Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

After the Overthrow

[A. D. 1521-1530.] Gold and treasure were found in such small quantities that Guatemotzin, the late emperor, was suspected of having concealed it. The disappointed soldiers and officers had forgotten that they had exhausted the treasure of Montezuma during their first occupation of the city. From the plundering of the dead Mexicans and the sacking of empty houses they turned in disgust upon Cortez, demanding that he should compel the emperor to reveal the place where he had buried his treasure. Cortez, conqueror of a million Mexicans, intrepid leader of a band of adventurers, who had been the life and soul of this bloody enterprise, had not the courage to withstand the importunities of these assassins. They insinuated that he was treating Guatemotzin with kindness in order to obtain from him the valuable secret and appropriate the booty, and to clear himself of such suspicions he delivered the unfortunate monarch over to be tortured. It availed the Indian emperor little that Cortez had promised him protection; for he was to be served worse than had been his cousin, Montezuma. His feet were soaked in oil and burned over a slow fire; but this cruel act only extorted from him the confession that he had thrown the little remaining of his treasure into the lake. He bore the torture with great courage, even mildly rebuking a companion who shared it with him for weakly crying out. His life was spared for the time, but his friend died of the torment.

Bust of Guatemotzin.


Expert swimmers and divers searched the places pointed out by Guatemotzin, but recovered nothing of value, except a sun of gold in a deep pond in his garden. The whole sum collected amounted to only three hundred and eighty thousand crowns, and, after deducting the shares belonging to the king and the officers, that falling to the soldiers was so small that few of them would take it. The most curious of the works of gold, some pearls, and a magnificent emerald, pyramid-shaped, the largest they had ever seen,—in fact, the greatest portion of the treasure, was sent to the Emperor of Spain, Charles V. The ship containing it, and also messengers bearing letters from Cortez to the emperor, was captured by a French cruiser and the valuable booty transferred to France. It was a cause of great sorrow and chagrin to the Spaniards to learn that this royal gift, which they had toiled so hard to obtain, which had cost so many lives, and for which they had even sacrificed their souls, had been diverted into the coffers of a strange king. The King of France and his subjects rejoiced greatly, and the former is said to have then had his eyes opened to the extent of the possessions of his brothers, the Kings of Spain and Portugal, in the New World. He sent over to them asking how it was that they had agreed to divide the world between them without giving him a share, and asked to see the will of our father Adam, by which he had made them exclusively his heirs.

The downfall of the Aztec capital was also that of the empire; the Spaniards were now masters of the entire territory, except certain remote portions, which they soon subdued. Indians from all parts of the country flocked to the vale of Anahuac to look upon the ruins of a city that had seemed to them impregnable. The great kingdom of Michoacan was the first to send embassadors to the conquerors. After sending several messengers, the king himself came to behold with his own eyes that which his ears refused to credit. He brought a large quantity of gold and pearls, and declared himself a tributary of the King of Spain. Spanish soldiers were sent back into his country, and through it to the coast of the Pacific, at Colima.

In two months the city had been cleansed and was ready for occupation. To the Indians, Cortez assigned one district, and to the Spaniards he gave another. That portion formerly occupied by the temples and royal palaces had been levelled to the ground; the remainder of the city was nearly in ruins. Buildings were repaired, and the work of construction immediately commenced; and (as predicted by the Aztecs) the very Indians who had assisted in the demolition were compelled by the Spaniards to devote themselves to the labor of building up the new city. Substantial and beautiful structures were rapidly reared, and in a few years this ancient centre of trade and capital became again mistress of Mexico. In the Indian quarter of Tlaltelolco thirty thousand Indians found shelter, and two thousand families occupied the district assigned to the Spaniards.

Expeditions for conquest and colonization were sent east, south, and west. The gallant Sandoval was sent to Goatzcoalcos to punish some people who had murdered a party of soldiers, and to settle a colony. Finding that the vicinity of Mexico, though it had a most delightful climate, did not abound either in mines or rich plantations, many of the soldiers preferred to seek new territory. From the books which contained the accounts of the tribute paid in former years to Montezuma they ascertained the provinces richest in gold, cotton, and cacao, and begged of Cortez to send them there.

The natives of Panuco, northeast of Anahuac rose in rebellion, and were only pit down after a series of hard-fought battles, and the troops were called in other directions, rarely being allowed to remain inactive for any length time.

[A. D. 1522.] In this year Captain Alvarado was sent to conquer the country of the Zapotecs, in the province of Oaxaca (pronounced Wah-hah-kah). This he succeeded in doing, completely subjugating the people of this rich and fertile valley, and procuring a great deal of gold. The natives even made for him stirrups of gold  after patterns he furnished them.

On the 15th of October of this year the emperor signed the commission of Cortez as Captain-General, Governor, and Chief Justice of New Spain. He was now established in the position he had sought to obtain. In spite of the opposition of Velasquez, Governor of Cuba, and Fonseca, Bishop of Burgos, who had sought to have him declared a traitor, arrested, and sent to Spain, the emperor now recognized the great value of his services, and justly rewarded them. From the time of the development of the enmity of Velasquez against him to this, he had remained loyal to his sovereign. In disconnecting himself from the Governor of Cuba, and making himself responsible directly to the emperor, he had ever in view the possibility of his motives being mistaken. He had, hence, used every endeavor to prove his fealty, to impress the emperor with the fact that all his conquests were in his name. For this reason he had despoiled the soldiers of their share of the captured treasure at Vera Cruz, at Mexico, before and after the capture, and sent a vast amount to the court. Charles V. could not be insensible to the fidelity and great value of the services of this remarkable man, who had added to his empire a domain larger than the whole of Castile. Cortez was also as expert with the pen as with the sword, as the letters written at various times during the conquest remain to testify. Immediately upon retiring from the ruined city to the suburb of Coyoacan, he sat clown to write a most graphic and temperate account of the whole proceedings.

He had evaded the various officials sent out by the Governor of Cuba with authority of the king to arrest him or to suspend his operations, sending some away with bribes and others by force, and now he was in the position he had so long coveted, with all his acts sanctioned by the king, and accountable to him alone.

The first government was really a military one, with Cortez as chief, but there existed the Ayuntamiento, or body of magistrates, first appointed by Cortez himself in Vera Cruz at the outset of his career of conquest. This body had authority over the distribution of land to colonists, the building of new cities, location of market-places, and the promulgation of laws for the health, order, and security of the new settlers. In a word, they were a very respectable body, and many of their ordinances and regulations have been observed in Mexico from 1522 to the present day. Later, the Audiencia, composed of lawyers, generally five, under the name of oidores, dispensed justice and the laws. Then there were visiting and resident justices, and swarms of lawyers soon came over from the mother country to lend their assistance, notwithstanding the prayers of Cortez to the emperor that he would keep these pestiferous meddlers away from the colony.

The Aztecs, once subjugated, occasioned no more trouble; they were virtually slaves, as well as all the Indians of the country, except the Tlascallans, who were made exempt on account of their unequalled services in bringing the country under the dominion of Spain. By the iniquitous system of repartimientos—apportionments—that had for some years prevailed in the West Indies, and under which the Indians of Hayti became exterminated, the natives of Mexico were doomed to perpetual slavery! They were condemned to work in the mines, to cultivate the soil, to do the most degrading labor, in a country they had once owned and in which the Spaniards were usurpers. The misery of conquest only commenced with the surrender of the people, for more died under the lash of the task-master than by the sword. The Indians of the West Indies soon perished under the horrible cruelties practised upon them, but the Mexicans, besides being by nature more hardy, later had the benefit of tardy laws, and their descendants exist to-day.

The soldiers of one Francisco de Garay, who had attempted a settlement at the mouth of the river Panuco, were now roaming the country in bands, robbing and maltreating the Indians. These at last could endure it no longer and rose upon them, killing several hundred in all. When Cortez heard of these outrages, he despatched Sandoval with a hundred Spaniards and eight thousand Tlascallan and Mexican troops to punish and subdue them. This he did, after a desperate battle, and acting on the orders of Cortez, who sent an alcalde  with legal instructions, he put to death many of the caciques, burning some and hanging others. In a short time quiet was restored, and the straggling bands of soldiers belonging to Garay, (who had meanwhile died in Mexico) were gathered together and sent back to the island of Cuba.

[Dec. 1523.] The most important of the expeditions sent out after the pacification of the empire was one, under Pedro de Alvarado, for the conquest of Guatemala. This was successfully accomplished after a great deal of hard fighting, and this vast province added to the Spanish possessions.

Another force was put under the command of Christoval de Oli, a brave captain, and sent by sea to Honduras. Cortez ever had in mind the discovery of a strait through the continent which might lead to the Spice Islands. Columbus had the same desire and followed this delusion southward, away from Mexico and Yucatan, the coast of which he saw but did not visit. De Oli arrived at his destination in May, and subjugated the country, but eventually threw off all dependence upon Cortez and conducted himself in such a manner as to bring clown upon his head the latter's vengeance. Fighting was constantly going on in various parts of the country, especially in the south and south-west in the provinces of Tabasco, Oaxaca and Chiapas; but always resulting in Spanish victories and the bringing of the natives under subjection.

Ruins of Milta, near Oaxaca.


Although Cortez was industrious in establishing his well-earned reputation as conqueror of New Spain at the royal court, and it securing land-grants and titles for himself and his relations, he yet persistently ignored the claims of his old comrades in arms. He employed them to the last in battles and fatiguing marches, but did not reward as he ought those valiant soldiers who had contributed to his elevation.

The tribute of gold was carefully hoarded and his majesty's fifth religiously set apart, for upon royal favor alone depended the stay of Cortez in power, even in the country which he had conquered by the force of his own arms. Among other royal presents especially worthy of note was a golden culverin, or small cannon, a superb piece of workmanship, engraved with a flattering verse in praise of Charles V. This was valued at twenty thousand ducats, but after it had ceased to be a novelty the emperor gave it to one of his officers. In compliance with the petitions of Cortez and his companions, priests and monks were sent as soon as possible to the new country, to conquer by the cross such as the sword had left. The first body of twelve Franciscans, though they came out as "poor brothers," barefooted and with ragged habits, were received with great state. Cortez gave directions for the road from Vera Cruz to the capital to be put in order, houses to be built at certain distances for them to refresh in, and for the inhabitants of every town to meet them in procession, with the ringing of bells and with candles and crucifixes. As they approached Mexico he went out to meet them, and kneeling at the feet of the leader, reverently kissed his hand. This example of humility had its due effect upon the natives, who henceforth regarded these barefooted beggars as gods, and flocked to their preaching in such multitudes that thousands were converted to the most holy faith in a single month.

[A. D. 1524.] Upon learning that De Off had cast off his allegiance to him as Captain-General, Cortez sent another expedition to Honduras to kill him and take charge of the colony. The vessels were wrecked and part of the force destroyed, but eventually the leader, Las Casas, murdered De Oli through treachery, and brought his people over to acknowledge Cortez. Ignorant of this turn of affairs, and suspecting that his fleet had come to grief, Cortez, as time passed on and no news arrived of the colony, determined to set out himself upon a march to Honduras. It was characteristic of the man, not to be satisfied so long as a portion of his territory—even though a small and distant one—remained unsubjected to his will.

A church in Mexico.


While he was preparing for this long journey—for it was to be by land, and through untraversed forests—there arrived in Mexico some officers of the king, sent out to inquire into his conduct of affairs, and to assume charge of the government if such a measure should be necessary. In their hands, though very unwillingly, Cortez left the charge of affairs, and set out on his long and dangerous march. Though the city and valley were well garrisoned, he took with him Guatemotzin, the late emperor, and the Prince of Tacuba, as hostages, to prevent a rebellion of the natives. Having in view the settlement of the new country to be traversed, he tool: along a large drove of swine, which followed his army, feeding by the way. Many officers of his household, a service of gold and silver plate, musicians, priests, jugglers, and many other superfluous persons and articles, he took with him, which before the march was ended he wished himself rid of. His force consisted of three hundred infantry and cavalry, three thousand Indians, and several pieces of artillery. They arrived at the province of Goatzcoalcos, and here pressed into their service the old comrades of Cortez, who, now living quietly on their farms, had thought their days of fighting over. This was the province of which the talented Indian woman, Marina, who had served the Spaniards so long as interpreter, was a native. There Cortez got rid of his mistress—this woman who had contributed more towards the conquest than any thousand of his soldiers,—by marrying her to one of his soldiers, and assigning her lands in the province of her birth. Beyond this province they soon became entangled in the vast labyrinth of rivers and marshes of the present state of Tabasco, and daily lost numbers of their men by hunger and fatigue.

[A. D. 1525.] It was while his army was in this condition, wandering through the forests of a vague and unknown country, threatened with death by starvation, that Cortez performed that revolting act—the crowning one of a long series of cruelties—the hanging of Guatemotzin. Knowing that this magnanimous chieftain had it now in his power to destroy him and his weakened forces, and to return to Mexico and head an insurrection, Cortez hung him and the Prince of Tacuba to a tree.

As he was being led to the place of his death, surrounded by the minions of Cortez, the priests, he turned upon him and sorrowfully said: "Malintzin, now I find in what your false words and promises have ended—in my death! Better had I fallen by my own hands than trust myself in your power in my city of Mexico. Why do you thus un justly take my life? May God demand of you this innocent blood!" To this appeal all lovers of justice and haters of iniquity will say, amen!

In this manner, disgracefully hung upon a ceiba  tree in the depths of the Tabascan forest, perished Guatemotzin, heroic defender of Mexico, noble and dauntless American, last of the Aztec monarchs. That seared and scorched remnant of a conscience that this monster, Cortez, still possessed, was much disturbed for a few days after this event, and while wandering about restlessly at night he fell from a native temple and injured himself severely. Troubles and dangers thickened upon him at every step; the forests became well nigh impenetrable; they were obliged to build long bridges to cross broad marshes and deep rivers; their provisions were long since exhausted, and for his share of the scant supplies obtained from the natives Cortez was obliged to quarrel with his soldiers. Their only guide through this wilderness was a map painted by the Indians of Goatzcoalcos, used by their merchants in their journeys through that country. The natives furnished them as guides being ignorant of the trail, this was their dependence, together with a compass Cortez had with him and to which the superstitious Indians ascribed supernatural powers. In the end, after enduring privations more terrible than had before befallen them on any expedition in Mexico, a remnant of the force arrived at the settlement in Honduras. With the same vigor as of old, Cortez applied himself to gaining that territory, and even planned a journey to Nicaragua.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, things were in a very disturbed state, the men left in power quarrelling among themselves and maltreating both the natives and their conquerors. It was given out that Cortez and his army had perished, and their property was divided amongst others, and large sums paid to the priests for masses for the repose of their souls. Letters finally reached Cortez of the condition of affairs, and he was so distressed that he nearly lost his reason. Fate seemed now to have turned against him, as he tried several times to embark and was driven back by contrary winds and currents. At last he succeeded in coasting the shores of Yucatan and landing at Mexico, where he was received with rejoicings by the people. The natives swept the road before him, strewing flowers on his way, and he entered the capital, from which he had been twenty months absent, in triumph.

A long while after, the wretched veterans of his army returned by way of Guatemala, having been, some of them, over two years absent from their homes. The sound of rejoicings had scarcely died away when news came that a royal officer, Luis Ponce de Leon, had arrived from Spain, to take the government from his hands and institute investigations as to his conduct. This gentlemen survived but a little while his entry into Mexico, and the one he had appointed his successor also dying soon, it was rumored that Cortez had poisoned them. It was then brought to mind that the wife of Cortez, whom he exceedingly disliked, had also died soon after joining her husband, after the conquest, and that the unfortunate Garay had expired while a guest in his house. There was great reason for these reports to contain truth, as all were persons whose removal Cortez desired, and whose deaths were attended by suspicious circumstances.

[A. D. 1527.] In order to vindicate actions in the past, and to clear his character from these and other aspersions, Cortez resolved to set sail for Spain and present himself before the king. Although much of his property had been lost to him during his departure on the Honduras expedition, and though he could not obtain from the priests the large sum that had been paid them to say masses, and which had been transferred to another he yet had possessions to a vast amount.

At the same time that judges were appointed to proceed to Mexico and inquire into the charges against Cortez, the first Bishop of Mexico, John de Zumarraga, a Franciscan, was nominated with a commission to be "protector of the Indians." With him went forty Dominican friars, and forty Franciscans followed later, with money from the king for the building of a monastery.

Cortez fitted up a ship and sailed for Spain, in a manner befitting the conqueror of New Spain, taking with him a son of Montezuma, one of the chiefs of Tlascala, and several other Indians, as interesting specimens of the people to exhibit to the emperor. Four of these were those jugglers so expert in swinging and in balancing heavy timbers on their feet. He landed at Palos in December, 1527, at which place, shortly after, died his friend, the gallant and noble Sandoval, most trusty captain of the veterans of Mexico.

The presence of Cortez at court allayed all the suspicions of the king, who loaded him with honors. He created him Marquis of the Valley of Oaxaca, assigning lands and estates of great extent to enable him to maintain his elevated rank, and confirmed him in his title of Captain-General of New Spain and the South Sea. He declined, however, to return him to Mexico as Governor of New. Spain, fearing to place in absolute power one so popular among the people. The most Cortez could obtain was permission to fit out two ships on voyages of discovery, with the royal consent to one-twelfth the land he should find and the right to rule over the new colonies.

His wealth and elevated position assisted him to form an alliance with a niece of the Duke of Bejar, his firm friend in times of adversity. The jewels he gave his young and beautiful bride were the richest ever seen in Spain; they were the spoils of Indian princes whom the gallant Cortez had murdered to obtain. But these gems shone resplendent on the person of the fair Donna Juana de Zuniga, and so excited the envy of the queen, Isabella, that from being a friend of Cortez she became his enemy.

He had now entirely forgotten his old comrades, but he sent a rich present to his holiness the Pope, and some of the Indians to dance before him. His holiness was pleased to grant bulls of indulgence to him and his soldiers from the penalties of their sins; and henceforth were their consciences easy; no longer need they fear the ghosts of the millions of murdered Indians they had sent to the land of shades. They were now recognized as apostles of the most holy faith, who had done blessed work in converting the pagan Mexicans from their worship of idols to that of the true God.