Hernando Cortes


Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

He conquered the Aztec empire in 1519 and built Mexico City, which became the Spanish stronghold in the New World.

Name: Hernando Cortés

Birth/Death: 1485 CE - 1547 CE

Nationality: Spanish

Birthplace: Spain

Portrait of Young Cortés

Young Cortés

Portrait of Young Cortés, 16th century, located at the Museo de America, Madrid.

Early Life

  • Hernando Cortes sometimes called Hernán or Fernando; however, Cortés’ real name is Hernando.
  • Most of what is known about Cortés’ early life comes from his friend and personal biographer, Francisco López de Gómara. Gomara describes him as “restless, haughty, and mischievous.”
  • Hernando was born in 1485 in Medellin, a village in Extremadura, Spain.
  • He was born into an upper class family, though his parents were not extremely wealthy. His father was Martín Cortés de Monroy and his mother was Catalina Pizarro Altamirano.
  • Through his mother, Hernando was the second cousin to Francisco Pizarro, who conquered the Incan empire in modern-day Peru.
  • Although he was a sickly child, Hernando was considered extremely bright.
  • At the age of fourteen Hernando was sent to the University of Salamanca, where he most likely studied law and Latin. Within two years, Hernando had grown tired of school and returned home to practice horsemanship, weaponry, and field sports.


  • Stories about Christopher Columbus’ discoveries in the New World captivated Cortés. In 1504, at the age of nineteen, he joined a ship that was headed to the New World and registered as a new citizen of Hispaniola.

  • In 1506, for his participation in the conquest of Hispaniola and Cuba, Cortés was granted a large estate as well as native slaves.

  • In 1511, he aided the Governor of Hispaniola, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, in an expedition to conquer Cuba. As payment, Cortés was made treasurer and later secretary to Governor Velázquez .

  • In 1518, Hernando was placed in command of an expedition to colonize the interior of Mexico. This order was cancelled, but Cortés ignored orders and went anyway in 1519, accompanied by 11 ships, 500 men, 13 horses and several cannons, determined to secure the interior of Mexico for settlement.

  • Having heard stories of the wealthy Aztec Empire, in October 1519, Cortés made alliances with native peoples to increase his army and marched on Tenochtitlan, the Aztec Empire’s capital city. The army was peacefully received by Moctezuma II, the Aztec tlatoani (ruler), who gave extravagant gifts of gold to the Spaniards to satisfy their army. However, this only increased the Spaniards’ greed, and Cortés took Moctezuma captive.

  • After Moctezuma was murdered (either by rebellion or the Spanish soldiers), open rebellion of the Aztec natives forced Cortés and his men to flee. After he received reinforcements, Cortés retook Tenochtitlan by cutting off their supplies and later destroying the city.

  • Hernando Cortés died December 2, 1547, from pleurisy in Seville, a province of Spain.


  • By conquering the Aztec Empire and subduing other native peoples, Cortés was able to colonize much of Mexico, then called New Spain, which included the building of Mexico City on the site of Tenochtitlan.

  • Cortés’ conquest over the Aztec Empire became an admirable feat for other soldiers and nobleman to follow, as did tales of wealth and land gained in the conquest.

  • The encomienda system was instituted in Mexico and would continue to be used in the New World as a form of slavery. This system granted land and a number of natives to the conquistador, who was then obligated to provide religious education to the natives in exchange for labor.