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The State of Durango is a landlocked state located in northwestern Mexico. As the fourth largest state of the Mexican Republic, Durango covers an area of 123,317 square kilometers and takes up 6.3% of the national territory.  The state has common boundaries with Chihuahua and Coahuila de Zaragoza on the north, Zacatecas on the east and southeast, Nayarit on the southwest, and Sinaloa on the west. Politically, Durango is divided into 39 municipalities.

With a 2010 population of 1,754,754, the state of Durango was ranked 24th in terms of population and had 1.5% of the nation’s population within its boundaries. Its capital is the city of Victoria de Durango, which had a population of 518,709, representing 29.6% of the total state population in 2010.  A significant part of the state is crossed by the Sierra Madre Occidental Range. It is believed that Durango is the native work for “beyond the river.”

Physiographic Description

The surface of the State of Durango is located at the intersection of four physiographic provinces that are which are illustrated in the Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía (INEGI) map on the following page:

  • The Sierra Madre Occidental (Western) Mountains occupy 71.30% of the state surface, forming an extensive strip of land from the northwest to the southeast of the state.
  • Mesa del Centro (The Central Mesa) occupies 8.33% in the east. The region includes plateaus and hills, as well as some mountains.
  • The Sierra Madre Oriental (Eastern) Mountains occupies 5.28% of the state territory in the northeast of the state. The terrain is relatively rugged with mountains, plateaus, deserts, plains and a small dune field.
  • Sierras y Llanuras del Norte (Sierras and Plains of the North) covers 15.09% of the state’s surface in the extreme northeast of the state. This region mainly consists of small hills and alluvial plains.

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Nueva Vizcaya

In 1562, the land encompassing the present-day states of Durango, Chihuahua, Sonora, Sinaloa, and parts of Coahuila was named Nueva Vizcaya after the home province of explorer, Francisco de Ibarra. In the same year, Ibarra was appointed governor of the newly formed province, and in July of 1863, he founded the city of Durango to be its capital.  In those early days, Nueva Vizcaya consisted of 610,000 square kilometers (372,200 square miles) in the northwestern part of present-day Mexico. Francisco de Ibarra’s expedition was responsible for some of the first European observations on the Acaxee, Xixime, and Tepehuán groups of Durango. A map showing a rough distribution of indigenous groups through Durango in the 16th Century is shown below:

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The Ranchería People
As the Spaniards moved northward they found an amazing diversity of indigenous groups. Unlike the more concentrated Amerindian groups of central Mexico, the Indians of the north were referred to as “ranchería people” by the Spaniards. Their fixed points of settlements were usually scattered over an area of several miles and one dwelling may be separated from the next by up to half a mile. The dispersed ranchería locations shifted with the seasonal cycles and soil fertility.

Generally, the ranchería people usually cultivated corn, beans, squash, chiles and cotton. The renowned anthropologist, Professor Edward H. Spicer (1906-1983), writing in Cycles of Conquest: The Impact of Spain, Mexico, and the United States on the Indians of the Southwest, 1533-1960, stated that most ranchería people were agriculturalists and farming was their primary activity, but they also supplemented their crops with hunting and gathering.  They generally had a decentralized political structure, with no single tribal chief.


The Tepehuán Indians were “the most geographically extended of the sierra groups.” The Tepehuán Indians inhabited the eastern slopes of the Sierra Madre Occidental throughout much of Durango, as well as some portions of present-day Chihuahua, western Zacatecas and northern Jalisco.

The territory of the Tepehuanes is believed to have stretched as far north as Parral in Chihuahua and as far south as Río Grande de Santiago in Jalisco. It is believed that the Tepehuán Indians received their name from the Nahuatl terms tepetl, “mountain,” and huan, “at the junction of.” Thus, they were “mountain people. The earliest descriptions of the Tepehuanes have come from Francisco de Ibarra’s 1563-1656 expedition.

Linguistically, the Tepehuanes belonged to the Piman division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock. Anthropologists have divided the Tepehuanes into southern and northern groups who speak different dialects of the Tepehuán language. The southern Tepehuán language varies considerably from that of the Northern Tepehuán. According to Elman R. Service, “the close linguistic affiliation of the Northern with the Southern Tepehuan Indians suggests that at one time there was a close connection, if not identity, between the two groups.”

The following map shows the territory of the Tepehuanes at the end of the Sixteenth Century (based on Pennington (1969) and Molinari y Nolasco (1995) [Published in Eduardo Rubén Saucedo Sánchez de Tagle, Tepehuanes del Norte (D.F., Mexico: Comisión Nacional para el Desarrollo de los Pueblos Indígenas, 2004), page 12].

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The preceding map illustrates the great length of the Tepehuanes Territory and its borders with surrounding native groups, such as the Acaxee, Xixime, Tobosos and Zacatecos. Today, most of the Southern Tepehuan live in the mountainous country in the extreme southern Durango state, south of the town of Mezquital, at altitudes ranging from 1,200 meters to over 2,000 meters. A smaller group lives in the Municipio of Pueblo Nuevo to the west, and a third near Huajicori in Nayarit. Major Tepehuan villages include Santa Maria Octan, Xoconoxtle, and Lajas.


The Zacatecos Indians inhabited most of the western half of Zacatecas, as well as parts of northeastern Durango, southern Coahuila, and Aguascalientes. The Zacatecos probably occupied an area as far west as the present-day City of Durango. They also occupied the region where the Spaniards would discover and develop rich silver mines at Zacatecas in 1546. The lands of the Zacatecos Indians bordered with those of the Tepehuanes on the west, the Guachichiles on the east and the Caxcanes on the south.  As indicated in the following map, the territory of the Zacatecos Indians merged with the territory of the Tepehuanes on their west. [AndresXXV, “Mapa del Territorio de los Zacatecos” (April 4, 2013) at Wikipedia, “Zacateco”].

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It is believed that the Zacatecos were named by Náhuatl speakers after the tall grasslands (Zacatlán, “place of grass”) they inhabited. Historians believe that the Zacatecos were related to the Caxcanes tribe that lived on their southern border and have been classified within the Uto-Aztecan Language family.  The Zacatecos organized themselves in groups of loose confederations of small seminomadic settlements, which the Spaniards called rancherías.

According to observers at the time, the Zacatecos were “a tall, well-proportioned, muscular people” with oval faces and long black eyes. Both sexes wore their hair long, usually to the waist.  The Indians smeared their bodies with clays of various colors that helped shield them from the sun’s rays but also kept vermin off their skin.

Professor Phillip Wayne Powell writes that the Zacatecos were “brave and bellicose warriors and excellent marksmen.” They were greatly feared by the neighboring tribes, in particular the Cazcanes, whom they frequently attacked. 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.

Irritilas (Laguneros)

The Irritila Indians occupied the tablelands of Mapimí in Durango, as well as parts of northern Zacatecas and southern Coahuila. It is believed by most historians that the Irritilas were synonymous with the Lagunero (“Lake People”), who were given their name by the Spanish missionaries because they lived near lakes. They were believed to have been an Aztecoidan branch of the Uto-Aztecan stock, but they are now extinct as a cultural group.

Huichol (Wixarrika)

The Huichol Indians of northwestern Jalisco and Nayarit lived in very isolated regions.  This isolation has served them well for their aboriginal culture has survived with relatively few major modifications since the period of first contact with the Spaniards. According to historian David Carrasco, the Huichol – whose name for themselves is Wixarrika – “have preserved their aboriginal religion, ritual, and sacred myths virtually intact, without significant modification by Roman Catholic doctrine. Yet there are regional and even individual variations on their underlying ideology.”

Even today, the Huichol Indians of Jalisco and Nayarit currently inhabit an isolated region of the Sierra Madre Occidental.  In his 2001 thesis for the University of Florida, Brad Morris Biglow noted that, while the Cora Indians fought aggressively to resist acculturation, the Huichol response was primarily to “flee” to more remote locations in the Sierra Madre. According to Aguirre Beltran, the Huichol retreat into the Sierra created a “region of refuge” and enabled the Huichol to “resist the acculturative pressures around them.”


The Salinero Apaches were known as an Apache group closely associated with the Mescalero Apaches who lived in the area of what is now western Texas, eastern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua in the 18th century. However, the name Salinero, “salt producer,” was frequently used by the Spanish to refer to various unrelated Indian groups of northern Mexico that exploited local sources of salt.

The author Salvador Álvarez studied a nomadic tribe inhabiting Durango and Chihuahua known as the Salineros and believed that they were actually a subset of the Tepehuanes. According to several sources, the Salineros lived in the region around La Zarca in the present-day municipio of Hidalgo as noted in the following map of Durango and its municipios (with Hidalgo shaded in blue) [Enciclopedia de Los Municipios y Delegaciones de México: Estado de Durango. Hidalgo.  Online:].

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The Salineros of La Zarcas were believed to be Uto-Aztecan speakers, and frequently went to war, with their northern neighbors, the Tobosos, as their allies. After their 1644 uprising, the Salineros made the roads between Cuencamé, Mapimí, Cerro Gordo and Parral very dangerous. Their rebellion lasted until 1646, at which time the presidio at Cerro Gordo was established in what is now the Cuencamé Municipio in central Durango.

The Acaxee and Xixime Groups

At the highest points of the Sierra Madre Occidental, east of the region occupied by Tahues and Totorames (of Sinaloa), lived the Axacees and Xiximes, in a territory that the Spaniards called the Sierra de Topia. Both groups had very similar lifestyles and similar languages, so when referring to their customs most historians consider them together and only point out their most notable differences. However, in spite of their cultural similarities, the Acaxees and Xiximes were irreconcilable enemies and very skillful and aggressive in attacking each other, with the primary intent of acquiring food, goods and women.

Because the Acaxees and Xiximes “disappeared early in the colonial period,” American geographer Carl O. Sauer, writes that “relatively little is known” about them and describes what is known about them in The Distribution of Aboriginal Tribes and Languages in Northwestern Mexico.

The Xixime Indians are believed to be a subclass of Cáhita-Opata-Tarahumar branch of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stop.  They occupied the upper courses of the San Lorenzo, Piaxtla, Presidio and Baluarte Rivers in the states of both Durango and Sinaloa.  The Xixime are now extinct as a cultural entity.

The Acaxee Indians inhabited the headwaters of the Culiacán River, centering about the valleys of San Andres and Topia in Durango. The Acaxees ‒ numbering nearly 21,000 at the time of the Spanish contact ‒ lived in dispersed rancherías in the gorges and canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental in what is now northwestern Durango and east-central Sinaloa.

According to Susan Deeds, both the Acaxees and Xiximes lived at sites in canyons and valleys that were “separated by steep canyon walls and high summits, which made communication difficult and hazardous but provided protection from enemies. To travel from one valley to another required great agility in climbing.”


The Mexicaneros are a linguistic division of the Náhuatl group.  They range through a large number of states, including Durango, Nayarit, Jalisco and Zacatecas. The presence of the Nahua population in the heart of the Sierra Madre Occidental aroused the interest of many historians and researchers. Some researchers believe that the Mexicaneros are descended from the Tlaxcaltecans who were brought by the Spaniards to settle down next to so-called “barbarians” living in the area.

Nueva Vizcaya in 1550

According to historian Peter Gerhard, the population of Nueva Vizcaya in 1550 was about 344,500 persons, “quite evenly distributed in small, scattered settlements.”  But, starting in 1577, epidemics began to take their toll on the indigenous peoples in the region.

Silver Mining Comes to Durango

After silver was discovered in Zacatecas in 1546, more mines were established farther to the northwest at Fresnillo (1554), Chalchihuites (1555) and Sombrerete (1555), all in Zacatecas. Soon, mining settlements opened up along the eastern foothills of the Sierra Madre at Mineral de Avino (1562), followed by Indé (1567) and Mapimí (1598), all in Durango. In the years following 1580, several hundred Spaniards had begun migrating from the mines of Chametla in Sinaloa to new mining areas around Topia in Durango.


By the beginning of the Seventeenth Century, Spanish authorities had organized many of the Indians in Durango and Sinaloa into encomiendas. According to historian Susan Deeds, encomiendas in northern Mexico afforded the Spaniards “the use of a specified group of Indians for labor only.” Although encomienda Indians were only supposed to provide labor “for a few weeks per year,” the historian Ms. Susan M. Deeds explains that “they often served much longer and some apparently became virtual chattels of Spanish estates.” She goes on to say that the Jesuits’ “systematic congregation of Indians into villages” starting in the 1590s encouraged the development of encomiendas by making Indians more accessible to their encomenderos.” In practice, Mrs. Deeds concludes, encomiendas usually resulted in the “tacit enslavement of Indians.”

During the 1580s and 1590s, the Acaxees and Xiximes had been pressed into encomiendas to work at the mines and ranches of Topia and San Andrés. The plague epidemic of 1576-77 in Durango had been followed by a 1590 epidemic of smallpox and a smallpox and measles epidemic in 1596-97. The combined effect of forced labor, smallpox and measles took their toll on all the native people of the region, especially the Acaxees and Xiximes.

Missionization and Epidemics

The first Jesuits, bearing gifts of seeds, tools, clothing and livestock, went to work among the Tepehuanes in 1596.  Between 1596 and 1616, eight Jesuit priests had converted the majority of the Tepehuanes.  According to David Yetman, The Guarijios of the Sierra Madre: Hidden People of Northwestern Mexico, the goal of the Jesuits “were simple: stamp out the ‘primitive’ beliefs and ‘savage’ customs of the indigenous people, build churches, baptize as many natives as possible, teach them European agriculture (cattle raising, planting, wheat, and growing fruit trees), and above all, obtain by faith or by force the natives’ submission to the Spanish Crown.”

The Spanish colonial missions — together with garrisons and mining towns — were established by the Jesuit and Franciscan orders as vehicles for spreading Spanish culture and religion (Catholicism).  Many indigenous peoples were recruited or forced to work the mission lands. Unfortunately, the concentration of so many Indians facilitated the spread of disease among a population that had little or no immunity to the European diseases. Epidemics were frequent occurrences and reduced many local populations.

The Jesuits continued their missionary work among the Xiximes and Acaxees, eventually consolidating several thousand of both groups into eleven mission partidos (districts). In the meantime, epidemics continued to take their toll, with epidemics of measles, smallpox and typhus hitting in 1601-02 and causing more disruption to the native populations. More epidemics followed, but a smallpox epidemic caused great damage to the Xiximes, Acaxees and Tepehuanes in 1610, followed by another epidemic similar to typhus or dysentery that struck them in 1612.

The Jesuits Visit the Tepehuanes (1596-1616)

The first Jesuits, bearing gifts of seeds, tools, clothing and livestock, went to work among the Tepehuanes in 1596.  Between 1596 and 1616, eight Jesuit priests had converted the majority of the Tepehuanes, baptizing many of them at Santiago Papasquiaro, Santa Catalina, and at Zape in the north. However, in 1596 and 1597, it is believed that smallpox and measles killed thousands of Indians. Historian Susan Deeds, in her book, Defiance and Deference, writes that “the devastation of disease provided fertile ground for conversion, and Jesuits actively sought out the infirm. Physically weakened and psychologically more receptive to outsiders who offered comfort,” many Indians allowed the padres to baptize them.

Smallpox was the most destructive disease for the Tepehuanes. Smallpox claimed Tepehuanes lives in the severe epidemics of 1602 and 1607, which heavily affected both children and adults. Tepehuanes shamans declared that the diseases were brought by the padres in the food they served to the Indians.

Between 1607 and 1612, the Jesuits moved farther north into the Sierra de Ocotlán northwest of Guanaceví in present-day northwestern Durango. Jesuits also began ministering to the Tepehuan mine workers at the Spanish mines in Indé and also started a mission at Tizonazo (now San José del Tizonazo).

In various parts of their territory, Spanish officials had recruited families of Mexica and Purépecha Indians from central Mexico who moved north to settle in Tepehuanes barrios near the missions. According to Susan Deeds, these Indians from the south provided “assistance in catechism and in the construction of churches and irrigation ditches. These acculturated Indians also established a cofradía, or religious confraternity dedicated to the cult of a saint.”

The Acaxee Revolt (1601)

The 1601 revolt of the Acaxee Indians took place in Northwestern Durango and East Central Sinaloa. At the time, the Acaxee Indians lived in dispersed rancherías in the gorges and canyons of the Sierra Madre Occidental. Once the Jesuit missionaries started to work among the Acaxees, they forced them to cut their very long hair and to wear clothing. The Jesuits also initiated a program of forced resettlement so that they could concentrate the Acaxees in one area.

In December 1601, the Acaxees, under the direction of an elder named Perico, began an uprising against Spanish rule. The author Susan Deeds, writing in “Indigenous Rebellions on the Northern Mexican Mission Frontier from First-Generation to Later Colonial Responses,” states that the Acaxee Revolt “was characterized by messianic leadership and promises of millennial redemption during a period of violent disruption and catastrophic demographic decline due to disease.” Claiming to have come from heaven to save his people from the false doctrines of the Jesuits, Perico planned to exterminate all the Spaniards. Although he promised to save his people from the Catholic missionaries and their way of life, his messianic activity included saying Mass, and performing baptisms and marriages.

Ms. Deeds observes that the Acaxee and other so-called first generation revolts represented “attempts to restore pre-Columbian social and religious elements that had been destroyed by the Spanish conquest.” In the following weeks, the Acaxees attacked the Spaniards in the mining camps and along mountain roads, killing fifty people. After the failure of negotiations, Francisco de Urdiñola led a militia of Spaniards and Tepehuán and Concho allies into the Sierra Madre. Susan Deeds writes that “the campaign was particularly brutal, marked by summary trials and executions of hundreds of captured rebels.” Perico and 48 other rebel leaders were executed, while other rebels were sold into slavery.

Smallpox epidemics in 1601-02, 1610-12, 1616-17 and 1623-1625 took enough of a toll on the Acaxees and, by 1638, their population had dropped under 1,000. According to Susan Deeds, diminishing numbers of indigenous people “encouraged racial and cultural mixing” with Spaniards, mulattoes, mestizos and black slaves.

The Xiximes Revolt (1610)

In 1610, the Xiximes revolted in northwestern and western Durango. The Spaniards had referred to the Xixime Indians as “wild mountain people,” noting that they inhabited the mountain country of western Durango, inland from Mazatlán (Sinaloa). As mentioned earlier, the Xiximes were the traditional enemies of the Acaxees and, according to Jesuit accounts, the “the most bellicose of all Nueva Vizcayan Indians.” In 1565, Francisco de Ibarra had marched against the Xiximes and subdued them.

The Xixime launched a short-lived rebellion in 1601. A second uprising in 1610 coincided with the outbreak of a smallpox epidemic in an Acaxee village near the Acaxee-Xixime border. Seeing the Spaniards as the likely source of the disease, the Xiximes had begun to stockpile stores of arrows in stones fortifications. Seeking an alliance with the Tepehuanes and Acaxees, the Xixime leaders promised immortality to all warriors who died in battle.

After the summer rains subsided, Governor Urdiñola led a large force of 200 armed Spaniards and 1,100 Indian warriors into Xixime territory. Utilizing “scorched-earth tactics,” Urdiñola’s “relentless pursuit resulted in the surrender of principal insurgent leaders, ten of whom were hanged.” After the revolt was completely suppressed, the authorities brought in Jesuit missionaries, bearing gifts of tools, seed and livestock. With the help of Spanish soldiers, the missionaries congregated the Xiximes from 65 settlements into five new missions.

The Great Tepehuanes Revolt (1616-1620)

The famous Tepehuanes revolt of 1616 took place in western and northwestern Durango, as well as Southern Chihuahua and lasted more than three years. As noted earlier, the Tepehuanes occupied an extensive area of the Sierra Madre Mountains from the southern headwaters of the Rio Fuerte to the Rio Grande de Santiago in Jalisco. Much of their territory lay in present-day Durango and southern Chihuahua.

As discussed earlier, the first Jesuits had gone to work among the Tepehuanes in 1596. But it seems likely that the epidemics that struck the Tepehuanes population in 1594, 1601-02, 1606-07, and 1612-1615 became a catalyst for this rebellion. This apparent failure of the Jesuit God to save their people from famine and disease, writes Charlotte M. Gradie, the author of The Tepehuán Revolt of 1616: Militarism, Evangelism, and Colonialism in Seventeenth-Century Nueva Vizcaya, caused the Tepehuanes culture to undergo “enormous stress from various factors associated with Spanish conquest and colonization.” This stress convinced the Tepehuanes to embrace a return to their traditional way of life before the arrival of the Spaniards.

This “reinstatement of traditional religious beliefs and deities,” writes Ms. Gradie, would ensure that the Spaniards would never again enter Tepehuán territory. One of the leaders of the revolt, Quautlatas, spoke a message of hope, telling his listeners that they should not accept the Christian God, but instead return to worshipping their former gods.

On the night of November 16, 1616, the Tepehuán rose in rebellion, taking the Spaniards completely by surprise. Entering Atotonilco, the Indians killed ten missionaries and 200 civilians. That same night they surrounded to Santiago Papasquiaro, where the Christians resisted 17 days.

The Tepehuanes Indians had limited success in trying to enlist the aid of the Conchos Indians who lived around the Parras mission, on the northern edge of the Tepehuán territory. On the other hand, they had considerable success in getting the Acaxees and Xiximes to attack Spanish mines and settlements in western Nueva Vizcaya. However, when the Tepehuanes advanced on the recently converted Acaxee pueblos of Tecucuoapa and Carantapa, the 130 Acaxee warriors decided to side with the Spaniards and decisively defeated their Tepehuán neighbors. Because the loyalties of the Acaxees and Xiximes were divided, the Spaniards were able to extinguish their uprising more rapidly.

Ms. Charlotte M. Gradie writes that “native allies [of the Spaniards] were crucial in mounting an effective defense against the Tepehuanes and in putting down the revolt.” On December 19, Captain Gáspar de Alvear led a force of sixty-seven armed cavalry and 120 Concho allies into the war zone to confront the insurgents. The hostilities continued until 1620 and laid waste to a large area. When Mateo de Vesga became Governor of Nueva Vizcaya in 1618, he described the province as “destroyed and devastated, almost depopulated of Spaniards.” By the end of the revolt, at least a thousand allied Indians had died, while the Tepehuanes may have lost as many as 4,000 warriors. Professor Spicer regards the Tepehuán revolt as “one of the three bloodiest and most destructive Indian attempts to throw off Spanish control in northwestern New Spain.” Following the revolt, the Tepehuanes fled to mountain retreats to escape Spanish vengeance. Not until 1723 would the Jesuits return to work among them.

The Tarahumara Revolt (1621-1622)

The 1621-22 revolt by the Tarahumaras took place in both southern Chihuahua and in parts of Durango. Occupying an extensive stretch of the Sierra Madre Mountains, the Tarahumara Indians were ranchería people who planted corn along the ridges of hills and in valleys. During the winters, they retreated to the lowlands or the deep gorges to seek shelter. Some of them lived in cave excavations along cliffs or in stone masonry houses. The Tarahumara received their first visit from a Jesuit missionary in 1607. But the ranchería settlement pattern of both the Tepehuanes and Tarahumara represented a serious obstacle to the efforts of the missionaries who sought to concentrate the Amerindian settlements into compact communities close to the missions.

In January 1621, the Tepehuanes from the Valle de San Pablo y San Ignacio, with some Tarahumara Indians, attacked estancias in the Santa Bárbara region. They looted and burned buildings and killed Spaniards and friendly Indians. Three separate Spanish expeditions from Durango were sent after the Indian rebels. With the death of their military and religious leaders, however, the Tarahumara rebels could no longer carry on an organized resistance.

The Revolt of 1644-1652

The revolt that began in 1644 was waged by the Tobosos, Salineros and Conchos in eastern and northwestern Durango, as well as southern Chihuahua. In Indian Assimilation in the Franciscan Area of Nueva Vizcaya, the anthropologist Professor William B. Griffen, commenting on the establishment of the silver mines at Parral (Chihuahua) in 1631, notes that the “influx of new people and the resulting development of Spanish society no doubt placed increased pressure upon the native population in the region.” Griffen also cites “a five-year period of drought, accompanied by a plague,” which had occurred immediately preceding the uprising as a contributing factor. The large area of southern Chihuahua inhabited by the Conchos Indians included the highway between the mining districts of Parral, Cusihuiriachic, and Chihuahua.

Very abruptly, in 1644, nearly all of the general area north and east of the Parral district of Chihuahua was aflame with Indian rebellion as the Tobosos, Cabezas, and Salineros rose in revolt. In the spring of 1645, the Conchos – long-time allies of the Spaniards – also took up arms against the Europeans. Professor Griffen wrote that the Conchos had “rather easily become incorporated into the Spanish empire. In the 1600s they labored and fought for the Spaniards, who at this time often lauded them for their industry and constancy.” But now, the Conchos established a confederation of rebellious tribes that included the Julimes, Xiximoles, Tocones, and Cholomes. On June 16, 1645, Governor Montaño de la Cueva, with a force of 90 Spanish cavalry and 286 Indian infantry auxiliaries, defeated a force of Conchos. By August 1645, most of the Conchos and their allies had surrendered and return to their work.

Tarahumara Revolts (1648-1652)

The 1648 rebellion began with an organized insurgency in the little Tarahumara community of Fariagic, southwest of Parral. Under the leadership of four caciques (chiefs), several hundred Tarahumara Indians moved northward, attacking missions along the way. The mission of San Francisco de Borja was destroyed before a Spanish expedition from Durango met the Indians in battle and captured two of their leaders.

The short-lived rebellion of 1648 was followed by more outbreaks in 1650 and 1652. According to Professor Spicer, relations between the Tarahumara and the Spanish settlers had grown tense in recent years as “the Spaniards appropriated farming sites, assumed domineering attitudes over the Indians, and attempted to force the Indians to work for them.” The Villa de Aguilar and its associated mission of Papigochic became the targets of Tarahumara attacks in both 1650 and 1652. A contingent of Tarahumara under Tepórame attacked and laid waste to seven Franciscan establishments in Concho territory. Eventually, the Spanish forces defeated the insurgents and executed Tepórame.

The Revolt of 1666-1680

The revolt that started in 1666 saw the Salineros, Conchos, Tobosos, and Tarahumaras waging war against the Spaniards in northeastern Durango, as well as southern and western Chihuahua. In 1666, some of the western Conchos rose in rebellion following a drought, famine and epidemic. But in the following year, the rebellion spread to the Tobosos, Cabezas, and Salineros. Although Spanish forces were sent to contain the rebellion, the turmoil continued for a decade.

Professor Jack D. Forbes, the author of Apache, Navaho, and Spaniard, writes that “the Nueva Vizcaya region was a land of continual war in the early 1670’s.” By 1677, in fact, Nueva Vizcaya was in great danger of being lost by the Spaniards. However, in a series of campaigns, the Spaniards killed many of the enemy and captured up to 400 Indians. But even after these battles, the Conchos, Tobosos, Julimes and Chisos continued to wage war against the European establishment.

Comanche Raids into Durango

The Comanche Indians had begun raiding Spanish settlements in Texas as early as the 1760s. Soon after, the Comanche warriors began raiding Chihuahua, Sonora, Coahuila, Durango and Nuevo León. T. R. Fehrenbach, the author of Comanches: The Destruction of a People, writes that “a long terror descended over the entire frontier, because Spanish organization and institutions were totally unable to cope with war parties of long-striking, swiftly moving Comanches.”

Mounting extended campaigns into Spanish territory, the Comanches avoided forts and armies. T. R. Fehrenbach states that these Amerindians were “eternally poised for war.” They traveled across great distances and struck their victims with great speed. “They rampaged across mountains and deserts,” writes Mr. Fehrenbach, “scattering to avoid detection surrounding peaceful villages of peasants for dawn raids.”

War with the Comanche Indians (1820s)

In the 1820s, the newly independent Mexican Republic was so preoccupied with political problems that it failed to maintain an adequate defense in its northern territories. Comanches ended the earlier peace that they had made with the Spaniards and resumed warfare against the Mexican Federal Government. By 1825, they were making raids deep in Texas, New Mexico, Coahuila, Nuevo León, Chihuahua and Durango.

“Such conditions were permitted to continue in the north,” writes Mr. Fehrenbach, “because independent Mexico was not a homogeneous or cohesive, nation it never possessed a government stable or powerful enough to mount sustained campaigns against the Amerindians.” As a result, Comanche raiders killed thousands of Mexican soldiers, ranchers and peasants south of the Rio Grande.

Confrontations with Comanches (1834-1853)

In 1834, Mexico signed its third peace treaty with the Comanches of Texas. However, almost immediately Mexico violated the peace treaty and the Comanches resumed their raids in Texas and Chihuahua. In the following year, Sonora, Chihuahua and Durango reestablished bounties for Comanche scalps. Between 1848 and 1853, Mexico filed 366 separate claims for Comanche and Apache raids originating from north of the American border. In 1852, the Comanches had made daring raids into Coahuila, Chihuahua, Sonora, and Durango and even Tepic in Jalisco (now in Nayarit), some 700 miles south of the United States-Mexican border.

By 1856, authorities in horse-rich Durango would claim that Indian raids, mostly Comanche, in their state had taken nearly 6,000 lives, abducted 748 people, and forced the abandonment of 358 settlements over the previous 20 years.

Indigenous Durango in the Twentieth Century
By the late Nineteenth Century, most of the indigenous groups of pre-Hispanic Durango had disappeared. In the 1895 census, only 1,661 individuals five years of age or over claimed to speak an indigenous language. This number increased significantly to 3,847 in 1900 and to 4,023 in 1910.

Durango in the 1921 Census

In the unique 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indígena pura” (pure indigenous), “indígena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white). Out of a total state population of 336,766, 33,354 individuals (or 9.9%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background.

A much larger number 300,055, or 89.1%, classified themselves as being mixed, while only 33 individuals classified themselves as white. While it is likely that most of the 44,779 persons claiming to be of indigenous descent probably did not speak an Indian language, both the pure and mixed classifications are a testament to Durango¹s undeniable indigenous past.

Indigenous Durango in the 2000 Census

According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages in Durango amounted to 24,934 individuals, or 1.97% of the population. These individuals spoke a wide range of languages, many of which were transplants from other parts of the Mexican Republic. The largest indigenous groups represented in the state were: Tepehuán (17,051), Huichol (1,435), Náhuatl (872), Tarahumara (451), Cora (218), and Mazahua (176).

Indigenous Languages Spoken in Durango in 2010

In the 2010 census, more than 80% of Durango’s indigenous speaking population spoke the Tepehuano of the South language. Huichol — which has a greater representation in the states of Nayarit and Jalisco — is the second most spoken language in the state. The following table also illustrates some of the other languages spoken in the state:

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Durango’s Indigenous-Speaking Municipios

As noted in the following table, one of Durango’s 39 municipios — Mezquital — contains 23,742, or almost three-quarters of the state’s indigenous language speakers 3 years of age and older. Nearly one in three Durango residents who speak indigenous languages lived in two other municipios: Pueblo Nuevo and Durango. All three of these municipios are in the southern portion of the State of Durango and together, they have 91.6% of the state’s indigenous speakers.

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Tepehuano del Sur

The language of the Tepehuanes is divided into three major variants, one in Chihuahua and two in Durango. Northern Tepehuan (Tepehuano del Norte) is spoken in the municipio (township) of Guadalupe y Calvo, in western Chihuahua by about 5,000 people. Southern Tepehuan (Tepehuano del Sur) is spoken in southern Durango by at least 20,000 speakers. They are divided between a western variety spoken in the municipio of Pueblo Nuevo and an eastern variety spoken in the municipio of Mezquital. The following Mexican government map shows that the Tepehuano del Sur language is spread across much of Southern Durango and parts of Northwest Nayarit [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INPI) / INALI, “Atlas de los Pueblos Indígenas de México – Tepehuanos del Sur – Lengua” (2018). Online:].

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The Mexicaneros are a linguistic division of the Náhuatl group.  They range through a large number of states, including Durango, Nayarit, Jalisco and Zacatecas.  Some of the most notable Mexicaneros communities are Santa Cruz (in Nayarit) and San Agustín de Buenaventura and San Pedro Jícoras (both in Durango). The bulk of Durango’s Mexicaneros are concentrated in the municipio of Mezquital.  But, in Mezquital, the Huicholes and Mexicaneros coexist with the Tepehuán.    

Mexico’s 2015 Intercensal Survey

In 2016, the Mexican government agency, Instituto Nacional de Estadística Geografía e Informática (INEGI), published the 2015 Intercensal Survey, which upgraded Mexico’s socio-demographic information to the midpoint between the 2010 census and the census to be carried out in 2020. With a sample size of over 6 million homes, this survey provides information on the national, state and municipio level, as of March 15th, 2015.

Indigenous Self-Identity in the Mexican Census

From 1895 to 1990, the Mexican census asked Mexican citizens if they spoke an indigenous language. Only the 1921 census used racial categories. However, in recent years, INEGI has begun to recognize “Autoadscripción étnica” (Ethnic self-identification) which gives its citizens the right to “self-identification based on their own culture, traditions and history,” even if they do not speak an indigenous language.

In 2000, INEGI first began using indigenous self-identification in the census. But, in 2010 and 2015, it was used in a more careful and measured manner and the results were very interesting, as noted in the following section.

Considered Indigenous Classification

One of the 2015 survey questions read “De acuerdo, con su cultura, se considera indígena?” Essentially, Mexican residents were being asked if they considered themselves indigenous through their culture. Survey respondents had four possible responses:

  1. Sí (Yes)
  2. Sí, en parte (Yes, in part)
  3. No
  4. No sabe (Do not know)

According to the Intercensal Survey 2015, less than 8% of Durango’s population identified themselves with their indigenous heritage and culture, while only a mere 2.41% of the state’s population three years of age and older actually spoke an indigenous language. The data from several of Durango’s most indigenous municipios are shown in the following table:

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As noted in the preceding table, Mezquital was the only municipio of Durango which had a large number of people who identified as indigenous (86.37%) or spoke an indigenous language (83.82% of persons 3 years of age and older). Even more important was the fact that almost one-quarter of the indigenous speakers in Mezquital were monolingual and did not speak Spanish at all.

The high level of monolingualism in Durango translated into a higher than expected monolingual rate for the entire state. It is well-known that the Tepehuanes — who made up 83.68% of Durango’s indigenous speakers in 2015 — have a high rate of monolingualism.

The following map shows the distribution of Durango’s pueblos with a significant number of indigenous speakers in 2015 [Instituto Nacional de los Pueblos Indígenas (INPI) / INALI, “Atlas de los Pueblos Indígenas de México: Durango: Distribución por Entidad Federativa: Pueblos Indígenas con Mayor Presencia en la Entidad. 2018. Online:].

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The present indigenous population of Durango is but a small remnant of the vast array of indigenous peoples who inhabited Durango and neighboring areas of Nueva Vizcaya five centuries ago. Their struggle against Spanish occupation was a long running battle that crossed several centuries and was fought with great vigor.

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


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