Indigenous Chihuahua: a story of war and assimilation

articles History & People

John P. Schmal

Several million Americans look to the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua as their ancestral homeland. Chihuahua – with a total of 245,945 square kilometers within its boundaries – is the largest state of the Mexican Republic and occupies 12.6% of the national territory. In stark contrast, Chihuahua’s population – 3,052,907 residents in the 2000 census – amounts to only 3.13% of the national population.

An understanding of Chihuahua’s indigenous inhabitants from the pre-Hispanic era to the 19th century requires an imagination that dispenses with national borders. The borders of the present-day state of Chihuahua with its neighboring Mexican states and the American states on its north is a creation of political entities. These borders may cause the reader to believe that the indigenous groups from Chihuahua were unique to their area and distinct from the indigenous inhabitants of New Mexico, Texas, Coahuila, Sonora, or Durango.

However, nothing could be further from the truth. Although an international border separates Chihuahua from Texas and New Mexico, the indigenous inhabitants of Chihuahua did in fact have extensive cultural, linguistic, economic and spiritual ties with the indigenous groups of those two American states.

For several thousand years, indigenous groups living in Chihuahua have had trading relations with indigenous groups located in other areas. And many of the Chihuahua Amerindians do in fact share common roots with the Native Americans of New Mexico and Texas. And, up until the last part of the 19th century, the border of Chihuahua and the United States was a meaningless line in the sand, across which Apaches, Comanches and other groups freely passed.

If you are from Chihuahua, it is likely that you have both indigenous and European ancestors because this frontier region represented both a melting pot and a battleground to the many people who have inhabited it during the last five centuries. Spanish explorers started exploring the region of Chihuahua (which was part of the Spanish province of Nueva Vizcaya) in the mid-16th century, especially after the discovery of the Santa Barbara mines in 1567.

As they made their way through the Western Sierra Madre highlands and the deserts of Bolson de Mapime, the Spanish explorers found a wide range of nomadic and semi-nomadic indigenous groups. Some of the indigenous groups were named by different explorers at different times and, as a result, carried two or three names. Anyone who is studying the indigenous groups of Chihuahua may at first find this somewhat confusing.

The Concho Indians lived near the junction of the Rio Concho River and Rio Grande Rivers in northern Chihuahua. This region – known as La Junta de los Rios – is a historic farming and trading area. The present-day towns of Presidio (Texas) and Ojinaga (Chihuahua) lay at the center of this region. The Conchos were named for the Spanish word “shells,” most likely a reference to the many shellfish they found in the Conchos River. The Conchos – at an early period – cooperated with and allied themselves with the Spaniards, although on a few occasions they also fought against them.

The Toboso Indians lived in the Bolson de Mapime region. Living in parts of both Coahuila and Chihuahua, the Tobosos frequently raided Spanish settlements and posed a serious problem during the Seventeenth Century. The Jumanos who inhabited the La Junta area along the Rio Grande River above the Big Bend engaged in agriculture, growing a wide range of crops, including corn, squash, figs, beans, pumpkins and melons.

The Suma Indians lived in the vicinity of present-day El Paso and through parts of northwestern Chihuahua and northeastern Sonora. The Suma Indians joined some of the missions that the Spanish missionaries set up during the 17th and 18th Centuries. The Sumas eventually declined and disappeared, mostly as a result of the assimilation and mestizaje that took place in the Spanish-sponsored settlements in Chihuahua.

The Pescado Indians – named for the Spanish word for fish – lived along the Rio Grande along northern border of Chihuahua and in parts of Texas. At some point, they were absorbed by other Indian groups and the Spanish settlers that moved northward into their tribal lands. The Mansos Indians also lived near present-day El Paso along the Rio Grande border area. In 1659 Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe Mission was established by Spanish missionaries for the Manso Indians living near present-day Ciudad Juarez.

The Coahuiltecan tribes roamed through parts of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and most of Texas west of San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek. These Indians consisted of countless small nomadic bands, each of which was given different names by different explorers. Little is known about the linguistic affinity or the cultures of the Coahuiltecan Indians because they eventually disappeared, having been decimated by war, disease or assimilation, at the hands of the Europeans, Comanches, and Apaches.

The Tarahumara Indians who inhabited southern Chihuahua belonged to the Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Family and originally occupied more than 28,000 square miles of mountainous terrain, an area that is even larger than the state of West Virginia. Today, the Tarahumara are a people whose rich spiritual ideology and strong cultural identity have persevered despite the intrusion of foreign customs. The Spanish originally encountered the Tarahumara throughout Chihuahua upon arrival in the 1500’s, but as the Spanish encroached on their civilization the shy and private Tarahumara gradually retreated to less accessible canyons and valleys in the Sierra Tarahumara.

The Tepehuanes Indians – like their cousins, the Tarahumara – belong to the Uto-Aztecan Linguistic Group. While their strongest presence was in the state of Durango and some western points of Zacatecas, the Tepehuanes also lived and hunted in southern Chihuahua. The Tepehuanes are most famous for their defiant revolt against Spanish rule in 1616-1619. The historian, Dr. Charlotte M. Gradie, has discussed this revolt in great detail in her recently-published work, The Tepehuan Revolt of 1616: Militarism, Evangelism, and Colonialism in Seventeenth-Century Nueva Vizcaya (The University of Utah Press, 2000).

The Varohao (or Guarijao) Indians are closely related to and speak a language very similar to the Tarahumara. They inhabited the Western Sierra Madre Mountains along the headwaters of the Rio Mayo of both Sonora and Chihuahua. The Guasapar Indians – also related to the Tarahumara – inhabited lands along the Chiniap and Urique Rivers in Chihuahua.

The Apaches – as latecomers to Chihuahua – probably first arrived in the area of Chihuahua in the 17th Century. They were linguistically related to the Athapaskan speakers of Alaska and western Canada and worked their way south over a period of centuries. By the middle of the 18th Century, Apache depredations along the entire frontier region, including Chihuahua, had caused taken its toll Spaniard and Indian alike.

The history of Chihuahua’s indigenous groups is a story of resistance against the intrusions of southern forces, Spaniards, French emigrees, and Indian laborers who settled in Chihuahua to work as laborers (and avoid the excessive taxation of central Mexico). In studying the story of Chihuahua as it progressed through the centuries, one finds mention of one war after another, each fought by various indigenous groups and for various reasons.

The Tepehuanes Revolt of 1616-1619 inflamed western and northwestern Durango and Southern Chihuahua. It is believed that the epidemics that struck the Tepehuanes population in 1594, 1601-02, 1606-07, and 1612-1615 became a catalyst for this rebellion. The famine and disease, writes Charlotte M. Gradie, the author of The Tepehuan 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. However, after causing great damage to the frontier, the revolt was crushed by the Spanish military. After the failure of the Tepehuanes revolt, the Tarahumares of western and eastern Durango and southern Chihuahua also revolted in 1621 and 1622. This rebellion also met with defeat.

As early as 1567, the silver mines at Santa Barbara were established in the territory of the Conchos Indians. However, in 1631, a vast new silver strike was made at Parral in what is now southern Chihuahua. The strike in Parral led to a large influx of Spaniards and Indian laborers into this area of Tarahumara country north of Santa Barbara. However, the steadily increasing need for labor in the Parral mines, according to Professor Spicer, led to the “forcible recruitment, or enslavement, of non-Christian Indians.”

As Chihuahua became a center of the silver trade, the tremendous pressures on the indigenous inhabitants inflamed and provoke a flurry of revolts. From 1644 to 1652, the Tobosos, Salineros and Conchos revolted in northern Durango and 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 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, allying themselves with the Julimes, Xiximoles, Tocones, and Cholomes. Although this revolt ended in defeat in 1645, a new revolt of the Tarahumara took placed between 1648 and 1652. Then, between 1666 and 1680, the Salineros, Conchos, Tobosos and Tarahumares all rose in rebellion following a drought, famine and epidemic.

In the meantime, to the north, Franciscan missionaries had successfully pacified New Mexico, claiming some 34,000 Indian converts. By 1630, the colony at Santa Fe consisted of 250 Spaniards and 750 people of Indian and Spanish mixture. Starting around 1660, drought and crop failure started to plague New Mexico with increasing frequency. Starvation caused hundreds of Indians to die. Tension increased between the Indian population and the Spaniards led to a serious revolt in 1680.

When the Great Northern Revolt took place in New Mexico in 1680, it did not affect just the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico, as many believe. It was actually a widespread revolt that spread throughout all of Chihuahua and Durango. The Spaniards were pushed out of New Mexico down the Rio Grande to present-day El Paso. However, in 1684, as they nursed their wounds in El Paso, more rebellions popped up across much of Chihuahua. From Casas Grandes to El Paso, Conchos, Sumas, Chinarras, Mansos, Janos, and Apachean Jocomes all took up arms. The Tarahumaras also revolted once again in 1690 and were not defeated until 1698.

During the 18th century a new threat would appear in Chihuahua. The Apache Indians, starting in 1751, became a constant and unrelenting enemy of the Spanish administration. As the Apaches attacked settlements throughout northern Chihuahua, the Spaniards were forced to establish a series of presidios to contain the threat. However, the steps taken to contain the Apache depredations had limited effect and, by 1737, Captain Juan Mateo Mange reported that “many mines have been destroyed, 15 large estancias along the frontier has been totally destroyed, having lost two hundred head of cattle, mules, and horses; several missions have been burned and two hundred Christians have lost their lives to the Apache enemy, who sustains himself only with the bow and arrow, killing and stealing livestock. All this has left us in ruins.”

By 1760, Spain had established a total of twenty-three presidios in the frontier regions. But the Apaches, responding to these garrisons, developed adaptation in their mode of warfare. Apaches became such skilled horsemen that they effectively bypassed the presidios and continuously eluded the Spanish military forces. Professor Robert Salmon, the author of Indian Revolts in Northern New Spain: A Synthesis of Resistance (1680-1786), writes that, by the end of the 18th century, “Indian warriors exacted high tolls in commerce, livestock, and lives.”

Professor Griffen has explained that the Apache raids played a significant role in the assimilation of the Chihuahua indigenous groups, stating that the Apache raiders “displaced or assimilated other groups of hunter-gatherers known as the Sumas, Mansos, Chinarras, Sumanos, Jocomes, and Janos.”

During the 18th century, the Comanche Indians had also begun to raid Spanish settlements throughout Texas and northern Chihuahua. 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.”

In 1786, the Viceroy of Nueva Espana, Bernardo de Galvez, instituted a series of reforms for the pacification of the frontier. He constructed peace establishments ( establecimientos de paz) for Apaches willing to settle down and become peaceful. Through this policy, several Apache bands were induced to forgo their raiding and warfare habits in exchange for farmlands, food, clothing, agricultural implements and hunting arms.

Although the Spanish administration had negotiated with both the Apaches and Comanches in an effort to bring peace to the frontier era, the establishment of the Mexican Republic in 1822 led to a renewal of the Comanche and Apache wars. Between 1836 and 1852, the Chiricahua Apaches fought a running battle against both American and Mexican federal forces. The Apaches continued to defy both Mexico and the United States for many years until 1886, when Geronimo, the famous Chiricahua leader, surrendered in the Sierra Madres to American forces that had crossed the border for the special purpose of capturing Geronimo.

Although many people living in Chihuahua during the Nineteenth Century were of Indian descent, most of the original indigenous groups had either been displaced, decimated, or assimilated. In the 1895 Mexican federal census, only 19,270 Chihuahua residents aged five or more claimed to speak an indigenous language. This figure increased to 22,025 in 1900 and 33,237 in 1910. A large percentage of these indigenous speakers were Tarahumara and Tepehuanes Indians, who had managed to preserve their unique cultural and linguistic identities


In the unusual 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including “indigena pura” (pure indigenous), “indigena mezclada con blanca” (indigenous mixed with white) and “blanca” (white). Out of a total state population of 401,622, 51,228 persons (or 12.8%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background. Another 201,182 – or 50.1% – classified themselves as being mixed, while 145,926 Chihuahua residents (36.3%) claimed to be white.

It is worth noting that the classifications for the entire Mexican Republic differed significantly from Chihuahua. Out of a total population of 14,334,780 in the Mexican Republic, 4,179,449 – or 29.2% – claimed to be of pure indigenous background, while 8,504,561 – or 59.3% – were of mixed origins. The total number of people who classified themselves as white was only 1,404,718 – or 9.8% of the population – a far cry from Chihuahua’s figure of 36.3%.

In the Chihuahua of the present-day Mexico, the Tarahumara and Tepehuanes continue to represent the largest surviving groups of Amerindians. According to the 2000 census, the population of persons five years and more who spoke indigenous languages amounted to 84,086 individuals. The largest indigenous groups represented in Chihuahua were: Tarahumara (70,842), Tepehuan (6,178), Nahua (1,011), Guarijio (917), Mazahua (740), Mixteco (603), Zapoteco (477), Pima (346), Chinanteco (301), and Otomi (220). Of these groups, only the Tarahumara, Tepehuan, Guarijio and Pima-speakers are indigenous to Chihuahua and adjacent states. The other groups are representative of migrants from southern Mexican states, such as Guerrero, Puebla and Oaxaca.

The mestizaje and assimilation of the indigenous Chihuahua people was widespread and today most of the state is truly Mexican in its makeup. Most of the people of Chihuahua today do not speak Indian languages or practice Indian customs. However, the assimilation of Chihuahua’s people was a process that took place over several centuries and the land of Chihuahua – now at peace – was a dangerous battleground for many generations.

Fehrenbach, T. R. Comanches: The Destruction of a People (New York: Da Capo Press, 1994).
Gradie, Charlotte M. The Tepehuan Revolt of 1616: Militarism, Evangelism, and Colonialism in Seventeenth-Century Nueva Vizcaya (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2000).
Griffen, William B. Indian Assimilation in the Franciscan Area of Nueva Vizcaya (Tucson, Arizona: University of Arizona Press, 1979).
Hatfield, Shelley Bowen. Chasing Shadows: Indians Along the United States-Mexico Border 1876-1911 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).
Radding, Cynthia. The Colonial Pact and Changing Ethnic Frontiers in Highland Sonora, 1740-1840, in Donna J. Guy and Thomas E. Sheridan (eds.), Contested Ground: Comparative Frontiers on the Northern and Southern Edges of the Spanish Empire, pp. 52-66 (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1998).
Salmon, Robert Mario. Indian Revolts in Northern New Spain: A Synthesis of Resistance (1680-1786) (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1991).

Published or Updated on: March 29, 2008 by John P. Schmal © 2008
Share This:

2 thoughts on “Indigenous Chihuahua: a story of war and assimilation

  1. my maternal grandmother is from Chihuahua County of Guerrero I understand the family are Terahumara indigenous and my paternal great grandfather immigrated from Malaga Spain and ended up in Chihuahua.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *