Auctioned Cortés Letters Obtained Illegally Shed Light on Conquistador

letters stolen from national archives of mexico, auctioned in new york and los angeles

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Citizens tracked stolen letters from Mexico’s national archives to a New York auction. Several of the historical documents have been auctioned off individually since 2017. They detail the exploits of Hernán Cortés.

Spanish conquistador, Hernán Cortés
Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés (1485-1547) conquered the Aztecs in 1521 and brought large portions of Mexico under the rule of Spain. Photo by Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A 16th-century letter discussing famed Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés was auctioned in September in New York. It was the tenth Cortés-based document to be sold since 2017, with the previous nine selling in New York and Los Angeles. However, amateur history buffs and scholars soon made a startling discovery: The letters that had been sold off began their journey to auction by being stolen from the National Archives of Mexico.

Law enforcement and government agencies from the United States and Mexico are working to trace the crime to its culprits and figure out the future of the documents. In the meantime, Cortés’s exploits are worth revisiting.

In his video series Maya to Aztec: Ancient Mesoamerica Revealed, Dr. Edwin Barnhart, Director of the Maya Exploration Center, explained some of Cortés’s life and story.

Happy Wife, Happy Conquering

According to Dr. Barnhart, as Spanish conquistadors moved west from Cuba to Mesoamerica in the early 1500s, the Cuban governor commissioned an expedition to Cozumel led by Hernán Cortés. Cortés took enough of Cozumel to inspire him to continue around the Yucatan Peninsula to the Mexican state of Tabasco.

“There, he defeated the town of Xicalanco, a big Maya port—and there were Aztec pochteca traders there,” Dr. Barnhart said. “The defeated people gave him 20 slave women, and one of them was Doña Maria ‘La Malinche.’ She spoke both Maya and Nahuatl.”

La Malinche served as a translator for the conquistador. She worked with one of Cortés’s men, a priest named Geronimo de Aguilar—who had been on an earlier expedition to Mexico when he had been captured and enslaved, then Cortés freed him. While there, Tobascan natives mentioned a fabled Aztec city called Tenochtitlan, to the west.

“La Malinche is an infamous figure—on the one hand, she’s the symbol of native betrayal; but she’s also a symbol of mestizo heritage,” Dr. Barnhart said. “She eventually became Cortés’s wife, and she bore his favorite son: Diego. She was more than just a translator; she was actually very key to Cortés’s successful strategy against the Aztecs.”

Settling Veracruz

Cortés sailed west, enticed by the rumored riches of Tenochtitlan, and landed in what is now Veracruz, Mexico. He took over a town called Chalchihuecan, which Dr. Barnhart said translates as “place of jade.” Cortés renamed it Villa Real de la Veracruz because he had landed there on Good Friday. “Veracruz” translates from Spanish as “true cross.” The town became Spain’s second, permanent mainland settlement in the Americas.

“Locals there told him more about Tenochtitlan, an amazing city full of gold,” Dr. Barnhart said. “Cortés sent messages to [Aztec emperor] Moctezuma. He requested a meeting, but all those messages were ignored; so he decided to march to Tenochtitlan.”

Cortés’s advisors told him not to march on the city. So, he ordered all their boats burned, leaving them with no choice. According to Dr. Barnhart, in August 1519, 700 men, 15 horses, and 15 cannons began their journey to Tenochtitlan. Cortés left 100 men behind to hold Veracruz.

For the next year, Cortés and his men—accompanied by over 1,000 local soldiers who hated the Aztecs—undertook an expedition that would see triumph, tragedy, betrayal, and the eventual conquering of the Aztecs at Tenochtitlan.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily