Life and Death on New Spain’s Northern Frontier

AHA Session 204
Conference on Latin American History 53
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Martin Nesvig, University of Miami
Martin Nesvig, University of Miami

Session Abstract

This session will focus on critical issues related to New Spain’s northern frontier.  This region was one marked by sporadic and often bitter conflict between the Spanish and the native peoples.  Spanish interest in the region was spurred by the discovery of rich mineral deposits at places like Zacatecas.  The Spanish needed to create peaceful settlements in and around the mining districts, to supply labor and supplies for the mines. Because many of these districts were isolated from other Spanish population centers, networks of roads were developed for communication, to bring supplies into the districts, and to ship silver from the districts.  Consequently the Spanish needed to protect not just the settlements themselves but the network of roads from the depredations of native raiders.   In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the royal officials of New Spain wrestled with developing a policy to address the needs of the region.  Initially brute force was seen as the best way to deal with the nomadic peoples of the north.  But several decades of on again – off again warfare proved the limitations of that policy.  By the end of the sixteenth century a policy of more peaceful accommodation emerged wherein the Spanish used native auxiliaries and a policy of appeasement to attract the nomadic peoples into polity with the Spanish.

These three papers will explore various facets of the development of the northern frontier in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Robert Schwaller will focus on the role of mulatos, Africans and native peoples in creating the pacified frontier.  His paper will argue that the Spanish use of African and Native American auxiliaries in their expansion placed those two groups in close and prolonged contact with each other.  This, in turn, gave rise to interethnic families and a prolonged process of socio-racial mixing which tended to produce individuals of mixed Afro-indigenous ancestry.  Leslie Offutt approaches ethnic interaction in the north from a different angle, looking not at ethnic mixture but rather at efforts to maintain, and assert, ethnic purity as a means of defense against hostile peoples.  John Schwaller will look at the development of a royal policy concerning the northern frontier through the career of don Luis de Velasco, the younger.  Velasco is unique in colonial history insofar as he was the con of a viceroy who lived in New Spain as a private citizen for many decades prior to being appointed viceroy himself.  During the period prior to his viceregal appointment, Velasco was appointed the supreme commander of Spanish forces along the northern frontier.  This experience provided him with a unique insight into frontier problems.  This paper will trace how that experience served as the basis for the policies he adopted as viceroy.

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