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Conquest of Mexico

In February 1519, Hernando Cortés set out on an expedition to explore and secure the interior of Mexico. Along the way, the conquistador “lucked out” as they say, meeting Geronimo de Aguilar, a Franciscan priest who had been shipwrecked and captured by the Maya in the Yucatan. While prisoner, he had learned the Maya language and could therefore translate for Cortés. The contingent continued around the tip of the Yucatan and disembarked at Potonchan, where they beat the natives into submission and walked off with several of their women, including one who spoke both the Maya and Nahuatl or Aztec language.

Conquest of Mexico: “The Meeting of Cortés and Montezuma.” Second half of the seventeenth century Mexico Scene of ancient Mayan Indian monument in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. 1844

Armed with his translators and, of course, troops and artillery, Cortés marched on Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire. Along the way, he made allies with other Native-American tribes and with their help destroyed the city of Cholula, the second-largest city in central Mexico, and massacred thousands of unarmed members of its nobility.

By the time Cortés arrived in Tenochtitlan, he was peacefully received by the Aztec Emperor Montezuma II, who deliberately allowed him to enter the city in order to learn the group’s weaknesses and crush them later. Cortés and his men were lavished with gold and quartered in sumptuous apartments. Cortés remained uneasy—th Spaniards were vastly outnumbered—and he feared that Montezuma could be plotting to destroy them. Thus, on November 16, Cortés placed the emperor under house and attempted to rule the Aztecs through him. However, the power of the Aztec king was dwindling in the eyes of his people. The Aztecs grew ever-more resentful of the Spaniards' attacks on their religion and their relentless demands for gold.

Cortés was scrambling to subdue the increasingly agitated Aztecs when he received news that the governor of Cuba had sent another expedition to oppose him. Cortés left Tenochtitlan to defeat the party. While he was away, one of his lieutenants committed a massacre during the great Aztec spring festival of Huitzilopochtli. Cortés returned and obliged Montezuma to pacify his people, but the emperor was forced to retreat under a hail of stones and arrows. Montezuma died shortly after; whether from his injuries or as a victim of the Spaniards is not known.

Under attack, with food and water in short supply, Cortés decided to break out of the city. Aztec warriors, however, noticed his party and a battle ensued leaving many Spaniards and natives dead. Two weeks later, at the Battle of Otumba, Cortés turned to fight the pursuing Aztecs and defeated them. With reinforcements from his native allies and from Cuba, Cortés seized Tenochtitlan and destroyed the city. Finally, with the capture of Cuauhtémoc, a successor of Montezuma, on Aug. 13, 1521, the Aztec Empire disappeared. From 1521 to 1524, Cortés personally governed Mexico.

This story is told through a series of eight mural-sized paintings, “The Conquest of Mexico,” found in the Library’s exhibition “Exploring the Early Americas.” Featuring selections from the more than 3,000 rare maps, documents, paintings, prints and artifacts that make up the Jay I. Kislak Collection at the Library, this ongoing exhibition provides insight into indigenous cultures of the Americas, the drama of the encounters between Native American and European explorers and settlers, and the pivotal changes caused by the meeting of the American and European worlds. Special to this exhibition are high-tech interactives that allow users to learn directly from the artifacts by virtually exploring book pages, examining rare maps and investigating and deciphering ancient Maya writing.

The Library makes available its other current exhibitions online, as well as many of its past installations.

In addition to the exhibition, the Kislak gift includes a Kislak American Studies program, which includes lectures by noted scholars in the field. In 2006, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto delivered the second annual Jay I. Kislak lecture discussing Spanish empire-building in the Americas and new perspectives on what the conquests really meant for those who experienced them.

Other webcasts are available on the Library’s webcast page, covering topics such as music, science, technology, biography, poetry and religion.

A. Conquest of Mexico: “The Meeting of Cortés and Montezuma.” Second half of the seventeenth century Mexico. Rare Book and Special Collections Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction information not available.

B. Scene of ancient Mayan Indian monument in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. 1844. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-57755 (b&w film copy neg.); Call No.: Illus. in F1435.C361 folio [Rare Book RR]