For a couple of decades, I regularly lectured on the colonial history of Mexico. One of the highlights was talking about the gold that Don Hernán Cortés stole and then lost following the Battle of Noche Triste. Everyone likes stories about lost gold.
Cortés’ expedition to Mexico was not only unauthorized, but such an outrageous act of treason that only the discovery of vast quantities of gold could possibly have saved the explorer’s life. That he was ultimately successful is one of those historical accidents that strains the credulity of every student.
Everything about Cortés’ discovery of Tenochtitlan, the capitol of the Aztec empire, is incredible. Not only was it the largest city that the conquistador had ever seen, it was located in the center of an island in the midst of a mountain-surrounded lake over a mile above sea level. When Cortés discovered that the Aztec empire had huge quantities of gold and jewels, he decided to plunder the capital despite the immense size of the Aztec army.
As most students know, Cortés played on the superstitions and naïveté of Montezuma, the Aztec chief. (Yeah, I know that wasn’t really his name. But, depending on which authority you want to believe, it was either Moctezuma II, Montezuma, Moteuczoma, Motecuhzoma, Motēuczōmah, Muteczuma, or as the Nahuatl texts say, Motecuhzoma Xocoyotzin. If we are going to be that picky, he wasn’t the chief, but the ninth ‘tlatoan’ of the Aztecs.)
Montezuma was something of a poet or philosopher and he was really curious as to the true nature of the strange armor-wearing people who invaded his realm. Cortés was lucky—if he had arrived during the rule of Montezuma’s bloodthirsty father, Xochicueyetl who believed in killing first, and introductions later, it is doubtful that he would have lived long enough to have made the history books. It is possible that Montezuma thought the strangers were gods, or emissaries of the gods, or—and this most likely—just curious folks. For whatever reason, the Aztec chief invited the Spaniards into the city and even gave them his father’s palace to use during their “visit”.
The Spaniards were amazed at the amount of gold in the city, and more than a little alarmed at the brutal and bloody sacrifices that the Aztecs carried out in their temples. The Aztecs willingly gifted large amounts of gold to their visitors, since the soft metal had little value for the natives. When Montezuma questioned why the Spaniards were so eager to acquire what the Aztecs referred to as “excrement of the Gods”, Cortés answered, “Europeans suffer from a disease that can only be treated with gold”.
When Cortés learned that more Spaniards had arrived on the gulf coast, he quickly departed the city, leaving the Spaniards who remained in Tenochtitlan under the command of his lieutenant, Pedro de Alvarado. Hurrying back to the coast, he met a much larger party of Spaniards who had been ordered to find and arrest the treasonous Cortés.
Luckily for Cortés, this Spanish army also suffered from ‘the gold disease’, and when Cortés offered to split his new wealth with them, the majority of the force quickly changed its allegiance to Cortés, enabling him to conquer the rest of the party sent to arrest him.
Hurrying back to Tenochtitlan with his newly augmented force, Cortés discovered that Pedro de Alvarado had really screwed up in his absence. This shouldn’t have been much of a surprise since Pedro always screwed up: he was the embodiment of brainless failure. A few years earlier, the ill-fated conquistador had acquired a fortune from the Maya by swapping glass beads for hundreds of golden axes. Pedro was halfway home before he discovered that his fabulous golden axes were actually bronze.
Years later, when Pedro showed up in Peru, Pizarro was so eager to be rid of this walking disaster that he paid the hapless conquistador to leave. Once again, Pedro was halfway back to Cuba before he discovered that his “payment” consisted of gilded lead bars.
As soon as Cortés had left for the coast, Pedro had begun harassing the Aztec priests, who were, as far as the dimwitted conquistador was concerned, actively worshipping the devil. When he interrupted one of the sacrifices and killed a few of the priests and noblemen, the mood of the city bordered on open violence. When Cortés returned, he quickly realized that the Spanish had overstayed their welcome, but instead of withdrawing, Cortés took Montezuma as a hostage, with the result that the palace where the Spaniards were staying was surrounded by a hostile mob.
What happened next is still open to debate. What everyone agrees on is that Cortés took Montezuma out on a balcony to tell the angry crowd to disperse and when they refused, Montezuma died. According to Cortés, the crowd began throwing stones and one of those hit the chief on the head. The Aztec version of events maintains that when Cortés realized that Montezuma was useless as a hostage, he got angry and stabbed Montezuma. I guess who you believe may depend on how politically correct you are.
However Montezuma died, Cortés knew it was time to withdraw. Gathering his forces, he told each man to take as much of the accumulated treasure as they wished, and that they would attempt to sneak out of the city that night. Some of the men evidently burdened themselves down with just a little too much gold.
The island city of Tenochtitlan was connected to the shore by long causeways which had removable sections for defense. The Spanish, knowing that the angry natives, eager for revenge, had removed these sections to prevent their escape, had built a light portable wooden scaffold to allow them to escape.
At midnight, the Spaniards began to move silently through the city, making their way to the closest causeway. An old woman, washing her clothes in the lake water, spotted the fleeing conquistadors and raised an alarm. Almost instantly, Aztec warriors began chasing the conquistadors down the causeway and even more began to flank the sides of the causeway in canoes. As missiles—rocks, darts, arrows, and spears—rained down on the men, they came to the first break in the causeway where they used their scaffold to cross, but then discovered that the wooden structure had become wedged, resisting their efforts to remove it in order to cross the next break in the escape route.
As the missiles continued to pelt the helpless men, those in the rear pushed the men in front of them into the water, where, weighted down with packs of gold, those men quickly drowned. Some of the men in the rear eventually escaped by crossing on the bodies of their dead comrades.
Cortés had been justifiably angry with Pedro de Alvarado, whom he had ordered to bring up the rear of the column of men as they tried to make their escape. According to one account, when Pedro came to the first break in the causeway, he managed to use his long lance to vault across the break. (I’ve always thought it a little unfair that none of the record books credit him with establishing the first Mexican pole vault record.)
By the time Cortés gathered his men on the beaches of Lake Texcoco, he had lost somewhere between 400 and 800 Spaniards and well over 1,000 native allies. Cortés supposedly sat under a tree and mourned his losses. The Spanish called the night of June 30, 1520, the “Noche Triste”—the sad night.
Cortés would eventually rally his men, and would eventually conquer Tenochtitlan and all of Mexico. Though Cortés would eventually gather a fortune in treasure, the gold that was lost that night was never recovered from the bottom of the lake, and is still waiting for someone to discover it.
Well, that was the story that I used to tell my students: the tale how Cortés gathered Aztec gold only to lose it in his escape from the city. But, this month, the story got a new ending. The gold—at least some of it—has been discovered, nearly 500 years later.
Using special x-ray equipment, archaeologists have just identified a gold bar that a city worker uncovered from a Mexico City park as part of the missing treasure. The bar, 1.93 kilograms, is worth over $50,000 today. This is the first piece of the lost treasure that has been missing for 500 years to be located.
And even as you read this, I bet that new holes are being sunk in that park.