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(SPAIN to the AMERICAS, to 1600 – continued)

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SPAIN to the AMERICAS, to 1600 (2 of 6)

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Spain to Mexico

And soldiers and colonists, including more than seventy married couples and twelve friars, had journeyed from Spain to Hispaniola, and there a successful colony was established. By 1515, the gold that could be mined in Hispaniola had dwindled. A search for gold elsewhere in the New World had begun. In 1519, Spain's authority in the Americas sent a 34-year-old adventurer, a former dropout from law school who had been in the Caribbean since 1504, Hernán Cortés, on a mission to Mexico. Cortés landed on the gulf coast of Mexico with 600 men, 17 horses and 12 cannon, and there he spent several months. He took sides in conflicts between local societies. He won presents from local people, including twenty women, one of whom became his mistress and interpreter. He founded the town of Villa Rica de las Vera Cruz (Veracruz), and he was selected by its town council as its chief military and judicial officer, establishing his independence from Spanish authority at Santo Domingo. From Vera Cruz, Cortés moved inland, toward the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan (Tenochtitlán). He was mindful that success against the Aztecs depended on making allies with the enemies of the Aztecs. He had to fight his potential allies, and he benefited from guns, light cannon, steel swords and horses. With his new allies he fought the independent republic of Tlaxcala, who were also enemies of the Aztecs, and, after initial skirmishes, Tlaxcala became his ally.

In Tenochtitlan the king of the Aztecs, Moctezuma II (known also as Montezuma II) had heard that Cortés was on his way, but rather than organize armed resistance against him, Moctezuma planned to welcome him and placate him with gifts. Responding to a myth, Moctezuma believed that Cortés was an incarnation of the god Quetzalcoatl returning to claim his people.

Cortés arrived with his small force and around 1,000 Tlaxcatecs. He and his fellow Spaniards were astounded by the size and beauty of Tenochtitlan, a city surrounded by water. Crowds of Aztecs came in their canoes to see the white gods and their supernatural animals. Moctezuma arrived in a sedan chair and treated the Spaniards as his guests. He gave them use of one of his castles and entertained them for a week. Cortés in turn took Moctezuma hostage. He received from Moctezuma gold and other presents, men and women slaves and the passivity of the Aztec nation. Cortés had become the master of Mexico City, passing himself off to the Aztecs as representing God and claiming that godly authority resided in Spain. And, offended by Aztec human sacrifices and paganism in general, Cortés encouraged moves against Aztec worship. The Spanish began driving Aztec priests from their temples and replacing stone images with a cross and the image of the Virgin Mary.

After the Spaniards had been in Tenochtitlan a few months, with Moctezuma still prisoner, one of Cortés' underlings led an attack against a crowd in Tenochtitlan central square, in an effort to break up a religious festival. Many Aztec nobles were killed. People were outraged, and to calm the anger the Spanish displayed Moctezuma on the palace roof. Apparently by now the crowd saw Moctezuma as a traitor, and they threw stones, Moctezuma soon dying of his wounds. To escape from the angry Aztecs, Cortés and his 1300 men fought their way out of the city at night. About half of his force died, some of the Spaniards losing their life because they had overloaded themselves with precious metal.

Cortés and his force returned to Tlaxcala where they were well received. Aztec power having been challenged, various peoples whom the Aztecs had been ruling still saw opportunity in ridding themselves of Aztec domination and continued to side with Cortés and Tlaxcala. Spanish reinforcements and supplies arrived to strengthen Cortés' force. From Tlaxcala, Cortés won domination over neighboring territory, and in August, 1521, Cortés with an enlarged army of Spaniards and Indians, returned to Tenochtitlan. They surrounded the city and cut its outside supply of fresh water and food. They attacked the city on rafts with cannon, and in the city they fought block by block.

The people of Tenochtitlan fought without guns, and they were suffering from small pox, against which they had no immunity – unlike the Spaniards who brought the disease to the Americas. Five-sixths of Tenochtitlan was destroyed. Moctezuma's nephew and heir, Cuautemoc (Cuauhtémoc), surrendered. Surviving Aztecs abandoned the corpse-ridden and disease-infested city, and what was left of the city was burned.

Cortés changed the name of Tenochtitlan to Mexico (Mexico City). In 1524, Cuauhtemoc was executed, ending the line of Aztec kings. Spanish men from the Caribbean flocked to Mexico, and they took Indian mistresses, who begat children, beginning the mix of Spaniard and Indian.

The lands that Columbus and Cortés had set foot upon were claimed for the Spanish crown. And where lands had been claimed for them, Spain's monarchs claimed absolute authority. After Cortés, Spaniards roamed over northern Mexico and southern parts of what is now the United States, looking for another civilization as rich in precious metals as the Aztecs had been. By the mid-1500s, Spanish authority was firmly established in Mexico, which had become known as New Spain. In New Spain the native populations had become a third what they were prior to the arrival of Columbus.

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