CORTEZ, HERNAN, the conqueror of Mexico, was born in 1485, at Medillin, a village of Estremadura, Spain. He was educated for the law, but afterwards adopted the profession of arms; and in 1511 distinguished himself under Diego-Velasquez in the expedition against Cuba. In 1518, the conquest of Mexico was entrusted to him by Velasquez, the governor of Cuba; but the latter had no sooner granted him the commission than he wished to revoke it, fearful that his daring and sagacious lieutenant would deprive him of all the glory of the enterprise. Cortez, however, maintained his command in defiance of the governor. Never, perhaps, was an enterprise so great, undertaken with so little regard for its difficulties and dangers. A force of between 600 and 700 men, only thirteen of whom were musketeers, with only ten field pieces, and two or three smaller pieces of cannon, were all the means at Cortez" disposal, to effect the conquest of the then extensive Empire of Mexico, when in 1519, he landed on its shores. Sailing up the river Tabasco, Cortez captured the town of that name, the prowess of the Spaniards occasioning great terror to the Tabascans, who made liberal presents to the white men, and volunteered all the information about Mexico in their power. Arriving off the coast of San Juan de Ulloa, Cortez was here visited by some Mexican chiefs, with whom he entered into negotiations regarding a visit to Montezuma, who then ruled with nearly absolute sway over Mexico. Montezuma sent Cortez rich presents, but objected to his visiting the Capital. But Cortez had resolved upon seeing the Emperor in his palace, and was not to be daunted by opposition.
Having founded the town of Vera Cruz, and burned his ships, so that his troops could not return, and must therefore conquer or perish, Cortez, with a force reduced to 400 Spaniards on foot and 15 horse, but with a considerable number of Indian followers, lent him by dissatisfied chiefs dependent on Montezuma, marched upon the Capital. Overcoming the Tlascalans, a brave people on the way, who after became his firm allies, and taking fearful vengeance on the city of Cholula, where by Montezuma's orders an attempt was made to massacre his troops, Cortez, on the 8th of November 1519, reached the City of Mexico, and was received with great pomp by the Emperor in person. The Spaniards were regarded as the descendants of the Sun, who, according to a current prophecy, were to come from the east and subvert the Aztec empire - a tradition that was worth a good many soldiers to Cortez. An attack on Cortez" colony at Vera Cruz, by one of Montezuma's generals, however, proved the mortality of the Spaniards, and would have been the ruin of them but for the decisiveness of Cortez, who immediately seized the Emperor, and carrying him to the Spanish quarter, forced him to surrender the offending general and three other chiefs, whom he caused to be burned in front of the palace, and ere long compelled him to cede his empire to Spain. One must be astonished by this man, whose daring acts in the Capital City of the empire, containing, it is calculated 300,000 inhabitants, had nothing but 400 Spaniards and a few thousand Indians whom he had recently conquered, to support them. Meantime, Velasquez, enraged at Cortez" success, sent an army of about 1,000 men, well provided with artillery, to compel his surrender. Cortez unexpectedly met and overpowered this force, and secured its allegiance. But in his absence the Mexicans had risen in the Capital, and Cortez was finally driven out with much loss. During the disturbance, Montezuma, who was still kept a prisoner, appeared on a terrace with the view of pacifying his people, but he was wounded by a stone and died in a few days. Cortez now retired to Tlascala, to allow his fatigued and wounded men to rest: and receiving reinforcements, he speedily subjugated all Anahuac to the east of the Mexican valley, and soon marched again on the city of Mexico, which he succeeded in capturing (August 16th 1521), after a siege of four months, ended by a murderous assault of two days. Famine had assisted the Spanish arms, so that of the vast population, only about 40,000 remained when the Spaniards entered the city, which lay in ruins, "like some huge churchyard with the corpses disinterred, and the tombstones scattered about." Mexico was now thoroughly subjugated, for though some attempts at revolt were afterwards made, they were soon crushed by Cortez, who had been nominated governor and Captain-general of the country by Charles V.
In 1528, Cortez returned to Spain to meet some accusations against him, and was received with great distinction. On his return to Mexico in 1530, however, he was divested of his civil rank. At his own expense he fitted out several expeditions, one of which discovered California. In 1540, he came again to Spain, but was coldly received at Court, from which he soon retired, and died at Seville, December 1547.