Boys' Prescott - Helen Ward Banks

Cortes Takes Tezcuco

December, 1520

When the Aztec envoys had departed, Cortes drew a long breath and set Martin Lopez to work at new ships. There were to be thirteen brigantines this time. Lopez was to build them in Tlascala, test them, take them apart in sections, and send the ship thus on the backs of Indian porters to Tezcuco. The iron work, sails and rigging were to come from Narvaez' ships at Vera Cruz. Cortes would not again trust himself in the causeway-city of Tenochtitlan without some means of getting out.

With a thought of keeping his men employed until he was ready for a second march to Mexico, Cortes set a force in order to punish the Tepeacan Indians who had killed the twelve Spaniards. The Tepeacans had sworn allegiance to Spain when Cortes first came into the country, so in this unprovoked attack they were guilty of rebellion as well as murder.

The general issued a proclamation before he started out, promising pardon to all tribes ready to return to the Spanish rule. The Tepeacans sneered at it.

"Come out and meet us in open fight," they answered. "We need victims for our sacrifices."

After that, Cortes did not hesitate. At the head of a small body of Spaniards and a large body of Tlascalans, he took the field. Xicotencatl went with him, perhaps to take a lesson in tactics from one of the few men who had ever beaten him. He had chosen a good master. Cortes in one battle crushed the Tepeacans, and quartered his army at their capital, Tepeaca, as it was rich and was close to the Aztec frontier, against which Cortes knew he must protect himself.

Cuitlahua had already garrisoned all the towns along his border with large bodies of Aztec troops, who, as usual, were making themselves very unpopular by their arrogance. One city in particular, Quauhquechollan, sent word to Cortes that the people so hated the Aztecs, that if the Spaniards would attack the city from without, the inhabitants would rise within, and between them they would crush the Aztec garrison.

Quauhquechollan lay at the end of a deep valley, with a river on each side, mountains behind and a strong wall in front. Cortes sent Olid across the border with two hundred Spaniards and a large Tlascalan force to help the cacique of Quauhquechollan.

As Olid marched, one Cholulan chief after another joined his ranks. He remembered their earlier treachery and, suspecting them again, not only refused their help, but sent them as prisoners to Cortes.

Cortes made a careful investigation and found that Olid had been wrong. After apologizing for the occurrence, and sending the chiefs home with many presents, Cortes, unwilling to risk another mistake like that, put himself at the head of the expedition against the Mexican garrison at Quauhquechollan.

The cacique was on the watch. As soon as the Spaniards entered the plain before the town, he roused the citizens, who pushed the garrison so hard that they fled to the temple and entrenched themselves there. Cortes, admitted into the city, assaulted the temple and killed every Aztec of the garrison.

When the Aztec troops quartered in neighboring cities saw what had happened to their comrades in Quauhquechollan, they gathered in force on the plain to attack the Tlascalans whom Cortes had left outside the city. The Aztecs were thirty thousand strong, gay in their gold and jewels, their plumes and feather cloaks. The Tlascalans were having a hard time to hold their ground, until Cortes rushed from the city and with his cavalry pressed the Aztecs back into a narrow mountain gorge. The light Spanish troops then ran up the mountain on each side and poured down their fire from above while the Tlascalans attacked in front. Only a few of the Mexicans escaped up the steep mountain side and fled back to their camp, where the Spaniards followed them, and loaded themselves with the booty of the vanquished chiefs.

Still another city Cortes stormed and took, bringing away loads of plunder. Sandoval, too, made many successful excursions. The result was that most of the tribes of that region fell away from the Aztec Emperor and acknowledged the authority of the white captain, who led always to victory and plunder, and who distributed justice instead of punishment to his vassals. One cacique after another came to him for help and advice, until Cortes was as much the real ruler of this whole district as he had been for a little while in Mexico.

This power became in Cortes' hands a new weapon against the Aztecs. He was sure now not only of thousands of Tlascalan recruits, but he could count also on these other tribes as allies against their Mexican oppressors. He busied himself in teaching them something of his tactics and implicit obedience to his word.

Just at this time Maxixca died of smallpox, which a negro in Narvaez' company had brought into Cempoalla, whence it had spread through the country. The disease went even up to Tenochtitlan and killed the Emperor, Cuitlahua, after a reign of four months. Guatemozin was made Emperor in Cuitlahua's place. Though Guatemozin was but twenty-five years old, he was an experienced warrior, and had been active through all the overthrow of Spanish power. He had married Montezuma's daughter. He carried steadily forward the plans for strengthening and protecting Mexico.

Maxixca's death was a great loss to the Spaniards, for he had been their true friend. They all appeared at his funeral in deep mourning, and this token of respect bound the Tlascalans more firmly to the Spaniards. It was a comfort to the Christians that Maxixca had received baptism from Father Olmedo and had died with the cross before his eyes, commending to his son the white men whom he had loved. The boy was but twelve years old, but Cortes confirmed him as successor to his father's position. He also was baptized into the Christian faith and received knighthood from Cortes' hand.

Although Cortes was carrying forward his plans so successfully with his allies, the grumblers among his soldiers—Duero was of the number—still demanded to go back to Cuba. Cortes let them go, for with his own veterans and his thousands of staunch Indian allies, he felt ready for his new expedition. He sent Alvarado to guard the weak-hearted ones to Vera Cruz, and ordered a vessel to be provisioned and fitted out there and placed at their disposal.

As these men went, others took their places. Two vessels sent out by Velasquez, with letters for Narvaez, as well as a ship from the Governor of Jamaica, sailed confidently into Vera Cruz. The Governor of Vera Cruz let the men land and then told them that Cortes and not Narvaez was in command. As what they wanted was gold, they were quite willing to take Cortes for their leader and to go up to Tlascala to enlist.

And even this was not all, for the captain of a ship full of military stores, hearing of Cortes' success, instead of selling his wares in Cuba as he had intended, brought them to Vera Cruz. Cortes bought ship and cargo and induced the crew to add themselves to his army. Thus he added to his forces a hundred and fifty well-equipped men, twenty horses and a fresh supply of ammunition.

To add to these stores, Cortes set his men to work making new firearms and repairing the old. He wanted more gunpowder, too, and lacked sulphur for it. So he sent four men, under Montano, back to Popocatepetl. They climbed the mountain to the edge of the crater—an ellipse three miles long—and looked down almost a thousand feet at the lurid flames at the bottom. The steam rising from this flame had formed sulphur crystals on the side of the crater, and those were what the men wanted. They cast lots as to who should go down. Montano drew the lot, and was let down in a basket four hundred feet into the crater and drawn up again several times before the party had all the sulphur they needed to carry back to Tlascala.

In a second letter that Cortes wrote to the King of Spain he spoke of getting the sulphur from the volcano and suggested that it would be a little more convenient to receive his sulphur from home. He made light of all his adventures, however, saying he did not count danger and fatigue against the conquering of Mexico, of which he was sure. He ended with a request for a commission to be sent out to establish his right to what he had gained.

With Cortes' letter went another, signed by nearly every officer and soldier in camp, saying that Velazquez had interfered from the start with Cortes' efforts for the King, and begging that Cortes' authority might be confirmed by the crown, for he, by his knowledge of Mexico, his own character and the love he inspired in his soldiers, was the man who could conquer Mexico. But it was not until many months later, when Cortes had really conquered Mexico, that he had an answer to his letters. Then Charles V sent him the commission he asked for.

It had been on the first day of July, 1520, that the Spaniards had left Tenochtitlan in their attempt to escape over the causeway. By Christmas of that year Cortes, after six months of drilling and preparation, was ready to go back to Mexico with a better army than his first. He had six hundred Spaniards, forty cavalry, eighty foot-soldiers armed with crossbows and arquebuses, and four hundred and eighty carrying swords or the long copper-headed pikes. His artillery consisted of nine guns. His allies from Tlascala, Tepeaca and other places counted a hundred thousand, armed with bows and arrows, pikes and their barbed clubs. Cortes was not ready to take all the Indians with him now, as he did not wish to feed so great a multitude until the arrival of the brigantines should make it possible for him to move finally against Tenochtitlan.

Cortes reviewed his troops and made one of his stirring speeches.

"You march against rebels," he said, "against the enemies of your King and your religion. And you go to fight not only the battles of the crown and of the cross, but your own as well; to wipe away the stain from your arms; to avenge your dear companions butchered on the field or on the accursed altar of sacrifice; to gain riches and renown in this life and imperishable glory in that to come."

The soldiers with shouts promised that they would this time conquer or leave their bones with those of their companions in the waters of Lake Tezcuco, and with colors flying and music playing, on the 28th of December, the army marched out of Tlascala and took its way to Tezcuco, which, on account of its easy access from Tlascala, Cortes meant to occupy as his headquarters.

Up the steep, rough trail over the mountains, the army toiled as they had before, through the cold and the storm, then down an even rougher path on the opposite slope, till they came into milder climate and softer country, and at last out on the plain that commanded the whole valley of Mexico, lying quiet and sunlit in the hills which surrounded it. But on every hilltop there was a beacon fire.

With his usual care against surprise, Cortes led his troops around the turns of the hills and through the forests, for the beacon fires showed him that Mexico knew of his approach, and that at any moment he might come upon an ambush. When he got down the mountain safely, he expected to see the plain covered with warriors as it had been at Otumba. But no one opposed the Spaniards. On they went, until about ten miles from Tezcuco, they reached a small town where they camped for the night. Cortes did not close his eyes. He was wondering what was waiting for him in Tezcuco.

Cacama and Cuicuitzca, who had each in turn been King of Tezcuco, Cortes had carried with him out of Tenochtitlan on "The Melancholy Night." Cacama had been killed on the causeway. Cuicuitzca, who got through alive, had soon grown homesick in the Spanish camp and had run away back to Tezcuco, where his brother, Coanaco, had been made King of Tezcuco by the Aztec Emperor. Coanaco had not been glad to see his brother, Cuicuitzca, but had immediately put him to death. There was still a fourth son of Nezahualpilli, named Ixtlilzochitl, who had offered his services to Cortes when the Spaniards first came into Tlascala and who had ever since remained with Cortes. As Coanaco, the present King, was a strong ally of Guatemozin, he was not likely to welcome the Spaniards very cordially to his city.

However, when morning came, instead of an attack, there came a party of nobles with a golden flag of truce to invite Cortes to take up his quarters in Tezcuco and to promise that, if Cortes would spare the province, Coanaco would swear allegiance to the King of Spain. The nobles asked Cortes to stay where he was until the next day that Coanaco might have time to prepare a fitting reception for the white men.

Cortes accepted the invitation to visit the capital, but instead of waiting until the next day, he put his army at once into marching order and at noon on the last day of December, 1520, he entered the city of Tezcuco.

Once before—at the time when he had answered Alvarado's plea for help—Cortes had marched through Tezcuco and found it silent and empty. Now it was even worse. Cortes was quartered in the old palace of Nezahualpilli, but no nobles came to meet him and the King was not to be seen. The general at once sent some soldiers up to the top of the temple to see what was going on. They brought back the report that everyone was fleeing from the city, either to the mountains or across the lake. Cortes placed guards in the principal streets to capture Coanaco. But it was too late; he was gone.

As Coanaco had slipped through his hands, Cortes proclaimed that Coanaco was no longer King of Tezcuco, and put in his place Ixtlilzochitl, who was indeed the rightful heir as he stood next to Cacama in age. Under his friendly authority, Cortes set about making himself master of Tezcuco.