Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (c. 1485-1547) is best known for conquering the Aztecs and claiming Mexico on behalf of Spain. Cortés (full name Don Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca) first served as a soldier in an expedition of Cuba led by Diego Velázquez in 1511. 

In 1519, Cortés was set to command his own expedition to Mexico when Velázquez cancelled it. Cortés ignored the order and traveled to Mexico anyway, setting his sights on overthrowing ruler Montezuma II in the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs eventually drove the Spanish from Tenochtitlan, but Cortés returned to defeat the natives and take the city in 1521. He spent much of his later years seeking recognition for his achievements and support from the Spanish royal court.

Hernán Cortés and Diego Velázquez

Cortés was born in 1485 to Martín Cortés de Monroy and Doña Catalina Pizarro Altamarino, minor nobles in Medellín, Spain. He studied in Salamanca for a time but soon grew restless and left Spain in 1504 to explore the New World. The young Cortés landed in Hispaniola, or modern-day Santo Domingo. He served as a notary in the town of Azúa for a few years before joining Diego Velázquez on a 1511 expedition to Cuba, where he climbed the ranks of the local government to become mayor of Santiago.

Not content on dry land, Cortés was to set sail for Mexico in 1518, this time in command of his own expedition, but Velázquez cancelled the trip. Defiant, Cortés set sail for Mexico anyway with 500 men and 11 ships to seek his fortune.

Cortés ‘Discovers’ Mexico

Cortés and his crew reached Mexico in February of 1519. They dropped anchor at Tabasco, where he gained intelligence from locals about the land he desired to conquer. They also gave him gifts in the form of 20 women. One of them, Marina, became his interpreter and they had a son, Martín, together.

Cortés landed in Veracruz next, where his men elected him chief justice. According to some accounts, he sunk all but one of his ships before sending the intact one back to Spain. There would be no retreat for his men, only conquest.

Cortés Defeats The Aztecs

Cortés used his new allies and united them against the Aztecs, who were resented by local groups for the high tributes they exacted. By the time he arrived in Mexico, the Aztecs had come to rule over 500 small states and some 5 to 6 million people. He used deadly force to conquer Mexico, fighting Tlaxacan and Cholula warriors before turning his attention on the ultimate prize: taking over the Aztec Empire.

He entered Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital home to ruler Montezuma II, on November 8, 1519. Tenochtitlán, located near today’s Mexico City, had more than 140,000 inhabitants at its height, and was the most densely populated city ever to exist in Mesoamerica. Montezuma, thinking Cortés and his men were envoys from the god Quetzalcoatl who was prophesied to return that year in the Aztec calendar, treated him as an honored guest. Seizing his chance, Cortés took Montezuma hostage and his soldiers raided the city.

When Cortés learned that a Spanish force from Cuba led by Pánfilo Narváez were arriving to strip him of his command and arrest him for disobeying orders, Cortés fled the city. He left 80 Spanish soldiers and a few hundred Tlaxcaltecs under the command of Pedro de Alvarado to hold Tenochtitlan until he returned.

While Cortés was away, Alvarado massacred Aztec chiefs, and Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan to find a rebellion in progress. The enraged Aztec forces eventually drove his forces from the city. During the Spanish retreat, Montezuma was killed and much of the plunder the Spanish had taken was lost. But Cortés was far from finished. His forces defeated the Aztecs in Battle of Otumba on July 7, 1520, and he regained control of Tenochtitlan by August 13, 1521. The Aztec Empire had fallen.

Hernán Cortés: Legacy

While Cortés was conquering Mexico, Velázquez was busy crucifying his reputation in Spain. Cortés responded by sending five now-famous letters to Spanish King Charles V of Spain about the lands he had conquered and life in Mexico.

Never content for long, Cortés continued to seek opportunities to gain wealth and land. He sent more expeditions out into new areas, including what is present-day Honduras. He spent much of his later years seeking recognition for his achievements and support from the Spanish royal court. He died in Spain in 1547.