Cortés, Hernán 1485–1547 Spanish Conqueror

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Cortés, Hernán
1485–1547
Spanish conqueror

Spanish conquistador* Hernán Cortés sought adventure, fame, and fortune in the Americas and found all three. He conquered the Aztec empire in Mexico, bringing vast expanses of territory in the New World under Spanish control. He also gained personal wealth and power. Acting like a businessman, Cortés financed trading ventures and established a sugar plantation in Mexico.

Born in Medellín, Spain, Cortés studied for a while at the University of Salamanca. In the early 1500s he joined a voyage to Santo Domingo, Spain's colony on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. There he fought local Indians and was rewarded with land and Indian workers. In 1511 Cortés left Santo Domingo with Diego Velázquez to take part in a campaign to conquer Cuba. After seizing the island, Velázquez became its governor and named Cortés mayor of the new colony's capital. When Velázquez heard about the rich Aztec civilization of Mexico, he chose Cortés to lead an expedition to open trade with it. Cortés, however, wanted to conquer the Aztecs.

Cortés arrived in Mexico in 1519 with about 500 soldiers. In some provinces within the Aztec empire, he found Indian allies who helped in the long fight against the Aztecs. The Spanish had the advantage of metal weapons and horses, both unknown to the Aztecs, and they soon learned that killing an Aztec commander usually resulted in his army giving up the fight.

Cortés employed a variety of strategies in the conquest. He captured the Aztec ruler Montezuma and ruled through him for a time. He also built a fleet of small ships to control the lake that surrounded the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán. In 1521 the Spanish destroyed Tenochtitlán, gaining control of all of central Mexico. Cortés was appointed governor of the colony of New Spain. He went back to Spain in 1540 and never returned to the lands he had conquered.

(See alsoAmericas; Exploration; Spain. )

* conquistador

military explorer and conqueror