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Title: The Battle and the Ruins of Cintla
Author: Brinton, Daniel Garrison, 1837-1899
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Transcriber's Note

A number of typographical errors have been maintained in this version of
this book. They have been marked with a [TN-#], which refers to a
description in the complete list found at the end of the text.
Inconsistent spelling, hyphenation, and capitalization have been
maintained. A list of inconsistently spelled words is found at the end
of the text.


  DANIEL G. BRINTON, M. D., LL. D., D. Sc.






The first battle on the American continent in which horses were used was
that of Cintla in Tabasco, March, 1519, the European troops being under
the leadership of Hernando Cortes.

This fact attaches something more than an ordinary historic interest to
the engagement, at least enough to make it desirable to ascertain its
precise locality and its proper name. Both of these are in doubt, as
well as the ethnic stock to which the native tribe belonged which
opposed the Spanish soldiery on the occasion. I propose to submit these
questions to a re-examination, and also to describe from unpublished
material the ruins which,--as I believe--, mark the spot of this first
important encounter of the two races on American soil.

The engagement itself has been described by all the historians of
Cortes' famous conquest of Mexico, as it was the first brilliant
incident of that adventure. We have at least four accounts of it from
participants. One prepared under the eye of Cortes himself, one by the
anonymous historian of his expedition, a third by Cortes'
companion-in-arms, the redoubtable Bernal Diaz del Castillo, and a
fourth by Andres de Tapia.[3-1]

The most satisfactory narrative, however, is given by the chaplain of
Cortes, Francisco de Gomara, and I shall briefly rehearse his story,
adding a few points from other contemporary writers.[3-2]

Cortes with his armada cast anchor at the mouth of the River Grijalva in
March, 1519. The current being strong and the bar shallow, he with about
eighty men proceeded in boats up the river for about two miles, when
they descried on the bank a large Indian village. It was surrounded with
a wooden palisade, having turrets and loopholes from which to hurl
stones and darts. The houses within were built of tiles laid in mortar,
or of sun-dried brick (adobes), and were roofed with straw or split
trees. The chief temple had spacious rooms, and its dependences
surrounded a court yard.

The interpreter Aguilar, a Spaniard who had lived with the Mayas in
Yucatan, could readily speak the tongue of the village, which was
therefore a Mayan dialect. The natives told him that the town was named
Potonchan, which Aguilar translated "the place that smells or stinks,"
an etymology probably correct in a general way.

The natives were distrustful, and opposed the landing of the Europeans
rather with words and gestures than with blows. Their warriors
approached Cortes in large boats, called in their tongue _tahucup_, and
refused him permission to land.

After some parleying, Cortes withdrew to an island in the river near by,
and as night drew on, he sent to the ships for reinforcements, and
despatched some of the troops to look for a ford from the island to the
mainland; which they easily found.

The next morning he landed some of his men by the boats, and attacked
the village on the water side, while another detachment crossed the ford
and making a circuit assaulted it in the rear. The Indians were
prepared, having sent their women and children away. They were in number
about four hundred, and made at first a brisk resistance, but being
surprised by the rear assault, soon fled in dismay. No Spaniard was
killed, though many were wounded.

Cortes established himself in the village and landed most of his troops
and ten out of his thirteen horses. When his men were rested and the
injured had had their wounds dressed with fat taken from dead
Indians[4-1] (!) he sent out three detachments on foot to reconnoitre.

After marching a distance which is not stated, but which could not have
been many miles, they came to an extensive plain covered with maize
fields, temples and houses. This was Cintla. There were many warriors
gathered there, and after a sharp skirmish the Spaniards fell back.

Having thus learned the ground, Cortes prepared for a decisive battle,
as also did the natives. The latter gathered at Cintla in five divisions
of eight thousand men each, as the chroniclers aver.

Cortes had about five hundred men including some Cuban Indians. The main
detachment proceeded on foot by the high road, the cavalry along a path
in the woods, and another detachment by a third route. The country was
swampy and cut with canals, offering serious obstacles to the horses. It
was not until the infantry had been for some time closely engaged with
the enemy on the plain of Cintla, and rather severely handled, that the
cavalry reached the spot. Their appearance, together with the noise and
fatal effect of the musketry, soon struck terror to the hearts of the
natives--their ranks broke and they fled. Gomara estimates that there
were about three hundred of them killed, which is likely enough; while
Bishop De las Casas puts the slain at thirty thousand![5-1]

Such was the battle of Cintla. It broke the spirits of the natives, and
soon their chieftain, named Tabasco, from whom the river and the
province were later called, came in, and offered his submission. Cortes
took possession of the land in the name of the King of Spain, and
erected a large cross in the chief temple of Potonchan. He remained
there several days longer before proceeding on his voyage.

_The Name Cintla._--Of the contemporary authorities, only two give the
name of the place at or near which the battle was fought.

One of these is Bernal Diaz, who writes it twice, spelling it both times
_Cintia_.[5-2] The other is Gomara, who gives _Cintla_, the form which I
believe to be correct. Through following some less reliable authorities
a number of writers, among them Prescott and his editor Mr. J. F. Kirk,
Orozco y Berra, etc., and their copyists, have deformed this word into

The most obvious derivation of Cintla is from the Nahuatl language, in
which _Cintla_ means a dried ear of maize; _Cintlan_, a place where
dried ears are, a cornfield. Most of the places in Tabasco became known
to the Spaniards under their Nahuatl appellatives through interpreters
in that tongue, and because most of the territory had been subjected to
the powerful sway of the Montezumas.

Still, Cintla may also be a Mayan word. It may be a nominal form from
the verb _tzen-tah_, and would then have the signification, "a built-up
place," or one well stocked with provisions; or, it may be a patronymic
from the Tzentals, the tribe which occupied this region at the time, as
I shall proceed to show.

_The Native Tribe._--There is no question but that the native tribe
which took part in this combat belonged to the Mayan stock. All the
accounts agree that Aguilar, the Spaniard whom Cortes found in Yucatan
as a captive, and who had learned to speak the Mayan tongue,
communicated with the natives without difficulty. This is conclusive as
to their ethnic position.

Further evidence, if needed, is offered by the native names and words
preserved in the accounts. The term for their large canoes, _tahucup_,
is from the Maya _tahal_, to swim, and _kop_, that which is hollow, or
hollowed out. The name _potonchan_, Aguilar translated as, "the place
that stinks" (lugar que hiede). He evidently understood it as derived
from the Maya verb _tunhal_, to stink, with the intensive prefix _pot_
(which is not unusual in the tongue, as _pot-hokan_, very evident,
etc.). The historian Herrera, on some authority not known to me, further
explains this term as one of contempt applied to the people there,
meaning rude and barbarous;[6-1] as we should say, using the same
metaphor, "stinkards."

_Tabasco_ is said by Bernal Diaz to have been the name of the principal
chief of the eight provinces or tribes, who together opposed the
Spaniards. For this reason I would reject the derivation from the
Nahuatl, proposed by Rovirosa,--_tlalli_, earth, _paltic_, wet or
swampy, _co_, in,[6-2]--however appropriate it would be geographically;
and also that from the Maya, _tazcoob_, "deceived," referring to the
deceptions practiced on the Spaniards,--which is defended by Orozco y
Berra[6-3]; and I should accept that which I find suggested by Dr.
Berendt in his manuscript work on Mayan geographical names. He reads
_Tabasco_ as a slightly corrupt form of the Maya _T'ah-uaxac-coh_, "our
(or the) master of the eight lions," referring to the eight districts or
gentes of the tribe. This is significant and appropriate, the jaguar,
the American lion, being a very common emblem in the ruins of Cintla.

The branch of the Mayan stock which occupied the litoral of the province
of Tabasco at that time were those later known as the Tzentals
(otherwise spelled Zendal or Tzeltal). By some writers they have been
called the Chontals of Tobasco, _chontal_, as is well known, being
merely a common noun in Nahuatl to express foreigners or barbarians.
Their identity with the modern Tzentals of Chiápas has been established
by the researches of Dr. Berendt.

The Tzental is a dialect closely akin to pure Maya, though it was
believed by Dr. Berendt to present nearer relations than the Maya proper
to the dialect of the Huastecas, a segregated idiom of the Mayan family,
spoken near Tampico.

_The Locality._--Until M. Désiré Charnay brought out the results of the
Lorillard expedition in his handsome work, "The Ancient Cities of the
New World,"[6-4] no one, so far as I know, had expressed any doubt that
Cintla was situated near the mouth of the great river, the Rio de
Tabasco, formed by the confluence of the Usumacinta and the Rio de
Grijalva, and emptying into the bay of Campeche, 18° 35', north

M. Charnay did not visit the ruins of Cintla nor the site of Potonchan,
which I am about to describe; but he did make an examination of the
ruins of Comalcalco, about thirty miles west of Cintla; and as they are
of notable magnitude, he proceeds to argue that they represent the
ancient Cintla, of the victory of Cortes.

The arguments on which he founds this contention may be briefly stated.
They are that the accounts refer to two entrances to the river (_dos
bocas_) while the Tabasco has but one; that the bar of Tabasco now
admits vessels of 300 tons, whereas Cortes speaks of it as too shallow
for his caravels; that Herrera says Cortes retired to a small island,
whereas there is none in the Rio de Tabasco; that Herrera further speaks
of a ford by which the soldiers of Cortes "crossed the river," which
would have been impossible in the Tabasco; and finally that the same
writer mentions cacao plantations, though at present none exist near
Frontera. For these reasons he thinks both Grijalva and Cortes entered
the embouchure now known as the Barra de Dos Bocas, some twenty-five
miles west of the mouth of the Rio de Tabasco.

A slight examination dissipates these objections. Both Grijalva and
Cortes note the powerful current of the Rio de Tabasco, carrying fresh
water six miles out to sea, as is observed to-day,[7-1] and this is not
in the least applicable to the insignificant stream flowing out of the
Dos Bocas. M. Charnay was misinformed when he stated there is no island
at the mouth of the Rio de Tabasco. There are in fact two, one, long and
narrow, known as the Isla de Grijalva, the other quite small, close to
the plantation of Dolores (see the map). The latter was probably that to
which Cortes retired. None of the accounts say that the soldiers "forded
the river," but only the short distance between the island and the
mainland. These islands give to the entrance of the river the appearance
of two embouchures or mouths. The depth of the bar varies of course with
the seasons and with the tides.

But what is conclusive is that in 1525 the Spaniards founded the city
Nuestra Señora de la Victoria, on the site of Potonchan. In 1646, it had
a cura and a vicar, and counted 2000 parishioners, and the abundance of
its cacao harvest is especially noted.[7-2] At some later day it was
attacked and destroyed by filibusters; but the remains of the church and
the cemetery are still visible at Dolores, and pilgrimages are yet made
to them on certain holy days by the faithful of the parish of Frontera,
on the opposite shore. This record places the scene of the conflict
beyond all doubt.

_Condition of the Natives._--The various accounts agree in describing
the province as highly cultivated and thickly settled. Maize and cacao
were the principal crops. Temples and edifices are repeatedly referred
to. A few years afterwards (1524) Cortes traversed Tabasco some miles
inland, and has left a description of its industries. The people were
active merchants, and the list of their commodities which he gives
includes cacao, maize, cotton, dye-stuffs, feathers, salt, wax, resins,
paints, gum copal, pottery, beads, shells, precious stones, woven stuffs
and gold of low alloy. The richer citizens had numerous wives and female
slaves, which accounted for the rapid increase in population.[8-1] The
chronicler Gomara furnished a long list of the native articles which
Grijalva brought back in 1519 from Potonchan and the neighboring coast.
They reveal a high degree of artistic culture, and leave no doubt but
that the tribes of the vicinity were as developed in the arts as any in

_Ruined Cities._--Writing about 1875, Mr. H. H. Bancroft says: "On the
immediate coast (of Tabasco) some large towns and temples were seen by
the early voyagers; but I have no information that relics of any kind
have been discovered in modern times."[8-2]

In fact, although it is doubtful if there are any ruins directly on the
coast, there are many but a short distance inland. Those at
Comalcacalco[TN-1] have been figured and described by M. Charnay, and
his work is so well known that a reference to it is sufficient.

At the locality called Pedrito, about fifteen miles from the mouth of
the Tabasco, there are many mounds, embankments, piles of pottery and
other signs of an ancient town. Among the relics is a large circular
stone, "like a round table," with figures in relief engraved on its
sides, and with holes drilled in its surface, in which pegs or wooden
nails are said to have been fitted.[8-3] About ten miles north of this
spot is another group of mounds on the left bank of the Rio de San Pablo
y San Pedro. Doubtless many others exist unknown in the dense forests.

_The Ruins of Cintla._--The ruins of Cintla were visited and surveyed by
the late Dr. C. H. Berendt in March and April, 1869, and, so far as I
know, neither before nor since have they been seen by any archæologist.
Nor can I learn that Dr. Berendt ever published the results of his
researches. The only reference I can find to them in any of his
published writings is in a paper which he read, July 10th, 1876, before
the American Geographical Society, and which was published in its
Bulletin, No. 2, for that year. The title of this address was, "Remarks
on the Centers of Ancient Civilization in Central America and their
Geographical Distribution." He certainly prepared a much more extended
paper especially on Cintla, with illustrations and maps, fragments of
which I have found among the documents left at his death; but if
published, I have been unable to trace it. Nor can I discover what
became of the considerable archæological collection which he made at
Cintla and brought away with him, a memorandum about which is among his

The passage in his address before the Geographical Society touching on
Cintla is as follows:

"It was by mere chance that in the year 1869 I discovered the site of
ancient Cintla, buried in the thick and fever-haunted forests of the
marshy coast, and unknown until then to the Indians themselves. In the
course of the excavations which I caused to be made, antiquities of a
curious and interesting character were laid bare.

"Prominent among these ruins, and presenting a peculiar feature of
workmanship, are the so-called _teocallis_, or mounds, which here are
built of earth, and covered at the top and on the sides with a thick
layer of mortar in imitation of stone work. On one of these mounds I
found not only the sides and the platform, but even two flights of
stairs, constructed of the same apparently fragile but yet enduring
material. One of the latter was perfectly well preserved. I likewise saw
clay figures of animals covered with a similar coating of mortar or
plaster, thus imitating sculptured stone and retaining traces of having
been painted in various colors.

[Illustration: _Fig. 1.--Map of the Ruins of Cintla._]

"The reason for this singular use of cement probably is that in the
alluvial soil of this coast, no stones occur within a distance of fifty
miles and more from the sea shore; stone implements, such as axes,
chisels, grinding stones, obsidian flakes, etc., which are occasionally
found, can have been introduced solely by trade. The pottery and the
idols made of terra cotta show a high degree of perfection.

"Regarding the period down to which such earthenware was made, a broken
vase disinterred from one of the mounds in my presence may give a clue.
Its two handles represent Spaniards, with their European features,
beard, Catalonian cap, and _polainas_, or gaiters."

There is also among his papers the commencement of an address or essay
upon these ruins, written in Spanish, and this, when completed, may have
been printed in some Mexican periodical. I translate from it the
following passage, the remainder having been lost:

"Having learned that in the forests of the coast between the _barras_ of
Chiltepec and Grijalva various mounds, idols and other remains of an
earlier population had been discovered, I proceeded to that part of the
country called _Del Cajete_, and devoted six weeks to its exploration. I
soon found numerous mounds and embankments from which the present
inhabitants had gathered fragments of idols and milling stones of a form
unknown now in the vicinity.

"It very soon became apparent that these mounds were not such as those
isolated ones which are found in various parts of this country, but were
arranged in groups surrounding open spaces, _plazas_, and forming
streets, extending over an area three leagues in length by one in

[Illustration: _Fig. 2.--The Great Temple._]

[Illustration: _Fig. 3.--Cross Section of Fig. 2, B._]

"Not a single tradition, not a single native name survives to cast any
light upon these ruins. The whole of this coast was depopulated in the
seventeenth and eighteenth centuries owing to the slave-hunting
incursions of the filibusters and man-hunters. The Indians who are now
found in the neighborhood have removed there from the interior since the
beginning of the present century, and are absolutely ignorant of the
origin or builders of this city, hidden in the tropical forest."

The locality referred to as _Del Cajete_ was a settlement (rancheria) of
Indians, now better known as San José de la Bellota, on a large pond
into which drains the Río de la Bellota. It was founded in 1815 by a
cura who brought the Indians there from the other side of the river,
back of Frontera.

The general position of the ruins will be seen from the above map. It is
drawn to the scale of the Mexican league, which contains 5000 yards
(varas) each 838 mm. One league is therefore approximately two and three
quarters of our miles. No ruins or mounds were located immediately on or
near the coast.

Almost a continuous line of mounds, embankments and heaps of débris
extends from near Bellota for about nine miles in a general
west-south-west direction over a plain which is now densely covered by a
tropical forest.

Dr. Berendt did not attempt to survey but a few of these numerous
monuments. The plan of one of the largest, called by the natives _El
Cuyo Grande_, "The Great Temple," is shown in the following, figure 2.

The principal mound B is terraced about half way up and was 82 feet in
height. A cross section of it is shown in Fig. 3, A-B.

A series of constructions is connected with this, the whole running in a
direction east-north-east to west-south-west. They consist of a
rectangular embankment six to eight feet high, Fig. 2, A; an isolated
circular mound, D; and two small mounds at the eastern corners of the
great mound, from which parallel embankments, E, extend easterly,
inclosing an open space, which at the extremity is terminated by a long
low mound, C. The total distance from A to C is 1140 feet.

The great mound and most of the others in the vicinity are faced with
mortar made of sand and lime from burnt oyster shells. On one or both
sides are flights of steps which lead up to the summit. These are
constructed of layers of mortar, tiles and hard-pounded earth,
distributed in the manner represented in Fig. 4.

[Illustration: _Fig. 4.--Construction of Stairways._]

[Illustration: _Fig. 5.--Los Cuyos de la Canada._]

The earth is either black or red, and is mixed with sand from the coast
to give it consistency. The tiles or bricks are rectangular in shape,
well made and regular in outline, and laid one against another as in a

Another group is called _Los Cuyos de la Canada_, Fig. 5. It consists of
two mounds on a low platform, adjoining each other. The larger, _a_, is
twenty feet in height, the lower, _b_, about fifteen feet. Their sides
are oriented exactly to the true north. A section is shown in Fig. 5,
_g_. Two small oblong mounds, _c_ and _d_, about six feet high, and a
square altar-like heap, _f_, appear to be in relation to the group.
Numerous pieces of mortar and terra cotta occur in the vicinity, and
1500 feet directly west there is a large mound of moderate height.

Almost anywhere in the area of this ancient city, the soil abounds in
fragments of mortar, pottery and images of earthenware. Very frequently
the latter are represented seated on a bell-shaped support, apparently
that they might be stood up upon a flat surface. Two of these are shown
from Dr. Berendt's drawings in Figs. 6 and 7. The handles of utensils
were often decorated in fantastic forms as that shown in Fig. 8.

[Illustration: _Fig. 6[TN-2]--Image with Bell-shaped Bottom and

[Illustration: _Fig. 7.--Image of a Warrior on Bell-shaped Support._]

[Illustration: _Fig. 8.--Decorated Handle of Utensil._]

An abundance of _metates_, or corn-stones, of a shape not now usual in
the neighborhood were exhibited. Some of these were quite graceful,
having several feet and highly ornamented. The vases of pottery were
occasionally noteworthy for their symmetry and beauty, as that shown in
Fig. 9.

[Illustration: _Fig. 9.--Jar of Pottery._]

At the foot of the stairways to the summit of the mounds on each side
were frequently the remains of tigers' heads, well moulded in burnt

Here and there the remains of wells were discovered, or of excavations
which apparently were intended for the purpose of obtaining water.

Dr. Berendt mentions several tombs, but unfortunately does not specify
their location or construction. He states that they usually contained
several bodies, in a sitting posture, placed side by side with their
arms and ornaments.

No trace of metal whatever was discovered, neither copper nor gold,
which is rather unexpected, as the natives in the time of Grijalva were
acquainted with both these substances.

Such is the brief account I am able to give of these extensive and
interesting ruins from the fragmentary papers of their explorer. If any
reader of these notes can inform this journal of the disposition Dr.
Berendt made of his collection and the full memoranda of his surveys and
excavations, the cause of American archæology will be further benefited.



[3-1] The authorities are:

_Carta de la Justicia de la Rica Villa de la Vera Cruz_, July 10, 1519.
This is sometimes referred to as Cortes' first letter.

Bernal Diaz del Castillo, _Historia de la Conquista de la Nueva Espana_.

Andres de Tapia.[TN-3] _Relacion Sobre la Conquista de la Nueva Espana._

_Relacion Anonyma de la Conquista de la Nueva Espana._

[3-2] Francisco Lopez de Gomara, _Conquista de Mexico_. I follow the
Madrid edition of 1852.

[4-1] This delectable surgical item is added by Captain Bernal Diaz.

[5-1] _Historia de las Indias._ Lib. XIV.

[5-2] I have consulted both the original edition (1632) and the Madrid
reprint of 1852. It is thus spelled in both, though Dr. Jourdanet, in
his excellent French translation (Paris, 1877) gives _Cintla_.

[6-1] Herrera, _Historia de las Indias Occidentales_. Dec. III, lib.
vii, cap. iii.

[6-2] Jose N. Rovirosa, _Nombres Geographicos de Tabasco_, (Mexico,

[6-3] Orozco y Berra, _Historia Antigua de Mexico_, Tom. XIV, Lib. I,
cap. V.

[6-4] I use the French edition, _Les Anciennes Villes du Nouveau Monde_,
pp. 159, 160 (Paris, 1885).

[7-1] Requena says the current from the river is visible "from ten to
twelve leagues from the shore in every season and in high water much
further." Pedro Requena, _Informe sobre Tabasco_, p. 52 (S. Juan
Bautista, 1847. Imprenta del Gobierno).

[7-2] These facts are given in the _Memoria_ of Diaz de la Calle,
printed at Madrid, 1646, extracts from which I find in Dr. Berendt's

[8-1] Cortes' description is given in his "fourth letter." His route is
extremely difficult to locate accurately.

[8-2] _The Native Races of the Pacific States_, Vol. IV, p. 287.

[8-3] MSS, Notes of Dr. C. H. Berendt.

Transcriber's Note

The following misspellings and typographical errors were maintained.

          Page   Error
  TN-1   8   Comalcacalco should read Comalcalco
  TN-2  12   Fig. 6 should read Fig. 6.
  TN-3  fn. 3-1  Tapia. should read Tapia,

The following words were inconsistently spelled.

  Jose / José
  Rio / Río

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