Hernán Cortés was born in Medellín, Spain, in 1485. His father was an infantry officer, and Cortés was described as a pale, sickly child. At the age of 14, he was sent to study at the University of Salamanca but returned home after two years. Restless at age 16, Cortés left Spain for the New World in 1503, at the age of 18. He arrived in Santo Domingo, the capital of Hispaniola, and registered as a citizen. A family friend who was the governor made him the notary of the town of Azua. Cortés accompanied Diego Velázquez on an expedition to conquer Cuba and distinguished himself, eventually becoming the mayor of Santiago.
Like many Spaniards, Cortés had heard rumors of vast quantities of gold in mainland Mexico. In 1518, he convinced the governor to grant him a charter to explore and conquer Mexico. Although the governor revoked the charter at the last moment, Cortés rebelliously proceeded anyway.
Cortés landed his troops at Veracruz and burned his ships to prevent mutiny. With a small army of several hundred soldiers, he marched inland to the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan, a city with a population of over 200,000. Instead of fighting, Montezuma, the Aztec king, welcomed him with gifts. After six months in the capital, the Spanish fought their way out. Montezuma was killed by other Aztecs. Cortés received aid from an unlikely source: a force of Spaniards sent to arrest him for treason. He defeated them and incorporated them into his army. Together with Native American opponents of the Aztecs, Cortés laid siege to Tenochtitlan and eventually conquered the city, ransacking and burning it.
Despite his act of treason, Cortés became very popular in Spain due to the gold and jewels he captured. He was appointed governor of the newly captured territories, which became known as New Spain. Cortés destroyed Aztec buildings and temples, replacing them with Spanish structures. The city was renamed Mexico City and soon became the most important European city in the New World.
Cortés remained the governor of New Spain until 1541, not 1841 as previously stated. During the intervening years, various officials sent to assist him diminished his power. He faced constant accusations, ranging from financial mismanagement to the alleged murder of his first wife. Cortés expanded Spain's control over what is today Mexico, including leading an expedition to the Baja California peninsula.
In 1541, Cortés returned to Spain and died in Seville on December 2, 1547, at the age of 62.