cleverly not only stirred up a rebellion among the people he hoped to subjugate, but gained the trust of both sides.

Four days after the ship left Veracruz, some disgruntled supporters of Velázquez plotted to steal one of the ships in the harbor and sail to Cuba to inform Velázquez of Cortés's treachery and to warn him about the ship that was headed for Spain. One of Cortés's men found out about the plot and informed the general. Cortés hurried back to Veracruz, listened to the conspirators' confessions, and ordered two of them to be hanged. In addition, the pilot's feet were cut off, and the other sailors were whipped. After these sentences were carried out, Cortés returned to Cempoala to plan his march on Mexico. He also sent back an order to his men at Veracruz to sink all of the ships so that no one else might get the idea to go back to Cuba.

Soon after the order was given to scuttle the ships, a messenger came from Escalante in Veracruz to inform Cortés that a ship was anchored about ten miles from the port, and it was not responding to their signals. Cortés paused the planned march to Mexico, placed his army at Cempoala under the command of Captain Alvarado, and went back to Veracruz with twenty men. He and his soldiers captured four Spaniards who had landed in a boat. They said they were from an expedition commissioned by Francisco de Garay, the governor of Jamaica, and led by Captain Alonso Álvarez de Pineda, to explore new territories. They reported that Pineda was at the Panuco River with two more ships. Cortés had four of his men put on the clothing of Pineda's men, go down to the shore, and signal the ship that it was okay to disembark there. Cortés's men captured six more of Pineda's before the others figured out they had been tricked and got away.

Cortés then rejoined his army and, in August 1519, resumed his march to Mexico. The natives at Tlaxcala were opposed to Montezuma, but they nevertheless fought against Cortés and his allies from Cempoala. Once they were defeated into submission, they joined Cortés's cause.

The Spaniards, Tlaxcalans, Cempoalans, and the rest of their allies defeated the natives at Cholula, who were loyal to Montezuma, in a great slaughter. When news of Cortés's easy victory at Cholula, the second-greatest city in the Aztec Empire, reached Mexico, the emperor decided it would be better to invite Cortés to his palace at Tenochtitlan. On November 8, 1519, Montezuma, who was about 53, came out to meet Cortés on the outskirts of Mexico. The Aztec emperor greeted the Spanish general in peace and with respect. He gave him gifts and showed him and his men to comfortable quarters.

Once the Spaniards became settled in the accommodations Montezuma provided for them, Cortés and his advisors, suspecting that they would soon be ambushed, decided to preempt that possibility by seizing Montezuma and making him their prisoner. When Montezuma, now a captive, learned of a plot by some of his princes and nobles to seize his vacant throne, he ordered them arrested. He then turned them over to Cortés, who ordered them to be burned alive. Cortés then offered Montezuma the option of returning to his palace, but warned that his captains would probably kill him if he did so. Montezuma realized the emptiness of Cortés's offer and opted to remain in his custody. Cortés then asked Montezuma whether he was ready to submit to the authority of Castile and become a vassal of King Charles. The emperor said he was, and he called for all of the princes and rulers in his kingdom to assemble. When they did, ten days later, he asked them to submit to the Spaniards, and all who were in attendance did so. With this, Hernán Cortés effectively became the ruler of the Aztecs.

The question of why Montezuma did not resist Cortés and became his puppet so willingly has intrigued historians and laymen for centuries. Cortés claimed that Montezuma believed him to be an Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, and that his return to rule over the Aztecs was a fulfillment of ancient prophesies. Because historians have found no pre-conquest Aztec sources of this prophecy, however, Cortés's claim is highly suspect. In a more general sense, though, it is entirely possible, if not probable, that the Aztecs were awed by the Spaniards, with their ships, horses, muskets, cannons, and the like, and wondered if they were mere men or something greater. There is documentation, for example, that some of the natives initially thought that a man on a horse was a single, two-headed beast. Díaz writes that the Spaniards with Cortés played up to the Aztecs' superstitions by claiming that they had superhuman abilities, such as the power to read minds. Two decades later, Cabeza de Vaca wrote of his experiences in present-day Texas and northern Mexico, where natives had never heard of Cortés or Montezuma. Many of these natives believed Cabeza de Vaca and his fellow shipwrecked Spaniards - who had no ships, horses, muskets, or cannons - to be "children of the sun" with supernatural powers simply because they looked different and came from the east. On the other hand, it has been suggested from a more practical standpoint that Montezuma saw the Spaniards defeat the powerful Tlaxcalans and massacre the inhabitants of Cholula with ease and chose to submit rather than be similarly massacred, thereby preserving the chance that the Aztecs might have their revenge later.

Panfilo de Narvaez
Figure 13. Pánfilo de Narváez.

Dealing with Narváez

Earlier in the expedition, when Cortés ordered a ship with two of his agents to sail to Spain with letters and gold for King Charles, they were given orders not to stop at Cuba along the way for any reason. Puertocarrero became sick after the ship left Veracruz, however, and Montejo, who Díaz writes, was "no friend of Cortés," ordered the pilot, Alaminos, to make a stop at his estate near Havana. Such large quantities of gold have a way of creating a buzz, and during the three-day layover, Governor Velázquez found out about Cortés's mutiny. He first sent ships to attempt to intercept Cortés's vessel, but they failed. He then sent his own letter to Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the influential president of the House of Trade, who had a financial stake in Velázquez's fortunes. Knowing it would take months for his message to get to Fonseca in Castile, Velázquez also lodged a complaint against Cortés with the real audiencia in Santo Domingo, a court that was established to arbitrate legal disputes in the New World.

Without waiting for an answer from either of these official channels, Velázquez began organizing an expedition to go to the mainland, remove Cortés, and bring the province under his control. He outfitted a fleet and placed it under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez, one of his top captains during his conquest of Cuba.10 The real audiencia, however, believed it had to try to prevent Velázquez from waging war on Cortés. It sent an oidor, or judge, to Cuba to dissuade Velázquez from carrying out his plan. Velázquez would not be stopped, however, so the oidor, one Lucas Vázquez de Ayllón, decided to go with Narváez in hopes that he could either negotiate between Narváez and Cortés or, failing that, supersede them both and take possession of New Spain under the audiencia's authority.

The fleet commanded by Narváez consisted of 19 ships and 1,400 men.11 It was the largest expeditionary force yet raised in the New World, and all of it came from Cuba, leaving that province, which had already been ravaged by a smallpox epidemic, even more depopulated. News of Narváez's arrival at Veracruz in April 1520 quickly reached Montezuma in Mexico. The Aztec emperor sent gifts to Narváez, confident that his huge army could easily defeat Cortés's force of about 400. Montezuma was only able to keep the news about Narváez's arrival a secret from Cortés for three days, however. By that time, Cortés had collected a staggering amount of Aztec gold and had ample resources with which to bribe Narváez's officers to join his command. Narváez did a great deal of damage to his own cause by arresting Ayllón, who was sympathetic to Cortés, and two of his associates, and putting them on ships to Cuba. This move gave Cortés an opportunity to accuse Narváez of treason - an accusation he made loudly and often.

Cortés divided his forces, Leaving Pedro de Alvarado in charge in Mexico with under a hundred men and taking the rest - fewer than 300 - to meet Narváez. The two armies met at Cempoala. When the fighting began on May 26, Cortés's small force surprised Narváez's, taking the artillery from them before they had a chance to act. Narváez, who lost an eye during the fighting, was captured and taken prisoner. Cortés then incorporated the bulk of Narváez's army into his own, including the sailors, and had Narváez's ships scuttled so that no one could return to Cuba.

Reconstruction of Tenochtitlan
Figure 14. A painting of Mexico-Tenochtitlan on Lake Texcoco and a model of the central temple.

Return to Mexico

While Cortés was taking care of matters at Cempoala, he received an urgent request for aid from Captain Alvarado in Mexico. In Cortés's absence, and feeling confident that Narváez would defeat him, the Aztecs rebelled and were besieging Alvarado's position. Leaving Narváez as a prisoner in Veracruz, Cortés set out on a hasty march back to Mexico. He arrived on June 4, 1520 with 1,300 Spaniards and 2,000 Tlaxcalans under his command. Soon after his arrival, an all-out war broke out. Cortés's position became so desperate that he asked Montezuma to address the Aztecs for the purpose of allowing the Spaniards to leave Mexico. Reluctantly, Montezuma agreed to do so. After he made his appeal, the Aztecs answered that they now had another sovereign, but if the Spaniards were totally destroyed, they would return the throne to Montezuma. According to Díaz, before Montezuma could give his answer, he was killed in a shower of stones and arrows.

The Spaniards and their allies fought for a few more days, taking more losses. At this time, Mexico-Tenochtitlan was situated on an island in the west end of Lake Texcoco.12 Each building was separated from the others by canals. Canoes and bridges were used to traverse the city. The city was connected to the mainland via causeways. This layout kept the Spaniards from making good use of their cavalry, and, Díaz writes, also made it impossible to set the city on fire, because fires could not spread across the water from one building to the next. On July 10, the Spaniards made a nighttime escape, in which they took even heavier losses. They were harassed for four days as they marched toward the friendly city of Tlaxcala. When the armies moved through an open plain that allowed the Spaniards the chance to put their cavalry and lances to great effect, the Aztecs broke off their pursuit. About 440 Spaniards and several hundred of their native allies made it to Tlaxcala.

Cortés's army was now about the same size as when it entered Mexico the first time, minus the artillery, which was lost during the flight from the city. It so happened, though, that Cortés received regular reinforcements from overseas without even having to ask for them. First, a ship arrived from Cuba with supplies from Velázquez, who sent them under the assumption that Narváez was now in charge. Soon after that, a second ship arrived from the Cuban governor. Next, a succession of at least three ships sent by Jamaican Governor Garay arrived at Veracruz. These ships were intended to reinforce the colony established by Pineda at Panuco, but Garay did not know that the natives at Panuco rose up and massacred the colonists, so the ships diverted themselves to Veracruz. Thus, through sheer luck, Cortés's army added about 150 men, plus some much-needed horses and weapons. He sent his army and Tlaxcalan allies out to chastise several Aztec towns and cities that had participated in the attempt to exterminate the Spaniards on their flight from Mexico, taking slaves of the women and children. They were aided at this time by an epidemic of smallpox that was raging among all the native populations; Díaz blames this on one sick slave who came on one of Narváez's ships. At this time, Cortés also sent one pair of messengers to Castile to update the court on his activities,13 another pair to Santo Domingo to report to the real audiencia, a ship to Jamaica to obtain horses, and a ship carrying some of his most difficult and vocal critics, most of whom had come with Narváez, back to Cuba.

In order to overcome the tactical disadvantages of making war against a city on a lake, the Spaniards felled trees and shaped them into enough timbers to construct 13 ships. According to Díaz, Cortes marched to Texcoco, on the east side of Lake Texcoco, with his army and 10,000 Tlaxcalans and captured the town. The timber was then brought up by 18,000 Tlaxcalans. In the time it took for the ships to be constructed, several more vessels arrived at Veracruz.

Being able to use ships on Lake Texcoco helped the Spaniards, but it did not by any means make the conflict lopsided in their favor. Díaz writes that the battle of Mexico took 93 days and cost many lives on both sides. The Spaniards may not have won without additional reinforcements from overseas, including two cannons and a fresh supply of gunpowder. The Mexican king, Guatimozin (also known as Cuauhtémoc), refused several invitations from Cortés to surrender, but ultimately, he was apprehended by a Spanish ship when he was attempting to flee by boat to the mainland. He was brought before Cortés and surrendered on August 13, 1521.

With Guatimozin's surrender, Hernán Cortés's expedition was concluded. Cortés and his men began building the province of New Spain, with the great Aztec city of Mexico-Tenochtitlan as its capital. They built homes, churches, farms, and mines, and appointed councils and officials for the various towns and districts. They had native women for wives and Aztec warriors they had captured during the war for slaves. The discovery and exploration of North America had been ongoing for almost thirty years, but in many ways, it was only beginning.

By David Carson
Page last updated: January 29, 2020

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1"Letter Patent of Queen Isabel the Catholic," dated 23 November 1504, in Supplement to Volume I and Volume II of Letters, Despatches, and State Papers Relating to The Negotiations Between England and Spain, edited by G. A. Bergenroth, published 1868, p. 66.

2There was another 16th-century conquistador with the same name; that man founded Nicaragua.

3Contemporary accounts either strongly suggest or declare outright that Velázquez's only interest in the expedition was the acquisition of slaves to bring back to Cuba, but these same accounts omit any mention of the expedition actually taking or bringing back any slaves. Some historians, possibly a majority, take this at face value and do not believe Córdoba took slaves, while others believe that the slaving part of his expedition was suppressed by contemporary sources, who did not want to incriminate themselves, but were glad to incriminate Velázquez.

4This is Bernal Díaz del Castillo's figure; other writers give the number as either 170 or 300.

5This is the date given by Díaz. MacNutt, in a footnote in his translation of the Letters of Cortés, gives the date as May 1.

6Díaz does not state the circumstances under which they "took" Francisco, but he gives no hint of any unfriendly behavior between the Spaniards and Aztecs at this meeting.

7Although he is known today by the name Hernán, in his day, he called himself, and was known as, Hernando or Fernando.

8Díaz theorizes that Montezuma was too dedicated to the practices of idolatry and human sacrifice to permit an audience with foreigners who declared they came to abolish these practices.

9Cortés's letter has been lost, but the letter written by the authorities at Veracruz has been preserved. It is dated July 10, 1519. It his highly critical of Velázquez - enough to show that Cortés and his allies' rebellion contained at least a grain of justice.

10When Cortés left Cuba, Narváez was in Spain, representing Velázquez. If Narváez had been in Cuba, he would certainly have been considered to be the captain-general of the 1519 expedition to New Spain.

11The number of men estimated to be on the expedition varies widely. Some estimates are as low as 600; others, 800; but these numbers appear to count only Spanish foot-soldiers, not cavalry, artillery, sailors, or Indians. The estimate of 1,400, which comes from Díaz, is all-inclusive. The number of ships varies from 16 to 19.

12The lake was drained in the 17th century. The Mexico City International Airport and some salt marshes and reservoirs east of the city now occupy the lowest parts of the old lakebed.

13Cortés's second letter is dated October 30, 1520. A printing of it that includes MacNutt's footnotes is 135 pages long.