Haciendas in Spanish America

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Haciendas in Spanish America

The hacienda, or large estate in Latin America, is traced back to the sixteenth century. The Spaniards who risked life and limb in the invasion, conquest, and exploration of the "New World" expected rewards for their efforts. Those early on the scene received a share of the plunder and encomiendas. But the accumulated gold and silver of the native societies did not last long and there were never enough encomiendas to meet the demand of people who, sincerely or not, claimed that they had served the crown and deserved one.

As the Spanish population increased, the native population succumbed to disease, overwork, and harsh treatment. Others fled contact with the Europeans. By mid-century, some Spaniards without rewards had become troublesome vagabonds in native communities and Spanish cities alike. Demand was increasing for labor and foodstuffs, especially grapes (for wine), wheat (for bread), and olives (for oil). Vast amounts of land became available as the native population fell or fled. Therefore, the Crown began a policy of founding new Spanish towns or villas as farming centers. Individuals with some capital could apply for citizenship in these new cities.

Those selected were rewarded with a house site (solar), a garden plot (huerta) in the suburbs, and a larger land grant (merced) in the surrounding countryside. The size of the land grant varied by the status of the individual grantee and the available resources. The first settlers usually did not have the capital to plant all the land granted to them, but, over time, successful farmers did and even expanded their land holdings through a combination of purchase, donation, marriage into a landed family, or usurpation. The latter usually was at the expense of surrounding native communities.

By the seventeenth century, three types of large estates existed. The first was a ranch. Cattle raising required relatively little capital for equipment and minimal labor. In many areas, native shepherds cared for large flocks of sheep or herds of cattle, which grazed on pastures, officially considered common and open to all, as they were in Spain. In the eighteenth century, these common pasture lands were divided and sold to users by a Spanish government intent on increasing the flow of revenue to the peninsula. It was then that many ranches, like those of Northern Mexico, officially became estates measured in leagues rather than the more common and smaller land units.

The second type of large estate was known as a hacienda or mixed farm. It produced foodstuffs and animals for a regional market. This type required more capital (for equipment and infrastructure), more labor for cultivation, and became the stereotypical estate throughout the Spanish Americas. The third and last type was the specialized farm. Most of these produced cash crops, like sugar or cacao for a distant, sometimes overseas, market. In some areas, sugar estates became known as trapiches, molinos, ingenios, or haciendas y trapiches. They required the largest infusions of capital for specialized mills and processing facilities. High demand for both skilled and unskilled labor was filled by seasonally-employed laborers and black slaves.

The owners of these estates often became the most powerful group in the area. The owners were entrepreneurs who oversaw operations and marketed their products. In good times, profits allowed them to acquire a lifestyle that was the envy of society. They purchased seats on the town council, which they passed on to their male heirs for generations, giving them and their families inordinate influence in local politics. They endowed chapels and other pious works and gave their sons access to higher education. They also invested in other activities, serving, for example, as local financiers. Wealthy Spanish immigrants and creoles joined the landed elite by investing in land or marrying into landed families. By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, the hacendados often had multiple roles—serving simultaneously as landowner, miner, bureaucrat, or merchant—with observable economic and political power and influence in the colonies. The institutional exception was the church, which either became a direct holder of many large estates or indirectly benefitted from mortgages on them.

The hacienda was not a static institution. It tended to become bigger over time. But it was susceptible to more general economic fluctuations. Though profits from these landed estates were usually lower than those from mining and commerce, the wealthy continued to buy because yields tended to be more predictable and stable than those of other investments and landowning brought social prestige that added lasting luster to family names and houses. In sum, the hacienda, or great estate, became the American counterpart of the Spanish estate, established to meet European and American conditions and the need for creating and holding wealth and power.

see also Empire in the Americas, Spanish; Encomienda.


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