Special History Study
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De esta adhesión y fidelidad acaso se hallan más penetrados los habitantes de los Estados Unidos que los de la antigua España. Inteligenciados del abandono con que ha sido mirada aquella provincia, han procurado atraerla a sí por varios medios. . . han procurado ya con los halagos de un comercio ventajoso, ya convidándonos con unas leyes suaves y protectoras, unir esta preciosa porción de territorio al comprado de la Luisiana. . . [1]

Pedro Bautista Pino, 1812

Throughout the colonial period New Mexicans knew that the province's poverty and peripheral geographical situation condemned it to be neglected or forgotten. Pedro Bautista Pino, New Mexico's first deputy to the Spanish Cortes (legislative body), was among the first who dared to make public what others would later voice, that unless Spain addressed some of the problems facing the territory, it would be difficult to disregard for long the attention of the United States.

New Spain's northern frontier was far and isolated, and struggled to become an integral part of the Spanish empire. Almost 1,700 miles separated Santa Fe from Mexico City. And this distance was even more formidable than it appears. Absence of a transportation system and obstacles to travel, such as the rugged terrain of northern and central Mexico, discouraged communication and understanding. New Mexicans searched for means to relieve their profound isolation and their dependency on an economic system designed to benefit the Mother Country and totally ill-suited to the conditions that prevailed in this remote territory. Some discovered that trade could alleviate their problems and with time resorted to a variety of licit and illicit strategies to circumvent the governmental provisions that stifled their development.

Mission supply trains were officially sanctioned and became the standard link between Mexico City and its northernmost province. Starting in 1609, more than two centuries before William Becknell embarked on his famous journey to Santa Fe, New Mexico had been the destination of an overland freight service. Every three years caravans traveled from Mexico City to Santa Fe to supply the missions of the remote province. They followed the Rio Grande Pueblo Trail, one of three pre-Columbian routes that allowed for exchanges of merchandise among the Pueblos and their numerous Mexican counterparts. The mission supply trains were quite sizable, normally including 32 wagons, more than 500 mules, herds of livestock, and even military escorts. By the 18th century the trips followed a less predictable schedule, although a caravan often left Santa Fe for the interior of Mexico in November of each year. [2]

The main goal of the supply teams was to sustain the missions, but they played a significant role in other facets of provincial life. Settlers going out to New Mexico for the first time, traders, and local citizens returning home accompanied the trains. Officials used the service for the dispatch of mail and royal and viceregal decrees. On the return journey those going to Mexico on business, ex-governors and other officials, priests, and sometimes even prisoners joined the caravan. [3]

The mission supply service also affected the economic life of New Spain's far northern frontier. Lack of adequate transportation was one of the major impediments to economic development, and the mission supply wagons helped to transport the few profitable local products to the mining centers of Nueva Vizcaya. The caravans did not provide an adequate outlet for the bulky products of the region, but they were the only sanctioned means of maintaining economic interaction with other communities of New Spain. [4]

Contact with French traders was not licit, but it became an important means of relieving the isolation of the province. Commercial exchanges between the Spanish settlements along the Rio Grande and French communities in the Illinois country started even before the 18th century. By the 1720s interaction was becoming more frequent. Spanish officials in Mexico City feared the presence of French traders, but local need for manufactured goods was such that authorities in New Mexico often looked the other way. The French traded with impunity, only occasionally suffering arrest or expulsion. At times their activities were temporarily curtailed, as in 1795, when the governor of New Mexico ordered the arrest of all French merchants and the confiscation of their goods. [5]

Restrictive policies, however, did not last long and did not discourage Frenchmen determined to gain access to the New Mexico market. Late in the 18th century Jean Baptiste Lalande, Pierre Chouteau, Laurent Durocher, and Jules De Mun, among others, realized that economic opportunity awaited those who supplied the region with reasonably-priced merchandise. [6]

Contact with Americans was sporadic until the 1780s, but became more frequent as the ex-British colonists moved west looking for new hunting grounds, land, and opportunity. First they came from the areas that would become Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee and later on from Natchez, Mississippi, and New Orleans and Natchitoches, Louisiana. After Zebulon Pike's adventures (1806-1807) were made public, Americans' interest in New Mexico increased and so did the number of adventurers who were willing to risk imprisonment in order to gain access to the local market. [7]

The Spanish themselves, intent in consolidating their outposts in Texas and New Mexico, and also aware of the need to widen the range of their commercial activities, encouraged a series of exploratory trips to investigate possible trade routes. In November 1786 Governor Juan Bautista de Anza requested permission to open a way from the province of Sonora to New California at his own expense. In 1792 officials in New Spain promoted the search for a direct trade route between the province of Sonora and Santa Fe. The objective was to facilitate the exchange of goods between the two territories for their mutual benefit, since it appeared such a route would be shorter than the road through El Paso. This was an important project which received the attention of the viceroy, the commandant-general of the Interior Provinces, Pedro de Nava, and other officials. [8]

Expeditions of this kind became common. Pedro Vial, a French gunsmith and Indian trader, led the most famous ones. He traveled from San Antonio to Santa Fe in 1786, and from Santa Fe to Natchitoches and San Antonio, and back to Santa Fe in 1788. Probably his most important trip took place in 1792 when he pioneered a route to St. Louis that closely resembled the one Santa Fe traders would follow during the next century (see Figure 3). This journey demonstrated that the distance between the Louisiana Territory and New Mexico was far from insurmountable. Vial claimed that he could have made the trip from St. Louis to Santa Fe in 25 days if the Indians had not captured him. Although he furnished officials detailed maps of the areas he reconnoitered, the government never developed the new routes. [9]

Figure 3. The Santa Fe Trail: Part of an International Trade Network (click on image for an enlargement in a new window)

Conflict characterized relations between the surrounding Indian tribes and New Mexicans, but trading was equally customary and widespread. In general Spanish policy toward the Indians evolved from confrontation to pacification, but local ordinances regarding commercial relations with the naciones bárbaras (barbarian nations) changed periodically as officials adopted new strategies, enemies became friends, and former allies became dreaded foes.

New Mexicans were often willing to risk prosecution to trade with the Indians. Father Eusebio Kino, who died in 1711, asserted that even before his time New Mexicans had bartered with the Sobaipuris, near the present site of Nogales, Arizona. Numerous proceedings throughout the colonial period reveal widespread and "embarrassing" trading with the "savage Indians." [10] As early as 1735 Spanish officials complained about the alcalde (mayor) of Taos for bartering with the Comanches before the time set for the regular trade. Various ordinances in the 1740s and 1750s specifically banned the sale of horses, animals, and arms to the Indians. By the 1780s large parties of New Mexicans were being arraigned for trading with the Utes. [11]

As the 18th century ended, Spanish policy toward the Indians moved toward pacification and emphasis shifted to the distribution of liberal annual gifts in the name of the king. Expeditions, frequently sent out for this purpose, were also to provide enough trade goods to keep the Indians satisfied, and to supply them with an outlet for their furs and surplus crops. The 1786 peace talks with the Comanches included the promise of fairs and free trade. By the 1790s "extraordinary expenses incurred in the maintenance of friendly relations with the Indians" were substantial and provided ample opportunity for commercial interaction between Indians and hispanos, the norm in New Mexico well into the nineteenth century. [12]

After the 1750s Taos and Pecos became the leading trading centers where both Indians and traders congregated. Taos and Pecos were important because they were accessible both from the Rocky Mountains and the Great Plains. Annual fairs took place in July and August and attracted many merchants. Comanches, Arapahos, Pawnees, Utes, Navajos, and others brought buffalo hides, deer skins, blankets, and sometimes even captives to be sold or exchanged for slaves. They bartered for horses, knives, guns, ammunition, blankets, strong drink, and small trinkets. In 1786 Pedro Garrido y Durán reported that the Comanches exchanged more than 600 hides, many loads of meat and tallow, 15 riding beasts, and three guns. [13] French, Spanish, and American trappers carried pelts and trinkets while Chihuahua merchants came laden with imported goods. All gained in the exchange, but the latter made most of the profit.

As winter approached large New Mexican caravans turned south to attend fairs at Chihuahua, one of the greatest events of the year. By the middle of the 18th century Chihuahua had become the leading trading center of Nueva Vizcaya, the northern Mexican territory. Villa San Felipe el Real de Chihuahua had been established around 1707 when the exploitation of profitable mines in the Chuviscar Valley began on a large scale. The area grew rapidly and by 1742 almost 18,000 people resided there. [14]

The economic success of Chihuahua merchants was not surprising. They followed the example of comerciantes (merchants) elsewhere in New Spain. Throughout Mexico gachupines (Spanish-born merchants) made large profits and virtually dominated the economy. The lack of an effective monetary commercial exchange fostered this control. Large producers sent surplus agricultural products like sugar, cotton, cacao, livestock, and cereals in consignment to merchants in the capital. In exchange these merchants returned local and imported manufactures, resold the agricultural products at monopoly prices in the controlled markets of Mexico City and the mining centers, and gained from exchanging staples and primary products for manufactures and imported goods. [15]

The wealthy landowners who produced surpluses of basic agricultural products were at the mercy of the merchants, yet they earned substantial profits. Two factors contributed to their success. First, the merchants in the capital provided a sure outlet for the surplus production every year and were able to pay immediately for the merchandise, or more commonly, give the producer merchandise or credit of equal value. Second, the large producers resold the clothing, textiles, shoes and other manufactured goods to their own workers at a higher price. Often the hacendados (large landholders) opened a store and dealt with smaller producers on the same terms as Mexico City merchants did taking agricultural products in exchange for manufactured articles, a practice that New Mexican merchants would successfully adopt in the 1830s and 1840s. [16]

Chihuahua merchants quickly gained regional economic preeminence and by the middle of the century they monopolized the trade from their province to New Mexico. This monopoly continued until Americans began to supply New Mexico with abundant merchandise in the 1820s, but hispanos still complained about the "excessive monopoly" in 1829. Chihuahua merchants enjoyed the advantageous geographical situation of their town, on the "Camino Real de la tierra adentro," which dominated the silver trade to the south, and monopolized the presidial supply system. [17]

Three major factors contributed to New Mexicans' dependence—the complex monetary system in use, the shortage of currency in the territory, and the unscrupulous practices of Mexican merchants. Four different monetary units existed—the official peso de plata (silver peso) which was worth eight reales but was practically non-existent, and three "imaginary" coins employed in bookkeeping—peso a precio de proyecto (peso at project price) worth six reales, peso a precios antiguos (peso at old prices) worth four reales, and peso de la tierra (peso of the land) valued only at two reales. New Mexicans were victimized in a "vicious circle of swindles." [18] Max Moorhead described how these factors interacted to exploit traders:

. . . a merchant of Chihuahua could buy 32 yards of coarse woolen goods in the south for 6 pesos de plata and sell it in New Mexico at a peso de la tierra per yard, or a real value of eight pesos de plata in all. Since he was paid in local produce, he could accept remuneration in El Paso brandy, which was worth only one peso de la tierra per bottle when exchanged for manufactured goods, and thus acquire 32 bottles for the bolt of cloth. However, in reselling the brandy to other New Mexicans the merchants could charge a peso de plata a bottle and then eventually receive 32 pesos de plata for goods which had cost him only six. But again, since silver money did not circulate in the province, he must be paid in goods, and should the purchaser of the brandy wish to pay in corn from a future harvest, he was charged the prevailing peso de precios antiguos rate, four reales for each short bushel (costal) of grain, or 51 short bushels for the 32 bottles. After the harvest, when this was collected, he could sell it to the troops in the southern presidios for ten reales per short bushel, almost 84 pesos de plata in all, or more than ten times the original cost of his goods and freightage. [19]

This monopoly deeply affected New Mexicans. Chihuahua was the closest and most affluent market where they could exchange livestock and efectos del país (local merchandise) for the manufactured goods they needed. New Mexicans had almost no access to hard currency and paid exorbitant prices making their purchases on credit and pledging future crops, livestock, or merchandise. Fray Juan Agustín de Morfi, a Franciscan who visited New Mexico around 1778, noted that many sold their crops as much as six years in advance. [20] New Mexicans were in desperate need of metal tools, awls, shovels, and scissors. These items were so expensive and scarce that they remained out of the reach of the majority of the population for many decades.

The goods New Mexicans carried to Chihuahua were quite limited, a few crude manufactures, but mostly the "produce of the soil," sheep, raw wool, buffalo and deer hides, colcha quilts, homemade sarapes (sp. serapes), and stockings, pine nuts, salt, brandy from El Paso, and Indian blankets. In exchange they received expensive manufactured goods, particularly iron tools and weapons, domestic and imported fabrics, boots, shoes, chocolate, sugar, tobacco, liquor, ink, and paper. [21]

Chihuahua merchants took advantage of the dependent New Mexicans, but Spain's colonial economic policy, heavily influenced by mercantilist doctrine, was greatly responsible for the shortage of currency and the scarcity and high prices of manufactured goods throughout colonial Mexico. [22] Spain's policies attempted to regulate, restrict and prohibit rather than to encourage. The Spanish crown in its search for revenue aimed to control all possible economic activities. Most manufactured goods were not made locally and were often of British, Dutch, or French origin. Articles that came through legitimate channels were expensive because of high freight rates, difficulties and delays in transportation, and the greed of merchants who often tried to make a fortune on the first cargo sent to Veracruz. [23]

Commercial transactions in Mexico also were extremely cumbersome because of the multitude of duties, fees, charges, commissions, royalties, licenses, and tributes. Furthermore, all trade to and from New Spain legally entered and exited through just one port—Veracruz. Taxes were easily levied in Spanish ports because of the power of local consulados, or merchants' guilds. The treasury also imposed fees on internal trade by placing customs houses on the royal highways and by ordering that certain trades travel along one permitted route. [24]

The government did not have the bureaucrats, accounting system, or technology to tax systematically, so it attempted to impose general and simple taxes, hoping to obtain all that was possible rather than the optimum from any given tax. Much of the revenue came from the almojarifazgo, a customs fee, required on all merchandise. The rates varied. Exports paid two and a half percent while imports were charged from five to 17.5 percent. The alcabala, sales tax, was originally set at two percent of the sale price of goods, but rose to double that amount by the 17th century. In times of emergency higher rates were used, and often lasted long beyond the emergency. By the 18th century the tax reached six percent. Smaller towns often managed to delay its imposition and some areas or towns were able to obtain temporary exemptions. [25]

Other taxes included the sisa (an excise on food), the quinto (the 20 percent royalty on bullion), the derecho de fundidor (originally it was a smelting charge but it evolved into the quinto), the palmeo (a trade tax based on the bulk of the goods), the bula de santa cruzada (a tax on indulgences), the mesada (a tax on appointive offices that evolved into the media anata, half of the first year's salary of persons occupying official positions), the avería which aimed to cover all transportation costs and which rose up to 14 percent, and the almirantazgo, an import duty established as an endowment for the Admiral of the Indies, Columbus and his descendants, and several others. [26]

Reforms enacted during the reign of Carlos IV (1788-1808) modified some of these impositions, but they were later reestablished and prices in Mexico remained as high as ever. Foreign products were burdened 36 percent of their value upon their arrival at Veracruz, and because of colonial imposts the duties rose to 75 percent by the time they reached the consumers. [27]

In addition the Spanish government monopolized articles of common necessity like salt, fish, tobacco, mercury, playing cards, stamped paper, leather, gunpowder, snow brought from the mountains for refrigeration, alum, copper, lead, tin, alcohol, and cock fighting. All individuals were prohibited to trade in these products, since the profit from them belonged exclusively to the government. The evils of monopolies were increased by leasing them; usually the most powerful persons in the community became the contractors and worked for their own selfish interests to the disadvantage of consumers. [28]

New Mexicans suffered economically as a result of Spanish mercantile policies, but not everybody in the province was equally affected. A few large landowners, particularly those from the Río Abajo (the portion of the Río Grande Valley south of La Bajada), were able to thrive by shipping south large quantities of sheep. Their prosperity, however, had a negative impact on the long-term development of the province. Heavy emphasis on sheep raising led to overgrazing and the destruction of the fragile ecosystems of the arid west and also effected a disregard for agriculture. Furthermore, massive sheep exports produced local shortages that left weavers unemployed and sharply limited the production of domestic textiles. [29]

At the beginning of the 19th century, New Mexicans were still isolated and dependent on Chihuahua merchants. Becoming increasingly aware of the need to foster the development of the area, a junta (council) met to discuss manufactures and mining in June of 1805. [30] Within a decade, however, they were able to gain a considerable measure of political autonomy as they took advantage of the turmoil that accompanied the Napoleonic overthrow of Spain's Ferdinand VII. The Cortes (legislative body) not only resisted the French, but it restructured the government at all levels. These liberal reforms, included in the Spanish Constitution of 1812, provided, among others, guidelines for establishing ayuntamientos, or town councils, which became popularly elected bodies. At the provincial level reforms created a new institution, the diputación, a legislature of elected representatives. [31]

These changes affected even the most remote corners of the Spanish empire and in New Mexico produced a heightened awareness of the need to address some of the province's economic woes. [32] Pedro Bautista Pino was elected to represent New Mexico in the Spanish Cortes meeting at Cádiz in 1812. Pino compiled his concerns in a book which was published that same year. He eloquently presented the case for his province briefing the Cortes on problems and making suggestions to remedy the situation. Pino expressed a common sentiment—New Mexico was threatened by Americans who were pressing upon her borders, seeking an excuse for invasion. According to him Americans were aware of the neglect and impoverished circumstances affecting his province and hoped that promises of liberal laws and open trade would encourage New Mexicans to join the province of Louisiana. [33]

Pino was highly critical of Spain's economic policies, particularly the monopoly on tobacco which prevented local production. He also stressed how distance, neglect, and the constant threat of Indian attacks made it difficult to earn a living from agriculture. Pino bemoaned the lack of manufactures. Coarse wool and cotton items, bridles, and spurs were the only goods produced. Although Pino acknowledged that the government had sent agents to instruct New Mexicans on techniques of finer weaving, he conceded that the products were still very coarse in comparison to those produced elsewhere. [34]

Pino stressed the physical and emotional cost that the province had borne in trying to fend off the 33 Indian nations. Since the central government did not provide enough funds for their protection, New Mexicans had been forced to bear the brunt of their defense serving in the militia as well as furnishing the weapons, ammunition, and provisions necessary for the outfitting of the troops. Pino complained that serving in one campaign often meant economic ruin because volunteers had to sell their clothes and those of their families in order to be ready for the frequent operations against the salvajes (savages). Pino believed that channeling of resources toward the control of the Indians caused the economic backwardness of the province. He emphasized the difficulty of raising revenues because there was no customs house except for the one at Chihuahua. The only sources of income were the estanco (monopoly) on tobacco, gunpowder and playing cards, but since these items were brought from Mexico City the revenues obtained were insignificant, and, as Pino noted, the province could profit greatly if it were allowed to produce its own tobacco. [35]

Pino's economic summary showed New Mexicans purchasing 112,000 pesos worth of goods a year from the south, but selling only 60,000 pesos in return. Even the government payroll, which brought in about 38,000 pesos, did not offset the imbalance, and the annual deficit of about 14,000 pesos not only drained the province of hard money, but kept its inhabitants indebted. [36] Pino lamented as well the almost total absence of educational facilities. Only those who could afford a private tutor were able to instruct their children. It was impossible even in the capital city of Santa Fe to retain one elementary school teacher. [37]

New Mexico was isolated geographically from Mexican markets and by administrative restriction from the advantages of trading with the Americans and French. The government mercantilist policy with its trade monopolies overlooked New Mexicans need for ready currency to purchase essential tools and supplies. Mexican merchants, particularly those from Chihuahua, amassed profits because they had ready cash and controlled the markets. New Mexican dependence on Spain was guaranteed by the complex monetary system that handicapped the settlers. Many New Mexicans were forced to pledge crops years ahead to purchase goods because of the extreme shortage of cash. Pino warned the Spanish government of the problems it was creating. His presentation to the Cortes produced no immediate benefits, but it is unlikely that the liberal Spanish government would have been interested or able to address problems in so peripheral a region. At any rate the restoration of the Bourbon king in 1814 temporarily set aside liberal reforms and it would be seven more years before the Mexican territory would become free of Spain.

On the eve of the revolution (1821), after more than two centuries of colonial rule, conditions had not changed, and New Mexico remained distant and destitute. The arrival of political independence raised expectations and led its citizens to be more adamant in their frequent requests for government assistance. But nearly a decade later, major problems were still unsolved and aid had not materialized. New Mexicans searched for economic freedom elsewhere.

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Last Updated: 30-Sep-2005