Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
Across the Centuries

Understanding Primary Sources:
Cortés Visits Tenochtitlán

Objective: Students analyze a description of the Aztec capital written by Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortés and use it to create their own 3-D model of the imperial city.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
5 hours over 5 days

Building Background:
Discuss with students how scientists such as archaeologists use primary sources to help them model and study places that existed in the past. Tell students that they will use descriptions of the Aztec capital written by Spanish conquistadors to create a 3-D model of this city. Review how the Aztecs left their traditional homeland in northwest Mexico during the 12th century. Aztec legends claim that an important god commanded the group to build their home in a place where an eagle sat upon a cactus. The Aztecs wandered for 200 years in search of this mysterious place. In the early 14th century, the Aztecs found their home on a 12-mile-long, marsh-filled island in Lake Texcoco. Here the Aztecs learned to farm the swamps and marshes, built homes and temples, and created large causeways linking their island to the mainland. As the Aztecs began to conquer their neighbors and expand their control of central Mexico, the city of Tenochtitlán grew larger and more powerful. Scholars estimate that by 1500, Tenochtitlán was home to over 100,000 people and one of the largest cities in the world.

What To Do:

1. Print and distribute the Cortés in Tenochtitlán worksheet. Have students review Hernando Cortés' description of the city and answer the questions on the worksheet. Encourage students to discuss their answers and share their thoughts about the Aztec capital. Tell students that Cortés and other Europeans had not yet encountered large cities and civilizations in the Americas and were surprised by the size of Tenochtitlán.

2. Since the conquest of Tenochtitlán and the construction of Mexico City, many people have used the Spanish conquistadors' accounts to create images or models of the Aztec city. Divide the class into small working groups. Have students visit their local library or access the Internet to research primary source descriptions of the Aztec capital. Suggest that the groups visit the following sites to begin their research. Encourage the groups to take detailed notes.

Modern History Sourcebook: Hernan Cortés: from Second Letter to Charles V, 1520

This primary source document is Cortés' description of Tenochtitlán and his conquest of the Aztecs.

Civilizations in America: The Mexica/Aztecs

This page, part of a larger world cultures site, provides information and images that tell about the people of Tenochtitlán and their civilization.

3. Have the groups use the primary source accounts of Tenochtitlán to create their own 3-D models of the Aztec capital. If time is limited have each group focus on one feature of the city described in the accounts.

4. Encourage students to label the features in their model using direct quotes from the primary sources they found.

Ask a volunteer from each group to present the group's model to the class. Suggest the volunteer begin his or her presentation by reading the primary source excerpt or excerpts. Then have the students explain how they used the information to build the models.


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