A painting of Hernan Cortes and his army on horseback.

Photo Credit: PHAS / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

What’s In A Name? Cortes Island

What do an island on the BC coast and the fall of the Aztec empire have in common? Well, nothing except a name

Cortesians can thank Cortez the Killer for their island’s name

Cortes Island is one of the jewels of the Discovery Islands. And it was named after a man who never came within 5,000 miles of BC’s coastline.

In 1792, Spanish explorers Dionisio Galiano and Cayetano Valdes sailed the waters between Vancouver Island and the Mainland. When they came across a pleasant island of beaches and protected coves, they named it Cortes Island, after Hernán Cortés.

Cortés had been dead for more than 200 years. But apparently this guy was one of their heroes.

Born in 1485 in Medellin, Spain, Cortés is famous for leading the expedition that conquered the Aztec empire in what is now Mexico.

Cortés was cheeky, deceptive, and ambitious. He was obsessed with conquest and taking more land.

He first served as a soldier during Spain’s colonization of Cuba in 1511. He eventually became Mayor of Santiago. But he wasn’t satisfied playing a supporting role in the Spanish colonization of the New World. He wanted more power and riches.

In 1519, Cortés was set to command an expedition to Mexico. But his boss, Diego Velázquez, cancelled the trip. Cortés went anyway.

He set sail with 11 ships and 500 men with a plan to overthrow the Aztec ruler, Montezuma II, in the capital of Tenochtitlan.

At first, the Aztecs fought off his attack. But Cortés came back in 1521. According to some stories, after landing on the Aztec shores for the second time, he sunk all of his ships except one. He sent that one back to Spain.

This time, his men couldn’t retreat. They had to stay and fight. Using brutal force, deception, and help from the Aztec’s opponents, Cortés eventually defeated the empire. He levelled Tenochtitlan and built colonial Mexico City literally on top of the ruins.

You might know the name Cortés. Neil Young was fascinated by his story. That’s who he’s talking about in his song “Cortez the Killer.”

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So, when you visit Cortes Island today, it’s hard to square the island’s peaceful, laid-back vibe with the double-crossing, bloodthirsty Spanish conquistador who lived and died almost 500 years ago.