Young Folk's History of Mexico - Frederick Ober

Tlascala, Cholula, and Mexico

The Tlascallans never broke faith with the Spaniards, not even when they had them in her power at their capital, nor when, crushed and bleeding, they returned to them from their disastrous defeat at Mexico. Once having made treaty with them, they gave over all thoughts of revenge; the past was completely buried; they received the conquerors into their homes, gave them their sisters and daughters for wives, and what gold the country afforded. This present was small, because, they explained, Montezuma absorbed it all as a condition by which he refrained from a war upon them of extermination. Another present, the second received in Tlascala, now arrived from Montezuma,—jewels and gold, dresses of cotton and beautiful feathers.

It is strange how blind that monarch was to the actual consequences of such an exhibition of his wealth; while he thought to bribe the conquerors to retire, he was only offering stronger inducements for them to advance. It was only the burning desire to witness for themselves the source of all this wonderful wealth that urged them on; but for that, Cortez would long before have been left alone.

The aged senators came out to meet him, in hammocks and litters, and ratified the alliance; they acknowledged themselves as vassals to the King of Spain; a fact very gratifying to Cortez, and humiliating to them, as they had maintained their independence, as a people, from time immemorial.

At the entrance to the city, which the soldiers said would compare favorably with Granada at the time of its capture from the Moors, they were received by a crowd of near one hundred thousand people. Arches of flowers were sprung across the streets by the inhabitants, who gave flowers to the soldiers and hung garlands upon the necks of the horses.

[A. D. 1519.] This day of music and rejoicing was the twenty-third of September, a day celebrated even in modern times by the people of Tlascala. The officers and troops were assigned quarters, each man being given a bed of nequen, or aloe-fibre, to sleep on. Not yet fully satisfied as to the good faith of the Tlascallans, Cortez kept his men under arms, keeping watch at night, and sentinels at the doorways and on the parapets; and when the senate complained of their lack of faith in their good intentions the general told them it was the custom of his country, and they were satisfied. Many of the cotton garments presented by Montezuma were given by Cortez to the Tlascallan chiefs, for, through poverty, they yet wore dresses of nequen, cotton being a coast product, and prohibited.

With all his powers of persuasion, Cortez could not induce these people to turn from their idols, who, they said, gave them rain, and victories over their enemies. He showed them a "beauteous image of our Lady," but, though they promised to respect her, they could not be induced to abandon their other gods in her favor.

The Holy City

The Tlascallans so far yielded to the advice of Cortez as to break the wooden cages in which they confined prisoners destined for sacrifice, to set these wretches free, and promise to desist from this horrid practice in the future. They strongly advised him not to advance any farther, but to settle amongst them with his troops, and they gave him and his officers some of the noblest Indian women as wives, in order to strengthen the alliance between them. They cautioned him against the people of Cholula, their next neighbors, who had formerly been allies of theirs, but who, by a detestable act of treachery, had won their undying hate, and were now subjects, or allies, of Montezuma. There were two roads to the Mexican capital, the most direct was through the country of the Huexotzincos, who had already sent in their allegiance to the King of Spain; the other through the district of Cholula, the residence of the priests of Quetzalcoatl. The embassadors of Montezuma advised them to go by the way of Cholula, because, though the route was longer, they could perform the journey with less discomfort. Cortez sent to ask the Cholulans why they had not offered their congratulations on his arrival, and they returned reply that they feared the Tlascallans, who were a base and treacherous people, but that they now acknowledged themselves vassals of his king, and hoped he would pay them a visit.

Four of the principal nobility of the Mexican court now arrived, with more gold and more mantles, amounting to ten thousand crowns' value of the former, and ten bales of the latter. Montezuma had now changed his policy, probably seeing that the Spaniards were determined to advance at all odds, and thinking perhaps that it would be better to receive them as friends than to allow them to league themselves with his enemies, the Tlascallans. He sent to them, saying that he "wondered at their staying amongst a people so poor and base as the Tlascallans, who were robbers, and unfit even for slaves," and then invited to his capital.

When the Tlascallans saw that Cortez would go to Mexico, and through the district of Cholula, they raised an army of fifty thousand men, foreseeing, no doubt, an opportunity for revenge upon the Cholulans for past offences. Cortez would accept of only six thousand, and even these, when he approached the city of Cholula, were obliged to encamp outside upon the plain.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober


The holy city of the priests was eighteen miles distant from Tlascala, and about sixty from Mexico, situated (as now) in the centre of a beautiful and highly-cultivated plain. It was very populous, containing, according to Cortez himself, who described it in one of his letters, above forty thousand houses. It was celebrated for its commerce and its manufactures of cotton and pottery. Famous above all, was it, as the site of the holy pyramid of Quetzalcoatl, which towered above the plain and supported the sanctuary of that divinity, who (it will be seen, by referring to Chap. II.), dwelt here many years prior to his final departure from Anahuac. The city was full of temples and priests, and the latter came out to meet them, fumigated them with incense, and welcomed them to their houses, except their enemies, the Tlascallans, whom they insisted should camp outside. Cortez could not object to this, and his allies were hutted on the plain, while he and his soldiers were provided with lodgings in the city. These people gave in their allegiance to Cortez without hesitation, but refused to abandon their ancient religion, which was the oldest in the country—that of the Toltecs themselves—and had not the repulsive features of that of the Aztecs and Tlascallans. In fact, it was far superior to that of the Spaniards themselves; it required milder sacrifices, and less bloody deeds were committed in its name.

Now we come to chronicle a deed, the committal of which forever stamps this abandoned crew as the basest, most depraved body of adventurers that ever collected itself together for plunder and murder. Cortez had, or thought he had, just suspicions of treachery on the part of the Cholulans; his allies charged them with it, asserting that Montezuma had secretly sent an army of twenty thousand men to Cholula, and that the people, at a favorable moment, were to rise and massacre every man of the Spanish army. The mistress of Cortez, the faithful Marina, whom he had obtained at Tabasco, pretended that one of the ladies of Cholula had confided to her this fact. The Cempoallan allies, who still continued with Cortez, said they had observed the Cholulans digging pits in the streets for the disabling of the horses, and some of the Tlascallans came in with the news that the women and children were fleeing to the mountains.

The provisions failed about this time, and only wood and water were furnished by the authorities. Calling a consultation of his officers, Cortez asked their opinion, but still held to his own, which agreed with his inclination: to put every man in the city to the sword. He gave out that he would depart on the following day, and secretly sent word to the Tlascallans to storm the city at sunrise and to kill every man they met. Two of the priests were said to have confessed that Montezuma had notice from his gods that the Spaniards were to be delivered into their power at Cholula to be sacrificed, and an old woman had confessed to Marina that her husband, who was a chief, had received from Mexico a present of a golden drum, and that many other presents had been distributed among the chiefs and generals. Next morning, as the nobles assembled to super-intend the removal of the baggage of the Spanish army, and the men of burden were preparing to take up their loads, Cortez ordered the great gates of the court to be closed. There were already assembled in the courts of the immense building in which the Spaniards were lodged, a multitude of people, comprising the flower of Cholulan nobility. After addressing these people, informing them that he knew they were preparing to sacrifice his soldiers, that he knew they had pots already boiling, and seasoning of salt and tomatoes ready for the preparation of their flesh, he ordered his soldiers to fall upon the defenceless crowd. The signal was given by the discharge of a musket; then all those ferocious villains fell upon the Cholulans and slaughtered them without mercy. Not one was left alive; blood flowed in streams, and the groans and cries of the dying rent the air. When all these hundreds had been put to death, the savage Spaniards sallied into the streets, and, together with the fierce Tlascallans, rushed like famished tigers upon the Cholulans. Fire added to the sword in sweeping the city clear of people, and in a short time over six thousand inhabitants had died most miserable deaths.

And all this had been done in revenge for a fancied slight! There was no necessity for the passing of the Spanish army this way; in fact, the other was the shorter road. There was no demand for such a wholesale massacre; there was no certain proof that such was intended against the Spaniards. Even had the Cholulans neglected to supply the army with provisions, they were certainly entitled to excuse on the ground that Cortez had forced himself upon them, and had marched to their city with their deadliest enemies, whom they had every reason to hate. Viewed from any standpoint, this massacre was unjustifiable; yet when the wretched inhabitants—such as had been saved from the fury of the Tlascallans, and the equally savage Spaniards—came creeping back to the smoldering ruins of their homes, Cortez made as though he were the aggrieved one and these miserable women and children the real offenders!

Some of the nobles had been spared, and these begged of him to allow the women and children to return to the city after the massacre was over, for they were wandering in terror and dismay in the mountains. What heart-rending scenes might then have been witnessed, as these helpless innocents groped through the ruins of their once beautiful city in search of fathers, sons, and brothers, greeted by the groans of the dying and the insulting taunts of the victors! The soldiers took a great quantity of booty, gems, gold and silver, while the Tlascallans seized the cotton, feathers, and salt; they also made many slaves.

Nothing more is heard of the army of twenty thousand men that was said to have been sent by Montezuma, and it is thought by many to have existed solely in the imagination of the Spaniards. After passing fourteen days in and about Cholula, Cortez prepared to continue his march to Mexico. He had sent a full account of proceedings to Montezuma, giving his own story, but affecting to believe that the Mexican monarch had nothing to do with it, and the king had sent him another large present, congratulating him on his victory. Whether there was treachery on the part of Montezuma, at whose instigation the Cholulans were to rise upon and sacrifice the Spaniards, or not, seems never to have been fully proven. It seems more in accordance with what we know of Cortez and his band to believe that there was no treachery intended, except by the Spaniards themselves, and the massacre was committed in order to strike terror into the hearts of all the inhabitants of the Mexican valley, and to secure the rich booty that would fall to the share of the victors.

Volcanoes as seen from Mexico.


The Spanish army at last moved out of Cholula, leaving behind them woe and ruin, tears, wounds, death, and lamentation, as they did at Tabasco, and, turning their backs upon the fertile plains, commenced to climb the mountains.

Between them and the central valley of Mexico lay only a ridge of mountains, but a ridge containing two of the highest peaks in North America, which rose directly before them. Popocatapetl  was the name of the highest peak, which, rising to a height of nearly 18,000 feet, had its summit always covered with snow. Popocatapetl is an Indian name, and signifies the "hill that smokes," because it is a volcano, and within the memory of the Indians had belched out smoke and even ashes. A few miles away from this volcano rose another, a long, broken ridge covered with snow, and called Iztaccihuatl—or "the woman in white; "named by the Spaniards, La Mujer Blanca—which signifies the same thing. This name had been given to it on account of its shape, which has a fancied resemblance to a great dead giantess, robed in snowy white. Between these giant mountains ran the trail to Mexico, and from their western slopes the Spaniards first caught sight of the Aztec city, which, though near sixty miles away, could be seen glimmering in the sunlight like a fairy creation of pyramids and palaces.

If Montezuma had really intended harm to the Spanish army this would have been the place, in this gap, where he would, beyond all doubt, have attacked them. For the trail ascends to a height of nearly 14,000 feet, where the winds are of chilling temperature, and the roads wind through great black forests of pine and hemlock, where an Aztec army would have every advantage for an ambuscade. They found nothing to prevent their ascent and descent, except trees felled to obstruct their passage, and another day found them within the limits of the valley of Anahuac, with their goal in sight, at intervals, from the higher hills.

At Cholula, previous to leaving it behind him, Cortez had dismissed the Cempoallans and had accepted from the Tlascallans a thousand men to carry his baggage and draw the artillery. He might have had ten thousand had he so chosen, but that great number it would not have been policy to carry into Montezuma's kingdom on an errand of peace. The Cempoallans returned to their homes; and we do not know that they ever received a reward for their inestimable services; they fell, with the rest of the Indian nations, under Spanish dominion, and to-day you cannot find their city, save perhaps a stone or two of its ruins. Many of them, and likewise all the Indians brought from Cuba, perished of cold and privation when they reached the cold altitudes-of the table-lands.

The feelings of the conquerors, as they caught sight of the royal city, situated in the centre of that vast valley, the hills, plains, mountains, even the lakes, dotted with cities and villages, all exhibiting tokens of wealth and power, must have been indescribable. To the first feeling of exhilaration, consequent upon gazing upon such a glorious scene, must have succeeded gloomy reflections upon their own position in this powerful kingdom, surrounded on every side by enemies. Had not their bravery been equal to their depravity, they would have turned about for Vera Cruz then and there. But some undefined impulse urged them on; the magnet that drew them was perhaps the gold of Montezuma, for which they were ready to sell their souls.

On the western slope of the mountains, more embassadors met Cortez with another present from Montezuma, and with earnest entreaties that he would reconsider his determination and desist from marching upon Mexico. He promised, if they would return, to send a great treasure of gold and jewels for the King of Spain, four loads of gold for Cortez himself, and a load for each of the soldiers. This would have amounted to millions of dollars, for a load was equivalent to fifty pounds!  Cortez courteously thanked the embassadors, but said that nothing could now turn him from his mission when so near the royal residence.

On the second day they passed through Amecameca  and Tlalmanalco, two towns that yet exist as thriving settlements. Either in the last named place, or at Chalco—so celebrated in the aboriginal history of Mexico—they were met by the King of Tezcoco, Cacarmatzin, who had come by request of Montezuma, to make a last appeal to Cortez to return whence he came. He was borne in a magnificent litter, and adorned with gold and feathers, and when he alighted his lords went before him and swept the ground over which he was to pass. After an interchange of presents, the king preferred his request, and Cortez answered it as he had the others.

"If this is so," said the king on taking leave; "if you are determined to go on, we will see each other at court."

And they did see each other at court, not many months later, when the Spaniard received the king as a prisoner, by the orders of Montezuma himself.

The army skirted the south-eastern shore of Lake Chalco, and at a town called Ayocingo  (at this day existing), where was a harbor for the canoes of the merchants, they entered a causeway that led to a small island. Here was a city known as Cuitlahuac  (to-day Tlahuac), which was thought by the Spaniards to be the most beautiful they had ever seen. Another causeway led across the lake to the north, and over this the army marched to Iztapalapan—to-day, called Ixtapalapa—where they saw palaces built of stone, with massive cedar beams, lovely gardens of flowers, and ponds of clear water. Here also they saw those wonderful "floating gardens "for the first time, and were struck with astonishment at the many works of art and evidences of taste and refinement.

[Illustration] from History of Mexico by Frederick Ober

Here the rebellious Tezcocan prince, Ixtlilxochitl, with a portion of his army, met them and tendered his services to the Spanish crown, offering to join forces with Cortez if he would attack the Mexican king. He was quieted for a while with a diplomatic answer, and went back to his mountain capital to nurse his wrath till the time arrived for action.

Great crowds, that continually increased, now obstructed the way; curiosity alone moved them to inspect these strangers, for they were the first that had ever entered their territory.

What a sight they must have been to those Indians, these mailed men, with their glittering armor, flashing swords and helmets, their terrible aids, the horses, and their artillery! Sternly they marched along, with solid front and close ranks, the tramp of their iron heels ringing ominously upon the stone causeway.

The Spaniards were not less amazed at what they saw than the Indians. Here is a description by one of them: "When we beheld the number of populous towns on the water and firm ground, and that broad causeway running straight and level to the city, we could compare it to nothing but the enchanted scenes we had read of in Amadis of Gaul, from the great towers and temples and other edifices of lime and stone which seemed to rise out of the water. To many of us it appeared doubtful whether we were asleep or awake; nor is the manner in which I express myself to be wondered at, for it must be considered that never yet did man see, hear, or dream of anything equal to the spectacle which appeared to our eyes on this day!"

From the beautiful city of Iztapalapa, which was situated on a peninsula between the fresh-water lake of Chalco and the great salt-water lake of Tezcoco, a road led to Mexicalcingo—yet to be found on the map of Mexico—and thence it was straight away to the capital.