Jim, my brother- and sister-in-law made an expedition to the city of Vera Cruz which as I think you all know is on the Gulf Coast in the State of Veracruz: East southeast from both Xalapa (maybe 70 miles) and Mexico City. Our first stop was San Juan de Ulúa, and below I've compiled a bit of information for you about the earliest Spanish visits to Mexico so you can put San Juan de Ulúa into context.
San Juan de Ulúa was just a scrap of sand when in 1519 Hernán Cortés landed with his boats and men on his way to his fabulous and terrible adventures in México. It wasn’t the first place he landed, nor was it the first time or place Spaniards had set foot on Mexican soil.
Perhaps the first Spaniards arrived in Mexico when their ships ran aground in 1511 in the Yucatan, home, of course, to Mayan cities and states.
A Spanish crew headed by Francisco Hernández de Córdoba landed in Cape Catoche on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1517. De Cordoba and his troops and their arms defeated the inhabitants of the first city they arrived at, though they sustained very heavy losses. The Mayans abandoned the town and the Spanish then looted it. They sailed along the coast at the mercy of the inhabitants for water, and finally, they were essentially driven out by people at Champotón. There fifty Spaniards were killed and all but one wounded.
Two survivors were taken prisoner. Cordoba made it back to headquarters in Cuba, and before he died, he managed to report on the wealth he’d seen.
Juan de Grijalva commanded the next bunch of Spaniards to head for Mexico. He landed at Cozumel in 1518. Some of you may have even been to Cozumel. There weren’t any resorts in 1518, but I bet it was beautiful. Anyway, de Grijalva was less impetuous with guns than was de Córdoba though he and his men defended themselves successfully when attacked. Notice here that people in Mexico did attack. Right here I want you to glue into your brains that when the Spanish landed, Mexico was a populous place with cities as big and bigger and cleaner than in Europe. There were not only sophisticated buildings, engineering, intellectual endeavor and art, but also, as seems to be natural to humans, warfare among competing states.
It was Grijalva who first landed on San Juan de Ulúa on the coast of Veracruz. News of his arrival reached King Moteuczoma Xocoyotl, otherwise known to USAers as Montezuma or Moctezuma. He and his advisors sent watchers to the coast.
In 1519 the Governor of Cuba, Diego Velásquez de Cuellos, appointed Cortés to head a third expedition. This gets messy because there was a lot of politicking and scheming around this voyage. In any event, Cortés did manage to set sail for the Yucatan in 1519 with: eleven ships and maybe 450 men and a lot arms including cannons AND horses which did not exist in Mexico at the time. Horses, by the way, are so endemic to our area of Mexico it is hard to imagine a time they weren’t here.
Cortés decided to look for survivors of the 1511 wreck who rumor had it were still alive among the Mayans. There were two. One had gone native quite successfully having married and raised a family and risen in Mayan society. The other, Gerónimo de Aguilar, became Cortés’ translator of Maya.
Continuing his voyages around the coast he did battle and lost and gained as a result. He gained Doña Marina, or La Malinche, a controversial story in herself.
Finally Cortés landed at San de Ulúa on April 21, 1519