Hernan Cortes, with an army of Spanish conquistadors and their Native American allies, besieged and destroyed the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1521. The city was greatly damaged during the battle, and in the aftermath of Spain’s conquest of the Aztec Empire, Tenochtitlan was ultimately razed to the ground and rebuilt as Mexico City. Bernal Díaz del Castillo, one of the conquistadors who took part in the campaign, reminisced about the original city of Tenochtitlan, writing, “today all that I then saw is overthrown and destroyed; nothing is left standing” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 87).
Once the gold-lusting Spaniards gained full control of Tenochtitlan, they were disappointed in the underwhelming amount of treasure that they found in the Aztec capital. Indeed, they tortured the captured Aztec Emperor, Cuauhtémoc (or Guatemoc), for leads on where to find hidden wealth. Cuauhtémoc and other tortured Aztec elites could do little but lead the Spaniards to personal hoards of treasure that they had buried underground or dropped into the marshy lake on which Tenochtitlan had been built. Yet, such sporadic and limited treasure troves did not provide enough loot for Hernan Cortes to divide satisfactorily among his troops.
When the Spaniards set about rebuilding Tenochtitlan as Mexico City, they unintendingly found a new source of buried treasure. The incident occurred while the Spaniards were grading and leveling the rubble at Tenochtitlan for new construction. Bernal Díaz described the scene:
“After we conquered that great and strong city and divided the ground we decided to build a church to our patron and guide St James in place of Huichilobos’ cue, and a great part of the site was taken for the purpose. When the ground was excavated to lay a foundation, gold and silver and chalchihuites, and pearls, and seed-pearls, and other precious stones were found in great quantities; and a settler in Mexico who built on another part of the site found the same” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 92).
Upon the discovery of the treasure, a court battle ensued over who should take possession of it, with the church, the crown and the local settlers all hoping to get a piece. During the legal dispute, Spanish officials also investigated the origin of the treasure by asking (or interrogating) influential Aztecs about the hoard of wealth that was found under the cue. The aforementioned Bernal Díaz wrote of this, claiming that the captured Emperor Cuauhtémoc and other Aztec elites explained “all the inhabitants of Mexico had thrown jewels and other things into the foundations, as was recorded in their pictures and records of ancient times. The treasure was therefore preserved for the building of St James’s church” (Conquest of New Spain, chapter 92).
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Representation of Tenochtitlan by Diego Rivera, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz, translated by J. M. Cohen. New York: Penguin Books, 1963.