Hernan Cortes was born in Spain in 1485, and he grew up in a family with “little wealth, but much honor.” Like many other Spanish noblemen, Cortes looked to the Americas for adventure and riches. At age 19, he sailed for Hispaniola. Over the next decade, Cortes took part in the conquest of Cuba and gained political power.
In February 1519, Cortes led 11 ships loaded with more than 500 soldiers and 16 horses on an expedition to the coast of Mexico. Cortes had heard rumors of fabulous riches in the unknown land, and he dreamed of finding gold and silver and returning to Spain in triumph.
In March, the expedition landed on what is now the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico and fought a battle with Indians. The Indian warriors fought bravely to repel the invaders, but they were no match for Spanish swords and guns. When the Spanish cavalry attacked, the Indians, who had never seen horses before, believed horse and rider were actually a single beast. They fled in terror.
News of the Spanish victory spread through the country, finally reaching Montezuma, ruler of the Aztec Empire. The Aztec Empire covered most of what is now Mexico. In the magnificent capital city of Tenochtitlan, Montezuma pondered the significance of the white men’s arrival.
A religious prophecy declared that an Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl, would return as a bearded, fair-skinned man in the year 1519. But Montezuma remained uncertain whether the white men should be slaughtered as invaders or welcomed as gods.
Montezuma sent them magnificent gifts, two large gold and silver disks, pearl and turquoise ornaments, and jeweled robes. Cortes was delighted by these signs of wealth. He saw these gifts as confirmation of the Aztec Empire’s incredible riches, and he resolved to win them for himself.