Olancho, an eastern border province of Honduras that once covered the northeastern third of the country and is still the largest department in Honduras. Although in many respects the least developed region of the country, Olancho is relatively rich in natural resources. Grassy valleys nestle between the jumbled mountain ranges. The gold-bearing Guayape, Guayambre, and Jalán tributaries of the Patuca River system bisect the larger of these valleys.
Before the Spanish Conquest, nomadic hunter-gatherers ranged the mountains and valleys of "Greater" Olancho. In the mid-1520s, rival bands of conquistadores from Panama, Cuba, and Mexico entered the region to battle for glory, gold, and dominion, during which most Olancho natives were killed or enslaved.
Pedro de Alvarado of Guatemala eventually extended his hegemony over Olancho and promptly discovered abundant gold in the sand beaches of various rivers that cut through the area. Soon Indian and black slave gangs were put to work panning for gold in Olancho. The initial bonanza soon gave way to a more prosaic but stable economy of cattle ranching, sporadic gold panning by washerwomen wielding bateas (wooden wash tubs), and missionary campaigns to evangelize the remaining pockets of natives.
After the late-sixteenth-century silver strikes at nearby Tegucigalpa, mule trails running through Olancho to Trujillo provided the principal outlet for silver exports. Most of the mules and horses that plied these trails came from Olancho. Herds of Olancho cattle were driven to mining camps and to markets as far away as El Salvador and Guatemala. The rawhide ambience of the isolated cow towns along these trails disguised the fact that Olancho remained one of the richest provinces in Honduras well past the mid-1800s. The redirection of export trade through the ports of Puerto Cortés (on the North Coast) and Amapala (on the Fonseca shore) in the late nineteenth century, confirmed Olancho's isolation from the rest of the country and fostered a sense of regional autonomy. That desperadoes sought haven among the hill folk, and gold-crazed adventurers sought the fortune in the Olancho gold-panning sites, which are more famous than they are productive, only added to the region's badlands aura.
Since 1950, various quixotic international development schemes, voracious North American and Japanese logging operations, sprawling purebred cattle spreads, and land-hungry peasant cooperatives have collided in a race to stake out prime resources along and beyond the modern limited-access highway that cuts diagonally across the department.
William V. Wells, Explorations and Adventures in Honduras (1857).
Foster, Lynn V. A Brief History of Central America. New York: Facts on File, 2000.
Holden, Robert H. Armies without Nations: Public Violence and State Formation in Central America, 1821–1960. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Sheilds, Charles J. Honduras. Philadelphia: Mason Crest Publishers, 2003.
Kenneth V. Finney