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Hernán Cortés

Hernán Cortés, conqueror of Mexico, was born in 1485 in Medillin, Spain. He traveled to the New World in 1511 to seek adventure, glory, and fortune, and to participate in the conquest of Cuba. Chafing after years of inaction and anxious to find his place in history, Cortés accepted command of a military expedition in 1518, which was assembled in reaction to rumors of a fabulously wealthy Indian civilization called the Mexicas, or Aztecs.

By 1521, he had conquered this powerful nation and had blazed a trail of conquest, from his logistics base at Vera Cruz all the way to the Indian capital at Tenochtitlan, which he renamed Mexico City.

This campaign brought a vast new territory and its people into the Spanish Empire. It also made Cortés famous and wealthy. Although his fortunes waxed and waned with the Spanish crown, he had entered history as a great general. Cortés died in 1545.

Harvard-trained historian William Hickling Prescott reintroduced Cortés’ saga to an American public eager to learn about their neighbors to the south. Prescott’s 1843 work The History of the Conquest of Mexico painted Cortés the Conquistador as a harbinger of progress and Christianity against the forces of backwardness and paganism. As war loomed between Mexico and the United States, many anticipated a repeat of Cortés’ march. When General Winfield Scott landed at Vera Cruz in 1847, many officers in his army carried a copy of Prescott’s history in their knapsacks. Following Cortés’ path inland, these same officers made history of their own as they, too, captured the Mexican capital, more than three centuries later.