Ten Facts About Pedro de Alvarado

Cortes' top Lieutenant and the Conqueror of the Maya

Pedro de Alvarado (1485-1541) was a Spanish conquistador and one of Hernan Cortes' top lieutenants during the conquest of the Aztec Empire (1519-1521). He also took part in the conquest of the Maya civilizations of Central America and the Inca of Peru. As one of the more infamous conquistadors, there are many legends about Alvarado which have gotten mixed in with the facts. What is the truth about Pedro de Alvarado?

Pedro de Alvarado
Pedro de Alvarado. Painting by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin, Tlaxcala Town Hall

Pedro de Alvarado has the distinction of being the only major conquistador to take part in the conquests of the Aztecs, Maya, and Inca. After serving in Cortes' Aztec campaign from 1519 to 1521, he led a force of conquistadors south into the Maya lands in 1524 and defeated the various city-states. When he heard of the magnificent wealth of the Inca of Peru, he wanted to get in on that, too. He landed in Peru with his troops and raced against a conquistador army led by Sebastian de Benalcazar to be the first ones to sack the city of Quito. Benalcazar won, and when Alvarado showed up in August of 1534, he accepted a payoff and left his men with Benalcazar and the forces loyal to Francisco Pizarro. More »

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes.

Hernan Cortes relied greatly on Pedro de Alvarado. He was his top lieutenant for most of the Conquest of the Aztecs. When Cortes left to fight Panfilo de Narvaez and his army on the coast, he left Alvarado in charge, although he was angry at his lieutenant for the subsequent Temple Massacre. More »

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His Nickname came from the God of the Sun

Pedro de Alvarado
Pedro de Alvarado. Artist Unknown

Pedro de Alvarado was fair-skinned with blond hair and beard: this distinguished him not only from the natives of the New World but also from the majority of his Spanish colleagues. The natives were fascinated by Alvarado's appearance and nicknamed him "Tonatiuh," which was the name given to the Aztec Sun God.

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He participated in the Juan de Grijalva Expedition

Juan de Grijalva
Juan de Grijalva. Artist Unknown

Although he is best remembered for his participation in Cortes' expedition of conquest, Alvarado actually set foot on the mainland long before most of his companions. Alvarado was a captain on Juan de Grijalva's 1518 expedition which explored the Yucatan and the Gulf Coast. The ambitious Alvarado was constantly at odds with Grijalva, because Grijalva wanted to explore and make friends with the natives and Alvarado wanted to establish a settlement and begin the business of conquering and pillaging.

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

In May of 1520, Hernan Cortes was forced to leave Tenochtitlan to go to the coast and battle a conquistador army led by Panfilo de Narvaez sent to rein him in. He left Alvarado in charge in Tenochtitlan with about 160 Europeans. Hearing rumors from credible sources that the Aztecs were going to rise up and destroy them, Alvarado ordered a pre-emptive attack. On May 20, he ordered his conquistadors to attack the thousands of unarmed nobles attending the Festival of Toxcatl: countless civilians were slaughtered. The Temple Massacre was the biggest reason the Spanish were forced to flee the city less than two months later. More »

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

On the night of June 30, 1520, the Spanish decided that they needed to get out of the city of Tenochtitlan. Emperor Montezuma was dead and the people of the city, still seething over the Temple Massacre barely a month before, had laid siege to the Spanish in their fortified palace. On the night of June 30, the invaders tried to creep out of the city in the dead of night, but they were spotted. Hundreds of Spaniards died on what the Spanish remember as the "Night of Sorrows." According to popular legend, Alvarado made a great leap over one of the holes in the Tacuba causeway in order to escape: this became known as "Alvarado's Leap." It probably didn't happen, however: Alvarado always denied it and there is no historical evidence to support it. More »

Tlaxcalan Princess
Tlaxcalan Princess. Painting by Desiderio Hernández Xochitiotzin

In mid-1519, the Spanish were on their way to Tenochtitlan when they decided to go through the territory ruled by the fiercely independent Tlaxcalans. After fighting each other for two weeks, the two sides made peace and became allies. Legions of Tlaxcalan warriors would greatly aid the Spanish in their war of conquest. The cement the alliance, Tlaxcalan chief Xicotencatl gave Cortes one of his daughters, Tecuelhuatzin. Cortes said that he was married but gave the girl to Alvarado, his top lieutenant. She was promptly baptized as Doña Maria Luisa and she eventually bore three children to Alvarado, although they never formally married. More »

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He has become part of Guatemalan folklore

Pedro de Alvarado Mask
Pedro de Alvarado Mask. Photo by Christopher Minster

In many towns around Guatemala, as part of indigenous festivals, there is a popular dance called the "Dance of the Conquistadors." No conquistador dance is complete without a Pedro de Alvarado: a dancer dressed in impossibly dazzling clothes and wearing a wooden mask of a white-skinned, fair-haired man. These costumes and masks are traditional and go back many years.

Tecun Uman
Tecun Uman. National Currency of Guatemala

During the conquest of the K'iche culture in Guatemala in 1524, Alvarado was opposed by the great warrior-king Tecun Uman. As Alvarado and his men approached the K'iche homeland, Tecun Uman attacked with a large army. According to popular legend in Guatemala, the K'iche chieftain bravely met Alvarado in personal combat. The K'iche Maya had never seen horses before, and Tecun Uman did not know that the horse and rider were separate beings. He slew the horse only to discover that the rider survived: Alvarado then slew him with his lance. Tecun Uman's spirit then grew wings and flew away. Although the legend is popular in Guatemala, there is no conclusive historical proof that the two men ever met in single combat. More »

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He is not Beloved in Guatemala

Tomb of Pedro de Alvarado
Tomb of Pedro de Alvarado. Photo by Christopher Minster

Much like Hernan Cortes in Mexico, modern Guatemalans do not think highly of Pedro de Alvarado. He is considered an intruder who subjugated the independent highland Maya tribes out of greed and cruelty. It's easy to see when you compare Alvarado with his old opponent, Tecun Uman: Tecun Uman is the official National Hero of Guatemala, whereas Alvarado's bones rest in a rarely visited crypt in the Antigua cathedral.