Mexico was already populated by a number of Mesoamerican indigenous societies, with several cities larger and grander than any in Europe, when the first Spanish expeditions arrived on its shores. This is the history of their conquest and the mestizaje, or mixing of European, Indigenous, and African peoples to form a new nation. This article focuses on the history beginning with the first European encounters in the early 16th century, through periods of silver mining and evangelization and finally ending with the War for Independence from Spain in 1810.
|Mexico historical travel topics:
Indigenous nations → Colonial Mexico → Mexican War of Independence → Post-Independence Mexico → Mexican Revolution → Modern Mexico
After Christopher Columbus made his first voyage to the new world in 1492, he and several other explorers sailing under the Spanish flag made subsequent voyages, settling in Cuba, and using that as a base for further explorations that would include Florida, Colombia, Peru and Mexico. Initial excursions to Mexico were not successful. A 1511 voyage ended in a ship being sunk with two survivors who became the first "Spanish settlers" in Mexico. A 1517 voyage landed in Campeche where a Mayan army killed most of the Spanish.
The real conquest of Mexico began in 1519 when Hernan Cortes set out from Cuba with 11 ships and 500 men. He first landed on the coast of Tabasco where he learned that the most powerful and richest society were the Aztecs, who by the way, had lots and lots of gold. Cortes then headed north to find these Aztecs, landing on the coast of Veracruz, where he found an ally in the Totonoc chiefs. Cortes established a beachhead from which he would march inland to Tenochtitlan (Moctezuma's capital city), taking on the wealthy and powerful Aztec Empire through a combination of subterfuge and cosmic luck. In 1521, Cortes connived his way to victory and killed the Aztec Emperor Cuauhtémoc, as well as Coanacoch, the King of Texcoco, and Tetlepanquetzal, King of Tlacopan, cutting off all three heads of the Aztec Triple Alliance and leaving the Aztec with no remaining power structure. The Spanish proceeded to destroy all three capital cities, burning what would burn and dismantling what wouldn't. They built their new capital, Mexico City, directly on top of the ruins of the main temple and palace of the Aztecs, a modus operandi they would follow elsewhere.
Once the Aztec fell, the Spanish spread out from the central valley of Mexico and proceeded to conquer the other Mesoamerican civilizations. Some fell quickly, some put up fierce fights before falling, and then there were the Maya (with their social structure of city-states with no central government) who would take the Spanish more than 150 years to put down.
The most significant sites to visit if you want an understanding of the conquest of Mexico are:
- 1 Templo Mayor, Mexico City. Templo Mayor is the ruins of the Great Temple at the center of Tenochtitlan. The site and its museum provides the largest and most complete examination of the Aztec capital at the time of the conquest.
- 2 Playa Villa Rica, Veracruz. Place where Cortes landed on April 22, 1519 to begin the conquest of Mexico. He burned his ships to prevent his men from mutiny and retreat back to Cuba. Quiahuiztlan is the Totonoc settlement overlooking the beach. The Totonoc chafed at Aztec rule so the chief welcomed Cortes and became his ally as they marched together against the Aztec empire.
New Spain edit
In the early 16th century, Spain claimed most of North and South America, a claim that was legitimized by a papal decree that essentially recognized what is now Brazil as Portuguese territory and just about everything else in the Americas as Spanish. During the Spanish Conquest, all of Mexico was designated as "New Spain", including all of Central America and most of what is today the western United States. The territory was under the governorship of Spanish viceroys and the period is often referred to as the virreinato (viceregal era).
Even as Mesoamerican societies were being conquered, economic and social development of the new colony proceeded. This section tells the story of Mexico's colonial period with a long period of growth over a period of almost three centuries, starting from the end of the conquest period (around 1535) until the War of Independence from Spain (starting in 1810). There were three main components to Spanish expansion:
1 - military conquest - Spanish troops equipped with rifles, armor, and horses were usually no match for indigenous foot soldiers armed with bows, spears, and knives. The expansion proceeded quickly in most of Mexico with some of the northern territories proving tougher to dominate, and the Yucatan Peninsula proving extremely difficult with some areas never really giving in to Spanish rule at all until the modern era.
2 - economic conquest - The Spanish established an encomiendo system that appropriated land, giving it to upper class Spaniards, who had the right to enslave indigenous people and buy additional African slaves from European slave traders, as needed to build industry and commerce in the new world. Large haciendas were established as the focus of agricultural, mining, or commercial enterprises. Haciendas were established in all parts of Mexico and were a cornerstone of the economy up until 1820.
3 - spiritual conquest - Spanish missionaries quickly followed the route of military conquests, establishing missions to convert the souls of indigenous people so they could become part of a decent Christian society. The missionaries were members of several Catholic orders, including the Franciscans, Jesuits, Dominicans, and others. The missions frequently included schools and hospitals and protected indigenous people who sought refuge. The missionaries sometimes found it advantageous to learn about indigenous cultures so that they could reach out to people in their own language, referencing their historical culture. On the other hand, the missionaries were often cultural vandals destroying spiritual icons of Mesoamerican gods and burning whole libraries of codices, the documents written by Maya, Aztec, and Mixtec cultures.
Hundreds of small colonial towns throughout Mexico can provide historical insight to this period. Some sites that would be good first steps toward understanding the viceregal era of colonial expansion include:
1 Museo Nacional del Virreinato (National Museum of the Viceroyalty), Hidalgo 99, Tepotzotlán. Big museum housed in a former Jesuit college. Prepare to be overwhelmed by an obscene amount of gold, particularly in the churrigueresque church. Just a few minutes inside the museum will impress upon you just how rich the Spanish crown became through its colonies in the Americas, but definitely plan on several hours because there's a lot of compelling stories covering a 300-year timespan. Historical displays describe who the viceroys were who were appointed by the Spanish King to rule, how the nascent colony was developed in his name and how rich the church became as it spread the Catholic faith, pacifying the native populations.
2 Museo Nacional de Historia Castillo Chapultepec, Chapultepec, Mexico City/Chapultepec. Mexico's National History Museum is the largest and most comprehensive collection of artifacts documenting the nation's entire history. Several galleries are devoted to the colonial era.
Silver Mining edit
Gold was what Cortes lusted after with all his greedy heart, and he did indeed find lots of gold in Mexico, but silver is the metal that truly made Spain the richest empire on earth for more than 300 years. Mexico had vast reserves of the shiny metal and within a few short years of the conquest, towns were spring up everywhere from Mexico City through the Bajio region with haciendas dedicated to developing mining operations and missions to help pacify natives for use as slave labor. Dozens of mining museums throughout the region chronicle the economic history of this time.
Transportation was a major logistical challenge for the Spanish. The first order of business was to build ports to receive supply ships from Spain and to send the galleons home, loaded with silver and gold. Veracruz became the single most important port city in Mexico and it was heavily defended (and attacked by marauding pirates from England and France).
To meet the need for land transportation through the inhospitable terrain, Spanish settlers responded by building the first of a series of Caminos Real (Royal Roads). The first was the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, which started in Mexico City and headed northwest, through major mining towns like Queretaro, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosi, and Zacatecas. Later expansion of the road would carry it north through Durango (state) and Chihuahua (state) eventually terminating in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Subsequent Caminos Real would include the Camino Real of California which ran along the California coast from Loreto in Baja California Sur north through San Diego and on to San Francisco, while another (Camino Real de los Tejas) ran across Texas to Louisiana. Neither of these later Caminos Real were important to mining, but both supported the expansion of the Spanish colonization.
- 1 Camino Real de Tierra Adentro, Mexico City, Mexico State, Queretaro, Guanajuato, Zacatecas. 1,400 kilometer route used in the colonial era to expand throughout the territory of New Spain. Includes multiple sites in Mexico and the United States. UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 2 Guanajuato, Guanajuato. There are lots of historic colonial mining towns in Mexico, but one of the most rewarding is Guanajuato with several 17th and 18th century colonial churches and at least 3 silver mining museums, plus a number of historical museums and monuments from the colonial era. UNESCO World Heritage Site
The conversion of souls to Christianity was a major part of Spanish colonization from the very first explorations. Missionaries were participants in the conquest of all Mesoamerican civilizations. The Spanish crown had a partnership with the Vatican, and the church typically assumed governmental administrative roles as towns were conquered. The church sent large numbers of missionaries, who built missions with large convents (monasteries) and churches, often with the assumption that they could train an army of converted indigenous people to become priests and expand the footprint of the church throughout the new world.
Priests became students of the indigenous cultures, learning about the societies, history, and languages. They realized that if they could communicate with the native populations they would more effectively convert them to Christianity. Some of the most authoritative sources of Indigenous history and culture are the books written by colonial era missionaries.
Evangelization went quickly for the first 20 years of the conquest, but then the Spanish priests realized that the indigenous were often willing to accept the new Christian god as "god of heaven" but that they were actually just adding his name to their panteon of existing Mesoamerican gods. Christians believe their god is the one true god and there can only be one god. The indigenous were okay with the idea of a Christian god, but they would pray to him as an equal with the 20+ gods they already worshipped. That was not okay with the padres.
The Catholic missionaries became cultural vandals who destroyed icons and images of Mesoamerican gods where they could find them. They also sought out the codices that often described stories of the gods, and they burned every codex they could find. When the Inquisition spread across Europe, the fever also infected religious zealots in Mexico who would persecute indigenous people who professed faith in their ancient gods. Naturally, the inquisition was also further impetus to destroy even more of the native cultures.
Churches, missions, and monasteries are some of the most significant historical reminders of the colonial era, and they exist in every colonial town in the country, as well as in rural regions where you often find magnificent churches that seem far too big and far too opulent to have ever been supported by the sparse local population. Many of these are designated national historical sites, and several dozen are inscribed as parts of UNESCO World Heritage sites.
- 3 16th century missions on the slopes of Popocateptl, Puebla, Morelos, Mexico, and Tlaxcala states. 15 missions in Central Mexico were identified by UNESCO as the earliest places where colonial evangelization took place. Most of the missions are in small, rural communities within day-trip distance of Mexico City or Puebla. UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 4 Franciscan missions in the Sierra Gorda, Queretaro (state). Five missions in the forests of the Sierra Gorda mountains are emblematic of a period in the 18th century when the Franciscans were evangelizing areas near the growing silver mines. These missions often used indigenous artisans and incorporate architectural details, frescoes, and sculptures that reflect indigenous themes merged with Christian themes. UNESCO World Heritage Site
- 5 Museo de la Inquisition, C. Tacuba 76, Mexico City/Centro. Interesting collection of torture devices and exhibits describing the history of the Inquisition and its role in Mexico prior to the War of Independence. (The actual headquarters for the Inquisition, with all its myriad torture chambers, was a massive building at República de Brasil 33 in the Centro Historico. Today, the Palacio de la Santa Inquisicion houses the Mexican Medical Museum.).
Racial divides cause myriad problems in societies where people are treated as unequal. Mexico (like most Latin American countries) has fewer serious racial problems than its neighbors because races have freely mixed since the first days of the colonial era. In fact, Hernan Cortes famously took an indigenous woman, Malinche, as his mate and fathered two children with her. Most Spanish conquistadors followed their commander's example. When African slaves started being imported to New Spain, they too could inter-marry with Spanish or Indigenous persons. When the port of Acapulco opened, ushering in an era of trade with the Spanish colonies in the Philippines, Asians were added to the racial mix.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, New Spain courted racial strife when something of a social hierarchy evolved that was known as casta. A complicated language evolved based on lineage. Pure European Spaniards were the highest regarded segment of society and pure Indigenous and pure African had the lowest status. In between was everything else....but there were names for those somethings.
If a Spaniard mated with an Indigenous woman, the children would be called mestizo (a term that gradually became used to mean any mixed race person). If a Spaniard and an African mated, the children were called mulatto. If a mestizo mated with an Indigenous person, the children were called coyotes. And so on, and so forth. An entire gallery of the Museo Nacional de Arte in Mexico City is devoted to casta paintings in which 18th century artists depicted the racial features of parents and their offspring. Casta designations were used in census statistics in the 18th century, but the entire colonial-era casta nomenclature was loudly rejected during the War of Independence, which offically declared all races to be equal.
Today, the term mestizaje refers to the mixing of cultures and races and is viewed as a positive aspect of Hispanic history. It is estimated that well over 90% of Mexico's population proudly identify as mestizo (and scientific DNA surveys put the Mexican mestizo number as high as 97%). This is a sharp contrast to policies of misceganation that existed elsewhere in North America where racial mixing was illegal in many U.S. states until 1967 and racial discrimination continues to be a divisive topic.
- 1 Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City/Centro. The National Museum of Art is a huge museum with a collection spanning all of Mexico's historical periods, including that odd period of the 18th century when artists fixated on the physical features of children produced through free mixing of different races. Anyone could marry anyone and a blended Mexican race (la raza) evolved.
- 2 Cuajinicuilapa, Guerrero. African slave traders did a steady business during the colonial era, selling humans for labor to hacienda owners in Mexico. Most of the Africans have melded into Mexican society, inter-marrying with other races, however some black Afro-Mexican communities still exist, mostly in the southern states of Oaxaca and Guerrero. The town of Cuajiniocuilapa is one of these communities and is where you will find the Museo Nacional de la Cultura Afromestiza (National Museum of Afro-Mestiza Culture).