Native Marriages in the Households and Haciendas of New Spain

Sunday, January 8, 2017: 9:20 AM
Mile High Ballroom 4A (Colorado Convention Center)
Catherine Komisaruk, University of Texas at San Antonio
Historians have observed that marriage is a joining of wealth between two people and two families.  This paper shows that for native couples in New Spain, marriage was also a joining of two people’s labor, debts, and obligations to colonial powers.  The gendered division of household and agricultural labor meant that rural people—hence, most native people—relied on the complementary productive roles of men and women.  Indeed, marriage was the basis of household formation in native communities, as seen in censuses and in ideological writings. 

Marriage was also central in the structure of tribute as codified by New Spain’s colonial administration.  Tributes required of Indian communities were assessed by tributary unit, defined as one married couple.  Laws varied across time as to how single and widowed people should be assessed.  But in any case, judicial records show that abuses riddled the system, with widows and abandoned wives often dunned for the amount of tributes due from a married couple. 

Under pressures of tribute demands and paltry wages, native people more often accrued debts than wealth.  In Spanish law, wealth gained during a marriage legally became shared property.  In native communities, debts accrued during a marriage became, in practice, shared poverty.  For this reason, native marriages could serve as a tool for employers to procure native workers; debts in effect subjected both members of the marriage to easy recruitment.  For their part, owners of commercial agricultural estates relied on the combination of male and female skills available through the recruitment of married couples.

This paper explores how native marriages served not only the doctrines of the Christian evangelical project but also the economies of native households, the colonial state, and Spanish agribusiness owners.