Pedro de Alvarado

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For the 16th-century tlatoani (ruler) of Texcoco known also as Pedro de Alvarado Coanacochtzin, see Coanacoch. For the Mexican miner owner of the Palmilla mine in Chihuahua, see Pedro Alvarado (Mexican miner).
This name uses Spanish naming customs: the first or paternal family name is de Alvarado and the second or maternal family name is Contreras.
Don Pedro de Alvarado
Pedro de Alvarado.JPG
Don Pedro in a contemporary rendition
Born ca. 1485
Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain,
Died July 4, 1541 (aged c. 55–56)
Guadalajara, New Spain

El Capitan Pedro de Alvarado y Contreras (Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain, ca. 1485 – Guadalajara, New Spain, 4 July 1541) was a Spanish conquistador and governor of Guatemala.[1] He participated in the conquest of Cuba, in Juan de Grijalva's exploration of the coasts of Yucatan and the Gulf of Mexico, and in the conquest of Mexico led by Hernán Cortés. He is considered the conquistador of most of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras). Although renowned for his skill as a soldier, Alvarado is known also for the cruelty of his treatment of native populations, and mass murders committed in the subjugation of the native peoples of Mexico.[2] Historiography portrays that indigenous people, both Nahuatl-speakers and speakers of other languages, called him Tonatiuh, meaning "sun" in the Nahuatl language. Yet he was also called "Red Sun" in Nahuatl, which allows a variety of interpretations. Whether this epithet refers to Don Alvarado's red hair, some esoteric quality attributed to him, or both, is disputed.

Early life[edit]

Don Pedro de Alvarado

Pedro de Alvarado was born in 1485 in the town of Badajoz, Extremadura. He was the son of Diego Gómez de Alvarado y Mexía Sandoval y Porras, born in Badajoz in 1460, who was also the Commander of Lobón,[1] Puebla, Montijo and Cubillana, Alcalde of Montanchez, Trece of the Order of Santiago, Lord of Castellanos, a Maestresala official instructor of Henry IV of Castile and General of the Frontier of Portugal. Pedro de Alvarado's mother was Diego's second wife, Leonor de Contreras y Gutiérrez de Trejo. His first wife, Teresa Suárez de Moscoso y Figueroa, had died two years before.

First campaigns in the Americas[edit]

Alvarado went to Hispaniola in 1510 with all his younger brothers: Gonzalo, Jorge, Hernando and Juan, and their father Diego de Alvarado y Mexía de Sandoval. He held a command in the Juan de Grijalva expedition sent from Cuba against Yucatán in the spring of 1518,[1] and returned in a few months.

Expedition to Mexico[edit]

In 1519, Alvarado accompanied Hernán Cortés in his expedition to Mexico,[1] commanding one of the eleven vessels in the fleet and also acting as Cortés' second in command during the expedition's first stay in the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán. Relations between the Spaniards and their hosts were uneasy, especially given Cortés' repeated insistence that the Aztecs desist from idol worship and human sacrifice; in order to ensure their own safety, the Spaniards took the Aztec king Moctezuma hostage. When Cortés returned to the Gulf coast to deal with the newly arrived hostile expedition of Pánfilo de Narváez, Alvarado remained in Tenochtitlan as commander of the Spanish enclave, with strict orders to make sure that Moctezuma not be permitted to escape.[1] During Cortés' absence, relations between the Spaniards and their hosts went from bad to worse, and Alvarado ordered a preemptive slaughter of Aztec nobles and priests observing a religious festival.[3][4][2] When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, he found the Spanish force under siege. After Moctezuma was killed in the attempt to negotiate with his own people, the Spaniards determined to escape by fighting their way across one of the causeways that led from the city across the lake and to the mainland. In a bloody nocturnal action of 1 July 1520, known as La Noche Triste, Alvarado led the rear-guard and was badly wounded. According to some sources, Alvarado used his lance to vault across a gap in the causeway; this feat has come to be known as the Salto de Alvarado ("Alvarado's Leap").[5][6]

During Cortés' absence, relations between the Spaniards and their hosts went from bad to worse, and Alvarado ordered a preemptive slaughter of Aztec nobles and priests observing a religious festival.[7]:283-286 When Cortés returned to Tenochtitlan, he found the Spanish force under siege. After Moctezuma was killed in the attempt to negotiate with his own people, the Spaniards determined to escape by fighting their way across one of the causeways that led from the city across the lake and to the mainland.[7]:286,294,296 In a bloody nocturnal action of 10 July 1520, known as La Noche Triste, Alvarado led the rear-guard and was badly wounded.[7]:296-300 According to satirical verses by Gonzalo Ocampo, in reference to Alvarado crossing a causeway gap during the escape, Alvarado's escape became known as Salto de Alvarado ("Alvarado's Leap").[7]:296-300

Pedro then participated in the Siege of Tenochtitlan, commanding one of four forces under Cortes.[7]:315,319,333,351,355-356,358,360,363,369-370,372 Alvarado was wounded when Guatemoc attacked all three Spanish camps on the feast day of St. John.[7]:377-378,381,384-385,388-389 Alvarado's company was the first to make it to the Tlateloco marketplace, setting fire to the Aztec shrines. Cortes' and Sandoval's companies joined him there after four more days of fighting.[7]:396-308

Remains of the "Castillo de Alvarado", Chamela, Jalisco

Conquest of Guatemala[edit]

Pedro de Alvarado was sent out by Hernán Cortés with 120 horsemen, 300 footsoldiers and several hundred Cholula and Tlaxcala auxiliaries; he was engaged in the conquest of the highlands of Guatemala from 1523 to 1527. At first, Alvarado allied himself with the Kakchiquel nation in his conquest of their traditional rivals, the Quiché nation, but his cruelties alienated the Kakchiquel, and he needed several years to stamp out resistance in the region. Alvarado took advantage of the inter-wars between the natives to colonize and conquer Guatemala; the enslaved Indians were forced mostly to mine gold and precious stones (anything that benefited the Spanish Crown or themselves). Alvarado's inhumanity to native populations is depicted in various sources, including the Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, wherein it is documented that he enslaved natives, and murdered them by means such as hanging, burning, and throwing them alive to dogs.[8] His cruel treatment of the native populations is remembered by them to this day.[citation needed]

Cuzcatlán (El Salvador)[edit]

Alvarado led the first effort by Spanish forces to extend their dominion to the nation of Cuzcatlán (El Salvador), in June 1524. These efforts established many towns such as San José Acatempa in 1525 and Esquipulas in 1560. Spanish efforts were firmly resisted by the indigenous people known as the Pipil and their Mayan speaking neighbors. Despite Alvarado's initial success in the Battle of Acajutla, the indigenous people of Cuzcatlán, who according to tradition were led by a warlord called Atlacatl, defeated the Spaniards and their auxiliaries, and forced them to withdraw to Guatemala. Alvarado was wounded on his left thigh, remaining handicapped for the rest of his life. He abandoned the war and appointed his brother, Gonzalo de Alvarado, to continue the task. Two subsequent expeditions were required (the first in 1525, followed by a smaller group in 1528) to bring the Pipil under Spanish control. In 1528 the conquest of Cuzcatlán was completed and the city of San Salvador was established.

Alvarado was subsequently appointed governor of Guatemala by Charles I of Spain and remained governor of Guatemala until his death. He was made Adelantado de La Florida and Knight of Santiago in 1527, and also Governor of Guatemala. In that year he was married in Spain to Francisca de la Cueva, Dame of Úbeda and niece of the Duke of Alburquerque. She died shortly after their arrival in America.


In 1534, Alvarado heard tales of the riches of Peru, headed south to the Andes and attempted to bring the province of Quito under his rule. When he arrived, he found the land already held by Francisco Pizarro's lieutenant Sebastian de Belalcazar. The two forces of Conquistadors almost came to battle; however, Alvarado bartered to Pizarro's group most of his ships, horses, and ammunition, plus most of his men, for a comparatively modest sum of money, and returned to Guatemala.[1]


In 1532, Alvarado received a Royal Cedula naming him Governor of the Province of Honduras, which at that time consisted of a single settlement of Spaniards in Trujillo, but he declined to act on it. In 1533, or 1534 he began to send his own work gangs of enslaved Africans and Native Americans into the parts of Honduras adjacent to Guatemala to work the placer gold deposits. In 1536, ostensibly in response to a letter asking for aid from Andrés de Cereceda, then acting Governor of the Province of Honduras, Alvarado and his army of Indian allies arrived in Honduras, just as the Spanish colonists were preparing to abandon the country and go look for gold in Peru. In June, 1536, Alvarado engaged the indigenous resistance led by Cicumba in the lower Ulua river valley, and won. He divided up the Indian labor in repartimiento grants to his soldiers and some of the colonists, and returned to Guatemala. During a visit to Spain, in 1537, Alvarado had the governorship of Honduras reconfirmed in addition to that of Guatemala for the next seven years. His governorship of Honduras was not uncontested, however. Francisco de Montejo had a rival claim, and was installed by the Spanish king as Governor of Honduras in 1540. Ten years after being widowed, Alvarado married one of his first wife's sisters, Beatriz de la Cueva, who outlived him. After the death of her husband, de la Cueva maneuvered her own election and succeeded him as governor of Guatemala, becoming the only woman to govern a major political division of the Americas in Spanish colonial times. She drowned a few weeks after taking office in the destruction of the capital city Ciudad Vieja by a sudden flow from the Volcan de Agua in 1541.

Later Life and Death[edit]

Alvarado developed a plan to outfit an armada that would sail from the western coast of Mexico to China and the Spice Islands. At great cost, he assembled and equipped 13 ships and approximately 550 soldiers for the expedition. The fleet was about to set sail in 1541 when Alvarado received a letter from Cristóbal de Oñate, pleading for help against hostile Indians who were besieging him at Nochistlán.[7]:Ch.203 The siege was part of a major revolt by the Mixtón natives of the Nueva Galicia region of Mexico. Alvarado gathered his troops and went to help Oñate. In a freak accident, he was crushed by a horse that was spooked and ran amok.[7]:Ch.203 He died a few days later, on July 4, 1541, and was buried in the church at Tiripetío, a village between Patzcuaro and Morelia (in present-day Michoacán).

Four decades after Alvarado's death, his daughter Leonor de Alvarado Xicoténcatl paid to transport his remains to Guatemala for reburial in the cathedral of the city of Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, now Antigua Guatemala.

Alvarado's death, depicted in the indigenous Codex Telleriano-Remensis. The glyph to the right of his head represents his Nahuatl name, Tonatiuh ("Sun")



After the death of her husband, Beatriz de la Cueva maneuvered her own election and succeeded him as governor of Guatemala, becoming the only woman to govern a major political division of the Americas in Spanish colonial times.[9]

Alvarado had no children from either of his legal marriages. His life companion was his concubine Luisa de Tlaxcala (also called Xicoténcatl or Tecubalsi, her original names after Catholic baptism). She was a Nahua noblewoman, daughter of the Tlaxcallan Chief Xicotencatl the Elder. Luisa was given by her father in 1519 to Hernán Cortés as a proof of respect and friendship. In turn Cortés gave her in guard to Pedro de Alvarado,[7]:178 who quickly and unremarkably became her lover. Luisa followed Alvarado in his pursuit of conquests beyond central Mexico. Despite never being his legitimate wife, Luisa de Tlaxcala had numerous possessions and was respected as a Doña, both for her relationship with Alvarado and for her noble origin. She died in 1535 and was buried at the Guatemala Cathedral.

With Luisa de Tlaxcala Pedro de Alvarado had three children:

  • Leonor de Alvarado y Xicotenga Tecubalsi, born in the newly founded Spanish city of Santiago de los Caballeros, who married Pedro de Portocarrero, a conqueror trusted by his father-in-law, whom he accompanied during the conquests of Mexico and Guatemala. Portocarrero participated in numerous battles against the Indians.
Leonor married a second time,[10] to Francisco de la Cueva y Guzman.[7]:178-179 The Alvarado fortune remained with their descendants for generations to come, in the family of Villacreces de la Cueva y Guzmán, governors of this part of Guatemala.
  • Pedro de Alvarado, named for his father,[7]:178 who disappeared at sea when traveling to Spain
  • Diego de Alvarardo, El Mestizo, who died in 1554 in the civil wars of Peru.

By other women, in more casual relationships, he had two other children:

  • Gómez de Alvarado, without further notice
  • Ana (Anita) de Alvarado

References in modern culture[edit]

He is portrayed in Lew Wallace's novel The Fair God. One of Montezuma's daughters falls in love with him in a dream before she had ever seen him, when they do meet he returns her love and gives her an iron cross necklace so she can convert to Christianity. She is killed during the battle of La Noche Triste. [11]

C. S. Forester's 1937 novel The Happy Return, set in Central America in 1808, features a character El Supremo who claims to be a descendant of Alvarado by a (fictional) marriage to a daughter of Moctezuma.

Pedro de Alvarado is a character in the opera La Conquista (2005) by Italian composer Lorenzo Ferrero, which depicts the major episodes of the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521 and the subsequent destruction of the Aztec civilization.

Pedro de Alvarado is identified as the torturer of Tzinacán, the narrator in Jorge Luis Borges's story "The God's Script" ("La Escritura del Dios"), first published in 1949.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "Conquered Conquistadors", Florine G.L. Asselbergs, First Edition, published 2004
  2. ^ a b Miguel León Portilla (2006). The Broken Spears: The Aztec Account of the Conquest of Mexico. Beacon Press. pp. 131–132. ISBN 978-0-8070-5500-7. 
  3. ^ Hernán Cortés (2001). Letters from Mexico. Yale University Press. p. 476. ISBN 978-0-300-09094-9. 
  4. ^ Francisco López de Gómara (1887). Conquista de Méjico. Biblioteca Clásica Española. pp. 238–239. 
  5. ^ Antonio de SOLIS y RIVADENEYRA (1776). Historia de la Conquista de México. Bl. Román. p. 366. 
  6. ^ Antonio de Alcedo (1812). The Geographical and Historical Dictionary of America and the West Indies: Containing an Entire Translation of the Spanish Work of Colonel Don Antonio de Alcedo ... with Large Additions and Compilations from Modern Voyages and Travels, and from Original and Authentic Information. J. Carpenter. p. 123. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Diaz, B., 1963, The Conquest of New Spain, London: Penguin Books, ISBN 0140441239
  8. ^ Asselbergs 2004: 163,214
  9. ^ Fabio Joseph Flouty. "Conquistador and Colonial Elites of Central America (list)". University of California Irvine. Archived from the original on June 16, 2010. 
  10. ^ According to the illustrious 17th-century historian father Domingo Juarros in his Compendio de la historia de la cuidad de guatemala, pagina 347.
  11. ^ Wallace, Lew (1873). The Fair God or the Last of the 'Tzins. New York: Grosset and Dunlap. 


Asselbergs, Florine G.L. (2004). Conquered Conquistadors: The Lienzo de Quauhquechollan, a Nahua vision of the conquest of Guatemala. CNWS publications series. Leiden, Netherlands: Research School CNWS. ISBN 978-90-5789-097-0. OCLC 491630572. 
Bandelier, Adolph Francis (1907). "Pedro de Alvarado". In Charles G. Herbermann, Edward A. Pace, Condé B. Pallen, Thomas J. Shahan and John J. Wynne (eds.). The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church. vol. I (New Advent online reproduction ed.). New York: Robert Appleton Company. OCLC 1017058. 
Díaz del Castillo, Bernal (1963) [1632]. The Conquest of New Spain. Penguin classics. translated by J. M. Cohen (6th printing [1973] ed.). Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-044123-9. OCLC 162351797. 
Juarros, Domingo (1808–18). Compendio de la historia de la ciudad de Guatemala (in Spanish). 2 vols. Guatemala: Ignacio Beteta. OCLC 2187421. 
Juarros, Domingo (1823). A statistical and commercial history of the kingdom of Guatemala, in Spanish America: containing important particulars relative to its productions, manufactures, customs, &c. &c. &c. With an account of its conquest by the Spaniards, and a narrative of the principal events down to the present time: from original records in the archives; actual observation; and other authentic sources (online reproduction at Internet Archive). translated by John Baily (translation of Compendio de la historia de la ciudad de Guatemala, 1st English ed.). London: John Hearne. OCLC 367922521. 
Recinos, Adrián (1986). Pedro de Alvarado: Conquistador de México y Guatemala (in Spanish) (2nd ed.). Guatemala: CENALTEX Centro Nacional de Libros de Texto y Material Didáctico "José de Pineda Ibarra". OCLC 243309954. 
Stone, Samuel Z. (1975). La dinastía de los conquistadores: La crisis del poder en la Costa Rica contemporánea (in Spanish). Ciudad Universitaria Rodrigo Facio, Costa Rica: Editorial Universitaria Centroamericana. OCLC 1933264. 
Stone, Samuel Z. (1990). The heritage of the conquistadors: Ruling classes in Central America from the Conquest to the Sandinistas (6th edition, fully revised and expanded ed.). Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4207-7. OCLC 20393173. 

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