Return to Explorations and Encounters List Previous Section: Columbus and the Taíno | Next Section: Pizarro and the Incas

In 1519, inspired by rumors of gold and the existence of large, sophisticated cities in the Mexican interior, Hernán Cortés (1485–1547) was appointed to head an expedition of eleven ships and five hundred men to Mexico. At that time the great empire of the Mexica—now known as the Aztecs—dominated much of Mesoamerica. Their capital, Tenochtitlán, had become such a splendid city that, according to records, it dazzled the Spaniards, exceeding anything they had seen before. Two years after the arrival of Cortés and his conquistadors, constant war and diseases new to the Americas had destroyed Tenochtitlán, and the Aztec Empire was no more.

Warrior with Feline Helmet

This warrior figure is from the Mixtec culture of the Central Mexican Highlands. He is standing with his right arm outstretched, possibly to hold a spear or war banner. He is dressed in a loincloth and wears a shell necklace and fine beaded bracelets.

Hollow warrior with feline helmet. Central Mexican Highlands. Mixtec, AD 1200–1500. Polychromed ceramic. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (059.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj0

Discover!

Mexican God Xipe-Totec

Xipe–Totec, “Our lord the flayed one,” is manifested first in Teotihuacan culture and continues in importance up to Aztec times. He represents a fertility cult and was said to assist the earth in making a new skin each spring. The cult required the sacrifice of human victims by removing the heart and, afterward, flaying the skin. The priests of Xipe–Totec impersonated the god by wearing a gold–dyed human skin for twenty days, or until the skin rotted away. The priest would then emerge reborn.

Xipe-Totec priest wearing flayed human skin. Central Mexican Highlands. Aztec, AD 1400–1521. Painted volcanic basalt. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (065.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj1

Discover!

Choker with Nineteen Death Heads

This choker’s beads consist of nineteen nearly identical skulls carved from conch shells. The deeply carved eye sockets may have originally held hematite inlays. Young nobles who were being schooled in religion and military arts wore such necklaces throughout the Central Mexican Highlands.

Choker with nineteen death’s heads. Mexico. Mixtec, AD 1200–1500. Carved shell. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (066.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj2

Map of Tenochtitlán

This volume contains the second and third letters sent by Hernán Cortés to Emperor Charles V. Cortés’s letters are reports and represent some of the earliest European accounts of Mexican people, culture, religion, and history. The accompanying map is the first European image in print of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City) and the Gulf Coast of Mexico. The plan shows a large and complex city with the main temple precinct and plaza, houses, principal thoroughfares, causeways, lakes, suburbs, and towns along the shore. The map draws on both European and indigenous sources.

Hernán Cortés. Praeclara Ferdina[n]di Cortesii de noua maris oceani. . . (Enlightenment of Ferdinand Cortés concerning new facts about the new sea and the ocean . . .). Nuremberg: Peypus, 1524. Facsimile. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (060.02.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj3

Descendents of Moctezuma

Hernán Cortés believed that a marriage between the eldest daughter of Moctezuma, called “Doña Isabel,” and Spaniard Alonso Grado would benefit New Spain by bringing conqueror and conquered together as a new people. In this document, Cortés uses Moctezuma’s support during the conquest of Mexico to justify a substantial dowry containing lands, several ranches, and the labor of the Indians who lived there. Unhappily, Grado died the next year. Cortés then married Doña Isabel to another conquistador, with whom she had two children. Following her second husband’s death, she married again and gave birth to five more children, continuing the Moctezuma line for many centuries.

Hernán Cortés. Dowry agreement for Montezuma’s daughter, June 27, 1526. Copied from a Spanish manuscript, [Valladolid], ca. 1750. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (061.00.00, 061.00.01, 061.00.02, 061.00.03)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj4

Early History of the Spanish Conquests

Francisco López de Gómara wrote this volume as a record of the Spanish Conquests. Although he was criticized for inaccuracies and for aggrandizing Hernán Cortés, his work does summarize public and private records now lost. His dedication to Emperor Charles V, from the original Spanish edition published in 1552, begins with these words, “The greatest event which has happened since the creation of the world . . . is the discovery of the Indies.” This book, the first English translation, unfortunately omits or changes much of the matter contained in Gómara’s original work in Spanish.

Francisco López de Gómara (1511–1564). The pleasant historie of the conquest of the West India, now called New Spayne: atchieued by the vvorthy prince Hernando Cortes, marques of the valley of Huaxacac, most delectable to reade/translated out of the Spanishe tongue by T.N., anno 1578. London: Henry Bynneman, [1578]. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (062.00.00, 062.01.01, 062.01.02)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj5

A Different View of Conquest

In part as a response to Francisco López de Gómara’s published account of the heroics of Hernán Cortés in Mexico, one of Cortés’s infantry men, Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1496–1584), dictated to his grandson “the story of myself and my comrades, all true conquerors, who served His Majesty in the discovery, conquest, pacification, and settlement. . . . of New Spain.” Full of telling anecdotes, Díaz’s version has become a classic in many languages.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo (1496–1584). Historia verdadera de la conqvista de la Nueva--España (True history of the conquest of New Spain). Madrid: Imprenta del Reyno, 1632. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (063.00.00, 063.00.02, 063.00.03)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj6

History of Tlaxcala

The son of a Spanish conquistador and an Indian woman, Diego Muñoz Camargo was educated as a Spaniard, but was also steeped in indigenous culture through his Indian family connections. An historian and interpreter, he was also a government official and landholder in the Tlaxcala region of Mexico. In this manuscript, written in the late sixteenth century, Muñoz Camargo covers the history of Tlaxcala, the events of the conquest (and the Tlaxcalan support of Cortés), as well as the natural and geographical background of the area.

Diego Muñoz Camargo (ca. 1529–1599). Fragmentos de la Historia de Tlaxcala. 1852 manuscript copy of original ca. 1560–1592. Jay I. Kislak Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (064.00.00, 064.00.01, 064.00.02, 064.00.03)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/exploring-the-early-americas/cortes-and-the-aztecs.html#obj7

Back to top

Return to Explorations and Encounters List Previous Section: Columbus and the Taíno | Next Section: Pizarro and the Incas