When the Spanish first arrived in Chihuahua, more than 200 indigenous groups, including Native Americans, already inhabited the area. Although little of this period’s history is recorded, archeologists have found evidence of inhabitants dating as far back as 3,000 years. Some of these tribes include the Tarahumara (Raramuri), Apache, Comanche and Guarojío. For several thousand years, indigenous groups living in Chihuahua maintained trading relations with groups in other areas. Perhaps the most notable inhabitants were the Tarahumara (Raramuri), a people whose rich spiritual ideology, passive resistance and strong cultural identity enabled them to persevere despite foreign intrusions. Other tribes, like the warlike Apache, were overwhelmed and eventually assimilated after the arrival of the Spaniards.
As early as 1567, silver mines were established in Santa Barbara, a region occupied by the Conchos Indians. Many Spaniards poured into the region, forcing the indigenous population to work the mines.
Throughout the 16th century, the first Spanish settlements were established around haciendas (country estates) and mining operations. Some Franciscan missions and Carapoa villages were also founded in the mid-1500s. Although the military garrisons at El Paso and Ciudad Juárez were both built in 1598, the Spanish colonizers exerted fairly loose control over the region during most of the 16th century.
With the mining industry growing steadily into the 17th century, Chihuahua was named the capital of the province of Nueva Vizcaya. From 1640 to 1731, the area experienced increased economic activity and, concomitantly, frequent indigenous uprisings. Tensions developed between the miners and the hacienda owners who continued to force indigenous groups into slavery.
In the Mexican War of Independence, Chihuahua hacienda owners and miners sided with the royalist forces against the independence movement. However, Mexico’s independence in 1821 forced leaders in Chihuahua to join the new country. The 1821 Plan of Iguala established the framework that consolidated the new republic; later, the region of Durango separated from Chihuahua and became an autonomous province. Chihuahua officially became a Mexican state in 1824; the state constitution was ratified the following year.
In 1830, an ethnic war broke out in Chihuahua that nearly exterminated the indigenous Apache and Comanche tribes.
During the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910, Chihuahua was again a central battleground. Peasant revolutionary leader Francisco “Pancho” Villa fought throughout Chihuahua, demanding that the peasants be apportioned land and be recognized as legitimate participants in Mexican politics. Villa’s famous Northern Division was first assembled in Chihuahua.
Following the revolution, Chihuahua remained a hub of Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) influence. Because of its proximity to the United States, Chihuahua was strategically important to Mexico. The region was also central to the oldest and most important opposition party during PRI rule, the National Action Party (PAN). State leader Luis H. Álvarez became the PAN presidential candidate in 1958 after an unsuccessful run for governor. In 1992, Chihuahua became one of the first states in Mexico to elect a governor who was not a member of the PRI.
In 1994, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), designed to encourage trade among the United States, Canada and Mexico by eliminating tariffs and lifting many restrictions on various categories of trade goods, went into effect. Because Chihuahua shares a border with the United States, the state experienced tremendous economic growth as a result of the treaty. However, small farmers found that participation in the well-established and competitive North American market was quite difficult.
Since the advent of NAFTA in 1994, relations between Chihuahuan management and labor have been strained. Union membership has declined, and much of the state’s labor force has resisted the implementation of the agreement. Nevertheless, Chihuahua continues to have one of the fastest-growing economies in Mexico.
Today, the primary economic drivers in the state are assembly plants (called maquiladoras) that produce electronic components, automobile parts and textile goods. Manufacturers such as Toshiba, JVC and Honeywell have facilities in the state’s recently developed industrial parks.
Timber production and livestock ranching in Chihuahua were once staples of the economy; however, as of 2003, they represented less than 10 percent of the total economic activity.
Facts & Figures
- Capital: Chihuahua
- Major Cities (population): Juárez (1,313,338) Chihuahua (758,791) Cuauhtémoc (134,785) Delicias (127,211) Hidalgo del Parral (103,519)
- Size/Area: 94,571 square miles
- Population: 3,241,444 (2005 Census)
- Year of statehood: 1824
- Chihuahua’s coat of arms bears a shield with a red border. Across the top is an image of the old Chihuahuan aqueduct. In the center section, the profiles of a Spaniard and an Amerindian facing each other represent the blending of the two races (mestizo). The lower portion depicts Chihuahua Cathedral.
- The state’s name is believed to come from a Náhuatl word that means dry, sandy place.
- The largest state in Mexico, Chihuahua is slightly larger than the United Kingdom, six times larger than Switzerland and seven times larger than Holland.
- The Chihuahua dog, one of the smallest canine breeds, originated in the state of Chihuahua. Records indicate that the Olmecs kept and bred Chihuahuas, which are thought to have evolved from an earlier breed called the Techichi.
- Chihuahua is the richest state in Mexico due in part to its livestock production (Chihuahuan beef is sought after throughout Mexico) and mining (the state is the second largest silver producer in the country).
- In 1973, Mexico’s first geothermal power plant, which draws heat from the earth’s interior, began operation at Cierro Prieto, Chihuahua, near the U.S. border. Before its construction, residents relied on a diesel generator that produced electricity only a few hours each day.
- In 2001, while in search of silver and zinc, miners in Chihuahua discovered mineral crystals far larger than any previously encountered. Some of these monstrous Selenite crystals were nearly six meters (20 feet) long.
Copper Canyon, the network of canyons in southwestern Chihuahua inhabited by Tarahumara Indians, is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon. Copper Canyon’s main attraction is Candameña Canyon (Canyon of the Cascades), which attracts tourists from all over to view its majestic waterfalls. Piedra Volada (Flying Stone) Falls at 453 meters (1,486 feet) is the highest in Mexico and the 11th highest in the world. Basaseachic Falls is the second-highest waterfall in Mexico and the 28th highest in the world.
Chihuahua City, the capital of the state, was originally named San Felipe el Real de Chihuahua. Today, it is affectionately called Lady of the Desert. The city was founded in 1709 and is now home to a mixture of colonial architecture and modern industry.
The Government Palace building was where the founding father of Mexico, Father Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, was imprisoned. He was executed in its central patio on June 11, 1811.
Quinta Luz (also known as Pancho Villa’s House), a 50-room mansion located in Chihuahua City, has been converted into the Museum of the Revolution.
Chihuahua al Pacífico Railway
In 1861, Albert Kinsey Owen envisioned a railroad link through Mexico’s Sierra Madre that would reduce the shipping route from the United States, through South America and on to the Orient. By utilizing Mexico’s deep-water port at Puerto Topolobompo, trade routes would be decreased by some 400 miles. The Kansas City Mexico Orient Railway (KCMO) was to travel from Kansas, through Chihuahua and on to the west coast of Mexico. Due to numerous setbacks–including the Mexican Revolution of 1914–the rail system took nearly 100 years to complete. Today, the railroad, known as Chihuahua al Pacífico, or El Chepe, runs from the coast into the deep chasms of Chihuahua’s Copper Canyon System.
Casas Grandes (Paquime)
Casas Grandes, located in the northern portion of the state, is the most important archaeological zone in Chihuahua. The great Puebloan community of Paquime was the center of the Casas Grandes culture for over 300 years, reaching the peak of its power in the 13th century. It is believed that the population of the city reached 10,000, with most inhabitants living in five- and six-story “apartment” buildings. Featuring small T-shaped doors, a ceremonial area, temple structures, a ball court, ceremonial pyramids and a cross-shaped mound with perfect astronomical orientation, the Paquime ruins spark wonder and admiration.