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Of all the native American nations the Aztecs had for centuries held the most prominent position, and their advancement was surprising to the Spaniards, who, instead of encountering a nation of barbarians, were faced by a people to whom they could not deny a great degree of culture. Their large cities, their skill as artisans, their well tilled fields, all gave evidence of a civilization quite unexpected by the Castilians. When Cortés and his followers advanced from the coast regions to the capital, the country that they traversed was a fair specimen of what human energy could accomplish on a soil bountifully gifted by nature. Still it was in southern regions where the inhabitants displayed most inclination for husbandry, those of Jalisco and the northern territory being more employed in the chase, and in some places in manufactures and other industries. This favorable condition of affairs was due to just and wise laws, and to the fact that the greater share of the land belonged to the crown and to the nobility, a circumstance

which stamped farming as an occupation not unworthy of men of the highest rank. The remainder of the ground belonged to the temples and the different tribes, and was worked in accordance with strict regulations. These not only set forth the inalienability of the land given to communities for the benefit of their members, but provided that every one of the latter should receive a lot of such extent and quality as his necessities and rank entitled him to. Possession was subject to liberal conditions, and although given only temporarily, it could, through prudent conduct on part of the holder, be transmitted to his heirs. Thus a peculiar system was created, which for wisdom challenges comparison with the best among old-world institutions. And while land belonging exclusively to communities could not pass into other hands, full scope was given to the industrious member to improve his share, and draw the greatest possible advantage from his labor.1

It would have been prudent and beneficial for the Spaniards to maintain in force so admirable a system, and it would certainly have been just to do so. Cortés did indeed allow certain forms of native government to remain, but this policy was not observed in the distribution of land. The greater number of conquerors disliked the humble sphere and toil of a farmer, and preferred the possession of an encomienda, where they might play sovereignty and king-craft a little on their own account. Fertile as the soil might be, it had little attraction if they were to till it by their own labor, and thus agriculture in the early times after the conquest was carried on only where the work could be done by slave labor. But Cortés on his first stay in Mexico, when a guest of Montezuma, had sent exploring expeditions in a southerly direction, with orders to establish plantations of maize and cacao, and was not inclined to leave undeveloped the resources

1 For details concerning the various systems in force before the conquest, I refer to my Native Races, i. 625, 652–3; ii. 223-30, 342-50, 445; iv. 429–31.

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of a territory which, situated between the fifteenth and thirty-third degrees of latitude, possessed such variety of climate that nearly all the food plants known in Europe could be raised there. Something was also gained when he issued his celebrated ordinances of 1524, and caused the introduction of foreign grains, plants, and live-stock.2

Although the southern provinces were far more fertile than the northern, agriculture gradually progressed in the latter, stimulated by the mineral wealth, which gave new impulse to population. The hold once gained by the settler was in most cases maintained, although the mines which created it were abandoned. A certain influence was exercised by the clergy, from whose orchards and gardens new plants were distributed over other parts of the country.

The crown also displayed some interest; old laws were remodelled; new ones framed in quick succession; and the representatives of the government in the colonies urged to encourage the cultivation of the soil. Settlers in new districts were entitled to land according to rank, being obliged to build houses, plant their ground within a certain time, and possess a certain quantity of stock. The right of property was not acquired till after a residence of four years, when the owner might sell it, though not to a church or convent. Nor was he allowed to hold within the same term two grants in different settlements. The distribution was made by the viceroy or the governor, with assistance of the city council, the regidores being entitled to


2See Hist. Mex., ii. 132-4, this series.


3 Haciendo distincion entre escuderos y peones y los que fueren de ménos grado y merecimiento.' The dimensions to be granted were either peonías or caballerías. The former comprised a ground-plot 50 feet wide by 100 in length, sufficient land to sow 100 fanegas of wheat or barley, and ten of maize, two patches of terrain for orchards, eight for other trees requiring dry ground, and pasture land for ten breeding sows, 20 cows, five mares, 100 sheep, and 20 goats. A caballería included a building lot of 100 by 200 feet, and the other grants were five times the size of that of a peonía. Good and inferior land was to be distributed in just proportion. Recop. Ind., ii. 39.

Recop. de Ind., ii. 40-1; where detailed ordinances may be found as to the manner of making applications.

preference, but in all cases the rights of the Indians were to be respected.

These regulations were gradually disregarded, and fifty years after the first grants had been made, quite a number of persons had appropriated extensive tracts belonging to the crown. To put a stop to such abuses a law of November 20, 1578,5 ordered all holders of land to exhibit their titles, and all taken in excess to revert to the king. In later years, however, the temporary owners were permitted to obtain possession by paying a small amount into the royal treasury, and the restitution of land became obligatory_only when it had been the property of Indians. Land occupied or improved by them could not be sold to another person; nor were cattle allowed to stray there; and one square league of common was assigned to each village so that there might be sufficient space for the grazing of stock.

In addition to the laws defining the rights of the native population, there existed minute regulations for the organization of all new settlements. Besides the tracts appropriated to the first settlers, others were given as propios, or property of the community, while still others were assigned as ejidos, or common lands for the benefit of the inhabitants. In 1536 orders were issued providing for irrigation, and soon afterward encomenderos were directed to plant trees, so as to prevent scarcity of fuel. But unfortunately this latter measure was rendered inoperative by an order issued in 1541 that the forests should be free to all for common use; and still later the native population was allowed to cut wood, almost without restriction. This gave rise to such a wholesale destruction of the forests that toward the close of the

5 It was repeated in 1589 and 1591. Id., 42.

In 1681 even the compensation in money was dispensed with, and holders allowed undisturbed possession. Id., 43.

The ejidos were to be situated at sufficient distance so as not to impede the growth of the settlement. Recop. de Ind., ii. 22. For other laws regulating new settlements, see Hist. Cent. Am., i. 496 et seq., this series.


eighteenth century Viceroy Revilla Gigedo considered it necessary to dictate measures to remedy the evil.


The most important agricultural product of New Spain was maize, which both to the Aztecs and the Spaniards was the principal article of food, as some time elapsed before the cultivation of European cereals became general. A failure of this crop was generally equivalent to a famine, as the inhabitants seldom accumulated sufficient supplies in granaries. In the southern provinces the average yield was a hundred and fifty fold, and, under very favorable conditions, as much as eight hundred fold. The plant was used for a great variety of purposes, and furnished food for animals as well as men. From it was manufactured the liquor called chicha; the stalks were extensively used to make sugar, while the leaves served as wrappers for cigarettes. Although an important factor in the internal trade of New Spain, no early statistics have appeared as to the total yield of the country. In the beginning of the present century it was estimated at 17,000,000 fanegas.

Nearly as indispensable to the Mexicans as Indian corn was the maguey, or agave Americana.10 Its cultivation dated from very ancient times, and the esteem in which the plant was held is not to be wondered at when we consider the variety of purposes for which it was used, and that it could be raised with so little labor and on so small an area of fertile ground. To the Indian it not only gave food, but its leaves covered his hut, and cloth was woven from its fibres; its medicinal qualities were highly valued, and its juice was his favorite beverage, being known

The Aztecs, however, possessed granaries. See Native Races, ii. 34750, where also many details about the cultivation of maize in aboriginal times may be found.

Humboldt says that at New Valladolid a yield varying from 130 to 150 fold was considered as a bad crop. Essai Pol., ii. 374.

10 The Aztec name of the plant, metl, was after the conquest changed to that of maguey, which, according to Motolinia, the Spaniards brought from the Antilles. Hist. Ind., 243.

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