After the Spanish got wind of the Americas in 1492, they did what any self
respecting empire would do - they established colonies in search of loot.
Agriculture and ranching provided the foundation for the military and
missionaries to extract silver from the mines of northern Mexico. The Spanish
influence lasted until the early 1800's, but after 300 years of occupation the
line between influence and domination is thin.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans to North America, it was mostly prairie,
plains, woodlands, and scrub. This environment supported huge herds of animals
up through the early Holocene. The extinction of most of these mega-fauna was a
boon to the livestock industry the Spanish founded. Mimicking the still massive
herds of bison (60-125MM head) the cows, reintroduced horses, mules, sheep,
goats, and other stock would freely graze grass, stubble, opunita, and maize.
Initial explorers viewed the land as harsher the further north one traveled,
extending eventually past Texas. The resistance that some of the native people,
primarily the Apache, exuded would both support their "harsh" judgement and be
formative in the decades of war on what were seen as barbarian peoples.
These "barbarians" were mostly Aztec by the time of Spanish arrival, but they
were not unified. The Spanish made use of this by making deals with some
factions, pitting them against one another until eventually the weakened Aztec
fell. Afterwards, the conquistadors turned their sites on the Maya to the
south. There is much more to it than this; I am simply trying to give context
to my environmental research.
The first calves arrived 1521. The New World cattle industry was monopolized by
1523. The next livestock to arrive were the breeding workhorses and mules
required for the heavier industries establishment.
The initial colony was establish in Presidio during 1537, 67 years before the
first pilgrim ship left Europe. Many colonists kept journals and others went on
extensive expeditions. One such expedition, which followed the Rio Grande from
1540-1542, interestingly noting that "the river sank into the earth".
After the discovery of silver in the Sierra Madre Occidental around Zacatecas
(central northern Mexico) in 1546 and in Parral, established in 1631 in
Chihuahua, the miners became the market for the livestock. These mining outpost
became lucrative targets for the resisting Apache and others chichimeca
(barbarian) raiders who regularly stole resources and cattle.
Continuing explorations in 1581-82 around present-day El Paso reported "a
valley of swamps, which extends over eight leagues (~21 miles)", "...contains
an abundance of game such as ducks, geese, and cranes", and "...numerous reeds
and large marshes and pools with quantities of fish close by the river".
Botanically focused expeditions revealed much opuntia and "limitless
grassland", which led to explosive livestock herd growth. Areas in and around
Huasteca, San Luis Potosi, Veracruz, Tepeaca, Puebla, Queretaro, Lake Chapala
and western Michoacan were so extensively stocked that by 1586 50-60,000 calves
were birthed annually. Additionally, 200,000 sheep and an unknown amount of
goats roamed essentially free, following the seasonal growth. At this point the
herds had grown so expansively that their reproduction could not be managed.
Silver was the only thing that the miners cared about, and gold was the only
thing the, often ex-military, ranchers cared about. Profit extraction was the
first motive and the land was to be exhausted as fast as possible to this end.
As the 16th century came to an end, goat and sheep herds of the indigenous
people numbered 250,000, 350,000, and 400,000 head in the areas of Zimatlan,
Oaxaca and Jilotepec (Rojas, 1990). Spanish landlords, known as encomenderos,
would extract tributes, in the form of maize, from these people.
The Spanish government made good use of the excess livestock by giving them
away to encourage new settlers. It was common to see 4-5,000 heads of sheep in
a single herd. Grazing stock had expanded as far as New Mexico where herds
would be driven south to market in Chihuahua and Durango. The over 1 million
head of cattle by 1600 would help establish Sante Fe as the trading center for
livestock of North America by 1609.
Initial reports of overgrazing appear in 1630. Nothing was done, then or ever,
to curb the land degradation. Expansion actually continued and by 1648 it was
noted that 300,000 sheep were sent to Nuevo Leon to graze. Over 35 years
later, in 1685, another journal reports 555,000 head of cattle arriving to
graze at Neuvo Leon. Even with these massive numbers, and a drought from
1681-86, you could still see "thick-trunked cottonwoods" along the Rio Grande
and Conchos in 1686.
A 1683 Spanish expedition recorded a number of Suma nation "ranches". These
establishments ate roasted yucca root as a staple and did not participate in
any recognizable form of agriculture (Mendoza 1952: 321-324). The neighboring
Julimes nation, in the Presidio Valley, cultivated the "three sisters" corn,
squash, and beans as well as the introduced wheat (Ydoiaga 1992).
An early 1700s expedition by Pedro de Rivera reported thick vegetation of
mesquite, opuntia, and oak covering the flat, scrub, and rocky, mountainous
lands of northern Mexico/New Spain (Trabulse, 1992a).
Horses and cattle were essentially feral in the 1700-1800s.
The first example of double-cropping practiced by La Junta farmers was noted in
1747. The Spanish observed that while double-cropping could produce large yields
when it worked, it could alternatively leave a farmer with little to no yield
(Ydoiaga 1992: 82, 83). In addition to double-cropping, over-bank flooding was
harnessed to irrigate fields. Early attempts at ditch irrigation were largely
failures due to the shifting nature of the rivers (Ydoiaga 1992).
An El Paso resident described a diversion dam and its upkeep in 1773 as being
made of wattles instead of stones, because excessive flooding required that the
dam be torn down to prevent inundation of the town (Hackett 1902: 507). Another
source witnessed diversion structures built of woven willow baskets filled with
small rocks which were placed in the river during the irrigation season. These
techniques also required the surrounding agricultural land to be leveled
(Horgan 1954: 347).
By 1777 the evagelization of the Indians, permitting them to own land for
missions, and introducing them to alcohol led to their pacification. Once
subdued they were put to toiling labor, often in fields and mines.
Natives farming the Presidio valley would gather/clear wood and burn fields for
agriculture. The Spanish complained that this was reducing the amount of forage
for the horses and cattle, not realizing they, the invasive Spanish, were the
ones reducing what had likely been standard activity for hundreds of years.
As any student of history will tell you, the empire de jour serving up
colonialism and committing atrocities, agriculturally and otherwise, not even
touched upon in this article, in the name of profits is the rule, not the
The Spanish influence is still there today as the dominant culture. We haven't
made much progress in stewarding the land. The Chihuahaun desert is probably
more exploited today than ever before. Cuatro Cinegas is essentially being
drained for industry (literally pumping and evaporating water to harvest
magnesium and sodium). Free trade zones seem little more than modern day
exploitation similar to what was experienced hundreds of years ago in the same
places. Maize tributes replaced by taxes. Ejdos land replaced by more rent
seeking encomenderos. Alcohol and religion still pacifying a great many.