Hernando Cortez (Hernan Cortes was his real name) was born in Medellin, Spain, in (or around) 1485. He was a Spanish conquistador known for conquering the Aztec Empire of Mexico. He came from a noble family and was well educated. From an early age, however, Cortes was described as a troublemaker, mischievous, quarrelsome, and even ruthless. Excited by tales of the New World, he sailed to Hispaniola in the West Indies at the age of 19. During his stay on Hispaniola, he served as both a farmer and notary (a public official) before sailing on an expedition to Cuba in 1511, led by Diego Velasquez. Cortez proved a natural leader and became mayor of Santiago, Cuba.
A Killing Spree on the Way to Tenochtitlán
In the fall of 1518, he set off for Mexico on his own expedition with 600 soldiers and sailors and 16 horses on 11 ships. They landed on the Mexican coast in early 1519 at Tabasco on the Yucatan Peninsula, where he and his army defeated a group of natives. While there, Cortez managed to gain favor among other natives, and he fathered a son with a native woman named Marina, who also served as an interpreter. Cortez next conquered the city of Veracruz. It was at Veracruz where he began making plans to visit Montezuma and the Aztec Empire despite orders from Spain to cancel further explorations. On the way to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, Cortez allied with several tribes that were enemies of the Aztecs and massacred others, possibly to instill fear among the Aztecs.
Collapse of the Aztecs and the Founding of Mexico City
Cortes Meets Montezuma
On November 8, 1519, Hernan Cortez and his crew entered Tenochtitlan, where they were initially welcomed into the city with lavish gifts adorned with gold and precious gemstones. Cortes remarked that the island capital of Tenochtitlán was among the most beautiful and advanced cities in the world, although he was horrified by the Aztec practice of sacrificing prisoners of war to their gods. These initial gifts, however, made the Spanish bloodthirsty for more. Meanwhile, Cortez learned that the Aztecs considered him an emissary (representative) of their central god Quetzalcoatl. Cortez and his men took advantage of their status and kidnapped the Aztec chief Montezuma, who was later killed. The Spaniards quickly wore out their welcome and managed to escape the island city in the middle of the night. Cortez suffered hundreds of casualties and lost much of the treasure he had looted in the narrow escape. The Spanish did, however, initiate the collapse of the Aztec Empire by infecting the Aztecs with smallpox. With the Aztec capital in ruins and the population dying from disease, Cortez returned and founded Mexico City atop the ruins of Tenochtitlán in 1521. He was appointed governor of New Spain in 1522 by King Charles I. Mexico would be ruled by Spain for three centuries after the conquest.
Following his Destruction of the Aztec Empire
In 1524, Cortez traveled to Honduras to stop a rebellion against him, and when he returned to Mexico, he found he had been removed from power by Ponce de Leon, who may have believed that Cortez was becoming too powerful. Cortez went back to Spain to plead his case with the king but was denied his governorship. He eventually returned to the New World where he explored and named California. He retired in Spain and died in 1547.