THE AZTEC EMPIRE

 

 

THE MEXICA: FROM OBSCURITY TO DOMINANCE

by John P. Schmal

The Aztec Empire of 1519 was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. The multi-ethnic, multi-lingual realm stretched for more than 80,000 square miles through many parts of what is now central and southern Mexico. This enormous empire reached from the Pacific Ocean to the Gulf coast and from central Mexico to the present-day Republic of Guatemala. Fifteen million people, living in thirty-eight provinces and residing in 489 communities, paid tribute to the Emperor Moctezuma II in Tenochtitlán, the capital city of the great empire.

The Mexica (pronounced me-shee-ka) Indians, the dominant ethnic group ruling over the Aztec Empire from their capital city at Tenochtitlán in the Valley of Mexico, had very obscure and humble roots that made their rise to power even more remarkable. The Valley of Mexico, which became the heartland of the Aztec civilization, is a large internally-drained basin which is surrounded by volcanic mountains, some of which reach more than 3,000 meters in elevation.

My understanding of the Mexica Indians and the Aztec Empire has been greatly augmented by the works of the anthropologist Professor Michael E. Smith of the University of New York. Professor Smith has written several books about the central Mexican Indians, including The Aztecs and Aztec Imperial Strategies, which I have used as primary sources for this article.

The growth of the Mexica Indians from newcomers and outcasts in the Valley of Mexico to the guardians of an extensive empire is the stuff that legends are made of. Many people, however, are confused by the wide array of terms designating the various indigenous groups that lived in the Valley of Mexico. The popular term, Aztec, has been used as an all-inclusive term to describe both the people and the empire.

Professor Smith uses the term Aztec Empire to describe "the empire of the Triple Alliance, in which Tenochtitlán played the dominant role." Quoting the author Charles Gibson, Professor Smith observes that the Aztecs "were the inhabitants of the Valley of Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest. Most of these were Náhuatl speakers belonging to diverse polities and ethnic groups (e.g., Mexica of Tenochtitlán, Acolhua of Texcoco, Chalca of Chalco)." In short, the reader should recognize that the Aztec Indians were not one ethnic group, but a collection of many ethnicities, all sharing a common cultural and historical background.

On the other hand, the Mexica, according to Professor Smith, are "the inhabitants of the cities of Tenochtitlán and Tlatelolco who occupied adjacent islands and claimed the same heritage." And it is the Mexica who eventually became the dominant people within the Aztec Empire. Legend states that the Mexica Indians originally came to the Valley of Mexico from a region in the northwest, popularly known as Atzlan-Chicomoztoc. The name Aztec, in fact, is believed to have been derived from this ancestral homeland, Aztlan (The Place of Herons).

In A.D. 1111, the Mexica left their native Aztlan to settle in Chicomoztoc (Seven Caves). According to legend, they had offended their patron god Huitzilopochtli by cutting down a forbidden tree. As a result, the Mexica were condemned to leave Aztlan and forced to wander until they received a sign from their gods, directing them to settle down permanently.

The land of Atzlan was said to have been a marshy island situated in the middle of a lake. Some historians actually consider the names Chicomoztoc and Aztlan to be two terms for the same place, and believe that the island and the seven caves are simply two features of the same region. For nearly five centuries, popular imagination has speculated about the location of the legendary Aztlan. Some people refer to Aztlan as a concept, not an actual place that ever existed.

However, many historians believe that Aztlan did exist. The historian Paul Kirchhoff suggested that Aztlan lay along a tributary of the Lerna River, to the west of the Valley of Mexico. Other experts have suggested the Aztlan might be the island of Janitzio in the center of Lake Pátzcuaro, also to the west, with its physical correspondence to the description of Aztlan. Many people have speculated that the ancestral home of the Aztecs lay in California, New Mexico or in the Mexican states of Sonora and Sinaloa.

The idea that Sinaloa, Sonora, California, and New Mexico might be the site of Aztlan is a very plausible explanation when historical linguistics are considered. "The north-to-south movement of the Aztlan groups is supported by research in historical linguistics," writes Professor Smith in The Aztecs, "The Náhuatl language, classified in the Nahuan group of the Uto-Aztecan family of languages, is unrelated to most Mesoamerican native languages." As a matter of fact, "Náhuatl was a relatively recent intrusion" into central Mexico.

On the other hand, if one observes the locations of the indigenous people who spoke the Uto-Aztecan languages, all of their lands lay to the northwest of the Valley of Mexico. The northern Uto-Aztecans occupied a large section of the American Southwest. Among them were the Hopi and Zuni Indians of New Mexico and the Gabrielino Indians of the Los Angeles Basin. The Central Uto-Aztecans - occupying large parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Sonora in northwestern Mexico - included the Papago, Opata, Yaqui, Mayo, Concho, Huichol and Tepehuán. It is reasonable to assume that where there is a linguistic relationship there is most likely also a genetic relationship. Thus, it is highly likely that the legendary Aztlan was located in northwestern Mexico or the Southwestern United States.

It is important to note, however, that the Aztlan migrations were not one simple movement of a single group of people. Instead, as Professor Smith has noted, "when all of the native histories are compared, no fewer than seventeen ethnic groups are listed among the original tribes migrating from Aztlan and Chicomoztoc." It is believed that the migrations southward probably took place over several generations. "Led by priests," continues Professor Smith, "the migrants… stopped periodically to build houses and temples, to gather and cultivate food, and to carry out rituals."

The first group of migrants probably included the Acolhua, Tepaneca, Culhua, Chalca, Xochimilca, all of whom settled in the Valley of Mexico. The second group, including the Tlahuica of Morelos, the Matlatzinca of Toluca Valley, the Tlaxcalans of Tlaxcala, the Huexotzinca of Puebla, and the Malinalca of Malinalco, migrated to the surrounding valleys. The last to arrive, around A.D. 1248, were the Mexica who found all the good land occupied and were forced to settle in more undesirable locations of the Valley.

As the late arrivals in the Valley of Mexico, the Mexica were forced by other groups in the valley to take refuge on two islands near the western shore of Lake Texcoco (one of the five lakes in the area). Their first home was an island in the middle of Lake Chapultepec (Place of the Grasshopper), which is now in Downtown Mexico City. The Mexica were welcomed to Chapultepec by the Tepanec leader of city-state of Azcapotzalco on the understanding that they would work as both mercenaries and laborers. However, around 1315, the Mexica were ejected from Chapultepec by the Tepanecs.

When the Mexicas first arrived in the Valley of Mexico, the whole region was occupied by some forty city-states (altepetl is the Nahua term). These city-states - which included the Tepanecs, Coatlinchans, Cholcos, Xochimilcos, Cholulas, Tlaxcalans and Huexotzincas - were engaged in a constant and continuing battle for ascendancy in the Valley. In describing this political situation, Professor Smith observed that "ethnically similar and/or geographically close city-states allied to form regional political confederations." By 1300, eight confederations of various sizes occupied the entire Valley of the Mexico and adjacent areas.

In A.D. 1325, the Mexica, once again on the run, wandered through the wilderness of swamps that surrounded the salty lakes of the Valley of Mexico. On a small island, the Mexica finally found their promised omen when they saw a cactus growing out of a rock with an eagle perched atop the cactus. The Mexica high priests thereupon proclaimed that they had reached their promised land. As it turns out, the site turned out to be a strategic location, with abundant food supplies and waterways for transportation.

The Mexica settled down to found their new home, Tenochtitlán (Place of the Cactus Fruit). The Mexica became highly efficient in their ability to develop a system of dikes and canals to control the water levels and salinity of the lakes. Using canoes and boats, they were able to carry on commerce with other cities along the valley lakes. And, comments Professor Smith, "the limited access to the city provided protection against military attack."

Huitzilihuitl, who ruled the Mexica from 1391 to 1415, writes Professor Smith, "presided over one of the most important periods in Mexica history… The Mexica became highly skilled as soldiers and diplomats in their dealing with neighbors. One of Huitzilihuitl's major accomplishments was the establishment of successful marriage alliances with a number of powerful dynasties." Over time, the Mexica, as the latecomers and underdogs of the Valley region, sought to increase their political power and prestige through intermarriage.

"Marriage alliances," writes Professor Smith, "were an important component of diplomacy among Mesoamerican states. Lower ranking kings would endeavor to marry the daughters of more powerful and important kings. A marriage established at least an informal alliance between the polities and was a public acknowledgement of the dominant status of the more powerful king."

Sometime around 1428, the Mexica monarch, Itzcoatl, ruling from Tenochtitlán, formed a triple alliance with the city-states of Texcoco and Tlacopan (now Tacuba) as a means of confronting the then-dominant Tepanecs of the city-state of Azcapotzalco. Soon after, the combined force of the Triple Alliance was able to defeat Azcapotzalco. Later that year, Culhuacan and Huitzilopochco were defeated by the Alliance. A string of victories continued in quick succession, with the defeat of Xochimilco in 1429-30, Ixtapalapan in 1430, and Mixquic in 1432. "The only area of the valley to resist conquest for any length of time," comments the anthropologist Mary G. Hodge, "was the southeastern portion occupied by the Chalca confederation. The hostilities with the Chalca city-states were resolved only through conquering this area piecemeal, between 1456 and 1465."

Professor Smith writes that "the three Triple Alliance states were originally conceived as equivalent powers, with the spoils of joint conquests to be divided evenly among them. However, Tenochtitlán steadily grew in power at the expense of Texcoco and particularly Tlacopan." In time the conquests of the alliance began to take the shape of an empire, with the Triple Alliance levying tribute upon their subject towns. Professor Smith, quoting the words of the anthropologist Robert McCormick Adams, writes that "A defining activity of empires is that they are 'preoccupied with channeling resources from diverse subject polities and peoples to an ethnically defined ruling stratum."

With each conquest, the Aztec domain became more and more ethnically diverse, eventually controlling thirty-eight provinces. The Aztec tributary provinces, according to Professor Frances F. Berdan, were "scattered throughout central and southern Mexico, in highly diverse environmental and cultural settings." Professor Berdan points out that "these provinces provided the imperial powers with a regular and predictable flow of tribute goods."

Of utmost importance became the tribute that made its way back to Tenochtitlán from the various city-states and provinces. Such tribute may have taken many forms, including textiles, warriors' costumes, foodstuffs, maize, beans, chiles, cacao, bee honey, salt and human beings (for sacrificial rituals).

Aztec society was highly structured, based on agriculture, and guided by a religion that pervaded every aspect of life. The Aztecs worshipped gods that represented natural forces that were vital to their agricultural economy. All of the Aztec cities were dominated by giant stone pyramids topped by temples where human sacrifices provided the gods with the human sustenance that the priests believed their supernatural deities required.

For hundreds of years, human sacrifice is believed to have played an important role of many of the indigenous tribes inhabiting the Valley of Mexico. However, the Mexica brought human sacrifice to levels that had never been practiced before. The Mexica Indians and their neighbors had developed a belief that it was necessary to constantly appease the gods through human sacrifice. By spilling the blood of human beings onto the ground, the high priests were, in a sense, paying their debt to the gods. If the blood would flow, then the sun would rise each morning, the crops would grow, the gods would provide favorable weather for good crops, and life would continue.

Over time, the Mexica, in particular, developed a feeling that the needs of their gods were insatiable. The period from 1446 to 1453 was a period of devastating natural disasters: locusts, drought, floods, early frosts, starvation, etc. The Mexica, during this period, resorted to massive human sacrifice in an attempt to remedy these problems. When abundant rain and a healthy crop followed in 1455, the Mexica believed that their efforts had been successful. In 1487, according to legend, Aztec priests sacrificed more than 80,000 prisoners of war at the dedication of the reconstructed temple of the sun god in Tenochtitlán.

The Mexica's sacrificial rituals were elaborate in form, calculated by the high priests to appease specific gods at certain times. During the ceremony, a victim would ascend the steps of the pyramid. At the top, a Mexica priest would stretch the victim across a stone altar and cut out the victim's heart. The priest would hold the heart aloft to the god being honored and then fling it into a sacred fire while it was still beating.

The function of Aztec priests was one of the most important in Aztec society. It was the priests who determined which days would be lucky for engaging in activities such as war and religious ceremonies. They were guided in their decisions by a religious calendar of 260 days, that was combined with a solar calendar of 365 days. The meshing of the two calendars produced a 52-year cycle that played an integral role in Mexica society and religion.

The basic unit of Aztec society was the calpulli, which was the Aztec equivalent of a clan, or group of families who claimed descent from a common ancestor. Each calpulli regulated its own affairs, electing a council which would keep order, declare war, dispense justice. Calpulli ran the schools where young Mexica boys were taught about citizenship, warfare, history, crafts, and religion. Each calpulli also had a temple, an armory to hold weapons, and a storehouse for goods and tribute that were distributed among its members.

In the Tenochtitlán of later years, during the ascendancy of the Aztec Empire, the function of the calpulli, took on a different form. As the city grew large and complex, the Mexica calpulli were no longer based on familial relationships. Instead, the capulli became like wards, or political divisions, of the city. Each calpulli cstill governed and provided education to its members, but the members of a calpulli were not necessarily related. It is believed that there were 15 calpulli in Tenochtitlán when the city was founded in 1325. By the time that the Spaniards arrived in the early Sixteenth Century, there were as many as eighty calpulli throughout the city.

In Tenochtitlán and the other Aztec city-states, the leaders of each calpulli were joined together in a tribal council which was given the responsibility of electing four chief officials, one of whom would be selected as the Tlatoani (Great Lord). After Tenochtitlán became the center of Aztec civilization, its ruler became the supreme leader of the empire, to whom lesser rulers paid tribute. This ruler was considered to be a descendant of the Aztec gods and served as both military leader and high priest.

By the beginning of the Sixteenth Century, the Aztec Empire had become a formidable power, its southern reaches extending into the present-day Mexican states of Oaxaca and Chiapas. The Mexica had also moved the boundaries of the Aztec Empire to a large stretch of the Gulf Coast on the eastern side of the continent. But, as Professor Smith states, "rebellions were a common occurrence in the Aztec empire because of the indirect nature of imperial rule." The Aztecs had allowed local rulers to stay in place "as long as they cooperated with the Triple Alliance and paid their tribute." When a provincial monarch decided to withhold tribute payments from the Triple Alliance, the Aztec forces would respond by dispatching an army to threaten that king.

Professor Smith wrote that the Aztec Empire "followed two deliberate strategies in planning and implementing their conquests." The first strategy was "economically motivated." The Triple Alliance sought to "generate tribute payments and promote trade and marketing throughout the empire." Their second strategy dealt with their frontier regions, in which they established client states and outposts along imperial borders to help contain their enemies."

However, Professor Smith, in his essay on "The Strategic Provinces" commented on the existence of "major unconquered enemy states surrounded by imperial territory." The fact that these enclaves remained free of Aztec dominance is some indication that these "enemy states" may have been recognized as "serious and powerful adversaries." The most powerful enclave, Tlaxcalla, located to the east of the Valley of Mexico, was a "confederation of four republics." Tlaxcalla, writes Professor Smith, "was a Nahuatl-speaking area whose population shared a common cultural and ethnic heritage with the rest of the peoples of central Mexico."

Aztlan migrants had arrived in the Puebla-Tlaxcalla Valley between the Twelfth and Thirteenth Centuries and, Professor Smith explains, "populations grew and city-states developed in a fashion that paralleled the Valley of Mexico." Thus, by the beginning of the Fifteenth Century, writes Professor Smith, "three polities stood out as the most powerful and influential - Tlaxcalla itself, Huexotzinco, and Cholula."

Emperor Moctezuma I, who ruled the Aztecs from 1440 to 1469, conquered the states north and east of Tlaxcalla and, according to Professor Smith, began "a process of encirclement that continued under the following emperors and was largely complete by the time Moctezuma I took power in 1502." This encirclement cut the Tlaxcallans off from external trade. As a result elite goods (gold, feathers, and cacao) and utilitarian items (cotton and salt) became rare in the state.

In seeking to conquer Tlaxcalla, the Aztecs maintained an almost perpetual state of war with Tlaxcalla. The many wars between the two nations also provided a source of victims of human sacrifices. However, after the arrival of the Spaniards, the Tlaxcalan confederation offered a fertile ground of opposition and defiance against the Aztec Empire. In 1519, the Spaniards initiated an alliance with the Tlaxcallans that played a major role in the fall of Tenochtitlán and continued for many centuries.

Metztitlan. A powerful Otomí conquest state located in the rugged mountainous region of what is now northern Hidalgo, Metztitlan remained an unconquered enclave within the Aztec Empire up until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1519. The independence of this small kingdom was easily maintained because of the nature of the terrain in the Metztitlan Valley, where, writes Professor Smith, "a small but well-placed force could hold off a larger and more powerful army." Emperors Ahuítzotl and Moctezuma were able to complete the isolation of Metztitlan. Professor Smith believes that the state remained unconquered because "there were few resources of interest to the empire in this area, and the final emperors may have decided that Metztitlan was not worth the effort."

Yopitzinco. Located in the isolated mountain area along the Coast Chica region of Guerrero, just southeast of present-day Acapulco, Yopitzinco was occupied by the Yope Indians, who had a reputation as fierce warriors. The Pacific coastal regions to the north and south of Yopitzinco were conquered by Ahuitzotl and Moctezuma II but, it appears that Yope territory had little to offer the Aztec Empire.

Tututepec. As a "large and powerful Mixtec conquest state in the mountains of southwestern Oaxaca," write Professor Smith, "Tututepec controlled a long stretch of the Pacific coast and was in the process of expanding to the north and east in the decades prior to 1519."

The Tarascan Empire of present-day Michoacán was not an enclave located within the Aztec Empire but stood on the periphery of the Mexica domain. The Tarascans (Purhépechas) were a constant source of problems for the Mexica. Like the Aztecs, the Tarascans had engaged in militaristic expansion and conquered adjacent states. Located some 150 kilometers west of the Valley of Mexico in the Lake Pátzcuaro Basin, the Purhépecha Kingdom controlled an area of at least 45,000 square miles (72,500 square kilometers), including parts of the present-day states of Guanajuato, Guerrero, Querétaro, Colima, and Jalisco.

In A.D. 1478, when the Aztec armies met in battle with the Tarascans, it is believed that as many as 20,000 Triple Alliance warriors may have perished. Against a Tarascan force of about 50,000, the Aztec force of 32,200 warriors was nearly annihilated and the independence of present-day Michoacán preserved for another half-century.

In 1502, Moctezuma II Xocoyotl (the Younger) ascended to the throne of Tenochtitlán as the newly elected tlatoani. It was about this time when the Mexica of Tenochtitlán began to suffer various disasters. While tribute peoples in several parts of the empire started to rebel against Aztecs, troubling omens took place which led the Mexica to believe that their days were numbered. Seventeen years after Moctezuma's rise to power, the Aztec Empire would be faced with its greatest challenge and a huge coalition of indigenous and alien forces which would bring an end to the Triple Alliance.

Copyright © 2008, by John P. Schmal. All rights under applicable law are hereby reserved. Reproduction of this article in whole or in part without the express permission of John P. Schmal is strictly prohibited.

Sources:

Frances F. Berdan, "The Tributary Provinces," in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 115-135.

Ron Hassig, Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Mary G. Hodge, "Political Organization of the Central Provinces," in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 17-45.

Michael E. Smith, "The Strategic Provinces," in Frances F. Berdan et al., Aztec Imperial Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1996, pp. 137-150.

Michael E. Smith, The Aztecs. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996.

 

 

 

 

THE HISTORY OF THE TLAXCALANS
By John P. Schmal

The Mexican state of Tlaxcala, with a population of 911,696 people (0.97% of the national population), is one of the smallest and most densely populated states in the Mexican Republic. Located in the east central part of Mexico sixty miles from Mexico City, Tlaxcala is made up of 1,555 square miles (4,027 square kilometers), which represents 0.19% of the total surface area of Mexico. Tlaxcala is bordered on its south, east and northwest by the State of Puebla, on its north by Hidalgo, and on its east by Mexico. Its meaning originates from the Náhuatl word meaning "Place of born bread." Tlaxcala, with its sixty municipios, became a state on February 5, 1857.

This highland state's elevation is over 6,562 feet. Within the state's border lies La Malinche, Mexico's fifth-highest mountain at 14,637 feet. Although it is Mexico's smallest state, Tlaxcala is rich with tradition, history, and colonial architecture. One of its main attractions is Cacaxtla, an important archaeological site believed to have been built at the zenith of the Olmec Xicalanca culture around AD 700.

The Olmec Xicalanca culture fell into decline after AD 900 and was replaced by the Teo-Chichimecas (also known as Náhuatl Tlaxcalans). Sometime around A.D. 1350, the present-day inhabitants of the area, the Tlaxcalans, drove out the Chichimecas. Defeating the opposition, the Tlaxcalans moved into the Cholula region and set up an autonomous Tlaxcalan state. During the following decades, they made war with and subdued many of their neighbors. In time, the Tlaxcalan Nation would evolve into a "confederation of four republics," each with its own ruling lord, judges and other officials. The Tlaxcalans built defensive walls along the outskirts of their territory and collected taxes and tribute from their subject peoples.

In time, the Tlaxcalans came up against the powerful Mexica (pronounced "me-shee-ka") Indians who inhabited the Valley of Mexico to the west. As the Mexica spread out from their base of power in Tenochtitlán, the Tlaxcalans became their traditional enemies. The Tlaxcalans and Mexica shared a common origin, both of them speaking the Náhuatl language. As a matter of fact, both the Tlaxcalans and the Mexica belonged to the Aztec culture, looking back to the legendary Aztlan (Place of the Herons) as their ancestral homeland in the northwest.

An Independent Enclave

For more than two hundred years, the Tlaxcalan nation lived in the shadow of the Mexica and their rapidly expanding Aztec Empire. Starting in 1325, the Mexica had begun building an empire with their military force. They subdued neighboring city-states and compelled the people to surrender part of their production as tribute. By 1440, the Mexica had spread their influence as far south as Guatemala.

In 1519, the Aztec Empire was the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdom of all time. The Mexica capital of Tenochtitlán had become a city of about 300,000 citizens. And the Aztec Empire itself ruled over about 80,000 square miles of territory extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and southward to Oaxaca and Chiapas. This empire contained some 15 million people, living in thirty-eight provinces. In all, the Emperor received the tribute of 489 communities.

Although the Mexica put together an extensive and powerful empire, Tlaxcala never fell into their hands. When the Spanish conquistadors, under the command of Captain-General Hernán Cortés, reached the Tlaxcalan republic in 1519, Tlaxcala was an independent enclave deep in the heart of the Mexica Empire. At this time, the Tlaxcalan Confederation ruled over some 200 settlements, boasting a total population of about 150,000. Surrounded on all sides and economically blockaded, they had never yielded to the Mexica and had been subjected to almost continuous warfare and human sacrifice for many decades.

Some historians believe that Tenochtitlán could have overwhelmed Tlaxcala without too much difficulty, and the reason it did not is probably that it wanted a nearby source of victims for the human sacrifices. The clashes between the Tlaxcalans and Mexica were called the "Flower Wars" (Xochiyaoyotl). The chief purpose of these "ceremonial battles" was to furnish captives to be used in their sacrificial rites. It is likely that both the Mexica and Tlaxcalan also saw war as a convenient way of testing and training young warriors for future wars. During this time, it was a common belief in Central Mexico that offering human sacrifice to their gods would ensure the continued movement of the sun and hence the other processes needed to maintain life.

Because of their economic isolation, the Tlaxcalans had no cotton with which to make their clothes. Neither did they have any salt. The salt lakes of Alchichica, not far from Tlaxcala, lay close by but they could not benefit from this. No feathers or precious stones made their way into Tlaxcala. This state of unrelenting warfare had become very hateful to the Tlaxcalans and by the time that Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala, the confederation represented fertile grounds for an anti-Mexica alliance.

The Arrival of the Spaniards

On April 22, 1519, a fleet of eleven Spanish galleons, which had been sailing northward along the eastern Gulf Coast of Mexico, dropped anchor just off the wind-swept beach on the island of San Juan de Ulúa. Under the command of the Spanish-born Captain-General Hernán Cortés, these vessels bore 450 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses. The first indigenous peoples that Cortés met with were the Totonac Indians who inhabited the coastal area near the city-state of Cempoala. Although this town of 14,000 was subject to the Aztec Empire, Cacique (Chief) Tlacochcalcatl and his people offered a warm welcome to Cortés, expressing the hope that the Spaniards may help them to gain independence from their Mexica overlords.

The chief of the Totonacs complained that the Mexica tribute collectors had picked the country clean and that hundreds of young Totonac children were brought to the altars of Tenochtitlán for sacrifice. The Cempoalans, impressed by the superior firepower of the Spaniards and the hope of overthrowing Aztec rule, helped Cortés and his men establish a base on the shore. On June 28, 1519, Cortés formally gave this town the name La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross). At this point, Cortés decided to lead his troops westward into the interior of the continent to find and meet with the Mexica monarch, Moctezuma.

Cacique Tlacochcalcatl warned Cortés that, on his journey inland, he would pass through the territory of the Tlaxcalans, who held a deep and uncompromising hatred toward the Mexica. It was his belief that the Tlaxcalans might be willing to ally themselves with the Spaniards. With the help of Totonac guides, Cortés planned his march to Tenochtitlán through territories that might represent fertile ground for more alliances. Finally, on August 16, 1519, Cortés assembled a formidable expedition to move inland from Cempoala. His army now consisted of 400 Spanish soldiers, 15 horses, 1,300 Indian warriors, seven pieces of artillery, and a thousand tamanes (porters), who helped transport baggage and guns across the land. About 150 of the porters were Cuban Indian servants who were brought along from Cuba. The force brought along many dogs that had been well-trained to fight. The distance from Cempoala to Tenochtitlán is 250 miles, as the crow flies.

On August 31, at a point ten miles into Tlaxcalan territory, Cortés' army encountered a hostile force of at least 30,000 Tlaxcalans. Despite the tremendous size of the army, the Spaniards managed to fend them off. Unlike other Indians, the Tlaxcalans seemed to have no fear of the horses and killed two of the animals. That night, the Spaniards, exhausted from their battle, rested in the open, some twenty miles from the capital city of Tlaxcala. The Tlaxcalan council then decided on a night attack against the Spaniards and their allies, but they found to their surprise that Cortés' troops were ready for them and reversed the ambush.

In the next battle, Cortés claimed that he faced a Tlaxcalan army of well over 100,000 warriors. In this battle, some sixty Spaniards and several horses were wounded by the enemy. But, on the following day, Cortés led a punitive expedition, burning some ten Tlaxcalan towns (with a total population of over 3,000). Many Indians were killed in this campaign. After a third day of battles, the Spaniards had lost 45 men who died in battle, died of wounds or succumbed to disease.

Watching the Spaniards prove themselves in battle, the Tlaxcalan King Xicotenga was very impressed and decided to allow Cortés' army to pass through the confederation. As the Spaniards entered the Tlaxcalan capital on September 18, they were welcomed into the town as if they were heroes. For twenty days, Cortés and his army stayed in Tlaxcala. As his men recovered from their wounds, Cortés forged a relationship with Xicotenga and other Tlaxcalan leaders. Xicotenga agreed to provide necessary provisions and manpower to the Spaniards. This change from hostility to alliance was brought on by Cortés' claims that he was opposed only to the Aztec empire and that there would be a place for Tlaxcala in a Spanish-dominated Mexico.

Xicotenga saw in Cortés a powerful ally who could help the Tlaxcalans destroy the Mexica and undermine the power of the Aztec Empire. The alliance between the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans is one of the most important events in Mexican history. This alliance of the Europeans with the Totonac and Tlaxcalan Indians gave birth to a formidable coalition which would eventually lead to the downfall and destruction of the entire Aztec Empire. The allegiance of the Tlaxcalans with the Spaniards would become an enduring partnership, lasting several centuries.

Joining Forces

On November 1, 1519, Cortés and his army of European mercenaries and indigenous warriors left the Tlaxcalan capital. As many as 6,000 Tlaxcalan warriors had been added to the ranks of Cortés' force, but most of his Totonac allies had to return to their homes on the Gulf Coast. While Indian laborers carried the cannon and baggage in the center of the formation, Tlaxcalan warriors and Spanish horsemen marched along the flanks and with the rear guard.

As Cortés traveled westward through mountain towns and villages, many of the Indians living along this path told him of their cruel treatment at the hands of the Mexica overlords. Through these meetings, Cortés began to understand the depth of this hatred and fear. He also recognized that many of these people would be potential allies in a showdown with the Mexica.

From the mountain passes overlooking the great Valley of Mexico, the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans witnessed for the first time the great splendor of Tenochtitlán as it spread out along the valley floor. Before long, the mountain pass, with the Valley in full view, descended to lower altitudes, eventually bringing Cortés and his forces to an altitude of 7,400 feet above sea level on the valley floor. As they made their way through the valley towards Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards arrived in one town, where the King of Texcoco welcomed them. The Texcocans provided their alien guests with gifts, food, and assistance. Soon after hearing about the Christian religion, many Texcocans, including the king, decided to convert to Catholicism. Before continuing on to the capital, the Spaniards performed several religious services, baptizing the king and other Texcocan nobles.

On November 8, 1519, the coalition army reached Xoloco, just outside of Tenochtitlán, where they were greeted by hundreds of emissaries of Emperor Moctezuma, the ruler of Tenochtitlán and the Emperor of the mighty Aztec Empire. As they were brought into the city, the Spaniards stared in awe at the architectural precision of the city. Filing across the southern causeway of the capital, Cortés and his men were greeted with much ceremony by a retinue of lords and nobles headed by Moctezuma himself. The Tlaxcalans, marching alongside their European allies, were equally impressed by the splendor of their hereditary enemies.

Greeted by Moctezuma, the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans were offered housing and provisions by the Mexica. Moctezuma showed his Spanish guests around the city and entertained them with splendid banquets. By this time, Moctezuma and the other Mexica lords had already heard about the devastation that Cortés and his allies had inflicted upon several of the Aztec villages on his journey westward. Moctezuma also recognized the potential danger of a Tlaxcalan-Spanish alliance.

After several days of negotiations and touring, Cortés and his officers suddenly took Moctezuma as a hostage. Bringing the monarch to his barracks in the great city, Cortés persuaded him to dispatch messengers to the surrounding communities to collect gold and silver. Moctezuma's imprisonment within his own capital continued for eight months.

On April 19, 1520, more Spanish ships appeared along the eastern coast. As Cortés suspected, the Governor of Cuba - his personal enemy - had sent soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to arrest Cortés for insubordination. Leaving his friend, Captain Pedro de Alvarado, in charge of his troops in Tenochtitlán, Cortés quickly departed from Tenochtitlán with 266 Spanish soldiers to confront the newly arrived Spanish force on the Gulf Coast. Although Narvaez's troops numbered three times greater, Cortés and his small army defeated Narvaez in a battle near Veracruz. After this battle, Cortés - a master of manipulation - persuaded most of Narvaez's troops to join him, after promising them a share of the spoils when Tenochtitlán was brought under Spanish control.

However, when Cortés and his men returned to Tenochtitlán, he found out that Pedro de Alvarado had provoked an open revolt by massacring 600 Aztec nobles during the Feast of Huitzilopochtli. Fighting had broken out, and soon the Spaniards and their Tlaxcalan allies found themselves under siege within the palace of the great city. An attempt to get the Mexica monarch to calm his subjects failed when Moctezuma was killed by a hail of stones.

Moctezuma was succeeded as Emperor by Cuitlahuac, who immediately set out to organize a determined resistance to the Spanish forces. As the month of June approached its end, Cortés realized that he would have to exit the city or face annihilation by a numerically superior force. On July 1, 1520, 1,250 Spaniards and 5,000 Tlaxcalans attempted to flee the city. This night - often referred to as La Noche Triste, the Night of Sadness - was a disaster for both the Spaniards and Tlaxcalan forces. As they fled the city, the Mexica forces fell upon them, killing 450 Spanish soldiers, 4,000 Tlaxcalans and 46 horses.

Plagued by hunger, disease, and the pursuing Aztecs, Cortés' army fled eastward in an attempt to reach Tlaxcalan territory, where they would try to organize reinforcements. However, on July 8, the retreating army came upon a legion of nearly 200,000 Aztecs sent by Cuitlahuac. There, at the battle of Otumba, Cortés' forces managed a smashing victory that dissuaded the Aztecs from pursuing the Spaniards and their allies any farther.

Four hundred and twenty Spaniards and a mere 17 horses limped into Tlaxcalan territory. All the survivors, including Cortés, were wounded, and very few firearms or ammunition were left. As the battered army made its way into Tlaxcala, they were greeted by their Indian allies and given refuge. It goes without saying that the Spaniards would not have survived their ordeal without the help of their Tlaxcalan allies. The Tlaxcalan chiefs called on Cortés during this dismal time and laid out their conditions for further assistance. The author Richard Lee Marks writes that the Tlaxcalans requested "perpetual exemption from tribute of any sort, a share of the spoils, and control of two provinces that bordered their land." Cortés agreed to these conditions and, as Mr. Marks observed, "Spain substantially kept its promise" to the Tlaxcalans "and exempted them from tribute for the entire period of the Spanish rule in Mexico, nearly three hundred years."

The Spaniards, however, also received more important support from another, unexpected ally. "While the Spaniards rested and recuperated" in Tlaxcala, wrote Mr. Marks, "it occurred to Cortés and his men to wonder why the great armies from Tenochtitlán were not pursuing them." The Aztecs had not attacked or laid siege to Tlaxcala, giving the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans precious time to heal and recover from their catastrophic defeat. Later, Cortés would learn that an epidemic of smallpox had devastated Tenochtitlán.

Brought to the shores of Mexico by an African sailor, "the disease had spread with amazing rapidity through the coastal tribes and up into the highland." The disease spread quickly among the Indians, according to Mr. Marks, because they "were in the habit of bathing to alleviate almost any ailment that afflicted them. These baths were either communal or the same bathing water was used consecutively by many. But after someone with an open smallpox sore entered the bath, the disease was transmitted to everyone who followed." The Spaniards, however, never bathed. Although they occasionally washed off the dirt and blood when they had to, "they believed that bathing per se was weakening." And the Tlaxcalans, "always in a state of semi-siege," were not yet exposed to the smallpox.

"Reviewing their narrow escape," writes the author Michael C. Meyer, "many of the Spanish veterans wanted nothing more to do with the Aztecs. It required all of Cortés' force of personality and subtle blandishments to prevent mass defections and rebellion among his men. Cortés, who seems never to have wavered in his determination to retake Tenochtitlán, began to lay plans for the return." In Tlaxcala, Cortés gained great power over the council and began to form a huge new army to attack Tenochtitlán once again. Reinforcements arrived from Vera Cruz to assist in the campaign, while more Tlaxcalans prepared to join Cortés' army. The Captain-General's army left Tlaxcala in late December of 1520 on its march to the Aztec capital.

With an army of 600 Spanish soldiers and more than 110,000 Indian warriors, Cortés intended to occupy the city of Texcoco and blockade Tenochtitlán from there. In the Spring of 1521, the refreshed army systematically conquered most of the Aztec-inhabited towns around Tenochtitlán, all the while receiving more reinforcements. The Spanish and Tlaxcalan force was bolstered by the addition of some 50,000 Texcocans. In addition, another 200 Spanish soldiers had arrived from the coast to help in the offensive.

In May 1521, Captain-General Hernán Cortés, with 900 Spaniards, 118 crossbows and harquebuses, fifteen bronze cannons and three heavy guns, thirteen brigantines, and as many as 150,000 Indian warriors, approached the entrance to Tenochtitlán. The siege of Tenochtitlán lasted from May 26 to August 13, 1521. The Mexica put up a fierce resistance until their people were reduced to eating worms and bark from trees. Towards the end of the siege, recognizing that the Mexica were nearly incapacitated by hunger and dehydration, the Captain-General ordered a full-scale assault on Tenochtitlán.

On August 13, 1521, after a 75-day siege, Tenochtitlán finally fell. In later years, Aztec historians would state that 240,000 Aztecs died in the siege. While many of the warriors died in battle, others, including most of the women and children, died from dehydration, starvation and disease. Of the 150,000 Amerindian allies fighting alongside the Spaniards, more than 30,000 are believed to have perished.

An Enduring Alliance

The anthropologist Eric R. Wolf stressed the great contribution of Cortés' Indian allies in the capture of Tenochtitlán. Wolf writes that "Spanish firepower and cavalry would have been impotent against the Mexica armies without" the support of the Tlaxcalans and the Texcocans. The allies "furnished the bulk of the infantry and manned the canoes that covered the advance of the brigantines across the lagoon of Tenochtitlán." In addition, "they provided, transported, and prepared the food supplies needed to sustain an army in the field. They maintained lines of communication between the coast and highland, and they policed occupied and pacified areas."

Finally, writes Mr. Wolf, the Indian allies also "supplied the raw materials and muscular energy for the construction of the ships that decided the siege of the Mexican capital." In conclusion, he states that while "Spanish military equipment and tactics carried the day," the "Indian assistance determined the outcome of the war."

The author Charles Gibson, in his work Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century, has explored the intricacies of the Tlaxcalan alliance with the Spaniards in great detail. He notes that even after the surrender of the Mexica capital, the Tlaxcalans continued to offer support to the Spaniards. They accompanied Cortés to Pánuco in 1522, and joined Pedro de Alvarado's expedition to Guatemala in 1524. In 1530, several thousand Tlaxcalans accompanied Nuño de Guzmán in his bloody campaign into northwestern Mexico.

During Nuño de Guzmán's reign of terror as the President of the First Audiencia of New Spain, the Tlaxcalans remained comparatively immune from the oppression and harassment, which reached its peak during in the early 1530s. Because they were directly subject to the Crown, royal officials preferred not to tamper with the privileges which the Crown had granted to the former republic as a reward for its loyalty in the war.

In 1524, twelve Franciscan friars arrived in Tlaxcala to carry on the spiritual conquest of the Tlaxcalans. They built convents and chapels and in 1525 founded Tlaxcala de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción on the site of the present-day capital city. The conversion of the Tlaxcalans to Christianity proceeded and reached its peak in the late 1520s. By 1535, the city of Tlaxcala had been granted a coat of arms and was made the seat of the first archbishopric of Nueva España (New Spain).

After the conquest of the Mexica, the Tlaxcalans were given special concessions, and to some extent, they were able to maintain their old form of government. The special relationship of the Tlaxcalans with the Spaniards continued well into the Sixteenth Century. They accompanied the Spaniards into battle in the Mixtón Rebellion (1540-41) and the Chichimeca War (1550-1590) in Nueva Galicia.

Moving North

In the 1580s, several viceroys had recommended settlement of peaceful, agricultural Indian tribes in the north as part of the pacification of the nomadic groups (Chichimecas). Dr. Philip Wayne Powell, in his book Mexico's Miguel Caldera: The Taming of America's First Frontier (1548-1597), observed that many small groups of southern Christianized Indians - Cholulans, Mexica, Tarascans, Huejotzingas, Tlaxcalans and Otomíes - went "forth to the wilderness, serving as examples for the savages" during the four decades of the Chichimeca War. These sedentary, Christianized Indian allies of the Spaniards - including the Tlaxcalans - consisted of "thousands of individual Indians and families [who] had moved to the frontier in trade, as employees, as merchants, as organized military forces, or simply as adventurers, following the northward-pulling magnets of mining discoveries, town-founding, work and landholding opportunities, or for the attractions of warfare."

On February 6, 1585, the Spanish authorities in the mining town of San Martín had petitioned the King of Spain to send between 2,000 and 4,000 married Indians from Tlaxcala and other southern communities. Dr. Powell points out that the two objectives of this action were to "bolster resistance to Chichimeca warfare, and provide labor for the mines."

Dr. Powell, in Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War, tells us that by December 1590, Viceroy Luis de Velasco "had begun to negotiate with the Indian leaders of Tlaxcala, traditional friends and allies of Spanish conquest in the land, to send four hundred families northward to establish eight settlements (fifty families in each) with church and religious house."

"This defensive, or pacifying, type of colonization," wrote Dr. Powell, "was designed to teach the recently nomadic Chichimecas the ways of work, cultivation of the soil, provide a Christian example, and generally guide them into the ways of the sedentary life." However, the Tlaxcalans argued and received special privileges for themselves and their descendants in exchange for moving to the northern frontier.

On March 14, 1591, Viceroy Velasco took steps to safeguard their interests by various orders for protection (mandamientos de amparo) to make sure that their possessions would not be taken from their heirs at some future date. These special privileges (capitulaciones) included the following:

"The Tlaxcalan settlers in the Chichimeca country and their descendants shall be hidalgos [noble] in perpetuity, free from tributes, taxes (pecho and alcabala), and personal service for all time.

"They are not to be compelled to settle with Spaniards, but will be allowed to settle apart from them and have their own distinct districts [barrios]. No Spaniard can take or buy any solar [building house lot] within the Tlaxcalan districts.

"The Tlaxcalans are to be at all times settled apart from the Chichimecas, and this distinction is to apply to all of their lots, pastures, wooded lands, rivers, salt beds, mills, and fishing rights.

"The lands and estancias granted the individual Tlaxcalans and the community as a whole are never to be alienated because of nonoccupation.

"The markets in the new settlements shall be free, exempt from sales tax (alcabala), from excise taxes (sisa), and from any other form of taxation.

"The Tlaxcalan colonists and their descendants, besides being hidalgos and free from all tribute, shall henceforth enjoy all exemptions and privileges already granted, or to be granted in the future, to the province and city of Tlaxcala.

"The principales of Tlaxcala who go to the new settlements, and their descendants, shall be permitted to carry arms and ride saddled horses without penalty."

Eventually, 932 Tlaxcalan settlers headed north, occupying lands in Coahuila, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas. One of the most important settlements was San Miguel Mexquitic (now in San Luis Potosí), which Dr. Powell referred to as "a center of the most bellicose of the Chichimecas nearest the Mexico-Zacatecas road." Dr. Powell concluded that the "the Tlaxcalan settlement in the Gran Chichimeca was a basic factor in cementing the frontier peace, for, in almost all respects, the enterprise fulfilled or exceeded the hopes of its planners. With one temporary exception, the Tlaxcalan presence did encourage Chichimeca imitation of their peaceful and more civilized ways. This program was so effective that the original six Tlaxcalan settlements were soon contributing offshoot colonies to other parts of the frontier, for the same purpose."

The Tlaxcalan colonists settled in several locations along the Rio Grande, including El Paso (where they had fled after the Pueblo Indian Rebellion of 1680 in New Mexico). Some settlers also located in the missions near San Juan Bautista, not far from the present-day port of entry in Eagle Pass, Texas. When José de Escandón established his new colony of Nueva Santander in the region of present-day Tamaulipas and Texas, he invited Tlaxcalans to accompany him too. As a result, descendants of these Tlaxcalan settlers still live along the Rio Grande, both in Texas and Tamaulipas.

The Tlaxcalans lived peacefully under the protection of the Spanish authorities and Franciscan padres and any Spaniards who tried to interfere with their way of life, land, or privileges were punished. Eventually intermarriage between the Tlaxcalans and the Chichimeca Indians took place, although "the Tlaxcalan identity never entirely disappeared, living on through succeeding centuries."

The modern-day state of Tlaxcala occupies a slightly larger area than the Indian principality of Tlaxcala (in the Sixteenth Century). Tlaxcala's economy contributes to 0.54% of Mexico's Gross National Product. The most important component of Tlaxcala's economy is manufacturing, which represents 28.24% of its economic output. Other elements of Tlaxcala's economy include: Finance and Insurance (16.51%), Trade (12.6%), Transports and Communications (8.61%), Agriculture and Livestock (7.8%), Construction (4.96%), and Mining (0.17%).

The manufacturing sector produces chemicals, petrochemicals, non-metallic minerals, auto parts, electrical items, rubbers, plastics, cellulose, machine tools, as well as textiles and garments. Tlaxcala's agricultural base is also an important sector. Tlaxcala produces corn, barley, potatoes and alfalfa and raises dairy cows and fighting bulls. Although a large part of Tlaxcala's industry is textile-based, the economy has diversified considerably in recent years. Her primary export products are textiles, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

The colonial heritage of Tlaxcala and its spas have attracted tourists to the area. Boasting a strategic geographic location, 1,145 miles of roads and 191 miles of railroads traverse the state, linking Tlaxcala, the state capital, to Mexico City in the west and to Puebla on the south. Tlaxcala's railroads also link it to the seaport of Veracruz, an important outlet for Tlaxcalan exports.

The capital city of Tlaxcala has an estimated population of 73,184, which makes up about 7.62% of the state's population. It is the site of the oldest Christian church in the Americas, founded in 1521 by Hernán Cortés. The Tlaxcalans have played a very important and unique role in Mexican history. And tourists visiting the state become very aware of this role during their visit.

Copyright © 2008 by John P. Schmal.

Sources:

David Adams, The Tlaxcalan Colonies of Spanish Coahuila and Nuevo León: An Aspect of the Settlement of Northern Mexico (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1971).

Ronald Barnett, "The Mighty Tlaxcalans of Mexico," Online: http://www.chapala.com/particles/21w.htm February 1997.

Nicholas Cheetham, New Spain: The Birth of Modern Mexico (London: Victor Golancz Ltd., 1974).

Diego Muñoz Camargo, Historia de Tlaxcala (Alfredo Chavero, ed.: Mexico, 1892).

Diego Muñoz Camargo, Fragmentos de la Historia de Tlaxcala (Mexico, 1871).

Nigel Davies, The Aztecs: A History (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma, 1980).

Charles Gibson, Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century (Yale: Yale University Press, 1952).

Oakah L. Jones, Los Paisanos: Spanish Settlers on the Northern Frontier of New Spain (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979).

Richard Lee Marks, Cortés: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Rivera, The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

Michael C. Meyer, The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Philip Wayne Powell, Mexico's Miguel Caldera: The Taming of America's First Frontier (1548-1597) (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1977).

Philip Wayne Powell, Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War (Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, 1975).

Marc Simmons, "Tlascalans in the Spanish Borderlands," New Mexico Historical Review 39 (April '64).

Eric R. Wolf, Sons of the Shaking Earth (Chicago: Un of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1959).

 

 

 


THE DEFEAT OF THE AZTECS

by John P. Schmal

 

The conquest of the Aztec Empire, taking place from 1519 to 1521, is a story that has intrigued millions of people over the years. At the climax of this campaign, Moctezuma, the highly respected leader of the mighty Aztec Empire, came face-to-face with Hernán Cortés, the leader of a small band of professional European soldiers from a faraway land (Spain). Against insurmountable odds, Cortés triumphed over the great empire. As a master of observation, manipulation and strategy, he was able to gradually weave an army of indigenous resistance against the Aztecs, while professing his good intentions toward Moctezuma.

This story is a story of logistics and strategy. I do not go into any great detail about the intricate personal and political maneuvering that took place. Nor will I discuss at any length the personal relationships of the principal characters. In the bibliography, I have listed several works that have provided great insight into the workings of the great cultural collision between the Spaniards and the indigenous people of present-day México.

The Aztec Empire of 1519

The Aztec Empire of 1519 was one of the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdoms of all time. By this time, the island city of Tenochtitlán had become a city of about 300,000 citizens. And the Aztec Empire itself ruled over about 80,000 square miles of territory extending from the Gulf of México to the Pacific Ocean, and southward to Oaxaca. This empire contained some 15 million people, living in thirty-eight provinces. In all, the Emperor received the tribute of 489 communities. The term, Aztec, is used to describe all the Nahua-speaking peoples in the Valley of México, while the culture that dominated the Aztec Empire a tribe of the Mexica (pronounced "me-shee-ka"). The Mexica were also called Tenochca ("te-noch-ka").

On April 22, 1519, a fleet of eleven Spanish galleons, which had been sailing northward along the eastern Gulf Coast of México, dropped anchor just off the wind-swept beach on the island of San Juan de Ulúa. Under the command of a Spanish adventurer named Hernán Cortés, these vessels bore 450 soldiers, 100 sailors, and 16 horses. These horses would be the first horses to walk upon the North American continent. The horse, which eventually became an important element of Indian life, was unknown to the North American Indians who engaged in warfare and hunting without the benefit of this mammal’s help.

Forging an Alliance with the Totonacs

As the Spaniards disembarked to set up camp on the dunes behind the beach, they received a friendly reception from the native Totonac Indians, who inhabited this area. Cortés explained that he wanted to travel inland to meet with Moctezuma, "the Lord of Cuhúa." By this time, Indian runners reaching the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, some 250 miles to the west in the heart of the continent, reported the arrival of the fair-skinned, bearded strangers and their fearsome "man-beasts" (cavalry).

On June 7, 1519, Cortés led his forces northward to the coastal town Cempoala. As they approached the town, the Totonac Indians started bringing the Spaniards food and gifts. Cortés had heard that the cacique (chief) of the Totonacs, Tlacochcalcatl, who reigned over this area, was an enemy of the Emperor Moctezuma. But the chief was very obese and not able to move around freely. For this reason, he could not come to greet the Spanish force in person.

The coastal city-state of Cempoala, presently under Aztec domination, was made up of some fifty towns. The town of Cempoala itself contained some 14,000 inhabitants. The townspeople gave the Spanish soldiers a very warm reception and Cacique Tlacochcalcatl met with Cortés. The chief of the Totonacs, writes Dr. Marrin, complained that the Aztec "tribute collectors were picking the country clean… like hungry coyotes." And each year, the Totonacs were forced to send hundreds of children to the altars of Tenochtitlán for sacrifice. For this tribute, the hatred of the Totonacs for the Mexica ran deep. For this reason, Tlacochcalcatl forged an alliance with Cortés.

The Spaniards helped the Totonacs to expel Moctezuma’s tribute-collectors who apparently fled to a Mexica garrison at Tizapancingo, about twenty miles to the southwest. With a full force of Spaniards, 16 horses, and Totonacs, Cortés seized control of the town. The seizure of this town had a profound effect on both the Spaniards and Totonacs. "The speed of this victory greatly impressed the Totonacs and naturally had the effect of extending their rebellion," writes Professor Hugo Thomas in Conquest: Montezuma, Cortés, and the Fall of Old México, "It also made Cortés even more self-confident; for it suggested to him and to his captains that the Mexica, despite their fame, had no special military qualities, no secret weapons, and little discipline."

The Cempoalans helped Cortés and his men establish a base on the shore. On June 28, 1519, Cortés formally gave this town the name La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz (The Rich Town of the True Cross). At this point, Cortés decided to lead his troops westward into the interior of the continent to find and meet with Moctezuma. Cacique Tlacochcalcatl warned Cortés that, on his journey inland, he would confront the people of Tlaxcala and Huexotzinco, two provinces that hated the Mexica equally. With the help of Totonac guides, Cortés planned his march through territory that might represent fertile ground for more alliances.

On August 8, Cortés assembled his army for the expedition inland. He had a force of 300 Spanish soldiers, 150 Cuban Indian servants, 800 Cempoalans and other Totonacs led by a chief named Mamexi. They also had 15 horses, reserved exclusively for the captains of the army. The Spanish army was thus beefed up with more than a thousand native warriors plus 200 porters. With a small party of soldiers and sailors left to hold the fort at Vera Cruz, Cortés commenced the hazardous journey towards the Aztec capital.

Just as they approached the next town, Jalapa, word arrived from the coast that four Spanish ships under the command of Alonso Alvarez de Pineda had arrived at the coast. With a force of one hundred men, Cortés quickly returned to the coast to meet the new arrivals. Although the ships did not arrive with good intent toward Cortés, he had them arrested and then persuaded them to join his army. Cortés then set off to join and reassemble his army.

The Journey Inland

Without a way to retreat, on August 16, 1519, the expedition started. In addition to the Spaniards, there were forty Cempoalan warrior chiefs and 200 Indians to drag the cannon and carry the supplies. The men were accustomed to the hot climate of the coast, but they suffered immensely from the cold of the mountains, the rain, and the hail. Although Cortés asked for peace and friendship, and permission to cross their land on the way to México, the Tlaxcalan Indians refused.

Finally, on August 16, 1519, as his expedition prepared to move inland from Cempoala, Hernán Cortés mustered an army of 400 Spanish soldiers, 15 horses, 1,300 Indian warriors, seven pieces of artillery, and a thousand tamanes (porters), who helped transport baggage and guns across the land. About 150 of the porters were Cuban Indian servants who were brought along from Cuba. The force brought along many dogs that had been well-trained to fight. The distance from Cempoala to Tenochtitlán is 250 miles, as the crow flies. A fairly large force of 150 Spanish soldiers and sailors and two horses under the command Juan de Escalante stayed at the garrison at Villa Rica de Vera Cruz. Roughly 100 soldiers remained in Villa Rica under the command of Gonzalo Sandoval.

On the road ahead, the allied force faced many obstacles. Shortly after reaching Jalapa, a short distance inland from Cempoala, the altitude of the land rose sharply to 6,000 feet, transforming the climate from tropical to temperate. As they advanced inland, they moved through territory that was firmly in the control of the Mexica. On August 24, the Spanish force arrived in Zautla, where a Mexican garrison was stationed. The chief of the Zautla, Olintecle, met with Cortés and warmly embraced him. Olintecle was a subject of the Mexica and may have been given orders by Moctezuma to give food and lodging to the Spanish force.

After staying in Zautla for about a week, Cortés prepared to move on. He sent four Cempoalan chiefs ahead to Tlaxcala with instructions to inform them of his approach, hoping for a peaceful reception. The next stop for the Castilians was Iztaquimaxtitlan, a mountain town occupied by a Mexica garrison. Several families lived in this town and once again, on Moctezuma’s insistence, the strangers were well received and given gifts and lodging.

On their journey out of Iztaquimaxtitlan, the Spaniards came across a large gate, atop which lay a battlement a foot and a half high. This wall, some twenty paces wide and nine feet high, ran for several miles across the valley from one mountaintop to another. This barrier had represented a border which the people of Iztaquimaxtitlan had built to protect themselves from the fierce Tlaxcalan Indians nearby.

Confronting the Tlaxcalans

Finally, Cortés army reached the Tlaxcalan Republic, which was independent enclave deep in the heart of the Mexica Empire that had managed to resist Aztec control. Surrounded on all sides and blockaded by the Aztecs, they had never yielded to them. By the time that Cortez arrived in the Western Hemisphere, the Tlaxcalan Indians had been subjected to continuous warfare and human sacrifice for many decades. Because of their economic isolation, the Tlaxcalans had no cotton with which to make their clothes. Neither did they have any salt. The salt lakes of Alchichica, not far from Tlaxcala, lay close by but they could not benefit from this. No feathers or precious stones made their way into Tlaxcala. They were unable to obtain salt (boiled out of sea water), cotton cloth, or bird feathers.

Tlaxcala was a small, densely populated province. In 1519, the population was about 150,000. Tlaxcala was actually "confederation of four republics," ruling over some 200 settlements. Some historians believe that Tenochtitlán could have overwhelmed Tlaxcala without too much difficulty, and the reason it did not is probably that it wanted a nearby source of victims for the human sacrifices. Therefore the Aztecs maintained an almost perpetual state of war with Tlaxcala, but never actually conquered it. Also, the Aztecs seem to have regarded the frequent battles as a convenient way of testing and training the young Mexica warriors.

This state of perpetual war was very hateful to the Tlaxcalans and by the time that Cortés arrived in Tlaxcala, the confederation represented fertile grounds for an anti-Mexica alliance. However, the Tlaxcalans, very suspicious of the strangers, were in no mood to accommodate the Spaniards and their Indian allies.

After a brief skirmish along the Tlaxcalan frontier, the Spaniards were guaranteed passage through the Tlaxcalan Republic. However, on August 31, at a point ten miles into Tlaxcalan territory, Cortés’ army encountered a hostile force of at least 30,000 Tlaxcalans. Despite the tremendous size of the army, the Spaniards managed to fend them off. Unlike other Indians, the Tlaxcalans seemed to have no fear of the horses and killed two of them. That night, the Spaniards, exhausted from their battle, rested in the open, some twenty miles from the capital city of Tlaxcala.

In the next battle, Cortés claimed that he faced a Tlaxcalan army of 149,000 warriors. In this battle, some sixty Spaniards and several horses were wounded by the enemy. But, on the following day, Cortés led a punitive expedition, burning some ten Tlaxcalan towns (with a total population of over 3,000). Many Indians were killed in this campaign. After a third day of battles, the Spaniards had lost 45 men who died in battle, died of wounds or succumbed to disease.

On September 5, the Spaniards and their Totonac allies were ambushed by an army of 50,000 Tlaxcalan warriors. The Tlaxcalan king, Xicotenga, and his council had hoped that this attack would rid them of the invaders. However, with their advanced technology and tactical advantages, the Spaniards were able to turn the tide against the Tlaxcalans and defeat them. Subsequent battles fought during September also ended in Spanish victory.

Alliance with the Tlaxcalans

Watching the Spaniards prove themselves in battle, King Xicotenga was very impressed and decided to allow Cortés’ army to pass through the confederation. As the Spaniards approached the Tlaxcalan capital on September 18, the Spanish soldiers were welcomed into the town as if they were heroes. For twenty days, Cortés and his army stayed in Tlaxcala. As his men recovered from their wounds, Cortés forged a relationship with Xicotenga and other Tlaxcalan leaders. He found that he was now over halfway from the Gulf of México to Tenochtitlán.

Almost immediately, Xicotenga saw in Cortés a powerful ally who could help the Tlaxcalans destroy the Mexica. Cortés, for his part, told Xicotenga that he was opposed only to the Aztec Empire and that there would be a place for Tlaxcala in Spanish-dominated México.

Within a very short time, the Tlaxcalans would become the most loyal native allies of the Spaniards. Their allegiance with the Europeans would be an enduring partnership, lasting several centuries. The Tlaxcalans were able to provide the Cortés with valuable information about the Mexica capital, Tenochtitlán. Tlaxcalans who had visited the great city in the past were able to draw pictures of the city’s layout, as well as its bridges, causeways and canals. Soon the Spaniards would have a good idea of the layout of the capital and of the fighting style of the Aztec warriors.

On October 23, 1519, Cortés and his army of European mercenaries and indigenous warriors left the Tlaxcalan capital. A thousand Tlaxcalan warriors had been added to the ranks of Cortés force. While Indian laborers carried the cannon and baggage in the center of the formation, Tlaxcalan warriors and Spanish horsemen marched along the flanks and with the rear guard. Although Xicotenga had offered him many more warriors, Cortés did not want a large force of Tlaxcalans that might frighten or enrage the Mexica.

As Cortés traveled westward through mountain towns and villages, many of the Indians living along this path told him of their cruel treatment at the hands of the Aztec overlords. Through these meetings, Cortés began to understand the depth of this hatred and fear. He also recognized that many of these people would be potential allies in a showdown with the Mexica.

Cholula

Cholula, twenty-five miles east of Tlaxcala, was a city of almost 60,000 houses and 430 temples and pyramids. If necessary, the Cholulans could muster together some 25,000 men for war out of a possible total population of 180,000. Xicotenga had warned Cortés that the Cholulans were mere pawns of Moctezuma and the Aztec hierarchy and advised against marching through their territory. But Cortés decided that to advance in this direction regardless of Xicotenga’s admonition.

As the army approached the Cholulan capital, they were greeted by the caciques and given a place to stay. Although the Spanish and indigenous accounts differ on what happened, all agree that a great massacre followed. Through his interpreter, Doña Marina, Cortés had apparently learned of a Cholulan conspiracy sponsored by Moctezuma to ambush and slaughter the Spaniards. Expecting an ambush, Cortés launched a preemptive strike on the Cholulans after having called a meeting of the Cholulan nobles in the courtyard of the temple of Quetzalcóatl. After a confrontation with the Cholulans about their intentions towards the Spanish, Cortés issued an order for the lords to be killed. Quickly and with little mercy, the assembly turned into a full-scale massacre of 3,000 Cholulan noblemen and warriors. In the meantime, Tlaxcalans and Totonacs sacked the town.

Quickly, the Cholulan army launched a counterattack against the Spanish forces. After two hours of battle, both sides agreed to end the fighting. The Cholulans then returned to their homes, while Cortés’ army marched to the east.

Resumption of the Advance

On November 1, 1519, Cortés assembled his army for the resumption of the march to Tenochtitlán. At this time, his Totonac allies from Cempoala had to return home. However, a thousand Tlaxcalans remained in the ranks of his army and they moved on to higher altitudes. On November 2, Cortés forces moved through a mountain pass that lay 13,000 feet above sea level. From this path, the Spaniards could see the smoking volcano Popocatepetl (Smoking Mountain) and Ixtaccihuatl (Mountain of White Woman), which reach 17,887 feet and 17,000 feet, respectively.

From the mountain pass, the Spaniards witnessed for the first time the great splendor of Tenochtitlán as it spread out on the valley floor. Before long, the mountain pass, with the great Valley of México in full view, descended to lower altitudes, eventually bringing Cortés and his forces to an altitude of 7,400 above sea level along the valley floor. As they made their way to Tenochtitlán, the Spaniards met with another tribe of Mesoamericans. The King of Texcoco welcomed the Spaniards into his own and provided his guests with gifts, food, and assistance. Soon after hearing about the Christian religion, many Texcocans, including the king, decided to convert to Catholicism. Before continuing on to the capital, the Spaniards performed several religious services, baptizing the king and other Texcocan nobles.

The Meeting with Moctezuma

On the road to the capital, the army passed through hamlets where they were offered generous bribes from Moctezuma's emissaries to turn back. When Cortés failed to accept the bribes, Moctezuma sent his nephew to welcome four hundred Spaniards and their entourage of 7,000 Tlaxcalan warriors to Tenochtitlán. Finally, on November 8, 1519, the army reached Xoloco, just outside of Tenochtitlán, where they were greeted by hundreds of emissaries of Moctezuma. As they were brought into the city, the Spaniards stared in awe at the architectural precision of the city. Filing across the southern causeway of the capital, Cortés and his men were greeted with much ceremony by a retinue of lords and nobles headed by Moctezuma himself.

The Spaniards were housed in the ancient palace of Atzayacatl, the emperor's father. The wary Moctezuma made great efforts to play the perfect host, showing his unwanted guests around the city and entertaining them with splendid banquets. Some researchers believe that the Aztecs may have thought that the Spaniards were gods or godlike creatures. They also noticed heard about the devastation that took place when the Spaniards won a battle. In any event, they were at least curious to see these strangers who had marched so many miles and fought so many battles against various indigenous groups along the way. In War and Society in Ancient Mesoamerica, the author Ross Hassig points out that "the Spaniards did not [initially] present themselves as a hostile force." In fact, the arrival of the Spaniards and their indigenous allies coincided with the harvest when Aztec soldiers were unavailable and unprepared for war.

After several days of negotiations and touring, Cortés and his officers took Moctezuma as a hostage. Bringing the King to his barracks, Cortés persuaded him to dispatch messengers to the surrounding communities to collect gold and silver, part of which was sent to the Spanish monarch in the name of Moctezuma and part of which was divided among Cortés’ troops. Moctezuma’s imprisonment continued for eight months.

Arrival of Narvaez

On April 19, 1520, more ships appeared off the coast of México. The governor of Cuba had sent soldiers under Panfilo de Narvaez to arrest Captain-General Cortés for insubordination. Leaving Captain Pedro de Alvarado in charge of his troops, Cortés quickly departed from Tenochtitlán with 266 Spanish soldiers to confront the newly-arrived Spanish force on the Gulf Coast. Although Narvaez’s troops outnumbered Cortés by three to one, Cortés and his small army defeated Narvaez in a battle near Veracruz. After this battle, most of Narvaez's troops joined Cortés who promised them a share of the spoils when Tenochtitlán was brought under Spanish control.

When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlán, he found out that Pedro de Alvarado had provoked an open revolt by massacring 600 Aztec nobles during the Feast of Huitzilopochtli. Fighting quickly broke out in full force the day after Cortés returned, and the sheer numbers of the Aztec army overwhelmed the Captain-General's army, which numbered only 1,250 Spaniards and 8,000 Mexican warriors. His army was forced to retreat back into the barracks but set hundreds of homes on fire before doing so.

The Death of Moctezuma

As the Indians besieged the palace, Cortés ordered Moctezuma to tell his subjects to disperse. Not only did they refuse but the shower of stones they directed against their captive emperor caused injuries that resulted in his death. The hail of stones began when a nobleman defiantly brandished a javelin at Moctezuma. Moctezuma was succeeded as emperor by Cuitlahuac. Moctezuma had been intimidated by Cortés because he believed the Spaniards were representatives of the bearded, fair- skinned god Quetzalcoatl. Cuitlahuac never believed the legend and set out to organize a determined resistance to the Spanish forces. Though he only ruled four months before succumbing to smallpox, Cuitlahuac drove Cortés's men out of Tenochtitlán during the famous Noche Triste ("sad night") of July 1, 1520, depending on which historian you read.

Flight from Tenochtitlán

Cortés and his men were besieged in Tenochtitlán, and on July 1, 1520, Cortés attempted to break out of the city and cross the lake to the mainland by marching down one of the causeways. As the force left the palace at midnight, Cortés had some 1,250 Spanish soldiers and at least 5,000 Tlaxcalan warriors. They had fifty hostages, including Aztec nobles and two of Moctezuma’s daughters.

While he was crossing the bridge leaving the city, the Aztecs fell upon the army and inflicted heavy damage. In the disorder, Spanish soldiers who had been too greedy and filled their pockets with gold were pushed into Lake Texcoco and drowned. The army managed to attain a place of relative safety on a hill past the nearby town of Tlacopan but not without losing about 450 Spanish and 2,000 Mexican soldiers from their ranks.

Plagued by hunger, disease, and the pursuing Aztecs, Cortés’ army fled to Tlaxcala to obtain reinforcements. On July 8, the army came upon a legion of nearly 200,000 Aztecs sent by Cuitlahuac, Moctezuma's brother and successor. There, at the battle of Otumba, the Spanish managed a smashing victory that dissuaded the Aztecs from pursuing the Spaniards and their allies any farther.

By the end of the battle, Díaz wrote, 850 Spaniards, 4,000 Tlaxcalans were lost. Only twenty-four of the 95 horses survived the exodus. All the cannon and nearly all the muskets and crossbows had been lost. None of the Aztec prisoners survived. Even with the many reinforcements that Cortés had brought from the coast, this left only 420 men and 17 horses. All the survivors, including Cortés, were wounded, and very few firearms or ammunition were left. As the battered army approached Tlaxcala, they were greeted by their Indian allies and given refuge.

Reflections on a Narrow Escape

"Reviewing their narrow escape," writes Michael C. Meyer, "many of the Spanish veterans wanted nothing more to do with the Aztecs. It required all of Cortés’ force of personality and subtle blandishments to prevent mass defections and rebellion among his men. Cortés, who seems never to have wavered in his determination to retake Tenochtitlán, began to lay plans for the return."

It goes without saying that the Spaniards would not have survived their ordeal without the help of their Tlaxcalan allies. The Tlaxcalan chiefs called on Cortés during this dismal time and laid out their conditions for further assistance. The Tlaxcalans requested "perpetual exemption from tribute of any sort, a share of the spoils, and control of two provinces that bordered their land." Cortés agreed to these conditions and, as the author Richard Lee Marks wrote, "Spain substantially kept its promise" to the Tlaxcalans "and exempted them from tribute for the entire period of the Spanish rule in México, nearly three hundred years."

Smallpox

The Spaniards, however, also received more important support from another, unexpected ally. "While the Spaniards rested and recuperated" in Tlaxcala, wrote Richard Lee Marks, "it occurred to Cortés and his men to wonder why the great armies from Tenochtitlán were not pursuing them." The Aztecs had not attacked or laid siege to Tlaxcala, giving the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans precious time to heal and recover from their catastrophic defeat. Later, Cortés would learn that an epidemic of smallpox had devastated Tenochtitlán.

While the Spaniards were in Tlaxcala, a great plague broke out here in Tenochtitlán. It began to spread during the thirteenth month and lasted for seventy days, striking everywhere in the city and killing a vast number of our people. Sores erupted on our faces, our breasts, our bellies; we were covered with agonizing sores from head to foot.

At the same time in the Aztec capital, a smallpox epidemic began that killed Cuitlahuac and immobilized much of the population. To replace the king, the caciques of Tenochtitlán chose Cuahtemoc, a nephew of Moctezuma and a brilliant military leader who fiercely believed that his Aztec army, with the help of Huitzilopochtli, could defeat the invaders.

The Aztecs, convinced that the Spaniards would never return to Tenochtitlán, celebrated their fiestas again in the traditional manner, and Cuitlahuac was elected king to succeed his brother Moctezuma.

Brought to the shores of México by an African sailor, "the disease had spread with amazing rapidity through the coastal tribes and up into the highland." The disease spread quickly among the Indians, according to Marks, because they "were in the habit of bathing to alleviate almost any ailment that afflicted them. These baths were either communal or the same bathing water was used consecutively by many. But after someone with an open smallpox sore entered the bath, the disease was transmitted to everyone who followed." The Spaniards, however, never bathed. Although they occasionally washed off the dirt and blood when they had to, "they believed that bathing per se was weakening." And the Tlaxcalans, "always in a state of semi-siege," were not yet exposed to the smallpox.

The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs or even their heads. They could not lie face down or roll from one side to the other. If they did move their bodies, they screamed with pain.

A great many died from this plague, and many others died of hunger. They could not getup to search for food, and everyone else was too sick to care for them, so they starved to death in their beds.

Some people came down with a milder form of the disease; they suffered less than the others and made a good recovery. But they could not escape entirely. Their looks were ravaged, for wherever a sore broke out, it gouged an ugly pockmark in the skin. And a few of the survivors were left completely blind.

The illness was so dreadful that no one could walk or move. The sick were so utterly helpless that they could only lie on their beds like corpses, unable to move their limbs or even their heads. They could not lie face down or roll from one side to the other. If they did move their bodies, they screamed with pain. A great many died from this plague, and many others died of hunger. They could not getup to search for food, and everyone else was too sick to care for them, so they starved to death in their beds.

The Captain-General's army left Tlaxcala on December 26, 1520 on its march to the Aztec capital. Cortés’ army had been completely rebuilt. With his army of 600 Spanish soldiers and between 110,000 and 150,000 Mexican warriors, Cortés intended to occupy the city of Texcoco and blockade Tenochtitlán from there. With the city sufficiently weakened, his army would cross the lake on thirteen brigantines constructed for this purpose by the Spaniards.

Into the Valley of México

In January 1521 Cortés once again led his force into the Valley of México. They staged a series of raids throughout the countryside and took the Aztec stronghold at Texcoco, from whence they could launch the newly built fleet. The occupation of Texcoco was done without conflict, and from there the army destroyed the town of Iztapalapan and massacred its residents, which sent shockwaves throughout the surrounding area. Having witnesses the military and technological advantages of the Spanish forces, many caciques who had avoided the Spaniards now decided to join their forces with Cortés’ army.

In March 1521, Cortés began with a reconnaissance in force to gain control of communities in the Valley of México adjacent to Tenochtitlán. He got as far as the neighboring settlement of Tacuba before Cuauhtemoc drove the Spaniards and Tlaxcalans back in a determined land and naval counterattack. Then the tide turned again when reinforcements arrived from Hispaniola. While he was preparing a fleet of small brigantines to control the lake during his assault, Cortés was reinforced by fresh troops from Spain.

At the time of the assault on Tenochtitlán, Cortés had gained an additional 200 Spanish soldiers and 50,000 Tlaxcalans. He had over 900 Spaniards, including 18 musketeers and crossbowmen. The cavalry had been beefed up with some ninety horses and their riders. The artillery included fifteen small bronze guns and heavy iron cannon-wall smashers. Within the ranks of this huge army were at least 50,000 Tlaxcalans, and thousands of other supporters. Seventy thousand Indian laborers carried supplies, built roads and carried on our auxiliary chores.

In April 1521 he had 86 horsemen, 118 crossbowmen and harquebusiers, 700 sword and pike men, as well as 18 cannons. In addition he had as many as 75,000 Tlaxcalan allies. It was still a stiff task, for the Aztecs numbered at least 250,000 men, and this time he could not rely on their native superstition to win the fight for him.

The stage was now set for the final assault. The brigantines were launched April 28, 1521, and land operations began a few days later. Cuauhtemoc, realizing that his horseless troops were no match for the Spaniards in open country, decided that it would be better to wage urban warfare against the enemy. Turning Tenochtitlán into an Aztec Stalingrad, he defeated the initial Spanish assault on the city and drove the enemy back to their siege lines outside the gates.

The Assault on Tenochtitlán

To triumphant shouts of 'Castile' and 'Santiago', and to a cacophony of native instruments Cortés launched his brigantines on the lake and began his assault on Tenochtitlán. With his headquarters located at Tlacopan, Cortés had divided his forces into three sections: his deputy, Pedro de Alvarado, took 30 horses, 18 crossbowmen, 150 infantry and 25,000 Tlaxcalans and advanced down the causeway that ran from Tacuba in the northwest; Cristóbal de Olid, with 33 horse, 18 crossbowmen, 150 infantry and 25,000 Tlaxcalans advanced on the causeway from Coyoacan in the southwest; and Gonzalo de Sandoval, with 24 cavalry, 4 harquebusiers, 13 crossbowmen, 150 infantry and 30,000 Indian allies, advanced on the causeway from Iztapalapan in the southeast.

Cortés himself commanded the brigantines in which the rest of the Spanish forces - crossbowmen and harquebusiers - were placed. It was a carefully planned exercise, showing a thorough appreciation of Aztec strengths and weaknesses. Cortés even left one causeway free, so that the Aztecs would have an escape route and would not fight to the death. In the event, few took this route; most preferred to die with their city.

In preparation for the attack, the Captain-General destroyed the aqueducts that supplied water to the capital with only ineffectual Aztec resistance. Two of the three divisions of the army attempted to attack the city across the causeway but met strong Aztec forces and were forced back. The third division, under Cortés, boarded the brigantines and patrolled the water, completely overwhelming the Aztecs' canoes and temporarily gaining control of Lake Texcoco.

The fighting raged back and forth as the Spaniards and their allies (now joined by 50,000 Texcocoans and later 150,000 of the Aztecs themselves) attempted to break the Aztec defense from both land and sea. They did so a few times but were steadily pushed back by the now starving inhabitants of Tenochtitlán. Cortés was increasingly distressed at his army's inability to break the Aztec spirit.

After nearly three months of such fighting, the Captain-General ordered a full-scale assault on Tenochtitlán. All three divisions crossed the causeway backed up by the brigantines and a fleet of Mexican canoes. Each division marched down one of the principal boulevards that all converged in Tlatelolco Square. They steadily pushed the Aztecs backwards; and when the Aztec king sounded the retreat, the captains pushed on towards their fleeing prey. When Cuahtemoc's horn sounded again, the Aztecs turned around and fell on the Spaniards, capturing sixty-two of them and sacrificing them in front of the Spaniards in an attempt to destroy their morale. Cortés ordered the retreat.

Five days passed, and famine and disease had devastated the Aztecs. Cortés knew this and appealed to Cuahtemoc to surrender, but the king felt that dying for one's country would be better than being enslaved by the Spaniards. He answered in the form of an attack on the entrenched army. The Aztecs charged from the walls of the city to meet their enemy, but were quickly forced into a retreat by the firing of artillery and musketry. Cortés’ army charged after the Aztecs, forcing them back, until the Spaniards and their allies controlled around three-quarters of the city. Everywhere they went they left a trail of destruction--burned or pulled-down homes and temples--regardless of whether or not there were wounded men, women, or children inside.

Still, the Aztec king refused to surrender. Cortés proposed a banquet at which the two sides could meet to negotiate, but the king sent his nobles and didn't come himself. The next morning, Cuahtemoc agreed to meet the Captain-General at the marketplace; but when Cortés and his entourage arrived, they found the Aztec soldiers waiting for them. An enormous battle ensued; and both sides took heavy losses, the total number of deaths in that individual battle numbering more than 40,000.

The Surrender

The next morning, August 13, 1521, Cortés’ army once again marched into the city. Another battle began, similar in scale to the one the day before, but Cortés ordered a cease-fire as three canoes were sighted fleeing across the lake. Cuahtemoc, who was riding in one of the canoes, was apprehended and brought to the Captain-General.

The Aztecs fought valiantly under leadership of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtemoc, whose name translates as "falling eagle" or alternately "setting sun." Ravaged by diseases introduced by the Spaniards, deprived of fresh water and food supplies from the mainland, they withstood an 80-day siege, surrendering August 13, 1521, only after their captured leader grasped the dagger in Cortés' belt and pleaded, "I have done all that I could." 

Cortés consoled him and asked him to command his warriors to surrender. Cuahtemoc immediately climbed onto a high tower and shouted to them to cease fighting, for everything had fallen to the enemy. Of the 300,000 warriors who had defended the city, 60,000 were left. When they heard their king, they laid down their arms and the nobles came forward to comfort him.

The siege of Tenochtitlán, according to the histories, paintings and chronicles, lasted exactly eighty days. Thirty thousand men from the kingdom of Texcoco were killed during this time, of the more than 200,000 who fought on the side of the Spaniards. Of the Aztecs, more than 240,000 were killed. Almost all of the nobility perished: there remained alive only a few lords and knights and the little children. Albert Marrin, the author of Aztecs and Spaniards: Cortés and the Conquest of México," writes that "what had taken centuries to build, would be destroyed in just thirty months."

Tenochtitlán Becomes México

The conquerors banished the Aztecs from their city and began to clear the city. The Aztec homes, now in shambles, were torn down and new homes for the conquistadors were built by reluctant Mexican laborers. Over the next four years, Hernán Cortés was appointed Governor, Captain-General, and Chief Justice of the province of New Spain. He passed this time presiding over the reconstruction of Tenochtitlán, which he renamed México (later México City in the present-day country of México), and bringing colonists from Spain to make their homes there.

The key to the Spanish conquest of México was the dissension among the different peoples of the Aztecs' empire. The Mexica overlords had made no attempts to assimilate the other cultures to their own and thus provided the basis for a full scale revolt against them which Cortés incited. While the Aztecs were really unable to unify their empire, the Spanish managed to succeed where their predecessors in the area had failed.

Copyright © 2008 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.

Sources:

Davies, Nigel. The Aztecs: A History. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma, 1980.

Hassig, Ron. Aztec Warfare: Imperial Expansion and Political Control. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988.

Marks, Richard Lee. Cortés: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec México. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Meier, Matt S. and Feliciano Rivera. The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Meyer, Michael C. and Sherman, William L. The Course of Mexican History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Prescott, William H. History of the Conquest of México, Volume 1. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott and Compnay, 1873.

Smith, Michael E. The Aztecs. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, Inc., 1996.

 

 

 

 

Indigenous Guerrero: A Remnant of the Aztec Empire

By John P. Schmal

 

Location and Description

The Mexican state of Guerrero is located in the southern coastal region of the Mexican Republic. Guerrero covers an area of 63,597 square kilometers, occupying 3.2% of the national territory.  The state is bordered to the north by the states of Michoacán, Mexico and Morelos; to the east, by Puebla and Oaxaca; and to the south, by the Pacific Ocean. Politically, Guerrero is divided into eighty-one municipios.   

Dominated by the Sierra Madre Mountains of southern Mexico, Guerrero is extremely mountainous, except for a narrow coastal strip of flatlands. Environmentally, the state is divided into the following regions:  

  1. Tierra Caliente: The northwest interior, which borders Michoacán and Estado de Mexico
  2. La Montaña (The Mountain): the mountainous region in the northeast, bordering on Puebla and Oaxaca
  3. Sierra del Norte: The far north adjacent to Morelos, Estado de Mexico and Puebla
  4. Centro: The Central Valleys in the middle of the State
  5. Costa Grande: The Coastal strip northwest of Acapulco
  6. Costa Chica: The Coastal strip southeast of Acapulco  

The capital of Guerrero is Chilpancingo de los Bravos. In 2010, Guerrero had a population of 3,388,768 inhabitants, representing 3.0 of the total population of the Republic of Mexico.  

Historical Notes

In pre-Hispanic times, Guerrero was inhabited by a large number of indigenous tribes. Archaeological sites in the state show a human presence since at least 2000 B.C. and ceramic pieces indicate that the inhabitants of the area had contact with both the Olmecs and Toltecs by the Eighth Century. By the 11th century, the Cuitlatecos began to dominate the Costa Grande region. By the 14th century, much of the coastal area and Tierra Caliente had come under the control of the Cuitlatecos, with their capital at Mezcaltepec. Other cultures that passed through the area included the Tolimecas, Chubias, Coixas and Pantecas.

 

Fifteenth Century Inhabitants

By the 15th century, the territory that now comprises the modern State of Guerrero was inhabited by several indigenous groups, none of whom had major cities or population centers. The most important groups were located in the following zones:

 

·       Tierra Caliente: Purhépecha, Cuitlatecos, Ocuiltecas and Matlatzincas

·       La Montaña: Tlapanecos and Mixtecs

·       Central Valleys: the Coixcas and Tepoztecos

·       Sierra del Norte: Chontales, Mazatecos and Tlahuicas (a Náhuatl language)

·       Costa Chica: Yopis, Mixtecos and Amuzgos

·       Costa Grande: Tolimecas, Chubias, Pantecas and Cuitlatecos

 

During the 15th century, both the rising Aztec and Purhépecha empires started to intrude upon the Cuitlateco domain, which eventually fell. The Purhépecha held some areas of the Costa Grande, while the Aztecs began moving into other areas of Guerrero, eventually subduing nearly all the peoples shown above.  

The Aztec Empire of 1519

From the mid-Fifteenth Century to 1519, the Aztec Empire grew into the most powerful Mesoamerican kingdoms of all time. By 1519, the island city of Tenochtitlán (now Mexico City) had become a city of about 300,000 citizens.  And the Aztec Empire itself ruled over about 80,000 square miles of territory extending from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean, and southward to Oaxaca.  This empire contained some 15 million people, living in thirty-eight provinces.  In all, the Emperor received the tribute of 489 communities. The term, Aztec, is used to describe all the Nahua-speaking peoples in the Valley of Mexico, while the culture that dominated the Aztec Empire was the tribe known as Mexica.  

Subjects of the Aztec Empire

By the early Sixteenth Century, numerous native states existed in Guerrero as provinces and tributaries of the powerful Aztec Empire. The authors Michael E. Smith and Frances F. Berdan, in “Aztec Imperial Strategies” (Washington, D.C.: Dumbarton Oaks, 1996) divided the Empire into 52 tributary and strategic provinces. The Aztec provinces that lay in the present-day state of Guerrero were:

 

·       Chiauhtlan: Located along the Morelos and Puebla borders in northeastern Guerrero, this province was dominated by Náhuatl speakers.

·       Quiauhteopan: Located south of the Mezcala River in Guerrero and in State of Pueblo, this province had several languages spoken within it: Náhuatl, Mixtec, Tlapanec and Matlame.

·       Tlacozauhtitlan: In this part of present-day Guerrero, Tlapanec, Matlame, Tuxteca and the Cohuixca variant of Náhuatl were spoken.

·       Tepequacuilco: Located in north-central Guerrero, this province was divided between Náhuatl-speakers (Cohuixca) in the east and Chontal speakers in the west.

·       Zompanco: Located in the mountainous area of east-central Guerrero, south of the Río Mezcala, this area’s dominant language was the Cohuixca version of Náhuatl.

·       Tetellan: This province located along the Río Balsas had inhabitants that spoke the Cuitlatec, Tepuzteco and Chontal languages and was on the border of Purépecha territory.

·       Tlalpan: Located in the mountainous eastern part of Guerrero, this province primarily had Tlapanec language speakers.

·       Cihuatlan: This province located along the Costa Grande of Guerrero features “muchos lenguas,” including Tepuzteco, Cuitlatec, Panteca and Náhuatl.

·       Tecpantepec: This province – stretched out along the Costa Grande on either side of the Cihuatlan province and extending inland – featured the Cuitlatec language along the coast and Tepuzteco in the inland area.

·       Ayotlan: This province was located on the edge of Yope territory in what is now the Costa Chica of Guerrero and featured several languages: Náhuatl, Tlapaneca, Yope, Zinteca and Quahuteca.

·       Ometepec: This province – now located in southeastern Guerrero on the border with Oaxaca – contained speakers of the Náhuatl, Ayacstla, Amuzgo and Tlapanec languages.

 

Yopitzinco

For all its strength and breadth, the Aztec Empire failed to conquer several regions that became “independent enclaves” within their vast dominion.  One of those enclaves was in Guerrero. Yopitzinco – an isolated mountainous area along the Costa Chica of Guerrero, southeast of Acapulco – was occupied by the “Yope” or “Tlapaneca,” who had a reputation as fierce warriors. Yopitzinco actually comprised four Yopi states (Cacahuatépec, Pochotitlan, Xocotlan, and Xochitépec).

 

The Tlapaneca call themselves Méphaa and are discussed in more detail below. The Pacific coastal regions to the north and south of Yopitzinco were conquered by the Aztec monarchs, Ahuítzotl (reigned 1486-1502) and Moctezuma II (reigned 1502-1520), but the Yope territory remained free of Aztec rule.

 

Indigenous Groups at Contact

With the collapse of the massive Aztec Empire in August 1521, the Spaniards proceeded to assert their authority over the many peoples who had been subject to the Aztecs – as well as the fiercely independent Yopes who had avoided Aztec domination for so long. The primary indigenous Guerrero groups living in the colonial period are discussed below:

 

The Amuzgos

The Amuzgos lived in the lower parts of the Sierra Madre del Sur in the present-day states of Oaxaca and southeastern Guerrero. The Amuzgo language belongs to the Otomanguean linguistic group and consists of two dialects, one in Guerrero and one in Oaxaca. The Amuzgo language is similar to the Mixtec and their territory overlaps that of the Mixtec region. Linguists have estimated that the Amuzgo language separated from the Mixtec language sometime between 2000 and 1000 B.C.

 

For a long time, the Amuzgos were an independent people, but around 1100 A.D., they came under the domination of the strong coastal Mixtec kingdom of Tututepec. For the next three hundred years, they paid tribute to the Mixtecs in the form of animal cotton, fabrics, skins, gold, maize and frijoles. In 1457, the Aztecs began their conquest of Amuzgo territory, replacing Mixtecs as the rulers of the region and then being replaced by the Spaniards in the 1520s.  

The arrival of the Spaniards and the Afro-Mexicans gradually pushed the Amuzgos into the more inaccessible mountain regions and away from the coast. They were devastated by several epidemics during the Sixteenth Century and lost much of their land to intruders, although they pressured authorities for restitution, which was finally granted in the 1930s.  

The Amuzgos still maintain much of their language and dress and are known for their textiles hand-woven on back strap looms with two-dimensional designs which can be complicated. Today, most of the Amuzgos live in or near four municipios: Xochistlahuaca, Tlacoachistlahuaca and Ometepec in Guerrero and San Pedro Amuzgos and Santa María Ipalapa in Oaxaca.  

Náhuatl

With the expansion of the Aztec Empire, several Náhuatl languages were introduced into and gradually dominated several regions of Guerrero, including the Sierra del Norte, the Central Valleys, a sliver of Costa Grande and the Tierra Caliente.  Today, the Náhuatl enclaves that exist in some of the far-flung reaches of the former Aztec Empire represent the remnants of the early colonies established by the Mexica during their Fifteenth Century expansion in the southern Mexico (including Guerrero).

 

The primary Náhuatl languages of Guerrero today include the Coatepec, Guerrero and Ometepec tongues. The Tlahuica tongue which was spoken in the Sierra del Norte is now primarily spoken in Morelos, which has always been its stronghold.

 

Matlatzinca

The Matlatzinca inhabited a considerable amount of territory in pre-Hispanic Estado de Mexico and Guerrero, as well as some smaller portions of present-day Michoacán.  The name Matlatzinca – a Náhuatl term given by the Mexica to this group – can be translated as "the gentlemen of the network" or "those that make networks."  The Aztec Empire overcame the Matlatzinca in 1474 who remained under their rule till the arrival of the Spaniards in 1522. Today, the majority of Matlatzinca live in one community: San Francisco Oxtotilpan, located in the municipio of Temascaltepec, State of Mexico. 

 

Tlapaneca

The Tlapaneca call themselves Méphaa, which can be translated as “the one that is an inhabitant of Tlapa.” “Tlapaneco” is an Aztec designation that came from the Náhuatl word “tlauitl,” meaning “red ocher” and has a pejorative connotation: “the one that is painted (of the face),” which to the ears of the Méphaa means “to have a dirty face.”  Tlapa included an extensive territory located in the eastern portion of the present state of Guerrero that was contiguous with the Mixtec region of Oaxaca. 

 

Tlapaneca ranges from the coastal region of Guerrero to the slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountain Range in the southern part of the state. The Méphaa consist of two primary groups: 

 

·       The Méphaa of the north, seated in Tlapa

·       The Yopes of the south, centered in Yopitzinco

 

Tlapa was the more important ceremonial center of the region and was divided in four chieftainships: Buáthá Wayíí (Huehuetepec), Mañuwiín (Malinaltepec), Miwíín (Tlacoapa) and Xkutií (Tenamazapa). The imperial expansion of the Mexica and the Aztec Empire led to military incursions within the territory of the Méphaa, and by 1486, Tlapa fell to the Mexica and became part of the Aztec Empire. The Yopes, however, remained independent.

 

The land of the Tlapaneco was subjugated by the Spanish conquistadors by 1523. However, between 1531 and 1535, the Yopes mounted three separate rebellions against the Spaniards. They continued to fight for their land well into the Mexican revolution of the Twentieth Century.  During the Cardenas era, they had some limited success in their struggle for land. 

 

By 1987, speakers of the Tlapanec language were estimated to number 75,000 individuals, many of whom were living in four municipios: Malinaltepec, Tlacoapa, Zapotitlán Tablas and Acatepec). However, a considerable number of Tlapanec speakers also lived in adjacent municipios.

 

Chontal

The Chontals – also called Tequistlatecan – inhabited Oaxaca and a small amount of territory in the northern Sierras of Guerrero. They spoke two related but mutually unintelligible languages, Huamelultec (Lowland Oaxaca Chontal), and Highland Oaxaca Chontal. The name “Chontal” comes from the Náhuatl, meaning "foreigner" or "foreign", and is also applied to an unrelated language from the State of Tabasco.

 

Cuicatec

The Cuicatecos (“People of Song”) inhabited a territory that now includes portions of present-day Guerrero, Oaxaca and Michoacán.  They were neighbors of the Purépecha who occupied a large part of Michoacán.  It is believed that the Cuicatec speakers may have numbered about 60,000 people before the conquest.  They were defeated around 1456 by the Aztecs and then subdued later by the Spanish conquistador, Martin Mezquita.  They resisted conversion to Catholicism during the colonial period and fled into the mountains to avoid forced labor.  Today, many of the Cuicatec people still live in the mountains. The Cuicatec language is an Oto-Manguean language which closely resembles the           Mixtec language.  

Mazatecos

The Mazatecos occupied territory in the northern parts of the States of Oaxaca and Guerrero that also extended into the State of Veracruz. The Mazatecan languages are part of the Oto-Manguean language family and belong to the family's Eastern branch. In that branch, they belong to the Popolocan subgroup together with the Popoloca, Ixcatec and Chocho languages. There are four primary dialects of Mazateco speakers today:  

  • Huautla-Mazatlán of Oaxaca (about 50,000 persons)
  • Ayautla-Soyaltepec of Oaxaca and Puebla (about 40,000 persons)
  • Jalapa of Oaxaca and Veracruz (about 15,000 persons)
  • Chiquihuitlán of Oaxaca (about 4,000 persons)  

The Mixtecs

Dr. Ronald Spores, in “The Mixtecs in Ancient and Colonial Times,” wrote that “when the Spaniards arrived in south-central Mexico in the early Sixteenth Century, they entered a region of northwestern Oaxaca known to its inhabitants as Ñu Ñudzahui and to the Náhuatl-speaking Aztecs as Mixtlan, “Place of Clouds.” Soon, the Spaniards would begin calling this region “La Mixteca.”

 

Dr. Spore’s description of the Mixteca states that “the Mixteca of western Oaxaca was an extensive and diversified region extending about 270 kilometers from southern Puebla to the Pacific Ocean and about 180 to 200 kilometers from eastern Guerrero to the western edge of the Valley of Oaxaca and the area known as La Cañada.” In all, it is believed that the Mixtec Indians inhabited some 40,000 square kilometers ranging from Oaxaca through parts of Guerrero and Puebla.  

The Mixtec enjoyed considerable influence and prestige in southern Mexico for several centuries, having eclipsed their neighbors the Zapotecs of Oaxaca.  However, around 1458, the Mexicas began their conquest of Mixtec territory and eventually they became subjects of the powerful Aztec Empire.  

The Mixtec ethnic group is very diverse, speaking approximately 57 different languages that have evolved over time. Even now, the Mixteca region is still divided into three primary areas:  

·       The Mixteca Baja (Ñuiñe) in the north and northwest of present-day Oaxaca

·       The Mixteca Alta (Ñu Dzahui Ñuhu) in the mountainous central area

·       The Mixteca de la Costa (Ñundehui) in the southwest and south.

 

The Mixtecs and their cousins, the Zapotecs (discussed below), are discussed in greater detail in another article by this author at the following link:

 

http://www.houstonculture.org/mexico/oaxaca_cultures.html

 

The Zapotecs
The Zapotec Indians occupied large parts of central Oaxaca and some parts of Guerrero. They emerged as a dominant tribe more than 2,000 years ago during the Pre-Columbian period. The Monte Albán complex associated with the Zapotec culture dates back several hundred years before the Christian era.  

 

From about 500 B.C. until 800 A.D., the Zapotecs were a dominant group. However, by 800 A.D., Zapotec culture went into decline with the invasion of their neighbors, the Mixtecs. For the most part, the Zapotecs of Oaxaca were able to avoid complete surrender to the Aztecs.  However, after a several short campaigns, the Spaniards defeated the Zapotecs between 1522 and 1527.  Even today, the Zapotecs speak the fifth most common language group in Mexico. However, the Zapotec ethnic group is so diverse that there are actually 64 separate Zapotec languages that have evolved over the last few thousand years, each language diverging as the Zapotec communities became isolated from one another over time.
 

Purépecha

The Purépecha, in addition to living in the neighboring state of Michoacán inhabited some portions of the present day state of Guerrero, primarily in the north of the Costa Grande and Tierra Caliente. A detailed discussion of the Purépecha and their history can be found at the following link:

 

http://latinola.com/story.php?story=12428

 

Spanish Infiltration

Initial Spanish interest in the Guerrero area revolved around the search for gold.

In 1521, Rodrigo de Castañeda took possession of the mining area of Taxco, while Gonzalo de Sandoval took control of the Chontal area, the northern mountains, the Iguala Valley and Coixcatlalpan. In the spring of 1523, Sandoval conquered the coastal areas of present-day Guerrero and Colima and brought the Aztec tributary states under his control. 

 

Further conquests were made by Juan Rodríquez de Villafuerte and Simon de Cuenca in 1523 when they occupied Cihuatlán and most of the rest of the coastline. They destroyed the Indian settlement of Zacatula and founded Villa de Concepción on its site. Villa de Concepción – the eighth Spanish municipio established in Mexico and the first on the Pacific Coast – initially contained 122 Spaniards and two brigantines. The settlement included a shipyard which the Spaniards would use as a point of departure to explore the Pacific Coast and seek a route to the Philippines. However, the settlement was attacked and destroyed by natives later in the century. Today, Zacatula is known as La Unión.

 

For the most part, the Spanish takeover of the Costa Grande did not meet with serious resistance after the news about the fall of Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) had arrived. This area produced cash crops such as cotton, cacao and coconuts. Under the Spaniards, these crops were produced on the large encomiendas and haciendas, which exploited the local indigenous population for labor.

 

The Founding of Taxco (1529)

The city of Taxco, now located in northern Guerrero – 164 kilometers (111 miles) southwest of Mexico City and 50 miles south of Cuernavaca (in Morelos) -- was founded in 1529 by Hernán Cortés as one of the oldest colonial cities in Mexico.  At the time of the Spanish contact, Taxco, was an area of barren hills and low mountains.  Taxco is famous for its beautiful colonial architecture and narrow cobbled streets.   

Acapulco

The seaport of Acapulco, located 300 kilometers (186 miles) from Mexico City, is one of Guerrero’s most precious resources.  Thanks to its beautiful beaches and luxurious resorts, Acapulco, with its year-around hot climate, is an important tourist center and the destination of many Americans.  The area of Acapulco had a complex linguistic and political nature long before the arrival of the Spaniards.  Several semi-independent states were associated in some way with the neighboring Cuitlatecan Kingdom of Mexcaltépec. 

 

In the autumn of 1521, the expedition of Rodrigo Alvarez Chico discovered a large protected bay which he called Bahía de Santa Lucía. This natural port was later given the name Acapulco and was honored by the Spanish crown as the “City of the Kings.”

 

Acapulco became the most important shipping port along Mexico’s Pacific coastline. Expeditions sailed from Acapulco to Peru and the Far East in search of new conquests.  The commercial route from Acapulco to Asia became a very profitable commercial endeavor for centuries to come.

 

Zacatula (Southwestern Guerrero)

The coastal province of Zacatula (now in southwestern Guerrero), explains Professor Gerhard, was the home of “a great many independent or autonomous states people by farmers and fisherman, speaking a variety of languages:”  Chumbian, Tolimecan, Pantecan, and Cuitlatecan.  The Mexica had invaded this area during the reign of Ahuítzotl (1486-1502) and established their control as far as Xuluchuca.  

Political Chronology (1821-1849)

When the Mexican Republic became independent in 1821, the present-day area of Guerrero belonged to the states of Michoacán, Mexico, Puebla, and Oaxaca.  However, on October 27, 1849, the state was established and named for the revolutionary leader, Vicente Guerrero, with Chilpancingo de los Bravo as its capital. 

 

Indigenous Guerrero in the Twentieth Century

The state of Guerrero has always had a significant population of indigenous people. In the 1895 census, some 92,444 persons were registered as speaking indigenous languages.  This figure rose to 117,735 persons in 1900 and to 121,234 in 1910.  However, the ravages of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) – which took the lives of one in eight Mexicans – caused a steep drop in the population of Guerrero.  Thus, in the 1930 census, Guerrero’s population of indigenous speakers five years of age or more had dropped to 79,585.  

The 1921 Mexican Census

In the special 1921 Mexican census, we can get a view of the widespread mestizaje of Guanajuato’s modern population.  In this census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white).  

Out of a total district population of 566,836 people, the three classifications of race were tallied in Guerrero as follows:  

·       248,526 individuals (or 43.8%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. 

·       306,361 individuals (or 54.0%) classified themselves as being of mixed origin.

·       Only 11,706 individuals (or 2.1%) classified themselves as white.  

In addition, 243 residents of Guerrero either ignored the question or gave another classification (such as “other” or “foreigner”).   

The 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Guerrero amounted to 367,110 individuals. These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, including:

 

·       Náhuatl (136,681)

·       Mixteco (103,147)

·       Tlapaneco (90,443)

·       Amuzgo (34,601)

·       Zapoteco (660).

 

In the 2000 census, the state of Guerrero had nine municipios that had populations of at least 90% indigenous speakers.  Metlatónoc –with 24,025 indigenous speakers – had a 99.5% indigenous population, with the Mixtecos making up the majority of these people.  Acatepec – with an indigenous population of 98.9% – was primarily dominated by the Tlapaneco, who represented 20,002 of the 20,027 indigenous speakers in the municipio.   

The Náhuatl Language

Today, the Náhuatl language continues to be the most common indigenous language spoken in the Republic of Mexico. Speakers of this language are dispersed across large areas of Mexico.  In the state of Guerrero, the Náhuatl speakers represents around 40% of the indigenous population of the state and they are distributed through forty-five municipios in the mountainous interior of Guerrero. Náhuatl was the primary language spoken in seventeen of Guerrero’s municipios in 2000.  

The Mixteco Languages

In 2000, the 103,147 Mixteco speakers in Guerrero represented 23.6% of the indigenous-speaking language. But they represented less than a quarter of Mexico’s total Mixteco-speaking population of 444,498 in that census. Within Guerrero, the Mixtecos mainly occupy 262 communities and 10 colonies (colonias) in 16 municipios in La Montaña and Costa Chica regions of the state.   

The Tlapaneco

Unlike the Mixteco and Náhuatl languages, the languages of the Tlapanecos are primarily confined to the State of Guerrero. The 90,443 Tlapaneco speakers registered in Guerrero in 2000 represented 91% of all the Tlapanecos in the entire Republic. Within the state itself, the Tlapaneco – or Méphaa – occupy about 536 communities located in 13 municipios.  

The 2010 Census

In the 2010 Mexican census, Guerrero boasted the sixth largest population of indigenous speakers: 456,774 individuals in all. (Only Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Puebla and Yucatán had more indigenous speakers.)  

By percentage, Guerrero ranked number five among the Mexican states with indigenous speakers representing 15.1% of the entire population. The Náhuatl language continued to be the single largest language group, with 27.5% of the residents of Guerrero speaking that language.  

Mexicans Considered Indigenous

The 2010 census also included a question that asked people if they considered themselves indigenous, whether or not an indigenous language was spoken. Within the State of Guerrero, 22.6% of the persons 3 years of age and older were considered indigenous, ranking the state as the eighth largest state with an indigenous population.  

Most Spoken Languages

In the 2010 census, Náhuatl remained the most widely spoken language in Mexico with 1,544,968 persons five years of age and older speaking that tongue. Náhuatl speakers, in fact, represented 23.08% of the indigenous speakers 5 and older in the Mexican Republic.  

The Mixtec language group was the third most common language group (476,472 persons – or 7.12% of all indigenous speakers), and Zapotec was the fifth most common language spoken.  

Even the Tlapaneco language – spoken very little outside of Guerrero – had 120,072 speakers, ranking it in 16th place among the Mexican languages (1.79% of the total indigenous speaking population of Mexico).  

Copyright © 2014 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.  

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Carrasco, David (ed.). “The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures: The Civilizations of Mexcio and Central America, Volume 2” (Oxford University Press, 2001).

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