Hernan Or Hernando Cortes, the conqueror of Mexico, born in Medellin, a small town of Estremadura, Spain, in 1485, died near Seville, Dec. 2, 1547. His father, Martin Cortes of Monroy, and his mother, Dona Catalina Pi-zarro Altamirano, were both of good family, but in reduced circumstances. Hernando was a sickly child, and in early life was many times at the point of death. When 14 years of age he was sent to the university of Salamanca to study law, and remained there two years. In 1501 he returned home without leave from his parents, and, finding no content in Medellin, determined to accompany Nicolas de Ovando, also an Estremaduran, who was about to sail to Santo Domingo to supersede Bobadilla in his command. Cortes met with an accident which prostrated him, while Ovando's expedition sailed; and he thereupon determined upon going into Italy to seek service with the "great captain" Gonsalvo de Cordova. Arriving in Valencia, he was there taken sick, and passed a year in that town in hardship and poverty. At the expiration of the year he returned to Medellin, and in 1504 sailed from San Lucar in a merchant vessel for Santo Domingo. He was received with favor by the governor of Hispaniola, was employed under Diego Velasquez in pacifying a revolt, and at the end of the war received from Ovando a repartimiento of Indians, and a notarial office in the newly founded town of Azua. He held successively several appointments, and in 1511 accompanied Diego Velasquez, who was sent by Diego Columbus to subdue and colonize Cuba. He afterward held the office of alcalde of Santiago, in the new colony.
Meantime he married Dona Catalina Juarez, one of a family of Spanish ladies who had come over in the suite of Maria de Toledo, the vice queen. After his marriage he employed himself and his Indians in getting gold. " How many of whom [the Indians] died in extracting this gold for him, God will have kept a better account than I have," says Las Casas. When Grijalva, the lieutenant of Velasquez, returned from the discovery of Mexico, without having attempted the settlement of that country, Cortes was appointed in his place to the command of a new expedition which was to start at once. At the last moment Velasquez repented of the appointment, and endeavored to stop the expedition. But Cortes hastened his preparations, and on Nov. 18, 1518, he set out from Santiago with 10 vessels, 550 Spaniards, 200 or 300 Indians, a few negroes, 12 or 13 horses, 10 brass guns, and some falconets. Picking up stores by the way, sometimes without paying, he arrived at Trinidad, on the S. coast of Cuba, where an order came from Velasquez to deprive Cortes of his command.
A similar order awaited him on his arrival at Havana, but in neither place could it be enforced; and writing a letter of remonstrance to Velasquez, Feb. 10, 1519, Cortes left Havana for the island of Cozumel on the coast of Yucatan. On March 4 he first landed on the shores of Mexico, in the province or country called Tabasco; and here presently he fought his first battle with the natives, who proved exceedingly brave, but who were awestruck at the sight of horses and the roar of the artillery. At San Juan de Ulua he first heard of the native sovereign called Montezuma; that he reigned over an extensive empire which had endured above three centuries; that 30 vassals, called caciques, obeyed him; and that his power and riches were immense. Laying the foundation of the town of Vera Cruz as a post to be left in his rear, he caused himself to be chosen captain general of his new colony; destroyed his ships, to make retreat impossible and to reenforce his army with the seamen; took the part of several native tribes against Montezuma's tax collectors, and thus ranged them on his side; and finally, on Aug. 16, leaving a small garrison from his meagre force at Vera Cruz, set off for the city of Mexico, the residence of the great Montezuma and the capital of the country.
The republic of Tlascala, lying between the coast and the capital, though at feud with Montezuma, opposed the march of Cortes. After four battles, wherein he each time defeated an enormous force of the enemy, he entered the city of Tlascala on Sept. 18. The Spaniards were thought to be of divine origin, and human beings were sent to them as sacrifices. Ambassadors from Montezuma had met Cortes before he entered Tlascala, but with no. important consequences. He endeavored, but in vain, to persuade the Tlascalans to abjure their religion; prevailed upon them to own themselves vassals of the king of Spain; and after a 20 days' stay in the city marched toward Mexico by way of Cholula, accompanied by some thousands of his new allies. Escaping an ambuscade set for him by the Cholulans at the instance of the Mexicans, and punishing the people for their proposed attack, he continued his march, and arrived before Mexico, Nov. 8, 1519, with 6,000 natives and his handful of Spaniards; was received with great pomp by Montezuma and his subjects; immediately secured a stronghold in a beautiful palace assigned as his quarters; and, using the occasion of an attack made by a party of Mexicans upon some of the Spaniards as a temporary justification for one of the boldest acts in all history, took Montezuma captive in his own palace, and conveyed him to his quarters under threats of instant death if he made a sign for help to his subjects.
The 17 persons who had attacked the Spaniards were captured and burned to death before the gates of the imperial palace. Montezuma was placed in irons during the execution, and forced to acknowledge himself a vassal of Charles V. Taking prisoner also Caminatzin, the bravest of the king's nephews, Cortes now persuaded Montezuma to induce all his nobles and vassals to swear allegiance to the king of Spain; and this done, he obtained of the fallen king gold to the value of 100,000 ducats. Now, however, he was informed of the landing of an armament under the command of Narvaez, come to displace him. Leaving 200 men in Mexico, whom with unparalleled audacity he recommended to the care of Montezuma as a vassal of Charles V., he took 70 men, was joined by 150 more whom he had left at Cholula, and captured Narvaez, who was encamped in a city of the Cempoallans, with his 80 horses, 900 men, and 10 or 12 field pieces. The defeated troops readily ranged themselves under his standard; but returning to Mexico, Cortes found that the people had revolted against the Spaniards. Montezuma, still a prisoner, on endeavoring to address his subjects, was assailed by the mob, and wounded so that in a few days he died.
The Spaniards were furiously attacked and driven out of their quarters, and out of the city; their rear guard was cut to pieces; and after a harassing retreat of six days, the Mexicans offered battle on the plain of Otumba, and here, on July 7, 1520, Cortes gained a victory which decided the fate of Mexico. He immediately proceeded to Tlascala, collected an auxiliary native army, and, having subdued the neighboring provinces, marched against Mexico, and took the city after a gallant defence of 77 days, Aug. 13, 1521. The accounts of his exploits which he sent to Europe caused his irregular conduct to be forgiven, and excited the liveliest admiration of his genius and skill. He was declared governor and captain general of Mexico, and had conferred upon him the marquisate of Oajaca, with a considerable revenue. His course of conquest, however, was such as to embitter the natives against him. He was particularly zealous to destroy their idols, and ever anxious to convert these pagans by force to Christianity. They took up arms against him in vain; European arms, valor, and zeal conquered on all hands.
Guatimozin, the new emperor, a man of greater energy than Montezuma, was with a number of his caciques executed with great cruelty, by the orders of Cortes. But his victories caused him to be dreaded at home; commissioners were sent out to watch his course; and while he was completing his conquests his property was seized and his servants put in irons and imprisoned. Indignant at such treatment, Cortes returned to Spain in great splendor, to appeal for justice. He was received with every distinction, decorated with the order of Santiago at the hands of Charles V., and returned to Mexico with new titles, but with diminished power; the military authority only remained in his hands, a viceroy having been intrusted with the administration of civil affairs. In 1536 Cortes visited the peninsula of California, and surveyed part of the gulf which separates it from Mexico. Disgusted with the men sent out to watch him, he returned again to Europe, and accompanied Charles V. (who had received him coldly) on a disastrous expedition to Algiers in 1541, serving as Volunteer. On the return of the expedition he was utterly neglected, and could not obtain an audience.
One day he forced his way to the emperor's presence and upbraided him with his ingratitude, then withdrew finally from court, and died in solitude in the 63d year of his age. Five letters addressed to Charles V., and detailing his conquests, are the only writings of Cortes. - See "Letters and Despatches of Cortes," translated by George Folsom (New York, 1843).