Soon after a certain Captain Francisco de Castro died in the north Mexican mining town of San Pedro de Guanaceví, some time between November 6, 1642 and February 3, 1643, an inventory was taken of his property that sheds new light on the economic life of New Spain’s desolate and dangerous northern frontier in the seventeenth century.

Unlike the early silver-mining areas of the south such as Taxco and Pachuca, with their docile populations of Aztecs, Zapotecs, Tarascans and Otomís, agricultural peoples accustomed to tribute and labor obligations, the mining communities established in the central and northern areas of Mexico such as Guanajuato, Zacatecas, Sombrerete and Parral were obliged from the outset to adopt a more militaristic posture as defense against the dreaded Chichimecs and other hostile nomads who roamed the northern plateau. These far-flung reales de minas, with their motley, oft-transient population of Spanish miners, traders and officials, and an imported labor force of free Indian migrants from the south supplemented by a moderate number of Negro and mulatto slaves, each required a strong local militia to repel attacks, guard convoys, patrol outlying farmsteads and, after every raid, to give pursuit. The training and effective command of this militia required in turn a resident staff of officers and sergeants, whose duties, however, allowed them plenty of time to engage in sundry other occupations to supplement their meager and often irregular pay. Records of the real of San Joseph del Parral abound with the names of sergeants, lieutenants, captains, maeses de campo and even generals who were at the same time also miners, merchants, fanners or cattlemen.1 Typical of such military entrepreneurs was Captain Francisco de Castro, who at the time of his death not only owned and operated a silver mine in Parral, using Negro slaves and a mayordomo or overseer, but also a smelting plant (hacienda de fundición), a cattle-ranch, a horse-breeding farm, and a farm for grain and produce, the latter three in Guanaceví. The records further show that during the six years that Castro actually lived in Parral (1632-1638), he was also a builder, a landlord, a merchant, and a speculator in silver! Many of these enterprises were of a kind vital to the economy of a real de minas in this area, for a vast consumption of food and raw materials, coupled with the lack of a local Indian population skilled in agriculture, regularly compelled the Spaniards to establish their own grain farms around the mines and also to maintain ranches and other establishments that supplied the mines with horses and mules, beef, wool, tallow, hides (for the ore-sacks), timber (for mine props), charcoal (used in smelting as well as for cooking and heating generally), salt, ash, litharge, and other chemicals used in the two major processes for refining silver.2 Whatever could not be found or grown locally had to be laboriously freighted in by cart or pack-train, often under mounted escort (and always at great expense), from coastal Culiacán or from far-away Mexico City, a distance of well over 1,000 miles.3 Small wonder, then, that military men like Francisco de Castro were at this time not only encouraged but even expected to play an active role in the economy of a real.

From the inventory taken of Castro’s estate on February 3, 1643, and from various other legal instruments preserved in the Parral archives, we know that Castro was born in the town of Peñafiel in the Old Castilian province of Valladolid and that his parents, both deceased, had been Francisco de Castro and Beatriz de Herbás, neither one of noble birth. There is no information on his age, date of arrival in New Spain or even on his movements prior to 1632. We know only that in March of that year, on the heels of the bonanza that launched Parral as a real de minas, Castro, already both a captain and a miner in the real at Guanaceví, was transferred to this new post, some 75 miles to the north, along with maese de campo Francisco Montaño de la Cueva, likewise a miner and resident of Guanaceví.4 Within a month both of them had bought into some of the new mining properties in Parral, including part of the San Juan mercury mine (mina de azogue), located 1½ leagues from Parral,8 and a smelting plant (hacienda de fundición) operated by Castro.

Arrangements to move his family to Parral were no doubt complicated, for in mid-May he was back in Guanaceví, but by August Castro had finally built and occupied a house in Parral, probably, like the one next to it, built of adobe. Later he built a second house, immediately adjacent on the other side, which he rented out.6 In November of 1632 Castro, already calling himself a miner and citizen (vecino) of Parral, sold a Negro slave for only 40 pesos to fellow captain Don Gaspar de Quesada Hurtado de Mendoza, who was lieutenant governor of the province.7 By the end of December, 1632, our enterprising captain had not only appointed one Domingo de Larrea as the overseer and foreman of all his mines in and around Parral, with full powers to register mining claims, hire workers, buy slaves, appoint foremen, and administer his new smelting plant, but had himself also agreed to assume similar powers on behalf of one Agustín Sánchez Cantillana, a merchant of Zacatecas. In December of 1635 Castro is listed as one of the merchants whose stores (tiendas) were inspected for accurate weights and measures, but unfortunately there is no mention of what he sold there.8 However, his business connections reached as far as the viceregal capital, for in July of 1636 he empowered a fellow merchant in Mexico City, a certain Juan Fernández de Morera, to speculate on his behalf, up to a limit of 3,000 pesos, in undeclared silver (plata de rescate).9

Late in 1638, amid a flurry of minor disputes over outstanding debts, most of them involving clients of his smelter, Capt. Francisco de Castro, citizen and merchant of Parral, disposed of both his houses there, one of them to a merchant named Simón Martínez, and departed for Durango and Mexico City.10 Why Castro moved, and what he did for the remaining four years of his life, is not known to us, but we do know that at the time of his death in Guanaceví, probably in retirement, he still owned properties in both Guanaceví and Parral and was a well-to-do man, as will be seen from the following list of his holdings. According to the 1643 inventory of his Guanaceví estate and a claim brought against it for 4,000 pesos by an oidor of the Royal Audiencia of New Galicia, Castro died owning among other things two houses in Guanaceví, one of them next to the main square and occupied by his brother-in-law Martín Alonso de la Mediana.11 (Facing this town-house Castro also owned an apartment [aposento] with a small courtyard and outdoor kitchen.) The other house, located with its garden on the edge of town “below the slaughter-house,” was where he himself resided with his wife Doña Ana Sánchez de la Mediana, two or more daughters under 14 years of age, an illegitimate son named, after himself, Francisco de Castro (probably at least 25), and a large household of Negro and mulatto slaves. From their ages it appears likely that some of the latter had been in Castro’s personal service for from 30 to 40 years, inasmuch as slaves seldom exchanged hands at this time after the age of 25.12 Starting with the oldest, Castro’s slaves were the following:

  1. Manuel de Castro, aged about 60 and born in the Congo.13

  2. María Chiquita, aged about 60, born in Angola and the wife of Francisco Mina, an elderly Negro living on the captain’s large ranch north of town (see slave no. 15).

  3. Francisca, a Negro creole, aged about 60.

  4. Lucía, aged about 50, born in the Congo.

  5. Luis, a Negro aged about 40 and married to the following María.

  6. María (no age given), also nicknamed Ya me voy (’I’m leaving!’)

  7. Ana María, aged about 40, born in Sao Tomé.

  8. Francisco “the Arrogant,” a Negro from Angola aged about 40 and married to María de Indehé (see slave no. 17).

  9. Juan de la Cruz, a mulatto born in Mexico City and aged about 25, single.

  10. Gracia, a Negro woman born in Mexico, aged about 24.

  11. Ignacia, an eleven-year criolla de la casa (slave born in the house) born to María de Indehé of a white father when she was about 19.

  12. An eight-year old Negro creole (criollo de la casa) born to Maria de Indehé when she was 22, this time by a Negro father.

  13. A black baby, aged 1½, son of Ana María (slave no. 7).

  14. Cristóbal, a mulatto, age not given, who according to a clause in Castro’s will was to be freed upon his master’s death but was to remain in his widow’s service as a freedman.

    This first inventory also mentions two other major pieces of property located in Guanaceví itself:

    • — one goat pen with a roofed area up against the slaughter-house, plus a herd of goats (number not specified).

    • — one mill-site in San Pedro which the deceased bought from Luis Subriel de Moresa,14 said mill being in mins and almost stripped of shingles (taxamaniles).15

    North of Guanaceví, with bottom farmland along the banks of the river Nazas, Castro owned a large ranch called the San Joseph on which 1,500 head of cattle of all ages were counted in the round-up (rodeo) made at the time of his death, along with 1,108 sheep, 520 lambs, 34 yoke-oxen for plowing, and eleven herds of breed-horses totalling 328 head. These breeding herds must have been quite special, because the inventory carefully identifies each one by name:

    On this ranch and grain farm lived four more of Castro’s Negro slaves:

  15. Francisco Mina, born in Guinea and the elderly husband of slave no. 2 (María Chiquita).

  16. A Negro creole, Joseph, aged about 24.

  17. María de Indehé, a Negro creole aged about 30 and probably born in Indehé, who was the wife of slave no. 8 (Francisco el Arrogante) and the mother of slaves nos. 11, 12, and the following Andresillo.

  18. Andresillo, aged 3 or 4, another Negro creole.

The three adults were probably responsible for overseeing the hacienda and the imported Indian laborers who worked it.

Turning now to the actual contents of Castro’s house (excluding of course the personal property of the other members of his family, such as his wife’s dowry), we learn from the typically chaotic inventory that they included several fine pieces of gold-plated silverware, some of it lacquered or engraved (pitchers, platters, trays, bowls, spoons, candle-sticks, salt shakers and the like). There was also the following:

  • — 4 iron crow-bars which were being used by his slaves in the mines.

  • — 14 pieces of iron parts, weighing 150 pounds in all, taken from the San Pedro ore-mill Castro had bought from Luis Subriel de Moresa and had since abandoned.

  • — another 14 pieces of iron parts for a flour-mill, weighing 110 pounds.16

  • — 7 old axes for chopping wood.

  • — 6 harquebuses and their accessories.

  • — a matching silver inkwell and sandbox.

  • — a little silver chamber pot.

  • — a large canvas oil-painting of Saint Francis (Castro’s name saint) framed in blue damask, and a matching one portraying Our Lady, Saint Joachim and Saint Ann.

  • — 8 small canvases depicting the four Evangelists and the four Church Fathers, plus 14 other small paintings of various saints.

  • — yet another canvas of medium size portraying Our Lady of the Conception.

  • — 2 walnut buffets with tall legs.

  • — 8 large old chairs and 3 old foot-stools.

  • — 2 large chests lined with puma skin (tigre) and studded with gilded nails.

  • — 1 wooden desk made of inlaid cedar with little ivory drawers.

  • — 2 old and broken travel hampers lined with cowhide.

  • — 3 long trunks lined with leather, old.

  • — 14 canvases with landscape scenes.

  • — 6 drapes of Flemish cut, one of them a door curtain (antepuerta).

  • — 1 old table cover of embossed leather.

As for his personal clothes and weapons (vestidos y armas), the ailing captain in his will had ordered that they be given immediately to his son, which not only explains why none are listed in the inventory but also suggests that Castro had regarded his death as very imminent.

Eight days after taking inventory in Castro’s Guanaceví town house, his executor and brother-in-law Alonso Martín, accompanied by one other executor, Francisco de Castro the younger, also by the notary public Nicolás de Aguirre and two other witnesses, were out at Castro’s San Joseph ranch on the rivers Nazas and Matalote taking stock of his assets there too. To quote literally:

  • — Firstly, the said estancia with all the lands belonging to it, both plowland and pasturage (caballerías de tierra) for horses, cattle and sheep, as described in the grants and titles pertaining thereto.

  • — Likewise the lands along the bank of the Nazas River in the direction of Guanaceví, which is towards the south, that he bought from Diego Rodríguez as certified in a bill of sale that passed before Nicolás de Aguirre, notary public.

  • — Also, on the said St. Joseph ranch a storage hut (jacal) for wheat with a roof of palm-leaves and with wooden racks.

  • — Also, next to the hut, a small outdoor kitchen.

  • — Also, a chapel for saying mass, roofed with sod (terrado), and next to it another new one, still roofless.

  • — Also, a small house (casilla) covered with sod next to the irrigation pond (jagüéi), containing a living room and a bedroom.

  • — Also, the settlement (ranchería) of the Indians at the edge of the property with their little grass shacks (jacalillos de zacate).

  • — 8 harrows in current use.

  • — 11 old hoes, partly worn down.

  • — 23 sickles for reaping.

  • — 5 charcoal burners’ axes and 1 carpenter’s ax.

  • — 2 old iron crowbars.

  • — 4 branding irons for mares and cattle.

  • — 6 bits of all sizes, one with a broken tip.

  • — 7 chisels (escoplos), most of them without tips.

  • — 2 chip-ax blades, one of them with a handle on it.

  • — a small carpenter’s plane and a jointer and a grooving plane (acanalador), with their blades.

  • — 1 two-handed saw and another small adjustable one, disassembled.

  • — some shackle-irons (used for punishing slaves).

  • — a hammer, sledge hammer, forging tongs and an anvil.

  • — 1 file for sharpening worn-down saws.

  • — 1 pair of medium-sized calipers.

  • — 1 iron plane.

  • — a tool box containing hammer, tongs and a hoof-parer (puja-bante).

  • — 2 medium-size copper cauldrons and 1 large one.

  • — 4 small iron chopping knives.

  • —1 small pair of bellows with accessories.

In addition Castro’s will revealed that a number of persons owed him sums of money totalling about 5,000 pesos, for which he held either promissory notes (vales) or various objects of value as security. To cite literally again:

  • — 1 large silver platter and a silver pot on which Domingo Nuñes owes about 108 pesos.

  • — 1 gold chain weighing 300 castellanos17 pawned by Domingo Gonzales, resident of Parral, for 47 or 48 quintals of litharge (greta) at 8½ pesos each, plus 140 pesos in cash (reales) and 192 pesos’ worth of clothing (ropa).

  • — 1 gold band pawned by Sebastián Gonzales, resident of Parral, for 45 pesos worth of steel.

  • — a ruby bracelet pawned by Mateo de Chavarria for 460 pesos and 6 tomines.

  • — a debt of 192 pesos owed him by Capt. Juan Peres de Vergara, citizen of Parral.

  • — a promissory note for 1,600 pesos from don Juan de Orduña, and another one from don Gonzalo Ramires de Alarcon for 600.

  • — whatever the account book shows to be owed by General Cristóbal de Ontiveros.

  • — a debt of 1000 pesos in cash and 200 in silver owed by Miguel Sanches, citizen of Indehé, against which must be credited the value of 3 quintales of mercury.

The will also reveals, without going into detail, unfortunately, that Castro still owned in Parral at the time of his death the silver-ore refinery (hacienda de fundición) together with its slaves and living quarters and a common room for the men with four apartments, one of them roofed and the other three not, a furnace with its bellows, and all the mines he owned by claims or donations,18 as well as the mule teams and everything else pertaining to the hacienda, all of which was under the charge of Domingo de Larrea, his overseer.

How old was Capt. Castro when he died, and how much education had he received? Though there is no explicit information on either of these two points, we may surmise from the advanced age of some of his household slaves, particularly the old Congolese Manuel, named Castro after his master, that the captain was probably of about the same age himself. As for his illegitimate son, he was probably a full-grown man, since he was of legal age to serve as an executor of Castro’s will. Castro may well have died of one of the infirmities of old age. The will states that he was ill and could not sign his name (no pudo firmar), though I have found some earlier documents entirely in his own hand; he was nevertheless of sound mind.

With regard to his degree of education, the fact that the inventory of Castro’s estate makes no mention of his owning a single book, when he could easily have afforded them, suggests that Francisco de Castro, captain of militia, was by no means an educated man. However, it should be noted that Castro, his son Francisco, and his brother-in-law Alonso Martín de la Mediana could all at least read and write.19

As for the total value of Castro’s accumulated assets at the time of his death, it is very hard to make even a rough estimate because there are so many unknown factors, such as the value and productivity of his mines in Parral, the number of Negro slaves he currently had working both there and in his smelting plant (twenty in all, perhaps?), the value of the farmland he owned near Guanaceví, etc. However, a conservative estimate of the total peso value of all these plus his livestock ranch and his horses, cattle, sheep, goats and oxen, his two town houses in Guanaceví, his silverware and furniture, the eighteen slaves named in the inventory, and the 5,000 pesos owed him by various debtors, would be somewhere in the vicinity of 50,000 pesos—no mean achievement for a professional soldier of humble birth at a time when spectacular fortunes were no longer to be made through naked military conquest, as in the days of the conquistadores.

I have focused a spotlight on the unheroic but decidedly profitable career of Francisco de Castro, captain of militia, because he exemplifies admirably what we have identified as a characteristic type of colonist in New Spain’s northern territories at this time—the soldier entrepreneur. Castro’s many and simultaneous commercial enterprises (mining, ranching, fanning, trading) were not only considered compatible with the discharge of his duties as a soldier, but were altogether typical of those of most of his fellow officers guarding the mining settlements of the north. Thanks to the economic opportunities afforded by circumstances of time and place, Castro, a soldier of humble birth and limited education, was able to leave behind through a life-time of industry what many an ambitious adventurer of earlier days had failed to achieve through a life-time of conquest, to wit, a handsome estate.


Renamed, since Independence, Hidalgo del Parral, and located near the southern border of Chihuahua, this mining town began with the bonanza of 1631 in an area that was originally part of the kingdom of Nueva Vizcaya. For an economic study of the rise and decline of Parral’s mining industry from the beginning to the present day, see Robert C. West’s excellent study, The Parral Mining District, University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1949. Information both for the above study and for the present article was drawn from the copious archives of Hidalgo del Parral, microfilmed on 333 rolls by Micro Photo Inc. of Cleveland, and spanning the years 1631-1821, or a period of nearly 200 years. Data for the present study was taken principally from Roll No. 28 (1645), frames 769B-779A, but also from Roll No. 2 (1632), frames 16B-17B, 24B, 59B, 69B, 91B, 159B-, 169B, 338B; Roll No. 4 (1633), frames 998B-; Roll No. 7, 131A, 519B; Roll No. 8, frame 325B; Roll No. 21, frame 795A; and Roll No. 28, frames 911B and 913B.


Smelting and amalgamation. See West, Parral, 19-46.


Cf. Boyd-Bowman, “Two Country Stores in XVII Century Mexico,” in The Americas, 28:3 (January, 1972), 237-51, and also West, Parral, pp. 77-91.


The Parral records show that no sooner had word of the bonanza leaked out when miners converged on Parral from all over the north and center of New Spain. Documents abound with the names of miners recently arrived from other reales de minos—Zacatecas, Durango, Sombrerete, Mapimí, Chalchihuites, Indehé, Guanaceví, Cuencamé, and even from Nuevo León—a significantly high percentage of them Basque names, which is not surprising since most of these earlier mines had been discovered by the young Basque Francisco de Ibarra and his followers pushing northwestward from Zacatecas in the 1550s and 60s.


This mercury mine (mina de azogue), discovered by Lt. Juan Rangel Peguero and owned by Capt. Jerónimo de los Reyes, a miner and vecino of Parral, is something of a mystery, since West (Parral, pp. 34, 35, and 113) makes no mention of any mercury deposits worked in the Parral area or for that matter anywhere else in northern New Spain: “Although several small mercury deposits were discovered in central New Spain, the Crown generally prohibited their exploitation (p. 34). However, on June 8, 1632, Reyes sold 10 varas of this mercury mine to the maese de campo Francisco Montaño, newly arrived from Guanaceví (where he too was a miner), for the very substantial sum of 1,500 pesos (Roll No. 2, 59B).


Roll No. 4, 998B; Roll No. 2, 91B. Adjacent to these two houses were some outcroppings of rock (peñascos) containing a mine called the Guardian Angel. This mine belonged, however, not to Castro but to one Marcos Pérez Cubillos (Roll No. 7, 131A). It is not clear which was there first, the mine or Castro’s two houses.

In 1645, some years after Castro’s death, one of the new owners sued the other, claiming that the latter’s sewer passed right under his (the plaintiff’s) kitchen and servants’ living quarters and flooded them so frequently as to make them almost unlivable, also that the defendant Simón Martínez, merchant, kept forty pigs in his house that caused an unbearable stench throughout the neighborhood! (Roll No 28, frame 911B, 913B).


This slave, Andrés, was a creole born in Guadiana (Durango), but his age is not given. Nor do we know whether Castro had lived in Durango at one time or whether he had bought this slave second-hand.


In his will Castro makes reference to a debt of several hundred pesos owed him for clothing (ropa) by one Domingo González, a Parral miner. This suggests that Castro, like many other local merchants at this time, dealt heavily in textiles and clothing (see note 3).


These were silver nuggets which traders bought or accepted m barter (rescate), usually at absurdly low prices, directly from the mine workers themselves. It was a more or less established custom to condone as an important fringe benefit or working inducement the clandestine peddling of silver nuggets by miners who found them. Needless to say, such silver escaped payment of duty to the Crown since no quicksilver (a royal monopoly) had been used in refining it. Occasionally, mine owners would object and have the miners searched when they left the mines, but according to a Mexican mining engineer the miners in Guanajuato (and presumably elsewhere) used to smuggle out their nuggets anyway by secreting them in special small clay tubes (longanizas, lit. sausages) inserted in the rectum.


Roll No. 11, 174B and 345B; Roll No. 28, 911B-913B.


One of the clauses of Castro’s will acknowledges a debt (for much less than 4,000 pesos, however) owed by Castro to Doña María Mesía de Sandoval, of Mexico City, whose son-in-law the oidor Don Juan Cano brought a claim against Castro’s estate in 1645.

The brother-in-law, Martín Alonso de la Mediana, was named in Castro’s will as chief executor of his estate, the other two executors (albaceas) being Castro’s wife and his grown-up son.


For a study entitled “Negro Slaves in Early Colonial Mexico,” see Boyd-Bowman, The Americas, 26:2 (October 1969), 134-51. There is also a recently completed master’s thesis by Florence Barkin of SUNY/Buffalo entitled “Negro Slavery in Parral, Mexico from 1631-1648.” This thesis examines in some detail transactions involving slaves recorded in Parral’s archives during the period in question.


In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries it was a common practice in the colonies to bestow upon a personal slave or a naboría, at the time he was baptized, the surname of his master. The fact that Manuel de Castro was already 60 years old suggests that Captain Castro had had him for a very long time and was undoubtedly his original owner.


The miner Luis Subriel de Moresa (he regularly signed his name Luis Soubriere de Morese and was probably a Frenchman) was frequently mentioned in the early documents of Parral. The fact that he once owned this mill in Guanaceví suggests that he too may have migrated from there to Parral soon after the bonanza of 1631.


The use of wooden shingles is probably, as West suggests (Parral, p. 115) a Basque culture trait introduced into New Spain by Basque miners. The term taxamanil, however, derives from Nahuad talaxamanilli meaning ‘split thing,’ while the variant form tejamanil shows obvious contamination with the Spanish word teja, “roof tile.”


The inventory is in Roll No. 28, 771B-776A. Records show that iron, either in tools or in bars, was a vital but very expensive commodity in Parral as in all the mines in New Spain, for the iron tools and parts used by the miners wore out rapidly and had to be replaced, all the way from Vizcaya in Spain, at a bulk cost of roughly 3 reales a pound. Hence the stress on bulk weight shown here (Cf. West, Parral, pp. 82 and 128).


In the early seventeenth century the castellano was reckoned as equivalent to 1¾ pesos of common gold = 14 reales of silver = 480 maravedís.


It was a common practice of the time for miners to exchange (trocar) portions of their new claims among themselves partly as risk insurance—one miner might strike it rich, his neighbor not—, partly perhaps to ensure the goodwill of one’s comrades. Such transactions were called trueques or donaciones.


Castro’s wife Doña Ana Sánchez de la Mediana, probably in her thirties to judge by the age of her daughters, was, however, like most women at this time, illiterate, and had to ask a witness to sign on her behalf.

Author notes


The author is Professor of Hispanic Linguistics at the State University of New York at Buffalo.