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.