Francisco Pizzaro was born in Trujillo, Spain in 1476. His life started out impoverished. He tended pigs as a child and could not read or write. He joined the Spanish military as soon as he was able and fought in the Hispanola War against Italy. When the war ended, he volunteered to sail with one of the first conquistadors to set out for the Indies, Alonso de Ojeda. Ojeda had acquired a reputation for being fierce and ruthless in battle, but was widely known to be a charismatic man who drew many people to join him in his voyages for exploration and profit. Ojeda is perhaps best known for naming Venezuela (little Venice).
Pizzaro's alliance with Ojeda took him to Jamaica where he heard tales of great wealth to be found in El Dorado, somewhere along the coast of South America. He decided to form his own company of explorers with the help of Diego de Almagro, another conquistador with whom he would have a long and precarious partnership. The two men obtained funding from Emperor Charles V with the promise that they would keep little gold for themselves and send most of it back to Spain.
Pizzaro landed off the coast of Peru and made his way down the Andes Mountains. He reached an Incan city, believing that he had found El Dorado. It turned out he was really in the Peruvian capital, called Cajamarca. Cajamarca was ruled by Atahualpa, the second son of Huayna Capac who, upon his death, divided his empire between Atahualpa and his brother, Huascar. Before Atahualpa met up with Pizzaro, he had already invaded Huascar's territory, imprisoned his brother and taken control of the whole empire.
Pizzaro greeted Atahualpa with friendly gestures and promises of mutual prosperity between the Incas and the Spanish. He came into Cajamarca with a couple hundred armed men and a few horses. As soon as he had them lulled into his confidence he killed anyone who could fight back and took Atahualpa prisoner. With the aid of firearms, it was an easy rout.
In an attempt to secure his freedom and prove to Pizzaro that he could be trusted, Atahualpa ordered his brother, Huascar, killed. When that wasn't enough, he promised Pizzaro a room filled to the top with gold. Pizzaro waited for nine months while bags of gold were brought to him. During that time, he taught Atahualpa to speak Spanish and even gave him a Christian baptism with the name Francisco. Finally, all the gold was delivered, but Pizzaro was still not satisfied. He had Atahualpa killed. Some say he was beheaded and some say that Pizzaro planned to burn him at the stake and that the plan was thwarted because the Incas believed that they still used their bodies in the afterlife. Not wanting his body desecrated, his own people strangled him.
Even with the Incas virtually decimated, Pizzaro was still beset with problems. While he expanded his conquest, other conquistadors challenged his territory. Pedro de Alvarado led an armed force to Quito, which was the city originally granted to Atahualpa by his father. He and his lieutenants put down the insurrection by putting the city to the torch, but that hardly ended his problems. Once again, he enlisted the aid of Almagro. Almagro was reluctant to help since his original deal with Pizzaro was that they divide up the spoils of the Incas and he had yet to see any profit. Pizzaro convinced him that he could have all of Chile if he would help. Almagro agreed, but was cheated again. In retaliation, he seized the city of Cuzco, but his victory was short-lived as Pizzaro quickly took it back and had Almagro killed.
Unfortunately for Pizzaro, Almagro's men were extremely loyal. They waited for an opportunity to catch Pizzaro unaware. One night in 1541, they surprised him at dinner and killed him.
The conquistadors were some of the greediest and most ruthless men in the history of exploration. Many places still bear the names of such men, such as America, Venezuela and Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz.