An educational project of the
Houston Institute for Culture

By John P. Schmal

The state of Zacatecas, located in the north-central portion of the Mexican Republic, is a land rich in cultural, religious, and historical significance. With a total of 75,040 square kilometers, Zacatecas is Mexico's eighth largest state and occupies 3.383% of the total surface of the country. Politically, the state is divided into fifty-six municipios and has a total of 5,064 localities, 86% of which correspond to the old haciendas.

The Aztec Empire
Map of Mexico
History of Mexico
Mexican Traditions
With a population of 1,441,734 inhabitants, Zacatecas depends upon cattle-raising, agriculture, mining, communications, food processing, tourism, and transportation for its livelihood. Although much of Zacatecas is desert, the primary economic driver of the state is agriculture. Zacatecas is Mexico's foremost producer of beans, chili peppers and cactus leaves, and holds second place in guava production, third in grapes, and fifth in peaches.

In the middle of the Sixteenth Century, Zacatecas was merely one part of a larger area that the Spaniards referred to as La Gran Chichimeca (which also included Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Nayarit and Guanajuato). This area, which was inhabited by several indigenous tribes, had never been conquered by the Aztec Indians of the south. The Aztecs, in fact, had collectively referred to these nomadic Indians as the Chichimecas (a derogatory term meaning "the sons of dogs"). The four primary tribes who inherited the area of present-day Zacatecas were the Zacatecos, Cazcanes, Guachichiles, and the Tepehuanes.

After the conquest of southern Mexico in 1521, Hernán Cortés sent several expeditions north to explore La Gran Chichimeca. Juan Alvarez Chico and Alonso de Avalos each led expeditions northward into the land we now call Zacatecas. By this time, the Aztec and Tlaxcalan nations had aligned themselves with the Spaniards and most explorations were undertaken jointly with Spanish soldiers and Indian warriors. These expeditions went north in the hopes of developing trade relations with the northern tribes and finding mineral wealth. Each expedition was accompanied by missionaries who carried Christianity and the Word of God to native peoples.

However, in 1529, Nuño de Guzmán, leading a force of 500 Spaniards and 10,000 Indian allies from the south of Mexico, marched through Michoacán, Nayarit, Jalisco, Durango, Sinaloa, and Zacatecas. Although these lands had already been claimed by Avalos and other explorers, Guzmán ignored prior rights of discovery by provoking the natives to revolt so that he might subdue them. Guzmán's campaign led to the killing, torture, and enslavement of thousands of Indians. However, reports of Guzmán's brutal treatment of the indigenous people got the attention of the authorities in Mexico City. Eventually, he was arrested and put on trial. Although Guzmán was returned to Spain where he died in poverty and disgrace, his reign of terror had long-lasting repercussions in Zacatecas, which now became a part of the Spanish colony of Nueva Galicia.

In February 1540, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado set out in search of the Seven Cities of Cibola. However, the departure of Coronado's expedition had left the small Spanish settlements in Nueva Galicia seriously undermanned. Still reeling from the cruelty of Guzmán, the Indian population began a fierce rebellion against the Spanish authorities and their Indian allies from the south. This revolt, referred to as the Mixtón Rebellion, started in the Spring of 1540 and lasted until December 1541. Eventually, the Spanish forces were able to regain their advantage and suppress the revolt.

In 1546, a Basque noble, Juan de Tolosa, was the first European to find silver in Zacatecas when a small group of Indians living near the present-day city of Zacatecas brought him several pieces of ore as a gift. In the same year, the small mining settlement of Zacatecas, located 8,148 feet above sea level, was founded. In the next few years, the dream of quick wealth brought a multitude of prospectors, entrepreneurs, and laborers streaming into Zacatecas. Rich mineral-bearing deposits would also be discovered farther north in San Martín (1556), Chalchihuites (1556), Avino (1558), Sombrerete (1558), Fresnillo (1566), Mazapil (1568), and Nieves (1574).

Unfortunately, the stampede of Spanish settlers and Indian laborers from southern Mexico had ignored the fact that several indigenous tribes regarded this land as an inheritance from their ancestors. As the mining camps in Zacatecas increased in number, a long stretch of unsettled and unexplored territory surrounded the merchant routes that led out of Zacatecas to Mexico City. In 1550, the Chichimeca War began when the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians began to attack travelers and merchants along these "silver roads."

The definitive source of information relating to the Chichimeca Indians and the Chichimeca War is Philip Wayne Powell's Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: North America's First Frontier War. For several decades, the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians waged a fierce guerrilla war, staging attacks on both mining towns and the small caravans entering the war zone. However, in 1585, Alonso Manrique de Zuñiga, the Marqués de Villamanrique, recently appointed as the Viceroy of Mexico, decided to investigate Spanish policies in the war zone.

The Viceroy learned that some Spanish soldiers had begun raiding Indian settlements for the purpose of enslavement. Infuriated by this practice, he prohibited further enslavement of all captured Indians and freed or placed under religious care those who had already been captured. Soon, he launched a full-scale peace offensive and opened up negotiations with the principal Chichimeca leaders. In trade for peace, Villamanrique offered food, clothing, lands, and agricultural implements. This policy of "peace by purchase" worked and by the end of the Sixteenth Century, the Chichimeca War had ended.

In the meantime, Catholic missionaries had began a vigorous campaign to win the hearts and souls of the native people of Zacatecas. By 1596, fourteen monasteries dotted the present-day area of Zacatecas. The peace offensive and missionary efforts were so successful that within a few years, the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians had settled down to peaceful living within the small settlements that now dotted the Zacatecas landscape. Working in the fields and mines alongside the Aztec, Tlaxcalan, Otomíe and Tarascan Indians who had also settled in Zacatecas, the Chichimeca Indians were very rapidly assimilated and, as Mr. Powell writes, "the Sixteenth-century land of war thus became fully Mexican in its mixture."

For the next two centuries, the prosperity of Zacatecas corresponded with the vagaries of its silver industry. A period of great prosperity from 1690 to 1752 was followed by a period of economic depression in which the value of silver dropped. However, in 1768, the silver industry rallied and the next period of expansion lasted until 1810. This period of prosperity led to a significant increase in the population of the city of Zacatecas from 15,000 in 1777 to 33,000 in 1803. A census tally in the latter year also revealed the ethnic composition of the city: 42% Spanish and mestizo extraction; 27% Indian; and 31% Black and mulato. A mestizo is a person of mixed Spanish and Indian heritage, while a mulato is a person of mixed Spanish and African ancestry.

In September 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo raised the standard of revolt in nearby Guanajuato. For several months, Father Hidalgo's rebel forces occupied Zacatecas and other areas of Mexico. However, eventually Royalist forces routed the insurgents and captured Father Hidalgo, who was executed on July 31, 1811 by a firing squad. The war for independence continued for ten more years before the Spanish Empire was finally forced to give up its prized colony at the Treaty of Cordoba on August 24, 1821. Two years later, on July 12, 1823, Zacatecas declared itself an independent state within the Mexican Republic. In the years to follow, many of the Mexican states, including Zacatecas, would seek provincial self-government and political autonomy from Mexico City. However, the self-determination that Zacatecas sought for itself came into direct conflict with the Federal government.

In the early years of the independent republic, two factions dominated Mexican politics. The Conservatives, backed by the large landowners, the Catholic Church and the federal army, favored the old system that had dominated colonial Mexico for three centuries. The Liberals, however, challenged the old order. In 1832, Federal forces under President Anastacio Bustamante, representing Conservative interests, defeated rebellious Zacatecas forces under the command of General Esteban Moctezuma in the Battle of Gallinero.

Three years later, Zacatecas once again revolted against the national government. On May 11, 1835, the Zacatecas militia, under the command of Francisco García, was defeated at the Battle of Guadalupe by the Federal forces of General Santa Anna. Soon after this victory, Santa Anna's forces ransacked the city of Zacatecas and the rich silver mines at Fresnillo. In addition to seizing large quantities of Zacatecan silver, Santa Anna punished Zacatecas by separating Aguascalientes from Zacatecas and making it into an independent territory. Aguascalientes would achieve the status of state in 1857. The loss of Aguascalientes and its rich agricultural terrain would be a severe blow to the economy and the spirit of Zacatecas.

The War of the Reform, lasting from 1858 to 1861, pitted the Conservatives against the Liberals one more time. Once again, Zacatecas became a battleground and its capital was occupied alternatively by both sides. Finally, in 1859, the Liberal leader Jesus Gonzalez Ortega seized control of the government in Zacatecas. However, the Catholic church, which strongly endorsed Conservative ideals, found itself in direct opposition with the state government. When, on June 16, 1859, Governor González Ortega decreed a penal law against the Conservative elements in Zacatecas, causing many Catholic priests to flee the state.

The French invasion of Mexico in 1861 was just another extension of the conflict between the Conservatives and Liberals. Invited by the Conservative faction to invade Mexico, the French forces, against great resistance, were able to make their way to Mexico City and occupy the capital. In 1864, the French forces occupied Zacatecas as well. However, the occupation of Zacatecas lasted only two years and by 1867, the French were expelled from all of Mexico.

In the 1880s, a transportation revolution brought the railroad to Zacatecas. By the end of the decade, in fact, Zacatecas was linked by rail with several northern cities, including Ciudad Juarez. The Mexican Central Railway, which ran from Mexico City through Aguascalientes, Zacatecas, and Chihuahua, became a major catalyst for the massive immigration from Zacatecas to the United States during the Twentieth Century. At the same time, the silver industry, which had declined dramatically during and after the Independence War, started to rebound. By 1877-1878, silver alone accounted for 60 percent of the value of all Mexican exports.

During the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920), Zacatecas, with its central location in the Republic, was unable to escape the devastation of war. In June 1914, the City of Zacatecas was the center of national attention when the city was taken by Pancho Villa and his Dorados in the famous battle known as La Toma de Zacatecas (The Taking of Zacatecas). The City of Zacatecas, now a town of 30,000, witnessed the largest and bloodiest battle that took place in the fighting against General Victoriano Huerta. When the battle ended, some 7,000 soldiers lay dead. In addition, 5,000 combatants were wounded and a large number of civilians were injured or killed.

Today, Zacatecas has more than fifteen mining districts which yield silver, lead, zinc, gold, phosphorite, wollastonite, fluorite, and barium. The Zacatecas region hosts the Fresnillo and Zacatecas silver mines which combined have produced over 1.5 billion ounces of silver to date. As a matter of fact, thanks to Zacatecas, even today Mexico is the largest producer of silver in the world, contributing 17% of the world's total output.


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


Katz, Friedrich, "The Life and Times of Pancho Villa." Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1998.

Olague, Jesus et al., "Breve Historia de Zacatecas." Mexico City, 1996.

Powell, Philip Wayne. "Soldiers, Indians and Silver: North America's First Frontier War." Tempe, Arizona: Center for Latin American Studies, Arizona State University, 1973..

Wasserman, Mark. "Everyday Life and Politics in Nineteenth Century Mexico: Men, Women, and War." Albuquerque: The University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

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."