Important Events of the Conquest of the Aztec Empire

In 1519, Hernan Cortes and his small army of conquistadors, driven by gold-lust, ambition and religious fervor, began the audacious conquest of the Aztec Empire. By August of 1521, three Mexica emperors were dead or captured, the city of Tenochtitlan was in ruins and the Spanish had conquered the mighty empire. Cortes was smart and tough, but he was also lucky. Their war against the mighty Aztecs - who outnumbered the Spaniards by over a hundred-to-one - took fortunate turns for the invaders on more than one occasion. Here are some of the important events of the conquest.

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes.

In 1518, Governor Diego Velazquez of Cuba decided to outfit an expedition to explore the newly discovered lands to the west. He chose Hernan Cortes to lead the expedition, which was limited in scope to exploration, making contact with the natives, searching for the Juan de Grijalva expedition (which would shortly return on its own) and perhaps founding a small settlement. Cortes had bigger ideas, however, and began outfitting an expedition of conquest, bringing weapons and horses instead of trade goods or settlement needs. By the time Velazquez understood Cortes' ambitions, it was too late: Cortes set sail just as the governor was sending orders to remove him from command. More »

(Possibly) Malinche, Diego Rivera Mural
(Possibly) Malinche, Diego Rivera Mural. Mural by Diego Rivera, Mexican National Palace

Cortes' first major stop in Mexico was the Grijalva River, where the invaders discovered a medium-sized town called Potonchan. Hostilities soon broke out, but the Spanish conquistadors, with their horses and advanced weapons and tactics, defeated the natives in short order. Seeking peace, the lord of Potonchan gave gifts to the Spanish, including twenty slave girls. One of these girls, Malinali, spoke Nahuatl (the language of the Aztecs) as well as a Mayan dialect understood by one of Cortes' men. Between them, they could effectively translate for Cortes, solving his communication problem before it had even begun. Malinali, or "Malinche" as she came to be known, proved to be far more useful than merely as an interpreter: she helped Cortes grasp the complex politics of the Valley of Mexico and even bore him a son. More »

Cortes meets with Tlaxcalan Leaders
Cortes meets with Tlaxcalan Leaders. Painting by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin

By August, Cortes and his men were well on their way to the great city of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the mighty Aztec Empire. They had to pass through the lands of the warlike Tlaxcalans, however. The Tlaxcalans represented one of the last free states in Mexico and they loathed the Mexica. They fought the invaders fiercely for almost three weeks before suing for peace in recognition of the Spaniards' tenacity. Invited to Tlaxcala, Cortes quickly made an alliance with the Tlaxcalans, who saw the Spanish as a way to finally defeat their hated enemies. Thousands of Tlaxcalan warriors would henceforth fight alongside the Spanish, and time and again they would prove their worth. More »

The Cholula Massacre
The Cholula Massacre. From the Lienzo of Tlaxcala

After leaving Tlaxcala, the Spanish went to Cholula, a powerful city-state, a loose ally of Tenochtitlan, and home of the cult of Quetzalcoatl. The invaders spent several days in the marvelous city, but began to hear word than an ambush was planned for them when they departed. Cortes rounded up the nobility of the city in one of the squares. Through Malinche, he berated the people of Cholula for the planned attack. When he was done speaking, he turned loose his men and Tlaxcalan allies on the square. Thousands of unarmed Cholulans were slaughtered, sending the message through Mexico that the Spaniards were not to be trifled with. More »

05
of 10

November, 1519: the Arrest of Montezuma

The Death of Montezuma
The Death of Montezuma. Painting by Charles Ricketts (1927)

The conquistadors entered the great city of Tenochtitlan in November of 1519 and spent a week as guests of the nervous city. Then Cortes made a bold move: he arrested the indecisive emperor Montezuma, placing him under guard and restricting his meetings and movements. Surprisingly, the once-mighty Montezuma agreed to this arrangement without much complaint. The Aztec nobility was stunned, but powerless to do much about it. Montezuma would never again taste freedom before his death in June of 1520.

06
of 10

May, 1520: The Battle of Cempoala

Defeat of Narvaez at Cempoala. Lienzo de Tlascala, Artist Unknown

Meanwhile, back in Cuba, Governor Velazquez was still fuming at Cortes' insubordination. He sent veteran conquistador Panfilo de Narvaez to Mexico to rein in the rebellious Cortes. Cortes, who had undertaken some questionable legal tricks to legitimize his command, decided to fight. The two conquistador armies met in battle on the night of May 28, 1520, at the native town of Cempoala, and Cortes handed Narvaez a decisive defeat. Cortes gleefully jailed Narvaez and added his men and supplies to his own. Effectively, instead of regaining control of Cortes' expedition, Velazquez had instead sent him much-needed weapons and reinforcements.

The Temple Massacre
The Temple Massacre. Image from the Codex Duran

While Cortes was away in Cempoala, he left Pedro de Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlan. Alvarado heard rumors that the Aztecs were ready to rise up against the hated invaders at the Festival of Toxcatl, which was about to take place. Taking a page from Cortes' book, Alvarado ordered a Cholula-style massacre of the Mexica nobility at the festival on the evening of May 20. Thousands of unarmed Mexica were slaughtered, including many important leaders. Although any uprising was certainly averted by the bloodbath, it also had the effect of enraging the city, and when Cortes returned a month later, he found Alvarado and the other men he had left behind under siege and in dire straits. More »

The Night of Sorrows
La Noche Triste. Library of Congress; Artist Unknown

Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan on June 23, and soon decided the situation in the city was untenable. Montezuma was killed by his own people when he was sent out to ask for peace. Cortes decided to try and sneak out of the city on the night of June 30. The escaping conquistadors were discovered, however, and hordes of angry Aztec warriors attacked them on the causeway out of the city. Although Cortes and most of his captains survived the retreat, he still lost about half his men, some of whom were taken alive and sacrificed. More »

Conquistadors battling Aztecs
Conquistadors battling Aztecs. Mural by Diego Rivera

The new leader of the Mexica, Cuitlahuac, tried to finish off the weakened Spaniards as they fled. He sent an army to destroy them before they could reach the safety of Tlaxcala. The armies met at the Battle of Otumba on or about July 7. The Spanish were weakened, injured and greatly outnumbered and at first the battle went very badly for them. Then Cortes, spotting the enemy commander, rallied his best horsemen and charged. The enemy general, Matlatzincatzin, was killed and his army fell into disarray, allowing the Spanish to escape. More »

10
of 10

June-August, 1521: The Fall of Tenochtitlan

Cortes' Brigantines
Cortes' Brigantines. From the Codex Duran

Following the Battle of Otumba, Cortes and his men rested in friendly Tlaxcala. There, Cortes and his captains made plans for a final assault on Tenochtitlan. Here, Cortes' good luck continued: reinforcements arrived steadily from the Spanish Caribbean and a smallpox epidemic ravaged Mesoamerica, killing countless natives, including Emperor Cuitlahuac. In early 1521, Cortes tightened the noose around The island city of Tenochtitlan, laying siege to eh causeways and attacking from Lake Texcoco with a fleet of thirteen brigantines he had ordered built. The capture of new Emperor Cuauhtémoc on August 13, 1521 signified the end of Aztec resistance.