5 Amazing Facts About the Conquistadors

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In their day, they were heroes. In retrospect, they were kind of a bunch of jerks. Brave, adventurous and accomplished, yes, but still jerks. We’re talking about the conquistadors of Spain, Portugal and Italy, who traversed the seas in the 15th and 16th centuries, searching for new lands, treasures and people on whom they could either force their religion or kill. Or sometimes both! We know plenty about Cortes’ expedition that led to the fall of the Aztecs Empire, Ponce de Leon’s fruitless search for the fabled Fountain of Youth, and other such famed accounts. But many lesser-known facts about the conquistadors are equally as noteworthy, and often more telling.

5 Cortes Had Backup

Hernan Cortes and his ragtag bunch of men could never have defeated the Aztec empire without some pretty serious help from an unlikely group: a tribe of natives. The Tlaxcalan Indians allied themselves with the Spanish and helped overthrow the Aztec empire, for which they were rewarded with independence for the next 300 years.

4 The Seven Cities of … Nothing

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Francisco Vázquez de Coronado may have led multiple expeditions across thousands of miles of the future U.S. and Mexico, and he may have killed thousands of natives, and his men may have been the first Europeans to see the Grand Canyon, but find gold, he did not. Coronado crisscrossed the Southwest and as far north as Kansas in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Gold, but all he ever found were adobe villages, teepees and tribes of people, many of whom he killed.

3 The Legend of the Man Seeking the Legend

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We all know that Ponce de Leon set out on an epic expedition in search of the fabled Fountain of Youth, traversing much of what would become Florida in the process. One man who did not know about this expedition? Ponce de Leon. His association with the Fountain of Youth did not begin until after his death, when others began to ascribe the search for the fabled fountain to the deceased explorer. Ol’ Ponce was mostly looking for riches, just like the rest of them.

2 Cortes’ Conquest of Mexico Wasn’t Supposed to Happen

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The story of Hernan Cortes’ dramatic overthrow of the emperor Montezuma and the subsequent conquest of the Aztec Empire are the stuff of historical epic. But Cortes wasn’t even supposed to be in Mexico at all: he led his expedition illegally! Cortes had been assigned to head an expedition of conquest into the Mexican interior by the governor of Cuba, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, but due to personal grievances between the two men, Velázquez decided to cancel the expedition shortly before it set sail. Being the kind of guy he was, Cortes decided to ignore this decision and went ahead and conquered the Aztecs anyway.

1 The Rare Sighting of Human Decency

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The Spanish explorer Cabeza de Vaca not only had an amazing name (that means “Head of Cow”), but he also pulled off the amazing feat of treating natives with kindness and respect. After an ill-fated expedition in the year 1527, Cabeza de Vaca was taken prisoner by an indigenous tribe living on what is now Galveston Island, TX. He escaped captivity and spent the next eight years wandering through the Southwest and Northern Mexico, eventually amassing a following of nearly 700 natives from multiple tribes. Why did they follow him? Because he treated all with respect and gentleness, uniting disparate tribes and races. That all ended in a hurry when the group ran into Spanish soldiers in 1536, though.

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