An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The State of Sinaloa, with a surface area of 56,496 square kilometers, is basically a narrow strip of land running along the Pacific Ocean and represents only 2.9% of the national territory. Politically, the state is divided into eighteen municipios, with its capital at Culiacán. Sinaloa's 656 kilometers of coastline includes many beaches, bays, peninsulas, islands and coastal lagoons (221,600 hectares).

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Sinaloa is bordered to the north by Sonora and Chihuahua; to the south, by Nayarit; to the east by Durango, and to the west, by the Gulf of California. The eighteen municipios of Sinaloa are home to approximately 2,425,675 inhabitants. The coastal plain is a narrow strip of land that stretches along the length of the state and lies between the ocean and the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental Range, which dominates the eastern part of the state. Sinaloa is traversed by many rivers, which carve broad valleys into the foothills. The largest of these rivers are the Culiacán, Fuerte, and Sinaloa.

During the early part of the Spanish colonial period, Sinaloa belonged to the Spanish province of Nueva Vizcaya, which took up a great deal of territory (610,000 square kilometers), most of which today corresponds with four Mexican states. Because of its great mining potential, Sinaloa was coveted by the Spanish who sought to exploit its mineral wealth. However, the early resistance of the indigenous peoples proved to be a stumbling block to their plans. Their resistance is described below:

First Contact: 1531. In December 1529, the professional lawyer turned Conquistador, Nuño Beltrán de Guzmán, led an expedition of 300 Spaniards and 10,000 Indian allies (Tlaxcalans, Aztecs and Tarascans) into the coastal region of what is now called Sinaloa. Before arriving in the coastal region, Guzmán's army had ravaged through Michoacán, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Nayarit, provoking the natives to give battle everywhere he went. The historian Peter Gerhard, in The North Frontier of New Spain, observed that Guzmán's army "engaged in wholesale slaughter and enslavement."

In March 1531, Guzmán's army reached the site of present-day Culiacán (now in Sinaloa), where his force engaged an army of 30,000 warriors in a pitched battle. The indigenous forces were decisively defeated and, as Mr. Gerhard notes, the victors "proceeded to enslave as many people as they could catch." The indigenous people confronted by Guzmán belonged to the Cáhita language group. Speaking eighteen closely related dialects, the Cáhita peoples of Sinaloa and Sonora numbered about 115,000 and were the most numerous of any single language group in northern Mexico. These Indians inhabited the coastal area of northwestern Mexico along the lower courses of the Sinaloa, Fuerte, Mayo, and Yaqui Rivers.

During his stay in Sinaloa, Guzmán's army was ravaged by an epidemic that killed many of his Amerindian auxiliaries. Finally, in October 1531, after establishing San Miguel de Culiacán on the San Lorenzo River, Guzmán returned to the south, his mostly indigenous army decimated by hunger and disease. But the Spanish post at Culiacán remained, Mr. Gerhard writes, as "a small outpost of Spaniards surrounded on all sides but the sea by hostile Indians kept in a state of agitation" by the slave-hunting activities of the Spaniards. Nuño de Guzmán was eventually brought to justice for his genocidal actions.

Epidemic Disease - Sinaloa (1530-1536). Daniel T. Reff, the author of Disease, Depopulation, and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764, explains that "viruses and other microorganisms undergo significant genetic changes when exposed to a new host environment, changes often resulting in new and more virulent strains of microorganisms." The Indians of the coastal region, never having been exposed to Spaniards and their diseases previously, provided fertile ground for the proliferation of smallpox and measles. It is believed that as many as 130,000 people died in the Valley of Culiacán during the Measles Pandemic of 1530-1534 and the Smallpox Plague of 1535-1536.

As the Spaniards moved northward they found an amazing diversity of indigenous groups. Unlike the more concentrated Amerindian groups of central Mexico, the Indians of the north were referred to as "ranchería people" by the Spaniards. Their fixed points of settlements (rancherías) were usually scattered over an area of several miles and one dwelling may be separated from the next by up to half a mile. The renowned anthropologist, Professor Edward H. Spicer (1906-1983), writing in Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960, observed that most ranchería people were agriculturalists and farming was their primary activity.

Distant Enclave

In 1533, Diego de Guzmán (the nephew of Nuño) fought a brief battle with the Yaquis along the banks of the Yaqui River. "His force dispersed the Indians," notes Professor Spicer, "...but he nevertheless seems to have lost heart for further conquest and did not follow up his victory. He was greatly impressed with the fighting ability of the Yaquis who opposed him."

Thus, the small province of Culiacán, according to Peter Gerhard, "became a distant enclave of Spanish power, separated by a hundred miles of hostile territory from the rest of" the Spanish Empire. In 1562, the area was included in the newly established Spanish province of Nueva Vizcaya (which - at the time - included the modern day states of Sonora, Sinaloa, Chihuahua and Durango).

By the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, Spanish authorities had organized many of the Indians in Durango and Sinaloa into encomiendas. Although encomienda Indians were supposed to provide labor "for a few weeks per year," the historian Ms. Susan M. Deeds explains that "they often served much longer and some apparently became virtual chattels of Spanish estates." She goes on to say that the Jesuits' "systematic congregation of Indians into villages" starting in the 1590s encouraged the development of encomiendas by making Indians more accessible to their encomenderos." In practice, Mrs. Deeds concludes, encomiendas usually resulted in the "tacit enslavement of Indians."

In 1599, Captain Diego de Hurdaide established San Felipe y Santiago on the site of the modern city of Sinaloa. From here, Captain Hurdaide waged a vigorous military campaign that subjugated the Cáhita-speaking Indians of the Fuerte River - the Sinaloas, Tehuecos, Zuaques, and Ahomes. Initially, these indigenous groups, numbering approximately 20,000 people, resisted strongly, but eventually they were subdued.

Acaxee Revolt - Northwestern Durango and East Central Sinaloa (1601). The Acaxee Indians lived in dispersed rancherías in the gorges and canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental in northwestern Durango and eastern Sinaloa. Once the Jesuit missionaries started to work among the Acaxees, they forced them to cut their very long hair and to wear clothing. The Jesuits also initiated a program of forced resettlement so that they could concentrate the Acaxees in one area.

In December 1601, the Acaxees, under the direction of an elder named Perico, began an uprising against Spanish rule. The author Susan Deeds, writing in "Indigenous Rebellions on the Northern Mexican Mission Frontier from First-Generation to Later Colonial Responses," states that the Acaxee Revolt "was characterized by messianic leadership and promises of millennial redemption during a period of violent disruption and catastrophic demographic decline due to disease." Claiming to have come from heaven to save his people from the false doctrines of the Jesuits, Perico planned to exterminate all the Spaniards. Although he promised to save his people from the Catholic missionaries and their way of life, his messianic activity included saying Mass, and performing baptisms and marriages.

Ms. Deeds observes that the Acaxee and other so-called first generation revolts represented "attempts to restore pre-Columbian social and religious elements that had been destroyed by the Spanish conquest." In the following weeks, the Acaxees attacked the Spaniards in the mining camps and along mountain roads, killing fifty people. After the failure of negotiations, Francisco de Urdiñola led a militia of Spaniards and Tepehuán and Concho allies into the Sierra Madre. Susan Deeds writes that "the campaign was particularly brutal, marked by summary trials and executions of hundreds of captured rebels." Perico and 48 other rebel leaders were executed, while other rebels were sold into slavery.

Initial Contact with the Mayo Indians (1609-1610). The Mayo Indians were an important Cáhita-speaking tribe occupying some fifteen towns along the Mayo and Fuerte rivers of southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa. As early as 1601, they had developed a curious interest in the Jesuit-run missions of their neighbors. The Mayos sent delegations to inspect the Catholic churches and, as Professor Spicer observes, "were so favorably impressed that large groups of Mayos numbering a hundred or more also made visits and became acquainted with Jesuit activities." As the Jesuits began their spiritual conquest of the Mayos, Captain Hurdaide, in 1609, signed a peace treaty with the military leaders of the Mayos.

Spanish Contact with the Yaqui Indians (1610). At contact, the Yaqui Indians occupied the coastal region of Sinaloa along the Yaqui River. Divided into eighty autonomous communities, their primary activity was agriculture. Although the Yaqui Indians had resisted Guzmán's advance in 1531, they had welcomed Francisco de Ibarra who came in peace in 1565, apparently in the hopes of winning the Spaniards as allies in the war against their traditional enemies, the Mayos.

In 1609, as Captain Hurdaide became engaged with the pacification of the Ocoronis (another Cahita-speaking group of northern Sinaloa), he reached the Yaqui River, where he was confronted by a group of Yaquis. Then, in 1610, with the Mayo and Lower Pima Indians as his allies, Captain Hurdaide returned to Yaqui territory with a force of 2,000 Indians and forty Spanish soldiers. He was soundly defeated. When he returned with another force of 4,000 Indian foot soldiers and fifty mounted Spanish cavalry, he was again defeated in a bloody daylong battle.

Conversion of the Mayo Indians (1613-1620). In 1613, at their own request, the Mayos accepted Jesuit missionaries. Soon after, the Jesuit Father Pedro Mendez established the first mission in Mayo territory. In the first fifteen days, more than 3,000 persons received baptism. By 1620, with 30,000 persons baptized, the Mayos had been concentrated in seven mission towns.

Conversion of the Yaqui Indians (1617-1620). In 1617, the Yaquis, utilizing the services of Mayo intermediaries, invited the Jesuit missionaries to begin their work among them. Professor Spicer noted that after observing the Mayo-Jesuit interactions that started in 1613, the Yaquis seemed to be impressed with the Jesuits. Bringing a message of everlasting life, the Jesuits impressed the Yaquis with their good intentions and their spirituality. Their concern for the well being of the Indians won the confidence of the Yaqui people. In seeking to protect the Yaqui from exploitation by mine owners and encomenderos, the Jesuits came into direct conflict with the Spanish political authorities. From 1617 to 1619, nearly 30,000 Yaquis were baptized. By 1623, the Jesuits had reorganized the Yaquis from about eighty rancherías into eight mission villages.

Detachment of the Province of Sinaloa and Sonora (1733). In 1733, Sinaloa and Sonora were detached from Nueva Vizcaya and given recognition as the province of Sonora y Sinaloa. Ms. Deeds commented that this detachment represented a recognition of ³the growth of a mining and ranching secular society in this northwestern region.

Rebellion of the Yaqui, Pima, and Mayo Indians - Sinaloa and Sonora (1740). The Yaqui and Mayo Indians had lived in peaceful coexistence with the Spaniards since the early part of the Seventeenth Century. Ms. Deeds, in describing the causes of this rebellion, observes that the Jesuits had ignored "growing Yaqui resentment over lack of control of productive resources." During the last half of the Seventeenth Century, so much agricultural surplus was produced that storehouses needed to be built. These surpluses were used by the missionaries to extend their activities northward into the California and Pima missions. The immediate cause of the rebellion is believed to have been a poor harvest in late 1739, followed in 1740 by severe flooding which exacerbated food shortages.

Ms. Deeds also points out that the "increasingly bureaucratic and inflexible Jesuit organizationŠ obdurately disregarded Yaqui demands for autonomy in the selection of their own village officials" Thus, this rebellion, writes Ms. Deeds, was "a more limited endeavor to restore the colonial pact of village autonomy and territorial integrity." At the beginning of the revolt, an articulate leader named El Muni emerged in the Yaqui community. El Muni and another Yaqui leader, Bernabé, took the Yaquis' grievances to local civil authorities. Resenting this undermining of their authority, the Jesuits had Muni and Bernabé arrested.

The arrests triggered a spontaneous outcry, with two thousand armed indigenous men gathering to demand the release of the two leaders. The Governor, having heard the complaints of both sides, recommended that the Yaqui leaders go to Mexico City to testify personally before the Viceroy and Archbishop Vizrón. In February 1740, the Archbishop approved all of the Yaqui demands for free elections, respect for land boundaries, that Yaquis be paid for work, and that they not be forced to work in mines.

The initial stages of the 1740 revolt saw sporadic and uncoordinated activity in Sinaloa and Sonora, primarily taking place in the Mayo territory (in the south) or in the Lower Pima Country (to the north). Catholic churches were burned to the ground while priests and settlers were driven out, fleeing to the silver mining town at Alamos. Eventually, Juan Calixto raised an army of 6,000 composed of Pima, Yaqui and Mayo Indians. With this large force, Calixto gained control of all the towns along the Mayo and Yaqui Rivers.

However, in August 1740, Captain Agustín de Vildósola defeated the insurgents. The rebellion, however, had cost the lives of a thousand Spaniards and more than 5,000 Indians. After the 1740 rebellion, the new Governor of Sonora and Sonora began a program of secularization by posting garrisons in the Yaqui Valley and encouraging Spanish residents to return to the area of rebellion. The Viceroy ordered the partition of Yaqui land in a "prudent manner." The Yaquis had obtained a reputation for being courageous warriors during the rebellion of 1740 and the Spanish handled them quite gingerly during the late 1700s. As a result, the government acquisition of Yaqui lands did not begin began until 1768 and lasted up to 1877.

In the unique 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including "indígena pura" (pure indigenous), "indígena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with white) and "blanca" (white). Out of a total state population of 341,265, only 3,163 individuals (0.9%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. A much larger number - 335,474, or 98.3% - classified themselves as being mixed, while only 644 individuals classified themselves as white (0.2% of the state population). While it is likely that most of the 44,779 persons claiming to be of indigenous descent probably did not speak an Indian language, both the pure and mixed classifications are a testament to Durango¹s undeniable indigenous past.

The number of people who spoke indigenous languages in the state was even smaller than the number who had claimed to be of pure indigenous heritage in the 1921 census. In the 1930 census, a mere 843 residents of Sinaloa admitted that they were monolingual speakers on indigenous languages. Of this total, 809 spoke the Mayo language. Another 6,317 were bilingual, speaking both Spanish and an indigenous language.

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Sinaloa amounted to 49,744 individuals, representing 2.2% of the state population. However, government estimates classified 87,948 persons as "Indígena," representing 3.5% of Sinaloa¹s 2,536,844 population.

These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, many of which were transplants from other parts of the Mexican Republic. The largest indigenous groups represented in the state were: Mixteco (13,752), Mayo (9,077), Náhuatl (6,446), Zapoteco (5,042), Tlapaneco (2,881), Tarahumara (1,913), and Triqui (947). The presence of a large number of Mixteco speakers was due, in large part, to the state's horticultural production.

The agricultural interests in Sinaloa actively recruited indigenous people from the states of Oaxaca and Guerrero, brining tens of thousands of Zapotecs, Tlapanecos, Triqui, and Mixtecos from those southern states each year. While some of these people returned home after laboring for several years, others moved on to the United States or made Sinaloa their permanent residence.

Copyright © 2004 by John P. Schmal. All Rights Reserved. Read more articles by John Schmal.


Susan M. Deeds, "Indigenous Rebellions on the Northern Mexican Mission Frontier: From First-Generation to Later Colonial Responses," in Susan Schroeder, Native Resistance and the Pax Colonial in New Spain. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1998, pp. 1-29.

Departamento de la Estadísticas Nacional. Annuario de 1930. Tacubaya, D.F., 1932.

Peter Gerhard, The Northern Frontier of New Spain. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1982.

Instituto Nacional de Estadística, Geografía e Informática (INEGI). Estadísticas Históricas de Mexico, Tomo I. Aguascalientes: INEGI, 1994.

Cynthia Radding, "The Colonial Pact and Changing Ethnic Frontiers in Highland Sonora, 1740-1840," in Donna J. Guy and Thomas E. Sheridan (eds.), Contested Ground: Comparative Frontiers on the Northern and Southern Edges of the Spanish Empire, pp. 52-66. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998.

Daniel T. Reff, Disease, Depopulation and Culture Change in Northwestern New Spain, 1518-1764. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1991.

Robert Mario Salmon, Indian Revolts in Northern New Spain: A Synthesis of Resistance (1680-1786). Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991.

Edward H. Spicer, Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960. Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1997.

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."