An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

Continued from History of the Tlaxcalans

The anthropologist Eric R. Wolf stressed the great contribution of Cortés' Indian allies in the capture of Tenochtitlán. Wolf writes that "Spanish firepower and cavalry would have been impotent against the Mexica armies without" the support of the Tlaxcalans and the Texcocans. The allies "furnished the bulk of the infantry and manned the canoes that covered the advance of the brigantines across the lagoon of Tenochtitlán." In addition, "they provided, transported, and prepared the food supplies needed to sustain an army in the field. They maintained lines of communication between the coast and highland, and they policed occupied and pacified areas."

Finally, writes Mr. Wolf, the Indian allies also "supplied the raw materials and muscular energy for the construction of the ships that decided the siege of the Mexican capital." In conclusion, he states that while "Spanish military equipment and tactics carried the day," the "Indian assistance determined the outcome of the war."

The Aztecs are Alive
and Well: The Náhuatl
Language in México

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History of Mexico
The author Charles Gibson, in his work Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century, has explored the intricacies of the Tlaxcalan alliance with the Spaniards in great detail. He notes that even after the surrender of the Mexica capital, the Tlaxcalans continued to offer support to the Spaniards. They accompanied Cortés to Pánuco in 1522, and joined Pedro de Alvarado's expedition to Guatemala in 1524. In 1530, several thousand Tlaxcalans accompanied Nuño de Guzmán in his bloody campaign into northwestern Mexico.

During Nuño de Guzmán's reign of terror as the President of the First Audiencia of New Spain, the Tlaxcalans remained comparatively immune from the oppression and harassment, which reached its peak during in the early 1530s. Because they were directly subject to the Crown, royal officials preferred not to tamper with the privileges which the Crown had granted to the former republic as a reward for its loyalty in the war.

In 1524, twelve Franciscan friars arrived in Tlaxcala to carry on the spiritual conquest of the Tlaxcalans. They built convents and chapels and in 1525 founded Tlaxcala de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción on the site of the present-day capital city. The conversion of the Tlaxcalans to Christianity proceeded and reached its peak in the late 1520s. By 1535, the city of Tlaxcala had been granted a coat of arms and was made the seat of the first archbishopric of Nueva España (New Spain).

After the conquest of the Mexica, the Tlaxcalans were given special concessions, and to some extent, they were able to maintain their old form of government. The special relationship of the Tlaxcalans with the Spaniards continued well into the Sixteenth Century. They accompanied the Spaniards into battle in the Mixtón Rebellion (1540-41) and the Chichimeca War (1550-1590) in Nueva Galicia.

In the 1580s, several viceroys had recommended settlement of peaceful, agricultural Indian tribes in the north as part of the pacification of the nomadic groups (Chichimecas). Dr. Philip Wayne Powell, in his book Mexico's Miguel Caldera: The Taming of America's First Frontier (1548-1597), observed that many small groups of southern Christianized Indians - Cholulans, Mexica, Tarascans, Huejotzingas, Tlaxcalans and Otomíes - went "forth to the wilderness, serving as examples for the savages" during the four decades of the Chichimeca War. These sedentary, Christianized Indian allies of the Spaniards - including the Tlaxcalans - consisted of "thousands of individual Indians and families [who] had moved to the frontier in trade, as employees, as merchants, as organized military forces, or simply as adventurers, following the northward-pulling magnets of mining discoveries, town-founding, work and landholding opportunities, or for the attractions of warfare."

On February 6, 1585, the Spanish authorities in the mining town of San Martín had petitioned the King of Spain to send between 2,000 and 4,000 married Indians from Tlaxcala and other southern communities. Dr. Powell points out that the two objectives of this action were to "bolster resistance to Chichimeca warfare, and provide labor for the mines."

Dr. Powell, in Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War, tells us that by December 1590, Viceroy Luis de Velasco "had begun to negotiate with the Indian leaders of Tlaxcala, traditional friends and allies of Spanish conquest in the land, to send four hundred families northward to establish eight settlements (fifty families in each) with church and religious house."

"This defensive, or pacifying, type of colonization," wrote Dr. Powell, "was designed to teach the recently nomadic Chichimecas the ways of work, cultivation of the soil, provide a Christian example, and generally guide them into the ways of the sedentary life." However, the Tlaxcalans argued and received special privileges for themselves and their descendants in exchange for moving to the northern frontier.

On March 14, 1591, Viceroy Velasco took steps to safeguard their interests by various orders for protection (mandamientos de amparo) to make sure that their possessions would not be taken from their heirs at some future date. These special privileges (capitulaciones) included the following:

"The Tlaxcalan settlers in the Chichimeca country and their descendants shall be hidalgos [noble] in perpetuity, free from tributes, taxes (pecho and alcabala), and personal service for all time.

"They are not to be compelled to settle with Spaniards, but will be allowed to settle apart from them and have their own distinct districts [barrios]. No Spaniard can take or buy any solar [building house lot] within the Tlaxcalan districts.

"The Tlaxcalans are to be at all times settled apart from the Chichimecas, and this distinction is to apply to all of their lots, pastures, wooded lands, rivers, salt beds, mills, and fishing rights.

"The lands and estancias granted the individual Tlaxcalans and the community as a whole are never to be alienated because of nonoccupation.

"The markets in the new settlements shall be free, exempt from sales tax (alcabala), from excise taxes (sisa), and from any other form of taxation.

"The Tlaxcalan colonists and their descendants, besides being hidalgos and free from all tribute, shall henceforth enjoy all exemptions and privileges already granted, or to be granted in the future, to the province and city of Tlaxcala.

"The principales of Tlaxcala who go to the new settlements, and their descendants, shall be permitted to carry arms and ride saddled horses without penalty."

Eventually, 932 Tlaxcalan settlers headed north, occupying lands in Coahuila, San Luis Potosí and Zacatecas. One of the most important settlements was San Miguel Mexquitic (now in San Luis Potosí), which Dr. Powell referred to as "a center of the most bellicose of the Chichimecas nearest the Mexico-Zacatecas road." Dr. Powell concluded that the "the Tlaxcalan settlement in the Gran Chichimeca was a basic factor in cementing the frontier peace, for, in almost all respects, the enterprise fulfilled or exceeded the hopes of its planners. With one temporary exception, the Tlaxcalan presence did encourage Chichimeca imitation of their peaceful and more civilized ways. This program was so effective that the original six Tlaxcalan settlements were soon contributing offshoot colonies to other parts of the frontier, for the same purpose."

The Tlaxcalan colonists settled in several locations along the Rio Grande, including El Paso (where they had fled after the Pueblo Indian Rebellion of 1680 in New Mexico). Some settlers also located in the missions near San Juan Bautista, not far from the present-day port of entry in Eagle Pass, Texas. When José de Escandón established his new colony of Nueva Santander in the region of present-day Tamaulipas and Texas, he invited Tlaxcalans to accompany him too. As a result, descendants of these Tlaxcalan settlers still live along the Rio Grande, both in Texas and Tamaulipas.

The Tlaxcalans lived peacefully under the protection of the Spanish authorities and Franciscan padres and any Spaniards who tried to interfere with their way of life, land, or privileges were punished. Eventually intermarriage between the Tlaxcalans and the Chichimeca Indians took place, although "the Tlaxcalan identity never entirely disappeared, living on through succeeding centuries."

The modern-day state of Tlaxcala occupies a slightly larger area than the Indian principality of Tlaxcala (in the Sixteenth Century). Tlaxcala's economy contributes to 0.54% of Mexico's Gross National Product. The most important component of Tlaxcala's economy is manufacturing, which represents 28.24% of its economic output. Other elements of Tlaxcala's economy include: Finance and Insurance (16.51%), Trade (12.6%), Transports and Communications (8.61%), Agriculture and Livestock (7.8%), Construction (4.96%), and Mining (0.17%).

The manufacturing sector produces chemicals, petrochemicals, non-metallic minerals, auto parts, electrical items, rubbers, plastics, cellulose, machine tools, as well as textiles and garments. Tlaxcala's agricultural base is also an important sector. Tlaxcala produces corn, barley, potatoes and alfalfa and raises dairy cows and fighting bulls. Although a large part of Tlaxcala's industry is textile-based, the economy has diversified considerably in recent years. Her primary export products are textiles, chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

The colonial heritage of Tlaxcala and its spas have attracted tourists to the area. Boasting a strategic geographic location, 1,145 miles of roads and 191 miles of railroads traverse the state, linking Tlaxcala, the state capital, to Mexico City in the west and to Puebla on the south. Tlaxcala's railroads also link it to the seaport of Veracruz, an important outlet for Tlaxcalan exports.

The capital city of Tlaxcala has an estimated population of 73,184, which makes up about 7.62% of the state's population. It is the site of the oldest Christian church in the Americas, founded in 1521 by Hernán Cortés. The Tlaxcalans have played a very important and unique role in Mexican history. And tourists visiting the state become very aware of this role during their visit.

Return to History of the Tlaxcalans

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


David Adams, The Tlaxcalan Colonies of Spanish Coahuila and Nuevo León: An Aspect of the Settlement of Northern Mexico (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1971).

Ronald Barnett, "The Mighty Tlaxcalans of Mexico," Online: http://www.chapala.com/particles/21w.htm February 1997.

Nicholas Cheetham, New Spain: The Birth of Modern Mexico (London: Victor Golancz Ltd., 1974).

Diego Muñoz Camargo, Historia de Tlaxcala (Alfredo Chavero, ed.: Mexico, 1892).

Diego Muñoz Camargo, Fragmentos de la Historia de Tlaxcala (Mexico, 1871).

Nigel Davies, The Aztecs: A History (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma, 1980).

Charles Gibson, Tlaxcala in the Sixteenth Century (Yale: Yale University Press, 1952).

Oakah L. Jones, Los Paisanos: Spanish Settlers on the Northern Frontier of New Spain (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1979).

Richard Lee Marks, Cortés: The Great Adventurer and the Fate of Aztec Mexico (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994).

Matt S. Meier and Feliciano Rivera, The Chicanos: A History of Mexican Americans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972).

Michael C. Meyer, The Course of Mexican History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Philip Wayne Powell, Mexico's Miguel Caldera: The Taming of America's First Frontier (1548-1597) (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1977).

Philip Wayne Powell, Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War (Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, 1975).

Marc Simmons, "Tlascalans in the Spanish Borderlands,"New Mexico Historical Review 39 (April '64).

Eric R. Wolf, Sons of the Shaking Earth (Chicago: Un of Chicago Press, Phoenix Books, 1959).

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."