Diego de Ordaz was a Spanish explorer and conquistador involved in several expeditions in the early 16th century. One such mission that he participated in was the famous adventure of Hernan Cortes, who entered Aztec politics like a wrecking ball in 1519. Not long before reaching Tenochtitlan (Mexico City) in November 1519, the conquistadors had seen a smoking mountain, called Popocatepetl, which remains one of Mexico’s most active volcanoes today. Hernan Cortes described the mountain and its plumes of smoke in a letter to his sovereign:
“By night as well as by day, a volume of smoke arises, equal in bulk to a spacious house; it ascends above the mountain to the clouds as straight as an arrow, and with such force, that although a very strong wind is always blowing on the mountain, it does not turn the smoke from its course” (Cortes’ Second Letter to Charles V, chapter 4, dated October 30, 1520).
The Spaniards were all reportedly intrigued about the volcano, but it was Diego de Ordaz whose curiosity was most stoked. He asked Cortes for permission to climb up to the smoky summit, which was granted, and set off toward Popocatepetl with two fellow Spaniards and a number of native allies. All of the natives who traveled with him reportedly refused to climb all the way up to the top of Popocatepetl, so Diego and his two companions had to make the final climb on their own. It must have been an intimidating experience, for the volcano was particularly active that day. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, another member of Hernan Cortes’ expedition, wrote, “Since settling in this country we have never seen the volcano belch so much fire as on that first occasion, nor heard it make so much noise” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 78). At one point during their ascent, a violent outburst of flame, stones and ash from the summit forced Diego de Ordaz and his comrades to seek shelter for over an hour. Nevertheless, when the eruption died down again, the Spaniards continued their climb and were able to peek into the volcano’s crater, with Diego de Ordaz, of course, taking the first look.
As the first Spaniard to climb Popocatepetl, Diego de Ordaz became a celebrated figure not only to his fellow countrymen, but also apparently to the natives in the region who heard of his feat. After Hernan Cortes’ conquest of Tenochtitlan in 1521, Diego de Ordaz returned to Spain, where he hoped to convert his volcanic tale into a tangible symbol of nobility. Bernal Díaz del Castillo commented on Diego’s success in this matter, stating, “When Diego de Ordaz went to Castile he asked His Majesty to grant him the volcano as his coat-of-arms, which his nephew, who lives at Puebla, now bears” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 78). After receiving his volcano-emblazed heraldry, Diego de Ordaz returned to the New World to continue his exploration of Central and South America. He died in 1532, while exploring around Venezuela.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (17th- century depiction of Diego de Ordaz and a photograph of Popocatepetl, both [Public Domain] via pixabay.com and Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.