Battle of Tenochtitlan

Siege of Tenochtitlan
Part of the Spanish conquest of Mexico
Depiction of the Spanish defeat at Metztitlan from the History of Tlaxcala (Lienzo de Tlaxcala), a sixteenth century codex.
Date May 26 - August 13, 1521
Location Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City, Mexico
Result Spanish and Tlaxcallãn victory
Aztec Empire
Hernán Cortés
Pedro de Alvarado
86-96 cavalry
900-1,300 infantry[1]

16 guns[1]
80,000 native allies

100,000-300,000 warriors[2]
450-860 Spanish[1]
20,000 native allies
100,000 warriors
100,000 civilians

The Fall of Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec Empire, came about through the manipulation of local factions and divisions by Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés. Though numerous battles were fought between the Aztecs and the Spanish conquistadores' army, which was composed of predominantly indigenous peoples, it was the Battle of Tenochtitlan that was the final, decisive battle that led to the downfall of the Aztec civilization and marked the end of the first phase of the Spanish conquest of Mexico. It was one of the largest victories ever won by a force so small and entailed the capture of a vast amount of riches. The conquest of Mexico was part of the Spanish colonization of the Americas. The Spanish had been awarded this territory by Pope Alexander VI in 1493, and as far as they were concerned the land and its wealth was rightfully theirs. They saw nothing of value in the indigenous culture, and more or less set out to systematically destroy everything that had no monetary value.


Early events

The road to Tenochtitlan

In April 1519, Hernán Cortés, previously the Chief Magistrate of Santiago, Cuba, landed on the coast of Mexico at a point which he named Vera Cruz with approximately 450 soldiers. Cortes was sponsored by the Governor of Cuba, Diego de Velazquez. Velazquez appointed Cortes to lead an expedition into Mexico after the reports from few previous voyages to the Yucatan caught the interest of Spanish colonists in Cuba.[3] He soon came into contact with a number of tribes who resented the Aztec rule; Cortés skirmished with some of these natives, such as the Totonacs and Tlaxcalans, defeating them and earning their allegiance against the Aztecs. [4]

A widely-cited myth states that the Aztecs initially thought Cortés to be Quetzalcoatl, a mythical personage prophesized to return to Mexico in the year Cortes landed, and from the same direction. This god was supposed to be fair-skinned and bearded, as Cortes was, and he was said to have knowingly exploited this myth.[5] This is now widely-believed to be a post-conquest invention, and most scholars agree that the Aztecs were quite aware that Cortés wasn't a god. An encounter between Moctezuma, the Aztec ruler, and Cortes displays the notion the Aztecs realized Cortes was not a deity, but a human. Moctezuma lifted his shirt displaying his abdomen saying, "I am mortal blood as you are mortal blood," and after this gesture gifts were exchanged.

Moctezuma sent a group of noblemen and other agents of his to meet Cortes at Quauhtechcac. These emissaries brought golden jewelry as a gift, which greatly pleased the Spaniards. [6]

Cortes continued on his march towards Tenochtitlan. Before entering the city, on November 8, 1519 Cortes and his troops prepared themselves for battle, armoring themselves and their horses, and arranging themselves in proper military rank. Four horsemen were at the lead of the procession. Behind these horsemen were five more contingents: foot soldiers with iron swords and wooden or leather shields; horsemen in cuirasses, armed with iron lances, swords, and wooden shields; crossbowmen; more horsemen; soldiers armed with arquebuses; lastly, native peoples from Tlaxcalan, Tliliuhqui-tepec, and Huexotzinco. The indigenous soldiers wore cotton armor and were armed with shields and crossbows; many carried provisions in baskets or bundles while others escorted the cannons on wooden carts. Cortes’s army was amicably received by Moctezuma, who was promptly taken captive without resistance. Other lords were also detained by the Spanish. [6] In exchange for their release, Cortes demanded ransom in the form of gold and other valuables.[7]

Tensions mount between Aztecs and Spanish

It is uncertain why Moctezuma cooperated so readily with the Spanish. It is possible he feared losing his life or political power. Or, perhaps it was a tactical move: Moctezuma may have wanted to gather more information on the Spanish, or wait until the end of the agricultural season, and strike at the beginning of the war season. However, he did not do either at a later date. With Moctezuma captive, Cortes did not need to worry about being cut off from supplies or being attacked. He also assumed that he could control the Aztecs through Moctezuma. Yet Cortes had little knowledge of the ruling system of the Aztecs; Moctezuma was not all-powerful as Cortes imagined. Being appointed to the throne and maintaining the position was dependent on the king’s ability to rule decisively; he could be easily be replaced by another noble if he failed to do so. At any sign of weakness, Aztec nobles within Tenochtitlan and in other Aztec tributaries were liable to rebel. As Moctezuma made orders as demanded by Cortes, such as commanding tribute to be gathered and given to the Spanish, his authority was slipping, and quickly his people began to turn against him. [1] Cortes and his army were permitted to stay in the Palace of Axayacatl, and tensions continued to grow. While the Spanish were in Tenochtitlan, Governor Velazquez, the highest Spanish authority in the Americas, assembled a force of 19 ships, more than 800 soldiers, 20 cannons, 80 horsemen, 120 crossbowmen, and 80 arquebusiers under the command of Pánfilo de Narváez to capture Cortes and return him to Cuba. Velasquez felt that Cortes had exceeded his authority, and had been aware of Cortes misconduct nearly a year before.[7] He had to wait for favorable winds, though, and was unable to send any forces until spring. Narvaez’s troops landed in Mexico on April 20, 1520.

After Cortes became aware of their arrival, he brought a small force of about 300 to Narvaez’s camp in Cempohuallan on May 27. Cortes ambushed Narvaez’s camp late at night, taking Narvaez hostage and easily gaining his surrender. Evidence suggests that two were in the midst of negotiations at the time, and Narvaez was not expecting an attack. Cortes had also divided Narvaez’s forces with promises of the vast wealth in Tenochtitlan so they would surrender quicker. Narvaez was imprisoned in Vera Cruz, and his army was integrated into Cortez’s forces.[1][7]

A Rapid Deterioration of Relations

Massacre at the festival of Tóxcatl

During Cortes’s absence, Pedro de Alvarado was left in command in Tenochtitlan, with 80 soldiers, including 14 arquebusiers, eight crossbowmen, as well as five horses, several cannons, and the last of the powder.[1]

At this time, the Aztecs began to prepare for the annual festival of Toxcatl, in honor of the war god Huitzilopochtli. They had asked permission of Moctezuma to hold the festival, and asserted that the Spanish wanted to learn about their traditions. Alvarado agreed to allow the festival on the condition that the gatherers were unarmed. The evening before the festival, a statue of Huitzilopochtli was created and decorated in great detail. [8]

By the day of the festival, Cortes had been absent for 20 days. The Aztecs gathered very early in the morning in single file front of the image of Huitzilopochtli, and brought offerings. Many young warriors came, having had agreed beforehand to dance as best as possible to impress the Spanish. The celebrants then filed into the courtyard of the Great Temple to perform the Dance of the Serpent. When everyone had entered, the singing and dancing began. Keeping in file, the highest-esteemed warriors were in the lead, with the less experienced behind them.[8]

There are many different accounts of what next occurred. It seems that Alvarado feared for the safety of the Spanish forces, and thought the Aztecs were planning an attack. However, the assembled warriors were outfitted in regalia, not dressed and armed for combat. Another account of the situation by the Spanish relates that they attempted to prevent a human sacrifice. However, it is also possible that some Spanish wanted to strike the vulnerable Aztecs at the celebration; the Aztec forces were still superior in number, and the Spanish would not be victorious in a fair battle.[1]

While the people were singing and dancing, the Spanish came out ready for battle, armed with swords, lances, and wooden or metal shields, and closed all the escape routes behind them. They brutally slaughtered the assembled Aztecs. Those trying to escape were struck down near the exits, and those attempting to hide were also found and killed. Some of those inside were able to make it over the walls, but nearly all inside were killed. It is uncertain how many died, but it is estimated that the courtyard was capable of holding eight to ten thousand nobles and warriors.[1][8] Another source figures that 10,000 Aztecs were killed. The event came to be known as The Massacre in the Main Temple.[9]

Aztec revolt

When it became clear what was happening to the Aztecs outside the Temple, an alarm was sounded. Aztec warriors came running, and fired darts and launched spears at the Spanish forces.[6] The Spanish and their allies were driven back into the palace enclave, where they put Moctezuma in shackles.[8] The Spanish were able to repulse the Aztecs with artillery fire. Still, the Aztecs continued to lay siege to the palace, though they did not engage in a determined effort to crush Spanish forces. This may have been due to the fact that their military infrastructure was severely damaged after the attack on the festival, as the most elite and seasoned warriors were killed. [1]

Alvarado sent word to Cortes of the events, and Cortes returned to Tenochtitlan on June 24 with 1,300 soldiers, 96 horses, 80 crossbowmen, and 80 harquebusiers. Cortes also picked up 2,000 Tlaxcalan warriors on the way.[1] Cortes managed to enter the palace unscathed, though the Aztecs had planned to ambush him. The Aztecs discontinued delivering food and other supplies to the Spanish. They became very suspicious and watched closely for people trying to sneak supplies into the Spanish; many innocent people were killed because they were suspected of aiding them.[8] The roads were closed and the causeway bridges were raised. The Aztecs pushed back any Spanish offensives or attempts to leave the palace. Every Spanish solider not killed was wounded.[1]

Cortes had returned to Tenochtitlan and essentially trapped himself in the city because he thought that he could repair the damage done with the help of Moctezuma. Cortes failed to grasp the full extent of the situation, as the attack on the festival was the last straw for the Aztecs, who now were completely against Moctezuma and the Spanish. Thus, the military gains of the attack also had a serious political cost for Cortes. [1]

Cortes attempted to parley with the Aztecs, and after this failed he sent Moctezuma to tell his people to stop fighting. However, the Aztecs refused.[8] The Spanish claimed Moctezuma was stoned to death by his own people at he attempted to speak with them. The Aztecs asserted that Moctezuma was murdered by the Spanish.[8] [1] As Moctezuma had lost the favor of the people, he was no longer of any use to the Spanish. And if freed, he potentially could have united his people against the Spanish. [1] Two other local rulers were found strangled as well.[9] Moctezuma’s younger brother Cuitláhuac, who had been ruler of Ixtlapalapan until then, was chosen to be the new Tlatoani.[1]

La Noche Triste and the Spanish flight to Tlaxcalan

This major Aztec victory is still remembered as “La Noche Triste,” the Sad Night. Popular tales say that Cortés wept under a tree the night of his defeat at the hands of the Aztecs.

Though a flight from the city would make Cortes appear weak before his Indian allies, it was this or death for the Spanish forces. Cortes and his men were in the center of the city, and would most likely have to fight their way out no matter what direction they took. Cortes wanted to flee to Tlaxcalan, so a path directly east would have been most favorable. Nevertheless, this would require hundreds of canoes to move all of Cortes’s people and supplies, which he was unable to procure in his position. Thus, Cortes had to choose among three land routes: north to Tepeyac, which was the least dangerous path but required the longest trip through the city; south to Coyohuacan and Ixtlapalapan, two towns that would not welcome the Spanish; or west to Tlacopan, which required the shortest trip through Tenochtitlan, though they would not be welcome there either. Cortes decided on the causeway to Tlacopan, needing the quickest route out of Tenochtitlan with all his provisions and people. [1]

Heavy rains and a moonless night provided some cover for the escaping Spanish.[9] On that "Sad Night," July 1, 1520, the Spanish forces exited the palace first with their Indian allies close behind, bringing as much treasure as possible. Cortés had hoped to go undetected by muffling the horses’ hooves and carrying wooden boards to cross the canals. The Spanish succeeding in reaching the causeway to the mainland. They were able to pass through the first three canals, the Tecpantzinco, Tzapotlan, and Atenchicalco.[8]

However, they were discovered on the fourth canal at Mixcoatechialtitlan. One account says a woman fetching water saw them and alerted the city, another says it was a sentry. Some Aztecs set out in canoes, others by road to Nonchualco then Tlacopan to cut the Spanish off. The Aztecs attacked the fleeing Spanish on the Tlacopan causeway from canoes, shooting arrows at them. The Spanish fired their crossbows and harquebuses, but were unable to see their attackers or get into formation. Many Spaniards leaped into the water and drowned, weighed down by armor and booty.[8] When faced with a gap in the causeway, Alvarado made the famous “leap of Alvarado” using a spear to get to the other side. After crossing over the bridge, the Spanish had little reprieve before the Aztecs appeared to attack and chase them towards Tlacopan. When they arrived at Tlacopan, a good number of Spanish had been killed, as well as most of the Indian warriors, and some of the horses; all of the cannons and most of the crossbows were lost.[1] The Spanish finally found refuge in Otancalpolco, where they were aided by the Teocalhueyacans. The morning after, the Aztecs returned to recover the spoils from the canals.[8]

To reach Tlaxcalan, Cortes had to bring his troops around Lake Texcoco. Though the Spanish were under attack the entire trip, because Cortes took his troops through the northern towns, they were at an advantage. The northern valley was less populous, travel was difficult, and it was still the agricultural season, so the attacks on Cortes’s forces were not very heavy. As Cortes arrived in more densely inhabited areas east of the lake, the attacks were more forceful.[1]

Before reaching Tlaxcalan, the scanty Spanish forces arrived at the plain of Otumba Valley (Otompan), where they were met by a vast Aztec army intent on their destruction. The Aztecs intended to cut short the Spanish retreat from Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs had underestimated the shock value of the Spanish cavalry because all they had seen was the horses traveling on the wet paved streets of Tenochtitlan. They had never seen them used in open battle on the plains. Despite the overwhelming numbers of Aztecs and the general poor condition of the Spanish survivors, Cortés snatched victory from the jaws of defeat when he spotted the Aztec general in his gaudy and colorful feather costume and immediately charged him with several horsemen, killing the Aztec commander. There were heavy losses for the Spanish, but in the end they were victorious. The Aztecs retreated. [9]

When Cortes finally reached Tlaxcalan five days after fleeing Tenochtitlan, he had lost over 860 Spanish soldiers, over a thousand Tlaxcalans, as well as Spanish women who had accompanied Narvaez’s troops. [1] Cortes claimed only 150 Spaniards were lost along with 2,000 native allies. Than Cano, another primary source, gives 1150 Spaniards dead, though this figure was most likely more than the total number of Spanish. Francisco López de Gómara, Cortes' chaplain, estimated 450 Spaniards and 4,000 allies had died. Other sources estimate that nearly half of the Spanish and almost all of the natives were killed or wounded. [9]

The women survivors included Cortés's translator and lover Doña Marina, María Estrada and two of Moctezuma's daughters who had been given to Cortés. A third daughter died, leaving behind her infant by Cortés, the mysterious second "María" named in his will.

Both Sides Attempt to Recover

Shifting alliances

Cuitlahuac was elected to be the new king after Moctezuma’s death. Immediately, it was necessary for him to prove his power and authority to keep the tributaries from revolting. Usually, the new king would take his army on a campaign before coronation; this demonstration would solidify necessary ties. However, Cuitlahuac was not in a position to do this, as it was not yet war season; therefore, allegiance to the Spanish seemed to be a good option for many tributaries. The Aztec empire was very susceptible to division: most of the tributary states were divided internally, and their loyalty to the Aztecs was based on their own interests or the possibility of punishment.

It was necessary for Cortes, too, to rebuild his alliances after his escape from Tenochtitlan before he could try again to take the city. He started with the Tlaxcalans. Tlaxcalan was an autonomous state, and a fierce enemy of the Aztecs. Another strong motivation to join forces with the Spanish was that Tlaxcalan was encircled by Aztec tributaries. The Tlaxcalans could have crushed the Spaniards at this point. In fact, the Aztecs sent emissaries promising peace and prosperity if they would do just that. The Tlaxcalans leaders rebuffed the overtures of the Aztec emissaries, deciding to continue their friendship with Cortés.

Cortés managed to negotiate an alliance; however, the Tlaxcalans required heavy concessions from Cortes for their continued support, which he was to provide after they defeated the Aztecs. They expected the Spanish to pay for their supplies, to have the city of Cholula, an equal share of any of the spoils, the right to build a citadel in Tenochtitlan, and finally, to be exempted from any future tribute. Cortés was willing to promise anything and in the name of the King of Spain, and agreed to their demands, though the Spanish complained about having to pay for their food and water with their gold and other jewels with which they had escaped Tenochtitlan. The Spanish authorities later disowned this treaty with the Tlaxcalans.

Cortes needed to gain new alliances as well. And as long as the Spaniards could protect new allies from the possibility of Aztec retribution, changing sides would not be too difficult for other tributaries It was not difficult for Cortes’s forces to defeat the smaller armies of some of the tributary states, either. Once Cortes had demonstrated his political power, states such as Tepeyac, and later Yauhtepec and Cuauhnahuac, were easily won over. Cortes also used political maneuvering to assure the allegiance of other states, such as Tetzcoco. In addition, Cortes replaced kings with those who he knew would be loyal to him. Cortes now controlled many major towns, which simultaneously bolstered Cortes’s forces while depriving the Aztecs.[1]

Though the largest group of Indian allies were Tlaxcalans, the Huexotzinco, Atlixco, Tliliuhqui-Tepecs, Tetzcocans, Chalca, Alcohua and Tepanecs were all important allies as well, and had all been previously subjugated by the Aztecs.[9][1] Cortes had to put down internal struggles within the Spanish troops as well. The remaining Spanish soldiers were somewhat divided; many wanted nothing more than to go home, or at the very least back to Vera Cruz to wait for reinforcements. Cortés quickly squelched this faction and was determined to finish what he started. Not only had he staked everything he had or could borrow on this enterprise, he had completely compromised himself by defying his superior Velazquez. He knew that in defeat he would be considered a traitor to Spain, but that in success he would be its hero. So he argued, cajoled, bullied and coerced his troops, and they began preparing for the siege of Mexico. Clearly, Cortes was skilled at exploiting the divisions within and between the Aztec states while hiding those of his own troops.[1]

Smallpox decimates the local population

While Cortes was rebuilding his alliances and garnering more supplies, a smallpox epidemic struck. The disease was brought by a Spanish slave from Narvaez’s forces, who had been abandoned in the capital during the Spanish flight.[1] The disease broke out in Tenochtitlan in late October; the epidemic lasted 60 days, ending by early December. Many of the residents of Tenochtitlan died from disease, but starvation also devastated the population. Since so many were afflicted, people were unable to care for others, and many starved to death. While the population of Tenochtitlan was recovering, the disease continued to Chalco, a city on the southeast corner of Lake Texcoco.[6] The disease killed 40 percent of the native population in the area within a year. The Spanish were much more immune to the disease so they mainly survived whilst the Aztecs were dying.

Cuitlahuac contracted the disease and died after ruling for only eighty days. Because the disease has a 26-six day course, Cuitlahuac was probably too sick to rule effectively by November 22. Though the disease drastically decreased the numbers of warriors on both sides, it had more dire consequences for the leadership on the side of the Aztecs. The new Aztec rulers had little experience or time to solidify their authority.[1]

Aztecs regroup

It is often debated why the Aztecs took little action against the Spanish and their allies after they fled the city. One reason was that Tenochtitlan was certainly in a state of disorder: the smallpox epidemic ravaged the population, killing still more important leaders and nobles, and a new king, Cuauhtémoc, son of King Ahuitzotl, was placed on the throne in February 1521. The people were in the process of mourning the dead and rebuilding their damaged city. Also, it is possible that the Aztecs truly believed that the Spanish were gone for good. In any case, staying within Tenochtitlan as a defensive tactic may have seemed like a reliable strategy at the time. This would allow them the largest possible army that would be close to its supplies, while affording them the mobility provided by the surrounding lake. And any Spanish assault would have come to through the causeways, where the Aztecs could easily attack them.[1]

Siege of Tenochtitlan

Cortes plans and prepares

Cortes’s plan for his siege was to trap the Aztecs within their capital. Cortes intended to do that by increasing his mobility on the lake, previously one of his main weaknesses. He ordered the construction of thirteen brigantines by his master shipbuilder, Martín López, and sent to Vera Cruz for the ships he had previously had scuttled and any other supplies that had arrived. Cortes continued to receive a steady stream of supplies from Vera Cruz, some of it intended for Narvaez, since he had left the city.

Cortes originally decided to have his ships assembled in Tlaxcalan, while moving his base of operations to Tetzcoco. With his headquarters in Tetzcoco, he could keep his forces from being spread too thin around the lake, and from there could send them where they were needed. Nonetheless, this plan proved ineffective, and he moved his shipbuilders and his other supplies to Tetzcoco in the beginning of February 1521.

Cortes had 86 horsemen, 118 crossbowmen and harquebusiers, and 700 Spanish foot soldiers. He put 25 soldiers plus artillerymen on each ship, since each was equipped with a cannon. He partitioned his remaining land forces into three groups. Under the command of Alvarado were 30 horsemen, 18 crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 150 Spanish foot soldiers and 25,000 Tlaxcalans, to be sent to Tlacopan. Cristobel de Olid commanded 20 crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 175 foot soldiers, and 20,000 Indian allies, who would go to Coyohuacan. Gonzalo de Sandoval was in charge of 24 horsemen, 14 harquebusiers, 13 crossbowmen, 150 foot soldiers, and 30,000 Indians, who would go to Ixtlapalapan. One of the three major causeways that connected Tenochtitlan to the mainland was in each of these cities. Cortes' forces set out for their positions on May 22.[1]

The first battles

The forces under Alvarado and Olid marched first towards Chapultepec to disconnect the Aztecs from their water supply. There were springs there that supplied much of the city’s water by aqueduct; the rest of the city’s water was brought in by canoe. The two generals then tried to bring their forces over the causeway at Tlacopan, resulting in the Battle of Tlacopan.[1] The Aztec forces managed to defeat the Spanish and halt the march to the capital in a brilliant, though bloody and long, land and naval attack.[8]

The Aztec canoe fleets worked well for attacking the Spanish because they allowed the Aztecs to surround the Spanish on both sides of the causeway. Cortes decided to make an opening in the causeway so that his brigantines could also be used on both sides of the causeway. Now the Aztecs could no longer attack from their canoes on the opposite side of the Spanish brigantines.

With his brigantines, Cortes could also send forces and supplies to areas he previously couldn’t, which put a kink in Cuauhtémoc's plan. To make it more difficult for the Spanish ships, the Aztecs dug deep pits in shallow areas of the lakes and also stuck pointed sticks into the lake bottom to spear ships.

Cortes was forced to adapt his plans again, as his initial land campaigns were ineffective. He had planned to attack on the causeways during the daytime and retreat to camp at night; however, the Aztecs moved in to occupy the abandoned areas as soon as the Spanish forces left. Consequently, Cortes had his forces set up on the causeways at night to defend their positions. This allowed the Spanish to progress closer and closer towards the city.[1]

The Spanish advance closer

As the Spanish employed more successful strategies, their stranglehold on Tenochtitlan grew, and famine began to affect the Aztecs. The Aztecs were cut off from the mainland because of the occupied causeways. In addition, Cortes maintained a blockade with the help of the canoes of his Indian allies, as his brigantines were not so useful in this situation. Both sides utilized ambushes in naval battles for a while, attempting to lure enemy ships or canoes into a trap or separate them from the group.

Cortes also had the advantage of fighting a mostly defensive battle. Though Cuauhtémoc organized a large-scale attack on Alvarado’s forces at Tlacopan, the Aztec forces were pushed back. As Cortes attained victory after victory, more tributary states joined his side. Even smaller states were useful for contributing food, laborers, and supplies. This only worsened the position of the Aztecs. Throughout the siege, the Aztecs had little aid from outside of Tenochtitlan. The remaining loyal tributaries had difficulty sending forces, because it would leave them vulnerable to Spanish attack. Many of these loyal tributaries were surrounded by the Spanish.

Though the tributaries often went back and forth in their loyalties at any sign of change, the Spanish tried hard not to lose any allies. They feared a “snowball effect,” in that if one tributary left, others might follow. Thus, they brutally crushed any tributaries who tried to send help to Tenochtitlan. Any shipments of food and water were intercepted, and even those trying to fish in the lake were attacked.[1] Many Aztecs drank salt water because of their severe thirst and contracted dysentery. The famine was so severe that the Aztecs ate anything, even wood, leather, and bricks for sustenance.[6]

The Spanish continued to push closer to Tenochtitlan. The Aztecs changed tactics as often as the Spanish did, preventing Cortes’s forces from being entirely victorious. However, the Aztecs were severely worn down. They had no new troops, supplies, food, nor water. The Spanish received a large amount of supplies from Vera Cruz, and, somewhat renewed, finally entered Tenochtitlan.[1]

Fall of Tenochtitlan

The Aztecs’ last stand

When the Spanish forces made it into the city, virtually every rooftop was an enemy stronghold. Once again, the Aztecs adopted new tactics, and now attacked the Spanish from their buildings.[1] This held back the Spanish for a while, but it could not prevent their advance through the city. By early August, most of the population of the city had retreated into Tlatelolco.[8] Cortés sent Indian emissaries from a conquered Aztec city to invite the Tlatelolcas to join his side and surrender the Aztec refugees, but the Tlatelolcas remained loyal to the Aztecs. In the chronicles of Tlatelolco, they told they took the last burden of the battle, and at the end the women cut their hair and joined the battle.

The Aztecs faced another major obstacle when the people of Tetzcoco who were still loyal to the Aztecs fell into Spanish hands. For four days, all three armies of Alvarado, Olid, and Sandoval pushed towards the Tlatelolco marketplace. They eventually gained control of seven-eighths of the city. Even in the final days of the siege, when the Aztecs were pitted in open combat against the Indian allies of the Spanish, the exhausted Aztecs were far superior, and crushed their opponents.[1]

In these last desperate days, the Aztecs decided to send the quetzal owl warrior, an Aztec warrior outfitted in a ceremonial costume, into battle: they believed if he succeeded in battle, this would be a sign from the gods that the Aztecs should continue fighting against the Spanish. Throughout their encounters with the Spanish, the Aztecs continued to practice their traditional ceremonies and customs. The warrior Tlapaltecatl Opochtzin was chosen to be dressed in the quetzal owl costume. Once outfitted, he was supplied with darts sacred to Huitzilopochtli, with wooden tips and flint tops. When he appeared, the Spanish soldiers seemed genuinely frightened and intimidated. They pursued the owl-warrior, but he was not captured or killed. The Aztecs took this is as a good sign, especially because the Spanish forces did not attack for the rest of the day or the day after. Yet, the Aztecs could fight no longer, and after consulting with the surviving nobles, Cuauhtémoc commenced negotiations with the Spanish.[6]

The Surrender

The Aztecs surrendered on August 13, 1521. Supposedly, Cortes demanded the gold lost during La Noche Triste soon after. Cuauhtémoc was taken hostage and later executed.

Aztecs fled the city as the Spanish forces continued to attack the city even after the surrender, slaughtering thousands of the remaining population and looting the city.[8] As this practice was generally not done in European warfare, it suggests that Cortes’s Indian allies had more power over him than he suggested. The survivors marched out of the city for the next three days.[1] Almost all of the nobility were dead, and the remaining survivors were mostly very young children.[9] Two-hundred and forty thousand Aztecs are estimated to have died during the siege, which lasted 80 days. The remaining Spanish forces consisted of 900 Spaniards, 80 horses, 16 pieces of artillery, and Cortes’s 13 brigantines. [1]

It is well accepted that Cortes’s Indian allies, which may have numbered as many as 200,000, were responsible for his success, though their aid was virtually unacknowledged and they derived little benefit. As there were several major allied groups, no one in particular was able to take power, and the person who benefited was Cortes. [4]

The Spanish government would laud his success and delight in the 7,000 tons of riches he had secured for the country. The battle would provide Spain with a foothold in Central America, a region that continues to primarily speak Spanish still today. The riches would help to fund later expeditions into the South American continent. Spain would become the dominant world power as a result and remain so until after the defeat of the Spanish Armada by England in 1588. Cortes was named the Captain General of New Spain and would continue to function as a conquistador until he returned home to Spain a hero later in his life and died there in 1547.[10]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 1.18 1.19 1.20 1.21 1.22 1.23 1.24 1.25 1.26 1.27 1.28 1.29 1.30 1.31 1.32 1.33 Ross Hassig, Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. (New York: Longman, 1994).
  2. George Edwin Mueller, The Last Stand: An Aztec Iliad, PBS: Conquistadors - Cortés. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  3. Michael Wood, Conquistadors, The Fall of the Aztecs. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Jeremy Black. (ed.), World History Atlas. (London: Dorling Kindersley, 2000 ISBN 9780756609672).
  5. Michael Lee Lanning. The Battle 100: The Stories Behind History's Most Influential Battles. (Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003 ISBN 9781570717994), 40.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 Bernardino de Sahagun, "General History of The Things of New Spain," in The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Volume II, eds. Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005 ISBN 9780618583331), 128-133.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 Lanning, 41.
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 Miguel León-Portilla, ed., The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. (Boston: Beacon Press, [1959] 1992 ISBN 9780807054994)
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 Serge Gruzinski. The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire. (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987 ISBN 9780810928213)
  10. Lanning, 42.


Primary sources

  • Cortés, Hernán. Letters from Mexico, Translated by Anthony Pagden. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986. ISBN 0300090943
  • Díaz del Castillo, Bernal, The Discovery and Conquest of Mexico: 1517-1521. Cambridge: De Capo Press, 2004. ISBN 030681319X
  • León-Portilla, Miguel, ed. The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Boston: Beacon Press, [1959] 1992. ISBN 0807055018
  • López de Gómara, Francisco. Historica general de las Indias. Linkgua US/Casavaria of Spain, 2006. ISBN 8496290131

Secondary sources

  • Black, Jeremy, ed. World History Atlas. London: Dorling Kindersley, 2000.
  • Davis, Paul K. Besieged: 100 Great Sieges from Jericho to Sarajevo. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
  • Fisher, Mark, and Richardson, Kristi. Hernando Cortés. Carpenoctem - Hernando Cortés. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  • Gruzinski, Serge. The Aztecs: Rise and Fall of an Empire. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1987.
  • Hassig, Ross. Mexico and the Spanish Conquest. New York: Longman, 1994.
  • Jacobs, W.J. Hernando Cortés. New York: Franklin Watts, Inc., 1974.
  • Lanning, Michael Lee. The Battle 100: The Stories Behind History's Most Influential Battles. Naperville: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2003. ISBN 1570717990
  • Manchip White, Jon. Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire. New York: Carroll & Graf, 1971. ISBN 0786702710
  • Mueller, George Edwin. The Last Stand: An Aztec Illiad. PBS: Conquistadors - Cortés. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  • Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of Mexico. New York: Modern Library, 2001. ISBN 0375758038 History of the Conquest of Mexico, with a Preliminary View of Ancient Mexican Civilization, and the Life of the Conqueror, Hernando Cortes. Retrieved September 17, 2007.
  • Restall, Matthew. Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. ISBN 0195160770
  • Ricard, Robert. The Spiritual Conquest of Mexico, translated by Lesley Byrd Simpson. University of California Press, 1966. (originally 1933 in French, and 1947 in Spanish translation.)
  • de Sahagun, Bernardino. "General History of The Things of New Spain." In The Human Record: Sources of Global History, Volume II, edited by Alfred J. Andrea and James H. Overfield, 128-133. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005.
  • Stein, R.C. The World’s Greatest Explorers: Hernando Cortés. Chicago: Chicago Press Inc., 1991.
  • Thomas, Hugh. Conquest: Cortés, Montezuma, and the Fall of Old Mexico. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993. ISBN 0671511041
  • Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America. New York: Modern Library, 1996. ISBN 0061320951
  • Wood, Michael. Conquistadors. The Fall of the Aztecs. PBS. Retrieved September 17, 2007.

External links

All links retrieved May 20, 2016.


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