Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

The March to Mexico

November, 1519

While most of the Cholulans fled, the Spaniards burned the temple with the faithless god within it, and fired and sacked the town. The destruction lasted till Cortes was moved by the entreaties of the Cholulan chiefs and the Aztec envoys to put a stop to it. By that time the riches of the city were largely in the hands of Cortes' men.

Cortes sent two of the caciques to their countrymen with promises of pardon if the Cholulans were ready to swear allegiance to the King of Spain and to hold to it.

Gradually in the days that followed the Cholulans regained confidence and returned to their homes, which Cortes helped them rebuild. He also opened the market again. People from the country came into the city to take the places of the men who were slain, and the Massacre of Cholula was at an end.

It was a cruel deed, but when we judge it, we must judge it by the ideas of the age in which it was committed. We know now that no nation has the right to conquer another nation and seize its lands and riches. In Cortes' time, as we have seen, they believed that God had given them these heathen lands to conquer. Once started on that conquest with all its dangers, they must preserve their own lives and achieve their purpose. The cruel deeds that stood in their way seemed to them only part of their work. In this case it was to Cortes either the lives of his enemies or of his own men, and he chose the former. The treachery that the Cholulans had meant to use with Cortes came back on their own head.

The effect on Anahuac of this terrible deed was tremendous. The "fair gods," who had landed from their white-winged boats, with their strange, plunging beasts and their weapons that breathed fire, had conquered the Tabascans, the Cempoallans, and even the unconquerable Tlascalans. They had proved how they could meet an honest foe, now they showed how they could punish a false friend. All Anahuac trembled as they wondered whose turn would come next.

Especially did fear come to Montezuma in his palace in Tenochtitlan. He had in his heart believed all the time that the gods had sent "Malinche," as they called Cortes, to overthrow the Aztec Empire. Every once in a while his warrior spirit, as we have seen, had risen to overthrow this superstitious fear, but back it had always come. Now when he saw Tlascala, his only strong enemy, joined in friendship with Malinche, and Cholula, one of his strongest vassals, thrown to the ground by the same hand, he felt that all hope was over. His despair grew as every day his fast-running postmen, with their picture-newspapers, brought word to Tenochtitlan that some new tribe had sworn allegiance to the white men and were taking to them in Cholula rich presents of gold and slaves.

Montezuma made great sacrifices to his gods and implored their aid, but, when they gave him no hope, there was nothing left but to send another embassy and more rich presents to Cortes.

The envoys assured Cortes that Montezuma knew nothing of the Cholulan uprising, and that it was merely by accident that an Aztec force had been at Cholula at that time. Cortes accepted the presents, but took the Indian Emperor's statements with a grain of salt.

Before Cortes left Cholula, he tried to make the natives Christians. But Cholula had been too long the sacred city of Anahuac to be willing now to change her religion. Cortes again was ready to press the point, but was prevented by the wise and kindly priest, Father Olmedo. All that the general could do was to persuade the Indian priests to break open the wicker cages and free the captives who were confined in them waiting to be sacrificed, and to set up in that part of the great temple which had escaped fire a huge stone cross, which spread its arms above the city. One good deed Cortes accomplished before he left Cholula; he reconciled that city with Tlascala. They had been foes for centuries; from this time on they were friends. Cortes felt that when he marched out of the city, instead of leaving an enemy in his rear, he should have behind him a depot on which he could depend.

As he was ready to resume his march, his Cempoallan allies asked leave to return home. They could not easily get over their ancient fear of Aztec greatness, and were afraid to put themselves into Montezuma's power by entering the city of Tenochtitlan, even in the company of Malinche. Cortes was sorry to lose them, for they had been faithful helpers, but he had no reason for denying their request. He gave them their share of treasure, and a letter to Escalante in Villa Rica, and let them go. In his letter to Escalante he told of his own successes; instructed him to be good to the Totonacs, whose friendship to the Spaniards had exposed them to Montezuma's revenge; and warned him always to be on the outlook for interference from Cuba. Among all the dangers that were around him, Cortes felt that until he was sure of the approval of Charles V, the greatest was that which threatened from Velasquez. And events proved that he was right.

It was November when Cortes with his forces, white and red, started on his final march to the Valley of Mexico and Mexico City. As he went he was met continually by envoys bearing presents from different tribes, all anxious for help against the oppression of Montezuma.

They cautioned Cortes against entering the city of Tenochtitlan and putting himself into Montezuma's power. They said the Emperor had blocked the main road so as to catch the white men in the narrow mountain passes through which they would be forced to travel.

Cortes paid good heed to all warnings, but continued his march. He was the inspiration of the entire army; always gay, fearing nothing, he rode sometimes in the van and sometimes in the rear, cheering his men and rousing them when they grew despondent. By day he kept their courage up and at night he watched over them. He never slept till he had made the rounds of the camp to see that every sentinel was at his post. One night he came so near a sentinel without speaking that the man leveled his cross-bow, and if Cortes had not hastily called out the password he would have been shot.

When the Spaniards reached the fork of the road, they found the main road blocked with huge stones and trees, as the Indians had said.

"Why is this road cut off?" Cortes asked the Aztec envoys sternly.

"It is done by the Emperor's orders," the envoys answered glibly, "to prevent Malinche taking a path which further on he would find impassable for his horse."

"Is it the most direct road to Tenochtitlan?" Cortes inquired.

"It is," replied the envoys.

"That is enough for a Spaniard," Cortes said, and commanded his Indian allies to clear away the trees and the boulders.

Cortes, in his own mind, added this incident to the long list of happenings which convinced him of Montezuma's treachery. But still, when the road was cleared, he went on over the mountains to Tenochtitlan. As the army climbed out of the temperate region into the higher hills, the piercing winds from the frozen peaks cut through even the soldiers' quilted doublets and made the men shiver as they marched. They camped for the night in the stone buildings which were the resting places for Montezuma's postmen on their runs from the coast to Tenochtitlan. Thus unknowingly the Emperor had provided refuge for his enemies.

The next day the path of the army lay between the two biggest mountains in North America. Popocatepetl towered seventeen thousand eight hundred and fifty-two feet above sea level on their left hand, and on their right was Iztaccihuatl—the White Woman—almost as high. To the Indians the volcano of Popocatepetl was a god and the White Woman was his wife. They held the mountains in great awe and were sure no one could climb Popocatepetl and live. But the Spaniards proved otherwise. While the army halted for rest, Ordaz and nine men forced their way through the dense forests at the foot of the volcano, climbed up thirteen hundred feet to the line of black lava, over the plains of perpetual snow where the air was so rare they could scarcely breathe, and on to the crater itself, where the cinders and smoke and sparks pouring out on them finally drove them back. The Indians looked with awe at these wonderful beings who, for a pastime, undertook such difficult and dangerous feats.

Refreshed by its rest, the army set out early the next day and, leaving the piercing cold of the peaks behind them, dropped down into the fertile Valley of Mexico.

They came on the sight of it suddenly; lakes, hills, woods, green meadows, yellow fields of corn, shining cities, spread out before them like a panorama, and in the midst, rising out of the largest lake, lay the city of Tenochtitlan—with its gleaming canals, its white buildings, and its huge temple—the "Venice of the Aztecs." Beyond, across the water, a bright speck, shone the city of Tezcuco. The sight was to the Spaniards, Mr. Prescott says, "like the, spectacle which greeted the eyes of Moses from the summit of Pisgah, and in the warm glow of their feelings, they cried out, 'It is the promised land!'"

All this beauty and civilization brought fear to the more cowardly among Cortes' men, as they thought of the hard fighting that lay ahead before they could take possession of Mexico. To Cortes, however, with the wonderful sight came only inspiration and fresh courage. He was able to give some of his own energy and confidence to his faltering troops until, with their usual even stride, the veterans once more took up their march down the mountainside toward the City of Mexico, ready to dare again the great deeds they had done at Tabasco and Tlascala.

Here, too, even at Mexico's gates, Cortes heard from the natives that thronged out from the villages to greet the white men only complaints of Montezuma's oppression. He met, a little further on, one of Montezuma's frequent embassies bearing not only gifts but Montezuma's promise that he would give fifty pounds of gold to each Spanish captain, two hundred pounds to Malinche himself, and pay a yearly tribute to the King of Spain, if the white men would not come to Mexico.

Cortes, ever courteous, sent back word that it would be much easier to arrange these matters in a personal interview—and kept on with his march.