Hernan Cortes was born in 1484 in Medellin, Extremadura Province, Spain. Hernan's father was Martin Cortes de Monroy, a former cavalyman active in Ferdinand and Isabella's conquest of Spain which had culminated in the capture of Granada eight years before Hernan's birth. Unfortunately, Martin had been part of an unsuccessful resistance when Queen Isabella asserted her political supremacy over his unit - the Order of Alcantara. According to early biographers, Martin was of noble lineage but possessed little wealth. His wife, Dona Catalina Pizzaro Altamirano, was the daughter of the majordomo of the Countess of Medellin. The family lived on a small income that derived from land owned by Dona Catalina and permitted them a life of modest gentility. While Hernan, their only child, was a "hidalgo," a person of substance, his prospects in the poor region of Extremadura were bleak. Little is known of his early life, but it is thought that he received some religious education while serving as an acolyte in a church in Medellin and a grounding in Latin, grammar, and law, when he attended the University of Salamanca.
Hernan was sickly as a young child and had reoccurring bouts of illness as a teenager. He was also a restless youth and the family decided that he should seek his fortune in the new world recently discovered by Christopher Columbus. The Indies were in a state of disorder and turmoil. Columbus was being severely criticized by disappointed colonists and Ferdinand and Isabella dispatched Don Francisco de Bobadilla, Master of the Order of Calatrava, as their commissioner to look into the situation. Bobadilla arrested Columbus and sent him home to Spain, but was unable to improve the situation on the ground in Espanola. In 1502 Ferdinand and Isabella selected Hernan's father's old commander in the Order of Alcantara, Nicolas de Ovando, to become Governor General of the Indies and it was arranged that Hernan would go with him. Illness intervened, however, and Hernan was unable to accompany Ovando. Following an abortive attempt to join the Spanish Army in their then current campaign against the French in Italy, Hernan returned home to Medellin where his parents outfitted him to go by ship to the Indies. Early in 1504 he boarded a merchant ship at Sanlucar de Barrameda bound for Espanola, Spain's administrative center in the Americas. After a difficult voyage Hernan Cortes arrived in Santo Domingo, Espanola, on Easter Sunday, 1504.
Nicolas de Ovando had replaced Bobadilla in 1502, had established a degree of order in the new colony, and had authorized Ponce de Leon's conquest of Boriquen (Puerto Rico). When Cortes arrived in Santo Domingo he was granted a small farm and a number of Indians to work the land. In time he became notary public in the village of Azua, fifty miles west of Santo Domingo. Christopher Columbus died in 1506 and his son, Diego Colon, inherited his father's title of Viceroy of the Indies. Colon replaced Ovando and mounted an expedition under Diego Velazquez to conquer Cuba. Cortes accompanied Velazquez as his secretary. Following the conquest of Cuba, Velazquez and Cortes had a falling out over the distribution of lands in Cuba. This problem was compounded by a simultaneous disagreement over Cortes' relationship with Catalina Xuarez. Twice Cortes was captured and imprisoned by Velazquez and twice he escaped. Following his promise to marry Catalina, relations between Cortes and Velazquez were repaired and Cortes went on to become municipal magistrate of Santiago, Cuba. His Cuban farm prospered and his Indians succeeded in finding gold. He was one of the wealthier Spaniards then living in the Americas. In 1515 Cortes and Catalina were formally united in marriage.
In 1517 Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba visited Yucatan, then thought to be an island, and was badly wounded by local Mayan Indians. On his return to Cuba, he and his men told stories of walled cities, tall temples, and gold ornaments. Velazquez sent his cousin, Juan de Grijalva, to the Yucatan with a large expedition to followup on Cordoba's information about gold. When Grijalva did not return within the time expected, Velazquez dispatched Cristobal de Olid to find out what had happened. When Olid failed to return, Velazquez asked Cortes to head a third expedition. Cortes accepted and, just as he was preparing to depart Cuba, one of Grijalva's ships returned with twenty thousand pesos worth of gold which had been given to Grijalva by natives. After both Grijalva and Olid returned to Cuba, Velazquez began having second thoughts about Cortes' loyalty, but on November 18, 1518, Cortes sailed out of Santiago in eleven ships with 500 fighting men, 100 sailors, seventeen horses, and a large arsenal of weapons.
In 1517 Cordoba had landed at Champoton in order to resupply his ships with water. Indians attacked his shore party and killed half of it before the remainder made it back to their ships. Cordoba reported that the native force was unafraid of Spanish weapons and were surprisingly able to deal successfully with Spanish tactics. It later turned out that a Spanish caste away by the name of Gonzalo Guerrero who had been living with the natives since the ship wreck that marooned him eight years earlier, had trained them. In 1518 Cortes was unable to recover Guerrero, but did locate another survivor of the same wreck - Jeronimo de Aguilar. Aguilar was living as a slave owned by a local chieftan. Cortes purchased Aguilar and added him to his expedition as a translator. Cortes soon found out that the Mayan Empire was in decline and possessed very little gold. Through Aguilar he learned that people living to the north of the Yucatan did have large amounts of gold, pearls, and precious stones. Cortes avoided Champoton where Cordoba had been attacked and landed safely at the mouth of the Tabasco River (also known as the Grijalva River) where Grijalva had earlier received the gift of gold.