An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The Baja California Peninsula is located in the northwestern portion of the Mexican Republic. This body of land extends approximately 775 miles (1,250 kilometers) from Tijuana in the north to Cabo San Lucas in the south and is separated from the rest of Mexico by the Gulf of California (also called the Sea of Cortés). Occupying the northern half of the peninsula, the state of Baja California shares its northern boundary with two American states, California and Arizona, and is also bordered on its northeast by the Mexican state of Sonora. On its western flank, the state also shares a long coastline with the Pacific Ocean.

Uto-Aztecan Language
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
Baja California occupies a total area of 69,921 square kilometers (26,990 square miles), which makes up 3.7% of Mexico's national territory. On Baja California's southern border is another Mexican state, Baja California Sur, which occupies a total area of 71,428 square kilometers (25,751 square miles), taking up 3.7% of the national territory.

The story of the indigenous peoples of the Baja Peninsula is a sad one. Living in an arid environment, their susceptibility to the ravages of war and disease was accentuated by their already marginal existence. The vast majority of the Baja Indians have disappeared and those that have survived in the north are represented by as few as a dozen individuals or as many as a few hundred. Ironically, most of the Mexican indigenous languages spoken in the two Bajas are actually tongues brought to the Peninsula by migrant workers from other states, in particular Oaxaca.

Early Contacts Between Spaniards and Indigenous Inhabitants

In 1532 - a decade after the destruction of the Aztec Empire - the Spanish conqueror Hernán Cortés sent an expedition commanded by his cousin, Diego Hurtado de Mendoza, to explore the Baja California Peninsula and other locations along the Pacific coastline of northwest México. A second expedition to the area left Santiago, Colima, on October 29, 1533. The voyage was a disastrous failure, but mutineers from this expedition explored the area now called La Paz.

In April 1535, Cortés himself led a third expedition of three ships that landed near present-day La Paz on May 3, 1535, where he formally took possession of the land for the King of Spain. Cortés founded a small colony in the area, but the local Indians remained very hostile towards the visitors. By November 1535, more than 70 of Cortés' men had died from starvation or skirmishes with the indigenous population.

Early in 1536, Cortés posted 30 Spaniards to man the small colony and sailed back for Mexico. A fourth expedition led by Francisco de Ulloa in June 1539 found that the small colony had been destroyed. Other expeditions followed, but they frequently encountered large groups of natives who strongly resisted their intrusions. For this reason, the colonization and settlement of the Baja Peninsula was a very slow process, complicated by the hostility of the indigenous groups and the great distance from sources of supply, as well as by inhospitable weather conditions.

Indigenous Groups at Contact

At the time of contact, Baja California Norte was primarily inhabited by several indigenous groups belonging to the Yuman language branch of the Hokan linguistic family. Most of these early inhabitants lived by hunting and fishing, but some of them also gathered acorns, seeds, prickly pears, apples, pine nuts and other small edible plants found in the harsh desert environment.

The northernmost aboriginal Baja Californians spoke several closely-related Yuman languages, most notably the Kiliwa, Paipai, Kumeyaay (Kumiai), and Cocopá (Cucapá) tongues. Using the controversial technique of glottochronology, it has been estimated that the initial separation of the Yuman family into different languages occurred perhaps 2,500 years ago. The Cocopá and Kumiai languages are believed to be very closely related to each other, separated by perhaps about one thousand years of independent development.

Pai Pai

The Pai Pai Indians - also known as Akwa'ala - occupied the northern Sierras in the interior of the northern Baja California Peninsula. Their original territory included the lower Colorado River Valley in the present day municipios of Ensenada and Mexicali, as well as adjacent areas in western Arizona, southern California, and northwestern Sonora.

Kumeyaay (Kumiai)

The Kumiai (Kumeyaay) Indians were hunters, gatherers and fishers who inhabited coastal, inland valley, and mountain regions along the present-day Baja California border region with the United States. The traditional Kumeyaay territory originally extended from around Escondido in California to the northern part of the present day municipio of Ensenada. Occupying the southern section of present-day San Diego County in California, the Kumeyaay inhabited the region near the San Diego Presidio when it was founded in 1769. The Kumeyaay in the vicinity of San Diego were also referred to as the Diegueño by the Spaniards.


The Cochimí Indians inhabited a considerable part of the central Baja Peninsula, from north of Rosario to the vicinity of Loreto in east central Baja California. Like many of the other Baja tribes, the Cochimí Indians survived by fishing in the coastal areas and gathering fruits and seeds for sustenance in other areas.

Cucapás (Cocopá)

The Cucapás, living in the desert region along the Colorado River in the frontier zone of Baja California Norte and Sonora, fished and hunted deer, rabbit, moles, mountain lion and coyote. They also collected a wide variety of desert products, including cactus flowers, potatoes, and wild wheat.


The Kiliwa Indians were hunters who inhabited northeastern Baja California. The Kiliwa lived along the eastern slope of the Sierra San Pedro Mártir and ranged down the Gulf Coast. Their habitat also extended into the Colorado Desert.

Guaycura (Guaicura or Waicuri)

The Guaycuras lived in the middle part of the lower Baja peninsula, inhabiting the Magdalena Plains from Loreto down to and including the La Paz area.


The Pericú occupied the southern tip of the peninsula around San José del Cabo and several large Gulf islands, including Cerralvo, Espíritu Santo, San José, and Santa Catalina.

The Colonization of Baja California Sur

In 1596, King Felipe II of Spain ordered the colonization of the Baja California Peninsula. Six years later, Sebastián Vizcaíno made his famous voyage to Baja, exploring the present-day site of Cabo San Lucas, where he was confronted by a force of 800 native warriors. Vizcaíno managed to build a fort at La Paz, but after a skirmish with local natives, the post had to be abandoned by the Spaniards.

In 1683, Admiral Isidro Atondo y Antillón led a state-sponsored expedition to Baja and established a settlement at La Paz. However, according to Mr. Laylander, the settlement "was abandoned after a few months because of escalating conflicts with the native inhabitants." Another post was established at San Bruno, north of Loreto, but was also abandoned in 1685 "because of meager local resources and uncertain outside supplies."

In October 1697, Jesuit missionaries started arriving in the southern Baja peninsula with the intention of establishing missions. On October 19, 1697, Father Juan María de Salvatierra established the first permanent mission in Baja California Sur, dedicating it with the name of Our Lady of Loreto de Concho, near present-day Loreto, Baja California Sur. Between 1697 and 1767, Jesuit missionaries would establish sixteen missions throughout the length of the Baja Peninsula.

The Jesuit missions played an integral role in the Christianizing of the indigenous peoples. However, to accomplish their objectives, the missionaries resettled and congregated many of their converts in rancherías that were located close to the missions. Although this practice was effective in enforcing religious instruction, tribute collection, and the organization of a work force, the concentration of the natives had a devastating effect on the aboriginal groups and made them more susceptible to smallpox, typhus, measles and other infectious diseases.

Don Laylander, in The Linguistic Prehistory of Baja California, has written that "the linguistic map of Baja California underwent dramatic changes during the historic period, culminating in the extinction of many of its aboriginal languages. Before extinction, prehistoric lifeways were altered in a myriad of ways, through such factors as externally-introduced epidemic diseases, military conflicts, and the relocation of populations to mission settlements." The most serious epidemic was the typhus epidemic of 1742-1744, which probably killed 8,000 Indians. During the following decades, entire tribes disappeared, while small bands of Pericú, Guaycura, and Cochimí - struggled to survive in the south.

The Revolts of 1734-1744

The most serious rebellion in the southern part of the Baja Peninsula took place in 1734-1737. This uprising of the Pericú and Guaycuras engulfed several missions in the southern part of the peninsula, most of which had to be abandoned. In January 1735, indigenous forces ambushed the Manila Galleon that had stopped at San José del Cabo for supplies. "The revolt and its subsequent suppression," according to Don Laylander, "hastened the disorganization and declines of the southern aboriginal groups. To suppress the revolt, the Jesuits were forced to call in outside military assistance." In 1742, King Felipe V authorized the use of royal funds to suppress the revolt. The arrival of a military force from Sinaloa helped to restore order and reestablish control of the southern Baja lands. The last scattered resistance to the Spaniards did not end until 1744.

The Expulsion of the Jesuits

In June 1767, King Carlos III of Spain expelled all the Jesuit missionaries from México. Eventually, the Dominicans continued the missionary efforts of the Jesuits, especially in the territories of the Cochimí, Kiliwa, Paipai, and Kumeyaay. However, by this time, southern Baja's indigenous populations had declined to the point of no return. Don Laylander explains that "in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the role of aboriginal peoples in the peninsula's history has become increasingly marginal. In the central and southern portions of the peninsula, culturally distinct aboriginal populations had disappeared before 1900."

The Kiliwa were one of the few Baja groups that was able to hang on, albeit precariously. In 1840, the Kiliwa, who lived in Baja's northeast corner, successfully rebelled against the Dominicans and fled into quiet isolation. This seclusion enabled the Kiliwa to survive into the Twentieth Century. In 1938, University of California Berkeley anthropologist, Peveril Meigs, searched the entire Baja Peninsula for surviving bands. At that time, he located and did studies on a small band of about fifty Kiliwa living in the east-facing canyons of northern Baja's mountains.

Political Chronology

In January 1824, after the Mexican Republic was constituted, the central government organized and oversaw the Territory of Baja. Twenty four years later, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo - which ended the Mexican-American War - divided the territory of California, with the northern half, called Alta California, being ceded to the United States, while the southern half remained with Mexico as Baja California.

On April 26, 1850, two partidos (secondary administrative divisions) were created as Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur. On December 14, 1887, the status of both partidos was changed to distritos (districts), and on January 1, 1888, the northern part of the peninsula became known as the Northern District of Baja California. On December 30, 1930, the separate territories of Baja California Norte and Baja California Sur were created, effective February 7, 1931. The northern territory became a state on January 16, 1952, while the southern Baja State achieved statehood on October 24, 1974.

Indigenous Groups of the Twentieth Century

By the end of the Nineteenth Century, the aboriginal population of the entire Baja Peninsula had been severely depleted. Up until the 1910 census, the population statistics for Baja California Sur and Baja California Norte were tallied together as one jurisdiction. According to the 1895 Mexican census, some 2,150 individuals spoke indigenous languages in Baja California. However, this tally dropped to 1,111 at the time of the 1900 census.

The indigenous speaking population for the Baja territories dropped further in 1910 to 711, representing only 1.36% of the total population. Although most of the indigenous speakers spoke languages indigenous to other states, 96 Cochimí speakers were counted. Yaqui-speaking individuals (primarily from the state of Sonora) were tallied at 65, while Otomí speakers from central México numbered 40.

The 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years of age and more in the northern state of Baja California who spoke indigenous languages amounted to 37,685 individuals. These individuals spoke at least forty-five languages from Mexico and United States but represented only 1.87% of the total state population 5 years of age and older (2,010,869).

Interestingly, the great majority of the indigenous-speakers in Baja California Norte in 2000 were actually transplants from other parts of the Mexican Republic. The largest language groups represented were the Mixteco (11,962 speakers), Zapoteco (2,987), Náhuatl (2,165), and Purépecha (2,097), and Triqui (1,437), all languages that are indigenous to other parts of the Mexican Republic.

Transplanted Languages

As a matter of fact, 2000 census statistics indicate that 1,025,754 of the 2,487,367 residents of Baja California Norte were, in fact, natives of other entities, representing a total migrant population of 41.2%. In the 2000 census, 41,014 persons in Baja claimed Oaxaca as their birthplace, and it is likely that most of the 11,962 Mixtecos and 2,987 Zapotecos living in the state were probably natives of that state. Already, in the 1970s, Baja had become a major zone of attraction for Mixtec farm laborers, with Ensenada and Tijuana as their primary destination points. Baja California growers almost exclusively recruited Oaxacans laborers for their agricultural labor needs. An additional 89,083 residents of Baja claimed Michoacán de Ocampo as their birthplace, possibly explaining the substantial number of Purépecha-speaking individuals living in the state (2,097).

Native Baja California Tribes in 2000

Unfortunately, the Indian groups indigenous specifically to Baja California never recovered from their initial declines of the Seventeenth Century and are few in number. The primary native speakers of indigenous languages in Baja California Norte in the 2000 census were the Pai-Pai (193 speakers); Kumiai (159); Cucapá (82); Cochimí (80), and Kiliwa (46 people). All of these tribes were of the Yuman Linguistic family whose ancestors had probably migrated to the Baja Peninsula thousands of years earlier.

The Pai Pai, living in the Santa Catarina community of the Ensenada municipio in the north, had become bilingual and concerns have been expressed that their language is nearly dead.

Estimates of the Kumiai population in Mexico at the end of the Twentieth Century put their numbers at 600. However, by 2000, the Mexican census recorded only 159 persons five years of age and older who actually spoke the Kumiai language in the state and all but 13 of these also spoke Spanish and were thus bilingual. Most of the Kumiai lived near Tecate.

The Cochimí culture - located primarily in the central and southern parts of Baja California - also declined dramatically by beginning of the Nineteenth Century. By 2000, only 80 Cochimí speakers were registered as inhabitants of the northern Baja state, most of them living in the municipios of Ensenada, Mexicali, and Tecate. In the 2000 census, only 46 persons were classified as speakers of the Kiliwa language. Readers who are interested in studying more detailed information about the nearly extinct indigenous languages of Baja California can learn more by accessing the Ethnologue website at the following link:

Indigenous Speakers of Baja California Sur

In the 2000 census, the government classified 5,353 inhabitants 5 years of age or more as speakers of more than fifty Indian languages. However, these indigenous speakers represented a mere 0.22% of the total population of the same age group. The primary groups were the Mixteco (1,955), Náhuatl (987), Zapoteco (606), and Amuzgo (126), Trique (113), and Purépecha (106), all imports from the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Michoacán and Guerrero.

Oaxaca Migrants

In the same census, it was reported that 137,928 of the residents of Baja Sur (out of the total population of 424,041) were born in other political entities, indicating that migrants represented 32.5% of the total population of the state. Today, the Mixteco and Zapoteco Indians are the only significant indigenous languages spoken in Baja California Sur. It is likely that most of the 1,955 Mixtecos and 606 Zapotecos living in Baja were probably born in Oaxaca. In the 2000 census, 8,083 persons in Baja Sur claimed Oaxaca as their birthplace, while another 8,564 listed Michoacán as their birthplace, the original home of the Purépecha language.

The use of Oaxacan migrant labor in Baja California Sur has been a well-established practice since the 1970s. For more than thirty years, many Baja California growers have recruited Oaxacans almost exclusively, with La Paz as a major destination for most Mixteco laborers.

Copyright © 2007, by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


Homer Aschmann, The Central Desert of Baja California: Demography and Ecology, Ibero-Americana 42 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959).

Don Laylander, "The Linguistic Prehistory of Baja California," in Gary S. Breschini and Trudy Haversat, Contributions to the Linguistic Prehistory of Central and Baja California, Archives of California Prehistory Number 44 (Salinas, California: Coyote Press, 1997).

William C. Massey, Tribes and Languages of Baja California, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, V (Autumn 1949): 272-307.

William C. Massey, Brief Report on Archaeological Investigations in Baja California, Southwestern Journal of Anthropology, III (Winter 1947): 344-359.

Peveril Meigs, The Kiliwa Indians of Lower California, Ibero-Americana, 15 (Berkeley, California: University of California, 1939).

John Schmal is an historian, genealogist, and lecturer. With his friend Donna Morales, he coauthored "Mexican-American Genealogical Research: Following the Paper Trail to Mexico" (Heritage Books, 2002) and "The Dominguez Family: A Mexican-American Journey" (Heritage Books, 2004). He has degrees in History (Loyola-Marymount University) and Geography (St. Cloud State University) and is a board member of the Society of Hispanic Historical Ancestral Research (SHHAR). He is an associate editor of SHHAR's online monthly newsletter, www.somosprimos.com. John is presently collaborating with illustrator Eddie Martinez on a manuscript entitled "Indigenous Mexico: Past and Present."