Founding of Central America



Pedro de Alvarado, who was to become governor of Guatemala, travels from Spain to Santo Domingo (now known as the Dominican Republic).



Alvarado accompanies Juan de Grijalva (who was to die in 1527 in Honduras), nephew of Diego Velázquez, governor of Cuba and a rival of Hernán Cortés, to explore the Yucatán Peninsula with 4 ships and about 200 men.



Alvarado accompanies the army from Cuba led by Hernán Cortés, from Cozumel to Campeche to Veracruz.

Among the atrocities committed by Cortés were:

  • burning Indians alive and in public to prevent others from resisting the Spanish
  • mutilating and executing his own men when he suspected or determined mutiny and rebellion, and mutilating captured Indians to send messages back to their home tribes
  • massacring not just combatant warriors, but also non-combatant “civilian” men, women and children
  • destroying existing systems of government, economics, and religion in the name of higher political and religious powers


Alvarado placed in charge of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlán (later Mexico City) when Cortés leaves to engage the forces of rival Velázquez on the coast of Mexico.

When the Aztecs gather in a square to celebrate a festival, Alvarado fears an uprising and orders his men to strike, massacring 200 Aztec chiefs.

Upon his return, Cortés is incensed to find this action has made the conquest more difficult and plans a retreat.


June 30, 1520

On this night, known as the Noche Triste, the Spanish army attempts a silent retreat from Tenochtitlán but is spotted and attacked by the Aztecs.  Alvarado, leading the rear guard, narrowly escapes thanks to a spectacular leap across a canal.


The Spanish recapture Tenochtitlán.


Alvarado becomes Mexico City’s first alcalde (mayor).


Alvarado, seeking glory, land and wealth for himself, independent of Hernán Cortés, conquers the Quiché and Cakchiquel peoples of Guatemala.


Alvarado founds Santiago de los Caballeros de Guatemala, present-day Antigua, Guatemala.

He leads an expedition to present-day El Salvador, overcoming a Nahua tribe, the Pipil, that occupied much of the region west of the Lempa River, pushes on to Pipil capital of Cuscatlán, and soon returns to Guatemala.



Alvarado leads a second expedition to found San Salvador near Cuscatlán, but Pipil warriors force the Spanish to withdraw.  The Spanish attempt to settle San Salvador several times before permanently establishing it in 1528.


Alvarado serves as governor of Guatemala and much of Central America, leading from Santiago, which becomes the first capital of the “captaincy general” of Guatemala.


Alvarado leads an unchartered expedition to Quito, Ecuador, but then sells his ships and munitions to Diego de Almagro, a captain under Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of the Inca empire and founder of Lima, Peru.


Alvarado returns to Guatemala, then Spain, where he is confirmed as governor of Guatemala for seven years and given a charter to explore Mexico.


Alvarado arrives in Honduras and dies while attempting to quell an Indian uprising in central Mexico.


The western part of present-day El Salvador was called Izalcos by the Pipil, and was organized as Sonsonate, an autonomous, or independent region.  The area, now including the regions of Sonsonate, Santa Ana, and Ahuachapán, would not be incorporated into El Salvador until 1823, 265 years later.


This is generally accepted as the date when Bernal Diaz del Castillo completed his monumental “Historia de la Conquista de Nueva España.”  One of the known manuscripts of the work is in Guatemala, where he is buried.


El Salvador becomes agricultural heartland of the captaincy general of Guatemala.  Though most inhabitants depend on subsistence farming, a few Spaniards find wealth in the export of local products, chiefly cocoa in the 1500s.