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Common Core: RH.6-8.1, RH.6-8.2, RH.6-8.4, RH.6-8.6, RH.6-8.9, WHST.6-8.2, WHST.6-8.4, RI.6-8.1, RI.6-8.2, RI.6-8.4, RI.6-8.6, RI.6-8.9, W.6-8.2, W.6-8.4, SL.6-8.1

NCSS: Time, Continuity, and Change • People, Places, and Environments • Global Connections

FLASHBACK

The Aztec Empire

Invasion of Tenochtitlan

Five hundred years ago, Spain brutally seized the capital of the Aztec Empire—conquering Mexico and changing the history of the Americas forever

As You Read, Think About: How were the indigenous people of the Americas affected by the arrival of European people?

Just after midnight on July 1, 1520, a woman was gathering water at the edge of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (tay-nawch-TEE-tlan). Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a suspicious movement. She knew immediately what it was. The Spanish invaders who had brought violence and destruction upon her city were trying to sneak out with their lives.

“Come quickly! Our enemies are running away in the night!,” the woman shouted.

Only months before, the Aztec emperor, Montezuma, had welcomed the Spanish strangers into the city as guests. But his people soon came to despise them.

The Spanish men, known to history as conquistadores, had demanded piles of gold from their Aztec hosts. They eventually turned violent, slaughtering worshippers at a religious festival. Enraged, the people of Tenochtitlan had risen up against the invaders—setting off a series of deadly battles. 

It was just after midnight on July 1, 1520. A woman was gathering water at the edge of the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan (tay-nawch-TEE-tlan). She saw a suspicious movement out of the corner of her eye. She knew right away that it was the Spanish invaders. They had brought violence and destruction upon her city. Now they were trying to sneak out with their lives.

“Come quickly! Our enemies are running away in the night!,” the woman shouted.

Montezuma was the Aztec emperor. Only months before, he had welcomed the Spanish strangers into the city as guests. But his people soon came to hate them.

The Spanish men, known to history as conquistadores, had demanded piles of gold from their Aztec hosts. In time, they turned violent. They killed many worshippers at a religious festival. Enraged, the people of Tenochtitlan had risen up against the invaders. That set off a series of deadly battles.

What You Need to Know

iStockPhoto/Getty Images

The pyramid of Acatitlan, built by early Aztec people, is the most complete Aztec ruin remaining.

Mesoamerica A historical region that included Mexico and much of Central America. Indigenous peoples including the Aztecs and the Maya created civilizations with large cities and advanced farming methods here. 

Age of Exploration A period starting in the 15th century when Europeans traveled throughout the Americas­ in search of natural resources and indigenous people to exploit.

Mesoamerica A historical region that included Mexico and much of Central America. Indigenous peoples including the Aztecs and the Maya created civilizations with large cities and advanced farming methods here. 

Age of Exploration A period starting in the 15th century when Europeans traveled throughout the Americas­ in search of natural resources and indigenous people to exploit.

Perhaps Montezuma might have been able to stop the mounting violence. But he had been mysteriously killed just days before. With the emperor gone, the Spanish commander, Hernando Cortés, had realized his men would all die if they remained in the Aztec capital. So he had hatched a plan to get them out.

Escaping was complicated, however. Tenochtitlan sat in the middle of Lake Texcoco (see ancient map, at right). It was joined to the mainland by a few narrow bridges. Now, as Cortés and his men inched across one of those bridges in the dark—gold bars stuffed under their armor or loaded onto the backs of horses—they had been caught. 

As soon as the Aztec woman raised the alarm, the cry began to spread. The drum of war atop the Great Pyramid sounded. Within minutes, people of the city sped to the scene in canoes, raining arrows down on the conquistadores.

Hundreds of Spanish men and horses fell into the marshy water, dead or drowning. Those left standing tried to cross on the fallen bodies. Much of the gold they’d attempted to take with them was lost.

By the night’s end, the Aztec people thought the invaders were gone for good. But many of the Spanish men made it to safety—including Cortés. In time, he would return with many more forces and brutally conquer Tenochtitlan—paving the way for the European conquest of the Americas.

Perhaps Montezuma might have been able to stop the violence. But he had been mysteriously killed just days before. Hernando Cortés was the Spanish commander. With the emperor gone, Cortés had realized his men would all die if they stayed in the Aztec capital. So he had hatched a plan to get them out.

Escaping was complicated, however. Tenochtitlan sat in the middle of Lake Texcoco (see ancient map, at right). It was joined to the mainland by a few narrow bridges. Cortés and his men had stuffed gold bars under their armor and loaded them onto the backs of horses. Now, as they inched across one of those bridges in the dark, they had been caught.

As soon as the Aztec woman raised the alarm, the cry began to spread. The drum of war atop the Great Pyramid sounded. Within minutes, people of the city sped to the scene in canoes. They rained arrows down on the conquistadores.

Hundreds of Spanish men and horses fell into the marshy water, dead or drowning. Those left standing tried to cross the water on the fallen bodies. Much of the gold they had tried to take with them was lost.

By the night’s end, the Aztec people thought the invaders were gone for good. But many of the Spanish men made it to safety, including Cortés. In time, he would return with many more forces. He would brutally conquer Tenochtitlan. This would pave the way for the European conquest of the Americas.

The Aztec Empire

Once a nomadic group that moved throughout Mesoamerica, the Aztec people settled in central Mexico in the 12th century. There they built a great civilization with advanced systems of farming and writing. All Aztec children, rich or poor, were educated. That was rare in any society at the time. 

At the center of the Aztec world was Tenochtitlan. A marvel of culture and engineering, it featured magnificent palaces, temples, and gardens. The city grew to a population of 200,000, one of the world’s largest then. Its residents called themselves Mexica (muh-SHEE-kuh), the origin of the name Mexico.

The Aztec people were once a nomadic group that moved throughout Mesoamerica. They settled in central Mexico in the 12th century. There they built a great civilization with advanced systems of farming and writing. All Aztec children, rich or poor, were educated. That was rare in any society at the time.

At the center of the Aztec world was Tenochtitlan. It was a marvel of culture and engineering. It featured stunning palaces, temples, and gardens. The city grew to a population of 200,000, one of the world’s largest then. Its residents called themselves Mexica (muh-SHEE-kuh). That is where the name Mexico came from.

Tenochtitlan was a marvel of culture and engineering.

By the time Montezuma came to power as emperor in 1502, the Aztec Empire had spread to the Gulf of Mexico (see map, below)

With his army, Montezuma expanded the area to include some 400 city-states—mostly of other indigenous cultures. 

Yet resentment toward the empire was building. Montezuma made conquered territories provide him with enslaved workers and regular supplies of food and clothing. And he had enemies, such as the city-state of Tlaxcala to the east, which he had been unable to defeat. But trouble was also coming from farther away.

By the time Montezuma came to power as emperor in 1502, the Aztec Empire had spread to the Gulf of Mexico (see map, below).

With his army, Montezuma expanded the area. It included about 400 city-states. Most were of other indigenous cultures.

A growing number of people resented the empire. Montezuma made conquered territories send him enslaved workers and regular supplies of food and clothing. And he had enemies, such as the city-state of Tlaxcala to the east, which he had been unable to defeat. But trouble was also coming from farther away.

The Aztec Empire 

The Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan was located at the heart of what would later become Mexico.

Jim McMahon/Mapman®

Conquer or Die!

By 1519, the era known as the Age of Exploration was in full swing in the Americas (see “What You Need to Know,” above). Spanish conquistadores controlled much of the Caribbean Sea, including the island of Cuba. But they were desperate for gold and to conquer more territory—in part to enslave more indigenous people, who they did not see as fully human.

The governor of Cuba tapped Cortés to explore the landmass to the west­ (what today is Mexico). Cortés quickly began gathering up men and supplies—so many, in fact, that the governor worried he planned to set up his own colony. Ordered to stop, Cortés instead ignored the governor and sailed west.

By the time Cortés landed on the eastern coast of Mexico in April 1519, he was already hearing tales of a great inland city rich in gold: Tenochtitlan. That August, Cortés and about 300 conquistadores set off for the Aztec capital, vowing “to conquer the land or die.”

Along the way, the group reached Tlaxcala, Montezuma’s sworn enemy. Seeing a chance to defeat their old foe, the Tlaxcalan leaders sent Cortés on his way to the Aztec capital with 1,000 or more of their people.

Montezuma, who had spies everywhere, was alarmed. Several times during Cortés’s 250-mile journey, the emperor sent messengers with gifts, politely asking him to stay away. Yet on November 8, 1519, Cortés and his forces started over the main southern bridge to Tenochtitlan.

By 1519, the era known as the Age of Exploration was in full swing in the Americas (see “What You Need to Know,” above). Spanish conquistadores controlled much of the Caribbean Sea, including the island of Cuba. But they were desperate for gold. They also wanted to conquer more territory—in part to enslave more indigenous people. The conquistadores did not see the indigenous people as fully human.

The governor of Cuba called on Cortés to explore the landmass to the west (what today is Mexico). Cortés quickly began gathering up large numbers of men and supplies. Worried he planned to set up his own colony, the governor ordered him to stop. Cortés ignored the governor and sailed west.

Cortés landed on the eastern coast of Mexico in April 1519. By that time, he was already hearing tales of a great inland city rich in gold: Tenochtitlan. That August, Cortés and about 300 conquistadores set off for the Aztec capital, determined “to conquer the land or die.”

Along the way, the group reached Tlaxcala, Montezuma’s sworn enemy. The Tlaxcalan leaders saw a chance to defeat their old foe. They sent Cortés on his way to the Aztec capital with 1,000 or more of their people.

Hearing about this alarmed Montezuma, who had spies everywhere. Several times during Cortés’s 250-mile journey, the emperor sent messengers with gifts. Politely, they asked him to stay away. Yet on November 8, 1519, Cortés and his forces started over the main southern bridge to Tenochtitlan.

A Waiting Game

Despite his misgivings, Montezuma greeted the strangers and put them up in a palace. The Spanish men were amazed to see a city of such size and splendor. At first, they maintained an uneasy peace with the city’s residents. Yet their actions eventually doomed it to fail. 

The Aztec people were very religious. Their holy festivals often featured ritual human sacrifices—a common practice in some Mesoamerican cultures. Cortés was horrified by this. He later wrote to the king of Spain about such “evil practices”—using them to justify the conquering of the Aztec people. 

For their part, the city’s residents resented the intruders’ nonstop demands for food and gold. The conquistadores had many Aztec treasures, such as gold rings, melted down into bars that they could take with them. They seemed to look at everything as if it were something they could take. The people of Tenochtitlan were also disgusted to discover that the conquistadores almost never bathed.

Why didn’t Montezuma simply throw Cortés and his men out? Historians have debated that question for centuries. Many experts believe that Montezuma was being very cautious with the armed strangers until he could find the right way to defeat them. 

As time passed, Cortés began to fear he had walked into a trap­. He realized that Aztec warriors could easily attack and defeat his men. Like Montezuma, he began to play an anxious waiting game.

Despite his misgivings, Montezuma greeted the strangers. He put them up in a palace. The Spanish men were amazed to see a city of such size and splendor. At first, they kept up an uneasy peace with the city’s residents. Yet their actions eventually doomed it to fail.

The Aztec people were very religious. Their holy festivals often featured ritual human sacrifices. That was a common practice in some Mesoamerican cultures. But it horrified Cortés. He later wrote to the king of Spain about such “evil practices.” He used them to justify the conquering of the Aztec people.

For their part, the city’s residents resented the intruders’ nonstop demands for food and gold. The conquistadores had many Aztec treasures, including gold rings, melted down into bars that they could take with them. They seemed to look at everything as if it were something they could take. The people of Tenochtitlan were also disgusted to discover that the conquistadores almost never bathed.

Why did Montezuma not simply throw Cortés and his men out? Historians have debated that question for centuries. Many experts believe that Montezuma was being very cautious with the armed strangers, waiting until he could find the right way to defeat them.

As time passed, Cortés began to fear he had walked into a trap. He realized that Aztec warriors could easily attack and defeat his men. Like Montezuma, he began to play an anxious waiting game.

Illustrations by David Saavedra

Access to armor, steel swords, and horses helped Spanish forces conquer the Aztec Empire.

All-Out War

Then, in April 1520, Cortés got word that Cuba’s governor had sent soldiers to arrest him for defying orders. He rushed off to confront them, hoping to avoid such a fate. 

The armed Spanish men he left behind were convinced that they would soon be attacked by their hosts. They went on a rampage, slaughtering many Aztec worshippers at a religious festival.

Finally, the people of Tenochtitlan rose up against the invaders, determined to defend the city against their violence. By the time Cortés returned, the capital was in the midst of an all-out war. 

Then, suddenly, Montezuma died. Many historians believe he was killed by a Spanish captain. Whatever the truth, the emperor’s death further inflamed the uprising.

Cortés saw that his men would all be killed if they did not get out immediately. Many didn’t survive the midnight escape attempt. It seemed like a total Spanish defeat.

Then, in April 1520, Cortés got word that Cuba’s governor had sent soldiers to arrest him for defying orders. Hoping to stop that from happening, he rushed off to meet them.

The armed Spanish men he left behind were sure that they would soon be attacked by their hosts. They went on a rampage. They killed many Aztec worshippers at a religious festival.

Finally, the people of Tenochtitlan rose up against the invaders. They were determined to defend the city against the invaders’ violence. By the time Cortés returned, the capital was in the midst of an all-out war.

Then, suddenly, Montezuma died. Many historians believe he was killed by a Spanish captain. Whatever the truth, the emperor’s death made the uprising worse.

Cortés saw that his men would all be killed if they did not get out immediately. Many did not survive the midnight escape attempt. It seemed like a total Spanish defeat.

Tenochtitlan Falls

Cortés retreated to Tlaxcala. But he vowed to return to Tenochtitlan—and this time to conquer it. He sent out requests for more arms and men, rebuilding his fighting force.

Importantly, he also found new allies among the leaders of other indigenous cities. Some had long hoped to be rid of the Aztec Empire. Others had been Aztec allies but now chose to back Cortés because they believed his army would likely win the coming war.

At the same time, an epidemic of smallpox brought by the Spanish forces swept through Tenochtitlan. It killed up to half the city’s people, leaving them vulnerable to attack. 

About 10 months after he had fled Tenochtitlan, Cortés returned with nearly 1,000 Spanish men and tens of thousands of indigenous warriors. His forces had steel swords, guns, and horses, which gave them an advantage over the Aztec warriors. After three brutal months of battle, Tenochtitlan finally fell. 

Cortés retreated to Tlaxcala. But he promised that he would return to Tenochtitlan—and conquer it. He sent out requests for more arms and men, rebuilding his fighting force.

Importantly, he also found new allies among the leaders of other indigenous cities. Some had long hoped to be rid of the Aztec Empire. Others had been Aztec allies but now chose to back Cortés. They did it because they believed his army would likely win the coming war.

At the same time, an epidemic of smallpox brought by the Spanish forces swept through Tenochtitlan. It killed up to half the city’s people. That weakened them, leaving them open to attack.

About 10 months after he had fled Tenochtitlan, Cortés returned. He had nearly 1,000 Spanish men and tens of thousands of indigenous warriors. His forces had steel swords, guns, and horses. That gave them an advantage over the Aztec warriors. After three brutal months of battle, Tenochtitlan finally fell.

A New Empire

The defeated Aztec Empire would become the heart of a European territory called New Spain. Within decades, it grew to contain all of Mexico. Eventually, Spain’s empire included part of the future United States and much of South America.

The result was disastrous for indigenous people. As the conquerors expanded their territory, they enslaved millions of people. Millions of others died through warfare and from European diseases. Historians estimate that up to 90 percent of the Americas’ indigenous people were wiped out within a century of Spanish rule.

The defeated Aztec Empire would become the heart of a European territory called New Spain. Within decades, it grew to contain all of Mexico. Spain’s empire eventually included part of the future United States and much of South America.

The result was a disaster for indigenous people. As the conquerors expanded their territory, they enslaved millions of people. Millions of others died through warfare and from European diseases. Historians estimate that up to 90 percent of the indigenous people of the Americas were wiped out within a century of Spanish rule.

Aztec history and culture continue to strongly influence Mexican life.

Still, many indigenous people adapted and survived. Aztec history and culture continue to strongly influence Mexican life. Today many of the remains of Tenochtitlan lie under Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. There, archaeologists carefully excavate the Aztec past.

In 1981, a worker unearthed something startling: a bar of gold. Earlier this year, scientists determined that it had been lost in the water during the conquistadores’ desperate escape 500 years ago—a ghostly reminder of the conquest of one of the world’s great civilizations.

Still, many indigenous people adapted and survived. Aztec history and culture continue to strongly influence Mexican life. Today, many of the remains of Tenochtitlan lie under Mexico City, the capital of Mexico. There, archaeologists carefully dig up the Aztec past.

In 1981, a worker unearthed something startling: a bar of gold. Earlier this year, scientists determined that it had been lost in the water 500 years ago, during the conquistadores’ desperate escape. That gold bar is a ghostly reminder of the conquest of one of the world’s great civilizations.

Write About It! How was the establishment of the Spanish empire “disastrous for indigenous people”? Explain the effects of Spanish conquest, using details from the article as evidence.

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