Hernan Cortes: Facts, Biography, Quotes & Timeline

Hernan Cortes: Facts, Biography, Quotes & Timeline
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Juliette Parsons

Juliette has a PhD in History from USC and a BA in History from Yale. She has taught courses at the middle school, high school, and college level.

In 1519, a 34-year old soldier with little military experience named Hernan Cortes defeated the Aztec Empire with only 500 men. Find out how he used gunpowder, smallpox and a Mexican mistress to conquer one of the most powerful empires in the world.

Hernan Cortes Facts and Biography

Let's start with the beginning. Hernan Cortes, infamous conquistador in the New World that defeated the Aztec Empire, was born in Medellin, Spain in 1485. His family was part of the nobility, but they were not wealthy. In 1504, Cortes decided to travel to the New World to try and make his fortune. In 1511, Cortes helped the Spanish conquer Cuba under the command of Diego Velasquez. Velasquez became governor of Cuba and made Cortes his secretary. In 1518, Cortes became mayor of Santiago, the capital of Cuba.

In Cuba, Cortes became well known for his sexual exploits. He eventually promised to marry Velasquez's sister-in-law, Catalina Xuarez, but changed his mind at the last minute. The governor was furious and put him in jail. He soon released Cortes, but forced him to marry Catalina. The relationship between Cortes and Velasquez became strained. In 1518, Velasquez had asked Cortes to lead an expedition to explore Mexico. But Velasquez decided to get Cortes back for breaking his promise to marry Catalina and cancelled the mission at the last minute. Cortes ignored him and went to Mexico anyway. He left with 11 ships, about a dozen horses, and 500 men.

Cortes landed in Mexico in February 1519. Shortly after landing, he defeated a small coastal town named Tabasco. He planned to attack the Aztec Empire, so he made allies with the enemies of the Aztecs. He joined forces with tribes that hated the Aztecs for their brutality. Cortes made a local woman named Malinche his mistress and translator. Malinche sought revenge against the Aztecs for killing her family.

In 1520, Cortes went to Tenochtitlan, the capital city of the Aztecs. He peacefully entered the royal palace where he captured Montezuma, the ruler of the Aztecs. Cortes then demanded a huge ransom for his hostage. In July, Montezuma was murdered, but it is unclear who killed him. The Aztecs drove the Spanish out of the city. Cortes gathered reinforcements.

In 1521, Cortes captured Tenochtitlan after a three-month siege. The Spaniards won by using guns that were far more powerful than the Aztecs' weapons. Cortes built a new capital on the ruins of Tenochtitlan and named it Mexico City. The Aztecs were unable to rebel against the Spaniards because most of them were sick or dead from smallpox, a new disease brought by the Europeans. The Spanish were able to colonize Mexico without much resistance. Cortes named the colony New Spain.

In 1523, the King of Spain, Charles, made Cortes the governor of New Spain. But Cortes thought that he deserved more for conquering Mexico. He thought that the king was ungrateful, so he rewarded himself by keeping many of the treasures he found in Mexico. Angered by Cortes' actions, the king dismissed him as governor and appointed him to a less powerful position as captain general. In 1534, Cortes left to explore North America and discovered Baja, California. In 1541, Cortes returned to Spain. He died embittered and in debt in 1547 in Seville.

Hernan Cortes Quotes

'I and my companions suffer from a disease of the heart which can be cured only with gold.'

Describing Tenochtitlan: 'The city is as large as Seville or Cordova; its streets, I speak of the principal ones, are very wide and straight; some of these, and all the inferior ones, are half land and half water, and are navigated by canoes.'

Describing the Aztec religion: 'Thus they have an idol that they petition for victory in war; another for success in their labors; and so for everything in which they seek or desire prosperity, they have their idols, which they honor and serve.'

Hernan Cortes Timeline

1485 - Hernan Cortes is born in Medellin, Spain.

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