History Files

The Americas

Central American Native Kingdoms


FeatureTenochtitlan / Emperors of the Aztecs / Mexica (Mesoamerica)

The peopling of the Americas remains a complicated subject, and one which is open to a great deal of debate. While earlier migrations are especially debated, it is generally accepted that there was a broad phase of migration (involving several individual waves of migration) into the 'New World' of the Americas between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago. These first arrivals made the most of the Bering land bridge that joined Asia to North America during the most recent ice age. Others may have followed the coastline in canoes, moving much more quickly than they would on foot. Over thousands of years these new arrivals filtered eastwards and southwards to produce the Native American civilisations that are known to archaeology and history. Elements of modern native American society prefer to propose that they have always been living in the New World and that a migration simply did not take place, despite overwhelming evidence which places human evolution firmly in Africa.

The Aztec people were formed of several ethnic groups which occupied central Mexico. Predominantly this included groups which spoke the Nahuatl language and it was they who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica from the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries AD. The name itself, 'aztec', means 'people from Aztlan', a mythological location for the region's Nahuatl-speaking culture, but it was this which was later adopted to define the Mexica people. From the thirteenth century, the Valley of Mexico was at the heart of Aztec civilisation, and it was here that the powerful city of Tenochtitlan was constructed upon raised islets in Lake Texcoco.

Tenochtitlan was an important city for the Aztecs, or Mexica. It was founded about 1325 by Tenoch, a respected chief of the early Aztecs during their migration from Aztlan. This was the ancestral (and possibly legendary) homeland of the Aztecs (or Nahua peoples), and is yet to be identified by archaeologists. An acceptable location would be in modern California. The migration towards the extensively populated Valley of Mexico in the south began on 24 May 1064. This was the start of the first Aztec solar year, but it also coincides with a period of severe drought which has been recorded in relation to the Mayans, possibly also serving as a trigger for the Aztec migration. That migration also took place about a century and-a-half after their Nahuatl-speaking cousins, the Toltecs, had already founded their own empire in the same region. The seven tribes of the Nahua were the Acolhua, Chalca, Mexica, Tepaneca, Tlahuica, Tlaxcalan, and Xochimilca, and each of them was supposedly responsible for founding an Aztec city state, most notably Matlatzinca and Tepanec.

The 'tlatoani' (or 'speakers') of the Aztecs were its kings. Tenochtitlan sought to cement its own position by electing Acamapichtli, one of the Culhua who successfully fought off Aztec takeover attempts. Although the city was for a time a vassal, it prospered and managed to increase the size of its island location on the western shore of Lake Texcoco by adding extra soil to the east and by capturing lakeshore chinampas from other cities. Some lists increase the length of reign for Tenoch by four years, decreasing Huitzilihuitl's by three, and Chimalpopoca's by one. Scholars are uncertain whether Tenoch himself is real or mythological.

(Original list by Luiz Gustavo. Additional information from Codex Chimalpahin Vol 1: Society and Politics in Mexico Tenochtitlan, Tlatelolco, Texcoco, Culhuacan, and Other Nahua Altepetl in Central Mexico, concerning the writings of seventeenth century Nahua historian Chimalpahin Cuauhtlehuanitzin, otherwise known as Don Domingo Francisco de Antón Muñón, (Eds) Arthur J O Anderson, Susan Schroeder, & Wayne Ruwet (1997), from An Analytical Dictionary of Nahuatl, Frances E Karttunen, and from External Link: The political collapse of Chichén Itzá in climatic and cultural context (Science Direct).)

11th century

Phase V of Zapotec civilisation sees the arrival of the Mixtec, who occupy some former Zapotec sites. Researchers have noticed a slump in construction at numerous sites across the northern territory of the Mayans in the Yucatan which takes place against a backdrop of severe drought. But this drought is far more severe - the worst drought that the region has seen for fully two thousand years - a so-called megadrought. It is entirely possible that the more northerly regions of Mesoamerica are similarly affected, triggering migrations which could include the Chichimec, Mixtec, and early Aztecs, and causing the sudden crash of an establishing farming-based society like that of the Toltecs.

However, despite the Zapotec decline, they are still capable of fighting to defend their land, and the period is marked by incessant warfare between them and the Mixtec. Zapotec society is rebuilt to an extent, and both peoples also come into conflict with the growing power of the Aztecs to the north.


Around this time the Toltec empire undergoes a sudden and violent collapse. This is possibly due to a long period of drought which induces large population movements, most notably by nomadic Chichimec groups which largely occupy northern territories in Mexico and Texas. The changes bring disruption to the region. Researchers have noticed a slump in construction at numerous sites across the northern territory of the Mayans in the Yucatan which takes place against a backdrop of severe drought. But the drought here is far more severe than usual - the worst drought that the region has seen for fully two thousand years - a so-called megadrought.

It is entirely possible that the more northerly regions of Mesoamerica are similarly affected, triggering migrations which could include the Chichimec, Mixtec, and early Aztecs, and causing the sudden crash of an establishing farming-based society like that of the Toltecs. Pressure from arriving Aztecs could also serve as a further trigger point for Chichimec movement, since the Aztec are clearly superior in warfare and perhaps more numerous too.

c.1250 - 1300

Various tribes have been migrating towards the prosperous and flourishing Valley of Mexico. One of them is that of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica, and they are initially allowed to settle within the territory of Culhuacan. Keen to intermarry into surviving Toltec royalty and nobility and claim the honour of Toltec descent, four of these peoples influence the rise of the Aztec empire, the Chichimecs, the Tepanecs, the Acolhua, and the Mexica themselves. Although they are largely forced to be subservient thanks to their raids on other settlements for women, they generally live in peace. In time they are forced to found their own settlement (around 1325), which becomes the city of Tenochtitlan.

1325 - 1372

Tenoch / Tenuch

Founder of the city.

1372 - 1391


Elected founder of royal line. 'Reed Fist'.


Acamapichtli is the son of Atotoztli of Culhuacan, and is a direct descendant of the Toltecs. In the same year that the city of Tlatelolco gains an outsider as king, he is offered the throne of Tenochtitlan in an attempt to secure the city's position. However, during his reign, Tenochtitlan falls under the suzerainty of Azcapotzalco, the major regional power at the time. The city still thrives, building the earliest level of the Great Pyramid (Temple II).


Tezozomoctli of Azcapotzalco attacks Culhuacan with a large body of troops, mostly Mexica, and subjugates the city.

1391 - 1416


Son. 'Hummingbird Feather'.

The eldest son of Acamapichtli, Huitzilihuitl proves to be a good politician. He cements alliances with other cities, and marries the daughter of the ruler of Azcapotzalco, obtaining a reduction in tribute payments to that powerful ruler. He joins his father-in-law in attacking other Aztec cities, including Acolman, Chalco, Cuauhtitlan, Cuitlahuac (in 1403), Mixquic (also in 1403), Otompa, Tetzcoco, Tollantzingo, Tultitlan, and Xaltocan, sacking and conquering most of them. Cuauhnahuac is taken in 1396 and the ruler's daughter taken in marriage. The offspring from this union is the later emperor, Moctezuma I. Credit for this conquest is sometimes given to Acamapichtli (which is plausible) but is also claimed by later emperors (probably for reasons of aggrandisement - although in defence of Itzcoatl, one of his subject lords does have to reconquer the city in 1433).

Artist's recreation of Tenochtitlan
This is an artist's impression of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan at the height of its glory and power, shortly before the arrival of the Spanish quickly put an end to it

1416 - 1427


Son (or brother). 'Smokes like a Shield'.

Chimalpopoca's son is Ixtlilxochitl, the ruler of Tetzcoco. Tenochtitlan is still tributary to Azcapotzalco and a reward for its faithfulness is being granted the conquered Texcoco as a tributary in 1418. Chimalpopoca is attributed with the conquest of Tequizquiac, and the ruler also constructs a wooden aqueduct and a causeway to Tlacopan. When Tayatzin succeeds to the throne of Azcapotzalco, Maxtla of Tepanec soon incites a rebellion among Azcapotzalco's nobles and usurps the throne. Chimalpopoca allies himself with Tayatzin, and the two conspire to retake the throne and kill Maxtla, unsuccessfully in the end. Chimalpopoca offers himself as a sacrifice but is captured by Maxtla and imprisoned, where he commits suicide.

1427 - 1440


Son of Acamapichtli. 'Obsidian Serpent'.


The kings of Tenochtitlan are crowned in accompaniment with the subjugated Tetzcoco and the ruler of Tlacopan, members of the Triple Alliance which forms the Aztec empire. As primary leader of the alliance, Itzcoatl lays the foundations for the Aztec empire with victories over the Tepanec and their subject cities of Coyoacan and Azcapotzalco (1428, presumably along with Atlacuihuayan), Xochimilco (1430), Mixquic (1432), and Cuitlahuac (1433), and he also defeats Culhuacan, and Tezompa, securing agricultural resources and cementing the Triple Alliance's control of the southern half of the Valley of Mexico.

Other cities have either already joined the alliance through marriage - including Itztapalapan - or treaty, or they now quickly do so. As an early member of the alliance, governance of Itztapalapan is passed more diplomatically to the new Aztec social elite. It is formed into a union of four city states which also includes Culhuacan, Huitzilopochco, and Mexicaltzingo, and which is governed more remotely by Tenochtitlan. Later in his reign, Itzcoatl places his son, Huehua Cuitlahuatzin in command of Itztapalapan and in return the city has no taxes to pay.


Miquiuix of Cuauhnahuac rebels against Tenochtitlan, but is quickly subdued by Netzahualcoyotl of Tetzcoco on behalf of the Aztec emperor.

1440 - 1468

Moctezuma I Ilhuicamina ('Montezuma')

Son of Huitzilihuitl. 'Frowned like a lord, pierces sky with arrow'.

The empire is strengthened under Itzcoatl's successor, his nephew Moctezuma of Cuauhnahuac, with Tenochtitlan becoming the dominant member of the Triple Alliance. Moctezuma extends the alliance's borders to include the Huastec and Totonac peoples on the Gulf Coast and a garrison is installed in the Zapotec city of Mitla.


Forces from Tenochtitlan and Tetzcoco embark on a campaign that will expand the boundaries of Aztec territory dramatically. Their first major gain is the reconquest of Cuauhnahuac. The army goes further, into Mixtec territory, to defeat the city of Coixtlahuaca, killing the Mixtec ruler in the process. Tribute is paid to Tenochtitlan.

1466 - 1472

Atotoztli / Huitzilxochtzin

Dau. 'Queen of Tenochtitlan'.

1466 - 1472

Some sources indicate that Atotoztli may act as ruler during a six-year gap between the reigns of Moctezuma and Axayacatl. This possibility is raised by the document Los Anales de Tula. The Relación de la Genealogía goes further, claiming that Atotoztli actually rules for more than thirty years. She remains undocumented by Aztec scribes who are not used to having a woman in charge. Instead, they fill the gap either by extending the reign of Moctezuma beyond his death, or by pushing back the beginning of Axayacatl's reign to a date before his actual inauguration.

1468 - 1481


Brother. 'Water Mask'.


Tenochtitlan's sister city, Tlatelolco, is subjugated by Axayacatl, and he places a military governor in charge there.

1481 - 1486

Tizoc / Tizocicatzin

Brother. 'He has bled People'. Poisoned or died of illness.

Tizoc is credited with conquering the altepetl or ruling bodies of Atezcahuacan, Cillan, Ecatepec, Ecatliquapechco, Mazatlan, Miquetlan, Tamapachco, Tecaxic, Tlappan, Tolocan, Tonalimoquetzayan, Toxico, Xochiyetla, and Yancuitlan. The Nahuatl word altepetl is usually translated into English as 'city state'.

1486 - 1502


Brother. 'Otter'. Also directly ruled Cuauhnahuac until c.1490.

FeatureAhuitzotl is an empire builder, and the last before the arrival of the Spanish. He more than doubles the size of the Aztec empire. His efforts include putting down a rebellion by the Huastec people, and conquering the Mixtec (1494) and Zapotec peoples (plus many others) from the Pacific coast down to the western part of Guatemala. He also grandly rebuilds Tenochtitlan after it has been seriously flooded by Lake Tenochtitlan.


Christopher Columbus first reaches the Americas on 12 October in a three-ship expedition from Spain. He is initially credited with being the first European to reach the Americas, although he uses a route of which sailors have been aware for at least a generation.

By 5 December, Columbus arrives at western Hispaniola, where he founds the Spanish Colony of La Navidad. Then he sails to eastern Cuba.

1502 - 1520

Moctezuma II Xocoyotzin

Son of Axayacatl. 'He frowned like a Lord, the Younger'.


The Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and his second-in-command, Pedro de Alvarado, arrive at Tenochtitlan from Cuba. Moctezuma welcomes Cortes, thinking he is the legendary god-king, Quetzalcoatl, returned to claim his kingdom as he had prophesied. Some of his men claim that the city of Moctezuma (Montezuma) is one of the largest in the world, comparable to Paris and Venice.

Alvarado orders the 'Massacre of the Great Temple', finally spurring the Aztecs into resisting them. Moctezuma is killed during the breakout from the city by Cortes and his men.


Cuitalahuac II

Bro. 'Excrement Owner'. Ruler of Itztapalapan. Lasted 80 days.


Despite being captured initially, Cuitalahuac is freed and leads his people to drive the Spanish out of the city on 30 June. He is joined by other Aztec leaders in Tenochtitlan but, sensing the tide of battle turning against the Aztecs, the people of the city states of Xochimilca and Cuitlahuac turn against the Aztecs and take the opportunity to loot.

The Aztecs attack them and capture many of the rebels. These prisoners are taken before Cuauhtemoc of Xochimilca and Mayehua of Cuitlahuac, both of whom are still at Tenochtitlan. Each chooses four of the rebel leaders to be executed.

Other Aztec-dominated cities are also expressing anti-Aztec sentiments, demonstrating the fact that the empire is losing control of its subjects in the chaos of the war. Unfortunately, Emperor Cuitalahuac is claimed by smallpox, introduced by the Spanish into the Americas.

Between thirty to forty per cent of the population is killed alongside him, drastically weakening the Aztec defensive efforts and making their final stand seem all the more heroic.

1520 - 1521


Brother. 'Descends like an Eagle'.


Following a siege which destroys much of the city, Tenochtitlan is defeated by Spain on 13 August, and is drawn into the Spanish Colonies. This defeat marks the end of Aztec civilisation.

The city is ordered to be rebuilt by Cortes, with the natives banished to its outer areas. Much of the Aztec city is eventually built over and lost under Mexico City (so named because it had also been the capital of the Mexica, the name by which the Aztecs had been contemporarily known. Some of it has since been rediscovered and saved for posterity).

Colonial Rulers of Mexico City (Aztec Tenochtitlan)

Following Cortes' destruction of the Aztec empire, a series of Latinised members of the previous ruling elite were appointed to govern the outer sections of the city, now renamed San Juan Tenochtitlan. The city was divided into the same subdivisions as previously, but now excluded the Spanish central area.

The first two rulers were selected by Hernan Cortes himself, while he governed Mexico within the greater Spanish Colonies and began the process of establishing what would eventually become New Spain in the Americas. The first four rulers were termed 'Indian ruler and governor' of the city, while subsequent, non-dynastic governors were referred to more simply as judge governor.

The Spanish did not have it entirely their way during the initial conquest of the Aztec empire. It was Cortes who recorded the capture by natives of a Spanish convoy in 1520. Only a few tens of kilometres from the relative safety of the Spanish army, the convoy of conquistadors and allies encountered a local people known as the Acolhuas, allies of Tetzcoco. Somehow, the caravan was captured and its European and indigenous members were imprisoned and cannibalised over the course of six months or so. Other horror stories also exist, mostly from the European perspective of events.

(Additional information from Discovering the Chichimeca, Charlotte M Gradie (The Americas, Vol 51, No 1. 51 (1): 67-88, 1994), and from External Links: Terrifying Mesoamerican Skull Racks Were Erected to Deter Enemies (Ancient Origins), and Conquistadors sacrificed and eaten by Aztec-era people (The Guardian), and Encyclopaedia Britannica.)

1521 - 1524

Hernan Cortes

Conquistador captain of the expedition to conquer the city.

1523 - 1527

Pedro de Alvarado is sent out by Hernan Cortes to conquer the highlands of Guatemala.

Hernan Cortes
Hernan Cortes parades before the defeated Aztecs following the final fall of the native empire and the beginnings of Spanish conquest of further regions of Central America

1525 - 1526

Juan Velazquez Tlacotzin

Puppet ruler under Cortes. Died before reaching Tenochtitlan.

1526 - 1530

Andres de Tapia Motelchiuh

Interim ruler. Died on expedition against the Chichimecs.


The audiencia, a royal committee, is created to govern the newly conquered Spanish Colonial territories from Mexico City. This serves to relieve Cortes of his new domain over which he has already displayed a certain degree of possessiveness. The audiencia eventually embraces much of the present-day republic of Mexico and the Gulf of Mexico coastal region, along with Florida.

1530 - 1538

Pablo Xochiquentzin

Interim ruler.


Andres de Tapia Motelchiuh has been killed by Chichimecs, one of several native groups which are resisting the Spanish. With the Spanish Colonial audiencia proving to be unwieldy, the king of Spain appoints the first viceroy to take command of New Spain.

1538 - 1541

Diego Huanitzin

Son of Tezozomoctli Aculnahuacatl.

1540 -1542

The two year Mixtón War (1540-1542) sees the Caxcanes and other semi-nomadic natives of north-western Mexico fighting fiercely against the Spanish invaders and their allies, the Aztec and Tlaxcalan. The Caxcanes are usually categorised as Chichimecs.

The war is named after Mixtón, a hill in southern Zacatecas state in Mexico which is used as a stronghold by the natives. The Caxanes are defeated and incorporated into New Spain, but various areas of resistance continue, leading into the Chichimeca War in 1550.

1541 - 1554

Diego de San Francisco Tehuetzquititzin

Tezcatl Popocatzin. Last native ruler.

1550 - 1591

The Chichimeca War sees the Spanish forces of New Spain fighting the Chichimec confederation in Mexico's lowlands, centred on the Bajio region. Being triggered eight years after the conclusion of the Mixtón War, it is largely a continuation of that conflict and near-unbroken unrest and resistance in between.

The defeated Caxanes are now incorporated into the Spanish forces. The Chichimecs are excellent and highly-deadly archers who inflict heavy casualties upon the invaders and their allies, and Spain is unable to defeat them fully. Instead a new colonial policy of gradual integration into the Spanish Colonies is pursued over the next three centuries, minimising organised resistance of this form.

1554 - 1557

Esteban de Guzman

Judge in residence from Xochimilco.

1557 - 1562

Cristobal de Guzman Cecetzin

Son of Diego Huanitzin. Installed by Guzman.

1563 - 1565

Luis de Santa María Nanacacipactzin

Judge governor.

1565 - 1568

Luis is the last pre-conquest native ruler of Tenochtitlan. After a gap of three years, the final, non-local judge governors are appointed to command the city for the rest of the century.

1568 - 1569

Francisco Jimenez

Judge governor from Tecamachalco.

1573 - 1599

Antonio Valeriano

Judge governor from Azcapotzalco.

1599 - 1608

Geronimo Lopez

Judge governor from Xaltocan.


Juan Bautista

Judge governor from Malinalco.

1610 - 1614

Juan Perez de Monterrey

Judge governor.


De Monterrey is the last judge governor of Tenochtitlan within the viceroyalty of New Spain and the greater Spanish Colonies.

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