This is a lucidly argued book about a dark period in Mexican history. In the years after the fall of the Aztec Empire, disease ravaged the native population. To make matters worse, the crown granted sweeping governmental powers to soldiers of fortune. These men had little interest in the rule of law and a very great interest in getting rich. The chaos that ensued has been almost as disorienting for historians as it was for those who lived through it. Altman does a masterly job of combing through the tangled documentary record of this period, exploring New Spain’s emergence from chaos, and showing how a functioning colony was established.

The early chapters draw on the voluminous records of three residencias, or royal investigations of the colony’s early rulers, to narrate the conquest and settlement of Nueva Galicia. These chapters focus on two...

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