Early American History
Encounters in the Americas
Aztec Empire
Hernando Cortes, 1519
Lake Texcoco
Key Concepts

Several years before the Spaniards arrived in the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan had some unusual, natural disasters. Between 1517 and 1519, the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan had an earthquake. Lake Texcoco had flooded the capital city. The Aztecs believed the disasters warned of the fall of their empire.

In 1519, the Spanish explorer, Hernando Cortes arrived on the east coast of Mexico. To make sure his men cooperated with marching across the jungle, Cortes burned his ships. He defeated the local tribe of Indians, and then set out for the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlan. For 83 days, Cortes and his men marched across tropical jungles and snowy mountains into the Valley of Mexico. Cortes arrived in Tenochtitlan with more than 500 solders, 14 cannons, 16 horses, and a large number of the Aztec's Indian enemies gathered along the way.

The Aztec people believed the light skinned god Quetzalcoatl would one day return. When the Spaniards approached the city, the Aztecs at first thought it was their god. The Aztec Emperor, Motecuhzoma soon realized that Cortes was not a god. He sent him gold and gifts to encourage him to turn back. But of course, Cortes would not. When Cortes entered the city, he was welcomed and offered housing and more gifts of gold. But, Cortes wasn't satisfied. He took Motecuhzoma prisoner and had him killed.

By 1521, the Spaniards had conquered the Aztec army. Cortes captured the Aztec gold and silver and sent it to Spain. Within two years the Spanish weapons and European diseases had destroyed the Aztec civilization.

In Europe, the Spanish soldiers became known as the Conquistadors, the
Spanish word for "conquerors." Spain began to rule Mexico. Spain built Mexico City where Tenochtitlan had been. Mexico City became the capital city of the Spanish Empire in the Americas.
Fall of the Aztecs
Mexico City
Valley of Mexico
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Additional Information

army - The Aztec army had 200,000 men. The Aztecs controlled a vast empire. The Empire heavily taxed its people. The people paid taxes in crops, gold, jade and cloth.

civilization - The Spaniards destroyed the city and filled Lake Texcoco with earth. They sent gold and silver back to Spain by the boat load. Finally, Tenochtitlan became Mexico City.

European Diseases - The Spaniards carried diseases that killed the Aztecs. As the Aztecs and the Spaniards fought in Tenochtitlan, the small pox epidemic began to kill the people. The Aztecs had no immunities to any of the European diseases. In 1518 there were about 25 million Mexicans. Fifty years later, less than 3 million Native Americans survived.

horses - Cortes brought along 16 horses. Horses had become extinct in the Americas during the last ice age. The Aztecs had never seen horses and were frightened of them. Some Aztecs thought the horse and rider were one big animal.

Indian enemies - The Aztecs had many enemies. The Aztec Empire
forced other natives peoples to pay heavy taxes. Young people in neighboring tribes were captured and killed in the religious sacrifices. When Cortes arrived it was easy for him to recruit Aztec enemies to help him.

Motecuhzoma - When the Spaniards arrived, Motecuhzoma was about 40 years old. Motecuhzoma was worshipped as a god by the Aztecs. His favorite palace had 100 rooms and 100 baths. At first Montecuhzoma was sure Cortes was the great god Quetzalcoatl. He sent gifts of gold and precious jewels to Cortes. Then Motecuhzoma told Cortes to stay on the coast, but Cortes refused. Cortes began to march toward the Aztec capital. He sent word to Motecuhzoma that the Spaniards "had a disease of the heart that could only be cured with gold." Motecuhzoma sent him gold and robes made with parrot feathers, and embroidered cotton cloth and food.

Quetzalcoatl - The Aztec god Quetzalcoatl was believed to be the creator. He was pictured as a feathered serpent.

Tenochtitlan - Tenochtitlan was an island city. It was five miles square, and surrounded by Lake Texcoco. Canals filled with canoes were used for streets. The city had three great causeways or roads above the lake. The Causeways led in and out of the city. Bridges could be raised to prevent enemies from going into the city. More than 200,000 people lived in Tenochtitlan. Farming was done on the land outside the city. Houses and public buildings were painted white or earth-red. Some buildings were gilded with gold. Gardens floated in the lakes. Houses had patios and fountains. Tenochtitlan's market place amazed the Spaniards. It was larger than any market place they had ever seen in Spain. Thousands of colorful birds squawked from cages. The Spaniards found Tenochtitlan clean and smelling of flowers. Spanish cities smelled like a sewer.