What Did Hernando Cortes Discover?

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Hernando Cortes was one of the most influential and important discoverers of history. However, even if you recognize his name from history class, how much do you really know about him?

Cortes was born in Medellin, in Spain in the year of 1485. His parents were Martin Cortes de Monroy and his mother was Catalina Pizarro Altamirano. His father was an infantry captain.

Interestingly, Cortes was related to Francisco Pizarro, the individual who conquered the Inca Empire in Peru. When he was fourteen, he began studies at the University of Salamanca in Spain. He stayed at the school for two years, and then returned home to Medellin. He came home eager for adventure and to make his mark on the world.

Cortes Begins Exploring

Soon, he was given the opportunity to sail with a family acquaintance, Nicolas de Ovando y Caceres. The ship was going to sail to the Americas. However, Cortes was prevented from going on this trip because of an injury he sustained.

In 1504, Cortes again was given the opportunity to sail to the Americas. This time, nothing prevented him. He arrived in the New World on a ship that was commanded by Alonso Quintero. However, Cortes learned an important lesson on this journey. Quintero was an individual of dubious character, and from him, Cortes may have picked up some of his more questionable behavior. For example, Quintero was trying to deceive his superiors on this journey and reach the Americas before they did. In 1504, the ship arrived in Hispaniola and Cortes registered as a citizen. He then became a farmer in the colony.

Cortes and Cuba

In 1511, Cortes went with Diego Velazquez de Cuellar on a journey to conquer Cuba. This journey was largely successful. Velazquez de Cuellar was appointed governor of present day Cuba, and Cortes was appointed as a clerk to the treasurer at age twenty six.

During his time in Cuba, Cortes became more powerful among the people. He led a revolt that demanded that more Indians should be assigned to the settlers in Cuba. In 1518, Cortes was appointed as Captain General of an expedition in which Cortes acquired more money and power.


In 1518, Cortes was put in charge of exploring the interior of Mexico for colonization by the Spanish. At the last moment, Cortes was told that he no longer had the charter to sail to Mexico. However, Cortes ignored these orders and sailed anyway. He sailed with eleven ships, five hundred men, thirteen horses, and a multitude of cannons.

He landed in Mayan territory, specifically in the Yucatan Peninsula. In March of 1519, Cortes claimed the land for the Spanish empire. As he made his way through the land, Cortes hired more soldiers and acquired more horses for his group. He then won a battle against the Native Americans of the area in Tabasco.

By July of 1519, Cortes officially took over Veracruz. In October of 1519, he marched to the second largest city in central Mexico, Cholula. Here, he massacred thousands of individuals and set fire to the city.

Another expedition was sent to Mexico to oppose Cortes, under the rule of Panfilo de Narvaaz. Despite this second expedition’s greater numbers, Cortes was able to conquer them and convince the members to join his group. After a number of misfortunes, Cortes destroyed the city of Tenochtitlan and captured the ruler of the city on August, 13, 1521. This marked the end of the Aztec Empire, and the land was claimed for Spain.

Hernando Cortes didn’t discover Mexico because it was already inhabited when he arrived. However, Cortes lead to the destruction of the Aztec Empire, and claimed significant portions of Mexico for the Spanish Empire.