Did Hernán Cortés really cry at the Tree of Sorrows?
Legend has it that Hernán Cortés shed tears at the Tree of the Sad Night, located along the Mexico-Tacuba causeway in Mexico City, after his defeat by the Aztecs. However, this story is limited by historical evidence.
The conquest of Mexico is one of the most painful chapters in the country’s history. In 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés arrived in Mexico with his troops and reached the grand Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
The sight of the Aztec capital and its grandeur left Spaniards in awe.
On November 8, 1519, Hernan Cortés encountered Moctezuma. Cortés and his men were hosted in the Palace of Axayácatl, where they discovered a vast treasure while attempting to establish an altar to Christianity.
The hidden treasure fueled Cortez’s desire to conquer the Aztec Empire. Cortes forged an alliance with the indigenous oppressed by the Aztecs, who sought to free themselves from the heavy tribute imposed on them.
The most famous and controversial episode of the conquest is undoubtedly known as the “Noche Triste” (“Sad Night”). This was when the Spanish and their indigenous allies were defeated and forced to flee Tenochtitlan.
Legend says that Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conqueror, then stopped at an Ahuehuete tree to weep his defeat. This tree can still be found on the Mexico-Tacuba causeway near the Popotla metro station in Mexico City.
The story has no documentary evidence. According to legends, this event took place on June 30, 1520, when Spaniards and their allies fled Tenochtitlan at night to escape a merciless Aztec siege at the Axayacatl Palace.
Both Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo described those moments.
But in his 2nd letter to Carlos V, Cortés doesn’t mention crying at the foot of the tree. He described their escape from Tenochtitlan to Tacuba, where the alleged incident at the Tree of the Sorrowful Night is said to have occurred:
“Arriving in the said city of Tacuba, I found all the people gathered in a square, not knowing where to go […]
In this disarray, it was recorded that a hundred and fifty Spaniards and forty-five mares and horses perished, along with over two thousand Indian allies who served the Spaniards”.
Cortés makes no reference to shedding tears near a tree, despite the terrible losses his people and indigenous allies suffered. However, Bernal Díaz del Castillo mentions that Cortés sheds tears in this context:
“Let’s go back to Pedro de Alvarado, who, when Cortés and the other captains found him in that state and saw that no more soldiers were coming, had tears in his eyes. Pedro de Alvarado said that Juan Velázquez de León was among those who perished.”
Again, there is no mention of the presence of a tree, but Cortés’ tears are mentioned.
Legend points to the Ahuehuete tree located on the current Mexico-Tacuba causeway as the spot where a despondent Cortés wept his defeat, although there is no concrete evidence to confirm this fact.
Despite the lack of substantiated information, José María Velasco, the foremost Mexican painter of the 19th century, in 1891 created the famous painting of the tree – “El Sabino de Popotla” (“The tree of the Sad Night”).
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