Native Worlds of New Spain

A month and a half ago I posted this, which was my first paper for my history seminar "Native Americans Making North America." Now this is my second paper from that class, and it covers a wide variety of histories within the colony of New Spain during the 16th through 18th centuries. As always, my footnotes can be provided on request, and if you come across this paper and want to use it, please cite me and/or this website. Enjoy!

Native Worlds of New Spain: 
The Diversity and Power of Indigenous Communities in Colonial North America

One narrative of Spanish America’s history that maintains a strong grasp on the imagination and reflects popular assumptions begins with violent, imbalanced conquest, followed by decimating, immobilizing disease, completed with solidified and regimented European rule. In nearly every way, these simplistic notions leave native inhabitants of the Americas powerless, discounted, and even unimportant in the retelling of their very own history. While superior to previously commonplace histories that removed or neglected indigenous peoples entirely from narratives of the past, such an account unjustly patronizes and victimizes its subjects, and historians and educators bear a responsibility to revise and ameliorate such perceptions. Addressing itself to that task, this essay explores a vast diversity of native experiences found in the colony of New Spain – more particularly in central Mesoamerica, and in regions to the north found in present-day Mexico and the United States. In the investigation of these histories, the paper aims to restore to native peoples the power and agency they possessed, ultimately yielding a more holistic, nuanced, and accurate analysis of the past.

To structure this exploration, the essay will utilize the concept of “worlds,” old and new, destroyed, continued, created, modified, and linked over the course of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. “Older worlds” will undergo analysis first, and it should become apparent that rather than being “the New World,” the Americas possessed a number of enduring cultural spheres and deeply-rooted societies, including many throughout the disparate regions of New Spain. Although some worlds were demolished, continuities abounded, and many peoples remained entrenched in older ways even by the year 1800. The second section will address newer worlds, formed from dynamics of adaptation, hybridization and interaction between diverse indigenous groups and arrivals from Europe and Africa. These processes created new communities and brought about new social, political, and economic norms and practices, taking on many aspects of community members’ heritages while also producing unprecedented systems and linkages. Lastly, New Spain should and must be placed within wider continental and global contexts, which happily provides further opportunity to advance the cause of writing empowering indigenous history. With historical narratives so often shaped by the powerful and their biases, the historian’s potential tasks naturally include rewriting common assumptions to augment the agency of the marginalized and increase awareness of their experiences in a manner consistent with historical evidence. Such evidence abounds for native peoples in the worlds of colonial North America, and so the task is ripe for the taking.

I. Older Worlds: Strength in Persistence

By the close of the year 1521, the Mexica of Tenochtitlan had experienced betrayal and assault from strange new invaders, a sixty-day blight of decimating smallpox, and four months of siege from conquistadors, Tlaxcalans and other enemies. The Tenocha saw their city laid to ruin, their leaders slaughtered, their tributary empire cut loose, and the Excan Tlatoloyan – “Triple Alliance” – ended forevermore. Perhaps even more importantly, the Mexica city-dwellers had seen their social fabric tested to its utmost limits while living under the siege, their family members and neighbors killed by sickness and violence, much of what they knew and lived for challenged by unprecedented turmoil and events difficult to comprehend. Inga Clendinnen indicates in her book Aztecs that some norms may have broken down during the fighting, with examples of disorderly looting and selling of precious goods. However, Clendinnen also writes that “the power of rank was preserved to the bitter last,” unto the very last days of famine, and that the Spanish attackers were “impressed, and appalled,” by the unity, obedience, and courage of the resistance. Not only were the Tenocha unshakeable in their defense, even against nearly certain defeat, but they also smuggled their idols from the city and many planned to escape and follow them. Clearly, the Mexica held deep and abiding convictions that would not be easily ended by conquest or even the most horrifying ordeals. Though survivors would be set to work building on the ruins of their old city, constructing what would become one of the most Hispanized places in New Spain – the future Mexico City – the defiance of the Tenocha proves an impressive prelude to centuries of old indigenous worlds’ resistance and persistence.

James Lockhart’s book The Nahuas After the Conquest examines the records of the Nahuatl-speaking peoples of Central Mesoamerica – including but not noticeably featuring the Mexica – written in the 16th through 18th centuries. Adopting a methodology of using indigenous sources produced by Nahuas who had learned the Romanized writing system developed for their language, Lockhart opens a window onto many aspects of indigenous society, including political and social structures. In terms of political institutions, Lockhart finds that the altepetl – the ethnic state, fundamental unit of Nahua socio-political organization – defined many of the subsequent patterns of colonial administration and leadership, including the tribute-based encomienda grants, governorships, parishes, and municipal councils. The Spanish also utilized pre-existing subdivisions of altepetls – the calpolli or tlaxilacalli – as the basis for dividing large and powerful states like Tlaxcala into more manageable encomiendas. Nahuas themselves also dismantled previous altepetls in this way, with different tlaxilacalli claiming independence increasingly often after the 16th century, expanding the number of independent political units. In terms of personal relationships and social differentiation, Lockhart finds little evidence of radical change: norms of familial interaction and terminology seemed to remain steady, with Spanish terms and concepts used principally to communicate with the Spanish. While Spanish names were adopted quite quickly, they appear to have readily reflected the previous ranges of social differentiation, between commoners with “double first names” and different levels of elites whose surnames and titles reflected varying prestige. Some places in society quickly fell away, such as positions of captive servitude or merit-based nobility that originated in warfare, but the overall image shows continued social differentiation and cultural vitality.

An essential vehicle of indigenous continuity in New Spain may have been the imposed divisions between the “Republic of Spaniards” and the “Republic of Indians.” In his monograph Empire of Law and Indian Justice, Brian Owensby states that this legal idea arose gradually from policies spurred by native complaints, clerics’ self-interest in controlling access to communities, the Spanish crown’s tenet that natives should govern themselves, and lastly “the need to both exploit and protect” the indigenous groups of New Spain. The very real segregation of indigenous from Afro-European populations ensured an ease of self-rule limited to the local level and the extraction of tribute for the crown. Importantly, native leaders and communities petitioned frequently for royal grants of land or for protective judicial orders of their land. While this massive use of litigation could provide native elites with lands to sell off to Spaniards for personal benefit, it could also serve to defend, augment, or establish new indigenous republics. John Tutino adds that in the tumultuous period of the 1760s, areas that exhibited little resistance included the indigenous republics of Mesoamerica, where the republic successfully served to organize social relations and negotiate with colonial political and economic powers. Perhaps the most important conclusion of Owensby’s study, corroborated by Tutino’s findings, is that stability in Mesoamerican New Spain lay rooted in the possibility and success of natives carving out and establishing their own spaces, maintaining, defending and amplifying that space – their “worlds” – by litigation and other means.

A less certain means of preserving old indigenous ways lay in avoidance, retreat or resistance. Lockhart writes that clash, displacement, and survival in isolation – modes that had dominated previous historiography of New Spain – were more characteristic of areas on the periphery than at the center of the colony. However, displaced societies and those who survived in isolation no less exhibited qualities of “old worldliness” than those that continued previous ways more peacefully or in closer proximity to colonial presences. A strong example of these strategies appears with the highly independent peoples of Nayarit and the Sierra Gorda, who blocked new sites of silver production for a time and who responded to colonial attempts at pacification only by removing to more defensible mountains and uplands. Elsewhere, indigenous groups in northern New Spain often acted according to patterns of sporadic contact and selective interaction: West of the Sierra de Nayarit, for instance, independent peoples’ knowledge of the Spanish was largely limited to missions, where natives came and left at will, learning useful skills or gaining goods and technologies, on the whole maintaining their distance and autonomy. Spanish attempts at colonization, conversion or subjugation could succeed or fail based on their alignment with diverse indigenous objectives, and many natives succeeded in profiting or gaining advantages from Spanish institutions or resources, all the while preserving the independence of their societies and cultures. More research into these peoples’ histories could yield highly valuable information on what changed and remained the same about their ways of life. In many cases, those who lived in relative isolation or engaged in highly selective contact clearly had the ability and the intention to preserve their older worlds.

The siege of Tenochtitlan presents a compelling story of native resistance that could, perhaps for a small few, allow old ways to continue even in the face of incredible violence and one of a limited number of cases of veritable conquest. While presenting his case for deep continuities among the Nahuas after the fall of the Mexica, Lockhart argues that coincidental similarities – or perhaps “double mistaken identity” – between Nahua and Spanish culture helped allow quick implantation of European forms. Examples include encomiendas, municipal councils or indigenous republics, which appear to have functioned most effectively in central New Spain, where this cultural congruency presumably facilitated colonial implantation. Put more simply, it seems pre-colonial norms could survive well where colonial demands were easily fulfilled and where native groups could more easily agree to fulfill them. The availability of physical space in the colony – greatly attributable to massive disease-driven population loss – may also, along with the social and legal space as described by Owensby, have gone a long way in facilitating processes of gradual change rooted in continuity. Such spaces, accompanied by the relative weakness of Spanish presences in various areas, also allowed many native groups to determine their own paths of resistance, retreat, or selective and limited interaction and adaptation. Through it all, old worlds and many aspects of pre-colonial culture and structures persevered, lasting through Mexican independence and beyond.

II. Newer Worlds: Hybridization and Creation

“New worlds” may define themselves according to the degree that they create history without precedent. Every world and every societal status quo takes its origins in the past, but if old worlds may change while still dominated by the same elements and inputs, new worlds undergo paradigm shifts that unmistakably alter the systems under which people work, believe and live. North American history of the 16th through 18th centuries features several such examples. Utilizing a geographic plan that also perhaps reflects decreasing degrees of indigenous agency, this section will begin by assessing new worlds revolutionized at the northern edges of New Spain. It then will move to a more detailed look at the city of Querétaro and the Bajío, a region north of the historical bounds of Mesoamerica, located at the dynamic heart of New Spain’s economic and colonial expansions. Lastly, a limited attempt will be made to examine what new worlds may have been created within Mesoamerica, in spite of the continuities and old worlds described previously. Great contrasts exist between experiences in each of these three broad regions, and in the fundamental nature of the new worlds created there. However, each case presents evidence of hybridization and innovation leading indigenous communities and individuals to the creation of exceptional new ways and norms.

At the northern reaches of the lands claimed by Spain in North America, “claim” remained for centuries – even after the end of New Spain – the important word to emphasize when describing colonizers’ status. While independent indigenous peoples in these regions came into contact with Europeans, either by the other’s initiative or their own, many maintained positions of advantage and dominance well into the 19th century, still controlling in the 1790s over half the territory of New Spain. Juliana Barr presents unequivocally in her work Peace Came in the Form of a Woman that the Spanish in lands that would become modern-day Texas necessarily submitted to dominant indigenous norms, including the relative preeminence of kinship and gender constructions. Contributing much to this vitality and supremacy of peoples like the Caddos, Wichitas, Apache and Comanche had been what Francis Jennings describes as “revolutionary social change” with the domestication and heavy utilization of horses developing in the course of only a few generations. Animals and firearms with origins in Europe helped create new worlds in America, once adopted by natives to form the basis of new ways of life. Wichitas, for example, retained agriculture as central to economic life, but they increasingly developed substantial herds of horses as well as trade links – primarily with the French – and raiding strategies to provide them with weapons in the face of outside threats – primarily Osage and Apache. The Apache and Comanche took on an even more “rapid evolution” to become highly mobile and militarily powerful peoples with the horse as their primarily tool in ways of life increasingly centered on raiding and warfare. Undoubtedly, these processes transformed life incredibly, forming volatile new worlds that contrasted greatly with regions further south: Native peoples dominated miniscule European presences, but they adapted rapidly in competition and conflict with each other, putting newly available goods and technologies to uses of their own design and in the process adopting ways of life previously unknown.

New worlds of a much different nature came into being in the Bajío, a region northwest of Mexico City. John Tutino’s opus Making a New World poses the bold and perhaps revolutionary thesis that the Bajío and other areas of Spanish North America exhibited unprecedented social and cultural amalgamations, including significant global economic linkages and a strong profit-driven commercial nature. Essentially, this new world within New Spain witnessed the birth of capitalist ways as people turned to commercial, contractual, and wage-based economic relations, and dynamics of exploitation became based on inequalities in those relationships, rather than rooted in more direct coercion. The Bajío city of Querétaro and the Otomí republic founded there came about as the results of entrepreneurship: One of the primary leaders in the project was Fernando de Tapia, who had purportedly worked at the edges between Mexica and Tarascan spheres of power. The Otomí who joined Tapia in the 1530s to immigrate north and settle the Bajío – and continued to come in succeeding decades – were themselves entrepreneurs, seeking new lands and at the very least, a living where less tribute might be required of them as had been before. However, this move beyond the bounds of historical Otomí lands only set the scene for paradigm shifts to come. Economic and commercial advance began in the late 16th century as silver was discovered and Querétaro supplied the mines, as well as mass offensives against resistant Chichimecas. The Otomí, while described in one report as lazy and valuing wages little, had already adopted European crops with gusto, producing abundant goods and supplying distant needs. Querétaro quickly became the center of production, cultivation and trade for the surrounding region. A limited but growing market economy emerged along with an entrepreneurial elite.

Through the 17th and 18th centuries, much about the city and region evolved as generations experienced transformations in industry, swings in economic life, and important shifts in social and cultural norms. Demographics and politics changed as other Mesoamericans and Africans infused into Otomí society, and Spanish elites contested power, establishing a city council by the mid-17th century to exist under their purview in tandem and in frequent conflict with the indigenous Otomí republic. Types of work consisted of a swirling mix of slavery, obligation, contracts, wages, and agricultural subsistence, and this amazingly diverse labor market persisted into the 18th century as Otomí continued to depend on their rich huertas, or urban farms, and the obrajes – textile mills – continued to require slaves and convicts, though this later ceased as prices and market dynamics turned. Querétaro exemplified many of the capitalist ways and commercial relationships that Tutino shows to have been unprecedented in the greater regions of the Bajío and Spanish North America. The city’s development created a new world on an intimate scale, divided by wealth, identities and social roles, but nevertheless highly hybridized, highly adapted, and highly differentiable from what had existed before. The old world of the Chichimecas in the Bajío had been in large part destroyed, in small parts pacified or driven to survive in isolation. No single segment of the Spanish, Africans, Otomí and other Mesoamericans could have designed, built, or even desired all of what Querétaro became. Instead, competing interests, unequal powers, and far-reaching market forces drove its constant evolution, and this contrasted greatly with histories to the south or north that lacked such multifacetedness, created from such differing parts fused in an urban and capitalist crucible. Through it all, indigenous elites and commoners alike filled the key roles of foundation, continuation and change, and their decisions, actions and agency very much built this new world.

New worlds surely also arose in different contexts in historical Mesoamerica. In particular, the construction and development of Mexico City presents an intriguing example of a new world in which natives took significant part. Unlike other Nahua areas, Mexico City became one of the few places in New Spain dominated by a large European urban presence, and as such it must have contained a great deal of uniqueness and hybridization. It must also have featured unique institutions and economic dynamics due to its status as the colonial capital. Lockhart writes that this metropolis featured many European goods consumed only by the large Spanish population, but some of which – like wheat bread – “sold and surely in most cases produced by indigenous people.” Other examples, such as slave plantations or the port of Veracruz, might also be cited as new worlds whose dynamics bore little in common with traditional Spanish, Mesoamerican or African ways. However, such studies ultimately stretch beyond the scope of the works featured in this paper, so this second section’s conclusion is in order.

Many new worlds developed in the Americas from the 16th through 18th centuries: Peoples of New Spain’s far north revolutionized their ways of life using the horse and other tools conferred by European arrival, utilizing them to compete against each other and have their way with subordinate European presences. At the crux of silver production and New Spain’s connection to the global economy, the Bajío and the city of Querétaro in particular featured unique hybridizations of indigenous and Afro-European aspects, but also produced unprecedented usage of markets, wages and commercial interaction that perhaps even heralded the dawn of capitalism. Lastly, new worlds also appeared in Mesoamerica in the vital centers of colonialism as well as in systems removed from indigenous precedent. The Wichita, Otomí and Nahua all possessed highly variant levels of agency and faced vastly different decisions. However, whether in Texas, Querétaro, or Mexico City, indigenous people fuelled the creation and development of new worlds through their power as producers, innovators and leaders.

III. Global Relations, Historical Implications

This final section will elaborate on the continental and global contexts that tie New Spain’s old and new worlds together, before concluding on how historiography should treat the diversity and power of indigenous communities. In the continental context, New Spain possessed chains of interdependence that stretched north from Mexico City and advanced varyingly with different strategies of expansion such as mission networks, conquistador-driven warfare, or Mesoamerican immigration and settlement. The Spanish adventurers who made contact with the Comanche or Apache desperately relied upon supply chains that stretched back from their place on the colonial periphery. It bears lengthy consideration how the centers and peripheries that existed for native groups could differ entirely – or indeed reflect a precise opposite – when compared to Spanish power considerations. Linkages among indigenous communities could also exist outside of colonial control, and they might conspire to foil Spanish intentions, such as between highlands and lowlands of northeast New Spain or between groups in Texas. In addition, while inter-European relations regarding North America are often perceived as having changed through the scope of wars and diplomacy distant from the continent, indigenous actions undeniably shaped colonial policies, which could in turn drive European conflict or rapprochement.

Works of history that synthesize global and local dynamics in a detailed and meaningful way appear far too rarely on bookshelves or in curricula. Even more rare – or perhaps entirely unheard of – are attempts to include and attribute significance to the actions of indigenous Americans in the histories of landmasses not their own. Tutino’s work makes an impressive implication that Native American hands built frameworks of globalization and capitalism, not through coercion or under European direction, but rather through their own entrepreneurship and adoption of commercial ways. One of the most powerful arguments for the “newness” of worlds in New Spain is the unprecedented nature of their global linkages. Tutino convincingly argues that the pursuit of silver, required and demanded for Europe’s trade with China, thoroughly influenced development in many areas of Spanish North America, most particularly the in Bajío and in the expansions it directly affected. Natives not only participated in this globalization, tying together three continents as had never been done before, but their labor and innovation initiated, sustained and shaped many of its key aspects. Even without fawning over the concepts of globalization and capitalism, this history can represent a very empowering legacy for modern North Americans, if only it was shared with them.


This paper’s attempted dichotomization of old and new worlds may ultimately contain certain weaknesses and potential biases. It bears remembering that all societies undergo change over time, and furthermore, the reader should not acquire the impression that societies’ rates of change are necessarily correlated with their levels of contact and engagement with colonizers or other foreign groups. Such assumptions may betray lingering thoughts of noble savages or timeless cultures, or indeed they may neglect the possibility of peoples adopting conservatism when challenged with change. Indigenous societies should not be blithely cataloged according to perceived levels of success in adaptation or resistance to colonization, and this author certainly does not intend to do so. Such categorization ignores the very diverse contexts faced by native peoples that shaped their abilities and desires to respond or participate in the continuation of the old or creation of the new.

That having been said, this essay has hopefully demonstrated some of that great diversity among indigenous communities, their experiences, and their power and agency under colonialism in New Spain. The highly suspect narratives of Spanish-driven conquest and implantation should lie demolished and dethroned, replaced with the evidence that even after infectious devastation, “even” when faced with European technologies and ways – and their colonial intentions – indigenous Americans maintained, obtained, and fought for the space and capacity to determine their histories, to maintain or change their ways of life, to live with or apart from intruders, or to any or all of it over time. While contexts differed greatly over New Spain’s great distances, from plains to mountains and plateaus, experiences could also vary incredibly among individuals within indigenous groups. Consider the Chichimecas who agreed to be pacified, the Caddos who agreed to mission life, or even the Tenocha who escaped the city. Consider also that this essay could never fully do justice to the diversity of native experiences in New Spain, nor the nuances of their worlds, preserved, challenged, hybrid or revolutionized. The project of restoring such histories remains incredibly important, and it remains unfinished.