Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

The Discovery of Mexico

[A. D. 1517.] Twenty-five years after the discovery of the New World, the first European vessel that ever landed on the shores of Mexico struck keel against the coral rocks of Yucatan. Though Columbus heard of Yucatan in 1502, and Pinzon and Solis sighted its coast in 1506, circumstances unexplained had set them sailing southward and eastward without making a landing. In 1511 Cuba, which had been discovered in 1492 by Columbus, was colonized, and in a few years her enterprising governor, Velasquez, aided in fitting out small expeditions for discovery in other directions. The first of these was that of Francisco Hernandez de Cordova, equipped mainly at his own expense, and consisting of one hundred and ten soldiers, in three small vessels. They were guided by the famous pilot Alamitos, who had sailed when a youth with the great admiral. After several days they descried land at the northernmost point of Yucatan, which they called Point Cotoche. Drawing nearer shore they saw great buildings of stone, whitened with lime, and shining in the sun. Some of the natives came off to them, Indians far superior to those of the West Indies, even excelling the intelligent inhabitants of Cuba in appearance. They were clothed in cotton garments, possessed bows, arrows, shields, spears, and darts of a superior quality, and approached the vessels fearlessly in canoes large enough to contain fifty men each.

Returning the next day the captain of the Indians invited the Spaniards on shore, and leading them into an ambuscade wounded several of them. The Spaniards, however gave them a taste of their sharp swords and killed fifteen. Meanwhile, during the fight, a vagabond priest whom they had brought along with them sacked a temple, and brought off several wooden chests which contained stone idols, various vessels, three diadems, and some images of birds and fishes in alloyed gold. This was their only consolation during the entire trip, for after that they had nothing but fighting. They wondered at the great stone buildings, as the first of the kind they had seen in America, and at the fierceness of the inhabitants of Yucatan, who resembled in this respect the West Indian Caribs. Sailing southward skirting the western coast of Yucatan, they landed at place called Campeche, where they saw more temples of stone, filled with hideous idols in the shape of serpents. The natives assembled in great numbers, and their chief asked of them, by signs, if they came from the East, probably having in mind the legend of the "Feathered Serpent." Then their priests, dressed in robes of white cotton, their long hair clotted with blood, rushed out of a temple, kindled a fire of grass and faggots, and fumigating the Spaniards with the incense of the native gums, indicated by signs that if they were not well off their shores before the fire had gone out, their warriors would attack and destroy them.

Map of Yucatan


Well had it been for Cordova and his soldiers had they taken this advice and returned to Cuba. Escaping from this place unharmed they were driven by lack of water to go on shore below Campeche. They landed at an Indian town called Champotan, where, while they were sinking wells, they were attacked by Indian warriors, armed with shields and two-handed swords, their bodies protected by defensive armor of quilted cotton, their faces painted black, white, and red, and with plumes of feathers in their hair. They were the fiercest Indians the Spaniards had yet encountered; they fought bravely, and though they for the first time heard the report of firearms and witnessed their destructive effects, they finally drove the Spaniards to their boats, with the loss of half their number in killed, and every one of them wounded but one. Then, indeed, were the Spaniards glad to set sail for Cuba, first making for the coast of Florida for water, for they were perishing of thirst. Brave Captain Cordova had received no less than twelve serious wounds from arrows, from the effects of which he died a few days after reaching Cuba. They found water on the coast of Florida, where they touched, but while engaged in refreshing themselves and in washing their wounds they were set upon by savages, and the only man who escaped from Champotan without a hurt was killed or carried into captivity. In pitiable state, with only two vessels, and these in a sinking condition, they at last reached Cuba with their dying captain, and the members of the expedition scattered to their various plantations, most of them having had enough of western exploration; but the fame of their discovery got noised about the island, and incited others to follow in the track they had taken.

Voyage of Juan de Grijalva

[A. D. 1518.] The avarice of the Governor of Cuba being excited at the sight of gold, and by the assertions of two Indian captives that the land abounded in it, he fitted out four ships, and placed them in command of a discreet Young man named Juan de Grijalva. Two hundred and forty volunteers were in readiness to accompany him, among whom were several of the last party of the unfortunate Cordova. Chief among these was the skillful pilot Alaminos, and a young soldier named Bernal Diaz, who was one of the conquerors of Mexico, and who, fifty years later, wrote the best account of the Conquest that has ever been given to the world. Driven by the currents farther southward than were the vessels of Cordova, those of Grijalva first made land at the island of Cozumel. Here they found a good harbor, and soon reconciled the inhabitants, who had fled at the sight of the vessels.

With what astonishment must these simple Indians have regarded the great white-winged canoes that came to them from an unknown country, full of bearded men clad in strange garments and with such terrible weapons in their hands!

They had left Cuba on the third of April, 1518, and reached this island of Cozumel eighteen days later. After having made presents to the inhabitants, and having found that there were here great quantities of vegetables, such as sweet potatoes, hives of honey, and great droves of wild hogs, or peccaries, they set sail down the coast. Arrived at Champotan, they attacked and defeated the Indians gathered here (which was an easy matter with their large force and by the assistance of guns placed in the bows of their boats). They were greatly annoyed, during the fight, by clouds of locusts, which flew against their faces with such force that they hardly knew which to put up their shields against, arrows or insects. The coast below was entirely uninhabited, but they found the forests filled with game, especially deer and rabbits, some of which they captured by the aid of a greyhound, which dog wandered into the woods and was left behind. After passing a deep sound, which they named Boca de Terminos, they finally arrived at the mouth of the river Tabasco, which is sometimes called—and with reason—the "River Grijalva," after the brave captain who discovered it.

As they approached the shore, they heard the sound of falling timber, which indicated that the Tabascans  were making preparations for defence; but by the wise policy of Grijalva the chiefs were brought to a peaceful consultation, and, though in great force, they received the Spaniards kindly. They brought them a great quantity of provisions, such as boiled fish, fowls, fruit, and maize bread, and what little gold they possessed, in the shape of golden lizards and birds, and three golden necklaces, not of very great value. The great object of the Spaniards, in all their expeditions, being the discovery of the precious metals, at whatever cost of life or labor to the Indians, they inquired eagerly where it could be obtained. They were told that away in the interior, a long ways off to the west, was a country called Acolhua, or Mexico, where there was a great abundance of gold.

Yucatan ruins.


[A. D. 1518.] This was the first intimation  the Spaniards ever had of Mexico; a fact it would be well to bear in mind in its connection with subsequent events.

The Spaniards had with them the two Indians captured on the expedition of Cordova the year previous, who served as interpreters up to this point. These young men had been baptized, and christened Julian and Melchor. They had also taken off an Indian woman of Jamaica, whom they had found at Cozumel, whither she had been driven in a boat by the currents, and where her husband and companions had been sacrificed.

We may well believe that the imaginations of Grijalva and his followers were all aflame as they coasted this new country, as virgin and unexplored as was Cuba when discovered by Columbus, twenty-five years previously. At the river Goazcoalcos  they saw Indians with shields of tortoise-shell, which, flashing back the sun from their polished surfaces, they took to be of gold. Indians came down to the shore and waved white flags to them as signals to land; perhaps embassadors of Montezuma, who were already on the watch for the white strangers. This was at the River of Banners; they landed and bartered with them, giving them worthless glass beads for precious gold. They were, without doubt, officers of Montezuma, these Indians with the white flags, who had heard of the great battle at Champotan the year previous, and had posted sentinels on the watch all along the Gulf coast. By referring to a previous chapter, you may ascertain the condition of things in the Mexican empire, and learn of the superstitions that caused Montezuma to receive these vagabond Spaniards with gifts worthy royalty itself, when he should have exerted all his power to crush them completely. Calling to mind the legend of Quetzalcoatl, and the strong effect the signs and omens had upon the minds of the Mexicans, you will see that these ships of Grijalva's were supposed by them to contain messengers from the great "Feathered Serpent" himself, who was now coming from the East to resume his charge of the Mexican kingdom.

Landing at this place, the soldiers of Grijalva found the embassadors of Montezuma reclining under some trees, well supplied with provisions of bread, fruit, and fowls. So eager were they to trade and to get objects of the Spaniards to send to their sovereign, that for a small quantity of cut-glass and beads they gave gold to the value of over fifteen thousand crowns! As before had been done, an account of this arrival of the ships was transmitted to Montezuma by his agents, painted on cloth, and served to add fresh fuel to his fears.

At a point on the coast where is now the city of Vera Cruz  Grijalva landed his men, and remained for quite a while. Here they found evidences of that accursed idolatry of the Mexicans, for on a small island in the bay they discovered a temple of stone containing an image of the Mexican god, Tezcatlipoca, and the remains of two boys who had been sacrificed the day before. Four Indian priests met them as they landed on the island, and undertook to fumigate them with incense, as was the custom whenever they had landed in Yucatan. Another small island, where the walls and altars of a temple were stained with the blood of sacrifice, they called Isla de los Sacrificios, or Island of Sacrifices; and the one nearest the shore, as it was told them that the sacrifices there had been done by order of the Indians of Colhua, they called Ulua, and afterwards St. John de Ulua. The fortress that guards the harbor of the city of Vera Cruz is built upon this island.

No more Indians coming to trade, and the mosquitoes being "very importunate," Juan de Grijalva sent the soldier Alvarado back to Cuba in one of the vessels, with the sick and wounded of the company, and all the gold he had got, while he with the three other vessels kept on as far north as the river Panuco. At the mouth of one of the rivers they met with some very valiant Indians, who nearly succeeded in capturing their smallest vessel, and a little beyond this point, finding nothing further of value or interest, they turned about and retraced their route to Cuba,

In the province of Goazcoalcos they found some more gold, and here the soldiers nearly went wild over the extraordinary bargains they were making with the Indians for their golden hatchets. Every Indian had a little hatchet of a golden hue, which he carried about with him, and readily parted with for a few glass beads. More than six hundred were obtained by the company, and every man fancied himself rich; but when they had arrived in Cuba it was found that these supposed treasures were almost worthless, as they were all of copper!  The Governor of Cuba, Velasquez, could not be other than well pleased at the success of Grijalva's expedition, for he brought back gold to the amount of twenty thousand crowns; yet he pretended to blame this most generous and upright of all the explorers because he had not planted a colony. In his next expedition, which was nearly fitted out at the time of Grijalva's return, he neglected the claims of this intrepid young man, and bestowed the command upon another—greatly to his cost, as we shall later see.