The Pizarro Brothers

Francisco, Hernando, Juan and Gonzalo

The Pizarro brothers - Francisco, Hernando, Juan and Gonzalo and half-brother Francisco Martín de Alcántara - were the sons of Gonzalo Pizarro, a Spanish soldier. The five Pizarro brothers had three different mothers: of the five, only Hernando was legitimate. The Pizarros were the leaders of the 1532 expedition which attacked and defeated the Inca Empire of present-day Peru. Francisco, the eldest, called the shots and had several important lieutenants including Hernando de Soto and Sebastián de Benalcázar: he only truly trusted his brothers, however. Together they conquered the mighty Inca Empire, becoming incredibly wealthy in the process: the King of Spain also rewarded them with lands and titles. The Pizarros lived and died by the sword: only Hernando lived into old age. Their descendants remained important and influential in Peru for centuries.

Francisco Pizarro

Spain, Extremadura Region, Trujillo City, Pizarro Statue
CALLE MONTES / Getty Images

Francisco Pizarro (1471-1541) was the eldest illegitimate son of Gonzalo Pizarro the elder: his mother was a maid in the Pizarro home and young Francisco tended the family livestock. He followed in his father's footsteps, embarking on a career as a soldier. He went to the Americas in 1502: soon his skills as a fighting man made him rich and he participated in various conquests in the Caribbean and Panama. Along with his partner Diego de Almagro, Pizarro organized an expedition to Peru: he brought his brothers along. In 1532 they captured the Inca ruler Atahualpa: Pizarro demanded and received a King's ransom in gold but had Atahualpa murdered anyway. Fighting their way across Peru, the conquistadors captured Cuzco and installed a series of puppet rulers over the Inca. For ten years, Pizarro ruled Peru, until disgruntled conquistadors murdered him in Lima on June 26, 1541.

Hernando Pizarro

Hernando Pizarro injured in Puná
Hernando Pizarro injured in Puná. By Fondo Antiguo de la Biblioteca de la Universidad de Sevilla from Sevilla, España - "Hernando Pizarro herido en Puná"., Public Domain, Link

Hernando Pizarro (1501-1578) was the son of Gonzalo Pizarro and Isabel de Vargas: he was the only legitimate Pizarro brother. Hernando, Juan, and Gonzalo joined with Francisco on his 1528-1530 journey to Spain to secure royal permission for his explorations along the Pacific coast of South America. Of the four brothers, Hernando was the most charming and glib: Francisco sent him back to Spain in 1534, in charge of the “royal fifth:” a 20% tax imposed by the crown on all conquest treasure. Hernando negotiated favorable concessions for the Pizarros and other conquistadors. In 1537, an old dispute between the Pizarros and Diego de Almagro sparked into war: Hernando raised an army and defeated Almagro at the Battle of Salinas in April of 1538. He ordered the execution of Almagro, and on the next trip to Spain, Almagro’s friends at court convinced the King to imprison Hernando. Hernando spent 20 years in a comfortable prison and never returned to South America. He married Francisco’s daughter, founding the line of rich Peruvian Pizarros.

Juan Pizarro

The conquest of America, as painted by Diego Rivera in the Cortes Palace in Cuernavaca. Diego Rivera

Juan Pizarro (1511-1536) was the son of Gonzalo Pizarro the elder and María Alonso. Juan was a skilled fighter and well-known as one of the best riders and cavalrymen on the expedition. He was also cruel: when his older brothers Francisco and Hernando were away, he and brother Gonzalo often tormented Manco Inca, one of the puppet rulers the Pizarros had placed on the throne of the Inca Empire. They treated Manco with disrespect and tried to make him produce ever more gold and silver. When Manco Inca escaped and went into open revolt, Juan was one of the conquistadors who fought against him. While attacking an Inca fortress, Juan was struck on the head by a stone: he died on May 16, 1536.

Gonzalo Pizarro

The Capture of Gonzalo Pizarro. Artist Unknown

The youngest of the Pizarro brothers, Gonzalo (1513-1548) was the full brother of Juan and also illegitimate. Much like Juan, Gonzalo was energetic and a skilled fighter, but impulsive and greedy. Along with Juan, he tortured the Inca nobles to get more gold out of them: Gonzalo went one step further, demanding the wife of ruler Manco Inca. It was the tortures of Gonzalo and Juan that were largely responsible for Manco escaping and raising an army in rebellion. By 1541, Gonzalo was the last of the Pizarros in Peru. In 1542, Spain pronounced the so-called "New Laws" which severely curtailed the privileges of the former conquistadors in the New World. Under the laws, those who had participated in the conquistador civil wars would lose their territories: this included nearly everyone in Peru. Gonzalo led a revolt against the laws and defeated Viceroy Blasco Núñez Vela in battle in 1546. Gonzalo's supporters urged him to name himself King of Peru but he refused. Later, he was captured and executed for his role in the uprising.

Francisco Martín de Alcántara

The Conquest. Artist Unknown

Francisco Martín de Alcántara was half-brother to Francisco on his mother’s side: he was not actually a blood relation to the other three Pizarro brothers. He took part in the conquest of Peru, but did not distinguish himself as the others did: he settled in the newly-founded city of Lima after the conquest and apparently dedicated himself to raising his children and those of his half-brother Francisco. He was with Francisco, however, on June 26, 1541, when supporters of Diego de Almagro the Younger stormed Pizarro’s home: Francisco Martín fought and died beside his brother.

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Minster, Christopher. "The Pizarro Brothers." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Minster, Christopher. (2020, August 27). The Pizarro Brothers. Retrieved from Minster, Christopher. "The Pizarro Brothers." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).