Greater Antioquia in western Colombia has long attracted the attention of foreigners. Its reputed social mobility and its striking economic success (despite a stem Catholicism) appeal to the Horatio Alger in most North Americans. Following the portrait first developed in English by James Parsons, most academic writing has accepted the fascinating vision of barefoot, ruana-clad peasants successfully defeating latifundistas in their search for land and security on the broken, semitropical frontier. Professor Parsons himself has written eloquently of the “coffee planters’ proud, free, and independent spirit of self-determination” and of “this anomaly of a democratic society of smallholders on a continent dominated by traditional Latin latifundism.” Similar commentaries are easily found in the English-language literature.1 This version is also part of the local tradition; it surfaces in most locally written accounts about the nineteenth century. Recently, however, some students have begun to question the egalitarian nature of the frontier to the southwest and south of the old Antioqueño heartland near Medellín. It has been pointed out that wealthy merchants not only cultivated frontier land for their own benefit, but that these same merchants held huge concessions, parts of which they viewed as land to be opened to settlers and sold to them at a tidy profit. These developers cannot be considered latifundistas in any usual sense of the word. During the early nineteenth century, these merchant-landowners were largely based in Medellín. After 1850, however, they were increasingly replaced by others living in Manizales, established in 1848. From this frontier town deep in the southern mountains, colonization was directed even further south. Carrying revisionism a stage further, one author suggests that the Manizaleños shared more than just a commercial spirit with their counterparts in Medellín. Even before venturing into the frontier, the Manizaleños were not poor men and consequently should not be taken as examples of great upward social mobility.2

There is much in the revisionist argument which is attractive. On the whole, it tends to confirm the inegalitarian nature of the frontier which I have established through my own research. In this essay, I intend to extend the reappraisal, especially as it concerns the southern heartland of Antioqueño colonization—the present-day departments of Caldas, Risaralda, and the Quindío.3

The Latifundista as Real Estate Developer

Slightly above the equator, the Andes burst into a wide massif. From this geological bulge, the mountains split into three sub-chains which penetrate further into the central and western regions of Colombia. Within the two westernmost cordilleras, about three hundred miles north of the Ecuadorean-Colombian border and extending northward for a further hundred miles or so, lies the center of Old Caldas, as the area as a whole is still called. This region is somewhat more extensive than the relatively rich and densely populated central core defined by the mountains. Toward the northeast, its boundaries stretch to the tropical lowlands of the Magdalena River while to the west, Caldas borders on the humid rainforest of the Chocó. In total the region comprises more than 4,800 square miles of some of the finest agricultural land in the country. The nitrogen-rich, volcanic ash soil so apt for coffee cultivation reaches its highest quality and its greater depth in the Quindío. Despite the haphazard topography, which at times demands great effort to bring under cultivation, the Quindío is perhaps the best zone for coffee cultivation in the world.

Old Caldas now boasts a population of some two million. But during the first movement southward from the Medellín area in the late eighteenth century, it was largely uninhabited apart from a few scattered Indian bands and a handful of miners in a small number of decaying gold camps. Further south, in the area roughly delimited by the present-day departments of Cauca, Valle, and the southern Chocó, there were approximately 128,000 people in the 1770s. This region conceivably could have provided settlers, but for several reasons it did not. First, both royalists and creoles made severe manpower demands on that region during the struggle for independence. Population stagnated during the early republican period, reaching only 152,000 in 1835. To the north, however, the situation was quite different. The wars were never as devastating there. In the Antioquia region, population more than doubled in only thirty years, to an estimated 110,000 by 1808. By 1835, the total had jumped again to 158,000. The chief export industry, gold mining, could employ only a relatively few individuals while the good land in the highlands around Medellín was not abundant enough to provide all the rapidly growing families with substantial family farms. Many were therefore prompted to look toward the generally temperate area to the south for economic security and advancement.

This population factor, however, can only be a partial explanation of the failure of the Cali-Popayán region to advance northward. Although growth rates were usually higher in Antioquia than in the Cauca region to the south, population in the latter area did in fact begin to increase steadily after 1835.4 But the Cauca region also included much good, relatively accessible land, especially in the fertile Valle del Cauca, where there still existed the potential to absorb a much larger labor force. In addition, the better families of the Cauca region were soon faced with a stagnant regional economy resulting from two factors: severe racial tension, which disturbed labor discipline, and the failure to develop a competitive export product during the nineteenth century. The comment of one foreign observer during the 1850s is apt: “… a very Eden by nature is filled with hunger and poverty.…”5 A stagnant economy in the upper Cauca valley meant there was little capital to venture in a risky opening of the mountainous northern frontier. And, on the other hand, it was precisely the merchant community of Medellín, initially made prosperous by the continued expansion of gold production, that possessed the financial resources needed to facilitate the movement southward of a land-hungry people.

To the southwest of the Antioqueño heartland, settlement was organized by several merchants from the better families resident in Medellín. In 1835, eight merchants obtained over 250,000 acres of land between the San Juan and Cauca rivers. Using government bonds issued in return for money given to the national government for military expenditures, and also by buying out a few settlers already established in the zone, these men developed rich haciendas to expand what was already a heavily diversified patrimony. In the course of their careers, they engaged in trade, the fattening of cattle on their own estates, road building, and mining. Some even proved successful as provincial politicians. Other merchants purchased and developed land not only in the southwest but also to the east of Medellín in the Nuz Valley and to the west and north as well. These men, however, never had any intention of retaining their entire concessions permanently. They built crude roads and founded small villages in order to sell land at a good profit to incoming settlers. In this sense they clearly were real estate developers.6

The same commercial attitude toward large tracts of land is evident elsewhere. Two concessions dating from the late colonial period figure prominently in the literature: the Villegas grant originally made in 1763 and extending from about twenty-five miles south of Medellín to the Arma River; and the Aranzazu grant, first made in 1801 and later reduced in the 1820s to the still substantial area of almost 600,000 acres between the Pozo and Chinchiná rivers. Although usually viewed as traditional latifundista holdings, this is not an accurate interpretation.7 The original Villegas concessionaire, for example, became involved in a bitter dispute during the 1790s with settlers in the Valley of Sonsón. Rather than being a classic latifundista-squatter struggle, as far as can be established, Villegas was willing to sell the desired land. The dispute dragged on not because of the stubborn refusal of a medievally minded landowner but simply because the settlers could not discover enough gold on their proposed homesteads to avoid defaulting on the original agreement with Villegas. Although neither the crown’s fiscal nor the viceroy himself approved of the “exorbitant sum” demanded by the concessionaire, Villegas eventually extracted the full amount by selling through an intermediary.8

The same commercial spirit is even clearer regarding the Aranzazu land grant. From the 1820s through the 1850s, the northern part of Old Caldas was disturbed intermittently by ugly disputes between settlers on the one hand and the heir to the grant, Juan de Dios Aranzazu (until his death in 1845), and then the successor firm of González, Salazar and Company on the other hand. In April 1851, Elías González, Aranzazu’s vigorous field agent and successor, was killed after burning out at least two settlers. In 1853, the national government finally negotiated a lasting settlement: the company’s rights were recognized in return for granting some 19,000 acres to each of the four settler communities involved and about sixteen acres to each individual settler already established, as well as for surrendering one-quarter of the company’s holdings to the government itself.9

Again the basis of these disputes was not a company’s refusal to recognize any sales of land whatsoever. In order to encourage settlement, and subsequent sales, Aranzazu freely ceded land to Salamina settlers after the town was founded in 1827 and he also promoted the establishment of the village of Neira.10 When Elías González assumed control after 1845, his stern defense of company rights originated in a desire to obtain the best price possible for the land, not to block sales. Just a few months before his own death, he had reached a compromise agreement with the Manizales settlers. And although the government-imposed settlement of 1853 forced the distribution of free land, the result was not an unmitigated disaster from the company’s point of view. It lost over 125,000 acres not released earlier, but sales of remaining company land jumped sharply. According to a later company representative, the first post-settlement year witnessed heavy sales in the Manizales area and 21,000 pesos worth of business done in the Neira region. In Salamina, sales were reportedly “very advanced.” A price had definitely been paid but social peace had finally been established and land sales proceeded rapidly and profitably—this was, after all, the company’s raison d’être.11 The company remained in operation at least until 1873.

There is clear evidence of continuity of attitude in the late nineneenth-century colonization of the Quindío, the southernmost section of Old Caldas. The leaders of this later commercial operation were largely from Manizales. Again, they were real estate developers as well as merchants and cultivators of land. Consequently, the Manizaleños’ chosen instrument, the Burila Land Company, sold some land to the relatively poor.

The area claimed by this real estate organization covered most of the southern half of the Quindío and extended into the northern section of the Cauca plain. Based on a 1641 royal grant, by the late nineteenth century the deeds were in the possession of two brothers, members of the influential Caicedo family of Cali. In 1884, planning to tap the land market rapidly developing in the Quindío wilderness, they formed the Empresa de Burila with headquarters in Manizales. The almost 320,000 acres involved were divided into shares. Majority ownership was retained by the Caicedos and they received a large cash settlement for those shares which were relinquished. By 1890, the stock had been scattered among sixty-nine individuals holding 632 acciones. The Manizaleños involved still were very much in a minority position, holding only 26 shares compared to 483 controlled by the Caicedos. When the enterprise was renewed in 1910, the descendants of the Caicedo brothers had increased their nominal control even further. Nonetheless, the Manizaleños had finally come to control the company. They had always provided the general manager and constituted majority membership on the company’s administrative council. But the position of Daniel Gutiérrez y Arango, a future governor of Caldas, proved decisive in terms of this Manizales control. By 1910 he had married a Caicedo woman and held not only her proxy but also that of the entire clan. As he was also manager for many years, Gutiérrez y Arango clearly dominated the enterprise during most of its period of renewed incorporation.12

A clash between the company and the rapidly growing number of squatters in the Quindío became inevitable. By late 1886 one of the original Caicedos had already initiated the judicial process of officially delineating the company’s properties. This action prompted a number of complaints and petitions from settlers, disturbing public order to a small degree. These petitions led to a brief suspension of company activities, but within two years the Supreme Court had ruled that the Burila group possessed exclusive rights to the land under dispute. With its position clarified, the company began to sell undeveloped sections to various colonists.

This legal ruling did not bring total peace to the region, however. Angry settlers killed at least one local law officer. As incidents continued, the company made further attempts to reclarify its rights. In 1912, Burila received help from the national Minister of Public Works who ordered the governors of Caldas and neighboring Valle to ensure the company’s rights, presumably by force if necessary. But even this did not dampen the settlers’ passions. They continued to agitate for recognition of squatters’ rights and received the backing of at least one well-connected landowner not linked to Burila. This pressure finally bore fruit in the late 1920s. In 1927 the Council of Ministers recommended that earlier resolutions be overruled, while three years later presidential acceptance was finally obtained for a decree stipulating that all such disputes could not be settled by ministerial fiat but only through the courts on a case by case basis.13 This decision was interpreted by the settlers as virtual victory over Burila. Company dealings in fact dropped sharply, and during the 1930s its representatives were not even defending the Burila position before the courts.14 Just why the company abdicated its rights after 1930 is not entirely clear. Presumably it was discouraged by the probability of higher court costs and the decline in the amount of good land still unsold after forty-six years of operations.

Thus the colonization of a large proportion of the Antioqueño frontier was carried out in a remarkably commercial spirit. In the process, an important source of income was established which helped to entrench some of the region’s leading families, such as the Gutiérrez, the Villegas and others living in Medellín and Manizales. This aspect of colonization cannot be considered “democratic” in any meaningful way. But this in itself does not imply a radical overturning of the “egalitarian frontier” thesis. Although the full scope of the commercial orientation has never been competely understood, the fact that there were several land companies active in southern Antioquia and Old Caldas has not passed totally unnoticed.15 Indeed it was precisely the commercial, rather than the latifundista, attitude which at first glance seems to have enabled the ownership of homesteads by modest families through the continual sale of sections of the frontier. In addition the national government permitted access to about 900,000 acres of public domain in a series of grants made between 1835 and 1914.18 To carry the present reappraisal further, therefore, it is necessary to ask two basic questions: What were the social origins of the Antioqueño settlers? Was there any set of families which so heavily influenced subsequent political and economic life that their role belied an egalitarian, frontier society? It is from this point that rough statistical data can be introduced gradually into the text.

The Settler as Oligarch

In an attempt to increase the utility of the available information, I have prepared lists of local officeholders, including mayors and aider-men, who were active in the southern frontier before 1905. I then identified twenty-seven clans whose surnames appeared most frequently on these lists (Table I). Then additional lists for the post-1905 period were formed.

The reader, at this point, may question the validity of this approach. As shall be seen in the following pages, I found a greater concentration of Table I surnames in nineteenth-century Manizales than in the Quindío or in northern Caldas villages founded after 1850. And of course Manizales was one of the three centers chosen as data base towns. Am I perhaps guilty of developing a self-confirming argument by using sets of names based on the same towns over the same period? As this article will clarify, the argument presented here is rather more complex than that. It should be emphasized that the original table acted merely as an early signpost which provided me with a sense of direction during the initial period of research. It was quickly realized that the information in Table I would have to be supplemented substantially if it were to develop beyond the stage of a tantalizing, but in itself inadequate, guide. To rectify this situation, it will be shown that the families listed in Table I not only controlled a high proportion of municipal positions in Manizales during the nineteenth century, but also were represented very disproportionately at the departmental and national levels well into the second half of the twentieth century. That is, in general the town leaders of Riosucio, Circasia, and other such marginal centers have never been able to overcome significantly the much wider success of the leading figures of such towns as Manizales or, to take another example, Aguadas. Such consistency over 150 years cannot be entirely haphazard.

Many of the officeholders were also identified individually. Of almost 3,500 positions chosen over the period 1827-1973, more than 2,500 were filled by occupants bearing at least one of the surnames listed in Table I. Of this second total, the close family links of approximately one-half could be identified individually through the standard genealogies, local histories, newspapers, and interviews with descendants of these same families.17 The individuals and families thus identified invariably came from respectable, white, Antioqueño stock. For example, the Conservative politician, landowner, and savant of the 1920s and 1930s, Aquilino Villegas, was a direct descendant of the Villegas concessionaire of the late eighteenth century and the father of Pilar Villegas de Hoyos, governor of Caldas during the middle 1970s. Juan María Marulanda of Pereira, whose activities will be described more fully below, was an offspring of wealthy parents, the father of Roberto Marulanda, a governor of the 1930s, and the grandfather of Dora Marulanda de Mejía, a very influential, wealthy matriarch in contemporary Pereira. These are only two examples. Several more will be introduced below. They give some indication of the kind of family relationship discovered among many of those listed with Table I surnames.18

Finally it should also be emphasized that individuals with surnames associated with many centers in the Quindío or smaller northern villages, men with such names as Gallegas, Peláez, Marín, Montaño, Maná, Patiño, and many others, have clearly never been overly successful beyond their municipio boundaries. In addition, they cannot claim close links with “good families” either in Antioquia or in other regions, although such links were in fact sought out assiduously in genealogical studies already prepared on several Colombian departments.

In summation, I hope to identify below, on the one hand, a group of well-connected, often individually identified oligarchs who were disproportionately influential in Caldas and at the national level. On the other hand, we will find another group of families with no tendency to dominate political positions even within the confines of their own relatively marginal communities. These families have also been underrepresented in the economic structure and are, and always have been, socially obscure both in Caldas and in their ancestral departments.

It should first be made clear that a large number of poor and modest, racially mixed families did move southward. Indeed it is often overlooked that Caldense society has always been typified by a reduced number of oligarchic families, a large number of “poor” and modest whites, and an even larger number of mixed-blood. Whites in Old Caldas probably were not outnumbered by mestizos, mulattos, Indians, and blacks by a ratio of one to five as they were in Antioquia proper during the late colonial period. But it seems probable that a large number of non-whites did move south. Despite the overwhelming emphasis on the “founding fathers,” even in the local literature there appear frequent references to servants and peons. Although actual references to color are relatively few, it is fair, I believe, to assume that most of these individuals were of mixed blood. We do know that blacks dominated such towns as La Virginia, Marmato, Supía, and La Dorada and were probably frequent in Arma. In addition there were important concentrations of Indians near Riosucio, Quinchía, and Pueblorrico. In 1912, slightly over half the identified population in four towns in the reputedly nearly all-white central core of Caldas (Chinchiná, Santa Rosa, Armenia, and Circasia) was non-white; while in 1927 about fifty-five percent of the population of Pereira was also non-white. It is probable that the proportion of the non-whites was even higher, given the tendency for mestizos to try to pass themselves off socially as white.19

It is significant that few members of the buenas familias listed in Table I can be identified among the founders of the Quindío villages established after 1875. The Quindío seems to have attracted the poor not just from Antioquia but from elsewhere in the country as well. The real estate nature of the Burila Company allowed many of them to find their place in the sun. Some profited through the marketing of fattened pigs. Others rapidly turned to coffee.20 Further north, we find the same pattern in the smaller villages founded after 1850. Again, there is little accessible evidence of dominance by any particular set of families. Of thirty-eight mayors during Pensilvania’s first sixty years, only nine are represented in Table I; of forty-eight local judges who held office during the same period, only seventeen can be similarly classified. No other combination yields strikingly different results and, more importantly, almost none of the position-holders can be linked to any family listed in available genealogies. In the villages mentioned here we have, in general, a distinct, relatively humble group of families.21

But the poor were not the only settlers. In three towns in the north (Manizales, Aguadas, and Salamina) and, apparently to a lesser degree, in Pereira and Armenia in the south, the situation seems radically different. It was toward those centers that the buenas familias tended to gravitate. They were proud people, looking back to a distinguished peninsular past. Most claimed the much sought-after hidalgo status which so attracted socially conscious Spaniards both at home and in the New World. Members of the buenas familias emphasized that they were “Old Christians, clean of all bad races such as the Moorish, the Jewish, the Calvinist, and any other punished and condemned by the Holy Tribunal.” There was the occasional knight of the very prestigious religious-military orders such as Calatrava in the family background. The evidence does not suggest that any of these families could claim a direct, close relationship with the high nobility. But to be an hidalgo meant that one laid public claim to noble status, usually in the lesser (although still prestigious) provincial nobility. And of course in the New World environment, hidalgo status gained an additional increment of prestige given the racial complexity of New Granada and the oligarchy’s propensity to intermarry closely. Socially and economically they were clearly set off from the “humble beasts of burden”: the slaves, the peons, the Indians, and the personal servants who also took part in the movement into the southern Antiqueño frontier.22

A son of the original Villegas concessionaire was actively involved in the foundation of Aguadas after 1811. This branch of the clan was able to find a relatively secure home in the new settlement. The family retained the ownership of large amounts of land further north within the boundaries of the old concession at least until the 1830s. Presumably the continuing sale of such land plus the income derived from directly cultivated estates provided the financial basis for social and political power. The Villegas clan produced a long series of priests (including several bishops and one archbishop) and politicians prominent both regionally and nationally until well into the twentieth century.23 In Aguadas they were soon joined by other members of the better families. These were not barefoot peasants. Their special status was an obvious fact of daily life in the village. One local son, a priest, was moved to comment that “some of their customs are carried out as an elite because they consider themselves to be the only capable element of local society.”24

It is in Manizales that the standard sources and the statistical evidence interlock most clearly. From there in particular, departmental life was for so long guided, a process which continues in large part to the present day. During the period up to the 1920s, for example, the families listed in Table I provided seventy-five percent of the town’s mayors including most of those who served more than once. A closer reading yields even more interesting results. Roughly one-half of the mayors were members of only five clans: the Gutiérrez, the Jaramillos, the Arangos, the Villegas, and the Londoños. The same type of concentration is revealed upon consideration of other positions. Of eighty-six regional prefects (a political agent of the provincial governor of Antioquia with powers extending beyond the limits of Manizales proper), sixty-one can be located among Table I families; of 237 town council presidents between 1850 and 1924, 170 or about seventy-two percent can be classified in a like manner.25

These more or less predictable results (given the data base and the time period) must be strengthened by individual identification. Of those men who were generally considered to be fundadores in 1848, four were from the well-placed Arango family. They were closely related to the Villegas group in Aguadas as well as to a former mayor of Medellín and to a governor of Antioquia. The sister of one of the Arangos married Nicolás Echeverri, also a founder of Manizales and a distant cousin of one of the principal landowners and developers in southwestern Antioquia. Another founder, Marcelino Palacio Restrepo, was related to the Arangos, to a former colonial governor, and to José Manuel Restrepo, the historian of Colombia’s independence struggle and a man of great influence in Bogotá from the 1820s through the mid-1840s. There were of course several other men involved in the founding of Manizales, none of whom can be traced to Table I. One became the town’s first mayor, while another did well financially through agriculture and his good fortune in finding gold deposits. Yet for all their personal success, neither of these individuals established families which played a strong role in either the city or the region over the years. Perhaps the most striking way of pointing out this difference, at least as far as town mayors, city council presidents, and district prefects are concerned, is to mention the success of the Gutiérrez brothers during the decades spanning the turn of the century. Of excellent stock themselves and closely related to the Arangos, the Villegas, and most other families, Alejandro Gutiérrez was mayor four times, council president eleven times, and prefect six times; Pompilio was council president four times as was Daniel. They were all future governors of Caldas after 1905 and were related to many other mayors, prefects, and council presidents.26

After the 1850s, once the land dispute with González, Salazar and Company was settled, there existed ample room for the economic expansion necessary to balance the social strength of the leading families. Gold never fulfilled the dreams of easy wealth—most of the mines discovered were small and of little long-term importance. Coffee, of course, began to play a crucial role in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. But initially, development was based on trade and cocoa. During the troubled second half of the century, the town was often a troop center and these troops were supported by forced contributions from other Antioqueño districts. Consequently the landowning merchants of Manizales often enjoyed an expanded local market. Another source of income came from special concessions to road builders to collect tolls privately. But perhaps the most important element in Manizales’ commercial success was the chocolate trade into Antioquia from the Cauca Valley, south of Old Caldas. By 1880, with Manizales now a town of 12,000 inhabitants, the total annual trade had increased rapidly to more than one million pounds sterling (250,000 U.S. dollars). There was also active, profitable trading over the mountains to the east: tobacco from Ambalema; textiles from Bogotá; salt between the Cauca and Tolima. Many members of the buenas familias prospered in these conditions.27

Having established themselves in a position of great influence, the leading families began to penetrate further south during the second half of the nineteenth century. Many well-placed members of local society, especially from Manizales, purchased land in the areas defined roughly by the present-day departments of Risaralda and the Quindío, the latter being agriculturally the richest of all the Antioqueño frontiers.28

The activities of the three Marulanda brothers of Pereira afford a typical example of this direct control which operated side by side with the quite different operations of the Burila Company. Juan María, Valeriano, and Francisco Marulanda were linked to some of the finest families in Antioquia. Their great-great-grandfather had come to the province in the mid-eighteenth century and, before dying in 1813, he had reportedly become one of the richest men in Antioquia. A major slave-owner, he also possessed great sections of land south of Medellín, then on the southern edge of the nascent colonizing movement, as well as several gold mines. The Marulanda clan seems to have survived the dislocations of the early nineteenth century. Among the brothers’ many notable relatives was a cousin who became a well-known Conservative general and who used his influence as an heir of the Aranzazu holdings to found the northeastern village named after him—Marulanda. Through their mother the brothers had a link to the Arango family of Manizales and enjoyed fairly close blood kinship with the nineteenth-century Antioqueño millionaire Lorenzo Jaramillo.

Between the early 1870s and 1883, Juan María and Valeriano formed an investment and development company called Hermanos Marulanda. Through investment in urban and rural real estate, through the establishment of advantageous sharecropping agreements with poorer neighbors, and through a series of personal loans for which they charged around twenty percent annually, the Marulandas quickly built up the basis of future prosperity in and around Pereira. In 1883, however, Juan María and Valeriano dissolved their association and there followed a period of quiet. Finally, in 1887, Juan María was ready to continue and to expand even further into the Quindío region proper. He did so in partnership with his wealthy relative Lorenzo Jaramillo. For eleven years the two men expanded their common interests to include several salt and gold mines, more urban and rural real estate, cattle, the cultivation of coffee, and even a strategically placed bridge. In early 1898, the partnership came to an amicable end.

All told, the three brothers, of whom Juan María was by far the most active and influential, had reportedly cleared more than 60,000 acres of magnificent agricultural and grazing land by the end of the century, well before coffee cultivation became the vastly lucrative enterprise it is today. Of course upon the deaths of Juan María and Valeriano, the estates were, according to Colombia’s inheritance law, divided among all the numerous children. But because many of the descendants married into other wealthy families, there is to the present day a strong line of continuity between socioeconomic power and the Marulanda family.29 In this the Marulandas have been fairly representative of the buenas familias.

The good families, then, remained active and important in the frontier throughout the period of colonization. But despite this continuity, the portrait I have drawn is a complex one. Poor and modest families clearly could survive on the frontier and some even prospered despite the heavy hand of the better families. Although there was some room to move, opportunity was circumscribed, often to a great extent. The best families dominated the social and political life of the frontier.

The Complex Heritage of Colonization

On the basis of the material presented above, it can be appreciated that Old Caldas appears to have entered the twentieth century with a complex social structure. It might be expected that less well-placed families would not be completely shut out of the most important political and economic positions, particularly in the more marginal urban centers and in those areas which were colonized largely under the auspices of the Burila Company. But equally it is to be expected that the leading families would hold an inordinately high proportion of the most important positions. The material I have gathered, though imperfect, tends to confirm the existence of such a provincial oligarchy resident primarily in a few towns of Old Caldas.

Among Caldense representatives active at the national level, whether in congress or as a member of the central cabinet, oligarchic influence has been quite strong (Tables II and III).

Cabinet posts were almost the exclusive domain of the fourteen families listed in sub-group 1 and were proportioned out by Liberal and Conservative governments alike to such distinguished Caldenses as Roberto Marulanda, son of Juan María Marulanda, and Aquilino Villegas, a descendant of the Villegas concessionaire. Table II, however, needs some further restructuring before it reveals its full potential. If we separate the Quindío and Risaralda representatives and senators from the main body of data, some interesting results become apparent. The former became a separate department in 1966; the latter, a few months later in early 1967. If their independent representation is analyzed, we find that only seven of twenty Quindiano delegates and nine of seventeen Risaraldenses are “oligarchic” as previously defined. This tends to confirm the social distinctiveness of the Quindío especially and, to a lesser degree, that of Risaralda. But even more interesting results are obtained by then taking the remaining Caldas data and separating them into two groups divided by the establishment of the National Front coalition in 1958. Before this date, seventy-one percent (158 of 224) can be located in Table I. During the Frente Nacional period, however, there appears to be some decline—to about fifty-six percent. If only the 1968 and 1970 elections are utilized, the proportion declines even further to fifty-one percent.

If we ignore the three military governors who presided over the region under the Rojas dictatorship of the mid-1950s and the military junta of 1957-1958, Caldas had forty-one different governors before 1974. Of the thirty men who served before September 1953, all came from the buenas familias and twenty-six just from sub-group 1. These men included Alejandro Gutiérrez Arango (governor, 1905-1909) and his two half-brothers General Pompilio Gutiérrez (1918-1923) and Daniel Gutiérrez y Arango (1926-1930). These men could trace their lineage back to colonial administrators in Santa Fé in the early 1600s and, not unexpectedly, to the Arango family involved in the foundation of Manizales. As such they were also related to José Ignacio Villegas (governor, 1914-1918), Emilio Latorre (1930-1931), Bernardo Mejía Marulanda (1935), Roberto Marulanda (1940-1942), and to many other governors. During the Frente Nacional period (1958-1974), however, the proportion again declines sharply to roughly fifty-five percent. Six of Risaralda’s nine governors and two of the Quindío’s four chief executives (to mid-1973) also belonged to the region’s first families.30

Provincial cabinet positions yield slightly more equivocal results. For Caldas, the 1905-1953 period saw 136 of 205 local ministries (sixty-six percent) go to Table I families, while after 1958 the situation did not change dramatically: 50 of 81. However, only 9 of 22 Risaralda secretaryships went to these same families, while in the Quindío, only one of 14.31 The same form of analysis was also applied to departmental political directorates, mayors of Manizales, Pereira, and Armenia (the three principal cities), and to managers and members of the boards of directors of the three local branches of the Bank of the Republic. The same pattern prevailed; a greater degree of concentration was found in the north.32

Data on the economy, like political statistics, tend to confirm the pattern, although the results remain more complex. Despite the literary evidence which clearly suggests that the best families continued to play a very important role in manufacturing and agriculture, statistics are incomplete. More modest families clearly could carve out a secure place for themselves amid the estates of the well-connected. Their chances for success grew with their distance from Manizales, Aguadas, Pereira, Salamina, and even Armenia.33 But the best families tend to be heavily overrepresented in several basic economic institutions. For example, the leadership of the semi-autonomous National Federation of Coffee Growers (founded in 1927) has been dominated by members of the leading families, especially the Jaramillos, the Mejías, the Uribes, and the Londoños. Between 1929 and 1957, well over three-quarters of the regional leadership came from the buenas familias. Even during the National Front period, this influence remained strong although perhaps a small decline is evident. Once again in contrast with the north, since 1966 the newly independent departments of Quindío and Risaralda have continued to demonstrate somewhat greater social flexibility with more than half the membership of their committees coming from families not found in Table I. Nevertheless, nationally the leading families have been very influential. The Federation’s general manager from 1937 to 1958 was a well-placed Caldense, Manuel Mejía, as is his successor. And on the National Committee, outstanding members of the regional oligarchy have served frequently as Caldense representatives.34

The economy has never been entirely closed to those beyond the magic circle. Nor has political life in the Quindío. And to this we must add the partial opening of the north in recent years. It should be pointed out that any other combination of names led to a smaller, not a greater, concentration of influence in each of the categories used previously. Furthermore, it is perhaps worthwhile to restate that attempts to trace the family background of position-holders with surnames not appearing in Table I were almost always frustrated. It appears that such individuals, unlike those identified as belonging to the departmental oligarchy, did not have good connections with the best families either in Greater Antioquia or in neighboring provinces. This implies that power has become somewhat more diffuse in certain fields, especially since 1958.

The traditional view of Antioqueño colonization and its aftermath thus remains partly valid. The middle class did not “typify” society, but it was present; it could aspire to better things in a limited degree. This then leads us to the final question. Is Caldas, as the heartland of colonization, really very different from other areas of the country? The 1960 agricultural census initially seems to hint that Caldas was more open than the country as a whole in terms of land tenure (Table IV).

The relatively small amount of land held in estates of more than 1,000 hectares and the correspondingly large amount included in the 5-50 hectare category seem to set Caldas apart. Yet several qualifications are needed. First, proportionately the Caldense middle class is no more numerous than that found in the country as a whole. Second, many of the “middle class” farms are in fact owned by members of the leading families. Indeed, often several “middle class” farms are owned by a single oligarch. This tendency has a long tradition.35 Third, in terms of income, many of the Caldense farms ranging in size from 200 to 1,000 hectares perhaps should be considered just as latifundista as any extensive cattle ranch in relatively poor eastern Boyacá. Not only has Caldense (and southern Antioqueño) coffee traditionally attracted a higher price on the international market, but coffee yields are generally two to three times higher than elsewhere because of the richness of the volcanic soil. In the early 1970s, for example, a well-run coffee estate could bring in one thousand U.S. dollars per hectare after all expenses except income tax.36 Fourth, the landless laborer and share-cropper are just as common in Old Caldas as elsewhere; the proportion did not fall below a minimum fifty percent of all agriculturalists from the 1920s through the 1960s.37 Fifth, minifundia clearly is a problem in Caldas just as it is in the nation as a whole (see Table IV). Finally, an important, although still undetermined, proportion of the acreage of the “middle class” farms resulted from the experience of the 1930s and 1940s, not from the colonization of the previous century.

The number of farms and ranches increased steadily in Old Caldas from an estimated 40,000 in 1932 to about 112,000 in 1953. This was not a result of the agrarian reform program developed after 1936 by Liberal governments—there exists hardly any recorded action along these lines. Nor was it caused by the settling of public domain in any major way. Between 1930 and 1941, for example, only about fifty-five baldío titles were granted annually. There were probably two quite different causes which can explain most of the sharp increase. There are several recorded instances of large estate owners who overextended themselves during the boom years of the 1920s and were subsequently forced to sell parts of their estates to survive the depression. In addition, a combination of rapid population growth and quickly rising coffee prices after World War II led to a substantial increase in property values. Between 1936 and 1953, the cadastral value of all rural properties increased almost three times in real terms while the number of such properties only slightly more than doubled. In the Quindío, where population growth and rising prices were most marked, the rise in property values was even more striking. Consequently in order to raise capital for investment, it seems probable that many landowners sold sections of their estates at increasingly attractive prices. Although a detailed investigation of this particular process was beyond the limits of my own field research, several examples can be easily identified.38

Such qualifications clearly limit the usefulness of the most comprehensive agricultural census to date. And they tend to reinforce the inegalitarian portrait sketched throughout this essay, while emphasizing Caldas’ essential social similarity with the nation as a whole.


Antioqueño colonization in western Colombia, and particularly in the Old Caldas heartland highlighted here, was a complex phenomenon. Discussions of social structure and social mobility in Colombia tend to be stabs in the dark, predicated on shrewd guessing at best or on ignorance at worst. On his famous “pilgrimage” through the eastern highlands in the early 1850s, Manuel Ancízar was several times moved to comment on the number of owner-operated farms. On the other hand, the Sabana of Bogota and Popayán and its environs are often held forth as areas of great inequality. The Caribbean coast is usually overlooked, but the assumption seems to be that the contrast between black and white there implies social rigidity.

The area running about two hundred miles south from Medellín, of course, has long been held to be one of the few truly socially mobile regions in the country. In a field long dominated by the perspectives of the not very typical national capital, students of Colombia at least have been able to feel moderately secure when discussing the one region to have received something close to sustained scholarly attention: Greater Antioquia. It is ironic, then, that recent work undermines that security. Inequalities (of initial opportunity, of wealth, and of political influence) were very much present in the Antioqueño frontier. Poor and modest families did venture south and some did find land and security. But the well-connected families did rather better, as they have elsewhere and at other times. The colonization of the Antioqueño frontier remains an epic enterprise, but somewhat less distinct than was once thought. And if this revision of Antioqueño historiography is accepted, then what can be expected of less well-understood regions? If nothing else, the present essay should suggest that scholars must adopt a more rigorous approach to the study of the social history of republican Colombia.


James J. Parsons, Antioqueño Colonization in Western Colombia, 2d ed. (Berkeley, 1968), p. 101. See also T. Lynn Smith, Colombia: Social Structure and the Process of Development (Gainesville, Fla., 1967), p. 101; Everett E. Hagen, On the Theory of Social Change (Homewood, Ill., 1962), pp. 353-384; William P. McGreevey, An Economic History of Colombia, 1845-1930 (Cambridge, England, 1971), pp. 183-216; William P. Glade, The Latin American Economies: A Study of Their Institutional Evolution (New York, 1969), pp. 236-237; Preston E. James, Latin America, 3d ed. (New York, 1959), pp. 118-123.


Alvaro López Toro, Migración y cambio social en Antioquia durante el siglo diez y nueve (Bogotá, 1970), pp. 37-61; Roger Brew, “The Economic Development of Antioquia from 1850 to 1910” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Oxford, 1973), passim, especially pp. 164-179; José Fernando Ocampo, Dominio de clase en la ciudad colombiana (Medellín, 1972), pp. 45-60.


Caldas was given separate status in 1905 and was formed from sections of Antioquia, Cauca, and Tolima. Risaralda and the Quindío, in their turn, were separated from this “Old” Caldas in the mid 1960s.


Femando Gómez, “Los censos en Colombia antes de 1905” in Miguel Urrutia and Mario Arrubla, eds., Compendio de estadísticas históricas de Colombia (Bogotá, 1970), table following p. 18 and pp. 20, 30; Parsons, Antioqueño Colonization, p. 103.


Isaac Holton, New Granada: Twenty Months in the Andes (New York, 1857), p. 498.


Brew, “Economic Development,” pp. 20, 57, 69, 70, 91, 93, 159, 164—179; José María Restrepo Sáenz, Gobernadores de Antioquia, 2 vols. (Bogotá, 1970), II, 256, 260. See also Frank Safford, “Significación de los antioqueños en el desarrollo económico colombiano: Un examen crítico de las tesis de Everett Hagen,” Anuario Colombiano de Historia Social y de la Cultura, 2 (1965), 63-68.


López Toro, Migración, pp. 25, 33-39.


Antonio Angel Uribe, Apuntes históricos de Sonsón (Sonsón?, 1969?), pp. 5, 11-13; Fiscal Real to Domingo Caycedo, Escribano Mayor de Gobierno, Santa Fé, May 4, 1792, Archivo Nacional de Colombia, Bogotá (hereafter cited as ANC), Colonia, Poblaciones Varias (hereafter cited as CPV), Vol. 3, fol. 391; Domingo Caycedo to Fiscal Real, Santa Fé, May 5, 1792, ANC, CPV, Vol. 3, fol. 392.


Juan B. López O., Salamina: De su historia y de sus costumbres, 2 vols. (Manizales, 1944), I, 98, 102-103; Diario Oficial, Mar. 23, 1871, p. 285.


“Cartas inéditas de Juan de Dios Aranzazu,’’ Repertorio Histórico (hereafter cited as RH), 146 (ago. 1940), 594—597, 622-625; López O., Salamina, I, 96.


Diario Oficial, Mar. 23, 1871, pp. 285-286; “Documentos relativos a la distribución de terrenos en Salamina, Neira y Manizales,” RH, 10 (oct. 1924), 376-402.


Escritura 693, Nov. 25, 1884, Notaría Primera, Manizales, 1884 (1); Informe que el gerente de la Empresa de Burila dirige a la junta general de accionistas en sus sesiones ordinarias del corriente año (Manizales, 1890), pp. 2-3, 5-8; Escritura 1627, Dec. 13, 1910, Notaría Segunda, Manizales (hereafter cited as NSM), 1910 (3); Gustavo Arboleda, Diccionario biográfico y genealógico del antiguo departamento del Cauca (Bogotá, 1962), p. 78. Among the general managers, we also find a brother of Daniel and one other Manizaleño from the better families. The two Gutiérrez brothers were distant relatives of Jorge Gutiérrez de Lara, one of the later managers of the Aranzazu holdings and a national cabinet member in the late 1860s. See Colombia, Ministerio de Industrias, Boletín, 5 (mar. 1930), 283-296.


Eduardo Isaza y A., Calarcá en la mano (Calarcá, 1930), p. 37; unnamed agent of the Ministerio Publico (from the Attorney General’s office) to the Cartago circuit judge, Nov. 18, 1886, NSM, 1910 (5); Jaime Buitrago, Hombres trasplantados (Manizales, 1943), pp. 127-128, 152; Ministerio de Industrias, Boletín, 5 (mar. 1930), 284, 287, 302.


Buitrago, Hombres, p. 227; Diario Oficial, June 22, 1940, p. 693; Parsons, Antioqueño Colonization, p. 82.


Parsons, Antioqueño Colonization, pp. 84-85, 100; López Toro, Migración, pp. 37-47.


Parsons, Antioqueño Colonization, p. 98. I include several towns mentioned in footnote “a” of Parsons’ Table 5, although it should be pointed out that those towns received land from the Aranzazu concession after intervention by the national government.


The single most important source was Gabriel Arango Mejía, Genealogías de Antioquia y Caldas, 2 vols., 2d ed. (Medellín, 1942). Also useful were Guillermo Duque Botero, et al., Aguadas: Alma y cuerpo de la ciudad (Bogotá, 1964); Joaquín Ospina, Diccionario biográfico y bibliográfico de Colombia, 3 vols. (Bogotá, 1927, 1927-1939); Gerardo Jiménez Tobón, Gobernantes de Caldas: 1905-1955 (Manizales, 1955); and two works by Oliverio Perry: Quién es quién en Colombia (Bogotá, 1944) and Quién es quién en Gran Colombia (Bogotá, 1952). For purposes of comparison, useful printed studies on other departments include Arboleda, Diccionario…del Cauca; Alfonso Cobo Velasco, Calendario biográfico y genealógico de Santiago de Cali (n.p., 1962); José María Restrepo Sáenz and Raimundo Rivas, Genealogías de Santa Fé de Bogotá (Bogotá, 1928); Francisco de Paula Plazas Sánchez, Genealogías de la provincia de Neiva (Neiva, 1967). For more details on definitions and methodology, see Keith H. Christie, “Oligarchy and Society in Caldas, Colombia” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Oxford, 1974), pp. 3-10.


Of course not all the listed position-holders with Table I surnames could be identified individually. Even though it is fair to assume, I believe, that a substantial proportion of these individuals also came from the buenas familias, this gap in our knowledge does force us to offer the percentages presented below as estimates and not as an arithmetically precise outline of Caldas’ social topography.


Tulio Arbeláez, Apuntes: Impresiones de viaje por las regiones del Quindío y Anserma (Manizales, 1912), pp. 3-11, 33-34; Pereira, Oficina de Estadística, Anuario estadístico (Pereira, 1927), pp. 45-46; Antonio García, Geografía económica de Colombia, IV, Caldas (Bogotá, 1937), pp. 228-230; Duque Botero, Aguadas, pp. 128, 150-151; Ocampo, Dominio, p. 50, n. 10; López O., Salamina, I, 9-32; Hernando Duque Maya, Retazos del viejo Salamina (Medellín, 1959), pp. 37, 40-41. Cf. Parsons, Antioqueño Colonization, p. 53.


Emilio Robledo, Geografía médica y nosológica del departamento de Caldas precidida de una noticia histórica sobre el descubrimiento y conquista del mismo (Manizales, 1916), p. 217; Alfonso Valencia Zapata, Quindío histórico: Monografía de Armenia (Armenia, 1955), pp. 45-74 passim; Euclides Jaramillo Arango, Fenalco y el Quindío (Armenia, 1949), p. 74; Isaza y A., Calarcá, p. 32; Roberto Restrepo, “El Quindío y su colonización,” Archivo Histórico (hereafter cited as AH), 33 (jul. 1921), 230.


Robledo, Geografía médica, p. 217; Célimo Zuluaga A., Monografía de Marsella (n.p., 1954), pp. 20-24; Joaquín Montes G. and Miguel Grisales, Apuntes para una monografía de Manzanares (n.p., n.d.), p. 30; Brother Florencio Rafael, Pensilvania: Avanzada colonizadora (Bogotá, 1967), pp. 119-120, 124-125; Félix Quintero Z., Monografía de Pensilvania (Bogotá, 1926), pp. 54-55, 58.


Arango Mejía, Genealogías, passim. The second quote is from Luis Londoño O., Manizales: Contribución al estudio de su historia hasta el 75° aniversario de su fundación (Manizales, 1936), p. 26. Londoño’s parents were among the first settlers and he considered them to be “humble peasants.” They undoubtedly were less wealthy than the merchant-capitalists of Medellín and Bogotá and conditions on the frontier were difficult, but they were not so humble as to be without the peons needed to clear their land. See his Manizales, p. 4. Other examples of this double standard abound in the local literature.


Duque Botero, Aguadas, pp. 13, 62, 168; Arango Mejía, Genealogías, II, 535; Manuel F. Calle G., “El fundador de Abejorral,” AH, 23 (oct. 1920), 470.


Duque Botero, Aguadas, p. 105.


Calculated from Fabo, Manizales, I, 331-337.


Arango Mejía, Genealogías, I, 50-56; Restrepo Sáenz, Gobernadores, II, 251, 267; José María Restrepo Maya, “Biografías de algunos de los fundadores de Manizales,” AH, 8-9 (mar.-abr. 1919), 405; Londoño O., Manizales, p. 21; Fabo, Manizales, I, 304, 331-337. In total some thirty-nine percent of the oligarchs could be individually identified when the town mayors, council presidents, and district prefects with Table I surnames were further analyzed.


Londoño O., Manizales, pp. 66, 244-246; Friedrich von Schenck, Viajes por Antioquia en el año de 1880 (Bogotá, 1953), p. 41; Nicolás Arango V., “Para la historia de Armenia,” AH, 36 (nov. 1923), 351.


For examples of such purchases, see Arango V., “Armenia,” 350-351; Bernardo Arias Trujillo, Risaralda (Medellín, n.d.), pp. 105, 107, 111-116 (confirmed in author’s interview with Dr. Bernardo Mejía Jaramillo, Pereira, Mar. 23, 1973); José Jaramillo Vallejo, El reloj de mis recuerdos: El Quindío (Bogotá, 1952), pp. 69-70, 80, 88-89, 104, 112.


For a fuller account of the Marulandas’ many activities, see Christie, “Oligarchy,” pp. 39-50.


Jiménez Tobón, Gobernantes, passim; various post-1955 issues of La Patria (Manizales) and El Diario (Pereira); William Londoño Bolivar, Panorama socio-económico del departamento de Risaralda (Bogotá, 1972), p. 113. All the governors were identified “by other means.”


Jiménez Tobón, Gobernantes, passim; various post-1955 issues of La Patria and El Diario. Of 322 cabinet secretaries, 157 could be identified individually.


Christie, “Oligarchy,” pp. 111-112.


Ibid., pp. 62, 66, 69-72, 103, 113-114.


Ocampo, Dominio, p. 161. The data is largely drawn from the Revista Cafetera de Colombia, various issues, 1928-1973. Of 188 Caldense regional committeemen with Table I surnames, 93 were identified individually as belonging to the buenas familias. The “good family” ties of the rest could be neither confirmed nor rejected.


Arbeláez, Apuntes, pp. 3-11, 21, 41, 45-50; Jaramillo Vallejo, El reloj, pp. 151, 168, 180-189 passim, 213, 257; Caldas, Labores de la Oficina de Estadísticas, 1936 (Manizales, 1936), p. 141; Ocampo, Dominio, p. 140. The Mejía Mamlanda family of Pereira, with whom the author visited during March 1973, possesses several such farms. It was clear that their relatives and neighbors also fell into the same category.


Revista Cafetera de Colombia, IV (set.—oct. 1932), 1549; Boletín de Información Estadística sobre Café, 45 (1971), 27-34; Banco de la República, Informe económico: Quindío 1971 (Bogotá, 1971), pp. 81-83.


Christie, “Oligarchy,” pp. 147-151.


Ibid., pp. 188-196 and references therein.

Author notes


The author was an Assistant Professor of History at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, when this article was written. He now lives in Ottawa, Canada. He wishes to thank Professor Rolf J. Wesche, University of Ottawa, Ottawa, Canada, for his valuable assistance in preparing the map of Old Caldas.