Indigenous Zacatecas

From contact to the present day

By John P. Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: August 27, 2017

Indigenous Zacatecas

The present state of Zacatecas is located at the geographical center of Mexico. Its shares borders with eight states: Coahuila de Zaragoza (on the north), Durango (on the west), Nayarit (on the southwest, Jalisco and Aguascalientes (on the south), Guanajuato (on the southeast), San Luis Potosí (on the west) and Nuevo León (on the northwest). As the eighth largest state of Mexico, Zacatecas has a square area of 75,284 square kilometers, equal to 3.84% of the national territory. The State of Zacatecas is divided into fifty-eight municipios, with the City of Zacatecas as its capital. Its territory lies wholly within the central plateau and is traversed by Sierra Madre Occidental mountain ranges.

In 2010, Zacatecas had a population of 1,579,209 people, ranking it No. 25 among the Mexican states in terms of population. The capital of the State is Zacatecas, which had a population of 129,011 in 2010, representing 8.2% of the state's total population. Guadalupe is the second largest city in terms of population, followed by Fresnillo and Jerez de García-Salinas.

The Zacatecas Economy
The Zacatecas economy primarily depends upon cattle-raising, agriculture, mining, communications, food processing, tourism, and transportation. From 1546 to the present day, Zacatecas has depended upon silver mining for its livelihood. Today, the more than 15 mining districts in Zacatecas yield silver, lead, zinc, gold, phosphorite, wollastonite, fluorite and barium.

In fact, thanks of Zacatecas, Mexico is the largest producer of silver in the world today, contributing 17 percent of the world's total output. In fact, Fresnillo Plc. (Public limited company), which owns silver mines throughout Mexico, is the largest producer of silver in the world and its Saucito mine, located 8 km southwest of its Fresnillo mine, is the largest silver producing mine in the world. The Fresnillo mine is number six in world production.

As of 2016, mining contributes 29.8% to the gross domestic product (GDP) of Zacatecas. But of Zacatecas' 628,000 workers, more than one-quarter (173,368 – or 25.3%) are employed by the agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting industries. Although much of Zacatecas is desert, the primary economic driver of the state is agriculture. Zacatecas farmers are Mexico's foremost producers of beans, chili peppers and cactus leaves and also grow significant guava, grape and peach crops.

Pre-Columbian Zacatecas
The indigenous history of Zacatecas stretches so far into the past that we are unable to say exactly when people settled in the area. Even today, in many parts of Zacatecas, a hundred or more ancient ruins in the state give testimony to an ancient civilization that flourished in western Zacatecas along the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental between about 200 and 1250 A.D. The largest pre-Columbian settlement in Zacatecas can be found in southwestern Zacatecas. In 1535, when the Spaniards discovered La Quemada, they commented on its wide streets and "imposing appearance."

First occupied between about 200 and 300 A.D., La Quemada's population probably peaked after 500 A.D., and was abandoned completely by 900 A.D. Some historians believe that La Quemada may have been the legendary Chicomostoc, the place where the Aztecs stayed nine years during their extended journey from Aztlán to Tenochtitlán (the site of present day Mexico City).

The massive ruins at this fortified ceremonial site consist of extensive terraces and broad stone causeways, as well as gigantic pillars, 18 feet in height and 17 feet in circumference. Located in the municipio of Villanueva, La Quemada's massive ruins remain one of Zacatecas' most important archeological sites and is located about 56 km south of the City of Zacatecas on Federal Highway 54 Zacatecas–Guadalajara, in Mexico.

The archaeological site of Alta Vista, at Chalchihuites, is located 137 miles to the northwest of the City of Zacatecas and 102 miles southeast of the City of Durango. Located to the west of Sombrerete in the northwestern corner of the state, it is believed that the site was a cultural oasis that was occupied more or less continuously from 100 A.D. to 1400 A.D. The archaeologist Manuel Gamio referred to Chalchihuites as a "culture of transition" between the Mesoamerican civilizations and the so-called Chichimeca hunters/gatherers who lived in the arid plateau of central Mexico when the Spaniards arrived. Although both Chalchihuites and Le Quemada represented outposts of Mesoamerican settlement, climatic changes eventually led to their abandonment.

Early Spanish Exploration
After the conquest of southern Mexico in 1521, Hernán Cortés sent several expeditions north to explore La Gran Chichimeca. Juan Alvarez Chico and Alonso de Avalos each led expeditions northward into the land we now call Zacatecas. By this time, the Aztec and Tlaxcalan nations had aligned themselves with the Spaniards and most explorations were undertaken jointly with Spanish soldiers and Indian warriors. These expeditions went north in the hopes of developing trade relations with the northern tribes and finding mineral wealth. Each expedition was accompanied by missionaries who did their part to Christianize the native peoples.

Nuño de Guzmán
In December 1529, Nuño de Guzmán, left Mexico City at the head of a force of five hundred Spaniards and 10,000 Indian soldiers. According to J. Lloyd Mecham, the author of Francisco de Ibarra and Nueva Vizcaya, "Guzmán was an able and even brilliant lawyer, a man of great energy and firmness, but insatiably ambitious, aggressive, wily, and cruel." In a rapid and brutal campaign lasting from February to June, 1530, Guzmán traveled through Michoacán, Jalisco, and southern Zacatecas. The historian Peter Gerhard writes that "Guzmán's strategy throughout was to terrorize the natives with often unprovoked killing, torture, and enslavement. The army left a path of corpses and destroyed houses and crops, impressing surviving males into service and leaving women and children to starve."

Taking formal possession of the conquered areas, Guzmán named his conquered territory "Greater Spain." However, twelve years later, the Spaniard administration renamed the region as Nueva Galicia (New Galicia). This new territory initially took in most of the present-day states of Zacatecas, Durango, Coahuila, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi, and Nayarit.

Reports of Guzmán's brutal treatment of the indigenous people got the attention of the authorities in Mexico City. In 1536, he was arrested, imprisoned and put on trial. Two years later, his trial was removed to Spain, where he would die in poverty and disgrace. But the actions of this man would stir up hatred and resentment that would haunt the Spaniards for the rest of the Sixteenth Century.

The First Guadalajara
One of the earliest encounters that the Zacatecas Indians had with the Europeans took place in 1530 when Juan de Oñate, a lieutenant of the conquistador Nuño de Guzmán, began construction of a small town near the site of present-day Nochistlán in southern Zacatecas. Oñate called this small village La Villa de Espíritu Santo de Guadalajara in honor of the Spanish city where Guzmán had been born.

However, from the beginning, the small settlement had come under Indian attack and in 1531, the Indians of nearby Teul massacred the local Spanish garrison as well as the reinforcements dispatched to subdue them. Recognizing that the neighborhood was not very receptive to its Spanish neighbors, Guzmán, in 1533, decided to move Guadalajara to another site, closer to the center of the province. The City of Guadalajara - today the second largest urban center of Mexico - would be founded at its present location farther south in 1542.

La Gran Chichimeca
When the Spaniards started exploring Zacatecas in the 1520s and 1530s, they encountered several nomadic tribes occupying the area which they referred to as La Gran Chichimeca. The Aztecs had collectively referred to these Indians with the all-encompassing term, Chichimecas. The primary Chichimeca groups that occupied the present-day area of Zacatecas were the Zacatecos, Cazcanes, Tepehuanes and Guachichiles, and they had never been conquered by the Aztecs.

According to Eugene B. Sego's Ph.D. dissertation, the Gran Chichimeca could be "roughly perceived by visualizing an imaginary line running west from the present-day site of Querétaro through Lake Chapala and Guadalajara, thence north to Durango, northeast to Saltillo, and then south along the Sierra Madre Oriental mountain range, to the point of beginning." Its southern boundary lay only seventy miles north of Mexico City.

All of the Chichimeca Indians shared a primitive hunting-collecting culture, based on the gathering of mesquite and tunas (the fruit of the nopal). However, many of them also lived off of acorns, roots and seeds. Many Chichimec tribes utilized the juice of the agave as a substitute for water when the latter was in short supply. The Chichimecas also hunted a large number of small animals, including frogs, lizards, snakes and worms.

The historian Philip Wayne Powell has written several books that dealt with the Chichimeca Indians and the Spanish encounter with these Indians. In his publication Soldiers Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War, Mr. Powell noted that "Hernán Cortés, the Conqueror, defeated the Aztecs in a two-year campaign" but that his "stunning success created an illusion of European superiority over the Indian as a warrior." Continuing with this line of thought, Mr. Powell observed that "this lightning-quick subjugation of such massive and complex peoples as the Tlaxcalan, Aztec, and Tarascan, proved to be but prelude to a far longer military struggle against the peculiar and terrifying prowess of Indian America's more primitive warriors."

Mixtón Rebellion (1540-1541)
In the spring of 1540, the Indian population of western Mexico began a fierce rebellion against the Spanish rule. The indigenous tribes living along today's Three-Finger border region between Jalisco and Zacatecas led the way in fomenting the insurrection. In the hills near Teul and Nochistlán, the Indians attacked Spanish settlers and soldiers and destroyed churches.

By April of 1541, the Cazcanes of southern Zacatecas and northern Jalisco were waging a full-scale revolt against all symbols of Spanish rule. Pedro de Alvarado, the conqueror of Guatemala, hastened to Guadalajara in June 1541 with a force of 400 men. Refusing to await reinforcements, Alvarado led a direct attack against the Juchipila Indians near Nochistlán. On June 24, several thousand Indians attacked the Spaniards with such ferocity that they were forced to retreat with heavy losses. In this retreat, Alvarado was crushed when he fell under a horse. He died in Guadalajara from his injuries on July 4, 1541.

It took the better part of two years to contain the Mixtón Rebellion. Antonio de Mendoza, who had become the first Viceroy of Nueva España in 1535, quickly assembled a force of 450 Spaniards and 30,000 Aztec and Tlaxcalan warriors. In a series of short sieges and assaults, Mendoza captured the native fortresses one by one. By December, 1541, the native resistance had been completely crushed. The Mixtón Rebellion had a profound effect upon the Spanish expansion into central and northern Mexico. The historian J. Lloyd Mecham wrote that "the uprising in Nueva Galicia not only checked advance in that direction, but even caused a temporary contraction of the frontiers."

The Discovery of Silver (1546)
In 1546, an event of great magnitude that would change the dynamics of the Zacatecas frontier took place. On September 8, a Basque nobleman, Juan de Tolosa, meeting with a small group of Indians near the site of the present-day city of Zacatecas, was taken to some nearby mineral outcroppings. Once it was determined that the mineral samples from this site were silver ore, a small mining settlement was very quickly established at Zacatecas, 8,148 feet above sea level.

Suddenly, the dream of quick wealth brought a multitude of prospectors, entrepreneurs, and laborers streaming into Zacatecas. Indians from southern Mexico, eager to earn the higher wages offered by miners, flooded into the region. In the next two decades, rich mineral-bearing deposits would also be discovered farther north in San Martín (1556), Chalchihuites (1556), Avino (1558), Sombrerete (1558), Fresnillo (1566), Mazapil (1568), and Nieves (1574). However, "the rather sudden intrusion of the Spaniards," writes Allen R. Franz, the author of Huichol Ethnohistory: The View from Zacatecas, soon precipitated a reaction from these "hostile and intractable natives determined to keep the strangers out."

Native Tribes of Zacatecas
The various Chichimeca Indians living in the region of present-day Zacatecas are described in the following paragraphs.

Zacatecos. The Zacatecos Indians occupied much of what is now northern Zacatecas and northeastern Durango. Their lands bordered with those of the Tepehuanes on the west and the Guachichiles on the east. Mr. Powell writes that the Zacatecos were "brave and bellicose warriors and excellent marksmen." They were greatly feared by the neighboring tribes, in particular the Cazcanes, whom they attacked constantly.

Although many of the Chichimeca Indians were nomadic, some of the Zacatecos Indians had dwellings of a more permanent character, inhabiting areas near the wooded sierras. The Zacatecos Indians grew roots, herbs, maize, beans, and some wild fruits. They hunted rabbits, deer, birds, frogs, snakes, worms, and rats. Eventually, the Zacatecos would develop a fondness for the meat of the larger animals brought in to their territory by the Spaniards. During their raids on Spanish settlements, they frequently stole mules, horses, cattle, and other livestock, all of which became a part of their diet.

Peter Masten Dunne, the author of Pioneer Jesuits in Northern Mexico, writes that the Zacatecos were "a tall, well-proportioned, muscular people." They had oval faces with "long black eyes wide apart, large mouth, thick lips and small flat noses." The Zacatecos married young, with most girls being married by the age of fifteen. Monogamy was their general practice. Most of the Zacatecas Indians smeared their bodies with black clay. This paint helped shield them from the sun's rays but also kept vermin off their skin. In contrast, their fellow tribal group, the Guachichiles painted themselves with red clays.

Guachichiles. Of all the Chichimec tribes, the Guachichile Indians occupied the largest territory, – an estimated 100,000 square kilometers – from Saltillo, Coahuila in the north to Lake Chapala in eastern Jalisco on the southern end. Their territory extended through parts of eastern Zacatecas, western San Luis Potosí, parts of eastern Jalisco, Aguascalientes and western Guanajuato. Their territory extended westward close to the city of Zacatecas and eastward into sections of San Luis Potosí.

The name Guachichil ‒ given to them by the Aztecs ‒ meant "head colored red." They had been given this label, writes Mr. Dunne, because "they were distinguished by red feather headdresses, by painting themselves red (especially the hair), or by wearing head coverings (bonetillas) made of hides and painted red." The archaeologist Paul Kirchhoff wrote that the following traits characterized the Guachichile Indians: "painting of the body; coloration of the hair; head gear; matrilocal residence; freedom of the married woman; special forms of cruelty to enemies."

In the development of tribal alliances, the Guachichiles were considered the most advanced of the Chichimec tribes. They were a major catalyst in provoking the other tribes to resist the Spanish settlement and exploitation of Indian lands. "Their strategic position in relation to Spanish mines and highways," wrote Mr. Powell, "made them especially effective in raiding and in escape from Spanish reprisal." The Spanish frontiersmen and contemporary writers referred to the Guachichiles "as being the most ferocious, the most valiant, and the most elusive" of all their indigenous adversaries. In addition, the Christian missionaries found their language difficult to learn because of its "many sharply variant dialects." As a result, the conversion of these natives to Christianity did not come easy.

Cazcanes. The Cazcanes Indians occupied southern Zacatecas and northern Jalisco. Occupying territory to the west of the Guamares and Tecuexes and south of the Zacatecos Indians, they were a partly nomadic people whose principal religious and population centers were in Teul, Tlaltenango, Juchipila, and Teocaltiche. After their defeat in the Mixtón Rebellion, the Cazcanes began serving as auxiliaries to the northward Spanish advance. For this reason, they would occasionally come under attack by the Zacatecos Indians.

Tepehuánes. The Tepehuán Indians occupied the southwestern part of Zacatecas. According to Buelna (1891), they received their name from the Náhuatl term tepetl, "mountain," and huan, "at the junction of." The Tepehuanes were located mainly in Durango, on the eastern slope of the Sierra Madre Occidental, but extended into the reaches of what is now western Zacatecas. Unlike the Zacatecas and Guachichiles, the Tepehuanes did not become involved in operations against the Spaniards in the Chichimec War. The historian Charlotte M. Gradie has discussed in great deal the Tepehuanes and their famous revolt that began in 1616 and ravaged much of Durango for three years.

The Chichimeca War (1550-1590)
Mr. Powell writes that rush to establish new settlements and pave new roads through Zacatecas, "left in its wake a long stretch of unsettled and unexplored territory..." As these settlements and the mineral output of the mines grew in numbers, "the needs to transport to and from it became a vital concern of miners, merchants, and government." To function properly, the Zacatecas silver mines "required well-defined and easily traveled routes." These routes brought in badly-needed supplies and equipment from distant towns and also delivered the silver to smelters and royal counting houses in the south.

Mr. Powell wrote that these highways "became the tangible, most frequently visible evidence of the white man's permanent intrusion" into their land. As the natives learned about the usefulness of the goods being transported (silver, food, and clothing), "they quickly appreciated the vulnerability of this highway movement to any attack they might launch."

In time, the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians, in whose territory most of the silver mines could be found, started to resist the intrusion by assaulting the travelers and merchants using the roads. And thus began La Guerra de los Chichimecas (The War of the Chichimecas), which eventually became the longest and most expensive conflict between Spaniards and the indigenous peoples of New Spain in the history of the colony.

The attacks against the silver caravans usually took place in a narrow pass, in rocky terrain, at the mouth of a ravine, or in a place with sufficient forestation to conceal their approach. They usually ambushed their victims at dawn or dusk and struck with great speed. Mr. Powell wrote that "surprise, nudity, body paint, shouting, and rapid shooting were all aimed at terrifying the intended victims and their animals. There is ample evidence that they usually succeeded in this." The Spaniards' superiority in arms was not effective when they were taken by surprise.

In hand-to-hand combat, the Chichimeca warriors gained a reputation for courage and ferocity. Even when the Chichimeca warrior was attacked in his hideout or stronghold, Mr. Powell writes, "He usually put up vigorous resistance, especially if unable to escape the onslaught. In such cases, he fought - with arrows, clubs, or even rocks! Even the women might take up the fight, using the weapons of fallen braves. The warriors did not readily surrender and were known to fight on with great strength even after receiving mortal wounds."

The intensity of the attacks increased with each year. Then, in 1554, the worst disaster of all occurred when a train of sixty wagons with an armed escort was attacked by the Chichimecas in the Ojuelos Pass. In addition to inflicting great loss of life, the Chichimecas carried off more than 30,000 pesos worth of clothing, silver, and other valuables. By the late 1580s, thousands had died and a general depopulation of the Zacatecas mining camps became a matter of concern for the Spanish authorities.

The Turning of the Tide (1585)
If there was any single date that represented a turning of the tide in the Chichimec War, it would be October 18, 1585. On this day, Alonso Manrique de Zuñiga, the Marqués de Villamanrique, became the seventh viceroy of Mexico. Mr. Powell writes that "to this great viceroy must go the major share of credit for planning and largely effecting the end" of the war and "the development of basic policies to guarantee a sound pacification of the northern frontier." Villamanrique evaluated the deteriorating situation, consulted expert advice, and reversed the practices of the past.

The Viceroy learned that many Spanish soldiers had begun raiding peaceful Indians for the purpose of enslavement. Infuriated by this practice, the Marqués prohibited further enslavement of all captured Indians and freed or placed under religious care those who had already been captured. He also appointed Don Antonio de Monroy to conduct investigations into this conduct and punish the Spaniards involved in the slave trade.

Villamanrique also launched a full-scale peace offensive. He opened negotiations with the principal Chichimeca leaders, and, according to Mr. Powell, made to them promises of food, clothing, lands, religious administration, and agricultural implements to attract them to peaceful settlement. As it turns out, the olive branch proved to be more persuasive than the sword, and on November 25, 1589, the Viceroy was able to report to the King that the state of war had ended.

Peace by Persuasion
The policy of peace by persuasion was continued under the next Viceroy, Luis de Velasco. He sent Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries into the former war zone and spent more money on food and agricultural tools for the Chichimecas. He also recruited some 400 families of Tlaxcalans from the south and settled them in eight towns of the war zone. Velasco's successor, the Conde de Monterrey, completed Velasco's work by establishing a language school at Zacatecas to teach missionaries the various Chichimeca dialects. Through this effort, the conversion of the Chichimeca Indians to Christianity would be streamlined.

Peace by Purchase
The most important component of the "peace by purchase" policy involved the shipment and distribution of food, clothing, and agricultural implements to strategically located depots. The clothing shipped, according to Mr. Powell, included coarse woolen cloth, coarse blankets, woven petticoats, shirts, hats and capes. The agricultural implements included plows, hoes, axes, hatchets, leather saddles, and slaughtering knives. "However," writes Mr. Powell, "the most fundamental contribution to the pacification process at century's end was the vast quantity of food, mostly maize and beef." Another important element of the pacification was the maintenance of freedom. Many of the Indians had been granted exemption from forced service and tribute and had thus retained their independence of action.

Assimilation and Mestizaje
As the Chichimeca War ended and the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians settled down to work for their former enemies, the nomadic tribes of Zacatecas disappeared. In the meantime, Catholic missionaries had begun a vigorous campaign to win the hearts and souls of the native people of Zacatecas. By 1596, fourteen monasteries dotted the present-day area of Zacatecas. The peace offensive and missionary efforts were so successful that within a few years, the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians had settled down to peaceful living within the small settlements that now dotted the Zacatecas landscape. Working in the fields and mines alongside the Aztec, Tlaxcalan, Otomí and Tarascan Indians who had also settled in Zacatecas, the Chichimeca Indians were very rapidly assimilated into the more dominant cultures. Absorbed into the Spanish and Indian groups that had invaded their lands half-a-century earlier, the Guachichiles and Zacatecas Indians disappeared as distinguishable cultural entities. And thus, Mr. Powell concludes, "the sixteenth-century land of war thus became fully Mexican in its mixture."

The 1921 Census
According to the 1921 Mexican census, the state of Zacatecas contained 379,329 persons in a republic that boasted a total population of 14,334,780. In all, 32,422 Zacatecas residents (or 8.55%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background, while another 326,615 claimed to be of mixed indigenous and Caucasian background.

The Huicholes and Tepehuanes who have traditionally occupied portions of far western Zacatecas have survived to this day, but most of them now live in the neighboring states of Durango, Chihuahua, Nayarit and Jalisco. In the 1930 census, only 27 persons in Zacatecas were tallied as persons over the age of five who spoke an indigenous language. This number increased to 284 in 1950 and to 1,000 in the 1970 census. With the exception of the Huichol and Tepehuanes speakers, all indigenous languages spoken in Zacatecas during the twentieth centuries were transplanted languages from states south of Zacatecas (i.e., Oaxaca, Chiapas and Michoacán).

Indigenous Languages Spoken in Zacatecas (2000)
In the 2000 census, a mere 1,837 persons in Zacatecas spoke indigenous languages, with the main languages spoken being the Tepehuán (358 persons), Huichol (330 persons), Náhuatl (330), Otomí (119), Mazahua (101), and Purépecha (80). The majority of these speakers of Indian languages were transplants from other states.

Most of the original indigenous peoples of Zacatecas do not exist as individual cultural entities anymore, but genetically their blood has been passed forward to present generations of Zacatecanos and Mexican Americans. The fifty-year struggle of the Zacatecas Indians is a tribute to their resolve and independence, and the fact that they could not be defeated through war alone, but had to be bribed into peace, is a testimony to their tenacity and strength.

Indigenous Languages Spoken in Zacatecas (2010)
In the 2010 census, 5,157 indigenous speakers 3 years and older resided in Zacatecas, but almost one-third of these indigenous speakers (1,631 persons – 31.6%) did not specify which language they spoke. The most commonly spoken language in the state was Huichol, which was only spoken by 1,003 individuals 3 years of age or older.

Copyright © 2017 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


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About John P. Schmal:
John Schmal frequently lectures on Indigenous Mexico, Mexican Genealogy and German Genealogy.
Author's website

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