The Conquistadors of Peru

Pizarro and his Lieutenants

In 1532, a group of some 160 Spanish conquistadors under Francisco Pizarro discovered the mighty Inca Empire, which ruled present-day Peru and Ecuador from the lofty city of Cuzco, high in the Andes. Pizarro and his men declared war on the Inca, treacherously kidnapping Emperor Atahualpa and later marching on Cuzco itself. Those that survived the conquest of the Inca Empire became very rich men, and many of them went on to other notable deeds in South America and elsewhere. Who were the men who brought down an Empire?

Francisco Pizarro. Public Domain Image
Francisco Pizarro was the illegitimate son of a Spanish soldier and a household servant. As a young man, Francisco tended the family pigs and never learned to read or write. He followed in his father’s footsteps and became a soldier, serving in Spain’s wars in Europe before following tales of Aztec gold to the New World. He made a name for himself as a tough fighting man and by 1525 was already one of the most prominent citizens of Panama. In 1528 he went to Spain and returned with two important things: a royal charter to explore western South America and his four brothers, who would prove invaluable during the conquest of the Inca. By 1540 he had defeated the Inca Empire and was in unquestioned control of Spain’s new Andean colonies. More »
Hernando Pizarro. Artist: Guaman Poma
Hernando Pizarro soon became his brother’s right-hand man. Hernando was known as the most affable of the Pizarro brothers (which isn’t really saying much), but he was also a skilled fighter and horseman. Hernando was the one Francisco would turn to when a job needed to be done right the first time. He sent Hernando back to Spain in 1534 with the “Quinto Real,” Or “Royal Fifth:” a 20% tax on conquest loot levied by the Spanish crown. Later, when Diego de Almagro went to war with the Pizarros, Francisco raised an army and entrusted it to Hernando, who defeated and executed Almagro. Hernando would later spend 20 years in prison in Spain for this action and never returned to Peru: he was the only Pizarro brother who died of natural causes. More »
The conquest of America, as painted by Diego Rivera in the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca. Diego Rivera

Of the Pizarro brothers, Juan was the reckless one. A very talented fighter and horseman, Juan was known for being the first one into battle. He was also cruel and violent and often tortured Inca leaders to try and get them to reveal the location of hidden treasures. Juan was in Cuzco when puppet leader Manco Inca revolted in 1535. The Spaniards in Cuzco were surrounded but managed to fight their way to the fortress of Sachsaywaman. Juan was instrumental in taking the fortress, but was mortally wounded when a stone hit his head. Cruel to the last, in his final will he disowned his native wife and daughter. More »

The Capture of Gonzalo Pizarro. Artist Unknown

Gonzalo was the youngest of the Pizarro brothers. Like Juan, he was cruel and greedy. When the two were left in charge of Cuzco, they tormented puppet leader Manco Inca. Gonzalo even stole Manco's wife Cura Ocllo. In 1541, Francisco was killed: this made Gonzalo the last of the Pizarro brothers in Peru (Juan was dead and Hernando in prison in Spain) and he soon became a leader of the former conquistadors who were now settlers. In 1542, the Spanish crown approved the so-called "New Laws," which protected natives from the worst abuses of their new Spanish lords. The conquistadors were livid and rallied behind Gonzalo, who started a rebellion. His rebellion was put down in 1548 and Gonzalo was executed for treason. More »

Diego de Almagro. Public Domain Image

Diego de Almagro had formed a partnership with Francisco Pizarro in the early 1520's to explore and conquer western South America. Their relationship began to sour in 1528, when Pizarro went to Spain and secured a lucrative governorship for himself…and a not-so-lucrative posting for his old friend Diego. Still, they worked together for a time: when Atahualpa was captured, Pizarro led the expedition and Almagro was in Panama securing reinforcements and supplies. Once the Inca Empire was captured, however, the two men could not agree on how to divide the lands and they went to war with one another. Almagro was defeated and executed by Hernando Pizarro. More »

The Conquest. Artist Unknown

Francisco de Orellana was a tough soldier and Pizarro loyalist. In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro set out from Quito headed east: he was looking for El Dorado and Orellana was his top lieutenant. The two men became separated in December of 1541. Pizarro returned to Quito, but Orellana and about 50 men discovered the Amazon River and followed it to the ocean. It was an important journey of exploration and discovery: it was this expedition which gave the river its name after the Spaniards saw some native women warriors on the riverbanks. More »

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Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto. Artist Unknown
Hernando de Soto was one of Pizarro’s top lieutenants. As such, his share of the Inca gold was extraordinary and he returned to Spain a rich man. After marrying well and being admitted to a prestigious order of knights, De Soto was awarded the privilege of exploring, conquering and settling North America, which was little-known at the time. He organized an expedition which explored much of the southeast of the present-day USA, from Florida to Tennessee and as far west as Texas. De Soto became ill and died on May 21, 1542 somewhere in present-day Louisiana or Arkansas.
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Sebastian de Benalcazar

Sebastián de Benalcázar. Artist: Eladio Sevilla

Another one of Pizarro's top lieutenants, Sebastián de Benalcázar was one of the original conquistadors and one of few men that Pizarro trusted. In 1534, Benalcazar was on the coast protecting Pizarro's supply lines when he received some disturbing information: Pedro de Alvarado was marching on the Inca city of Quito. Benalcázar hastily gathered every man he could and marched inland. He beat Alvarado to Quito, keeping the remains of the Inca Empire intact and in the hands of the Pizarro brothers. Later, Benalcázar would search for El Dorado and establish the cities of Popayán and Cali.