Place Making in Colonial Guatemala by Considering Today’s Municipal Boundaries

April 27, 2016

The twists and turns of the municipal border of a Spanish colonial pueblo de indiostells a story. The geographic tale began in pre-Columbian political territories and early modern re-thinking of the role of the city and how space imagines and fortifies an ordered citizenry, then continued through clever negotiation of power across class, racial, and ethnic boundaries1. The method for officially designating the municipal border was through surveys. Typical survey parties included Crown officials and directly and indirectly affected residents and landowners. Anyone associated with the properties contained within the boundaries of the survey, which could include almost anyone living within the town, the ejido or municipal communal land, as well as land held privately or as communal land, could monitor the survey. Also, people who controlled property that bordered the survey region could observe and debate the assessments of the survey. Survey parties thus could be quite large and diverse, at times including officeholders in the Indian cabildo, communal groups (either cofradías or ejidos) and private landowners who were Spanish, creole, ladino, or Indian. The size of the survey party could vary from place to place as the membership changed. Members who did not vary were the officially appointed judge, often an assistant or two, and some representatives for the complainants who triggered the survey. So, while observers could comment on and at times redirect, the actual job of taking measurements and assigning landmarks was done by a small group, sometimes just a person or two, of surveyors.

The methods of survey changed over the course of the colonial era, and as such is a view of changes in policymaking and statecraft. Sixteenth-century land titles in much of Latin America included what is known as a textual survey, which usually consists of recording place names, whose content can themselves be read as a distilled history and thumbnail sketch of the place. Precise details in textual surveys related to the amount of land, while exactly where that place was relied on common knowledge rather than meticulous descriptions of traversing the borders of the plot. In contrast, eighteenth-century land disputes generated detailed metes-and-bounds surveys that created the state’s authoritative position in legal dominion over land. A metes-and-bounds survey records metes, which measure the bearing and distance along straight paths between two designated points that form a closed circuit—the survey should start and end at the same spot. Boundsare notable landmarks such as roads, rivers, or constructions (buildings, fences, etc.). Altogether, metes-and-bounds surveys include bearings, measurements of traverses, and landmark descriptions.  On the ground, the survey crowd (surveyors and any observers) moved along together, measuring and noting bounds along the way. When necessary, surveyors created bounds, usually a pile of stones (montones) surmounted by a cross, if no other landmarks could be agreed upon2.

A rich example of politically and socially situated changes in making place is that of Caluco, located in what is today western El Salvador. The municipal archive has numerous legal documents regarding land tenure disputes from the sixteenth through nineteenth century. Caluco was part of a network of settlements in a region known in numerous colonial chronicles as the Izalcos. Caluco was a principalpueblo de indios in a territory in colonial Guatemala widely known for unsurpassed production of cacao, particularly in the sixteenth and early seventeenth century3. Because this was a place where money grew on trees, disputes over land were strident, pitting municipalities and people and groups with vested interests (which was almost everyone) against each other. The tremendous depopulation in this town in the sixteenth through seventeenth century due to abuse, epidemics, and sanctioned and illegal violence made land claims vulnerable, presented an opportunity to improvise titles, and offered a subtle way to foster support for endeavors to revitalize the place:

que estaba corriente de cuyo titulo no trataron por haber venido el pueblo en grande deterioro por mortandad de sus naturales justificado con que de los que ocurrieron á presentarse solo se halla vivo uno, bien que se halla dicho pueblo con algún crecido número de muchachos por lo que y aun se halla en decadencia…a que se llega no ser…(Caluco Archive folio 120v4)

(that he was aware that his title did not relate because it came from the town in great deterioration from die-off of its natural [indigenous] residents, warranted by [the reason] that of those who appeared only one is alive, as well one finds that said town has some slightly increased numbers of children for which and still one finds it in decline…such that it will no longer be…)

It seems that the near obliteration of the population would erase the palimpsest of the native landscape, providing a tabula rasa for colonial schemes, yet combined archaeological and documentary evidence shows that municipal boundaries for Caluco preserve pre-Columbian landscape knowledge and spatial concepts5. Indigenous spatial knowledge guided the surveyors on their path, weighed heavily in negotiations of contested sections, and often supplied the rationale for decision-making. The “mastering process” of naming, ordering, and marking became more detailed in the eighteenth century in metes-and-bounds surveys, with actors intensely negotiating the procedure of creating the official vision6. This effort was long-lasting, as nineteenth-century legal proceedings usually depended upon earlier surveys and testimony. In the Izalcos, surveys devoted the most attention to careful description of newly created boundaries, while pre-existing ones receive little to no detailed description. Who conducted surveys and when, where, and how all reveal their dependence on indigenous spatial organization. The scientific actions of measuring, recording, and deciding upon relevance and criteria were equally social activities. Although the rulings resulting from surveys codified and made orderly colonial geographic and spatial policies, the way officials arrived at that end was not, with ad hoc negotiation, attempts to suppress observations, and renaming places to have a better claim, and threats against trespass.

A new spatial order emerged by in part preserving, in part erasing longstanding and well-known pre-Columbian political boundaries. The Crown’s use of survey as an arm of the state fixed in place fluid or even unstated land tenure and boundaries between communities. Surveying translated indigenous political geographies of different scales into Spanish terms7. The practice of survey and its results epitomize the discordant venture of colonialism: repositioning pre-Columbian heritage through post-conquest improvisation to create the radically new.

Colonial ventures in the Izalcos for Spaniards and indigenous inhabitants alike always operated within the rubric of indigenous spatial knowledge. Way of establishing jurisdiction and ownership could be through subtle means, by using toponyms, more explicit, through textual surveys, which proclaimed relationships to commodity production as defining elements, and formal and explicitly inclusive undertakings through the event of the metes-and-bounds survey. These geographic and social reckonings of a survey did not always result in a map, but its cumulative effect is indelible. Today’s map of municipal and departmental boundaries in western El Salvador is a view into this rich past.


1. For a detailed description of the process of negotiation, see Sampeck, Kathryn (2014) Making the Municipio: Political Geographies in Colonial Guatemala. Journal of Latin American Geography 13(2):153-179 and (2014) From Ancient Altepetl to Modern Municipios: Surveying as Power in Colonial Guatemala. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 18: 175-203.

2. Some excellent examples from Highland Guatemala are in Hill, Robert M. (1990) Colonial Cakchiquels: Highland Maya Adaptation to Spanish Rule 1600–1700, Fort Worth: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, (1996) Eastern Chajoma (Cakchiquel) political geography: ethnohistorical and archaeological contributions to the study of a Late Postclassic highland Maya polity. Ancient Mesoamerica 7: 63–87, (2002) Colonial Cakchikels: Highland Maya Adaptation to Spanish Rule 1600–1700, Mason: CENGAGE Learning; Hill, Robert M., and Monaghan, John (1987) Continuities in Highland Maya Social Organization: Ethnohistory in Sacapulas, Guatemala, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

3. Fowler, William R. (1991) The political economy of Indian survival in sixteenth-century Izalco, El Salvador. In Thomas, D. H. (ed.), Columbian Consequences, the Spanish Borderlands in Pan-American Perspective, Vol. 3, pp. 187-204. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, (1993) The living shall pay for the dead: trade, exploitation, and social change in early colonial Izalco, El Salvador. In Rogers, J. D., and Wilson, S. M. (eds.), Ethnohistory and Archaeology: Approaches to Postcontact Change in the Americas, pp. 181-199. New York: Plenum Press, (2005) Caluco: Historia y arqueología de un pueblo pipil en el siglo XVI, San Salvador: Patronato Pro-Patrimonio Cultural, (2006) Cacao production, tribute, and wealth in sixteenth-century Izalcos, El Salvador. In McNeil, C. (ed.), The Origins of Chocolate: Cacao in the Americas, pp. 307-321. Gainesville: University Press of Florida.; MacLeod, Murdo M. 2008. Spanish Central America: A Socioeconomic History, Austin: University of Texas Press.

4. Page numbers refer to folio numbers given by municipal archivists. Original manuscript in the municipal archive of Caluco, El Salvador.

5. Sampeck (2014) and (2010) Late Postclassic to colonial transformations of the landscape of the Izalcos region in western El Salvador. Ancient Mesoamerica 21: 261–282; A few historians note the pre-Columbian antecedents for colonial boundary making, such as Dym, Jordana, and Offen, Carl (eds.) (2011) Mapping Latin America: A Cartographic Reader, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.; Hunter, R., and Sluyter, Andrew (2011) How incipient colonies create territory: the textual surveys of New Spain, 1520s–1620s. Journal of Historical Geography 37: 288–299; Mundy, Barbara (1996) The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaciones Geográficas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

6. See Given, Michael (2002) Maps, fields, and boundary cairns: demarcation and resistance in Colonial Cyprus. International Journal of Historical Archaeology 6(1): 1–22 for a description of the mastering process.

7. Loren, Diana DiPaolo 2000. The intersections of colonial policy and colonial practice: creolization on the eighteenth century Louisiana/Texas frontier. Historical Archaeology 34(3): 85–98.

About Author(s)

ksampec's picture
Kathryn Sampeck
Kathryn E. Sampeck (BA, MA, University of Chicago; PhD Tulane University) is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Illinois State University. Her work appears in American Antiquity, Ethnohistory, Historical Archaeology, Mesoamérica, Ancient Mesoamerica, and Journal of Latin American Geography. She is the 2015-2016 Central America Fellow at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies at Harvard University, previous fellowships include the John Carter Brown Library and numerous grants from the National Science Foundation, SSRC, and others. Webpage: