Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica

Indian Conquistadors: Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica

by Laura E. Matthew, Michel R. Oudijk

NOOK Book(eBook)

$20.49 $26.95 Save 24% Current price is $20.49, Original price is $26.95. You Save 24%.

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


The conquest of the New World would hardly have been possible if the invading Spaniards had not allied themselves with the indigenous population. This book takes into account the role of native peoples as active agents in the Conquest through a review of new sources and more careful analysis of known but under-studied materials that demonstrate the overwhelming importance of native allies in both conquest and colonial control.

In Indian Conquistadors, leading scholars offer the most comprehensive look to date at native participation in the conquest of Mesoamerica. The contributors examine pictorial, archaeological, and documentary evidence spanning three centuries, including little-known eyewitness accounts from both Spanish and native documents, paintings (lienzos) and maps (mapas) from the colonial period, and a new assessment of imperialism in the region before the Spanish arrival.

This new research shows that the Tlaxcalans, the most famous allies of the Spanish, were far from alone. Not only did native lords throughout Mesoamerica supply arms, troops, and tactical guidance, but tens of thousands of warriors—Nahuas, Mixtecs, Zapotecs, Mayas, and others—spread throughout the region to participate with the Spanish in a common cause.

By offering a more balanced account of this dramatic period, this book calls into question traditional narratives that emphasize indigenous peoples’ roles as auxiliaries rather than as conquistadors in their own right. Enhanced with twelve maps and more than forty illustrations, Indian Conquistadors opens a vital new line of research and challenges our understanding of this important era.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806188249
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 02/13/2014
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 56 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Laura E. Matthew is Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University, Milwaukee.

Michel R. Oudijk is a Researcher at the Institute of Philological Investigations, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico City, D.F.

Read an Excerpt

Indian Conquistadors

Indigenous Allies in the Conquest of Mesoamerica

By Laura E. Matthew, Michel R. Oudijk


Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-8824-9




Y en esto que escribe es por sublimar a Cortés y abatir a nosotros los que con él pasamos, y sepan que hemos tenido por cierto los conquistadores verdaderos que esto vemos escrito, ... porque en todas las batallas o reencuentros éramos los que sosteníamos a Cortés, y ahora nos aniquila en lo que dice este coronista.

[And it seems to me now that he [Francisco López de Gómara] wrote this in order to raise up [Hernando] Cortés and knock down those of us who were with him, seeing as we have been taken as surely being the true conquistadors, ... for in all the battles it was us who sustained Cortés, and now he obliterates us in what he writes this chronicler.]


In the seventh painting of the Kislak Conquest of Mexico series, created around the 1680s, the fall of Tenochtitlan is depicted as an epic battle between Spanish troops and Mexica defenders (see fig. 1.1). Titled Conqvista de México por Cortés, the image promotes the roles of the Spanish leader and his principal captains (three of whom are named in the key), emphasizes the military prowess of the conquerors, eclipses the presence of black soldiers completely, and marginalizes the part played by the Tlaxcalteca and other native allies of the invaders. The Tlaxcalteca are not omitted altogether from the picture, but they are shown as merely bringing up the rearguard (dressed in white, on the causeways at the top or in the background of the painting), arriving behind the Spaniards, when most, if not all, the fighting had been done (Pedro de Alvarado has already "raised His Majesty's flag" atop "the pyramid of Guichilobos").

The Kislak series most immediately reflects (and may have been directly influenced by) the interpretations and emphases of the Historia de la conquista de México published by Antonio de Solís y Rivadeneira in 1684. Solís's account, however, drew upon earlier narratives, and in a larger sense both the Solís text and the Kislak images represent a perspective on the conquests of Mexico and Peru that was rooted in the accounts of the Spanish invaders themselves, reinforced during the centuries of colonial rule, reified by William Prescott's nineteenth-century epics (still in print), and perpetuated in various ways through the twentieth century. This perspective tends to begin by posing the question, How were such amazing feats possible?

The question has been repeated by chroniclers and historians from the early sixteenth century to the present. It has functioned well as an irresistible hook that pulls the reader into the story while at the same time setting up that story as an elaborate answer or explanation for the conquest. That explanation (with respect primarily to central Mexico but to some extent to Mesoamerica) has variously stressed the genius of Hernando Cortés, the superiority of Spanish military resources, the providential intervention of God, the political and moral decadence of the Mexica empire at the time of the invasion, the structural weakness of that empire and the disunity of Mesoamerican peoples, the impact of epidemic disease, and the failings of Moctezuma and his alleged belief that Cortés was the returning deity of Quetzalcoatl. Not surprisingly, in the twentieth century religious explanations (the conquest as miracle) faded in popularity in favor of more secular ones (relative military technologies), while an emphasis on "great men" was largely replaced by one on structures and patterns. For example, in the recent Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest, Matthew Restall argues that Spanish conquests in the Americas can mostly be explained by a combination of three factors working together—epidemic disease, native disunity or micropatriotism, and metal weapons (but not necessarily guns and horses).

The traditional conquistador-based view of the conquest is not as entrenched as it once was. On the one hand, Seven Myths of the Spanish Conquest presented these "myths" (meaning misconceptions and well-entrenched erroneous perceptions) as so deeply rooted as to persist in some form or another to this day. On the other hand, that book was also made possible by increasing numbers of revisionist voices and presentations of myth-debunking evidence—a development notably reflected in the present volume. Indeed, the aspect of the revisionist view of the conquest that has arguably become most widely known and accepted is the existence of native allies. The most obvious example is the undisputed fact that Tlaxcala provided large numbers of warriors to assist the Spaniards in their siege and destruction of Tenochtitlan; in fact, this is no longer a revisionist observation at all, as no historian today would argue that the marginalization of Tlaxcalteca in the Kislak paintings accurately reflects their role in the destruction of the Mexica empire. However, what is far less well known is the full extent and nature of native support and influence during the decades of Spanish military activity in Mesoamerica, beginning in 1519 and stretching through the sixteenth century.

In this chapter, we will discuss native roles in four categories, moving from the better known toward a more novel suggestion regarding conquest patterns and possibilities. These four categories are, first, the numbers of native auxiliaries; second, the ubiquity of native allies beyond the best-known examples from the Spanish-Mexica war of 1519–21; third, the crucial role of noncombatant auxiliaries, such as guides, spies, interpreters, porters, cooks, and so on; and fourth, the possibility that the Spanish conquest imitated preconquest patterns of imperial expansion in Mesoamerica, so that it became modeled to some extent on the conquests that created the Mexica empire. Our sources are a combination of secondary sources and primary archival ones, mostly petitions sent to Spain by sixteenth-century Mesoamerican conquistadors.


E vio que al tiempo que vinieron a ayudar a la conquista della mucha cantidad de yndios amigos naturales de taxcala e mexicanos y naturales de chulula e çapotecas e mistecas e yopes e de guacachula todos amygos de los españoles los quales despues de venidos a esta tierra bio este testigo que en serviçio de dios nuestro señor y de su mag[estad] se hallaron en todas las vatallas e rrecuentros ... y servieron muy bien con sus personas e armas padesçiendo mucho cansançio e hanbres e nesçeçidades y muchas heridas muchos años hasta que se conquisto e paçifico la tierra y se puso so el dominio de su mag[estad].

[And he saw that at that time there came to help in the conquest a great quantity of Indian friends, natives of Tlaxcala, and Mexicans and natives of Cholula and Zapoteca and Mixteca and Yope and from Cuauhquecholan, all friends of the Spaniards, who after coming to this land—this witness saw—in the service of God our Lord and of Your Majesty, were at all the battles and encounters ... and served very well with their persons and their arms, suffering much exhaustion and hunger and deprivation and many wounds over many years until the land was conquered and pacified and placed under the dominion of Your Majesty.


In styling the Spanish-Mexica war as "The Conquest of Mexico" or "The Spanish Conquest," albeit one made possible by native "allies" or with native "assistance," one runs the risk of recasting the war with native allies still in a supporting role. Such language cannot be avoided altogether. Nor should the role of the Spaniards as initiators and ultimate beneficiaries of the war be forgotten. Yet a highlighting of the demographic balance within allied forces—the sheer numbers of native warriors fighting against the Mexica in 1519–21 and against other polities in subsequent years—helps to illuminate the important ways in which the nominal subordination of native forces to Spanish leadership was tempered by the utter dependence of Spaniards on the native warriors who consistently outnumbered them.

Even before the Spanish-Mexica war had begun, when the invaders were still in the Cempoala region, Cortés and his company were outnumbered five to one by an allied native force of two thousand soldiers. From this point on, the ratio became more and more profound, as rulers of towns through which the Spanish-native caravan—whom we shall call "the allies"—would pass donated soldiers to take part in the campaign. The calculation of numbers is admittedly an imprecise science, as total numbers are seldom given, and Spanish accounts often omit mention of native allies. For example, in his first letter to Cortés during his campaign in Guatemala, Pedro de Alvarado makes no mention of the Mexica, Tlaxcalteca, and other natives accompanying him. Yet we know from many other sources that they existed, and in his second letter Alvarado lets slip, in parentheses, that his forces comprised 250 Spaniards "and about five or six thousand friendly Indians."

Calculations of numbers are also complicated by the fact that armies are often described in terms of captains. Thus Cempoala gave forty captains, while Xalacingo gave twenty. Evidence from Alvarado's Guatemala campaign suggests that these captains were in charge of units that the Spaniards termed cuadrillas, squadrons that consisted of people from the community (or barrio within a town) of origin of each particular captain. Such cuadrillas consisted of either two hundred or four hundred soldiers, which means that calculations of total warriors can be off by a factor of two. Nevertheless, even if we take the lower figure of two hundred to a cuadrilla, Cempoala's contribution to the allies was an impressive eight thousand men. Furthermore, these numbers were dwarfed by Tlaxcala's contribution, once that city entered the new alliance. According to Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Xicotencatl, the principal ruler of Tlaxcala, insisted that ten thousand soldiers should accompany the Spaniards to Cholula. Later, during the siege of Tenochtitlan, the number of Spaniards had grown to some five hundred men, while at least twenty-four thousand indigenous allies took part. These numbers could have been higher still; there are references to as many as forty thousand indigenous soldiers taking part in a campaign to Iztapalapa.

Armies of "Indian friends" were less likely to number in the tens of thousands after 1521, due to the death toll of the Spanish-Mexica war and the impact of waves of epidemic disease beginning in 1520. But it was still common for Spaniards embarking on campaigns throughout Mesoamerica to be accompanied by thousands of Nahua from central Mexico and other native warriors. As the next section briefly discusses (and subsequent chapters in this volume demonstrate in detail), this was true for decades— through the founding of a Spanish colony in Yucatan in the early 1540s.


E despues de conquistada e ganada esta tierra los d[ic]hos yndios conquistadores de la nueva españa muchos dellos se quedaron poblados en la çiudad bieja de almolonga ques çerca de guatimala donde agora estan y biven ellos e sus hijos y desçendientes y asimismo este testigo sabe e bio que muchos españoles capitanes salieron desta çiudad de guatimala con mucha gente a conquistar e poblar las provinçias de cuzcatlan que agora se llama entre españoles san salvador e la provinçia de honduras e la provinçia de la verapaz e la de chiapa con los quales d[ic]hos capitanes este testigo vio que ffueron muchos yndios de los d[ic]hos conquistadores mexicanos y taxcaltecas e çapotecas e chulutecas e mistecas e otras naçiones.

[And these Indian conquistadors of New Spain, having conquered and won this land, stayed in large numbers to settle the old city of Almolonga, which is near to Guatemala [Antigua]; where they and their children and descendents now are and live and ... many Spanish captains went out from this city of Guatemala with many people to conquer and settle the provinces of Cuzcatlan, which the Spaniards now call San Salvador, and the province of Honduras and the province of Verapaz and that of Chiapa; and this witness saw that with those captains went many Indians from among those Mexica, Tlaxcalteca, Zapoteca, Cholulteca, and Mixteca conquistadors, and those of other nations.]


The high numbers cited in some sources on the Spanish-Mexica war of 1519–21 also crop up regularly in the many indigenous requests and claims that were sent to the Audiencia Real and to the emperor during the sixteenth century—petitions relating in part to 1519–21 but primarily to the decades of conquest wars that followed the fall of Tenochtitlan. All Spaniards participating in the process of exploration, discovery, conquest, and colonization in the Americas were required to submit reports to royal officials—addressed directly to the king—detailing what they had found and done. These reports sometimes took the form of cartas (letters), relaciones (accounts), or other related genres, but most commonly they conformed to the genre of the probanza de mérito (proof of merit). The rewarding of titles of office and other benefits of conquest was contingent upon the submission of these reports, but they were also the principal means whereby any participant in any Spanish conquest might acquire (or have restored) official reward, privilege, or benefit. Thus while most probanzas were submitted by Spaniards and requested the granting of pensions, encomiendas, and offices of colonial rule, black conquistadors also petitioned for such rewards as royal pensions, tribute exemption, and the right to a house-plot in the traza, or central zone, of a colonial city.

Likewise, native elites or entire native communities (represented by their municipal councils or cabildos) also submitted petitions, whose style and form tended to be a hybrid blend of the Spanish probanza and the Mesoamerican petition. In particular during the second half of the sixteenth century, various indigenous groups sent letters claiming rights and privileges based on their participation in the conquest. In addition to styling themselves as conquistadors, these native petitioners often cited the numbers of people that were involved in conquest campaigns. Although such numbers may have been exaggerated for obvious reasons, when compared to the numbers given in Spanish sources they give us a good sense of how many indigenous troops actually took part in certain campaigns. A document from Xochimilco, for example, claims that twelve thousand Xochimilca took part in the siege of Tenochtitlan and that another twenty-five hundred accompanied Pedro de Alvarado to Guatemala and Honduras. A 1547 letter from Tlaxcala refers to a thousand men going on this same Guatemalan campaign, but in a 1567 letter a number of twenty thousand Tlaxcalteca is given for all the soldiers provided by Tlaxcala for Spanish conquests throughout Mesoamerica. Don Juan Cortés, the indigenous ruler of Tehuantepec, supposedly sent two thousand men with Pedro de Alvarado for the conquest of Chiapas and Guatemala, while Pedro Gonzalez Nájera, a Spanish resident of Guatemala City and conquistador of the region, claims that seven thousand indigenous allies took part in the conquests. Finally, Jorge de Alvarado brought some five to six thousand native auxiliaries to Guatemala in 1527.

Mesoamerican conquistadors spoke of the sufferings of war as much as their Spanish counterparts did, and the casualties of some of these campaigns seem to support assertions that victories often came at heavy native costs. On one expedition to San Salvador, for example, a campaign lasting about one hundred days, 300 indigenous soldiers left, but only 140 came back. Other testimonies of the campaigns to southern Mesoamerica are vague as to the number of people that died, but all agree that many did. On some expeditions, survivors settled as colonists; for example, in a letter to the king the authorities of Xochimilco claim that more than 1,100 warriors left on campaigns to Panuco, Guatemala, Honduras, and Jalisco, but not a single one of these men came back.

There is some evidence that the indigenous contribution went much further than cooperation and alliance. In 1584 Don Joachin de San Francisco, cacique of Tepexi de la Seda in present-day Puebla, demanded to be exempted from paying tribute due to the merits and services of his grandfather, Don Gonzalo Matzatzin Moctezuma. In an astonishing testimony, backed-up by the statement of some thirty witnesses, Don Joachin claimed that when Hernando Cortés was in Tlaxcala his grandfather had sent ambassadors with rich gifts in order to vow loyalty to the new emperor. Such a ceremony was repeated much later (after the so-called Noche Triste) when Cortés and his troops had conquered Tepeaca (from where Cortés had come to Tepexi). On this occasion Matzatzin received a lance and sword, and he agreed to conquer the "province of the Mixteca and Oaxaca" for which he received in the name of the king of Spain the title of captain. While Cortés returned to the north on his way to reconquer and punish Tenochtitlan for its uprising, Matzatzin turned south and-before the Mexica capital itself had finally fallen-conquered as many as twenty towns in the Mixteca Baja and Alta.


Excerpted from Indian Conquistadors by Laura E. Matthew, Michel R. Oudijk. Copyright © 2007 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Figures,
List of Maps,
List of Tables,
Introduction: The Genre of Conquest Studies Susan Schroeder,
Chapter 1. Mesoamerican Conquistadors in the Sixteenth Century Michel R. Oudijk and Matthew Restall,
Chapter 2. The Conquest in Images: Stories of Tlaxcalteca and Quauhquecholteca Conquistadors Florine G. L. Asselbergs,
Chapter 3. Whose Conquest? Nahua, Zapoteca, and Mixteca Allies in the Conquest of Central America Laura E. Matthew,
Chapter 4. Concubines and Wives: Reinterpreting Native-Spanish Intimate Unions in Sixteenth-Century Guatemala Robinson A. Herrera,
Chapter 5. Conquest, Coercion, and Collaboration: Indian Allies and the Campaigns in Nueva Galicia Ida Altman,
Chapter 6. Forgotten Allies: The Origins and Roles of Native Mesoamerican Auxiliaries and Indios Conquistadores in the Conquest of Yucatan, 1526–1550 John F. Chuchiak IV,
Chapter 7. The Indios Conquistadores of Oaxaca's Sierra Norte: From Indian Conquerors to Local Indians Yanna Yannakakis,
Chapter 8. Nahua Christian Warriors in the Mapa de Cuauhtlantzinco, Cholula Parish Stephanie Wood,
Chapter 9. "By the Force of Their Lives and the Spilling of Blood": Flechero Service and Political Leverage on a Nueva Galicia Frontier Bret Blosser,
Conclusion Laura E. Matthew and Michel R. Oudijk,
List of Contributors,

Customer Reviews