Spanish economy and indigenous labor in Chihuahua

This article provides a summary, as updated as possible, of the history of the state of Chihuahua, and the economic relationship between the Spaniards and the indigenous groups from 1560-1630.

Spanish economy and indigenous labor in Chihuahua
Chihuahua, Mexico. Photo by Charles Elizondo / Unsplash

As Cramaussel points out, in the early years the inhabitants of Santa Bárbara faced great difficulties in undertaking mining and agricultural work, as well as in maintaining communication with the south of Nueva Vizcaya and with the rest of the viceroyalty. The small number of Spaniards made it very difficult to find workers among the indigenous people, who were reluctant to work for the Europeans. For this reason, these first Spanish settlers resorted to violent methods to obtain the precious labor force. The resistance of the natives to submit to the Spanish mandate was the pretext to organize massive captures of indigenous people and to send them to the mines and ranches, where they even lived tied in collars. As can be understood, this Spanish violence began to generate uneasiness and animosity among the indigenous population.

To sustain an outpost in such a remote portion of Mexico City, the Bajío, and Zacatecas - in other words, the heart of the viceroyalty of New Spain - the Spaniards were forced to dedicate themselves to farming. The initial exchanges with the Tepehuanes and Tarahumaras were not a source of considerable magnitude. The first settlers, many of them former soldiers, received various privileges from the Crown to ensure their permanence. Among these privileges was the fact that after five years of residence they became the definitive owners of the land they had received through a grant from the Crown; likewise, the first settlers could not be deprived of the water granted to them; as "neighbors" they had the right to elect the local authorities and to receive indigenous workers before the others. In the Spanish settlements, the " neighbors" were the minority composed of those who could elect and be elected to local government positions. In demographic terms, the number of vecinos ("neighbors") was not equal to the number of inhabitants, because neither relatives nor servants were included.

Years later, in 1574, the Spanish occupation of Santa Bárbara gained strength with the creation of a Franciscan convent at a point that would later be known as Valle de San Bartolomé (today's Valle de Allende). This town was located in a fertile area, watered by a river that would later bear the name of the town. Some of Santa Bárbara's neighbors had obtained some land and water grants to plant wheat and fruit trees.

The mining of Santa Bárbara -and later those of the nearby minerals of San Juan and Todos Santos (1591)- did not have the wealth that the Spaniards expected, since it was limited to the exploitation of superficial deposits of gold and silver. Despite that, the Indians of Mexico and Michoacán, who had been part of Ibarra's expedition, as well as the black slaves, were not enough to satisfy the demand of workers that the mines and ranches of the Spaniards required. The neighbors of Santa Bárbara expressed repeated complaints about the scarcity of workers in their region.

The European occupation relied on the work of the natives; to guarantee this labor force, the Spaniards resorted to various methods. The simplest: the capture of indigenous people. But there were two other more complex methods: the encomienda and the repartimiento. Using the former, the Crown granted rights to the encomendero over several native peoples who had to pay tribute, either in kind or in labor; in exchange, the encomendero had to support the work of evangelization of the indigenous people he had entrusted to him. The repartimiento, on the other hand, was a system of assigning temporary workers that were regulated by common agreements between the Spanish authorities and the authorities of the local towns or villages. These methods, however, did not take hold in Santa Bárbara in the 16th century; therefore, the most successful method continued to be the hunting of natives.

The founding of Santa Bárbara and Valle de San Bartolomé marked the beginning of working relations between the Spaniards and the indigenous people in this area. These were largely coercive relations, marked by tension and violence. It is worth mentioning, however, that there were also cases of indigenous people who decided to settle in the Spanish establishments at their own risk.

The encomiendas granted by the Crown during these years in Santa Bárbara concealed a reality defined by the violence involved in the capture of indigenous people. These encomiendas granted in Santa Bárbara did not include the payment of tribute. This would be a distinctive feature of the Novo-Hispanic north: unlike the indigenous people of the center of the viceroyalty, those of the north would not pay tribute, largely because of the state of war. Some indigenous people preferred to flee to the highlands or other places rather than be subjected to the exploitation of the Spaniards. It is also very probable that with this violence, movements of the indigenous population began, making it difficult to study their situation at the time of contact: it is not difficult that the semi-nomads became nomadic and that the nomads confirmed their nomadism by moving to new places and mixing with other groups.

Another problem was the diseases transmitted by the Spaniards, which caused great epidemics. At least in 1577 and 1590, there were two of them that severely affected the local indigenous population. Smallpox and measles epidemics would follow one another in the 17th century in cycles of five to eight years, bringing with them great mortality among the local natives.

Some of these groups decided to confront Spanish violence with force. The attacks continued and reached such an extreme in 1586 that the village of Santa Barbara had to be evacuated. Thus, this settlement joined its neighbor Indé in the history of depopulation and repopulation. Only two years later Santa Bárbara was repopulated. In 1591 the small mineral of Todos Santos was formed, which in 1604 had only 18 neighbors.

Towards the end of the century, in 1598, the Spaniards undertook an important advance in their northward expansion, thanks to Juan de Oñate's interest in occupying New Mexico. Oñate and many Spaniards still dreamed of finding the famous cities of enormous wealth. Oñate obtained a concession from the Crown to conquer new territories, in exchange for privileges and appointments. It was, then, a private expedition authorized by the Spanish government, similar to that of Ibarra.

For his expedition, Oñate traveled to Santa Bárbara, which was obligatory because it was the last Spanish town on the northern frontier. He remained there for almost two years, preparing for the journey. Before Oñate, several expeditions had passed through Santa Bárbara, such as those of Chamuscado in 1581, Espejo the following year, and Zaldívar in 1588. The repeated attempts to conquer New Mexico meant a drain on the feeble town of Santa Bárbara. This was because they attracted some of the few inhabitants of the mineral to the adventure. In addition, the village had to feed the expeditionaries and at times the men and animals caused damage to the crops; robbery and showmanship were other complaints of the local inhabitants. At the end of 1597 a group of more than 129 soldiers and settlers, 83 wagons, and 7,000 head of cattle began the journey north. Months later they crossed the Rio Grande (or Bravo) and headed north. On April 30, 1598, Oñate took possession of the province of New Mexico.

Oñate's expedition was not only important for the founding of New Mexico but also because it opened a road that would be widely used in the following centuries in the traffic to Santa Fe. Thus, the Spaniards, at the beginning of the 17th century, had extended the inland route, as it would later be called, from Mexico City to Santa Fe, a stretch of almost 2,500 kilometers (about 600 leagues). Although no one knew it at the time, this route would be fundamental in shaping the space that would later be known as Chihuahua.

However, for years the stretch between Santa Barbara and Santa Fe remained without Spanish settlements since the occupation of New Mexico was very hazardous and fragile in its early stages. Some of the members of Oñate's expedition were so disappointed that they preferred to return; some of them contributed to increasing the population of the Santa Barbara area. For the Spaniards, it was a difficult route, because it crossed a long stretch inhabited by diverse indigenous groups. The historical shaping of Chihuahua can be seen to a great extent through the gradual occupation of that space with Spanish settlements and exploitations.

By 1604 the village of Santa Bárbara was again abandoned and would remain so for at least three decades. What was not depopulated was the group of farms and agricultural and cattle ranches of the Spaniards of the so-called province of Santa Bárbara. Despite the difficulties, these settlements managed to hold their own as the outposts of the Spanish expansion in the Septentrión, which were soon reinforced with new settlements, the missions.

Autor: Luis Aboites, Source: ILCE