Last updateFri, 24 May 2019 4pm

Beltran de Guzman, and finding useful slices of chaos in early days putting together bits of Mexico

In the 1500s, sealed off by mountains on both the east and west of the thinly explored “northern Mexico,” the arid desert-like central altiplano was the ancient home of the Nahua, Otomi, Huichol, Cora, Tepehua and Coyutec Indians.  

Only the Chichimecas who lived in the foothills of the Eastern mountain range were warlike.  It was a fertile, peaceful region never dominated by the Aztecs.  In 1530, the relentlessly brutal Spaniard Nuño Beltran de Guzman led an expedition that brought what are now the Mexican states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Aguascalientes, Durango, Sinaloa and Zacetecas under Spanish control.  

In doing so, Guzman destroyed the way of life for all the indigenous people who inhabited the area.  He had come to New Spain after the Conquest, appointed by Spain’s European rulers to be the governor of Panuco in north-eastern Mexico.  In 1528, Guzman became president of the first Royal Audiencia, the High Court of New Spain.  The Audiencia was created to investigate charges leveled against Hernando Cortez in order to replace the military government he had headed even before the fall of the Aztec Empire. 

An avowed enemy of Cortez, Guzman was unable to bring the “Conquistador of New Spain” to trial because as the leader of the original Conquest, he had returned to Spain to refute charges made against him.  

Arbitrary and unreasonable in dealings with his fellow Spaniards, and relentlessly brutal in dealing with Mexico’s Indians, Guzman’s conduct by 1529 had blocked the aid aimed at even the most peacefully inclined Mexican Indians by Juan de Zumarraga, the archbishop of New Spain.  In January 1530, Zumarraga excommunicated and dissolved the Audiencia.  Perhaps forewarned, Guzmán resigned his post in December 1529.  Organizing an army of 500 discontented former conquistadors and 10,000 Indians with illegally obtained funds, he headed north aggressively. 

The Tarascans, who inhabited what is now Michoacan, were fierce warriors.  Never conquered, they had sealed off northwest and north-central Mexico from both early Aztec, and dominating Spanish forces.  Only shaft graves attested to their presence.  Spaniards hadn’t yet constructed  dominating cities.  Indian tribes were semi-nomadic, wintering in caves in the nearby Western Sierra Madre mountains and spending the rest of the year on the fertile altiplano. They raised corn, domesticated some animals, hunted and fished.  The clan and the tribe were their social organizations. They had no concept of a nation. 

Today only the Huichols survive and have retained their identity.  Their legends give us some insight into life before Guzman. Unlike the Aztecs, their religions were spiritual, relying on the use of peyote, hallucinogenic mushrooms.

The first wave of Spaniards who claimed land for the Spanish Crown were interested in converting the Indians to Christianity. Only Guzman sought power and land. He established economiendos, private land grants, for himself and his Spanish followers,  though when it suited him, he seized land previously granted to other Spaniards.  Indians could own no land.  Even his Indian allies were mistreated.

Freed from the moderating influences of churchmen such as Bartolome de las Casas, and thwarted by Guzman in New Spain, local Indians were either slaughtered or enslaved. Their only hope for survival was to abandon the altiplano completely, and retreat deep into the mountains.  His treatment of the Indians earned Guzman a series of foul names among both Spaniards and Indians. His actions and attitude stirred hate and resentment that would haunt Spaniards who were about to colonize the area.  Guzman had named it Nueva Galicia in honor of the province in Spain where he was born.  In January, 1532, he tried to found a capital, Guadalajara, naming it after the Spanish city of his birth.  Located south of present day Zacatecas, it was quickly and repeatedly attacked by the Chichimecas.  In August 1533, the site was abandoned and a new location – present-day Tonala – was selected.  But then Guzman interfered by claiming the land for himself.  The city was moved to Tlacotan, a location north-east of present-day Zapopan. The high-handed actions that had forced this third relocation antagonized the settlers who had to start building their city all over again. Antonio de Mendoza, the viceroy of New Spain, began receiving complaints. 

By now, Franciscan Fathers had arrived in New Galicia, and reports of the brutal treatment of the Indians began to reach Mexico City.   Egged on by both Bishop de las Casas and Archbishop Zumarrago, Mendoza arrested Guzman in 1536.  Returned to Spain, he died in obscurity.

Despite his removal, the Indians banded together, attacked Guadalajara in 1541, and attempted to drive the Spaniards out of New Galicia.  Called the Mixton War, this was the first time since the conquest that indigenous people had attacked a Spanish settlement.  Unable to handle the situation, Cristobal de Oñate, the acting governor and Guzman’s henchman, was forced to call on the viceroy for help.  Help came, and the uprising was crushed, but control of New Galicia reverted to the colonial government of New Spain. 

Guadalajara was moved for the fourth time to a new location.  On February 14, 1542, the city was recognized as the official capital of Neuva Galicia.  The second largest city in Mexico, it is now the capital of Jalisco

Guzman is considered a blot on Mexican history, with his only real contribution having given Guadalajara its name.  The Indian population of Jalisco, aside from the Huichols who still live in poverty deep in the mountains, is miniscule.  Guzman decimated them. 

Guzman epitomized the term “narcissistic misanthrope” and his hatred, mistrust and disdain for the human species, and human nature in general, characterizes his name.  

(Next week: Guzman’s end.)

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