Revered among the people of Chile as the Toqui (war chief or axe-bearer) who defied infamous Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Valdivia, Lautaro was still a teenager when he first led the united Mapuche tribes into battle against their colonial tormentors. Having been held captive by the Spanish and forced to serve Valdivia as his stable boy for nearly three years prior, Lautaro's jailers had unknowingly given him a prime opportunity to learn the weaknesses of the Conquistadors—weaknesses Lautaro would exploit soon after escaping their grasp.
Long before his first encounters with the Spanish (who had trouble pronouncing the native language) Lautaro was actually known as Leftraru, or "Swift Hawk" in the Mapuche language. And as the son of a peacetime Mapuche chief, by all accounts he lived a relatively quiet early life. It wasn't until his capture (sometime between the ages of 15 and 17) that Lautaro's story truly unfolds, intertwined with that of the local governor, Pedro de Valdivia.
While leading Spain's colonization efforts in Chile, Valdivia spent years establishing a foothold for his nation at the expense of the indigenous tribes. For Lautaro and the Mapuche, this meant the arrival of Spanish settlements and forts throughout their territory in southern Chile. It was during his defense of these settlements from the local populace that Valdivia first captured Lautaro, an event retold through limited historical records and local legends in Chile.
By some accounts, Lautaro knowingly allowed himself to be captured in an effort to infiltrate the Spanish and learn their ways. Whether or not that was the case, what can be said with certainty is that Lautaro was forced into servitude, and it was during his time with Valdivia that "Leftraru" first became "Felipe Lautaro" due to the aforementioned pronunciation issues of the Spanish.
We also know that at some point Lautaro became a groom, tasked with tending to the Conquistadors' horses. By observing how the Conquistadors handled their mounts and how they maneuvered in battle, Lautaro came to understand the limitations of the imposing Spanish cavalry.
If the more colorful tales are to be believed, Lautaro bided his time among the Spanish until he had learned all there was to know about the Conquistadors, planning his escape only when he was sure he could truly lead his people in a successful rebellion.
When he finally did return to the Mapuche, a council of war declared that Lautaro would serve as vice-Toqui to a powerful warrior known as Caupolican. Together, they led an assault on the Spanish forts now scattered across their territory.
Catching the Spanish forces off-guard, Lautaro and the Mapuche were initially met with great success. On what may have been his first outing as a war chief, Lautaro led 6,000 Mapuche warriors to victory at the Battle of Tucapel in 1553 by seizing the Spanish fort. When Pedro de Valdivia attempted to retake the settlement a short time later, his entire army was slaughtered, and he was unceremoniously captured and killed by the Mapuche under the leadership of his former slave.
Unfortunately for Lautaro's campaign, Mapuche tradition dictated that following each victory in battle, a lengthy period of celebration was required. These celebrations were enough to delay Lautaro's progress and allowed the Spanish to abandon some of their settlements before the Mapuche arrived.
After several decisive victories, Lautaro eventually set his sights on the Spanish capital of Santiago. Although his forces were dwindling due to illness, supply constraints, and lack of reinforcements, Lautaro pressed on. After a number of initial skirmishes, Lautaro's forces established an encampment outside the city in preparation for a larger attack.
As the story goes, Lautaro and his army were betrayed by the locals who spotted his camp and betrayed its position to Francisco de Villagra, the governor who replaced Pedro de Valdivia. With this information in hand, Villagra ambushed Lautaro on the morning on April 29th 1557, killing him and leaving the native army in shambles.
Today, Lautaro is among the most famous military leaders in Chilean history, considered by many to be the nation's first true General in light of his tactics on the battlefield. The overwhelming forces of the Spanish did little to slow Lautaro's determination, and his efforts to stop the Spanish atrocities against his people spurred a period of resistance that lasted for nearly three centuries after his passing.