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Central Mexico’s Legacy

Each part of the Mexican Republic has a unique and fascinating history, but a great deal attention has been given to the Indian groups that inhabited central México, in particular the present-day Distrito Federal (Federal District), known more commonly as Mexico City. Nearly 500 years ago, Hernán Cortés marched his small army of Spaniards and indigenous allies inland from Veracruz to confront the might of Emperor Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán. And, as a result, a patchwork of native kingdoms became the colonial fiefdom of a European monarch (the King of Spain).

The Distrito Federal

The Distrito Federal is located in the south central portion of México. It shares borders with the states of México (on the west, east and north) and Morelos (on the south). The District occupies 1,495 square kilometers, which is equal to 0.08% of the national territory. It is the smallest entity of the Mexican Republic, behind the 31 Mexican state. The 2010 population of Distrito Federal was 8,918,653, which is 7.5% of the total Mexican national population. Politically, the District has no municipios, but is divided into sixteen political districts (delegaciones).

Mexico City Becomes a State (2016)

As a territory, D.F. lacked the political rights of other Mexican states. However, in 2016, the Distrito Federal officially changed its name to Mexico City State (CDMX) and its sixteen delegaciones became known as “demarcaciones.” Thus, in 2016, Mexico City became the 32nd state of Mexico’s federation.

Mexico’s federal constitution was reformed in January of 2016 to allow for the emergence of Mexico City State (CDMX), an entity with its own congress, constitution, local governments, and fiscal rules. This was a fundamental change for investors and traders because it implied that the country’s most important city, the one that received 30% of all foreign investment (as of 2015) and produced about 21% of all Mexico’s gross total product (as of 2013), was changing its rules of operations. Now local authorities have much more autonomy from the federal government.

The Neovolcanic Axis

The entire surface of Mexico City is part of the Eje Neovolcánico (Neovolcanic Axis) physiographic province. The relief of the Federal District is mostly flat with some elevations in the southern part of the entity. The average height of Mexico City is 2,300 meters above sea level, the highest point being Cerro El Ajusco with 3,930 meters above sea level and the lowest in the northern region of the entity at 2,240 meters above sea level.

The Neovolcanic Axis — also known as the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt — is a volcanic belt that crosses central Mexico from Colima and Jalisco in the west to central Veracruz in the east. Several of its highest peaks have snow all year long.

The Valley of México

Today – as in the past – México City, the Federal District, and the State of México represent both the economic, cultural and political center of the Mexican Republic. The Valley of México, which became the heartland of the Aztec civilization, is a large internally drained basin that is surrounded by towering mountain ranges, including the Popocatépetl (Smoking Mountain) and Ixtaccíhuatl (Mountain of White Woman) volcanoes.

According to the following map, the Valley of Mexico (Valle de México) — shaded in red — takes up the Federal District and the eastern part of the State of México [Luan, “Mapa de Localização da Megalópole do México” (May 7, 2018)].

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The preceding map also shows some of the surrounding urban areas that were occupied by Náhuatl-speaking people who lived outside of the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán, in areas that became parts of the Mexican states of Mexico, Morelos, Tlaxcala and Puebla.

México City itself was built on built on the ruins of Tenochtitlán, which was the capital of the Aztec Empire. Over the millennia the Valley of México’s inhabitants have included the ancient Aztec (Mexica), Toltec and Chichimeca tribes, cultures which left a wealth of relics and ruins in the area that continue to attract and amaze tourists.

The growth of the Mexica Indians from newcomers and outcasts in the Valley of México to the guardians of the extensive Aztec empire is the stuff that legends are made of. The Mexica Indians, the dominant ethnic group ruling over the Aztec Empire, had very obscure and humble roots that made their rise to power even more remarkable.

Indigenous Terminology in the Valley

Several terms have been used to designate the various indigenous groups that lived in the Valley of México. The popular term, Aztec, has been used as an all-inclusive term to describe both the people and the empire. The noted anthropologist, Professor Michael E. Smith of the University of New York, uses the term Aztec Empire to describe “the empire of the Triple Alliance, in which Tenochtitlán played the dominant role.”

Quoting the author Charles Gibson, Professor Smith observes that the Aztecs “were the inhabitants of the Valley of México at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Most of these were Náhuatl speakers belonging to diverse polities and ethnic groups (e.g., Mexica of Tenochtitlán, Acolhua of Texcoco, and Chalca of Chalco).” In short, the reader should recognize that the Aztec Indians were not one ethnic group, but a collection of many ethnicities, all sharing a common cultural and historical background.

On the other hand, the Mexica, according to Professor Smith, were “the inhabitants of the cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco who occupied adjacent islands and claimed the same heritage.” And it is the Mexica who eventually became the dominant people within the Aztec Empire. Legend states that the Mexica Indians originally came to the Valley of México from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Aztlán-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is believed to have been derived from the ancestral homeland, Aztlán (The Place of Herons).

Where was Aztlán?

According to legend, in A.D. 1111, the Mexica left their native Aztlán to settle in Chicomoztoc (Seven Caves). According to legend, they had offended their patron god Huitzilopochtli by cutting down a forbidden tree. As a result, the Mexica were condemned to leave Aztlán and forced to wander until they received a sign from their gods, directing them to settle down permanently. The land of Aztlán was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake. Some historians actually consider the names “Chicomoztoc” and “Aztlán” to be two terms for the same place, and believe that the island and the seven caves are simply two features of the same region.

For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlán. Some people refer to Aztlán as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed. Some historians, however, believe that Aztlán did exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlán lay along a tributary of the Lerna River, to the west of the Valley of México. Other experts have suggested the Aztlán might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, in Michoacán (some 160 miles west of Mexico City), with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlán.

Some people have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Sinaloa and Nayarit. All of the latter-named locations are home to indigenous groups who belong to the Uto-Aztecan linguistic groups, and thus have some distant connection to the Aztecs.

The North-to-South Movement

The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California, and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlán is a very plausible explanation when historical linguistics are considered. “The north-to-south movement of the Aztlán groups is supported by research in historical linguistics,” writes the anthropologist, Professor Michael Smith of the University of New York, in The Aztecs, “The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages.” As a matter of fact, “Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion” into central Mexico.

On the other hand, if one observes the locations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans — occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico — included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there is most likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is very possible that the legendary Aztlán or another ancestral home of the Aztecs – was located in the Southwestern United States.

The Aztlán Migrations

Professor Smith believes that the north-to-south movement of the Aztlán groups into the Valley of México is supported by research in historical linguistics. The Aztecs’ Náhuatl language — within the Uto-Aztecan family of languages — is unrelated to other Central Mexican native languages and was a “relatively recent intrusion” into central México.

But the Aztlán migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, “when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlán and Chicomoztoc.”It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. “Led by priests,” continues Professor Smith, “the migrants… stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals.” The primary seven Náhuatl-speaking tribes comprised the following:

  1. The Xochimilca — The Xochimilca were the first Náhuatl tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, settling around 900 A.D. in Cuahilama, near what is now Santa Cruz Acalpixca (in Mexico City). They were eventually subdued by the Mexica and became part of the Aztec Empire.
  2. The Chalca of Chalco — The Chalca were the second tribe to arrive in the Valley. They established themselves east of the Xochimilca about 25 km (16 miles) east of Tenochtitlán. Chalco was conquered by the Aztecs around 1465.
  3. The Tepaneca — The Tepanecs or Tepaneca were the third tribe to arrive in the Valley of Mexico in the late 12th or early 13th centuries. They settled in Azcapotzalco on the northwest shore of Lake Texcoco. In 1428, Tepaneca became part of the Aztec Empire.
  4. The Acolhua of Texcoco — The fourth tribe to arrive in the area, the Acolhua, settled on the northeastern shore of the Lake Texcoco. They occupied most of the eastern Basin of the Valley of Mexico, with their capital in Texcoco. Today, Texcoco is a city and municipio located in the State of Mexico, about 25 km (15 miles) northeast of Mexico City.
  5. The Tlahuica — The Tlahuica were the fifth Náhuatl people to arrive in central Mexico. They were organized into about 50 small city states located in what is now the state of Morelos; their largest cities were Cuauhnahuac (modern Cuernavaca), about 85 km (53 miles) south of Mexico City, and Huaxtepec (modern Oaxtepec), about 60 km (37 miles) south of Mexico City. The Tlahuica eventually became part of the Aztec Empire.
  6. The Tlaxcaltecans (Tlaxcalans) — The Tlaxcalans settled to the east of the Valley of Mexico. Their major city, Tlaxcala, is 125 km (78 miles) to the east of Mexico City today. The Tlaxcalans opposed the Aztec Empire and their nation evolved into an independent enclave deep in the heart of the Aztec Empire. By 1519, Tlaxcala was a small, densely populated confederation of 200 settlements with a population of about 150,000, surrounded on all sides by the Aztec Empire.
  7. The Mexica — The Mexica, according to Professor Smith, were “the inhabitants of the cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco.” They were the last of the Náhuatl-speaking groups to arrive in the Valley of Mexico and they eventually became the masters of the Aztec Empire.

The last group to arrive in the Valley of Mexico, around A.D. 1248, were the Mexica who found all the good land occupied and were forced to settle in more undesirable locations of the Valley.

Regional Political Confederations

When the Mexica first arrived in the Valley, the whole region was occupied by some forty city-states. These city-states – which included the Tepanecs, Coatlinchans, Cholcos, Xochimilcos, Cholulas, Tlaxcalans and Huejotzingas – were engaged in a constant and continuing battle for ascendancy in the Valley. In describing this political situation, Professor Smith observed that “ethnically similar and/or geographically close city-states allied to form regional political confederations.” By 1300, eight confederations of various sizes occupied the entire Valley of the México and adjacent areas.

The Mexica Find a Home

As the late arrivals in the Valley of México, the Mexica were hard-pressed to find a home, which they could call their own. Sometime around 1325, the Mexica wandered onto a small island, where they saw a cactus growing out of a rock with an eagle perched atop the cactus, fulfilling a promised omen. The Mexica high priests thereupon proclaimed that they had reached their promised land. As it turns out, the site turned out to be a strategic location, with abundant food supplies and waterways for transportation.

The Mexica settled down to build their new home, Tenochtitlán (Place of the Cactus Fruit). They became highly efficient in their ability to develop a system of dikes and canals to control the water levels and salinity of the lakes. Using canoes and boats, they were able to carry on commerce with other cities along the valley lakes. And, comments Professor Smith, “the limited access to the city provided protection against military attack.”

The Triple Alliance

Sometime around 1428, the Mexica monarch, Itzcoatl, formed a triple alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan (now Tacuba) as a means of confronting the then-dominant Tepanecs of the city-state of Azcapotzalco. Soon after, the combined force of the Triple Alliance was able to defeat Azcapotzalco. Professor Smith writes that “the three Triple Alliance states were originally conceived as equivalent powers, with the spoils of joint conquests to be divided evenly among them.” However, over time the Mexica in Tenochtitlán grew to dominate its two partners, Texcoco and Tlacopan.

The map below shows the location of the Aztec Empire and its three major cities (The Triple Alliance: Tenochtitlan, Texcoco and Tlacopan) in 1521 at the time of the Spanish arrival. Note the close proximity to the Triple Alliance cities to the Tlaxcalteques (Tlaxcaltecans), their major rivals in Tlaxcala [Source: Comandante, Wikipedia U. E. “Aztec Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia. Online: (Last modified February 26, 2014)].

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The preceding map shows Tlaxcala as one of three independent enclaves that were surrounded by the Aztec Empire in 1519. As a matter of fact, the Tlaxcalans lived only seventy miles east of the Mexica and were in an almost perpetual state of war with their Náhuatl neighbors.

Levying Tribute on Subjects

In time the conquests of the Triple Alliance began to take the shape of an empire, with the Triple Alliance levying tribute upon their subject towns. Professor Smith, quoting the words of the anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams, writes that “A defining activity of empires is that they are preoccupied with channeling resources from diverse subject polities and peoples to an ethnically defined ruling stratum.”

With each conquest, the Aztec domain became more and more ethnically diverse, eventually controlling thirty-eight provinces. The Aztec tributary provinces, according to Professor Frances F. Berdan, were “scattered throughout central and southern México, in highly diverse environmental and cultural settings.” Professor Berdan points out that “these provinces provided the imperial powers with a regular and predictable flow of tribute goods.”

The Forms of Tribute

Of utmost importance became the tribute that made its way back to Tenochtitlán from the various city-states and provinces. Such tribute may have taken many forms, including textiles, warriors’ costumes, foodstuffs, maize, beans, chilies, cacao, bee honey, salt and human beings (for sacrificial rituals). Aztec society was highly structured, based on agriculture, and guided by a religion that pervaded every aspect of life. The Aztecs worshipped gods that represented natural forces that were vital to their agricultural economy.

Human Sacrifice

For hundreds of years, human sacrifice is believed to have played an important role of many of the indigenous tribes inhabiting the Valley of México. However, the Mexica brought human sacrifice to levels that had never been practiced before. The Mexica Indians and their neighbors had developed a belief that it was necessary to constantly appease the gods through human sacrifice. By spilling the blood of human beings onto the ground, the high priests were, in a sense, paying their debt to the gods. If the blood would flow, then the sun would rise each morning, the crops would grow, the gods would provide favorable weather for good crops, and life would continue.

Over time, the Mexica, in particular, developed a feeling that the needs of their gods were insatiable. The period from 1446 to 1453 was a period of devastating natural disasters: locusts, drought, floods, early frosts, starvation, etc. The Mexica, during this period, resorted to massive human sacrifice in an attempt to remedy these problems. When abundant rain and a healthy crop followed in 1455, the Mexica believed that their efforts had been successful. In 1487, according to legend, Aztec priests sacrificed more than 80,000 prisoners of war at the dedication of the reconstructed temple of the sun god in Tenochtitlán.

The Aztec Empire in the 1500s

By the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the Aztec Empire had become a formidable power, its southern reaches extending into the present-day Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. The Mexica had also moved the boundaries of the Aztec Empire to a large stretch of the Gulf Coast on the eastern side of the continent. But, as Professor Smith states, “rebellions were a common occurrence in the Aztec empire because of the indirect nature of imperial rule.” The Aztecs had allowed local rulers to stay in place “as long as they cooperated with the Triple Alliance and paid their tribute.” When a provincial monarch decided to withhold tribute payments from the Triple Alliance, the Aztec forces would respond by dispatching an army to threaten that king.

Moctezuma II Xocoyotl

In 1502, Moctezuma II Xocoyotl (the Younger) ascended to the throne of Tenochtitlán as the newly elected tlatoani. It was about this time when the Mexica of Tenochtitlán began to suffer various disasters. While tribute peoples in several parts of the empire started to rebel against Aztecs, troubling omens took place, which led the Mexica to believe that their days were numbered. Seventeen years after Moctezuma’s rise to power, the Aztec Empire would be faced with its greatest challenge and a huge coalition of indigenous and alien forces, which would bring an end to the Triple Alliance.

The Aztec Empire of 1519 The Aztec Empire of 1519 was one of the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdoms of all time. By this time, the island city of Tenochtitlán had become a city of about 300,000 citizens. And the Aztec Empire itself ruled over about 80,000 square miles of territory extending from the Gulf of México to the Pacific Ocean, and southward to Oaxaca. This empire contained some 15 million people, living in thirty-eight provinces. In all, the Emperor received the tribute of 489 communities. The following map reveals the provincial details of the Aztec Empire in 1519 at the time of the Spanish arrival in green. Surrounding indigenous nations are also shown, colored in orange. [Giggette, “Territorial Organization of the Aztec Empire: 1519” (November 4, 2015)].

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A Story of Logistics and Strategy

The conquest of the Aztec Empire, taking place from 1519 to 1521, is a story that has intrigued millions of people over the years.  At the climax of this campaign, Moctezuma, the highly respected leader of the mighty Aztec Empire, came face-to-face with Hernán Cortés, the leader of a small band of professional European soldiers from a faraway land (Spain).  Against insurmountable odds, Cortés triumphed over the great empire.  As a master of observation, manipulation and strategy, he was able to gradually weave an army of indigenous resistance against the Aztecs, while professing his good intentions toward Moctezuma. The conquest of the Aztec Empire is a story of logistics and strategy. 

The Spaniards Land on Mexico’s Gulf Coast (April 1519)

On April 22, 1519, a fleet of eleven Spanish galleons, which had been sailing northward along the eastern Gulf Coast of Mexico, dropped anchor just off the wind-swept beach on the island of San Juan de Ulúa.  Under the command of a Spanish adventurer named Hernán Cortés, these vessels bore 450 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses.  These horses would be the first horses to walk upon the North American continent.  The horse, which eventually became an important element of Indian life, was unknown to the North American Indians who engaged in warfare and hunting without the benefit of this mammal’s help.

As the Spaniards disembarked to set up camp on the dunes behind the beach, they received a friendly reception from the native Totonac Indians, who inhabited this area.  Cortés explained that he wanted to travel inland to meet with Moctezuma, “the Lord of Culhua.”  By this time, Indian runners reaching the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, some 250 miles to the west in the heart of the continent, reported the arrival of the fair-skinned, bearded strangers and their fearsome “man-beasts” (cavalry).

Alliance with Cempoala (June 1519)

On June 7, 1519, Cortés led his forces northward to the coastal town Cempoala.  As they approached the town, the Totonac Indians started bringing the Spaniards food and gifts.  Cortés had heard that the cacique (chief) of the Totonacs, Tlacochcalcatl, who reigned over this area, was an enemy of the Emperor Moctezuma.  But the chief was very obese and not able to move around freely.  For this reason, he could not come to greet the Spanish force in person.

The coastal city-state of Cempoala, presently under Aztec domination, was made up of some fifty towns.  The town of Cempoala itself contained some 14,000 inhabitants.  The townspeople gave the Spanish soldiers a very warm reception and Cacique Tlacochcalcatl met with Cortés.  The chief of the Totonacs, writes Dr. Marrin, complained that the Aztec “tribute collectors were picking the country clean… like hungry coyotes.”  And each year, the Totonacs were forced to send hundreds of children to the altars of Tenochtitlán for sacrifice.  For this tribute, the hatred of the Totonacs for the Mexica ran deep.  For this reason, Tlacochcalcatl forged an alliance with Cortés.

The Spaniards helped the Totonacs to expel Moctezuma’s tribute-collectors who apparently fled to a Mexica garrison at Tizapancingo, about twenty miles to the southwest. With a full force of Spaniards, 16 horses, and Totonacs, Cortés seized control of the town. The seizure of this town had a profound effect on both the Spaniards and Totonacs. “The speed of this victory greatly impressed the Totonacs and naturally had the effect of extending their rebellion,” writes Professor Hugo Thomas in Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old Mexico, “It also made Cortés even more self-confident; for it suggested to him and to his captains that the Mexica, despite their fame, had no special military qualities, no secret weapons, and little discipline.”

The Establishment of Veracruz (June 28, 1519)

The Cempoalans helped Cortés and his men establish a base on the shore.  On June 28, 1519, Cortés formally gave this town the name La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross).  At this point, Cortés decided to lead his troops westward into the interior of the continent to find and meet with Moctezuma.  Cacique Tlacochcalcatl warned Cortés that, on his journey inland, he would confront the people of Tlaxcala and Huejotzingo, two provinces that hated the Mexica equally.  With the help of Totonac guides, Cortés planned his march through territory that might represent fertile ground for more alliances.

The March Inland (August 1519)

On August 8, Cortés assembled his army for the expedition inland.  He had a force of 300 Spanish soldiers, 150 Cuban Indian servants, 800 Cempoalans and other Totonacs led by a chief named Mamexi.  They also had 15 horses, reserved exclusively for the captains of the army.  The Spanish army was thus beefed up with more than a thousand native warriors plus 200 porters. With a small party of soldiers and sailors left to hold the fort at Vera Cruz, Cortés commenced the hazardous journey towards the Aztec capital.

Just as they approached the next town, Jalapa, word arrived from the coast that four Spanish ships under the command of Alonso Alvarez de Pineda had arrived at the coast.  With a force of one hundred men, Cortés quickly returned to the coast to meet the new arrivals.  Although the ships did not arrive with good intent toward Cortés, he had them arrested and then persuaded them to join his army.  Cortés then set off to join and reassemble his army.

Finally, on August 16, 1519, as his expedition prepared to move inland from Cempoala, Hernán Cortés mustered an army of 400 Spanish soldiers, 15 horses, 1,300 Indian warriors, seven pieces of artillery, and a thousand tamanes (porters), who helped transport baggage and guns across the land. About 150 of the porters were Cuban Indian servants who were brought along from Cuba.  The force brought along many dogs that had been well-trained to fight.  The distance from Cempoala to Tenochtitlán is 250 miles, as the crow flies.  A fairly large force of 150 Spanish soldiers and sailors and two horses under the command Juan de Escalante stayed at the garrison at Villa Rica de Vera Cruz. Roughly 100 soldiers remained in Villa Rica under the command of Gonzalo Sandoval.

On the road ahead, the allied force faced many obstacles.  Shortly after reaching Jalapa, a short distance inland from Cempoala, the altitude of the land rose sharply to 6,000 feet, transforming the climate from tropical to temperate.  As they advanced inland, they moved through territory that was firmly in the control of the Mexica.  On August 24, the Spanish force arrived in Zautla, where a Mexican garrison was stationed. The chief of the Zautla, Olintecle, met with Cortés and warmly embraced him. Olintecle was a subject of the Mexica and may have been given orders by Moctezuma to give food and lodging to the Spanish force.

Moving Toward the Tlaxcalan Nation

After staying in Zautla for about a week, Cortés prepared to move on.  He sent four Cempoalan chiefs ahead to Tlaxcala with instructions to inform them of his approach, hoping for a peaceful reception.  The next stop for the Castilians was Iztaquimaxtitlan, a mountain town occupied by a Mexica garrison. Several families lived in this town and once again, on Moctezuma’s insistence, the strangers were well received and given gifts and lodging. 

On their journey out of Iztaquimaxtitlan, the Spaniards came across a large gate, atop which lay a battlement a foot and a half high.  This wall, some twenty paces wide and nine feet high, ran for several miles across the valley from one mountaintop to another.  This barrier had represented a border which the people of Iztaquimaxtitlan had built to protect themselves from the fierce Tlaxcalan Indians nearby.

The Tlaxcalan Enclave

Finally, Cortés army reached the Tlaxcalan republic, which was independent enclave deep in the heart of the Mexica Empire that had managed to resist Aztec control. Tlaxcala was a small, densely populated province.  In 1519, the population was about 150,000.  Tlaxcala was actually “confederation of four republics,” ruling over some 200 settlements.

Surrounded on all sides and blockaded by the Aztecs, they had never yielded to them.  By the time that Cortez arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the Tlaxcalan Indians had been subjected to continuous warfare and human sacrifice for many decades.  Because of their economic isolation, the Tlaxcalans had no cotton with which to make their clothes. Neither did they have any salt.  The salt lakes of Alchichica, not far from Tlaxcala, lay close by but they could not benefit from this.  No feathers or precious stones made their way into Tlaxcala.

A Perpetual State of War

Some historians believe that Tenochtitlán could have overwhelmed Tlaxcala without too much difficulty, and the reason it did not is probably that the Aztecs wanted a nearby source of victims for the human sacrifices. Therefore the Aztecs maintained an almost perpetual state of war with Tlaxcala, but never actually conquered it. Also, the Aztecs seem to have regarded the frequent battles as a convenient way of testing and training the young Mexica warriors.

This state of perpetual war was very hateful to the Tlaxcalans and by the time that Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala, the confederation represented fertile grounds for an anti-Mexica alliance.  However, the Tlaxcalans, very suspicious of the strangers, were in no mood to accommodate the Spaniards and their Indian allies.

Skirmish with the Tlaxcalans

After a brief skirmish along the Tlaxcalan frontier, the Spaniards were guaranteed passage through the Tlaxcalan Republic.  However, on August 31, at a point ten miles into Tlaxcalan territory, Cortés’ army encountered a hostile force of at least 30,000 Tlaxcalans.  Despite the tremendous size of the army, the Spaniards managed to fend them off. Unlike other Indians, the Tlaxcalans seemed to have no fear of the horses and killed two of them.  That night, the Spaniards, exhausted from their battle, rested in the open, some twenty miles from the capital city of Tlaxcala.

In the next battle, Cortés claimed that he faced a Tlaxcalan army of 149,000 warriors.  In this battle, some sixty Spaniards and several horses were wounded by the enemy.  But, on the following day, Cortés led a punitive expedition, burning some ten Tlaxcalan towns (with a total population of over 3,000).  Many Indians were killed in this campaign.  After a third day of battles, the Spaniards had lost 45 men who died in battle, died of wounds or succumbed to disease.

On September 5, the Spaniards and their Totonac allies were ambushed by an army of 50,000 Tlaxcalan warriors.  The Tlaxcalan king, Xicotenga, and his council had hoped that this attack would rid them of the invaders.  However, with their advanced technology and tactical advantages, the Spaniards were able to turn the tide against the Tlaxcalans and defeat them.  Subsequent battles fought during September also ended in Spanish victory.

The Tlaxcalans Welcome the Spaniards (September 1519)

Watching the Spaniards prove themselves in battle, King Xicotenga was very impressed and decided to allow Cortés’ army to pass through the confederation.  As the Spaniards approached the Tlaxcalan capital on September 18, the Spanish soldiers were welcomed into the town as if they were heroes. For twenty days, Cortés and his army stayed in Tlaxcala.  As his men recovered from their wounds, Cortés forged a relationship with Xicotenga and other Tlaxcalan leaders.  He found that he was now over halfway from the Gulf of Mexico to Tenochtitlán. 

Almost immediately, Xicotenga saw in Cortés a powerful ally who could help the Tlaxcalans destroy the Mexica.  Cortés, for his part, told Xicotenga that he was opposed only to the Aztec Empire and that there would be a place for Tlaxcala in Spanish-dominated Mexico. Within a very short time, the Tlaxcalans would become the most loyal native allies of the Spaniards.  Their allegiance with the Europeans would be an enduring partnership, lasting several centuries. 

The Tlaxcalans were able to provide the Cortés with valuable information about the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán.  Tlaxcalans who had visited the great city in the past were able to draw pictures of the city’s layout, as well as its bridges, causeways and canals.  Soon the Spaniards would have a good idea of the layout of the capital and of the fighting style of the Aztec warriors.

Moving on Cholula (October 1519)

On October 23, 1519, Cortés and his army of European mercenaries and indigenous warriors left the Tlaxcalan capital.  A thousand Tlaxcalan warriors had been added to the ranks of Cortés force.  While Indian laborers carried the cannon and baggage in the center of the formation, Tlaxcalan warriors and Spanish horsemen marched along the flanks and with the rear guard.  Although Xicotenga had offered him many more warriors, Cortés did not want a large force of Tlaxcalans that might frighten or enrage the Mexica.

As Cortés traveled westward through mountain towns and villages, many of the Indians living along this path told him of their cruel treatment at the hands of the Aztec overlords.  Through these meetings, Cortés began to understand the depth of this hatred and fear.  He also recognized that many of these people would be potential allies in a showdown with the Mexica.

Cholula, twenty-five miles east of Tlaxcala, was a city of almost 60,000 houses and 430 temples and pyramids.  If necessary, the Cholulans could muster together some 25,000 men for war out of a possible total population of 180,000.  Xicotenga had warned Cortés that the Cholulans were mere pawns of Moctezuma and the Aztec hierarchy and advised against marching through their territory.  But Cortés decided that to advance in this direction regardless of Xicotenga’s admonition. 

As the army approached the Cholulan capital, they were greeted by the caciques and given a place to stay.  Although the Spanish and indigenous accounts differ on what happened, all agree that a great massacre followed.  Through his interpreter, Doña Marina, Cortés had apparently learned of a Cholulan conspiracy sponsored by Moctezuma to ambush and slaughter the Spaniards.  Expecting an ambush, Cortés launched a preemptive strike on the Cholulans after having called a meeting of the Cholulan nobles in the courtyard of the temple of Quetzalcóatl.  After a confrontation with the Cholulans about their intentions towards the Spanish, Cortés issued an order for the lords to be killed.  Quickly and with little mercy, the assembly turned into a full-scale massacre of 3,000 Cholulan noblemen and warriors.  In the meantime, Tlaxcalans and Totonacs sacked the town.

Quickly, the Cholulan army launched a counterattack against the Spanish forces.  After two hours of battle, both sides agreed to end the fighting.  The Cholulans then returned to their homes, while Cortés’ army marched to the east.

The March on Tenochtitlán Resumes

On November 1, 1519, Cortés assembled his army for the resumption of the march to Tenochtitlán.  At this time, his Totonac allies from Cempoala had to return home. However, a thousand Tlaxcalans remained in the ranks of his army and they moved on to higher altitudes.  On November 2, Cortés forces moved through a mountain pass that lay 13,000 feet above sea level.  From this path, the Spaniards could see the smoking volcano Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, which reach 17,887 feet and 17,000 feet, respectively. 

From the mountain pass, the Spaniards witnessed for the first time the great splendor of Tenochtitlán as it spread out on the valley floor.  Before long, the mountain pass, with the great Valley of Mexico in full view, descended to lower altitudes, eventually bringing Cortés and his forces to an altitude of 7,400 above sea level along the valley floor.  As they made their way to Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards met with another tribe of Mesoamericans.  The King of Texcoco welcomed the Spaniards into his own and provided his guests with gifts, food, and assistance.  Soon after hearing about the Christian religion, many Texcocans, including the king, decided to convert to Catholicism.  Before continuing on to the capital, the Spaniards performed several religious services, baptizing the king and other Texcocan nobles.

Moctezuma Welcomes the Spaniards (November 1519)

On the road to the capital, the army passed through hamlets where they were offered generous bribes from Moctezuma’s emissaries to turn back. When Cortés failed to accept the bribes, Moctezuma sent his nephew to welcome four hundred Spaniards and their entourage of 7,000 Tlaxcalan warriors to Tenochtitlán.  Finally, on November 8, 1519, the army reached Xoloco, just outside of Tenochtitlán, where they were greeted by hundreds of emissaries of Moctezuma.  As they were brought into the city, the Spaniards stared in awe at the architectural precision of the city.  Filing across the southern causeway of the capital, Cortés and his men were greeted with much ceremony by a retinue of lords and nobles headed by Moctezuma himself.

The Spaniards were housed in the ancient palace of Atzayacatl, the emperor’s father. The wary Moctezuma made great efforts to play the perfect host, showing his unwanted guests around the city and entertaining them with splendid banquets.  Some researchers believe that the Aztecs may have thought that the Spaniards were gods or godlike creatures.  They also noticed heard about the devastation that took place when the Spaniards won a battle. In any event, they were at least curious to see these strangers who had marched so many miles and fought so many battles against various indigenous groups along the way.

In War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, the author Ross Hassig points out that “the Spaniards did not present themselves as a hostile force.”  In fact, the arrival of the Spaniards and their indigenous allies coincided with the harvest when Aztec soldiers were unavailable and unprepared for war.

Moctezuma Becomes a Prisoner

After several days of negotiations and touring, Cortés and his officers took Moctezuma as a hostage.  Bringing the King to his barracks, Cortés persuaded him to dispatch messengers to the surrounding communities to collect gold and silver, part of which was sent to the Spanish monarch in the name of Moctezuma and part of which was divided among Cortés’ troops. Moctezuma’s imprisonment continued for eight months.

The Arrival and Defeat of Panfilo de Narvaez

Then, on April 19, 1520, more ships appeared off the coast of Mexico. The governor of Cuba had sent soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to arrest Captain-General Cortés for insubordination. Leaving Captain Pedro de Alvarado in charge of his troops, Cortés quickly departed from Tenochtitlán with 266 Spanish soldiers to confront the newly-arrived Spanish force on the Gulf Coast.  Although Narvaez’s troops numbered three times greater, Cortés and his small army defeated Narvaez in a battle near Veracruz.  After this battle, most of Narvaez’s troops joined Cortés who promised them a share of the spoils when Tenochtitlán was brought under Spanish control.

When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán, he found out that Pedro de Alvarado had provoked an open revolt by massacring 600 Aztec nobles during the Feast of Huitzilopochtli. Fighting quickly broke out in full force the day after Cortés returned, and the sheer numbers of the Aztec army overwhelmed the Captain-General’s army, which numbered only 1,250 Spaniards and 8,000 Mexican warriors. His army was forced to retreat back into the barracks but set hundreds of homes on fire before doing so.

The Death of Moctezuma

As the Indians besieged the palace, Cortés ordered Moctezuma to tell his subjects to disperse. Not only did they refuse but the shower of stones they directed against their captive emperor caused injuries that resulted in his death. The hail of stones began when a nobleman defiantly brandished a javelin at Moctezuma.

Moctezuma was succeeded as emperor by Cuitlahuac. Moctezuma had been intimidated by Cortés because he believed the Spaniards were representatives of the bearded, fair- skinned god Quetzalcóatl. Cuitlahuac never believed the legend and set out to organize a determined resistance to the Spanish forces. Though he only ruled four months before succumbing to smallpox, Cuitlahuac drove Cortés’s men out of Tenochtitlan during the famous La Noche Triste (“The Sad Night”) of July 1, 1520, depending on which historian you read.

La Noche Triste (The Sad Night)

Cortés and his men were besieged in Tenochtitlán, and on July 1, 1520, Cortés attempted to break out of the city and cross the lake to the mainland by marching down one of the causeways.  As the force left the palace at midnight, Cortés had some 1,250 Spanish soldiers and at least 5,000 Tlaxcalan warriors.  They had fifty hostages, including Aztec nobles and two of Moctezuma’s daughters.

While he was crossing the bridge leaving the city, the Aztecs fell upon the army and inflicted heavy damage. In the disorder, Spanish soldiers who had been too greedy and filled their pockets with gold were pushed into Lake Texcoco and drowned. The army managed to attain a place of relative safety on a hill past the nearby town of Tlacopan but not without losing about 450 Spanish and 2,000 Mexican soldiers from their ranks.

Plagued by hunger, disease, and the pursuing Aztecs, Cortes’s army fled to Tlaxcala to obtain reinforcements. On the 8th of July, the army came upon a legion of nearly 200,000 Aztecs sent by Cuitlahuac, Moctezuma’s brother and successor. There, at the battle of Otumba, the Spanish managed a smashing victory that dissuaded the Aztecs from pursuing the Spaniards and their allies any farther. In Tlaxcala, Cortes gained great power over the council and began to form a huge new army to attack Tenochtitlan once again.

According to the Spanish soldier Bernal Díaz del Castillo, by the end of the battle, 850 Spaniards and 4,000 Tlaxcalans were lost in the battle.  Only twenty-four of the 95 horses survived the exodus.  All the cannon and nearly all the muskets and crossbows had been lost.  None of the Aztec prisoners survived.  Even with the many reinforcements that Cortés had brought from the coast, this left only 420 Spanish men and 17 horses.  All the survivors, including Cortés, were wounded, and very few firearms or ammunition were left. 

Seeking Refuge in Tlaxcala

As the battered army of Cortés approached Tlaxcala, they were greeted by their Indian allies and given refuge. “Reviewing their narrow escape,” writes Michael C. Meyer, “many of the Spanish veterans wanted nothing more to do with the Aztecs.  It required all of Cortés’s force of personality and subtle blandishments to prevent mass defections and rebellion among his men.  Cortés, who seems never to have wavered in his determination to retake Tenochtitlán, began to lay plans for the return.”

It goes without saying that the Spaniards would not have survived their ordeal without the help of their Tlaxcalan allies.  The Tlaxcalan chiefs called on Cortés during this dismal time and laid out their conditions for further assistance.  The Tlaxcalans requested “perpetual exemption from tribute of any sort, a share of the spoils, and control of two provinces that bordered their land.” Cortés agreed to these conditions and, as the author Richard Lee Marks wrote, “Spain substantially kept its promise” to the Tlaxcalans “and exempted them from tribute for the entire period of the Spanish rule in Mexico, nearly three hundred years.”

An Unexpected Ally: Smallpox

The Spaniards, however, also received more important support from another, unexpected ally.  “While the Spaniards rested and recuperated” in Tlaxcala, wrote Richard Lee Marks, “it occurred to Cortés and his men to wonder why the great armies from Tenochtitlán were not pursuing them.”  The Aztecs had not attacked or laid siege to Tlaxcala, giving the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans precious time to heal and recover from their catastrophic defeat. Later, Cortés would learn that an epidemic of smallpox had devastated Tenochtitlán

While the Spaniards were in Tlaxcala, a great plague broke out here in Tenochtitlán. It began to spread during the thirteenth month and lasted for seventy days, striking everywhere in the city and killing a vast number of our people. Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies; we were covered with agonizing sores from head to foot.

At the same time in the Aztec capital, a smallpox epidemic killed Cuitlahuac and immobilized much of the population. To replace the king, the caciques of Tenochtitlán chose Cuauhtémoc, a nephew of Moctezuma and a brilliant military leader who fiercely believed that his Aztec army, with the help of Huitzilopochtli, could defeat the invaders. Cuauhtemoc’s name translates as “falling eagle” or alternately “setting sun.”

Allegedly brought to the shores of Mexico by an African sailor, “the disease had spread with amazing rapidity through the coastal tribes and up into the highland.” The disease spread quickly among the Indians, according to Marks, because they “were in the habit of bathing to alleviate almost any ailment that afflicted them.  These baths were either communal or the same bathing water was used consecutively by many.  But after someone with an open smallpox sore entered the bath, the disease was transmitted to everyone who followed.”  The Spaniards, however, rarely bathed.  Although they occasionally washed off the dirt and blood when they had to, “they believed that bathing per se was weakening.” And the Tlaxcalans, “always in a state of semi-siege,” were not yet exposed to the smallpox.   

The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs or even their heads. They could not lie face down or roll from one side to the other. If they did move their bodies, they screamed with pain. A great many died from this plague, and many others died of hunger. They could not get up to search for food, and their loved ones were too sick to care for them, so they starved to death in their beds.

Some people came down with a milder form of the disease; they suffered less than the others and made a good recovery. But they could not escape entirely. Their looks were ravaged, for wherever a sore broke out, it gouged an ugly pockmark in the skin. And a few of the survivors were left completely blind.

The Spaniards Begin Their March (December 1520)

The Captain-General’s army left Tlaxcala on December 26, 1520 on its march to the Aztec capital.  By this time, Cortés’ army had been completely rebuilt with an additional Spanish reinforcements from Vera Cruz and 50,000 Tlaxcalans. With his new army of 600 Spanish soldiers and between 110,000 and 150,000 indigenous warriors, Cortés intended to occupy the city of Texcoco and blockade Tenochtitlán from there. With the city sufficiently weakened, his army would cross the lake on thirteen brigantines constructed for this purpose by the Spaniards.  

In January 1521 Cortés once again led his force into the Valley of Mexico. They staged a series of raids throughout the countryside and took the Aztec stronghold at Texcoco, from whence they could launch the newly built fleet. The occupation of Texcoco was done without conflict, and from there the army destroyed the town of Iztapalapan and massacred its residents, which sent shockwaves throughout the surrounding area. Having witnesses the military and technological advantages of the Spanish forces, many caciques who had avoided the Spaniards now decided to join their forces with Cortés’ army.

Reconnaissance in Force (March 1521)

In March 1521, Cortés began with a reconnaissance in force to gain control of communities in the Valley of Mexico adjacent to Tenochtitlán. His army systematically conquered many of the Aztec-inhabited towns in the Valley. He got as far as the neighboring settlement of Tacuba before Cuauhtémoc drove the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans back in a determined land and naval counterattack. Then the tide turned again when reinforcements arrived from Hispaniola.  While he was preparing a fleet of small brigantines to control the lake during his assault, Cortés was reinforced by fresh troops from Spain.

At the time of the new assault on Tenochtitlán, Cortés had gained an additional 200 Spanish soldiers and 50,000 Tlaxcalans. He now had over 900 Spaniards, including 86 horsemen, 118 crossbowmen and harquebusiers, as well as roughly 80,000 indigenous allies (including as many as 50,000 Tlaxcalans) and 18 cannons. The indigenous auxiliaries carried supplies and built roads. This force was up against an Aztec force of at least 250,000 men. The following map by the Wadsworth Group provides the first route inland taken by Cortés in 1519, his retreat in 1520 and his journey of conquest in 1521 [The Wadsworth Group, “Lecture 8: Collision of Civilizations: Spaniards, Aztecs and Incas” (The University of Texas at Dallas: 2002). Online:].

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The Final Assault Begins (April 1521)

The stage was now set for the final assault. The brigantines were launched April 28, 1521, and land operations began a few days later. Emperor Cuauhtémoc, realizing that his horseless troops were no match for the Spaniards in open country, decided that it would be better to wage urban warfare against the enemy. Turning Tenochtitlán into an Aztec Stalingrad, he defeated the initial Spanish assault on the city and drove the enemy back to their siege lines outside the gates.

To triumphant shouts of “Castile” and “Santiago,” and to a cacophony of native instruments Cortés launched his brigantines on the lake and began his assault on Tenochtitlán. With his headquarters located at Tlacopan, Cortés had divided his forces into three sections: his deputy, Pedro de Alvarado, took 30 horses, 18 crossbowmen, 150 infantry and 25,000 Tlaxcalans and advanced down the causeway that ran from Tacuba in the northwest; Cristóbal de Olid, with 33 horses, 18 crossbowmen, 150 infantry and 25,000 Tlaxcalans advanced on the causeway from Coyoacan in the southwest; and Gonzalo de Sandoval, with 24 cavalry, 4 harquebusiers, 13 crossbowmen, 150 infantry and as many as 30,000 Indian allies, advanced on the causeway from Iztapalapan in the southeast.

Cortés himself commanded the brigantines in which the rest of the Spanish forces – crossbowmen and harquebusiers – were placed. It was a carefully planned exercise, showing a thorough appreciation of Aztec strengths and weaknesses. Cortés even left one causeway free, so that the Aztecs would have an escape route and would not fight to the death. In the event, few took this route; most preferred to die with their city.

In preparation for the attack, the Captain-General destroyed the aqueducts that supplied water to the capital with only ineffectual Aztec resistance. Two of the three divisions of the army attempted to attack the city across the causeway but met strong Aztec forces and were forced back. The third division, under Cortés, boarded the brigantines and patrolled the water, completely overwhelming the Aztecs’ canoes and temporarily gaining control of Lake Texcoco.

The fighting raged back and forth as the Spaniards and their allies attempted to break the Aztec defense from both land and sea. They did so a few times but were steadily pushed back by the now starving inhabitants of Tenochtitlán. Cortés was increasingly distressed at his army’s inability to break the Aztec spirit.

The Final Assault on Tenochtitlán

After nearly three months of such fighting, the Captain-General ordered a full-scale assault on Tenochtitlán. All three divisions crossed the causeway backed up by the brigantines and a fleet of Mexican canoes. Each division marched down one of the principal boulevards that all converged in Tlatelolco Square. They steadily pushed the Aztecs backwards; and when the Aztec king sounded the retreat, the captains pushed on towards their fleeing prey. When Cuauhtemoc’s horn sounded again, the Aztecs turned around and fell on the Spaniards, capturing sixty-two of them and sacrificing them in front of the Spaniards in an attempt to destroy their morale. Cortés ordered the retreat.

Five days passed, and famine and disease had devastated the Aztecs. Cortés knew this and appealed to Cuauhtémoc to surrender, but the king felt that dying for one’s country would be better than being enslaved by the Spaniards. He answered in the form of an attack on the entrenched army. The Aztecs charged from the walls of the city to meet their enemy, but were quickly forced into a retreat by the firing of artillery and musketry. Cortés’ army charged after the Aztecs, forcing them back, until the Spaniards and their allies controlled around three-quarters of the city. Everywhere they went they left a trail of destruction — burned or pulled-down homes and temples — regardless of whether or not there were wounded men, women, or children inside.

Still, the Aztec king refused to surrender. Cortés proposed a banquet at which the two sides could meet to negotiate, but the king sent his nobles and didn’t come himself. The next morning, Cuauhtémoc agreed to meet the Captain-General at the marketplace; but when Cortés and his entourage arrived, they found the Aztec soldiers waiting for them. An enormous battle ensued; and both sides took heavy losses, the total number of deaths in that individual battle numbering more than 40,000.

The Last Battle

The next morning, August 13, 1521, Cortes’s army once again marched into the city. Another battle began, similar in scale to the one the day before, but Cortes ordered a cease-fire as three canoes were sighted fleeing across the lake. Cuauhtémoc, who was riding in one of the canoes, was apprehended and brought to the Captain-General. Upon meeting his enemy, he said, “Lord Malinche, I have assuredly done my duty in the defense of my city and my vassals, and I can do no more. I am brought by force as a prisoner into your presence and beneath your power. Take the dagger that you have in your belt, and strike me dead immediately.” Cortes, admiring the king’s valor and dignity, pardoned Cuauhtémoc.

What he did not realize was that Cuauhtémoc was, as a prisoner of war, demanding to be sacrificed as the Aztec custom demanded (and Cuauhtémoc lived on afterwards in shame for this insult). Cortés consoled Cuauhtémoc and asked him to command his warriors to surrender. Cuauhtémoc immediately climbed onto a high tower and shouted to them to cease fighting, for everything had fallen to the enemy. Of the 300,000 warriors who had defended the city, 60,000 were left. When they heard their king, they laid down their arms and the nobles came forward to comfort him.

The Casualties

The siege of Tenochtitlán, according to the histories, paintings and chronicles, lasted exactly eighty days. Ravaged by diseases introduced by the Spaniards, deprived of fresh water and food supplies from the mainland, the Aztecs had finally surrendered on August 13th. Thirty thousand men from the kingdom of Texcoco were killed during this time, of the more than 200,000 who fought on the side of the Spaniards.

According to Prescott, between 120,000 and 240,000 of the Aztecs had been killed. Almost all of the nobility perished: there remained alive only a few lords and knights and the little children. The Aztec homes, now in shambles, were torn down and new homes for the conquistadors were built by reluctant Mexican laborers.

The Destruction of an Empire

Albert Marrin, the author of Aztecs and Spaniards: Cortés and the Conquest of Mexico,” writes that “what had taken centuries to build, would be destroyed in just thirty months.” This lack of understanding for each other’s culture is one sign that there would have been no way for the two empires to coexist. The Spaniards’ disgust with the “barbaric” rites of the Aztecs gave them an excuse to force the Aztecs (and later the rest of the Mexicans) down into the lowest echelons of the new Hispanic society. But it should be considered that while human sacrifice is surely barbaric, enslaving peoples is hardly a sign of being civilized.

Over the next four years, Hernan Cortes was appointed Governor, Captain-General, and Chief Justice of the province of New Spain. He passed his time presiding over the reconstruction of Tenochtitlan, which was renamed as “The City from Mexico” in 1585, and would soon bring new colonists from Spain to make their homes there. Throughout the colony, Mexico City became known as the capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain and the seat of political powers.

The Key of the Spanish Conquest

The key to the Spanish conquest of Mexico was the dissension among the different peoples of the Aztecs’ empire. The Indian overlords made no attempts to assimilate the other cultures to their own and thus provided the basis for a full scale revolt against them which Cortes incited. While the Aztecs were really unable to unify their empire, the Spanish managed to succeed where their predecessors in the area had failed. With diligent work by missionaries and Cortes himself, the Spaniards tried to bring together the people of present-day Mexico and the southwestern United States by converting them to Christianity. The resulting extension of the Spanish empire, New Spain, was the most strongly united of the American empires for years to come.

The Colonial Period

For three full centuries (1521-1821), México City and the surrounding jurisdiction underwent a period of integration, assimilation, and Hispanization. This period – which is not the focus of this work – has been discussed in many books. One particularly informative source about the cultural and social development of central México is James Lockhart’s The Náhuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central México, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries (published in 1992 by the Stanford University Press). Another useful source to consult on this topic would be Charles Gibson’s The Aztecs under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of México 1519-1810 (published by the Stanford University Press in 1964).

The Enduring Legacy of Central Mexico’s Indigenous People

Nearly five hundred years after the conquest and destruction of the Aztec Empire, the culture, language and spirit of the Náhuatl, Otomí, Mazahua and other indigenous peoples remains intact within the central Hispanic culture to which most of them also belong. It is worth noting that, although the Mexica capital Tenochtitlán was occupied after an eighty-day siege, many of the indigenous peoples of Central México quietly submitted to Spanish tutelage. In this way, they were given an opportunity to continue speaking their languages and to retain some elements of their original culture, while becoming an integral and important part of a new society. The legacy of Central Mexico’s indigenous people lives on.


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Smith, Michael E. “The Strategic Provinces,” in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 137-150.

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