Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Enters Tlascala

September, 1519

Montejo and Puertocarrero had set sail from Villa Rica on July 26th with Cortes' letter to the King and the present of gold. Cortes had told them on no account to touch at Cuba, but the first thing they did was to anchor off that island. A sailor escaped from the vessel and crossed to St. Jago, spreading everywhere the story of Cortes' achievements. Of course the news came finally to the ears of Velasquez. This runaway sailor did Cortes more harm than he could know.

Velasquez had heard nothing of the expedition since it had sailed, and these tidings that reached him of riches beyond belief were quite spoiled for his ears by the news of Cortes' new commission and of his appeal to the King. If those things held, they cut Velasquez out entirely from his share of the venture.

At once he sent two fast-sailing ships after Puertocarrero and Montejo, but they were by that time well across the Atlantic. Velasquez, after a vain appeal to the commission in St. Domingo which had sanctioned Cortes' venture, and another to Charles V, determined to waste no more time, but to fit out another squadron to supersede Cortes.

But to make ready such an expedition was the work of months, and in the meantime Cortes' vessel had crossed the sea and, early in October, 1519, had reached Spain. When Ferdinand and Isabella had taken possession of the land Columbus had discovered, they had appointed two tribunals to have charge of the new colonies. One was called "The Royal Council of the Indies," and the other, "The Royal India House."

Unfortunately one of the present officers of "The Royal India House" was a fast friend of Velasquez. As soon as he heard the errand of Montejo and Puertocarrero, he accused them to "The India House" of treason and rebellion, seized their vessel, sent the King's treasure to him, and confiscated all the rest of the gold, even the private property of the envoys and a sum that Cortes had sent his father.

With such a poor reception, there was nothing left for the two envoys but to find the King. He was in the north of Spain, visiting his mother before he sailed for Germany. Cortes' father, with Montejo and Puertocarrero, went to Tordesillas to lay their complaints before him and present Cortes' letter. Charles had just received the Mexican treasure when they arrived.

The gold and cotton and feather-work were proof to the King of the importance of Cortes' work. He would at once have sent to Cortes the royal approval his letter asked for, except that another enemy to Cortes interfered. He was Juan de Fonseca, Bishop of Burgos and President of the second Colonial Tribune, "The Royal Council of the Indies." A relative of his was to marry Velasquez, and he was ready to uphold Velasquez in anything.

On account of Fonseca, therefore, Charles delayed his answer and finally, not knowing how to settle the quarrel, went in May to Germany without doing anything more definite for the envoys than ordering they should be given the expenses of their voyage. Thus he left his explorers unrewarded and his colonies to settle their own quarrels.

Meanwhile, back in Anahuac, things were happening. After he had destroyed the ships, Cortes, leaving Escalante in charge of Villa Rica, went back to Cempoalla. Here he received word from Escalante that there were off the coast four strange ships who would not answer his signals. In much alarm lest this should already be Velasquez' colonizing expedition, Cortes, leaving Alvarado and Sandoval in charge of the army at Cempoalla, posted back to Villa Rica to look after the new fleet.

When he reached Villa Rica, Escalante tried to persuade him to rest before he went to find the strange ships, but Cortes answered, "A wounded hare takes no nap," and went on with his men ten miles farther up the coast.

Before he found the ships he ran into three Spaniards who had come ashore from one of them. Very eagerly Cortes questioned them, and found out to his comfort that, instead of coming from Velasquez, they were part of a squadron fitted out by the Governor of Jamaica, who had received permission from Spain to settle in any country along the Florida coast. He had heard of Cortes' presence in this region, and had sent ashore these three men to warn Cortes not to interfere with his rights.

Cortes persuaded the three men to join his expedition, and then went to work to see if he could not add to his forces more men from the fleet. But the ships at anchor in the harbor would not pay any more attention to Cortes' signals than they had paid to Escalante's, nor would they send a boat ashore. So Cortes tried stratagem.

He marched his men away from the shore, out of sight of the ships, and made the newcomers change dress with three of his men. After dark he came back to the beach with his whole force. Before dawn he hid behind the bushes everyone except his three men whom he had dressed in the strangers' clothes. These, when it was light enough, signaled to the ships to send for them. The sailors on the ships, believing the men to be their comrades, put off a boat filled with armed men and, when it reached the beach, three or four men leaped out. Then Cortes sprang out from his ambush. He seized the men on shore, but the boat, taking alarm, pushed off back to the ship, and the fleet got under way. Cortes was disappointed not to add more to his numbers, but even six armed Spaniards were not to be despised as recruits. Cortes went back to join his army at Cempoalla, ready at last to begin his march toward Mexico.

His army of invasion counted four hundred foot, fifteen horse and seven pieces of artillery, besides thirteen hundred Totonac warriors and a thousand porters. He took also forty chiefs, who were to act as guides and counselors, as well as serve as hostages for the faith of the Cempoallans.

Escalante, chosen for his ability to keep peace with the Indians and to hold Cortes' authority against any Spaniards who might arrive in Cortes' absence, was left with the remaining men in Villa Rica.

Before the troops started, Cortes addressed them. "We are embarking at last," he said, "in earnest on the enterprise which has been the great object of my desires. Our blessed Savior will carry us victorious through every battle with our enemies. Indeed this assurance must be our stay, for every other refuge is now cut off but that afforded by the providence of God and your own stout hearts."

"We are ready to obey you," cried his soldiers. "Our fortunes, for better or worse, are cast with yours."

On August 16, 1519, Cortes and his crusaders, high in courage and hope, set out for Cempoalla. During the first day's march they were still in the tropical tierra caliente  among the birds and flowers and butterflies. Then they began to climb the Cordilleras, and on the second night reached Xalapa, about halfway up the slope. Before them the mountains rose abruptly. On their right stood the Sierra Madre, green with pines, and on their left was the Orizaba, white with snow. Behind them lay the luxuriant tierra caliente  through which they had come, and beyond it, the faint line of the ocean.

From this beautiful spot they pressed up to barer and colder heights. On the fourth day they reached a friendly town where they were allowed to erect a cross, while the natives listened to a sermon from Father Olmedo. Then up they went, higher and higher among the mountains, till they came to the places of cold wind and rain, snow and hail, which soaked and chilled them. The Spaniards were glad of their armor of quilted cotton as protection against the cold.

After three days of this discomfort, the army marched through a pass into a more temperate climate, and away up seven thousand feet above sea level came upon a city larger than Cempoalla. It had thirteen temples, and a room that held, according to one of the Spaniards, a hundred thousand skulls of those who had been sacrificed.

The cacique of this town, a vassal of Montezuma, was not very cordial to Cortes.

"Do you pay tribute to Montezuma?" Cortes asked. "Who is there that is not a vassal to Montezuma?" the cacique answered haughtily.

"I am not," Cortes replied with emphasis, and told all the power and glory of his King, Charles V.

The cacique, not to be outdone, boasted about Montezuma's greatness. "The Aztec Emperor can muster thirty thousand vassals, each master of a hundred thousand men," he said. "His army is always in the field and is so successful that he sacrifices each year to his gods twenty thousand victims. His capital, Tenochtitlan, is built in a lake in a huge valley on top of the mountains, and the only approach to the city is over long causeways from the mainland. The causeways through the city are cut by canals whose bridges can be raised, thus cutting off all communication from outside. The lake itself is full of Aztec canoes."

This did not sound very encouraging to the Spaniards, but "being Spaniards," writes the historian of the expedition, "however much the stories filled them with wonder, they made them only the more earnest to prove the adventure, desperate as it might appear."

The cacique refused to give Cortes any gold until Marina told him of the presents Montezuma had sent. Then he gave them some small pieces, and what was more important, he provided them with food and shelter.

Cortes, as soon as he was warmed and fed, set Father Olmedo preaching. Cortes would have liked to convert the natives by force as he did at Cempoalla, but the gentle priest convinced him that although that method had succeeded in the lowlands, it would probably rouse great opposition from these mountaineers. The general left the natives to their own beliefs, therefore, and after two or three days of rest he was ready to start his army on again.

There were two paths to Mexico; one by Cholula, and one by Tlascala. The cacique advised Cortes to take the route through the old city of Cholula, whose inhabitants, vassals of Montezuma, the cacique said, were mild and peaceful and would welcome the Spaniards. But the Cholulans were enemies of the Totonacs, and the Totonac chiefs advised Cortes not to trust them, as they were "a false and perfidious people." They counseled Cortes to choose the other route by Tlascala, whose people, friends of the Totonacs, were free and frank and valiant and had, behind their strong wall, withstood the Aztecs for years.

Cortes started out, not certain which route he should take when he reached the dividing roads. His way at first lay along a green, wooded valley, with a river flowing through it, and Indian houses built along its banks. A little way on, the Spaniards came to another town disposed to be friendly, and Cortes halted his troops.

Here he decided to choose the Tlascalan path to Mexico, probably thinking he could make better cause with Montezuma's foes than with his friends. He selected four of the Cempoallan chiefs who were with him, whom he sent as an embassy to Tlascala, with a letter asking permission to pass through the Tlascalan republic and expressing great admiration of their long resistance to the Aztecs, whom he was marching to subdue. Marina taught the chiefs the contents of the letter by heart, and the envoys set off on their errand, carrying with them as gifts a crimson cloth cap, a sword and a crossbow.

After the messengers had gone, Cortes stayed on in the Indian village for three days before he set out again on his route, taking with him three hundred Indian recruits, which brought the number of his allies up to almost three thousand. He marched cautiously, ready any moment for attack; the horse and light troops in front; the heavy-armed and baggage last, all in battle array. They slept on their arms.

"We are few against many, brave companions," Cortes would say to them; "be prepared, then, not as if you were going to battle, but as if actually in the midst of it."

As they proceeded, expecting each day to meet the envoys who did not appear, Cortes began to feel uneasy. On they went, however, fording the stream more than once, the country growing rougher and wilder as they climbed unfalteringly upward. And then suddenly—they came right against the wall of Tlascala.

We have heard of that wall which the Tlascalans had built, nine feet high, twenty feet broad, and six miles long, to shut out the Aztecs from their mountain country. It made the Spaniards realize the strength and power of the people who raised it, and made them, too, less sure of their own welcome. What had become of the Cempoallan envoys?

Though there was no one to greet them, neither was there any one to oppose them; the entrance was quite undefended.

Cortes did not hesitate. "Forward, soldiers!" he cried. "The holy cross is our banner and under that we shall conquer."

He led his little army through the undefended passage, and in a few moments they trod the soil of the free republic of Tlascala.