Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

The Siege of Mexico

[A. D. 1520.] the Mexican capital, during the time the Spaniards were recuperating at Tlascala, was a scene of incessant activity. Knowing the character of Cortez and his companions: that they would some day return to avenge their defeat, the inhabitants lost no time in putting their city in a condition to resist them. Undismayed by the distressing losses of the past year, the death of their king, and the greater part of their nobility, the destruction of some of their principal temples and important buildings, they bent every energy to the repairing of the ravages caused by the Spaniards.

Cuitlahuatzin, whom they had elected king to succeed his brother, Montezuma, was the general of the army, and a man of great talents and sagacity; his military skill and great bravery had given him a reputation throughout all Mexico; he exhibited his energy and talents for diplomacy by immediately despatching embassies to every province of the empire, promising to relieve from tribute all those who would unite in the defense of the crown. It was he who had sent the embassadors to Tlascala soliciting their allegiance. He repaired the buildings and fortifications of the capital; and it is believed that had he lived Mexico would not have been taken upon the return of the Spaniards.

[Summer of 1520.] Unfortunately, he reigned but a few months, for he soon fell a victim to smallpox, a disease that had been introduced into Mexico in the person of a slave in the army of Narvaez; but one of the many curses brought by those adventurers from the Old World to the inhabitants of the New. This dreadful scourge spread throughout the whole Mexican empire, and many thousands perished, and in many instances whole towns and cities were depopulated. Though the Spaniards do not appear to have suffered much themselves from this dread disease they were the means of bringing to this unhappy country, yet many of their Indian friends, especially the Cempoallans, fell a prey to it, and many of the Tlascallans, including the great chief, their friend Maxicatzin.

As successor to Cuitlahuatzin the Mexicans chose his nephew, a spirited young man of about twenty-five years, named Guatemotzin  as their king, and under this intrepid man, the eleventh King of Mexico, the capital was placed in a posture of defence. Cortez himself was not idle, for as soon as his wounds were cured by the Indian surgeons, he commenced preparations for a renewal of his designs upon Mexico. He sent to the coast for such reinforcements and supplies as the commander at Vera Cruz could spare, and in order to allay a feeling of discontent which was becoming general in the army, he marched his men upon the neighboring refractory tribes. He subjugated a province on the borders of Tlascala, the inhabitants of which had murdered some Spaniards on their way to Vera Cruz, and marched from city to city, inflicting great punishment, declaring many of their citizens slaves and branding them with hot irons. The people of these provinces all made a stubborn defence, in which they were greatly assisted by Mexican troops; but all to no avail; the Spaniards were soon masters of all the country about Tlascala, and opened unobstructed routes of communication, not only with the coast at Vera Cruz, but with the borders of the great lake of Tezcoco.

In one expedition, however, they lost one of their captains and eighty soldiers, which was a great offset to the victories they had gained; and others of the soldiers becoming discontented, Cortez sent them to the coast to take passage for Cuba. He despatched one of his captains to the island of Hispaniola for arms and reinforcements, and another to the court of Spain with a long letter to his sovereign, Charles V., describing his doings up to that time, and with a portion of the royal treasure saved from Mexico.

Several vessels arrived about this time with arms, ammunition and soldiers destined for a settlement on the river Panuco, and sent out by the Governor of Jamaica. As they reached the port of Vera Cruz these forces were easily diverted into the interior, joining Cortez, who found himself much strengthened and encouraged by this important addition to his command. Never for a moment had this intrepid leader abandoned his intentions upon Mexico, and he now drew reinforcements and accumulated supplies from every available quarter. He sent into the forests of Tlascala a noted man of his command, a most skilful shipwright, named Martin Lopez, with orders to get out timber for some brigantines. From the senate of Tlascala he obtained a hundred men of burden to be sent to the coast for the iron, sails, and rigging of the vessels he had dismantled the previous year. He obtained tar from the pine trees of the mountains, other material from various sources, and all this was finally transported to Tezcoco, where the brigantines were put together and launched upon the lake. He was now in command of forty or fifty cavalry and five hundred and fifty infantry; and, having resolved to make his headquarters at the ancient capital of Tezcoco, he set out for that place after having been joined by ten thousand Indians of Tlascala.

In two days they had passed through the mountains, and on the twenty-eighth of December they again looked upon the beautiful valley of Mexico, from which they had been driven five months previous. As they approached Tezcoco they were met by a party of embassadors carrying a golden banner, which they presented to Cortez as a token of peace. They had been sent by Coanacotzin, King of Tezcoco, to invite the Spanish general to his court, and to request him not to commit any hostilities in his province. Though Cortez desired to capture the king, and to obtain revenge for the death of forty-five Spaniards and three hundred Tlascallans, who had been killed while passing through, laden with gold, silver, and arms for the Spaniards (at that time in Mexico), yet he returned him a message of friendship. Apprehensive of ill-treatment at the hands of Cortez, who had caused the death of his brother, Cacamatzin, and his uncle, Montezuma, the king fled to Mexico at night.

Among the prisoners who escaped the slaughter on the night of the retreat from Mexico was Cuicuicatzin, whom Cortez and Montezuma had placed upon the throne of Tezcoco and then removed, and who, having fled from Tlascala to the court of Tezcoco, was killed by this same brother, Coanacotzin. It seems, then, that his fears respecting the danger to his life from Cortez were perfectly justifiable, and that he did well in seeking protection at the Mexican court.

[Dec. 1520.] It was on the last day of December, 1520, that they arrived at Tezcoco, where they discovered things in a state of confusion; but some of the nobles came up to meet them and conducted them to one of the palaces of the late King Nezahualcoyotl, which was large enough to contain twelve hundred men. Here they saw those temples and palaces, which have been described in previous chapters, and ascending one of them some of the officers beheld the women and children of the city fleeing to the lake border and hiding in the rushes and canoes. This warned Cortez to be upon his guard, as the people evidently meditated a revolt. Though he ordered his men to remain within their quarters and to commit no act of aggression upon the inhabitants, Cortez already had a large party in his favor in the friends of the youngest Prince of Tezcoco, Ixtlilxochitl, whom he now elevated to the vacant throne. This young man, whose warlike proclivities we have already referred to, was, next to the Tlascallans, the ablest ally of the Spaniards, and of essential service to them in the subjugation of the Aztec capital.

The city of Tezcoco, having been next to Mexico the most important in Anahuac, contained substantial houses and fortified temples and palaces. Situated upon the eastern shore of Lake Tezcoco, having in full sight the Mexican capital, but nine miles distant, and the broad plains behind it yielding sustenance for the support of a large army, this city was an advantageous position from which to conduct the siege of the city of the Aztecs.

No sooner was he well established here than Cortez sent out various expeditions to subdue different towns and cities about the lake. The first of these that felt the force of his arms was the beautiful city of Iztapalapa, the magnificent gardens and buildings of which had attracted the attention of the Spaniards on their first approach to the valley. The principal motive for the destruction of this city was that it had been the residence of the celebrated Cuitlahuatzin, who had been instrumental in driving them from the city of Mexico. He marched upon it with more than two hundred soldiers and three thousand Tlascallans, and entered the city, the troops defending it feigning a retreat, and the inhabitants fleeing to their canoes. While they were busy sacking the city and setting fire to the houses an alarm was given that the streets were under water and the water of the lake rapidly pouring in upon them. Being situated between the two great lakes and intersected by canals it was only necessary in order to flood the city to cut the dikes, and this the self-sacrificing inhabitants had done, preferring the destruction of their homes to their occupation by the hated invaders. They would all have been drowned had it not been for the timely warning by the Tlascallan sentinels, and as it was, some were cut off, all their booty was lost, and the army returned to Tezcoco in very bad humor. The city of Chalco, on the eastern border of a lake of the same name, was next delivered from the Mexican troops which occupied it by an army under the gallant Sandoval, and renewed its allegiance to the Spanish king. This was one of the most important cities about the lakes, being a great resort of the merchants. It had been often in rebellion against the Aztec power, and gladly seized the opportunity of freeing itself from their dominion.

Information now coming down from the mountains that the timber for the brigantines was hewn and ready for transportation, Cortez sent Sandoval with two hundred men to guard its transportation to the lake. It was a long distance from the mountain forests of Tlascala to the borders of Lake Tezcoco, but the hardy natives, inured to fatigue, cheerfully carried the weight of this material, which was to contribute so much to the defeat of their enemies. Eight thousand Tlascallans carried on their backs the timber, ready shaped, for every part of the thirteen vessels. Two thousand were laden with provisions, and eight thousand more acted as a guard of defence. They were led by their valiant chieftain, Chichimecatl, until Tezcoco was approached, when Sandoval placed his men in the vanguard, and assigned the Indian chief the rear. This gave great offence to the brave Chichimecatl, until it was explained to him by the Spaniards that in their country the rear was considered the post of honor, when his pride was pacified. Two days later this great body arrived at Tezcoco, which they entered in triumph, dressed in their finest regalia, wearing great plumes of feathers on their heads, and marching to the sound of horns, drums and trumpets. So long was this procession that they were six hours in entering the city, during which time they kept up their patriotic shouts of "Castilla! Tlascala! Castilla! Tlascala!"

The timber was carried to the edge of the lake and deposited at the docks, where the vessels were put together with the greatest expedition, though the workmen were constantly harassed by Mexican soldiers, who came across the lake in canoes, and made several attempts to destroy the ship-yards by fire. Owing to the vigilance of the King of Mexico, his troops were continually crossing the lake in their canoes and annoying the Spaniards and their allies, and every day skirmishes were passing between them. There was on the borders of the lake, not far from Tezcoco, a vast field of Indian corn, the produce of which usually went to the priests of Mexico. When it was time to reap the harvest the Mexicans crossed over in upwards of a thousand canoes, and attacked the allies who were engaged in gathering the corn with such vigor that they were only repulsed after a long and stubborn fight.

While the vessels were in process of construction, Cortez availed himself of the presence of the Tlascallan troops, some thirty thousand in number, to advance around the lake nearly to the city of Mexico. He even penetrated as far as the town of Tacuba, not three miles distant from the capital, and reached the famous causeway where, nine months before, he had suffered that fatal defeat. It came near being the scene of a second disaster, for the Mexicans, feigning retreat, drew him along the causeway into an ambuscade, and then fell so furiously upon his troops that he only extricated them with the greatest difficulty. The Mexicans ironically invited them to enter their capital, assuring them that their priests were waiting to sacrifice them, and boasting that they would no longer find a Montezuma to deal with, but a king unaffected by bribes or threats. Cortez retreated to Tezcoco, followed by the Mexicans most of the way, who heaped insults upon his troops and attributed their return to cowardice.

The province of Chalco, lying south of Tezcoco, and southeast of Mexico, being rich and populous, was the scene of continual warfare between the rival forces, each struggling desperately for its possession. Several times its capital, the city of Chalco, had been the field of bloody strife between the Spanish and Mexican soldiers, for no sooner were the latter driven out than the indefatigable Guatemotzin again covered the lake with his war-canoes. At last Cortez resolved upon a general invasion of the province, and marching swiftly through the cities of Chalco and Tlalmenalco, he swept his army southward towards the vale of Cuernavaca. He everywhere encountered a determined resistance. At one point, in assailing a garrison entrenched on the top of a steep and rocky hill, the whole army was kept for a time powerless by reason of the great rocks which the Indians rolled clown upon the heads of the assaulting party. At another engagement the slaughter was so great that the waters of a small stream near which it took place were tinged with blood for the space of an hour.

In the valley of Cuernavaca, nearly forty miles distant from Mexico, they found a city considered impregnable from the strength of its natural defences; surrounded on every side but one by deep ravines, it could only be entered by means of bridges, which were raised by the inhabitants as soon as they caught sight of the enemy. While the army was hesitating, unable to advance and much annoyed by the insults and arrows of the Indians on the opposite bank, some of the soldiers, headed by Captain Bernal Diaz, crossed one of the ravines upon two great trees, which, growing upon opposite sides, locked their branches full forty feet above a rapid river. Many other soldiers then crossing upon this perilous bridge, the city was soon taken and given up to fire and pillage.

Having received the allegiance of the lord of this city, Cortez faced his army northward, in the direction of Mexico, his objective point being the large and beautiful city of Xochimilco, the fourth in the valley in point of size and population, and celebrated far and near for the magnificence of its buildings and the beauty of its floating gardens. Its inhabitants only yielded after a long and obstinate struggle, during which they killed and wounded many of the attacking force. The news of the fall of this great and important city, situated less than twelve miles from the capital, having reached the ears of the King of Mexico, he at once despatched to it two thousand canoes and an army of ten thousand warriors, who nearly succeeded in retaking it, killing many of the Spaniards and wounding a great number. They also captured four of them alive and sent them to Mexico to be sacrificed, which being done, their arms and legs were exhibited as trophies in various parts of Anahuac.

Having sacked the city, Cortez departed to examine the causeway of Iztapalapa, and thence marched upon the city of Coyohuacan, whence another causeway led to the city of Mexico. Leaving this city, which he found deserted, he swung his army past Chapultepec, to Tlacopan and Tacuba, which he thus visited for the third time. Having viewed, from the summit of one of the temples of Tacuba, the ever-memorable causeway leading thence to Mexico, he departed for Tezcoco, constantly subjected to attacks from flying troops of the enemy. In this long expedition the Spaniards marched completely around the great lakes; and though their losses were large, nearly every survivor having received a wound, and Cortez himself having been severely injured and twice in danger of capture, what they had accomplished was of the most vital importance to the success of their future operations against the Mexican capital.

The brigantines were now completed and ready for launching, for which purpose a canal, a mile and a half in length, twelve feet deep, and twelve broad, was dug by the Indian laborers, eight thousand persons having been employed fifty days at this work. Ships, with arms, gun-powder, and reinforcements, had meanwhile landed on the coast and brought them valuable acquisitions; among them was "a very holy and reverend father," bringing with him "bulls from the pope" to compose the consciences of the soldiers for the murders they had committed, and were about to commit, in this war for the conversion of the unregenerate Mexicans. This "holy man "amassed a fortune in a few months, and soon returned to Spain to live at ease.

About this time a conspiracy was formed against the life of Cortez, a party having resolved to assassinate him while at dinner, but this was discovered in season and the chief conspirator hanged.

[April, 1521.] On the twenty-eighth day of April, the thirteen brigantines, which had cost such an immense amount of labor, and which were to play so important a part in the siege of the island-capital, were launched upon the lake to the roar of artillery and the sound of military music. At a review of his army, made in the great square of Tezcoco, Cortez found it to contain eighty-six cavalry, seven hundred infantry, armed with sword and buckler and lance, and about one hundred musketeers and cross-bow men, with three large cannon, a thousand pounds of powder, fifteen small copper field-pieces, and a large supply of balls and arrows. Word was now sent to the allies, who quickly assembled to the number of seventy thousand men, one of the towns in alliance also sending eight thousand arrow-heads of copper for the use of the cross-bow men. Having assembled this vast host at Tezcoco, Cortez issued his orders for their guidance. "First, no person to utter any blasphemy against the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Virgin, the holy apostles, nor any other of the saints, under heavy penalties; second, no soldier to ill-treat the allies, nor to absent himself from his quarters under any pretence; every soldier to be fully provided with arms; no soldier to stake his horse or arms in gaming; no soldier to sleep out of his armor nor without his weapons beside him; the penalty of death to be inflicted for sleeping at his post, absence from quarters without leave, or flight in battle."

Gonzalez de Sandoval.


[May, 1521.] On the twentieth day of May, the general-in-chief assigned the different divisions of the army to their posts about the valley: Captain Alvarado, with two hundred soldiers, twenty thousand Tlascallans, and two pieces of artillery, was appointed to Tlacopan; Captain Olid marched with Alvarado around the northern border of the lake, and beyond, to the city of Coyoacan, having about the same number of soldiers and cannon; Captain Sandoval was given a nearly equal number of horse, infantry, and cannon, in order to go and possess the city of Iztapalapa. Among the thirteen brigantines were distributed three hundred and twenty-five men; each vessel containing twelve soldiers, twelve rowers, and a copper canton.

An unhappy incident occurred at this time which deprived the Tlascallans of one of their leaders and gave Cortez an opportunity for committing an arbitrary and revengeful act. Among the native nobles who accompanied Alvarado was the valiant general, Xicotencatl, the same who had resisted so manfully the entry of the Spaniards into Tlascala. When the Spaniards had sought refuge in that republic after their expulsion from Mexico he had advised the senate to seize the opportunity for ridding their territory of such dangerous allies, being one of the few wise enough to foresee the evil they would bring upon them. By this means, though he had now joined the Spaniards with the forces under his command, he had gained the enmity of Cortez, who only waited a fitting time to destroy him. This time had now arrived, for Xicotencatl, incensed at the insulting treatment of a friend, who had been wounded by a Spanish officer, secretly left the army and set out for Tlascala. Cortez immediately sent officers in pursuit of him, giving orders to hang him as a traitor, which command was carried into effect in a small town near Tezcoco. The real motive for this outrageous proceeding appears, when we find that Cortez seized upon his family of thirty wives, and his property, a large part of which was jewels and, gold.

The captains, Alvarado and Olid, continued together with their forces as far as Chapultepec, where, after a hard fight with the Mexicans, they destroyed the only aqueduct, which supplied pure water to the capital. Then they retreated to the positions respectively assigned them: Alvarado to Tlacopan, and Olid to Coyoacan, while Sandoval proceeded by land, and Cortez by water, to Iztapalapa, which place they carried by storm. As soon as they were in possession of the city, they perceived signals of smoke arising, such as had been sent up by the Mexicans when they entered the valley, and a large fleet of canoes filled with warriors came out against them. A fresh breeze springing up at this time filled the sails of the brigantines, and the Spaniards bore clown upon the canoes, overturning many of them and destroying many others with shot from the cannon.

Christoval de Olid.


Captain Olid was posted on a branch of the main causeway that led from Iztapalapa to Mexico, and setting his forces in motion he joined with Sandoval at the junction of these roads, where there was a strong fortress in possession of the Mexicans. The two captains attacked this stronghold by land, assisted by Cortez with his brigantines, and soon reduced it, committing a great slaughter of the garrison with their cannon. This place, known as Xoloc, Cortez at once seized upon for the establishment of his camp making it his headquarters until the close of the siege.

Every causeway except one was now in possession of the Spaniards, and this one, that leading to the north, was a few days later taken and held by Alvarado, thus rendering the investment of the city complete, and cutting off all communication, except by water, of the doomed inhabitants with the outside world.