After fifty years of rather blasé tolerance from. United States society, Latin American specialists in every realm of endeavor are being called upon to answer complex questions about their area of interest. As a result a great deal of material has been amassed to provide some guide-lines to answering these problems.

Probably the plea which appears most frequently is one for understanding between two cultures with very different systems of values, governments, and peoples. This plea has produced a marked emphasis on the differences of the two cultures and a phenomenon that many scholars feel is unique to Latin America.

One of these features that has received some scholarly attention is the phenomenon of caudillismo. The term caudillo means simply military leader. It has assumed a rather derogatory meaning chiefly through association of the term with such individuals as Francia, Rosas, Villa, Gómez, Franco, and more recently, Fidel Castro. As a result of such association, studies of the caudillo as a type tend to dismiss him as an autocratic expression of some flaw in the Latin American character, and to classify caudillos as among the unfortunate features of Latin society.

One of the earliest caudillos was Martín Güemes. He was active in the war for independence in Argentina and ruled the northwestern province of Salta from 1815 to 1821. During his tenure in office the province repulsed several Spanish attempts at penetration. As a result of his seemingly arbitrary actions, the terms caudillo, despot, and tyrant are frequently used in historical treatments of his career.

Martín Güemes was born in Salta in 1785. His father was the royal treasurer of the province, and his mother was a member of the prominent Goyechea family in neighboring Jujuy. He was one of nine children, and the subsequent marriages of his brothers and sisters were to aid him in his career. His father died in 1807, and his mother remarried into the Tineo family, thus establishing more connections of importance.1

Güemes was educated in Salta; at fourteen he enlisted in the cadets and began a lifelong military career. He served in Salta until 1805, when his unit was transferred to Buenos Aires. While there he participated in the resistance to the English invasions as an aide to Santiago Liniers. In 1807 Güemes returned to Salta because of the death of his father. He remained in Salta until the break with Spain in 1810, when he was incorporated into the garrison in Salta with the rank of lieutenant.2

His first command was an observation expedition into royalist Upper Peru. As a result of the expedition’s success he was promoted to capitán. His subsequent military career included service with Balcarce in Upper Peru in 1811, attachment to the General Staff in Buenos Aires, and participation in the siege of Montevideo. In 1814 Güemes returned to the area of Salta with a military expedition to reinforce Belgrano at Tucumán. José de San Martín replaced Belgrano in 1814, and he commissioned Güemes to take charge of the defenses of Salta. Upon arrival in Salta he found a defensive campaign under way under the leadership of local estancieros.3 Commander of these groups was Pedro José Saravia, Güemes’ uncle. Güemes assumed control and soon expelled the Spaniards from the province.

After securing the province of Salta, Güemes accompanied Rondeau on the invasion of Upper Peru in 1814. He fought in the battle of Puesto del Marqués, and returned to Salta in 1815. In May he was elected governor. Until this occasion his career had been completely devoted to military affairs. From 1815 to 1821 his career acquired characteristics commonly associated with caudillos, and he took actions that resulted in his being branded as a tyrant.4 The purpose of this paper is to indicate that Güemes was not a tyrant at all, but was created and controlled by a much older, more stable structure of power which held political, economic, and military control of the province.

Salta was situated on a trade break in the route from Buenos Aires to Lima, until 1776 the capital of the viceroyalty. At Salta all goods had to be transferred from carts to mules in order to cross the Andes. The salteños prospered from the trade passing through the city and enjoyed a virtual monopoly on the sale of mules to the caravans moving toward Peru. As a result of the profits in mules the land around the city was used as grazing land for these animals. This land was owned by several creole families who controlled most of the wealth of the province.5 During the colonial period these families demonstrated their power by domination of the cabildo,6 their mention in the records of the viceroy,7 and the frequent marriages with ranking Spanish officials.

The break with Spain in 1810, by eliminating Spanish officials, greatly augmented the power of the families. From 1810 to 1821 this family structure provided the basic source of strength that enabled Salta to repulse seven invasions and to earn the title “Bulwark of the North.”

In an effort to determine the composition of the family structure, a search of the documents of the independence era and the colonial period revealed frequent references to several powerful families, specifically the Figueroas, Cornejos, Saravias, and Toledos.8 Further research into the nature of these families revealed that they controlled most of the wealth of the province and were directly related to those who controlled the remainder.9 These relationships were the result of a multiplicity of kinship connections, a network of families that made up the socio-economic elite of the province. The connections in kinship were strengthened by similar ethnic backgrounds, mutual economic interests, and a common, isolated locale. The family structure of Salta thus represented the combination of several types of informal group solidarities, connected intimately by repeated ties of kinship. The core of this kinship elite was composed of the families of Cornejo, Figueroa, Saravia, and Toledo.

In dealing with kinship, the uniqueness of the institution of the family is immediately apparent. The Spanish family was unusually strong due to its position, not only in custom but in both secular and religious codes. The family was formalized in law by a very detailed body of regulations governing various manifestations of family life. Among these were codes governing the dowry, entailed estates, primogeniture, and the care of adopted and orphaned children. These regulations gave the Spanish family a basic foundation in legal responsibility. The Church also gave the family additional strength. Marriage was sanctified and protected through the sacraments of the Church, and the family itself was recognized through the administration of sacraments concerning the children.10 This legal and religious background of the Spanish family gave it an uncommon solidarity.

The position of the family in Salta was further strengthened by local conditions. Among the most apparent of these were the relative inaccessibility of the province, the concentration of families in the isolated valleys of the province, and the difficulty of transportation and communication in the early years of the nineteenth century. These factors tended to limit the scope and contacts of the salteños with areas outside the province and produced a multiplicity of internal connections in socio-economic affairs, and restricted external relationships.

Finally and most importantly was the size of the province. The city was inhabited by nearly 7,000 people. The province held about five times that number.11 This relatively small population, coupled with a rather stable growth rate, could in a few generations of intermarriages, produce a province of relatives. This extended family would have its leaders, who generally came from the elite and its affiliated families.

Economically, the four main families were estancieros, and among them they controlled most of the land in the vicinity of Salta. The first evidence of the economic strength of this group came in 1778, when the Figueroas, the Cornejos, and the Toledos were three of five donors who provided basic funds for the establishment of a royal treasury in Salta.12 From 1810 to 1815 the economic power of this group was demonstrated by its support of the armies of Buenos Aires in the various invasions of Upper Peru. In 1810, for example, the Figueroas donated 22,000 silver pesos to Balcarce’s army;13 in 1812, the Saravias gave 5,000 cattle;14 the Cornejos also gave livestock and equipped a unit of 1,000 men to serve in the porteño force; and the Toledos supplied over 1,300 horses to the armies preparing to invade Upper Peru.15 For support of this kind, Feliciano Antonio Chiclana, the first representative of the junta of Buenos Aires to Salta, consistently lauded these families for rendering invaluable service to the cause of independence.

Militarily the strength of the families can best be explained by a consideration of the corporate nature of the estancia.16 Within the bounds of this institution the landowner was the patrón of all who lived on his land. In Salta the gaucho had acquired a sedentary position on the large ranches, working as did the cowboy in the American West. When the estancia was threatened, members of the patrón’s family led the gauchos in its defense. In this manner the Cornejos managed to put in the field about 1,000 men, the Figueroas about 500, and the Saravias about 600. Together with similar units under the leadership of affiliated families, the forces of the kinship elite were consistently the bulk of the troops that defended Salta.17

The union of the economic and military strength of these families was formed by a vast web of kinship connections. The Toledos and the Figueroas were related by the marriage of Maria de Toledo to Antonio de Figueroa. This connection between the Figueroas and the Toledos is indicative of the interconnections among the kinship elite and the other wealthy families of the region. The Figueroas and the Cornejos intermarried six times in two generations, and the Saravias and the Cornejos twice. The frequency of unions produced a superfamily which in two generations established marriages with 36 other leading families of the area.18 If the average size of a family is assumed to be about 50 members, the kinship elite and affiliated families would total about 2,000 people or about 5 per cent of the population of the province of Salta. This network was the structure that controlled not only the socio-economic life of the province but the caudillo Martín Güemes as well.

The political power of the structure can best be measured by the representation of the family group in the bodies of government, in the cabildo and the provincial assemblies. The cabildo or town council was the principal organ of politics; the provincial assemblies were called only for special problems.

Prior to the accession of Güemes to the governorship, the power of the cabildo in provincial affairs was checked only by a representative of the junta of Buenos Aires. This representative held the position of governor of the province and presided at the meetings of the cabildo. During the period 1810 to 1815, 37 different individuals held seats on the cabildo. Of this number 30 were either members of the four leading families or directly related to them.19 Such heavy representation gave the kinship elite an effective majority of the members of every cabildo in this period.

In May of 1815 Martín Güemes returned to Salta from Rondeau’s forces in Upper Peru, and on his arrival the cabildo elected him governor. Historians have usually concerned themselves with the legality of the election and the rupture of control by Buenos Aires The question as to why Güemes was elected has been dismissed by referring to his military reputation and his popularity with the masses.20 While these factors no doubt had some part in his selection, they fail to give a complete answer. He was not the only salteño with an admirable military reputation, for the province had been a battlefield since 1812; his popularity with the masses was limited to the gauchos living in the less-civilized regions of the province, and they had no political influence at all. More important than his military abilities and his mass appeal was his position in the kinship elite.

Eight men made up the cabildo of Salta in May of 1815. Seven of these were relatives of Martín Güemes, the most apparent being his brother, Juan Manuel Güemes. The connection of Güemes to the kinship elite was direct; his sister Francisca was married to Fructuosa Figueroa y Toledo; his maternal uncle, Lorenzo, was married to María Ignacia Cornejo; his paternal aunt, Barbara Tineo, was married to Pedro José Saravia. These ties of kinship relate Martín to the four leading families of the area.21 His accession to the position formerly held by the representative of Buenos Aires was not usurpation of power but elimination of the only check to the power of the kinship elite of Salta by replacing a stranger with a member of the ruling coterie of families.

Güemes governed the province of Salta during a period of chaos in Argentine history. What semblance of national unity that had existed prior to 1815 collapsed with the rupture between José de San Martín and the central government under Carlos Alvear. From 1816 to 1818 the country was tied together by the Congress of Tucumán. Between 1818 and 1820 all unity disappeared, and authority was limited to the confines of individual provinces or even individual towns.

Salta had very little contact with the problems of nationhood during the Güemes administration, as the basic preoccupation continued to be survival from the Spanish power in Upper Peru. During the six-year period the province faced and repulsed four Spanish invasions, in 1817, 1819, 1820, and 1821. As governor of the province Güemes’ basic concern was the defense of the area, and here he proved himself an able military commander.

The authority and power wielded by Güemes was relative to the amount of support given him by the family structure. In most matters that confronted the province, the families gave Güemes unqualified support. On such occasions he had the appearance of a leader possessing tremendous power. As long as his interest coincided with that of the group he shared its power and it benefited from his exercise of authority. Examples of this were the Spanish invasions, the attempt of Rondeau to requisition 1,000 rifles from Salta that Güemes considered vital to Salta’s defense, and his attempts to purge salteño society of Spanish sympathizers.22 On these issues the family structure backed him and the projects were carried out.

Politically the kinship elite continued to dominate the province. With the exception of 1820 the cabildo of Salta was controlled by an effective majority of members of the family structure.23 That year a provincial assembly was established to handle provincial affairs, and the family group dominated it. Nine of the assembly’s fifteen members were affiliated with the kinship elite.24 Its political power thus remained essentially the same during the Güemes administration as it had been prior to his taking office. The only difference was that the governor was also a member of the structure rather than a representative of Buenos Aires.

The relative military power of the families decreased somewhat between 1815 and 1821. While the ranchers still maintained command of their units, Güemes regularized the urban militia, reorganized the defenses, and created new units under professional commanders. In 1817, nevertheless, at the height of Güemes’ power, after the successful expulsion of La Serna’s invasion, the kinship elite held field command of four of the six divisions of gauchos, and its members occupied such key positions as Chief of Staff and Commander of the Frontier.25

To measure the relative power of Güemes and the group of which he was a member, it is necessary to consider areas of disagreement between him and the kinship elite. Between 1815 and his death in 1821 there were only three serious issues of conflict between them. These were a primitive land reform program in 1817,26 a tax reform program in 1820,27 and war with the neighboring province of Tucuman in 1821.28 Güemes supported all three but the kinship elite was either adamantly opposed to them or unenthusiastic.

All three were the result of a basic difference in the ambitions of Güemes and those of the kinship elite. Güemes was primarily interested in the defeat of the Spaniards, secondarily in the welfare of the province. The kinship elite was interested in its own welfare and that of the province first, and defeat of the Spanish ranked a poor second.

In 1817 Güemes attempted to reward the gauchos of Salta by absolving those who had fought against La Serna’s army from paying rent to the ranchers who owned the land. The ranchers, including most of the kinship elite, opposed this assault on their property, and the gauchos’ devotion to their patrónes was seemingly stronger than their desire for rent-free land, for they refused to take advantage of the law.29 Güemes dropped the idea.

In 1820 San Martín urged Güemes to mount an offensive against Upper Peru.30 To support this military objective Güemes proposed to the provincial assembly that a system of regular taxation be adopted to guarantee him a dependable source of revenue. His proposal included taxes that would be levied on the kinship elite. The proposal was voted down and the burden of taxation was placed on interests essentially alien to the kinship elite. These were the Church, small businesses, and the urban citizenry.31

In 1821 Güemes’ preoccupation with the invasion of Upper Peru provoked the war with Tucumán. Civil war had broken out between Tucumán and Santiago del Estero to the south of Salta. This struggle prevented Güemes from obtaining from the other provinces military supplies which had been promised. Without this support his projected invasion of Upper Peru was hopeless. Rather than give up this project, Güemes asked the provincial assembly for permission to invade Tucumán and re-open his supply route. The kinship elite, by a vote of eleven to nine, gave its approval. The situation was changed rather suddenly when the salteno force was defeated by Tucuman, and the royalists began a new invasion of the province from the north. The province now faced hostilities from the Spanish to the north and from Tucuman to the south. Güemes left Salta to take command of the units facing the Spanish, and left the kinship elite in control of the cabildo. On May 21, 1821, the cabildo voted to depose Güemes and to make peace with Tucuman.32 This action initiated a short struggle between Güemes and the family structure that ended in his death.

The cabildo appointed Saturnino Saravia governor and José Antonio Cornejo military commander of the province. Güemes heard of this action and on May 31 he returned to the city with a force of 600 men to assume control. Seven days later a royalist force of several hundred men entered Salta in the evening and fatally wounded Martín Güemes.33

After the death of Güemes a reunion of interests was accomplished. The war with Tucuman came to an end, and the forces of the kinship elite, under José Antonio Cornejo, Apolinar Saravia, and Luís Burla joined the forces of Güemes; by mid-July they had forced the royalists out of the province. Saturnino Saravia and José Antonio Cornejo, both members of the kinship elite, controlled political and military affairs respectively.34

Some rather curious circumstances surrounding the death of Güemes suggest that the royalists were aided by local forces. The first incongruity was that an enemy force of such size could enter Salta without being observed. This contrasts sharply with previous salteño surveillance of royalist movements.35 The second curious feature was the reaction of Güemes to the trap, for he immediately assumed that it was an internal movement.36 There is, finally, some evidence that the royalists were assisted in their entrance into Salta by gaucho leaders such as Pedro Zavala and Angel M. Zerda.37 Güemes was certainly killed by royalist troops, but it is doubtful that his death was necessarily the result of a chance encounter. The abrupt end of the power struggle between Güemes and the kinship elite may have been no accident.

In summing up the relationship of Güemes to the kinship elite, the continued domination of the family structure is apparent. He was selected by it and was successful only when he enjoyed its support. On points of discord between Güemes and his supporting group he was either defeated or forced to compromise his position. Güemes was dead within a week after the final break ensued, and the family structure immediately reassumed complete control of the province. It appears that Güemes was more an instrument of the kinship elite than the tyrant of Salta.

It is not suggested that what has been learned of the kinship elite and the structure of power of nineteenth-century Salta is wholly applicable to Latin American caudillos in other areas and other eras. It does seem, however, that a similar approach to the question of caudillo power might, at least in certain cases, be more fruitful than the approaches thus far employed. It is in this regard that the present study may prove to have wider validity.


Cornejo, Atilio, Historia de Güemes (Buenos Aires: Espasa-Calpe, 1946), pp. 24-29; 48.


Ibid., pp. 48-53.


The best account of the career of Güemes is Ibid. Primary data available which corroborate Cornejo’s account are to be found in Memorias de Dámaso de Uriburu: 1794-1857 (Buenos Aires: Juan Roldany Cía, 1934), and Paz, José María, Memorias póstumas del Gen. José María Paz (Biblioteca Ayacueho No. 16: Madrid: Editorial América, n.d.).


The use of this term can be traced to Mitre’s description of Güemes in his Estudios históricos sobre la revolución argentina (Buenos Aires: Imprenta del Comercio del Plata, 1864).


Frías, Bernardo, Historia de General D. Martín Güemes y de la Provincia de Salta de 1810 a 1832 (Salta: El Cívico, 1902), I, 60-80.


Sola, Miguel, Erección y abolición del Cabildo de Salta (Buenos Aires, “La Facultad,” 1936). Here are listings of the members of various cabildos in the colonial period. The incidence of family domination becomes apparent about 1785. See also Cornejo, Atilio, Apuntes históricos sobre Salta (Buenos Aires: Talleres gráficos Ferrari Hnos., 1937).


“Report of D. Juan José de Vértiz y Salcedo to his successor, March 12, 1784,” Memorias de los virreys del Río de la Plata (Buenos Aires: Editorial Bajel, 1945), p. 110.


For example see “Letter of Feliciano Antonio Chiclana to the Junta of Buenos Aires, Sept. 1, 1810” in Cornejo, Historia, p. 61; also similar letter of Dec. 17, 1810, in Cornejo, Apuntes, p. 172.


This material is the result of research gathered for my doctoral dissertation at the University of Florida.


Ots Capdequí, José María, Manual de historia del derecho español en las Indias y del derecho propiamente indiano (Buenos Aires: Losada, 1945), Ch. III.


Parrish, Sir Woodbine, Buenos Ayres and the Provinces of the Río de la Plata (London: John Murray, 1839), p. 275.


Cornejo, Historia, p. 13.


Ibid., p. 55.


Frías, II, 19 and 99.


Ibid., p. 66.


Tannenbaum, Frank, “Toward an Appreciation of Latin America.” The United States and Latin America ed. by Herbert L. Matthews (Englewood Cliffs N.J., Prentice-Hall Inc., 1959), pp. 35-37.


See R. M. Haigh, “Martín Güemes: A Study of the Power Structure of the Province of Salta, 1810-1821” (unpublished dissertation, University of Florida, 1963), Appendix D, pp. 164-165, also scattered references in Cornejo, Historia.


The relationships between these families are the result of the piecing together of scattered data in documents and histories of the period. See Haigh, dissertation, Appendix A.


ibid., Appendix B.


See Cornejo, Historia;. Paz; Mitre, Historia de Belgrano y de la independencia argentina (Buenos Aires: Editorial Juventud, n.d.).


Haigh, dissertation, Appendix A, p. 155.


Uriburu, pp. 140-170.


Haigh, dissertation, Appendix A, pp. 155-157.


Ibid., pp. 158-159.


Ibid., Appendix D, p. 165.


Uriburu, p. 142.


“Act of the Electoral Assembly of Salta, May 16, 1820.” Reproduced in Cornejo, Historia, p. 257.


“Act of the Electoral Assembly of Salta, Febr. 27, 1821,” Cornejo, p. 303.


Uriburu, p. 142.


“Letter of Bernardo O’Higgins to San Martín, June 19, 1821,” Documentas del Archivo de San Martín (Buenos Aires: Imprenta de Coni Hermanos, 1910), V, 496.


Cornejo, Historia, pp. 275-278.


“Act of the Cabildo of Salta, May 24, 1821,” Cornejo, Historia, pp. 311-313.


Paz, p. 453, “Letter of Colonel Jorge Enrique Widt to Dionisio Puch, April 18, 1866,” in Cornejo, Historia, p. 318.


Ibid., p. 320.


For example, any account of the siege of Salta in 1817 emphasizes the fantastic observation of any Spanish movements.


See fn. 31.


Cornejo, Historia, p. 320.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History, University of Utah.