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If your ancestors are from Zacatecas, Guanajuato, Aguascalientes, Jalisco or San Luis Potosí, it is likely that you are descended from the indigenous peoples who inhabited these areas before the Spaniards arrived from the south. The historian Eric Van Young of the University of California at San Diego has called this area, the “the Center-West Region” of Mexico. This cultural region, according to Dr. Van Young, amounts to about one-tenth of Mexico’s present-day national territory. 

The present-day states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas and Aguascalientes did not exist in the Sixteenth Century, but substantial parts of these states belonged to the Spanish province of Nueva Galicia, which embraced some 180,000 kilometers ranging from the Pacific Ocean to the foothills of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Across this broad range of territory, a wide array of indigenous groups lived before 1522 (the year of contact with Spanish explorers). Domingo Lázaro de Arregui, in his Descripción de la Nueva Galicia – published in 1621 – wrote that 72 languages were spoken in the Spanish colonial province that became known as Nueva Galicia.

As noted in the following map, Nueva Galicia took up a great deal of the same territory that was inhabited by the indigenous people that the Spaniards and their Náhuatl allies called Chichimecas [Cartografía Histórica de la Nueva Galicia, Universidad de Guadalajara, Escuela de Estudios Hispano-Americanos de Sevilla, España, Guadalajara, Jalisco, México, 1984].

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Unfortunately, some of the Amerindians who lived in this area have not been studied extensively. Dr. Van Young – in analyzing this – has explained that “the extensive and deep-running mestizaje of the area has meant that at any time much beyond the close of the colonial period the history of the native peoples has been progressively interwoven with (or submerged in) that of non-native groups.” 

The Move North

In 1522, shortly after the fall of Tenochtitlán (Mexico City), Hernán Cortés commissioned Cristóbal de Olid to journey into the area now known as Jalisco. In these early days, the Spaniards found it necessary to utilize the services of their new allies, the Christianized sedentary Indians from the south. 

These indigenous auxiliaries — serving as scouts and soldiers — were usually Mexica (from Tenochtitlán), Tarascan (from Michoacán), Otomí Indians (from Querétaro), Cholulans, or Tlaxcalans. The majority of these allies spoke the Náhuatl language (also known as the language of the Aztec Empire). Unlike other Indians, these auxiliaries were permitted to ride horses and to carry side arms as soldiers in the service of Spain.

The Chichimeca Indians
As the Spaniards and their Amerindian allies from the south made their way north into present-day Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Guanajuato and Zacatecas in the 1520s, they started to encounter large numbers of nomadic Chichimeca Indians. Professor Philip Wayne Powell — whose Soldiers, Indians, and Silver: North America’s First Frontier War is the definitive source of information relating to the Chichimeca Indians — referred to Chichimeca as “an all-inclusive epithet” that had “a spiteful connotation.” Utilizing the Náhuatl terms for dog (chichi) and rope (mecatl), the Mexica had referred to the Chichimecas literally as “of dog lineage.” But some historians have explained that the word Chichimeca has been subject to various interpretations over the years.

Chichimeca as an Umbrella Term

Although Chichimeca was used as an umbrella term for all of the nomadic hunters and gatherers inhabiting this part of Mexico, the Chichimecs were not a single people sharing a common language, but consisted of several indigenous groups living through the large swathe of territory known to the Spaniards as “La Gran Chichimeca.”  The primary tribes occupying this region were the Zacatecos, Guachichiles, Tecuexes, Caxcanes, Otomí, Pames and Guamares. [Of these groups, only two — the Otomí and Pames — still exist as cultural entities and speak a living language.]

All of the Chichimeca Indians shared a primitive hunting-collecting culture, based on the gathering of mesquite and tunas (the fruit of the nopal). However, many of them also lived off of acorns, roots and seeds.  The Chichimecas also hunted a large number of small animals, including frogs, lizards, snakes and worms. The map below shows the rough distribution of the Chichimecas across a seven-state region of central Mexico [Grin20, “Map Depicting Geographic Expanse of Chichimeca nations, ca. 1550” at Wikipedia, “Chichimeca War” (Published Jan. 4, 2012)].

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Because most of the Chichimeca Indians were rapidly assimilated into the Hispanic culture of Seventeenth Century Mexico, there have been very few historical investigations into their now mostly extinct cultures and languages. Ironically, these indigenous peoples are – in large part – the genetic ancestors of the present-day inhabitants of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Zacatecas, and Aguascalientes. And, as a result, they are thus the ancestors of many Mexican Americans.

The historian Paul Kirchhoff, in his work The Hunting-Gathering People of North Mexico, has provided us with the best description of the Chichimeca Indian groups. Most of the Chichimeca Indians shared a primitive hunting-collecting culture, based on the gathering of mesquite, agave, and tunas (the fruit of the nopal). However, many of them also lived off of acorns, roots and seeds. 

Silver is Discovered (1546)

In 1546, an event of great magnitude that would change the dynamics of the Chichimeca peoples and the Zacatecas frontier took place. On September 8, a Basque nobleman, Juan de Tolosa, meeting with a small group of Indians near the site of the present-day city of Zacatecas, was taken to some nearby mineral outcroppings. Once it was determined that the mineral samples from this site were silver ore, a small mining settlement was very quickly established at Zacatecas, 8,148 feet above sea level.

Suddenly, the dream of quick wealth brought a multitude of prospectors, entrepreneurs, and laborers streaming into Zacatecas. Indians from southern Mexico, eager to earn the higher wages offered by miners, flooded into the region. In the next two decades, 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). However, “the rather sudden intrusion of the Spaniards,” writes Allen R. Franz, the author of Huichol Ethnohistory: The View from Zacatecas, soon precipitated a reaction from these “hostile and intractable natives determined to keep the strangers out.”

The Zacatecos Indians
The Zacatecos Indians, occupying 60,000 square kilometers in the present-day states of Zacatecas, eastern Durango, and Aguascalientes, may have received their name from the Mexica word zacate (grass). But some contemporary sources have said that the name was actually taken from the Zacatecos language and that it meant cabeza negra (“black head”). This would be a reference to their penchant for painting their bodies and faces with various pigments (in this case, black pigment).

The Zacatecos Indians lived closest to the silver mines that the Spaniards would discover in 1546. They inhabited large portions of northwest and southwest Zacatecas. Their lands bordered with those of the Tepehuanes on the west and the Guachichiles on the east. They roamed as far north as Parras in present-day Coahuila. The territory of the Zacatecos and the surrounding Chichimeca tribes is shown in the following map [AndresXXV, “Mapa del Territorio de los Zacatecos” (April 4, 2013) at Wikipedia, “Zacateco”].

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The Zacatecos Indians belonged to the Aztecoidan Language Family and were thus of Uto-Aztecan stock. It was believed that the Zacatecos were closely related to the Caxcanes Indians of northern Jalisco and southern Zacatecas.  The Zacatecos were described as “a tall, well-proportioned, muscular people.” They had oval faces with “long black eyes wide apart, large mouth, thick lips and small flat noses.”  The men wore breechcloth, while the women wore short petticoats of skins or woven maguey. Both sexes wore their hair long, usually to the waist.

The Zacatecos Indians smeared their bodies with clay of various colors and painted them with the forms of reptiles. This paint helped shield them from the sun’s rays but also kept vermin off their skin. Some Zacatecos Indians grew roots, herbs, maize, beans, and some wild fruits. Most of them hunted rabbits, deer, birds, frogs, snakes, worms, moles, rats, and reptiles. Eventually, the Zacatecos and some of the other Chichimecas would develop a fondness for the meat of the larger animals brought in by the Spaniards. During their raids on Spanish settlements, they frequently stole mules, horses, cattle, and other livestock, all of which became a part of their diet.

Professor Powell writes that the Zacatecos were “brave and bellicose warriors and excellent marksmen.” They were greatly feared by the neighboring tribes, in particular the Caxcanes, whom they attacked in later years after they began cooperating with the Spaniards. The Zacatecos were also reputed to be “great enemies” and “constantly at war with” their neighbors to the east, the Guachichiles, until they both acquired the Spaniards as a common enemy in the 1550s.

The Guachichiles
The Guachichile Indians were the most populous Chichimeca nation, occupying perhaps 100,000 square kilometers, from Lake Chapala in Jalisco to modern Saltillo in Coahuila. The Guachichiles inhabited much of eastern Zacatecas and western San Luis Potosí, northeastern Jalisco, western Guanajuato and southern Coahuila.

The Guachichile Indians were classified with the Aztecoidan division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family. It was believed that they were closely related to the Huichol Indians, who continue to live in Nayarit and the western fringes of Zacatecas in the present day era.

The name “Guachichil” was given to them by the Mexica, and meant head colored red. They had been given this label because “they were distinguished by red feather headdresses, by painting themselves red (especially the hair), or by wearing head coverings (bonetillas) made of hides and painted red.”

The archaeologist Paul Kirchhoff wrote that the following traits characterized the Guachichile Indians: “painting of the body; coloration of the hair; head gear; matrilocal residence; freedom of the married woman.” In the development of tribal alliances, the Guachichiles were considered the most advanced of the Chichimec tribes. They were a major catalyst in provoking the other tribes to resist the Spanish settlement and exploitation of Indian lands.

“Their strategic position in relation to Spanish mines and highways,” wrote Professor Powell, “made them especially effective in raiding and in escape from Spanish reprisal.” Because the Guachichiles’ territory was located east of the earliest silver strikes and was so vast and mountainous, punitive Spanish expeditions had difficulty in finding and then attacking bands of Guachichile warriors.  As a matter of fact, as Professor Powell notes, “the comparatively late Spanish advance into the heart of the Guachichil territory gave these natives several decades in which to develop systematic, effective fighting techniques and a string of victories that encouraged them to greater resistance.”

The Spanish frontiersmen and contemporary writers referred to the Guachichiles “as being the most ferocious, the most valiant, and the most elusive” of all their indigenous adversaries. In addition, the Christian missionaries found their language difficult to learn because of its “many sharply variant dialects.”

The Guamares
The nation of the Guamares, located in the Guanajuato Sierras, was centered in the region of Pénjamo and San Miguel. They extended as far north as San Felipe, and almost to Querétaro in the east. They also extended as far west as Aguascalientes and Lagos de Moreno.

The author, Gonzalo de las Casas, called the Guamares “the bravest, most warlike, treacherous, and destructive of all the Chichimecas, and the most astute (dispuesta).” One Guamar group called the “Chichimecas Blancos” lived in the region between Jalostotitlán and Aguascalientes. This branch of the Guamares painted their heads white. However, much like the Guachichiles, many of the Guamares colored their long hair red and painted the body with various colors (in particular red).

The Caxcanes
If your ancestors are from northern Jalisco, southwestern Zacatecas or western Aguascalientes, it is likely that you have many ancestors who were Caxcanes Indians.  The Caxcanes Indians were a tribe of the Aztecoidan division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock. Dr. Phil C. Weigand of the Department of Anthropology of the Colegio de Michoacán in Mexico has theorized that the Caxcan Indians probably originated in the Chalchihuites area of northwestern Zacatecas. After the collapse of the Chalchihuites culture around 900 to 1000 A.D., Dr. Weigand believes that “the Caxcanes began a prolonged period of southern expansion” into parts of Jalisco.

Dr. Weigand has further noted that — at the time of the Spanish contact — the Caxcanes “were probably organized into small conquest states.” He also states that the “overriding theme of their history seems to have been a steady expansion carried by warfare, to the south.” Dr. Weigand also observed that the Caxcanes “appear to have been organized into highly competitive, expansion states. These states possessed well-developed social hierarchies, monumental architecture, and military brotherhoods.” The Caxcanes religious centers and peñoles (fortifications) included Juchípila, Teúl, Tlatenango, Nochistlán and Jalpa in Zacatecas and Teocaltiche in Jalisco. 

The Caxcanes played a major role in both the Mixtón Rebellion (1540-41) and the Chichimeca War (1550-1590), first as the adversaries of the Spaniards and later as their allies against the Zacatecos and Guachichiles. The cocolistle epidemic of 1584 greatly reduced the number of Caxcanes. In the decades to follow, the surviving Caxcanes assimilated into the more dominant cultures that had settled in their territory. Today, Dr. Weigand writes, “the Caxcanes no longer exist as an ethnic group” and that “their last survivors” were noted in the late 1890s.

The Pames

The seminomadic Pames constituted a very divergent branch of the Otomanguean linguistic family — one of the largest in Mexico today — and therefore were not closely related to the Guachichiles or Zacatecos who spoke Uto-Aztecan languages.  The Pames were located mainly in the southeastern part of San Luis Potosi, eastern Guanajuato, southern Tamaulipas and Queretaro.  The Pames lived south and east of the Guachichiles and their territory overlapped the Otomíes of Guanajuato, the Purépecha of Michoacán, and the Guamares in the West. Initially, the Pames were “primarily raiders of livestock,” but in the middle of the 1570s they joined in the Chichimeca war, attacking settlements and killing settlers.

The Pames call themselves Xi’úi, which means indigenous. This term is used to refer to any person not of mestizo descent.  They use the word “Pame” to refer to themselves only when they are speaking Spanish. But in their religion, this word has a contemptuous meaning and they try to avoid using it.

The Pames have been able to survive into the present time because the Spaniards had found it difficult to conquer these people who lived in dispersed groups in the mountains and deserts of the Gran Chichimeca. Andrew L. Toth has noted that the Pames had an “ability to live on the periphery of more densely populated Mesoamerica.” In the 2010 census, 11,627 people in Mexico spoke the Pame language, 98.2% of them living in San Luis Potosí.

The Otomí Indians (The Sierra Nahñu)

The Otomíes (who call themselves Nahñu, or Hñahñu) occupied parts of Guanajuato, Querétaro, Hidalgo and the state of México when the Spaniards arrived in Mexico. At one time, the Otomí held a great deal of power and prestige throughout east central Mexico. However, the rise of the Aztec Empire caused a decline of the Otomíes during the Fourteenth Century. Nahñu belongs to the Otopamean language family, a subfamily of the very large Otomanguean Linguistic Group. (Most of the Oaxacan indigenous groups — including the Zapotecs and Mixtecs — belong to this language family.)

Soon after the Spaniards arrived in Mexico, the Otomíes allied themselves with the Spaniards and Mexica Indians.  As a result, writes Professor Powell, Otomí settlers were “issued a grant of privileges” and were “supplied with tools for breaking land.”  For their allegiance, they were exempted from tribute and given a certain amount of autonomy in their towns.  During the 1550s, Luis de Velasco (the second Viceroy of Nueva España) used Otomí militia against the Chichimecas.  The strategic placement of Otomí settlements in Nueva Galicia made their language dominant near Zapotitlán, Juchitlán, Autlán, and other towns near Jalisco’s southern border with Colima.

Today, the Otomí language remains a large, very diverse linguistic group with a strong cultural tradition through much of central and eastern Mexico. In the 2010 census, 288,052 people spoke the Otomí language, making it the seventh most common language group in Mexico.

The Chichimeca War (1550-1590)

Nearly all of the Chichimeca groups would become involved in the Chichimeca War (1550-1590). Professor Powell’s book Solders, Indians and Silver wrote that rush to establish new settlements and pave new roads through Zacatecas, “left in its wake a long stretch of unsettled and unexplored territory…” As these settlements and the mineral output of the mines grew in numbers, “the needs to transport to and from it became a vital concern of miners, merchants, and government.” To function properly, the Zacatecas silver mines “required well-defined and easily traveled routes.” These routes brought in badly-needed supplies and equipment from distant towns and also delivered the silver to smelters and royal counting houses in the south.

Professor Powell wrote that these highways “became the tangible, most frequently visible evidence of the white man’s permanent intrusion” into their land. As the natives learned about the usefulness of the goods being transported (silver, food, and clothing), “they quickly appreciated the vulnerability of this highway movement to any attack they might launch.”

In time, the Zacatecos and Guachichile Indians, in whose territory most of the silver mines could be found, started to resist the intrusion by assaulting the travelers and merchants using the roads. And thus began La Guerra de los Chichimecas (The War of the Chichimecas), which eventually became the longest and most expensive conflict between Spaniards and the indigenous peoples of New Spain in the history of the colony.

The attacks against the silver caravans usually took place in a narrow pass, in rocky terrain, at the mouth of a ravine, or in a place with sufficient forestation to conceal their approach. They usually ambushed their victims at dawn or dusk and struck with great speed. Mr. Powell wrote that “surprise, nudity, body paint, shouting, and rapid shooting were all aimed at terrifying the intended victims and their animals. There is ample evidence that they usually succeeded in this.” The Spaniards’ superiority in arms was not effective when they were taken by surprise.

In hand-to-hand combat, the Chichimeca warriors gained a reputation for courage and ferocity. Even when the Chichimeca warrior was attacked in his hideout or stronghold, Prof. Powell writes, “He usually put up vigorous resistance, especially if unable to escape the onslaught. In such cases, he fought – with arrows, clubs, or even rocks! Even the women might take up the fight, using the weapons of fallen braves. The warriors did not readily surrender and were known to fight on with great strength even after receiving mortal wounds.”

The intensity of the attacks increased with each year. Then, in 1554, the worst disaster of all occurred when a train of sixty wagons with an armed escort was attacked by the Chichimecas in the Ojuelos Pass. In addition to inflicting great loss of life, the Chichimecas carried off more than 30,000 pesos worth of clothing, silver, and other valuables. By the late 1580s, thousands had died and a general depopulation of the Zacatecas mining camps became a matter of concern for the Spanish authorities.

The Search for Peace Begins (1585)

In 1585, Alonso Manrique de Zuñiga, the Marqués de Villamanrique, became the seventh viceroy of Mexico. Professor Powell writes that “to this great viceroy must go the major share of credit for planning and largely effecting the end” of the war and “the development of basic policies to guarantee a sound pacification of the northern frontier.” Villamanrique evaluated the deteriorating situation, consulted expert advice, and reversed the practices of the past.

The Viceroy learned that many Spanish soldiers had begun raiding peaceful Indians for the purpose of enslavement. Infuriated by this practice, the Marqués prohibited further enslavement of all captured Indians and freed or placed under religious care those who had already been captured. He also appointed Don Antonio de Monroy to conduct investigations into this conduct and punish the Spaniards involved in the slave trade.

Peace by Persuasion

Villamanrique also launched a full-scale peace offensive. He opened negotiations with the principal Chichimeca leaders, and, according to Professor Powell, made to them promises of food, clothing, lands, religious administration, and agricultural implements to attract them to peaceful settlement.

The most important component of Vallamanrique’s “peace by purchase” policy involved the shipment and distribution of food, clothing, and agricultural implements to strategically located depots. The clothing shipped, according to Professor Powell, included coarse woolen cloth, coarse blankets, woven petticoats, shirts, hats and capes. The agricultural implements included plows, hoes, axes, hatchets, leather saddles, and slaughtering knives. “However,” writes Professor Powell, “the most fundamental contribution to the pacification process at century’s end was the vast quantity of food, mostly maize and beef.” Another important element of the pacification was the maintenance of freedom. Many of the Indians had been granted exemption from forced service and tribute and had thus retained their independence of action. By 1589, the Viceroy was able to report to the King that the state of war had ended.

Conversion and Adaptation

Under subsequent viceroys, the policy of peace by persuasion was continued. Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries were sent into the former war zone to convert the Chichimecas to Christianity. A language school at Zacatecas was established to teach missionaries the various Chichimeca dialects. By 1596, fourteen monasteries dotted the present-day area of Zacatecas. In addition, the Spanish administrators recruited some 400 families of Tlaxcalans from the south and settled them in eight towns of the war zone to live alongside the now-sedentary Chichimecas and help them to adjust to a peaceful life as subjects of the Spanish Empire.

Assimilation and Mestizaje

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, Otomí and Tarascan Indians who had also settled in Zacatecas, the Chichimeca Indians were very rapidly assimilated into the more dominant cultures. Absorbed into the Spanish and Indian groups that had invaded their lands half-a-century earlier, the Guachichiles and Zacatecas Indians disappeared as distinguishable cultural entities. And thus, Professor Powell concludes, “the sixteenth-century land of war thus became fully Mexican in its mixture.”

In the end, all of the Chichimecas acquiesced to Spanish rule.  Most of the Chichimeca tribes were not militarily defeated, but were bribed and persuaded into settling down by the Spanish administrators. Within decades they were assimilated into the evolving mestizaje culture of Mexico. Today, the languages, the spiritual beliefs and the cultural practices of most of the Chichimeca Indians are lost to us.  Their customs have disappeared into extinction.  However, the blood of the Guachichiles, Zacatecos, Caxcanes and Guamares still flows through the heart of anyone whose ancestors came from Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Jalisco and Aguascalientes. Their cultural extinction was not followed by genetic extinction.

Copyright © 2019, by John Schmal. All Rights Reserved.


Bakewell, P.J. Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico: Zacatecas, 1546-1700. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1971.

Dunne, Peter Masten. Pioneer Jesuits in Northern Mexico. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1944.

Franz, Allen R. “Huichol Introduction: The View from Zacatecas,” in Stacy B. Schaefer and Peter T. Furst (editors). People of the Peyote: Huichol Indian History, Religion, and Survival. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

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Marte Puente, Xenia, “Los Chichimecas,” Online: [Accessed August 17, 2019].

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Toth, Andrew L. Missionary Practices and Spanish Steel: The Evolution of Apostolic Mission in the Context of New Spain Conquest. Bloomington, Indiana: IUniverse, Inc., 2012.

Van Young, Eric. “The Indigenous Peoples of Western Mexico from the Spanish Invasion to the Present: The Center-West as Cultural Region and Natural Environment,” in Richard E. W. Adams and Murdo J. MacLeod, The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, Volume II: Mesoamerica, Part 2.Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp. 136-186

Weigand, Phil C. Evolución de Una Civilización Prehispánica: Arqueología de Jalisco, Nayarit y Zacatecas. Zamora, Michoacán: El Colegio de Michoacán, 1993.

Weigand, Phil C. “Territory and Resistance in West-Central Mexico, Part1: Introduction and Archaeological Background.” In Andrew Roth-Seneff, Robert V. Kemper, and Julie Adkins (editors). From Tribute to Communal Sovereignty: The Tarascan and Caxcan Territories in Tradition. Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 2015, pp. 43-70.

Weigand, Phil C. “Considerations on the Archaeology and Ethnohistory of the Mexicaneros, Tequales, Coras, Huicholes, and Caxcanes of Nayarit, Jalisco, and Zacatecas.” In Contributions to the Archaeology and Ethnohistory of Greater Mesoamerica(edited byWilliam J. Folan) Carbondale, Illinois: Center for Archaeological Investigations, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, pp. 126-187.

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