[from its colonial days of New Spain to the modern era1519-1951]

The Spanish conquest of Mexico, launched from Cuba in 1519, resulted eventually in the creation of a new hybrid culture. Some of the men who led military expeditions to extend the frontier of Nueva España were:

Alonso Alvarez de Pineda who mapped the coast of Texas for the governor of Jamaica in 1519

Alvar Nuñez de Vaca a shipwrecked soldier who wandered Texas for eight years (1528-1536)

Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, who led an expedition through Texas and as far north as Kansas 1540-1542

Spanish political control lasted for three centuries. Supreme authority over the Spanish empire belonged to the king, he was assisted in political decisions by the Cortes (parliament-court) and in administrative matters by the Council of Indies. New Spain was organized as a Viceroyalty in 1535. In all there were 62 viceroys of New Spain from 1535 - 1821. The viceroyalty of New Spain, at one time, included Mexico, the West Indies, Central America, Venezuela and the Philippines.

In practice all but Mexico were ruled by different autonomous Captain Generals who reported to the Viceroy. The viceroyalty of Peru ruled the rest of South America. This changed when the Bourbons gained the throne of Spain in 1700. Four viceroyalties were created:

New Spain which included Mexico, Central America, and the West Indies

New Granada included Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, and Ecuador

Peru, which included Peru, western Bolivia and Chile

La Plata, which included eastern Bolivia, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and southern Chile.

In New Spain, an Audiencia (royal court) was established in 1528, and the first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza, took office in 1535. The audiencia consisted of four oidores (judges), basically it acted as court of law and appeals. The colony was divided into provinces ruled by governors, and these were subdivided into smaller units usually called departments which were made up of districts. Districts were administered by corregidores (magistrates/sheriffs) or alcaldes mayores (mayors) of the principal settlements or villages. These last men were aided in their decisions by cabildos (town councils) or ayuntamientos (municipal councils). These councils were made up of regidores (aldermen). In the 1780's the corregidores and their territorial jurisdiction called corregimientos were displaced by a system of Intendencias which included several former corregimientos. The office holder, the intendentes, had subdelegados (subordinates) in each district. This bureaucracy was sustained by directives from the crown that would often take years to work through the different levels.

In the first administration, that of Mendoza, the followers of Cortes, the Conqueror of Mexico, received Encomiendas, grants of Indian villages from which they could collect tribute. These grants gave the colonists control over Indian labor and produce. Many of the clergy objected to the Encomiendas. The Indians themselves revolted (1541) unsuccessfully against Spanish control and abuses of the Encomienda system. The crownopposed the Encomiendas both because they led to abuse of the Indians and because they seemed a reversion to feudal practices that challenged the central power of the monarchy. The Spanish ruler, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, attempted to abolish or curb them, most notably by the so-called New Laws of the Indies of 1542. Twenty years later a group of leading colonists (led by Cortes's son) revolted in protest against attempts to diminish their power, but the viceroy put down the rebellion. The Encomienda system declined gradually.

In close alliance with the Roman Catholic Church, the Spanish crown sought to create a well-ordered colony, free of feudal privilege and religious dissent. The Spanish religious orders (especially the Franciscans) were successful. The friars capitalized on the similarities between Catholicism and Indian folk religion to carry out mass conversions. In the Spaniards' eyes an Indian who accepted Christianity became theoretically humanized and, therefore, protected by Spanish law. The church often built its shrines on the sites of Indian idols. The friars made the conversions and then moved on to new frontiers. The secular clergy (parish priests) in turn organized the Christian communities. Missions and monasteries came to dominate much of the countryside.

The Spanish crown and colonists controlled a vast wealth that had several sources. Silver mining underlaid the colony's prosperity. Urban centers based on mining flourished at Zacatecas, Taxco, San Luis Potosi, and Fresnillo ( and later in Durango and Chihuahua). Large estates and ranches fed the mining centers. Other estates grew wheat, sugarcane, and indigo for export. Colonial merchants distributed such goods as cotton, silk, and dye that the Indians produced. Spain, however, following a policy of mercantilism, prohibited the colonists from manufacturing products that competed with goods shipped by or manufactured in Spain.

In the 17th century, the economy of New Spaincollapsed. Disease and overwork had combined to wipe out much of the Indian population. By 1700 only a little more than 1 million Indians survived in New Spain (out of an estimated population of 11 million or more in the 1520's and perhaps 7 million in the 1550's). In addition, the vast cattle and sheep herds destroyed farmland, and the Spanish monopolized irrigation water; it thus became almost impossible for the Indian farmers to grow food. Without labor the mines could no longer function. The population retreated into rural estates called haciendas, which became self sufficient centers of political and economic power. Nevertheless, the viceroyalty's frontiers continued to expand as friars and soldiers moved the borders into what are today the states of Texas and California. Thirty six missions were built in Texas. The last in 1793.

The missions were designed like medieval towns. A huge wall, eight foot high and three foot thick enclosed an open square. The walls of the mission were the walls of the various buildings within; the church, friary, housing for the missionaries, jacales (primitive housing for the Indians), workshops, toolsheds, granary, a refectory (dining hall), kitchen, offices, meeting/classroom, a main gate complete with quarters. Sometimes the well was within the walls as in the case of the Alamo. Some of the missions had a mill.

Many of the missions had farms nearby fed by an irrigation system called an acequias. Some of the missions were supported by large ranches, run by the missionaries to feed its inhabitants and those dependent on the mission for food. For instance the Mission Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espriritu Santo owned, in 1758, 3,220 head of cattle, 120 horses, and 1600 sheep. Many of the missions established by the friars led to the establishment of presidios to protect the Indians who came to the missions and their crops.

The presidios besides having a large contingent of men and a barracks to house them, also typically contained a chapel, stockade, guardhouse, residences, offices, dining facilities, carpenter shop, blacksmith, and storage facilities. This build up of mission, presidio, and attendant support facilities often became the basis for the formation of some of Texas' oldest towns. Some of the missions are listed with those that led to towns indicated.


Founding/ Official Name/ Location


1675 unknown at the confluence of the Rio Grande River and the Rio Conchos.

1690 San Francisco de los Tejas moved from near Weches in east Texas to what is now San Antonio, and became -

San Francisco de la Espada

1700 San Juan Bautista Eagle Pass

1716 San Francisco de los Neches

1716 Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Nacogdoches

1716 Nuestra Señora de los Dolores San Augustine

1718 San Antonio de Valero Béxar (San Antonio) the mission was named after the Viceroy Valero. The viceroy's brother was the Duc de Béxar/Béjar.

1722 Nuestra Señora del Espíritu Santo de Zuniga moved in 1726, and again in 1749 and renamed -

Nuestra Señora de la Bahía del Espíritu Santo later became La Bahia and then Goliad.

1754 Nuestra Señora del Rosario de los Cujanes it was located four leagues (about 12 miles) east of La Bahía.

Nuestra Señora de Refugio Refugio

In the 18th century a new Spanish dynasty, the Bourbons, reorganized the colonies. Political boundaries were reshuffled; the crown improved tax collection, reduced export and import duties, and appointed honest officials. The economy boomed. Mining production rose fourfold, and agriculture and trade increased. Acapulco flourished as a center of trade with the Orient; Vera Cruz dominated the Caribbean and European trade. The colonist also developed textile, rope, tobacco, china, pulque ( an alcoholic beverage) industries--all supported by locally produced raw materials.

Puebla, the center of woolen mills and pottery, became a large urban center. Guanajuato and Guadalajara also became centers of wealth and industry. Mexico City, the colony's administrative center, grew to a population of 170,000. It housed the viceroy, a great university, a school of mines, and Audiencia.

In 1800, New Spain enjoyed an enviable position. Mining, industry, and agriculture thrived; it possessed major centers of learning and urban administrative centers. The population had grown to 6.5 million: about 42% Indian, 18% Spanish, 38% mestizo. The viceroy's writ extended south to present day Panama and north to California.

The system contained, however, the seeds of its own destruction. The native-born Spanish, born in Nueva España (Criollos) resented Spanish monopolization of political power and economic system that favored the Spanish born. A fuller discussion is found in the Chapter I, Spanish Texas. Spain's authority was also eroded as its position as a world power declined. The rural masses lacked land and purchasing power, and thousands lived in urban slums. In addition, New Spain's territorial boundaries were too remote. No roads connected the frontier areas with the administrative centers, and troops for defense were in short supply. These problems led to a final break with Spain in the 1820's.

Mexican independence came about at the convergence of two revolts. The first was led by two poor priests, Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla and José María Morelos y Pavon, and was directed against colonial officials. On September 16, 1810, Hidalgo led an Indian uprising; his call for revolution, the Grito de Dolores (Cry of Sorrows; a rousing speech made in the town of Dolores), called for a new government and redistribution ofland. Hidalgo's forces marched toward Mexico City under the banner of the Mexican Virgin of Guadalupe. In the meantime, Morelos led guerrilla forces in the south; he assumed leadership of the revolution after Hidalgo was executed (1811). The Spanish bureaucracy and rich criollos defeated the rebellion, however, and executed Morelos (1815) as well as other leaders. The second revolt occurred when these same wealthy criollos, feared Spain (then dominated by liberals) would acquiesce to demands for land redistribution. Under the leadership of Agustin de Iturbide and with the support of reactionary Spaniards, the criollos declared (1821) Mexico independent. Iturbide was proclaimed Emperor Agustin I in 1822, but the following year unpaid troops overthrew the fiscally plagued empire, set up a republic with Guadalupe Victoria (1786-1843) as its first president, and ushered in 50 years of chaos.

Historians have called the years between 1823 and 1855 "the Age of Santa Anna". General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, one of the leaders of the coup that overthrew Iturbide and several times president of Mexico, was more a representative than a dominant figure. Mexico faced staggering problems probably beyond the ability of any individual or group to solve. The government was saddled with an internal debt of millions of pesos incurred by Spain and Iturbide. Military expenses greatly exceeded revenue. The harassed government sought funds abroad, but foreign loans could be obtained only at heavy rates of interest and discount. Once the money reached Mexico, government officials spent it on second-hand war material or grafted it themselves. Bankrupt governments rose and fell.

During this turbulent era, two groups competed for dominance. Liberals representing regional power centers and free-trading interests sought to model the new Mexican nation on the United States. Their rivals, the conservatives, were supported by the army, Mexico City and other colonial administrative centers, and somemanufacturers. Both parties eventually turned to the church's wealth to alleviate insurmountable fiscal problems. Santa Anna, sometimes a liberal, sometimes a conservative, moved in and out of power. By the 1850's this chaos had led to disaster. Mining virtually stopped, agriculture declined, and trade and industry suffered from internal tariffs, foreign competition, banditry, and political violence. Immigration was virtually nonexistent. Texas had declared its independence on March 2, 1836 and by 1846, Mexico was embroiled in war with the United States.

The disunited Mexicans were routed, and in the peace treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico lost over half of its territory, including the area of the present U. S. states of California and New Mexico as well as northern Arizona. Mexico stood virtually ruined; the national debt had reached astronomical proportions; and the army had degenerated into banditry. In 1853, Santa Anna returned to power as "perpetual dictator" and sold southern Arizona to the United States for $10 million.

In 1855 a group of liberals, led by Melchor Ocampo (1814-61), Ignacio Comonfort (1812-63), and the pure-blooded Indian Benito Juarez, forced Santa Anna from power and ended his dominance of Mexican national life. In order to restore the shattered economy the liberals decreed that the church had to sell most of its land and that Indian communal lands (ejidos) had to be distributed to individual peasants. These reforms created a rural middle class, however; the poor could not afford to purchase the newly available land. The liberals also promulgated (1857) a new constitution. Government revenue rose, but most of it went to meet the costs of a new civil war, called the War of Reform (1858-61). The conservatives sought foreign help.

At the end of the year 1861, a joint expeditionary force of English, Spanish and French troops landed in Mexico. Their purpose was to recover by force monies loaned to Mexico which succeeding administrations refused to pay. Theliberals, led by Benito Juarez, resisted bitterly. The English and Spanish withdrew in early 1862. The French stayed behind. In 1862, Napoleon III of France sought to establish a Mexican empire under the Austrian prince Maximilian.

Napoleon III felt he could take advantage of the preoccupation of the United States with its Civil War, to set up a puppet government under Maximilian. Although supported by French troops and Mexican conservatives, Maximilian could not consolidate his empire. On May 5, 1862, the French were defeated at the battle of Puebla. The French fought back and controlled most of the country by 1864.

When the American Civil War ended, the United States put pressure on France to withdraw, there were also pressures developing in Europe. The French withdrew in 1867, leaving the ill fated emperor to meet his death.

Juarez, then president, initiated various reforms to modernize Mexico, but he died in 1872. The liberals made many mistakes but their accomplishments were impressive. They destroyed the excessive power of the army, the church, and other conservative elements. They institutionalized democratic principles in the federal constitution of 1857. Finally, their struggle against Maximilian created a sense of nationalism previously unknown in Mexico.

Juarez's liberal successors faltered, however, and in 1876 a general, Porfirio Diaz, seized power. Diaz effectively governed Mexico until the Revolution of 1910. Serving as president from 1877 to 1880 and 1888 to 1911, Diaz established order and a workable government. Civil wars ceased, and eventually banditry disappeared from the country side. Now provincial governors obeyed the law emanating from Mexico City. The army became professionalized. The Rurales, a militarized police force of several thousand, maintained order throughout the country. Diaz and the Cientificos, the group of wealthy intellectuals that advised him, adopted French positivism as a national creed. Science, technology, and quantitative growth served as Diaz's ideological justification. Foreign investors rushed to take advantage of the new political and economic climate, and money poured in. The results were phenomenal.

Exports and national income increased; new highways, railroads, and telegraph lines crossed Mexico; and new industries dotted the countryside. Foreign investment and the new technology revived the mining industry and sparked interest in a new field, the oil field. These policies tended to favor the rich and a great gap grew between the simple citizens of Mexico and the privileged few.

Another revolution was begun. The leader was Francisco Madero, who was supported by the men and guns of former bandit, Pancho Villa. Madero became president in 1911. He proved to be an ineffective leader. The general of the army, Victoriano Huerta seized power and assumed the presidency in 1913. This led to civil war. There were many factions vying for power. The more notable were Venustiano Carranza of Coahuila, Pancho Villa from Chihuahua, Alvaro Obregon from Sonora; and Emiliano Zapata, leader of the Indians of the south. Carranza emerged the winner in this struggle to oppose Huerta. His winning was due in large part to the generalship of Obregon who became his ally. Obregon had Celtic blood in his veins. The family name Obregon is known to be a Spanish corruption of the name O'Brien.

Another factor helping Carranza was the assistance of the United States. Relations between the two countries were strained when Pancho Villa raided Colombus, New Mexico killing 17 Americans in 1916. General John J. Pershing headed an unsuccessful punitive expeditionary force to find Villa.

Carranza served as president until 1920 when hewas overthrown in a bloodless coup led by Obregon. Obregon led an administration that was marked for its social reforms and political stability. In 1924, Obregon's friend, Plutarco Elias Calles succeeded Obregon in public elections. Calles' administration is best known for his plan to have all foreign oil companies exchange their ownership titles for 50 year leases, and for enforcing anticlerical clauses in the constitution that resulted in no church services for three years in Mexico. In 1928 Obregon was re-elected, but assassinated before taking office.

The Mexican Congress appointed Emilio Portes Gil as Interim President until he was replaced in 1929 by the election of Pascual Ortiz Rubio to fill out the remainder of Obregon's term. In reality Calles still controlled the government from his position as the leader of the dominant political party in Mexico, the National Revolutionary Party (PNR).

His control was challenged from within the party by a group of men who selected Lazaro Cardenas to represent them. Cardenas and his followers succeeded and he was elected President of Mexico in 1934 and held office until 1940. A more conservative element gained control of the party then and nominated General Manuel Avila Camacho, who won the presidency. The general guided Mexico through the war years.

Mexican pilots participated in the campaigns of the Pacific including the Philippines and beyond. Under Camacho, Mexico was an active participant in the founding of the United Nations.

In 1946 a civilian government was elected, with Miguel Aleman as President. He served until 1952. His administration was noted for irrigation and technological improvements that benefitted the agricultural industry.

It is interesting to point out that in 2000 the President of Mexico is Vicente Fox a man with Irish roots.

Four hundred and thirty two years in just a few pages is the barest of backgrounds. Consult some of the sources listed in the Bibliography for a more detailed history.

Prepared with material from the on-line Grolier Encyclopedia American on CompuServe, and Encyclopedia


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