When the Aztecs arrived in the Central Valley of Mexico about 1300, their neighbors scorned them. The people of the valley considered themselves to be the proud descendants of the Toltec people, while they viewed the Aztecs as savage, uncivilized drifters.
The Aztecs wandered around the valley until the King of Culhuacan (pronounced kool-wha-kan) allowed the Aztecs a permanent home in exchange for working as mercenaries. Mercenaries are soldiers hired to fight for a living. The Aztecs also worked at lowly jobs that other people rejected. As time passed, the Culhuacan people began to respect the hard work and brutal fighting skills of the Aztecs.
The Aztecs roamed the shores of Lake Texcoco in the Central Valley of Mexico before settling on an island in the lake.
In 1323, the King offered his daughter in marriage to the Aztecs, thereby inviting them into his royal family. The Aztecs sacrificed the Culhuacan princess to Huitzilopochtli (pronounced wete-see-o-POK-ta-lee), their bloodthirsty god of war. The enraged king expelled the Aztecs, forcing them once again to wander the Central Valley of Mexico.
The Aztecs lived in a land of earthquakes that caused great destruction. Their legends said the gods destroyed and recreated the world over and over. They believed that the world would be destroyed once again if they did not satisfy their gods by providing them with human sacrifices.
An Aztec priest had a vision that they should build their new home at a place where they found an eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its mouth. After two years of wandering, the Aztecs found that unique vision on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco, so they waded into the shallow lake to build their new home. The image of the eagle, cactus, and snake are part of the flag of present-day Mexico.
The Aztecs created farmland in their new home by constructing a series of artificial islands called chinampas. They marked off small areas with poles and clay walls, then filled the space with muck taken from other parts of the lake, leaving enough room for canoes to travel between the islands. The surfaces of the chinampas were fertile land that provided the Aztecs with as many as seven harvests a year.
In 1427, the Aztecs formed a secret agreement with two other kingdoms. This Triple Alliance conquered the other cultures of the valley and forced them to pay tribute, or payment for protection.
When they gained control of the Central Valley of Mexico, the Aztecs rewrote history to hide their humble origins. Tlacaelel (pronounced tlak-ah-lel) was the half-brother and closest advisor of Aztec King Moctezuma I. Tlacaelel ordered all old history books burned so there would be no memory of who the Aztecs once were. Tlacaelel’s new history said Huitzilopochtli chose the Aztecs to rule the valley. By erasing history, the Aztecs made their transformation complete. They had gone from peasants to princes.