The Storied Past of Chapultepec Castle

Former Aztec site and historic fortress is a must-see in Mexico City

Chapultepec Castle. Photo by Christopher Minster

Located in the heart of Mexico City, Chapultepec Castle is a historic site and local landmark. Inhabited since the days of the Aztec Empire, Chapultepec Hill offers a commanding view of the sprawling city. The fortress was the home of legendary Mexican leaders including Emperor Maximilian and Porfirio Diaz and played an important role in the Mexican-American War. Today, the castle is home to the first-rate National Museum of History.

Chapultepec Hill

Chapultepec means “Hill of the Grasshoppers” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. The site of the castle was an important landmark to the Aztecs who inhabited Tenochtitlan, the ancient city which would later become known as Mexico City.

The hill was located on an island in Lake Texcoco where the Mexica people made their home. According to legend, the other people of the region did not care for the Mexica and sent them to the island, then known for dangerous insects and animals, but the Mexica ate these pests and made the island their own. After the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire, the Spanish drained Lake Texcoco to control flooding issues.

On the grounds near the castle, at the base of the hill in the park near the Niños Heroes monument, there are ancient glyphs carved into the stone during the reign of the Aztecs. One of the rulers mentioned is Montezuma II. 

Chapultepec Castle

After the fall of the Aztecs in 1521, the hill was largely left alone.

A Spanish viceroy, Bernardo de Gálvez, ordered a home built there in 1785, but he left and the place was eventually auctioned off. The hill and assorted structures upon it eventually became the property of the municipality of Mexico City. In 1833, the new nation of Mexico decided to create a military academy there.

Many of the older structures of the castle date from this time.

The Mexican-American War and the Hero Children

In 1846, the Mexican-American War began. In 1847, the Americans approached Mexico City from the east. Chapultepec was fortified and placed under the command of General Nicolas Bravo, a former president of the Mexican republic. On September 13, 1847, the Americans needed to take the castle to proceed, they did, then secured the fortress.

According to legend, six young cadets remained at their posts to fight off the invaders. One of them, Juan Escutia, wrapped himself in the Mexican flag and leaped to his death from the castle walls, denying the invaders the honor of removing the flag from the castle. These six young men are immortalized as the Niños Heroes or “Hero Children” of the war. According to modern historians, the story is likely embellished, but the fact remains that Mexican cadets did defend the castle bravely during the Siege of Chapultepec.

The Age of Maximilian

In 1864, Maximilian of Austria, a young European Prince of the Habsburg line, became emperor of Mexico. Although he spoke no Spanish, he was approached by Mexican and French agents who believed that a stable monarchy would be the best thing for Mexico.

Maximilian resided at Chapultepec Castle, which he had modernized and rebuilt according to the European standards of luxury at the time with marble floors and fine furniture. Maximilian also ordered the construction of Paseo de la Reforma, which connects Chapultepec Castle to the National Palace in the center of town.

Maximilian’s rule lasted three years until he was captured and executed by forces loyal to Benito Juarez, the president of Mexico, who maintained he was the legitimate head of Mexico during Maximilian's reign.

Residence for Presidents

In 1876, Porfirio Diaz came to power in Mexico. He took Chapultepec Castle as his official residence. Like Maximilian, Diaz ordered changes and additions to the castle. Many items from his time are still in the castle, including his bed and the desk from which he signed his resignation as president in 1911.

During the Mexican Revolution, various presidents used the castle as an official residence, including Francisco I. Madero, Venustiano Carranza and Alvaro Obregón. Following the war, Presidents Plutarco Elias Calles and Abelardo Rodriguez resided there.

Chapultepec Today

In 1939, President Lazaro Cardenas del Rio declared that Chapultepec Castle would become the home of Mexico's National History Museum. The museum and castle are a popular tourist destination. Many of the upper floors and gardens have been restored to look as they did during the age of Emperor Maximilian or President Porfirio Diaz, including original beds, furniture, paintings and Maximilian's fancy coach. Also, the exterior is renovated and includes the busts of Charlemagne and Napoleon that had been commissioned by Maximilian.

Near the entrance to the castle is a massive monument to the fallen during the 1846 Mexican-American War, a monument to the 201st Air Squadron, a Mexican air unit which fought on the side of the Allies during World War II and old water cisterns, a nod to Lake Texcoco's former glory.

Museum Features

The National Museum of History includes pre-Colombian artifacts and displays about ancient cultures of Mexico. Other sections detail important parts of Mexican history, such as the war for independence and the Mexican Revolution. Oddly, there is little information about the 1847 Siege of Chapultepec.

There are numerous paintings in the museum, including famous portraits of historical figures such as Miguel Hidalgo and José María Morelos. The best paintings are the masterpiece murals by legendary artists Juan O’Gorman, Jorge González Camarena, Jose Clemente Orozco and David Siqueiros.