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TitleOld America - The Aztecs
Publication TypeMagazine Article
Year of Publication1875
AuthorsOttinger, G.M.
MagazineJuvenile Instructor
Issue Number4
Date Published20 February 1875
KeywordsAncient America; Mesoamerica; Native Americans - Aztec

Series of articles dealing with archaeological, anthropological, geographical, societal, religious, and historical aspects of ancient America and their connections to the Book of Mormon, which is the key to understanding “old American” studies.

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It was in the month of April A. D, 1519 that the renowned fillibuster, Hernando Cortez. anchored his fleet in the beautiful bay since known as the Bay of Vera Cruz. Previous to this -- in the year 1517 -- a number of roving spirits under the command of Francisco Hernandez of Cordova, discovered the island of Cozumel and the vast promontory Yucatan. This expedition, however, meeting with many disasters, and being opposed in landing so fiercely and successfully by the natives, returned to their last conquest, the island of Cuba. Another expedition under Juan de Grijalva, sailed during the spring of 1518, following the same course to Yucatan, then north and west along the coast to the point St. Juan de Ulna, or Vera Cruz, on the coast of Mexico. Here they exchanged their glass beads for gold with the kindly disposed natives. They also obtained information of a vast empire ruled by a great monarch -- Montezuma -- whose wealth and power was fabulous. The tidings of this discovery led to the organizing of the expedition under Cortez, who hoisted his black velvet banner embroidered with gold and emblazoned with a cross, and the characteristic device: "Let us follow the cross under this sign with faith we conquer." Cortez followed the route of his predecessors. Visiting Cozumel, they found the island not very fertile and thinly inhabited, but containing large and commodious buildings of stone, cemented with mortar. Several of these buildings were spacious temples with lofty towers, all constructed of the same material. One of the greatest surprises to the adventurers was the discovery in one of the courts of a temple the same emblem as that embroidered on their banner: a massive stone cross. This cross was worshiped by the natives. The Spaniards say it was in honor of the god of rain. Historians have never properly explained how the natives of this new world obtained this emblem of Christianity. The natives also believed in original sin, which was removed by performing the baptismal rite.

Sailing from the island, the squadron crossed the narrow strait and sighted the mainland. Following the contour of the coast northward, they anchored at the mouth of the river Tabasco. Here also was found a well cultivated country with vast temples and commodious houses. Here our adventurers fought a fierce battle, during which the bullets from the guns of the invaders swept through the crowded ranks of the natives with terrible destruction, covering the ground with their slain and appalling them with the noise and flash, which they imagined to be thunder and lightning. Taking possession of the capital, Tabasco, in a lofty and massive pyramidal temple, one of the chief ornaments of the city, he erected an altar with images of the Savior and Virgin, took possession of the country in the name of the king of Spain and changed the name of Tabasco to St. Mary of Victory.

As the ships of Cortez anchored in the placid waters of the Mexican bay, they observed that the shores were covered with a wonder stricken multitude, who came eagerly to contemplate with awe the unusual spectacle, while grassy slopes, luxuriant groves, villages and rural dwellings charmed the eyes of the Spaniards. It is not necessary to relate the number of bloody battles or describe the wreck and ruin that marked the route of the Spanish army from the sea coast to Tenochtitlan (City of Mexico), they are facts well known to the general reader but a description of the principal cities, as found by the invaders is more to our purpose.

When they entered the city of Zempoalla they found the streets perfectly clean and nicely paved, while ornamental trees shaded them and spacious stone houses lined either side. They were thronged too with a busy, happy and refined people. A spacious courtyard surrounded a pyramidal temple, grand and imposing. The soil of the surrounding country was of astonishing fertility, supplying food abundantly. The Spaniards were never weary of expressing their delight while marching through this earthly Paradise two days. After leaving this city they moved through a country of luxuriant foliage, flowers and waving grain. Villages were thickly scattered around, and one of them -- Jalapa -- was filled with rural residences of the wealthy natives of surpassing magnificence.

On the fourth day of their march they arrived at Naulinco, a large and populous town, containing many massive temples. Here Cortez rested for five days, after which he continued his march, following along the banks of a broad and picturesque stream, skirted by an unbroken line of neat and populous villages. After traveling some sixty miles they entered a large town called Xalacingo. They were now on the borders of a very powerful nation of republicans, called the Tlascalans, who had thus far succeeded in resisting the aggressions of the Aztecs. The entrance to this territory was guarded with an extensive wall of solid masonry, built like the great wall of China, to protect the country from invasion. This wall was some six miles long and the only entrance gate was so constructed that a small army stationed there could make a very determined resistance. After many bloody and hard-fought battles, the Spanish adventurers entered Tlascala, the capital of the republic. Historians say it was indeed a large and magnificent city, more populous and more imposing in its architecture than the Moorish capital, Granada, in old Spain. Among the many wonderful things found, the invaders were astonished at the effective police regulations, the well-kept baths, both hot and cold, and the barber shops attached. Cortez, in his letter to the emperor, Charles of Spain, stated that so populous was Tlascala, that he presumed thirty thousand persons appeared daily in the market-place buying and selling.

Cortez remained in the conquered republic for twenty days to refresh his troops and gain all the information he possibly could respecting the Aztec empire. The Tlasalcans. hating their ancient foes, the Mexicans, forgot in a few days their own subjugation, and joined the Spaniards in their proposed expedition against Montezuma. All the forces of the republic were raised and placed at the disposal of Cortez.

About eighteen miles from Tlascala was situated the city of Cholula, the population of which at that time was over one hundred thousand. It was in Aztec or Mexican territory. Cortez found it a beautiful city, with wide, neatly arranged streets and handsome dwellings. It was a sacred city and contained many costly and grand temples; it was in this city that the great and grand pyramid of adobies or sun-burnt brick, reared its towering head. Nothing of this beautiful city now remains but the ruins of this great pyramid. A Catholic chapel now crowns the summit, and it is covered with trees and grass. Humboldt gives its dimensions as follows: base 1440 feet; present height, 177; area on the summit 45, 210 square feet. Originally, it was in four stages, and dedicated to Quetzalcotl (the fair god), of whom we shall speak in a future article. It was called in the Aztec language a Teocalli, from teo -- god, and calli -- house or houses. "God's house." By order of Cortez the inhabitants of Cholula were massacred most inhumanly, and the beautiful city was reduced by fire to a heap of ruins. Delaying for a fortnight to rest his army, he resumed his march towards the capital of the Aztec empire, sixty five miles distant, and after several days' toil they reached the heights of Ithualco and the great valley of Mexico greeted their eyes. Forests, orchards, rivers, lakes. cultivated fields, gardens and beautiful cities and towns composed the landscape. Resting upon islands in the bosom of a great lake, was the queenly city, Tenochtitlan, or Mexico. A series of smaller lakes, with innumerable towns, with lofty temples and white dwellings, fringing their margins, picturesquely reflected their forms in the crystal waters the circumference of this valley, surrounded with a line of pale blue mountains, was some two hundred miles. Over forty large cities and towns and villages without number, covered its space. The Spaniards gazed upon the scene with amazement and wonder. The indications of power and civilization were far beyond their anticipation. Resting two days at the city of Amaquemecan, where two large stone buildings were provided for their accommodation, they proceeded to Ayotzingo, their path to which place led through smiling villages, fields of maize, gardens of beautiful flowers and groves of Arcadian splendor. The city was built on wooden piles in the waters of lake Chalco. Boats of every variety of color, and graceful design, glided through the streets. One historian says, "This city was the Venice of the new world.”