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HISTORY - The Chichimeca War: 40 Years of Indigenous Resistance

Updated: Nov 24, 2023

At the heart of Mexico's Silver Road lies an important invasion of indigenous resources - and a 40 years long war that followed, initially starting in 1540 as the Mixton War between the Caxcans and the Spanish. Though this war ended in 1542, the Chichimeca war is viewed by many historians as an extension of the original Mixton war, as the fighting had never fully ceased.

The Chichimeca were a group inhabiting Northern Mexico during the 16th Century CE. Chichimeca was a name given by the Aztecs, meaning lineage of dogs, in a literal sense, but contextually, barbarians.

The hunter-gatherer tribes of the Chichimeca were comprised of the Zacatecas, Guamares, Otomi, Caxcans, Pames and Guachichiles. Though the term "Chichimeca" was derogatory, and remains a slang-term for "those who behave badly," - the original meaning for the word "Chichimeca," with regards to this newsletter and in history, is a broad term that encapsulates the many tribes who were comprised of these dissenting groups.

1580 Codex depicting a Battle at San Francisco Chamacuero

in the Current State of Guanajuato

In 1546, Juan de Tolosa, from the Basque region of Spain, was exploring the region of modern-day Zacatecas City, and was led to a rock outcrop by local Chichimecas. Recognizing the rich deposit of silver ore in this outcrop, Juan de Tolosa was credited by the Spanish as having discovered silver in the region. Not long after this introduction, the Spanish began to settle the region, founding the mining town of Zacatecas, and quickly commencing their exploitation of indigenous lands, which included kidnapping local peoples, and forcing them into hard labour in the mines. As dozens of mines were established, with the construction of adjacent towns, the Chichimeca began to organize resistance as a means for removing foreign intruders.

Much to the surprise of the Spanish, the Chichimeca were very skilled at war and combat. As fierce warriors with obsidian arrowheads that could penetrate Spanish-made armour, the Chichimeca raided horses from the Spanish and became skilled horsemen, and became successful warriors from horseback. Not only did the Chichimeca invade towns, killing soldiers in their wake, their most intelligent strategy involved attacking merchants transporting their precious metals and other commodities along newly constructed roads. Their plan was to avenge indigenous territories and sovereignty by culling those responsible for transporting stolen resources, in order to reclaim stolen riches and futhur impede Spanish expansion in said territories.

Recognizing the advantages of select narrow passages along the silver road, the Chichimeca organized ambushes at sunrise and sundown, when the merchants were most vulnerable. In 1554, their strategy proved successful when a small group of warriors managed to overtake a large silver shipment , housed in 60 caravans. Not only did they kill most of the soldiers, they managed to reclaim $30,000 Pesos, silver and other goods. Armed with the knowledge that their small, mobile groups could defeat these large and slow-moving wagons, the Chichimeca realized a huge advantage over the Spanish, who were less familiar with these foreign lands. It is estimated that by 1561, the Chichimeca had killed over 4000 Spaniards, which resulted in the price of food and goods tripling due to the dangers of transporting cargo along these newly constructed and unpredictable trade routes.

The wrath of the Spanish exploded into the guerra a fuego y a sangre, or war of fire and blood, by 1567. Vowing to torture, enslave and mutilate the Chichimeca, the Spanish were deeply motivated to win their war, as the road invasions were impeding their lucrative “Camino Real” trade route between the silver mines of Zacatecas and San Miguel de Allende. This diversion created financial obstacles for funding the very war the Spaniards had found themselves amidst. 7 major garrisons were constructed, with at least 5 other towns being fortified.

By 1571, the Spanish were desperate for resolution, as the Chichimeca continued to advance their invasion on the Camino Real, and Spanish villages and outposts. By 1576, the viceroy of New Spain wrote to King Felipe II of Spain, demanding assistance from the Royal Crown, as the invasions had expanded to the culling of cattle, which was harming the colonists food supply. With exhausted weapon caches, food, and other commodities, the Spanish were losing ground.

Despite assistance from the Spanish Crown, the Chichimeca continued to strengthen their power, and between 1575 to 1585, their advances resulted in the closing of several mines in Zacataces. Even after enlisting the assistance of now-allied groups, including the Caxcans and P’urepecha, the Spanish and their allies were unable to defeat the Chichimeca, and the latter seemed to feed their power from the determination to avenge Spanish war crimes against their people, and settler-assault of their lands. It became clear that the war of fire and blood had failed, and the Royal Treasury recognized it had become fatally depleted.

In 1574, the Dominicans accused Spanish aggression as the cause of the Chichimeca War, hence recommending a change of policy that became known as the Purchase for Peace. By 1584, the Bishop of Guadalajara’s “Christian remedy” included the construction of new towns with priests and colonized indigenous people to convince the Chichimecas to convert to Christianity. The Viceroy Albaro Manrique de Zuniga’s policy removed large numbers of Spanish soldiers from the region, naming them as an obstacle to peace. The Viceroy then prohibited further attacks by the Spanish, instead opting to offer land to the Chichimeca. He enlisted a captain by the name of Miguel Caldera, who was of Spanish and Guachichile descent, to negotiate with the Chichimeca, in order to buy-back previously confiscated goods, including silver, gold and pesos. Some sources say the Spanish also purchased red-haired women from the coast, to offer to the Chichimeca as a peace offering. The lavish gifts that were given by the Spanish were considered traditional protocol among the Chichimeca, gifts which merely gave the Spanish the right to buy-back what had been confiscated from them.

In 1589, the war was officially over and by 1590 the roads were declared safe. Despite this, the Spanish continued with their plan for conversion, by introducing natives from Tlaxcala to the region, in eight different settlements. These converts served as educators to the Chichimeca, for farming and animal domestication. Through a long and complicated process, the Chichimeca were eventually converted to Christianity through this duplicitous Purchase for Peace strategy. Historians credit the Chichemeca as victors of the war, yet the Spanish manipulated these gains by convincing the Chichemecas to surrender to Christian conversion.

Our "Silver Road" experience explores this history, in relation to the establishment of La Puerta del Camino Real, hence includes many historical facets that will beguile history lovers, photographers, and those who are passionate about architecture, geography, archaeology and history.

Our publication is 100% free, but if you are feeling generous and would like to make a small, voluntary donation to help us cover our time for research and writing, please click below for payment options starting at $20 MXN (Approximately $1.20 USD). Thank you!

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