With the Valley of Mexico firmly in his grip, Cortés sent his lieutenants south, north, and west to extend the limits of his domain, which eventually expanded to more than a dozenfold the size of old Spain. In a letter to his king, Charles V, Cortés christened his empire “New Spain of the Ocean Sea.”
While the conquistadores subjugated the Mexicans, missionaries began arriving to teach, heal, and baptize them. A dozen Franciscan brothers impressed natives and conquistadores alike by trekking the entire 300-mile stony path from Veracruz to Mexico City in 1523. Missionary authorities generally enjoyed a sympathetic ear from Charles V and his successors, who earnestly pursued Spain’s Christian mission, especially when it dovetailed with their political and economic goals.
Increasingly after 1525, the crown, through the Council of the Indies, began to wrest power away from Cortés and his conquistador lieutenants, many of whom had been granted rights of encomienda: taxes and labor of an indigenous district. From the king’s point of view, tribute pesos collected by encomenderos from their native serfs reduced the gold that would otherwise flow to the crown. Moreover, many encomenderos callously enslaved and sold their native wards for quick profit. Such abuses, coupled with European- introduced diseases, began to reduce the native Mexican population at an alarming rate.
The king and his councillors, realizing that without their local labor force New Spain would vanish, acted decisively, instituting new laws and a powerful viceroy to enforce them.
Don Antonio de Mendoza, the new viceroy, arrived in 1535. He wasted no time, first getting rid of the renegade opportunist and Cortés’s enemy Nuño de Guzmán, whose private army, under the banner of conquest, had been laying waste to a broad belt of western Mexico, including the modern Puerto Vallarta region states of Nayarit and Jalisco. During his five-year rampage, Guzmán nevertheless managed to found the Puerto Vallarta region towns of Guadalajara, Tepic, and Compostela.
Cortés, meanwhile, had done very well for himself. He was one of Spain’s richest men, with the title of Marqués del Valle de Oaxaca. He received 80,000 gold pesos a year from hundreds of thousands of native Mexican subjects on 25,000 square miles from the Valley of Mexico through the present states of Morelos, Guerrero, and Oaxaca.
Cortés continued tirelessly on a dozen projects: an expedition to Honduras; a young wife whom he brought back from Spain; a palace (which still stands) in Cuernavaca; sugar mills; and dozens of churches, city halls, and presidios. He supervised the exploits of his conquistador- lieutenants: Francisco Orozco and Pedro de Alvarado went south to subdue the Zapotecs and Mixtecs in Oaxaca, while Cortés’s nephew, Francisco de Cortés de Buenaventura, explored and christened the valley—Valle de las Banderas—where Puerto Vallarta stands today. Meanwhile, Cortés was in Acapulco building ships to explore the Pacific. In 1535, Cortés led an expedition to the Gulf of California (hence the Sea of Cortez) in a dreary six-month search for treasure around La Paz.
Disheartened by his failures and discouraged with Mendoza’s interference, Cortés returned to Spain. Mired by lawsuits, a small war, and his daughter’s marital troubles, he fell ill and died in 1547. Cortés’s remains, according to his will, were eventually laid to rest in a vault at the Hospital de Jesús, which he had founded in Mexico City.
Since latter-day Mexican politics preclude memorials to the Spanish conquest, no monument anywhere in Mexico commemorates Cortés’s achievements. His monument, historians note, is Mexico itself.