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Hernán Cortés

1485 – 1547
Spanish Conquistador
Exploration Ranking 2nd of 26
Cortés' image with the serpent that became a symbol for Mexico. Spanish stamp from 1988.

Hernán Cortés defeated the Aztec Empire (1519-21) in the region of present-day Mexico and imposed the Spanish language, culture and Catholic religion that continues to the present. Overall, Cortés completely changed the native world that he conquered. Cortés ranks just above Pizarro because his conquests occurred earlier and had a similar result. Also, his unlikely success against a much larger force of Aztecs definitely inspired Pizarro who faced a similar situation when he defeated the much larger Inca army. There is an additional connection in that Cortés and Pizarro were second cousins because Cortés’ mother was a Pizarro.

Cortés was an experienced soldier when he reached the Americas in 1504. He took part in the conquest of Cuba in 1511, and in 1518 he commanded an expedition to explore the Yucatán Peninsula. Burning his fleet at Veracruz in August 1519, he led his 508 soldiers and their Indian allies inland to Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City), capital of Montezuma’s Aztec empire. During this time Cortés was also aided by Malinche, a young woman originally from the north, in the province of Coatzacualco, who had been sold as a slave to the Tabascans, who in turn gave her to Cortés. Her native tongue was the Mayan language, but she spoke a number of other dialects including Nahuatl, the Aztec language. She became Cortés’s mistress and a shrewd advisor. Malinche translated and interpreted all major diplomatic and political negotiations, including the famous historical conversations between Cortés and Montezuma.


Malinche became indispensable as a translator, not only capable of functionally translating from one language to the other, but of speaking compellingly, strategizing and forging political connections. In two instances Malinche directly saved the Spanish conquistadors from destruction—once, in Tlaxcala, her astute observations led her to uncover an indigenous conspiracy against Cortés.(1) Another time, Malinche befriended an old woman who led her to crucial information about a dangerous impending attack from Montezuma. Armed with this information Cortés decided to change his plans and to circumvent Cholula before proceeding directly to Tenochtitlán. The change astonished the natives and further persuaded them of the Spaniards’ mystical powers. On these and other occasions Malinche’s presence made the decisive difference between life and death.


Overcoming numerous obstacles, including other Spaniards, Cortés (and smallpox) defeated the Aztecs in 1521.  The most accurate accounts, estimated by native chroniclers in the years directly following the conquest, suggest that more than 200,000 Aztecs fell during the siege of Tenochtitlán, as well as 30,000 Tlaxcalans. Even by the most conservative estimates, the battle for the Aztec empire ranks, in terms of human life, as the costliest single battle in history.(2) While the Native population suffered catastrophic casualities the Spanish lost only 450 to 850 men.

Cortés Transforms Tenochtitlán into Mexico City 

Cortés established Spanish dominance over the entire native world with remarkable speed.(3) He now ruled much of Central America, a massive swath of land extending from Vera Cruz on the east coast all the way west, through the jungles and rain forests of the tierra caliente, across the volcanic scablands to the Pacific Ocean, and far south, effectively to the boundary of what is now Guatemala. 

Cortés himself formed and officially founded the new municipality of Mexico City. The construction of Mexico City commenced in 1522, using labor from the few surviving Aztecs and Texcocan allies. Cortés enlisted chief architect Alonso Garcia Bravo to draw up plans for the new city, and Cortés moved back onto the island of Tenochtitlán to personally oversee the project. Ironically, one of Montezuma’s surviving sons, Don Pedro Montezuma, administered the reconstruction of a section of the city. Before long hundreds of thousands of residents from the Valley of Mexico were employed in the rebuilding project. Native workers used, for the first time in their lives, wheeled tools--carts and wheelbarrows and pulleys--as well as draft animals, previously unknown to them.(4) Streets, fountains, aqueducts, monasteries, churches and mansions modified the landscape. Soldiers and prospectors built villas and discovered minerals. Ships weighed anchor for distant ports. A city government was set up. Gunpowder was manufactured, and cannon were cast in foundries. The Spanish established the encomienda, the cornerstone of the viceregal economy.(5)

Encomienda System

In the early sixteenth century, the Spanish crown set up the encomienda system in the Americas to divide up the American Indian labor force to aid in the development of their mining economy. Under this system a Spanish conquistador, or another prominent male Spaniard (known as an encomendero), was granted the labor of a certain number of Native Americans living in the area. The encomendero provided the laborers protection from warring tribes and teachings in the Catholic faith. The native laborer paid tributes to the encomendero in the form of gold or other metals, or agricultural products.


The system was intended to be a way to enter into a peaceable and mutually beneficial relationship with the indigenous peoples of America. However, the system quickly devolved into essentially a system of slavery. Native Americans were treated cruelly and forced into hard labor.


The Spanish crown attempted to fix the system by passing various laws throughout the century, but the encomenderos refused to comply with these new measures. Eventually, the encomienda system was replaced by the repartimiento system, but it was not abolished until the late eighteenth century. 

Cortés Transforms the Aztec Empire


The Aztec Empire was a kingdom, a boundless field for experiment where a stubborn, ambitious man could successfully establish every kind of crop and every kind of industry known to the world. This is precisely what Cortés did. The estates granted to Cortés in Mexico after his conquest there in 1524 were largely devoted to sugarcane production.(6) He built sugar mills in Vera Cruz and Guerrero, began silk culture in Yautepec and later extended it to several other provinces, planted wheat, hemp, flax, and cotton, and worked the mines of Zacatecas and Taxco and the gold-bearing placer streams of Tehuantepec.(7)


Even Cortés trembled at sentencing millions of Indians to slavery. But he knew that this act of almost universal degradation was part of the transformation he started. In line with the custom he followed throughout the Conquest, he did not present his decision officially sanctioning that institution of the encomienda as a voluntary one but rather as an extreme measure he felt he was forced to adopt under pressure of circumstances.(8)

Indian slaves built the churches, the houses, the highways and the aqueducts, and worked the silver mines. They made possible the encomienda, the institution that satisfied the Spaniard's twofold aspiration to a higher income and a life based on the rights and perquisites of a feudal lord. The conditions of the encomienda prevailed sui generis(9) (a form of legal protection outside the typical legal protections) during all the centuries of the colony. Everything that was hastily improvised at the very beginning of the conquest, the municipal government, the encomienda, the subjection of the native chieftains, the labor system—all those institutions, oppressive as well as benevolent, which issued from the hands of Cortés—were actually to last over the course of the years, in their original form.(10) Cortés served as Captain-General of New Spain from 1521-28 and retired to Spain in 1540.

Role of the Horse

The sixteen horses Cortés brought in 1519 to Mexico were the first to arrive on the mainland of North America since before the Ice Age, when the native animals became extinct in the northern hemisphere.(11) Over the next fourteen years, Cortés and his men traveled back and forth between Hispaniola and Mexico bringing additional horses that eventually became large herds in Mexico. After that, as Spanish explorers and missionaries moved inland and northward, they brought more horses with them from the breeding stock on Cuba and Hispaniola, and established breeding herds on the mainland. Ultimately, descendants of these horses came into North America to become the Spanish Mustangs of the Great Plains that transformed the lives of the Indians living in the area.

The horse was an essential element of colonial life in New Spain.(12) After helping to win the land, the horse was elevated to a place of honor on the altars, and the Indians carved horses on the facades of the churches. They were so important for the excellent reason that Mexico was a land of broad horizons, of great fiefs, and of long roads stretching between cities and distant ports. The horse was everything.(13) Mounted on one, a gentleman could take part in jousting and catching the ring, he could find his rank in the cavalcades and in the retinues of the powerful, he could travel and pay visits. 

Cattle Breeding

From Cuba in 1521 Gregorio Villalobos and Cortés also brought cattle to Mexico for breeding purposes. Within a decade, Spanish settlers established scores of cattle ranches in the central Mexican plains and valleys.


Malinche or Doña Marina, as the Spaniards referred to her, stayed with Cortés from the moment she was gifted to him in 1519 through the fall of Tenochtitlán and into the aftermath. As interpreter, guide and mistress, she earned a status unprecedented among women of her time and place. She became the mother of Cortés' first acknowledged child, Martín--the son later legitimized by papal decree and formally knighted. Malinche and Cortés, it can be said, gave birth to the first mestizo, the first mixed-blood Mexican-European child. “For many Mexicans, with a healthy mixture of controversial emotion, Hernán Cortés and Malinche are considered to this day the mother and father of modern Mexico, symbols of the new order and the new people who rose from the ashes of the fallen Aztec civilization.”(14) For many others Malinche is vilified and became a well-recognized symbol of a sellout, a person who forsakes his/her roots for personal gain. “If there is one villainess in Mexican history, she is Malintzin. She was to become the ethnic traitress supreme.”(15) There is even a word, malinchismo, which refers to people who prefer foreign things to Mexican ones. Overall, Cortés with indispensable help from Malinche, fundamentally transformed the world that he conquered.(16) 



(1) Farah Mohammed, “Who Was La Malinche,” JSTOR Daily, March 1, 2019; accessed July 27, 2020;

(2) Buddy Levy, Conquistador - Hernán Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs (New York, 2009), p. 320.

(3) Fernando Benitez, translated into English by Joan MacLean, The Century After Cortés (Chicago, 1965), p. 148.

(4) Levy, p. 324.

(5) Benitez, p. 148.

(6)Rodney Carlisle, Scientific American Inventions and Discoveries: All the Milestones in Ingenuity—From the Discovery of Fire to the Invention of the Microwave Oven (Hoboken, 2004), pgs. 139-140.

(7) Benitez, p. 153.

(8) Benitez, pgs. 148-149.

(9) Latin for "of its own kind, and describes the encomienda system as a form of legal protection outside the typical legal protections.

(10) Benitez, p. 149.

(11) Levy, p. 25.

(12) Benitez, p. 52.

(13) Benitez, p. 53.

(14) Levy, p. 330.

(15) Farah Mohammed, “Who Was La Malinche,” JSTOR Daily, March 1, 2019; accessed July 27, 2020;

(16) Levy, p. 330.

Key References 


1. Hernándo Cortés:  Five Letters, 1519-1526, translated by J. Bayard Morris, 1928.

2. The True History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz del Castillo, 1632.

3. The History of the Conquest of Mexico by William Hickling Prescott, 1843.


4. The Century After Cortés by Fernando Benitez, translated by Joan MacLean, 1965.

5. Conquistador: Hernan Cortés, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs by Buddy Levy, 2009.

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