In a previous post, we introduced the Geographic Accounts, a rich source of information about Mexico’s sixteenth century geography. The style and substance of a typical Geographic Account can be judged by extracts from the response (dated 1579) relating to Jiquilpan (then written as Xiquilpan), in what is today the western part of the state of Michoacán in western Mexico. In the following (translated) extracts, square brackets enclose editorial comments, not found in the original.
Xiquilpan is in temperate land… A river, which never dries up, passes the village; it carries very little water in summer. In winter, it often rises so much that it can not be crossed. Less than one league from this village towards the north is a lake called Chapala, which is forty leagues around. A lot of white fish and catfish, and another kind of small fish, are caught in it. A large, very full, river, called Chicnahuatengo, enters this lake. [One league is about the distance that could be walked in an hour, from 4.18 kilometers to 6.687 kilometers, depending on the terrain.]
The village is settled on flat and very level ground, without hills…. It is very fertile land. It produces a lot of corn, chile, beans and other seeds that the natives sow. The native fruits are guamúchiles, avocados and guavas. There are lots of figs, pomegranates, quince trees and grapes. It is land where anything that is sown grows….
Xilquilpan has very few Indians: there could be in it about one hundred tributary Indians. They say that before the land was won, there were one thousand two hundred people. After the lands had been won, their number has been diminishing as a result of the many diseases that have occurred. In particular, in 76, there was a great plague in this village, common throughout New Spain, from which a large number of people died….
There is a wild plant in this village which cures those who are crippled. It has leaves like a lettuce and is so hot that the part where the root is put burns naturally, like a fire. There is another [plant], which has a root similar to camote: it is a preventative for everything. They cure with these herbs and with others that the natives know….
This village was subject, when it was heathen, to Cazonzi, king of Mechuacan, who ruled over and was in charge of it; on his behalf, he put an Indian chief called Noxti in this village in order to govern and look after them. At that time, they gave corn and chile as tribute to the said Cazonci, which was received by Noxti and sent to Pátzcuaro. At that time, they idolized the Devil, so that he would help them when they went to fight other Indians from neighboring villages. They say that when they caught an Indian, they carried him to a hill next to the village, and there they sacrificed him and offered him to the Devil, and they cut him open and removed his heart and those who had made the sacrifice ate it…
They wore some shawls of joined together sisal, like jackets, without anything else, and cotton breeches, different to what they now wear. Their food was tortillas, tamales, beans, and other wild herbs that they called quiletes [meaning edible herbs or greens in general] and they drank white maguey wine called tlachiquil [unfermented pulque]. They say that they used to live longer than now, and that the reason for this could not be ascertained…
In this village and its surrounding areas, grow pears, figs, pomegranates, grapes, peaches, quinces, nuts, apples, all Castillian [Spanish] fruits. Native [plants] are avocados, sweet canes, guavas, capulines (which are local cherries), squash, chile, tomatoes and a lot of corn. It is land where it does not snow, formerly or now. They raise many birds, both native and from Spain. They grow cabbages, lettuce, onions, radishes, blites, and every kind of vegetable from Spain. Wheat and barley grow in this village.
The animals that there are in the village are wolves, which breed in the swamps that surround some reed beds, a quarter of a league from the village. More than eighty thousand sheep come from other parts to pasture seasonally on the edge of this village each year; it is very good land for them and they fatten very well, since there are some saltpeter deposits in the marsh.
There are no salt beds in this village; the natives supply themselves with salt from Colima, twenty leagues from this village, and from the province called Avalos fifteen leagues away…
Xiquilpan has a monastery of monks of the Order of San Francisco; it has two clerics, one is the guardian. The founder was Brother Juan de San Miguel, and it was founded about forty years ago for all the clerics that were in this province of Mechuacan. The village has a hospital, where the sick are treated, which was begun thirty years ago and founded by a cleric called Brother Alonso de Pineda of the Order of San Francisco. It receives no rents: it is sustained only by the poor, from the alms they beg from the natives.
As can be seen, the Geographic Accounts are of immense value in reconstructing the past history of Mexico. The detail in them is often quite astonishing. However, as René Acuña emphasizes, while the Accounts provide invaluable information about local cultures, including that of the indigenous peoples, they should never be considered completely reliable. They were not eye-witness accounts and often relied on hearsay and on the possibly dubious interpretations made by a relatively limited number of respondents.
Several transcriptions of the Relaciones geográficas have been published in Spanish. The version used in preparing this article (translations by the author) is Acuña, R (ed) 1987 Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI: Michoacán. Edición de René Acuña. Volume 9 of Relaciones geográficas del siglo XVI. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.
Note: This post is based on an article first published on MexConnect.com
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- A brief history of geography in Mexico
- Beautiful cartography from the seventeenth century: Ysarti’s 1682 map of New Spain
- A tribute to Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the father of modern geography in Mexico
- José Antonio Villa-Señor y Sanchez, one of Mexico’s earliest geographers
- The 1568 earthquake in Mexico