Siege of the City of Mexico


On the death of Montezuma, his brother Cuitlahua, governor of Iztapalapa, had taken the supreme command over the Aztecs. He had been prime mover in the revolt, which resulted in the expulsion of the Spaniards from the city, and it was by his orders that their flight had been so fiercely followed up. At the present juncture, he sent heralds to propose a treaty of peace with the friendly tribe by whose hospitality the Spanish army was now supported, proposing the destruction of the whites, who had brought such woes upon the whole country. A portion of the Tlascalan assembly looked approvingly upon the suggestion, but the older and wiser members, reflecting upon the known treachery of the Mexicans, and their former acts of oppression, refused to listen to it.

Cortez, perceiving discontent to be rife among his men, determined not to remain idle, but to keep their attention constantly employed. Some, who were pining for ease and quiet, he allowed to take ship for Cuba, while by every argument he appealed to the honor and valor of his veterans, urging them not to desist at the first failure, but to stand by their general and reinstate their fallen fortunes. He engaged in bloody conflicts with Mexican tribes on either side of Tlascala, with, the most distinguished success; and taking possession of the town of Tepeaca, a few leagues distant, established his head-quarters there.

By singular good fortune, several ships, bringing fresh troops to support Narvaez, arrived from Cuba, and the adventurers, learning the true position of affairs, readily joined the popular leader. Another expedition, sent by the governor of Jamaica to form a settlement farther up the coast, only contributed to swell the resources of Cortez; those engaged in the undertaking deeming it more profit able to unite with the followers of so renowned a general, than to undergo the dangers and hardship of establishing themselves unassisted among hostile savages.

Cortez determined to make every preparation for a renewed attack* upon the city of Mexico. Returning to Tlascala, he set himself to equip and furnish his troops, and to train the Indian allies in the art of war. Gunpowder was manufactured; the sulphur being procured from the neighboring volcano of Popocatapetl. The most important part of his schemes, however, was the building a number of small vessels, or brigantines, by means of which his troops could be made independent of the narrow and dangerous causeys. These vessels he ordered to be made in separate pieces, of such a size that they could be transported over the mountains by the Indian carriers: the stores and rigging were brought from the coast by the same means of conveyance.

On the 28th of December Cortez led his army forth from Tlascala. The Spanish force was less than that with which the first invasion was undertaken, but was superior in martial equipments. The whole army consisted of about six hundred whites, and ten thousand, or upwards, of Tlascalans. They marched direct for Tezcuco, on the great lake of Mexico. No opposition was made during the march, and the city was yielded to them without a struggle, nearly all the inhabitants deserting it in their boats. Here it was determined to await the completion and arrival of the brigantines.

While all these formidable preparations were going on, important changes had taken place in the Aztec monarchy. Cuitlahua, or Quetlavaca, had perished by that terrible scourge, the small-pox, which was introduced from the old country by one of Narvaez’s ships, and which spread over all Mexico, carrying off thousands of the natives. The new emperor Guatimozin, a brave and noble youth, was nephew and successor to Montezuma. The beauty and gallant bearing of this prince excited the admiration of all beholders; while his intelligence and valor, combined with the hatred which he bore towards the whites, made him an enemy to be dreaded. He had devoted his whole attention, since his accession, to fortifying and defending his capital. The unserviceable inhabitants were sent into the country, while warriors from all sides were called to rally round the Aztec banner within the city.

The remainder of the winter and the early months of spring were occupied by the Spaniards in sallies against neighboring towns and districts; the reduction of the disaffected; the conciliation of those inclined to cooperate with the besiegers; and, above all, the completion and transportation of the vessels. We must pass over the skirmishes and battles, which occurred during this period. It would be little more than a repetition of scenes of cruelty, horror, and bloodshed. The spirit of the Aztecs was unsubdued, and their new emperor haughtily refused to listen to any terms of treaty, although Cortez commissioned sundry prisoners of rank to endeavor to move him. Success in occupying many strong and populous towns, together with the arrival of fresh recruits, served to encourage the Spaniards in the hopes of final triumph. Thousands of natives were employed in digging a canal by which the little fleet should be launched. The beams and planks of the vessels ready to be joined, with all the paraphernalia of nautical outfit, were carried in state by an immense concourse of Tlascalans, charged with the burden, or acting as a guard of protection. Diaz says that no less than eight thousand men served in each of these capacities, while two thousand more followed with provisions. About the last of April (1521) the thirteen brigantines, fitted for service, were launched into the canal.

The addition of an armed flotilla, which, urged by wind and oars, could bear down upon and scatter the frail canoes of the natives, proved of incalculable advantage. The size of the vessels, the thunder of their cannons, their speed, and the skill with which they w r ere managed and con trolled, must have filled the Mexicans with amazement.

Near the end of May a regular system of siege was entered upon, by the occupation of the three great approaches to the city. The inhabitants were unwearied in their at tacks, and a degree of vigilance and courage on the part of the Spaniards, scarce equaled in any age or country, only preserved them from utter destruction. ” For ninety-three days together,” says Diaz, ” we were employed in the siege of this great and strong city, and every day and every night we were engaged with the enemy. Were I to extend my narrative to every action which took place, it would be almost endless, and my history would resemble that of Amadis and the other books of chivalry.”

Every expedient, of driving sunken palisades to entangle the vessels; of pitfalls for the cavalry; and of cutting gaps in the causeys, was resorted to by the besieged, and per severed in with a determination and obstinacy only rivaled by the stern temper of the obdurate invaders.

There was necessarily great suffering on both sides, exclusive of the horrors of actual warfare, from the scar city of provision. Maize was the principal resort; but the hordes of Indian allies sustained existence by a more foul repast, feeding upon the bodies that were every where scattered over the causeys, or floating in the lake ghastly memorials of each day s slaughter. Knowing the insufficiency of their own supplies, the Spaniards dared not for bid this practice.

Cortez at last determined upon an assault from three different quarters, with his whole force. Fierce battles had already been fought within the city walls; the great Teocally had been a second time carried by storm, and its officiating priests thrown from its summit; the royal palace, with its adjoining buildings, and the old fortress where the Spaniards had formerly quartered, had been destroyed; but no general assault had been made. After some discussion, in which the hazard of risking so much upon a single onslaught was fully discussed, the general deter mined to undertake it, and issued his orders for a simultaneous advance the march over the causeys to be protected by the cooperation of the brigantines.

Siege Laid To The City

The three divisions under Cortez, Alvarado, and Sandoval, were put in motion on the ensuing morning. Orders were given that each party should secure a safe retreat by thoroughly filling up all gaps in the causeys as they made their way towards the heart of the city. Neglect of this prudent arrangement proved most disastrous. An advanced force, under Alderete, encouraged by the little show of resistance, pressed on nearly to the great square, leaving behind them a breach in the causey, (through which the water from the canal on either side was flowing to a depth of two fathoms) with very slight and inefficient means for recrossing. As Cortez came up to this spot, he began to suspect that his men were entrapped; he saw that the causey had been narrowed, and at once perceived the terrible confusion that must ensue, in case of precipitate retreat. While endeavoring to atone for this carelessness by filling the dike, Cortez and his followers heard the blast of the horn of the Aztec emperor, Guatimozin, followed by a deafening yell from his enraged warriors, and shortly after, Alderete s party were seen crowding the causey in their flight from an overwhelming mass of the natives. At the gap a scene of terrible slaughter ensued. Men and horses, floundering in the deep mud to which the way was reduced, thrust into the water by the pres sure of their own numbers, and seized by the enemy, whose canoes filled the canals, presented a miserable scene of hopeless disorder. Cortez himself was nearly borne away captive, in his endeavors to rescue the drowning sufferers from the dike. Six stout warriors laid hold of him, and would have secured him as a notable offering to their idols, but for the self-sacrificing devotion of his officers and men. His whole surviving party were obliged to retreat, making their way back to the camp under the protecting fire of the brigantines.

The division under Alvarado was also driven from the city, after having made some hopeful advance, driving in their first opponents. The second body of natives who stopped their progress, threw down five Spanish heads, saying that they were those of Cortez and his officers. In the retreat the great drum was heard sounding from the summit of the principal teocalli: “Its mournful noise was such as may be imagined the music of the infernal gods, and it might be heard at the distance of almost three leagues.” Diaz, who gives this description, says that the enemy were then sacrificing ten of the Spaniards hearts to their gods. This was just before the blast of the royal horn a signal which roused the Aztecs to an indescribable pitch of fury and courage.

Sandoval fared little better than the rest, and the Spanish army, completely foiled, returned to the several encampments, frightfully reduced in numbers, deprived of many of their invaluable horses, and, above all, dispirited by the thought that sixty or more of their brethren were alive in the hands of the enemy, destined victims at their infernal orgies.

As night approached, the booming of the great drum on the temple aroused the attention of the Spaniards, and, looking towards the city, they could distinctly perceive several of their unfortunate companions led up for sacrifice, decked out in gaudy plumes and coronals. A strong light thrown by the fires on the platform upon their white and naked bodies made the sickening sight too palpably distinct, while the shrieks of the victims rose above even the rude din of barbarous music and exultant shouts. The ceremony was followed by a furious attack upon the Spanish camps.

Not even scenes like this could shake the indomitable resolution of these men of iron. They continued to occupy the three causeys by which alone the city could be approached, except in boats, and using every endeavor to cut off supplies of provisions, made a steady and in trenched advance upon the capital. For ten successive nights they witnessed the butchery of the Spanish prisoners upon the green stone of sacrifice, without the power to render them the least assistance. As their hearts were torn out and burned before the idol, the priests drew the mangled remains down the stone steps. Some of the Indians, mid their taunts and revilings, averred that the Spanish flesh was “too bitter to be eaten; and truly, it seems that such a miracle was wrought.” “Let the reader think,” says the old chronicler, Diaz, ” what were our sensations on this occasion. Oh heavenly God! said we to ourselves, do not suffer us to be sacrificed by these wretches.”

To add to the Spaniards distress, the great body of their Indian allies deserted them at this crisis. They had begun to lose their confidence in the invincibility of the whites; and the prediction of the Mexican priests, that within eight days the besiegers should be destroyed, had its effect upon their superstitious minds. Ixtilxochitl, the Tezcucan chief, who had been raised by Cortez to the government of the city on its abdication by his enemies, remained faithful.

When the eight days were passed, these fickle allies began to return, with fresh confidence, to the assistance of the besiegers. With determined energy the Spaniards forced their passage, foot by foot, towards the center of the capital. Securing their way behind them, and demolishing the buildings as they proceeded, they more than recovered from their grand reverse. The miserable inhabitants were reduced to the utmost extremity by famine. Crowded together in the quarter of the city to which they were driven, they perished by thousands, but nothing seemed to tame their fierce and unyielding spirit. Guatimozin refused to listen to terms, although Cortez repeatedly sent embassies of prisoners, proposing a peaceable cession of the place. Stores and men were added to the Spanish resources, by the arrival at Villa Rica of a vessel belonging to a fleet fitted out by De Aillon, which was mostly destroyed on the reefs of Florida.

After the three divisions of the army had worked their way completely through the city, and Guatimozin and his people were confined in a limited district on the lake, the fury of their sallies seemed undiminished. When they were finally unable longer to keep their monarch in safety, a last attempt was made to effect an escape in the piraguas or large canoes.

The brigantines were immediately dispatched to intercept and destroy the flotilla, which now spotted the lake. The natives fought desperately, as usual, attacking the armed vessels of the Spaniards, regardless of the destruction occasioned by the artillery. Sandoval, who commanded in this service, dispatched Garcia Holguin, with the swiftest of the brigantines, to the spot where the emperor would probably steer, with orders to take him prisoner alive, if possible.

The attempt was successful, and the royal barge was taken, containing Guatimozin, his beautiful wife, (a daughter or niece of Montezuma,) and his chief followers. Being brought before Cortez, the king addressed his conqueror in terms of proud but despairing submission, bidding him draw his poniard, and put an end to the life of a monarch who had striven to the last for his people, but in vain. Cortez endeavored to reassure him by caresses and kind words, ordering the queen and attendants to be treated with courtesy and respect.

While this scene was enacting, and during the previous day, a work of such fearful carnage had been going on in the Mexican quarters as no pen can describe. No one can presume to enumerate those who fell. Diaz reports as follows: “What I am going to mention is truth, and I swear and say amen to it. I have read of the destruction of Jerusalem, but I cannot conceive that the mortality there exceeded this of Mexico; for all the people from the distant provinces, which belonged to this empire, had concentrated themselves here, where they mostly died. The streets, the squares, the houses, and the courts of the Taltelulco, (where the Mexicans were last entrenched,) were covered with dead bodies; we could not step without treading on them; the lake and canals were filled with them, and the stench was intolerable.”

It is due to the Spanish general to say that he endeavored repeatedly to stay this butchery; but his Indian allies could not be restrained, now that an opportunity was presented for safely wreaking their vengeance on their hereditary foes.

Capture Of Guatimozin and Conquest Of The Capital

The capture of Guatimozin, which consummated the conquest of the city, took place on the thirteenth of August 1521. All contention immediately ceased when this was accomplished. Diaz says: “We felt like so many men just escaped from a steeple where all the bells were ringing about our ears. This was owing to the continual noise of the enemy for ninety -three days shouting, calling, whistling, as signals to attack us, &c. Then, from the temples and adoratories of their accursed idols, the timbals and horns, and the mournful sound of their great drum, and other dismal noises were incessantly assailing our ears, so that day or night we could hardly hear each other speak.”

By Guatimozin s request, the city was cleared of its in habitants, that it might be effectually purified. The causeys were crowded for three successive clays and nights with a horde of such miserable, diseased, and helpless wretches, creeping slowly away from their former proud capital, “that it was misery to behold them.”

The booty discovered by the conquerors in no degree equaled their anticipations. It was supposed that great quantities of gold had been thrown into the lake, and divers were employed in the search for it, but with little effect. The unfortunate Guatimozin, and the lord of the city of Tacuba were put to the torture, with the assent of Cortez, to extort from them information as to the places where they had concealed their treasures. Cortez objected to this piece of barbarity, but permitted it that the suspicion might not rest upon him of having, by connivance, appropriated the plunder to his own use.

The young monarch, in this extremity, preserved his dignity and composure, enduring the cruelties of his tormentors with Indian fortitude. “When the barbarous inflictions of the Spaniards drew forth groans or complaints from his companion in suffering, Guatimozin silenced him with the calm interrogative, “Think’st thou, then, that I am taking my pleasure in my bath? ” Nothing was gained by the inhuman transaction, although the emperor told of a place in the lake where gold had been thrown, and the lord of Tacuba confessed that he had stores at a house in the country. These declarations were probably made merely for the purpose of escaping present anguish.

Rebuilding of the City

Within a few years after the scenes we have just described, the royal city of the Aztec monarchs rose from its ruins with renewed splendor; but under what different circumstances from those which attended its first establishment ! The proud-spirited nation, reduced to degrading servitude, was compelled to build and plant for the benefit of the victorious Spaniards, whose power daily increased with the multitudes flocking from the Old World to seek wealth or novelty in the sunny climes of New Spain.

The modern city of Mexico presents a very different aspect from that of the ancient capital. By the drainage of the lake, it no longer stands upon an island; and the causeys, which led to it, still used as public roads, are said to be scarcely distinguishable from the other highways.

All the surrounding tribes who did not yield implicitly to the dictates of the general, when the great city was destroyed, were promptly quelled and humbled. Confirmed in his authority by royal commission for the efforts of his enemies could avail little against the universal acclamation which followed the news of his successes Cortez continued to increase the extent of Spanish dominion, and still more effectually to crush all spirit of opposition among the miserable Mexicans. We cannot detail the terrible examples of vengeance, which followed any attempt to throw off the galling yoke. With such coadjutors as Alvarado, Sandoval, and other of his veteran officers, resistance to his supremacy proved worse than vain. The stake or the halter was the ready instrument by which the crime of rebellion was punished.

The March To Honduras

In October of 1524, Cortez, with a small force of Spaniards, and a large body of natives, undertook a long and difficult march to Honduras. His purpose was to chastise the rebellious de Olid, who had thrown off his general s authority. Although the details of the dangers, hardships, and adventures in this expedition are minute and interesting, we only refer to it as giving occasion for the destruction of the last Aztec monarch. Continually apprehensive of a new revolt, Cortez had, ever since the conquest, kept his royal prisoner a close attendant on his person. Together with his faithful vassal, the lord of Tacuba, Guatimozin was taken to accompany the party to Honduras. At Gueyacala, or Aculan, a conspiracy of the Mexicans in the train to fall upon and massacre the Spaniards, was reported to the general, and attributed to the influence of these two nobles. All participation in this plot was denied by the captives; but slight suspicion was sufficient to furnish an excuse to the unscrupulous Spaniard for ridding himself of a constant source of anxiety.

Guatimozin and the Tacuban governor were both hanged by his orders, Diaz affirms that there was but one opinion among the company, that this was “a most unjust and cruel sentence.” He proceeds to say that Cortez suffered much in his conscience for this act. “He was so distracted by these thoughts that he could not rest in his bed at night, and, getting up in the dark to walk about, as a relief from his anxieties, he went into a large apartment where some of the idols were worshipped. Here he missed his way, and fell from the height of twelve feet, to the ground, receiving a desperate wound and contusions in his head. This circumstance he tried to conceal, keeping his sufferings to himself, and getting his hurts cured as well as he could.”

Donna Marina

An interesting incident occurred on this march relative to the history of the faithful interpreter Donna Marina. The course taken led the army through her native province, and it so chanced that, at a great conclave of chiefs and principal inhabitants to hold conference with the Spaniards, her mother and brother were present. The unnatural parent, who had so long before sold her daughter as a slave, thought the hour of retribution was at hand, but Marina encouraged and caressed her, making her offerings of jewels and other attractive trifles. She avowed her attachment to the Spaniards and their religion, expressing great pride and satisfaction in the son and the husband, for both of whom she stood indebted to her noble master and friend.

We must now take leave of the historical detail of Mexican chronicles, with a few remarks upon the condition of the Indians subsequent to the conquest, the changes since wrought by lapse of time, the introduction of a foreign population, and the mixture of races.

For a long period the mass of the natives were compelled to waste their lives in hopeless toil on the plantations, in the mines, or at the rising cities of their oppressors.

Cortez felt and expressed some compunctious visiting of conscience at the adoption of this general system of slavery, but fell in with it as being essential to the maintenance of Spanish power and the speedy growth of the colonies. He saw that the mental capacity of the people was far superior to that of the other North American aborigines, and felt some natural regret that their national pride should be entirely humbled, and their opportunities for civilization and improvement be so entirely cut off. A better state of things was gradually brought about, and the inhabitants of pure native descent are now spoken of as a cheerful, courteous race, busying themselves in the simpler arts of manufacture, cultivating their fields, and enjoying the equable freedom from anxiety, so congenial to the mild and delicious climate of their country.

Pulque, the intoxicating drink of the Mexicans, is productive of the evil effects that such beverages always produce among the Indians of America; and, in the large cities, a disgusting horde of lazaroni disfigures the public squares. In the city of Mexico, these beggars are especially numerous.

Modern Mexico

The half-breeds, who form at the present day so extensive a portion of the population, present every variety of social position. Some of Montezuma s descendants married into noble families of Spain, and their posterity arrived at great wealth and dignity. The wife of Guatimozin, after his execution, married successively no less than three Castilians of honorable family. She is everywhere spoken of as a woman of charming appearance and attractive manners. A descendant of the former emperor of the Aztecs held the office of Spanish viceroy in Mexico as late as the close of the seventeenth century.


Mexico City Mexico,

Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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