- Land Tenure Patterns in Northern New Spain1
The evolution of the historical literature on land tenure in northern New Spain has closely paralleled general historiographical trends of New Spain’s far northern frontier. For many years, “borderlands” history focused almost exclusively upon the study of those institutions which have been stereotyped as peculiar to the frontier, the mission and the presidio; upon political and administrative history; or upon biographies of notable figures.2 These studies laid important foundations, but, in general, borderlands historians were slow to adopt the social science methodologies of the new social and economic history which became popular in the 1960s in most fields of historical inquiry. Well after both its Anglo and Hispanic progenitors began to be studied from a perspective which emphasized social and economic structures and relationships, did the geographical area which corresponds to the Provincias Internas (all of today’s border states plus Sinaloa, Durango and Baja California) begin to receive [End Page 446] similar attention.3 Thus, our understanding of the social and economic history of the region is still rudimentary, and this is nowhere more evident than in the area of landholding patterns and agrarian development.
These lacunae are much less pronounced for the rest of New Spain. The historical literature on colonial land tenure in Mexico has periodically been summarized, most recently and perhaps most perceptively in Eric Van Young’s historiographical article in the Latin American Research Review,4 A solid analytical account of the development of the hacienda in New Spain based on the prodigious scholarship described by Van Young is the essay by Enrique Florescano, just published in the new Cambridge History of Latin America.5
The first study of the hacienda to use primary sources extensively and to look at factors of production more systematically was that of François Chevalier in 1952.6 Relying on land records in national and private archives which emphasized title history, Chevalier projected a model which portrayed the hacienda as a very large, self-sufficient, seigneurial estate. The hacienda was undercapitalized and dependent upon a servile labor force working for a mayordomo in the absence of the landlord, who lived in Mexico City or some other urban center and engaged in conspicuous consumption. [End Page 447]
Chevalier’s characterization of the hacienda as semi-feudal was very much in line with the liberal critiques of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries which saw the hacienda as an obstacle to capitalistic agrarian development.7 Although Chevalier located the impetus for the turning inward of the hacienda in the mining decline of the seventeenth century, his interpretation correlated well with Woodrow Borah’s New Spain’s Century of Depression8 which focused upon the importance of the Indian demographic decline. The work of Borah and Lesley B. Simpson provided support for Chevalier’s thesis that debt peonage became the most common labor arrangement designed to hold a shrinking labor supply on the estate, and it also clarified the seeming ease with which Spanish landlords could acquire land. These procedures were described in detail by Chevalier as he explained the concentration of land in the hacienda.9
Subsequent studies of central and southern Mexico were the first to challenge the universal validity of Chevalier’s model. Although they found that great estates did exist, historians like Charles Gibson in The Aztecs under Spanish Rule10 discerned a wide variety in the size of landholdings in central Mexico as well as a highly commercialized agriculture geared to a large market. Gibson also did not find that debt peonage dominated labor relations. Likewise, the landlords in William Taylor’s work on Oaxaca11 are almost the antithesis of Chevalier’s “rich and powerful men” of the north. In the center and south, the hacienda is characterized as relatively weak and unstable, burdened by debt, and frequently foiled in its expansion by a resistant Indian society.
Still more recent studies of the Mexican “near north”—the Bajío, Querétaro, Guadalajara, Zacatecas, and San Luis Potosí—have yielded an incredibly complex mosaic of rural estates, in part because they have looked more closely at factors of production other than land: elements...