What could I tell you my Lady, of the secrets of Nature which I have discovered while cooking? … Lupercio Leonardo was right in saying that it is possible to philosophize and prepare dinner at the same time. And I could also add: if Aristotle had known how to cook he would have written even more than he did.1

Perhaps Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, the seventeenth-century Mexican poet who wrote these lines, was correct in suggesting that one may gain a great deal of knowledge by looking into the most humble and mundane aspects of life. In attempting to reconstruct the activities of women in colonial society, who as a group have been little studied, we might well have to use sources of information more imaginatively and examine reality from different angles. New meanings may be found in data which previously might have appeared trivial and unimportant.

A contribution to the understanding of the environment in which women lived, and the manner in which social, legal, and economic structures influenced them, can be achieved through the analysis of dowries and wills. These are especially revealing sources for recording the activities of women in society and within the family as well as for studying the material culture of the household.2 Within certain limitations, these documents also reflect women’s decisions. Dowries, issued prior to or shortly after the marriage, were legal statements indicating the cash, clothing, jewelry, and domestic furnishings which a wife brought into her new home in order to help sustain the financial burdens (cargos matrimoniales) of the household. The dowry represents the first legal acknowledgment of the woman’s personality and the first time she is accorded possession of goods and property. Whereas a dowry marks the foundation of a new social unit, a testament expresses the outcome of a personal life. The new relationships and interests created and consolidated through marriage, or simply through living, are reflected in the wills. Wills also provide clues to the behavior of women in their many social roles.

Doubtless, such aspects of women’s lives as the extent of their properties in any given area, their juridical position beyond the family, and their involvement in social problems like poverty or crime are outside of the scope of the sources used. These documents are also silent on the choice of marriage partners, age at marriage, fertility rates, and similar demographic concerns. Furthermore, certain social groups are almost entirely absent. Slaves, castas, Indians, and rural population appear infrequently or not at all. Therefore, because of these limitations, this paper is concerned primarily with hispanic urban women.

Dowries and wills from the cities of Puebla and Guadalajara from 1640 through 1790 form the basis of this study. Northwest of Mexico City, Guadalajara was the seat of the Audiencia of Nueva Galicia, served as the gateway to several mining areas, and was a commercial, agricultural, and cattle raising area. Puebla, located along the major trade routes to Europe and to Central America, dominated a rich farming region, and during the seventeenth century was a center of textile and pottery manufacture. The differing economic character of these two cities offered a contrasting perspective from which to study the variety of women’s experiences and activities in colonial Mexico.

The dowries and wills are found in microfilmed notarial records available from the Church of the Latter Day Saints. We chose sixteen notaries for Guadalajara and twelve for Puebla from among those who had long years of practice. Because they recorded a broad spectrum of local activities, we believe that these notaries are a representative group. We selected one or two years (sometimes one volume contains several years) from each decade between 1640 and 1790, and used all the cases of dowries and women’s and married men’s testaments.3 The resulting sample includes 197 wills and information on 311 marriages. Information on dowries was not uniform, varying from complete dowries to statements of receipt without full value or itemization of contents. Therefore, these data had to be used flexibly and analyzed in several categories. Although there were fewer dowries than we had expected, the quality of the information was deemed satisfactory for a preliminary analysis of women and marriage.

The Dowry and the Testament: Legal Issues

Spanish family law, first collected in the Laws of Toro in 1369 and promulgated for general use in 1505, governed, with certain modifications, the legal position of colonial women in Spanish America until independence. These laws defined the woman’s status in the family, assured her right to a share in the inheritance, outlined the rules for the administration of marital property, and regulated the disposition of her goods after death.4 They reflected prevailing views on the proper position of women in the family and provided a measure of protection for women’s rights.

A woman was under the control of her father until he died or she married. This power over her person and property might be exercised by the mother, in a more limited fashion, if she was appointed guardian of the children. If she remained single, the woman continued to be subordinated to her parents. The property which a woman brought into marriage as a dowry remained legally hers and could not be alienated without her permission. The husband had the right to administer the dowry, but he had the duty to return its value on the dissolution of the marriage or to make provisions for its restitution in his own will.5 In the dowry the man pledged his own property, present or future, to safeguard the woman’s belongings. He also pledged not to alienate, gamble, or dispel them, making himself accountable to the law if he should do so. If the dowry was not received at approximately the time of the wedding, the groom often gave a notarized statement of receipt. This could make the man liable for a sum he had not received. His only legal recourse was to state that the dowry had not been paid in full.6 It seems that in most cases a tacit honor code prevailed and most promised dowries were eventually forthcoming. Nevertheless, some husbands received much less than promised or nothing at all.7

The allocation of dowries which did not pass promptly to the husband’s administration occurred primarily among rich landowners or families with entailed properties who could not easily dispose of their real estate for the sake of endowment. On occasion, merchants also allocated money not immediately available because it was tied to merchandise or loans. In such cases, the dowry clearly stated that part of the cash was given in drafts or consisted of the interest on a loan.8

The laws protecting women’s dowries were usually enforced. Our survey has verified the conscientious references to women’s dowries in men’s wills. The clear-cut separation maintained among the property accumulated during the marriage (gananciales), a woman’s own property (parafernales), and dowries suggests that the law was observed.9 Nonetheless, the preservation of a dowry depended upon careful administration by the husband. No amount of legislation could protect a dowry from maladministration, or a woman from losing her dowry despite the legal commitment of the husband to protect it. However, there are several recorded cases indicating that women did obtain redress in case of misuse of the dowry.10

A groom often gave the bride a sum of money called arras, which became an intrinsic part of the dowry. By law, he could not assign more than ten percent of his property to arras. The purpose of this restriction was to protect the property of the children, as in the case of an elderly man seeking to remarry. Under the law, he could promise only a limited sum to his prospective bride.11 If a woman predeceased her husband and died childless, her family could reclaim her dowry and arras.12

While one of the main purposes of the dowry was to provide the new marriage with material possessions and a source of income to help the husband meet the needs of the future family, it was equally an important means of caring for the woman in the case of widowhood and assuring her own family that she would be provided for and would not have to return to her parents’ house.13 This basic aspect of the dowry is usually overlooked.

Parents endowing a daughter in order to “help support the burdens of marriage” intended to insure the future of the woman and the marriage itself. When Francisco de Iriarte married Doña Juana María Ramos, daughter of a Guadalajara merchant, the father gave him 4,000 pesos in cash to buy merchandise in Mexico. The father let it be understood, and notarized, that this sum constituted the dowry. The young Iriarte returned from Mexico, left his parents-in-law’s house, and established himself. It was only after the couple left the parental home they received a second—and not previously offered—portion of the dowry consisting of silver, jewels, furniture, and slaves with a value of 5,463 pesos. Seemingly, the father was testing the young man’s ability to administer his money and set up his own store.14 In another case, the benefit of the couple was envisaged by the mother of Doña Manuela Flores de San Pedro, who donated part of her land to her daughter as her dowry in order that the couple build a house and raise cattle and whatever crops they desired.15

While the dowry marked the creation of a new household, wills were written in expectation of the end of the marital partnership. Despite the observance of common legal procedures in format and language, a will bears the imprint of an individual life. Each one is a biography in miniature reflecting the character of the testator and the kind of life which he or she had lived. Moreover, in an era when few individuals possessed the ability to write, the will was one of the rare sources revealing information about social, individual, and family relations. It also serves as an index to the wealth of persons and families and the disposition of that wealth. And in a less consistent but still significant manner, wills furnish information on the regional economy.16

All wills contain statements on the marital status of the testator and the names and number of children alive. Sometimes they also state the marital status of the children, the dowry allocated to the daughters, any part of the inheritance allocated to the male offspring, and occasionally the names or number of deceased children. Illegitimate offspring are sometimes legally acknowledged in order to give them some financial protection. Wills often refer to the wife’s dowry although in most cases as a sum rather than an enumeration of contents. If the wife brought no dowry that information was appended. Frequently, both men and women include mention of their independent wealth or properties as well as their debts.

Spanish laws governing the division of property had, as a fundamental purpose, the protection of the rights of the wife—or the husband—and the children of the married testators. Under relatively few circumstances could they be deprived of their rights. Only after the claims of the spouse and descendants were satisfied could parents, brothers, sisters, or others be named as heirs.17 The inheritance system was bilateral, as children inherited both from the mother’s and father’s families. In a marriage, both man and woman could retain separate properties and dispose of them as the law allowed.18 Children inherited their shares equally and no special preference was given to the male over the female.19 However, the testators could make a mejora of a third or a fifth of their estate to reward a particular child, or the spouse, or to establish a chantry benefiting some close relative, in order to buttress the family’s social position and prevent the deterioration of its economic status.20

After the death of the husband, the wife was entitled to half of the wealth accumulated during the marriage, her dowry, and whatever property she may have owned separately. These rights gave the woman, in practical terms, an economic edge over the potential rights of the children. For example, María Catarina de Uriarte, married to notary Miguel del Castillo, of Puebla, brought only a small dowry of 300 pesos to her marriage, while he declared no capital at all. The notary became successful and when he died he left an estate valued at 67,400 pesos. María Catarina’s share was approximately 30,000 pesos, while her twelve children received only 1,970 pesos each.21 The children of each generation faced a new beginning in the rebuilding of their own estate. For this purpose both the maternal and the paternal inheritances were essential to complete a child’s economic assets, indicating the importance of the maternal part of the estate in colonial society, from the humblest homeowner to the wealthiest members of the nobility.22

Women were frequently appointed as executors of their husbands’ wills and guardians of their children. In the former role they had the power to sell the man’s properties, pay his debts, and carry out his last will. As guardians they administered the children’s inheritance until they came of age.23 In this capacity women acquired a great deal of economic and moral power, acting independently unless there was a coexecutor. While women appointed as guardians of their children’s estates lacked the full legal power of both parents acting together, or even the father as the sole guardian, they performed an important role in conserving familial properties.

Dowries, Property, and Marriage

Dowries were more than binding legal and economic links between individuals or families and devices to protect women’s futures. They are sources of important socioeconomic data which broaden our knowledge of the universe of colonial women. The contents of a dowry were determined by tradition as well as by the economic means of the family of the bride. Thus, they indicate those items considered valuable in colonial times and help define the relative value assigned those commodities. In order to determine the common characteristics and the general peculiarities of the dowries in the areas under study, the contents of fully itemized dowries were subdivided in categories of cash, real estate, slaves, and goods (clothing, jewelry, furniture). By adding the value of all goods in each category and calculating what percentage of the dowry it constituted, we arrived at a rough but still reliable index of which were the most common and valued items. The results of this comparison are presented in Tables I and II. Some inventoried dowries had no appraised values. Other dowries showed great discrepancies between the stated value of the items and the total sum, perhaps because of error or the fact that the total figure was rounded rather than calculated precisely. None of these dowries were included in the first two tables. However, they and others less exactly described in wills were used to confirm our results. The total number of dowries used was ninety-seven, but the total shown in Table I is sixty-four.

Clothes, linen, jewels, furniture, and silverware were the most numerous items in most dowries. In sixty-four percent of thirty-nine dowries examined in Guadalajara, the value of the moveable goods was between one-quarter and three-quarters of the total value of the dowries while it was fifty-two percent of those in Puebla. In eight cases (thirty-two percent) in Puebla, the dowry consisted totally of such goods, suggesting a similar emphasis on personal and household commodities.

In the category of cash we have included money, silver bars, and drafts. In sixteen or forty-two percent of Guadalajara dowries, cash constituted over half of the total. In Puebla in only seven, or twenty-eight percent, of the dowries did cash make up over half of the total. Since Puebla was a major city on the export–import route, commodities were more available for dowries.

Real estate was not an important element in dowries. In Puebla only two of the inventoried dowries contained a house although there is a promise of a house in another dowry. In Guadalajara some dowries included houses but only in two of them was real estate an important item. Slaves were more frequent in Guadalajara, perhaps because of the relative shortage of Indian labor. Fifteen dowries out of thirty-nine (thirty-eight percent) contained slaves. The assessed price of the slaves was between six percent and twenty-four percent of the total value. Only in one case was a slave valued at as much as thirty-nine percent of the total. In Puebla, there were only six dowries out of twenty-six (twenty-three percent) containing slaves. In no case were they valued at over nineteen percent of the total.24

The preceding results are an index of trends and patterns in two areas of Mexico. Some generalizations may be advanced since we have tested those trends against a much larger number of cases. A typical provincial dowry consisted of clothing, household goods, and perhaps luxury items to add distinction to the bride’s home, such as silverware, rugs, desks, paintings, and pillows for reclining or sitting. Practical utensils such as pots and pans, unless they were copper, were not usually regarded as worthy of record in an inventory. The percentages of jewelry and dresses within the dowries vary greatly and did not conform to any pattern. A number of personal variables determined the quantity and value of those items. The dowry of the daughter of a bankrupt marquis who declared he could not endow his daughter consisted mainly (sixty-three percent) of jewels donated by her own mother. Clothes and fabrics were another ten percent. She had scarcely any furniture or silverware, and her mother and a benefactor put together some cash and jewelry for the dowry in order to save the family from social embarrassment. On the other hand, the daughter of an escribano, with a much smaller endowment than the preceding case, had a dowry in which clothes and jewelry were 35.5 percent of the total. Furniture and housewares were another 24.4 percent, including an expensive bed, mirrors, desks, and pillows.25

Another important item listed in dowries was cash. Both cash and personal property constituted the core of colonial dowries. Cash substituted for real estate in most dowries, perhaps because its greater ease of investmest made it best suited to the interests of urban businessmen. In some instances, women married to merchants received their dowries in merchandise belonging to the father’s store.26 If the family had no cash available, drafts were given as part of the dowry. This was a typical transaction in a community where liquid funds might have been unavailable or difficult to obtain at the time of the wedding. The drafts might have lacked the satisfying security of hard cash, but in a society accustomed to their use, the risk involved could not have been greater than in any other type of everyday business.

Real estate, merchandise, and slaves were significant but not as important as cash and personal property. Real estate in the form of a house would provide an income or constitute the nucleus of a new home, and it was the choice of a few families. Modest houses worth only several hundred pesos are the most commonly found in the dowries of Guadalajara. A house, regardless of its value, not only provided a domicile, but also furnished a basic level of social status. At the time of a daughter’s wedding, however, most families were unlikely to dispose of real estate unless they were very rich.

In rural areas adjacent to the cities of Puebla and Guadalajara and in Monterrey, which was a distant and pioneering community, animals such as mules and goats, and silver, copper, or iron bars supplanted clothing, jewels, and other items more suitable for urban living. Brides from areas close to mines must have frequently brought with them such compact and readily convertible or usable dowries.27 These instances would seem to indicate a divergence from the general pattern of dowry endowment, influenced by the economy of the region. In sum, variety within the main pattern stemmed from a number of variables such as family status, occupation of the father and the groom, their economic means, and the area of residence of the couple.

The fact that a dowry consisted mostly of nondurable goods in many instances does not necessarily imply that the woman got a less important share of her father’s estate. Furthermore, as long as the husband pledged his property for the value of what essentially were nondurable goods a certain advantage might accrue to the woman. In their wills, husbands were obliged to make provision for the worth of goods received in the dowry. Theoretically, these included even clothing or other articles which might have deteriorated or declined in value. However, this liability was balanced by the fact that the husband could invest the dowry money for profit. Since the wife brought much of the household equipment or money with which to purchase it, the husband did not have to spend his own money in setting up the new home.

The average value of a dowry in the areas under study has been determined by grouping all dowries with stated values mentioned in wills with the itemized dowries in six categories, as seen in Table III. Of a total of 201 dowries surveyed for Guadalajara, Puebla, and Monterrey from 1640 through 1790, 173 (eighty-six percent) were under 5,000 pesos. Eighty-two (forty-one percent) were under 1,000 pesos, while only 28 (fourteen percent) were over 5,000 pesos. Large dowries were the exception, not the rule. In Monterrey, a frontier community with few wealthy individuals, there were almost no dowries over 5,000 pesos.28

Our research indicates that neither in the seventeenth nor in the eighteenth century did the lack of a dowry preclude the possibility of marriage for women.29 Of 311 marriages surveyed, 44 (fourteen percent) were undowered (see Table IV). A closer scrutiny of the data from Guadalajara and Puebla suggests that endowed marriages were more frequent in the seventeenth century. Table IV shows a significant increase in the relative number of undowered marriages in both cities in the period from 1725 onward. In the late eighteenth century, many wills do not even mention whether there had been a dowry or not, a detail which is less frequently missing in the mid-seventeenth century. This could be an indication that dowries were losing ground as a social custom toward the end of the colonial period.30

In the majority of the cases of undowered marriages, both partners usually came from poor rural or urban families. The recorded cases of Indian and casta marriages do not mention any dowry.31 Further research will determine whether dowries remained an alien socioeconomic practice among Indians and castas. The present state of research intimates that endowment was a practice of the culturally and racially hispanic segment of society observed whenever the financial abilities of the parties allowed it. Lack of a dowry might have been a handicap, but it was not a deterrent to marriage. As a status symbol, the dowry affirmed the bride’s station in society and the family’s ability to provide for its female members.

In order to understand what was meant by marrying well in colonial society, one must read between the lines of wills, legal suits about marriages, and relevant legislation. A desirable marriage was one uniting persons of the same race and of equal or better financial circumstances—factors of particular importance for social elites.32 However, personal circumstances could modify the conditions of a favorable match. A young woman belonging to a good family could marry well, even if her dowry was not commensurate with her social position. Her family name and connections compensated for the lack of a large dowry. An extreme, but still excellent example of this situation, is that of the youngest daughter of the Countess of Miravalle, who married Pedro Romero de Terreros, later Count of Regia, in 1756. She had no dowry but received arras of 50,000 pesos.33 At almost the opposite end of the social spectrum was a mestizo from Puebla, Juan José Severo Romero, whose third marriage was to a creole woman. He endowed her with 300 pesos, ten percent of his 3,000 peso estate.34 The common thread uniting these two marriages is that of the wealthier older man and the younger poorer woman. In recompense for the disparity of age, and in appreciation of her higher social status, the husband provided for his wife’s future needs. Conversely, a hardworking and promising emigré from Spain could marry a rich heiress even though he might be penniless. His potential ability as an administrator or his racial purity, or both, could be regarded as profitable and desirable social “investments.”35

An accepted, although hardly discussed, assumption is that many men used the dowry as a socioeconomic stepping-stone. In order to determine if a man benefited from his wife’s dowry, it is necessary to ascertain his financial assets prior to marriage. In the dowry letters, men sometimes provided a rough estimate of their assets in order to donate arras. The value of their assets prior to marriage might also be included in their wills. Such information, however, is not uniformly available since it was not legally required. Estimates could be inflated or deflated for social purposes, and no one verified the authenticity of the information. On the other hand, gross misrepresentation of a man’s wealth, unacceptable to the bride’s family, was avoided by the statement that the arras pledged by the groom constituted ten percent of his present and future assets.36

Despite the shortcomings of the sources, and lacking inventories of men’s estates, we tried to determine in how many cases the husbands declared smaller assets than their wives, comparable assets, or clearly larger assets. Sixty dowries of 235 examined (including some cases from Mexico City and Monterrey) contained the groom’s estimated wealth. In 30 cases, the groom listed either no material wealth or less money than the bride. In 18 cases, both spouses seemed to have comparable assets; in less than a dozen cases, the man was clearly richer than the woman. Obviously, these results do not lend themselves to definitive conclusions. However, these data do indicate that dowries were significant in improving a man’s financial situation at the time of his marriage.

For example, in Guadalajara there were many men who lost their money in mining ventures or through defaulted loans to miners. For a man thus impoverished, marriage to a rich woman could mean a return to solvency. Don Rodrigo Fernández de Ubiarco was such a man. Having lost 8,000 pesos in bad debts in the mines of Chilapa, he threw his account books away and married Doña María Guadalupe y Carrasco, who was handsomely endowed with 20,000 pesos in cattle, slaves, and cash.37 An even better example is that of José de Burgos, knight of Santiago and president of the Audiencia of Guadalajara in 1736. A native of Seville, he married a rich Veracruz widow, mother of eight children. Don José capitalized on his wife’s fortune. Five years after her death in 1724, he married again, this time to a younger woman who brought no dowry at all. By then, he estimated his estate to be worth 49,000 pesos and he proceeded to endow his second wife with 4,000 pesos.38

Many young and aspiring men propitiously used dowries to start their careers and solidify their economic positions. Some would later receive maternal or paternal legacies, but at the time of marriage, their resources were limited. The dowry was a special asset which helped the couple start a new family. Thus, the value of the dowry devolved upon the time of its acquisition in addition to its intrinsic worth.

However, the instances of consolidation of fortunes rather than male opportunism seem to have been more common. A good example is that of the marriage between Ginés Gómez Gil Valdéz, of the Gómez de Valdéz Parada family, and María Anna de Parada y Mendoza. She was scarcely fifteen years old when she married, and her dowry was valued at 17,000 pesos. The groom’s assets were estimated at 24,000 pesos. This marriage between relatives consolidated their families’ ties and fortunes.39 Similar examples abound among the members of the social elite of New Spain. The cohesiveness of the upper classes was maintained through marital alliances, and in many instances the large dowries of these women were little more than advances on future inheritance and symbols of conspicuous consumption.40

Most of the penniless women who were endowed with arras by rich husbands were impoverished members of “good” families or young brides of old men. In these instances, if there was any profit motivation it rested with the women. However, it is relevant to note that in the colonial period the male social climber was more often in evidence than his female counterpart. Women were still seen more as objects than as actors in marriage matches. Only when a woman’s volition is socially recognized may she be regarded as actively pursuing social ascent by chasing a wealthy husband. In the cases studied, those women who climbed socially seem to be the recipients, not the seekers of good matches.41

Wills, Society, and Women

Testaments offer different dimensions as sources of information on women’s lives. Wills convey the warmth derived from the expression of emotions and desires which are lacking in the more contractual statements of dowries. Testaments offer glimpses of personal relationships, family ties, and records of activities which might have otherwise escaped historical detection. Perhaps one of the most interesting human aspects of wills concerns the relations between husbands and wives to which the terse legal wording of testaments does not do justice. Men often expressed love, confidence, and satisfaction with their spouses. The wealthy miner Francisco Rodríguez Ponce praised his wife, Juana de Avalos Bocanegra, for having “great virtue and talent … in looking after the upbringing, honor and estate of our children.” Don Pablo Delgado Coronel, regidor of Guadalajara, who made a joint will with his wife, mentioned their lifelong reciprocal love for one another. José de Burgos allocated an extra amount of silver and jewelry to his wife “en atención al fino amor, voluntad verdadera y cariñoso afecto” shown by his wife. Diego de Ayala, from Monterrey, left an hacienda to his third wife in appreciation of the great love which she professed for him and for having served and indulged him throughout his sickness and suffered his “impatiences.”42

Women also communicated marital affection. Magdalena Villegas mentioned “el amor y voluntad” which she had for her husband. Doña Francisca Javiera Orto praised the love her husband professed for her and appointed him guardian of her children in recognition of the fondness and care that he had shown for them.43 These are succinct but articulate recognitions of conjugal devotion. Although it has been reasonably argued that romantic love was not the basis of seventeenth and eighteenth century marriages, love and affection were not extraneous to marriage.

On the other hand, abandoned women described the details of their misfortunes, showing the negative side of marital relations. Most women’s complaints concerned desertions by husbands who left them responsible for raising their children without financial aid. These wills seem to illustrate women’s desires to prevent any potential claims on them or their children’s estates.44

Other aspects of family life are revealed in wills. Relations with children and grandchildren, relatives and protégés can be discerned with acceptable accuracy, since they are explicitly depicted in the legal documents. Nuances of love and alienation can be perceived in wills, and they allow us to see families in terms that complement the demographer’s concern with numbers and the genealogist’s listing of formal relations. Favorite children elicit special responses from mothers and fathers, receiving more land or money through the use of the mejora.45 Relations among children and parents were not always amicable, however. Families could be torn by legal and personal quarrels which were recorded in wills. Examples of such disputes ranged from the case of a master blacksmith, whose son married “a mi disgusto, por cuya causa estubo sin hablarme más tiempo de 10 años,” to the bitter arguments of members of elite families such as the counts of Orizaba. In the case of the Orizabas, the countess granted a mayorazgo to her capable daughter, as she considered her son lacking in virtue and guilty of reprehensible acts. She did, however, grant her son a mejora of a third of the estate, thus hoping to avoid a protracted legal suit.46

Wills also furnished meaningful data on single women. After their parents died, single women maintained their own houses, either living by themselves, or with other unmarried sisters. While our sources do not allow us to elaborate on other aspects of their behavior, the wills at least reveal that unmarried women were not always in economic limbo and did maintain independent lives of their own. Single women were frequently the objects of their parents’ special concern, receiving property or mejoras which would insure their economic independence. By these means, single women managed to obtain the security not achieved through marriage. They frequently owned real estate of modest proportions as well as slaves and occasionally ran small businesses. They bequeathed these properties to relatives, to orphan children whom they had raised, or to charitable institutions for the good of “their souls.” Friends were sometimes favored with gifts or property of small value.47 Recorded cases of wealthy single women are more frequent in Mexico City. Among the most outstanding were the four daughters of Pedro Romero de Terreros, first Count of Regia. The eldest inherited one of the three mayorazgos set up by her father which was valued at over 600,000 pesos. Her three younger sisters each received property valued at 300,000 pesos, although considerable juggling with the figures proved to be necessary in order to assure that each heir received an equal amount.48

The assumption that colonial women were mostly occupied in familial household activities should be altered. Wills help to delineate a different picture. Data furnished by our sources indicate that many women engaged in small-scale commercial activities, which were carried out independently of their husbands and sometimes in conjunction with a trusted male friend or relative. A striking case is that of Juana López de Salazar of Guadalajara, who dictated her will in 1663. Having married three times, her wealth resulted from her own endeavors as well as those of her spouses. By the time of her third marriage she had entered into a joint company with an influential merchant, Simón de Ostia, sharing half of the profits. She had also invested 1,000 pesos in the store of Pedro Martarano. She owned ten slaves, had donated 4,000 pesos to the Jesuits, founded two chantries of 500 pesos each and, reversing the usual social procedure, she had endowed her third husband, a penniless alguacil, with 2,000 pesos. Considering that she had first married with a modest dowry of less than 700 pesos, and that her first husband had 1,500 pesos at the time, Juana had experienced an extremely successful economic and social climb.49

Another case registered eighty years later, in 1745, is equally illustrative. Doña Lorenza Ojeda, widow of a merchant and married for the second time to Pedro Gutiérrez, decided to give him the opportunity to gain some experience in salesmanship. She entrusted him with the task of selling 651 pesos and 6 reales in merchandise from the store which she still managed. The profits would be equally divided and the business association would last for the time she determined. The original capital, and any resulting profits, reverted to her upon demand. The husband posted collateral and pledged to do his utmost to realize a return on his wife’s loan. Undoubtedly, Doña Lorenza was a highly independent woman with a keen business sense.50

Although single women appear much less frequently engaged in business, in Guadalajara, where the lure of mining in the north proved irresistible to some men, many women provided for themselves by setting up small stores. After her father and brothers left for the mines, Angela Loreto took her mother into her home and in addition ran an amasijo and a small general store. She bought a plot of land, built a house, furnished it, acquired eight slaves, and lived what her mother called an “honest” life.51 Small shops were also tended by widows like Isabel de la Peña who owned a small store “de menudencias (petty goods) and general merchandise. She was supplied from Mexico City by trusted merchants. In her will she mentioned an order for 700 pesos in charge of Bartolomé Suárez, and a debt of 440 pesos to another merchant in Guadalajara. Her books of account recorded the persons indebted to her.52

Similar examples of business partnerships and acumen are available for Mexico City.53 This evidence suggests that although the financial world of larger or wholesale merchants was dominated by men, there existed a parallel world of small shops and shopkeepers to which women were not altogether alien. These small financial ventures might have been strictly de barrio or local, but they illustrate the variety of women’s activities at the local level and they should not be discounted in reconstructing colonial urban life in all its rich details.

Wills also reveal an interesting pattern of loans carried by persons of different social levels and racial groups. These loans were mostly for small amounts of money and were arranged without benefit of a notary. Only the proximity of death forced the parties to record loans which had been extended on the basis of friendship or personal favors. These loans bore no interest and payment was often postponed until after the death of the lender, and in some instances articles had been pawned to insure repayment. The loans were made by both men and women. As in the case of small businesses, the records of loans reinforce the significance of the participation of women as active members of the community. Two different examples in Guadalajara, one century apart, will illustrate the character of these loans. The will of Leonor de Avila (1663) recorded several small loans to Indian men and a mulatto woman. She herself owed a sum to another woman. In 1776, María Ana Tomasa Gil de Rada acknowledged that in some of the Indian towns of the vicinity of Guadalajara many Indians owed her money. She held promissory notes from her debtors, but her last will was intended to pardon all the small debts and collect only two of 280 pesos each.54

The existence of an informal network of credit among the more anonymous inhabitants of the cities and adjacent rural communities is supported by this evidence, and it raises certain questions. How did money circulate on a small scale in colonial society and what were the interests promoting or cementing economic relationships between men and women of different ethnic groups? Friendship and interclass relations must account for the loans and other personal connections, such as serving each other as executors for wills or leaving a few head of cattle to a trusted ex-slave.


The study of wills and dowries in colonial Mexico provides a view of the feminine experience that, although mostly hispanic, is convincing enough to indicate that the legal restrictions which apparently restrained many women’s activities were circumvented by equally legal provisos which allowed them to act independently. The dowry system seemed to work to the advantage of women by providing them with a measure of economic security with which they started their married life, and to which other legal benefits were later added. Although in appearance men had much to gain from the dowry, it also placed an economic and moral burden on them. If we do not agree completely with Jacques Lafon’s statement that “the power of the man was more illusory than real,” at least we must accept that the power of the man, although real, was not as complete as assumed.55

The bilateral inheritance system prevented the absorption of the woman’s personality by the conjugal union and provided her with the means to exert her will and choice. Further study of the female role in the patterns of inheritance should disclose how the woman exerted that will, the degree to which other interests prevailed in the settlement of properties, and how both combined to preserve or consolidate large estates.56 Even where there was little wealth, it is apparent that the same mechanisms operated. Thus, similar questions can be raised about the nonelite of the cities and the small landowners of all areas.

This work must end with a note of caution. We have tried to delineate more precisely some aspects of women’s world in order to dispel some of the misconceptions concerning colonial women. The task has only begun. In order to detail a more definitive portrait of colonial women in New Spain, further study of Hispanic women and those of other social and ethnic backgrounds is imperative. It is already obvious, however, that the restricted traditional picture of lethargic women in conventional literature as objects of male oppression needs to be qualified. The conclusion is that there was repression; but repression was not the whole reality, and it did not totally impair women’s ability of expression. It is to the dynamics of both these forces, repression and expression, that historical research on colonial women should address itself.


Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Obras completas (Mexico, 1969), p. 986.


For the concept of material culture, see Fernand Braudel, Capitalism and Material Life, 1400-1800 (New York, 1973); for the use of dowries, see Jacques Lafon, Les époux bordelais: Régimes matrimoniaux et mutations sociales (Paris 1972); Stanley Chojnacki, “Dowries and Kinsmen in Early Renaissance Venice” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 4 (Spring 1975), 571-600; Jean Louis Bourgeon, “L’lle de la Cité pendant la Fronde; Structure sociale” in Federation des Sociétés Historiques et Archeologiques de Paris et l’Ile de France, Memoires, 13 (Paris, 1962); L. F. Marks, “The Financial Oligarchy in Florence under Lorenzo” in E. F. Jacob, Italian Renaissance Studies (London, 1960), pp. 123-157.


We do not have uniform years within each decade, and we lack examples of dowries and wills from Puebla in the 1660s and 1720s. In certain instances we have used a few illustrative examples from Mexico City and Querétaro.


Marcelo Martínez Alcubilla, Códigos antiguos de España (Madrid, 1885); Juan Alvarez Posadilla, Comentarios a las Leyes de Toro … (Madrid, 1826); José María Ots Capdequí, “Bosquejo histórico de los derechos de la mujer casada en la legislación de Indias,” Revista General de Legislación y Jurisprudencia, 132 (Jan.-Mar. 1918), 162—182. Alfonso Otero, “La patria potestad en el derecho histórico español,” Anuario de la Historia del Derecho Español, 26 (1956), 209-241; Pedro Murillo Velarde, Práctica de testamentos en que se resuelven los casos más frequentes que se ofrecen en la disposición de las últimas voluntades, 2d ed. (Madrid, 1755).


A marriage could be dissolved by a church approved separation. Laws LI through LXI of Toro deal principally with the property rights of married women.


Archivo de Instrumentos Públicos de Guadalajara (hereafter cited as AIPG), Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 17 (1745), fol. 59.


Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), AIPG, vol. 5 (1745), fol. 56. Don Antonio Mosquera Villamarín, of Guadalajara, requested that his wife, Doña María de Urizar, legally acknowledge that he had only received 16,000 pesos in cash of a dowry valued at 28,000 pesos. He questioned the assessment of a house she brought as part of a dowry and also acknowledged that he had never given his wife the promised 2,000 pesos of her arras. See also Will of Felipe Briceño, AIPG, Notary Alejo María Mereber, vol. 15 (1751); Notary Miguel Tomás de Ascoide, vol. 1 (1674-1683), fol. 170v; Will of Simón Joachim Phelipe Joseph Venegas de Espinosa, Conde de la Mesonada, Archivo de Notarías de Puebla (hereafter cited as ANP), Notary Agustín González de Santa Cruz (1737), fols. 27-29.


AIPG, Notary Antonio Morelos, vol. 7 (1726), fol. 23; Notary Miguel Tomás Ascoide, vol. 1 (1674-1683), fol. 170v; Carta de Obligación, July 14, 1700, Archivo de Notarías de México (hereafter cited as ANM), Notary Francisco González de Peñafiel (1700), fols. 140v-145v. In this case the man required a power of attorney from his wife in order to handle her property. Carta Dotal of Domingo de Sies y Josefa María de Guevara y Zúñiga, Archivo del Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, México (hereafter cited as AINAH), Microfilm Series, Querétaro, Protocolos de Salvador de Perea y Pedro Vallesteros (1708), fols. 46-48.


AIPG, Notary Antonio Morelos, vol. 5 (1721-1723), fol. 4v; Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), vol. 5 (1745), fol. 70. José Sánchez and Nicolasa Trujillo had been married without any wealth to declare. In 1736, she inherited 2,500 pesos. The husband dutifully notarized the fact, clearly stating that the money was hers alone, to dispose of as she willed; Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 7 (1745), fol. 59; Notary Alejo Santa María Mereber, vol. 4 (1740), fol. 136. In her will, Doña Magdalena de la Peña stated that her husband’s estate, heavily indebted, was not large enough to repay his creditors. Her own possessions, on the contrary, were free of any financial burdens. This was very important to her and her heirs, to whom she was allocating several houses.


AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 9 (1735-1736), fol. 163v; Notary Antonio de Morelos, vol. 5 (1723), fol. 261v; ANP, Notary José Antonio de Saldaña (1780-1781), fols. 20-31; Israel Cavazos Garza, Catálogo y síntesis de los protocolos del Archivo Municipal de Monterrey, 1599-1700 (Monterrey, 1966), p. 281.


Law L of Toro; Auto promovido por Doña Inés de Herrera, 1605, University of Texas, Colección Edmundo O’Gorman (EOG-P12); AIPG, Notary Antonio Morelos, vol. 7 (1726), fol. 64.


Andrés de Guijo, Diario, 1648-1684, 2 vols. (México, 1952), I, 92, 112; Testamento de la letra de los autos de inventarios de bienes … de Doña Antonia Romero de Luna, mujer legítima de Sebastián García de Arellano (1726), fol. 104, Archivo Manuel Romero de Terreros (hereafter cited as AMRT). Isabel García de Arellano, daughter of this couple, had one son who died shortly after she did. Hence the dowry stayed with her husband instead of being returned to her family; ANM, Notary Bernabé Sarmiento de Vera (1655), 36v. In this case, the husband returned both the dowry and the bienes gananciales.


Widows or abandoned women sought refuge with parents when destitute. Will of Miguel Sánchez Mellado, ANP, Notary Francisco Antonio de Solano (1713), fols. 58ff.


AIPG, Notary García de Argomanis, vol. 15 (1718), fol. 273v.


AIPG, Notary Alejo Santa María Mereber, vol. 14 (1750), fol. 18.


Miguel Lasso de la Vega y López Tejada, Marqués del Saltillo, Los testamentos como elementos de la biografía (Madrid, 1954); Fernando Winfield Capitaine, “Testamentos de pardos y mulatos,” La Palabra y el Hombre, Revista de la Universidad Veracruzana, 8 (Oct.-Dec. 1973), 3-12.


Laws VII-X of Toro.


On bilateral inheritance, see Jack Goody, Production and Reproduction: A Comparative Study of the Domestic Domain (Cambridge, 1976), p. 6; Laws XVI, LIII and LV of Toro; Alvarez Posadilla, Comentarios, pp. 315-318, 327-328. In the distribution of property and cash between widow and children, the testator may freely dispose of twenty percent (the quinto) of the property, and may make a bequest of a part of the estate to his wife, even if there were no dowry or gananciales. There are a number of different distributions permitted. The law is both vague and intricate, and practice seems to be the more important guide. For a fuller discussion of inheritance legislation, see chapter 4 of Silvia Marina Arrom’s dissertation, “Women and the Family in Mexico City: 1800-1857” (Ph.D. Diss., Stanford University, 1977).


For example, the amount of a dowry was subtracted from the woman’s share of the inheritance just as her brother’s educational expenses were also charged against his share of the estate; Law XXVI of Toro.


A mejora, a percentage of the bienes libres, or unentailed goods, was often used as a way of maintaining the family’s economic position when the estate had to be divided among many children. On the importance of chantries to family status, see Nancy Farriss, Crown and Clergy in Colonial Mexico, 1759-1821 (London, 1968), p. 155, and Marta Espejo-Ponce Hunt, “The Processes of the Development of Yucatan, 1600-1700” in Ida Altman and James Lockhart, eds., Provinces of Early Mexico: Variants of Spanish American Regional Evolution (Los Angeles, 1976), p. 37.


ANP, Notary Agustín González de Santa Cruz (1737), fol. 134. See also Will of Gaspar de Contreras, fol. 210. Contreras was a small landowner with ten children who possessed an estate worth 2,659 pesos. While his wife received 1,104 pesos, the children received a little more than 98 pesos each. See also Heath Dillard, “Women in Reconquest Castile: The Fueros of Sepúlveda and Cuenca” in Susan Mosher Stuard, ed., Women in Medieval Society (Philadelphia, 1976) pp. 71-94.


Carta Dotal de María losefa Rodríguez de Pedroso, Washington State University, Pullman, Papeles del Conde de Regla (hereafter cited as WSU, PCR), fol. 56v; Archivo General de la Nación (hereafter cited as AGN), Vínculos y Mayorazgos, vol. 59; Cavazos Garza, Catálogo y síntesis de los protocolos del Archivo Municipal de Monterrey, 1700-1725 (Monterrey, 1973), pp. 8, 28, 37, 64, 72, 113, 179.


Will of Blas Sarmiento de Figueroa, ANP, Notary Francisco Antonio de Solano (1712); Will of Miguel González de Ledesma Castilla, Notary Agustín González de Santa Cruz (Wills of 1737); Notary José Antonio Saldaña (1752), fols. 74-89; Will of José de Burgos, AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 9 (1736).


In a sample of twenty-four dowries in colonial Peru, Frederick Bowser found that slaves constituted 29 percent of the total value of all dowries. He concluded that slaves were the most important single item in some women’s dowries. See Frederick P. Bowser, The African Slave in Colonial Peru, 1524-1650 (Stanford, 1974), p. 103, n. 65. In most of the cases we have seen in Guadalajara and Puebla, women brought only one slave as part of the dowry. An exceptional case was that of the rich widow Isabel de Cerda, of Puebla, who had eight slaves, adults and children, valued at 2,550 pesos. However, the total value of her dowry was 44,538 pesos and the slaves constituted only 5.7 percent of the total. See Dowry of Jorge Zerón Zapata and Isabel de Cerda, ANP, Notaries Joan Guerra y Nicolás López Gallegos (1648), fols. 307-319.


Dowry of Doña Felipa de Ayza, daughter of Don Francisco de Ayza, Marquis of Castillo de Ayza, and her groom, the fiscal of the audiencia, Don Miguel José de Rojas, AIPG, Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), vol. 21 (1759), no folio number. The total value of the dowry was 13,299 pesos. Dowry of Doña Josefa Lucía de Agundia y Quevedo, daughter of the scrivener Pedro Agundia y Zamora, Notary Nicolás del Castillo, vol. 3 (1695), fol. 259v. The total value of the dowry was 2,311 pesos.


AIPG, Notary Tomás de Orendaín, vol. 9 (1658-1662), fol. 22v. Nicolás Díaz Gallo, married to María de Páez, received 5,252 pesos in clothes imported from Spain. The total value of the dowry was 6,000 pesos. This merchandise was 87.7 percent of the total; vol. 10 (1663-1669), fol. 78v. María Laso de la Vega also brought 1,000 pesos in clothes for resale. She had only 35 pesos in cash, 1.5 percent of her 2,225 peso dowry; AIPG, Notary José L. Ramírez (1682), fol. 71v.; Dowry of Juan García de Ocharan and Micaela Fuentes Daño ANP’ Notary José Antonio Saldaña (1773).


AIPG, Notary Tomás de Orendaín, vol. 9 (1660), fol. 78v. Doña Isabel María de Angulo brought as part of her dowry twenty-four mules with all their furnishings which, evaluated at 25 pesos each, totaled 600 pesos or 39.9 percent of her dowry of 1,500 pesos; ibid., fol. 1. María de Estrada’s simple dowry consisted solely of three bars of silver worth 2,360 pesos. See also AIPG, Notary Miguel Tomás Ascoide, vol. 1 (1674-1683), fol. 87; Cavazos Garza, Catálogo y síntesis, 1599-1700, pp. 95, 121, 161, 220; by the same author, Catálogo y síntesis 1700-1725, pp. 135, 181, 213.


Data for Monterrey were obtained from all the dowries summarized in the published synthesis of the notarial records for the period 1599-1725. See Cavazos Garza, Catálogo y síntesis, 1599-1700 and Catálogo y síntesis, 1700-1725, as in notes 10 and 22; Joe Super, “Society and Human Affairs in Querétaro, 1560-1800,” unpub. ms. The dowry figures provided by Super in his chapter on women show a similar pattern.


Josefina Muriel and A. J. R. Russell-Wood have suggested that dowries were necessary to get married. This generalization needs reappraisal since it fails to consider differences in social and economic status. Muriel, Los recogimientos de mujeres: Respuesta a una problemática novohispana (México, 1974), p. 19; Russell-Wood, Fidalgos and Philanthropists: The Santa Casa de Misericordia of Bahia, 1650-1755 (Berkeley, 1968), pp. 173-174.


In the statistical analysis of these data by a two-sided chi-squared test, no matter whether the No Data category is included with endowed marriages or with unendowed marriages or is omitted from consideration (as shown for the p values in Table IV), there was a significantly higher proportion of endowed marriages in both regions in the first period in both cities (p: 0.05 or less). On combining the data for both cities in all cases, the difference was highly significant, p < 0.001. This test was used to find out if the results obtained were reliable and whether they would be similar had a larger number of marriages been sampled. The smaller the p value, the higher the reliability and the fewer chances of significant error. Dowries in Guadalajara are generally larger than in Puebla during the second half of the eighteenth century, possibly indicating a more flourishing economic situation in the former. Larger but fewer dowries do not contradict a declining trend in their usage.


The notion of the wife’s property and marriage settlement did figure in one Indian case in Puebla. ANP, Notary José Antonio Saldaña, April 12, 1769. See also Arthur J. O. Anderson, Frances Berdan, and James Lockhart, Beyond the Codices: The Nahua View of Cohnial Mexico (Berkeley, 1976).


Fernández de Recas, Mayorazgos, pp. 356, 457; Richard Konetzke, Colección de documentos para la historia de la formación social de Hispanoamérica, 1493-1805, 3 vols. (Madrid, 1953-1962), III, Primer tomo, 401, 406, 438; Marqués de San Clemente v. José de Bustos, AGN, Clero Regular y Secular, vol. 92.


Testimonio del Testamento de Pedro Romero de Terreros, Sept. 9, 1775, WSU, PCR, folder 94. ANM, Notary Ambrosio Zevallos Palacio, June 26, 1756.


Will of Juan José Severo Romero, ANP, Notary Benítez y Zárate, Oct. 3, 1780; AIPG, Notary Felipe de Silva, vol. 1 (1699), fol. 203.


Will of José de Burgos, AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 9 (1736); Doris Ladd, The Mexican Nobility at Independence, 1780-1826 (Austin, 1976), p. 36; D. A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico, 1763-1810 (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 112-113.


Inventories of men’s personal assets were made after their death or in cases of bankruptcy. We have not found detailed statements of property and cash for any other time in men’s lives which would help to measure with accuracy the wealth that men brought to marriage. This is in contrast to the detailed dowry letters of women.


AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 9 (1736), no folio number. In 1750, Doña María Guadalupe made a legal statement in which she declared that her husband had abandoned her and the children. She had salvaged several houses from her dowry and had received a loan from a friend in order to repair them and obtain an income for herself. This case illustrates the value of the dowry as an economic safeguard. See Statement of Doña María Guadalupe Carrasco, Notary Alejo Santa María Mereber, vol. 14 (1750).


Will of José de Burgos, AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 9 (1736).


Poder para testar e inventario de Don Ginés Gómez Gil Valdéz, May 15, 1723, AMRT. Another noted case of family consolidation is that of the Sánchez de Tagle. AGN, Vínculos y Mayorazgos, vol. 3, exp. 3; ANM, Notary Alejo de Mendoza (1723), fol. 136. On a more modest scale, see Will of Teresa Vargas Venegas, ANP, Notary Agustín González de Santa Cruz (Wills of 1737); Will of Ana María Vargas Marin (Wills of 1738-1740).


Dowry of Isabel de Cerda and Jorge Zerón Zapata, ANP, Joan Guerra y Nicolás López Gallegos (1647-1648), fols. 307-319; Dowry of Doña María Josefa Rodríguez de Pedroso, WSU, PCR, unnumbered folder; Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, p. 23. Super has also reached this conclusion for early colonial Querétaro. See, “Querétaro: Society and Economy in Early Provincial Mexico, 1590-1620” (Ph.D. Diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1973), pp. 178-188.


Will of José Severo Romero, ANP, Notary José Benítez de Zárate (1780); Notary Nicolás Mariano Aguilar (1791), fols. 17v-19v; ibid., Will of María Carpintero; AIPG, Notary Tomás de Orendaín, vol. 9 (1658-1662), Año 1658, fol. 7v. Here a woman states that her husband married her “por hacerme bien y buena obra;” vol. 10 (1663), fol. 8; Notary Diego P. de Rivera, vol. 12 (1665), fol. 158v; Will of Elena de los Santos (1714), Archivo de la Sagrada Mitra, Guadalajara (hereafter cited as ASMG), Testamentos, Hojas sueltas; AINAH, Microfilm Collection, Querétaro, roll 50, Notary Salvador de Perea (1708), fol. 4.


AIPG, Notary Tomás de Orendaín, vol. 9 (1660), fol. 12; Notary Antonio de Morelos, vol. 5 (1721), fol. 10; Will of José de Burgos, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 9 (1736); Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), vol. 5 (1745), fol. 70; ANP, Notary Francisco Antonio de Solano (1713), fol. 21v.


Will of Magdalena Villegas, ANP, Notary Nicolás López de Gallegos (1648); Will of Doña Ana María Josefa López de Villacorta, AIPG, Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), vol. 17 (1756); Will of Doña Francisca Xaviera Orto, Notary Alejo María Mereber, vol. 4 (1740).


Will of Miguel Sánchez Mellado, ANP, Notary Francisco Antonio de Solano (1713), fols. 58-62; AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 5 (1730), fol. 23v.


Will of Anna Urrutia, AGN, Bienes Nacionales (hereafter cited as BN), leg. 634; ASMG, Testamentos, Hojas sueltas (part 5), fols. 8-49v.


Will of Miguel Sánchez Mellado, ANP, Notary Francisco Antonio de Solano (1713), fols. 58-62; Will of María Carpintero, Notary Nicolás Mariano de Aguilar (1791), fols. 17v-19v; Will of María Magdalena Duarte, Notary José Antonio Saldaña (1773); AIPG, Notary Antonio de Berroa, vol. 8 (1765), fol. 108v; AGN, BN, leg. 396, exp. 12 (1739).


Will of Miguel Sánchez de Mellado, ANP, Notary Francisco Antonio de Solano (1713), fols. 58-62; Will of Margarita de Soto and Will of Catarina de Anzúrez de Guevara, Notary Nicolás López de Gallegos (1648); Will of María Magdalena Duarte, Notary José Antonio Saldaña (1773); Notary José Benítez de Zárate (1780), fols. 37-40; AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 16 (1744), fol. 161; Notary Antonio de Berroa, vol. 8 (1765), fol. 423; vol. 18 (1776), fols. 204, 234v, 135v; Request of María Teresa Vera, AGN, BN, leg. 592. This single woman asked for a loan of 500 pesos from an ecclesiastical institution to establish a tannery in her house; Will of Anna Barbara Mora Hurtado de Mendoza, ca. 1660, ASMG, Testamentos, Hojas sueltas.


AMRT, Cuaderno de Juntas and Libro 2, Censos.


AIPG, Notary Tomás de Orendaín, vol. 10 (1663), fol. 22. Juana endowed her sister, nieces and several children, and freed several slaves.


AIPG, Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), vol. 5 (1745), fol. 38.


AIPG, Notary Miguel de Vargas, vol. 5 (1730), fol. 23v. An amasijo was a place to sell masa, com or wheat dough. In folio 20, there is the record of a woman who managed the smaller of her husband’s two stores. The largest was run by the man’s godchild. See also Will of Doña María Teresa González de Cosío (1729), AS MG, Testamentos, Hojas sueltas; AIPG, Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), vol. 5 (1746), fol. 61v, cites a woman owner of a candle shop.


AIPG, Notary Diego P. de Ribera, vol. 11 (1664), fol. 181v.


ANM, Notary Alejo de Mendoza (1724), fol. 561 (1720), fol. 56v; Notary José de Anaya y Bonilla (1715), fol. 85, fol. 91v. The majority of the loans were for small sums of money despite some examples of larger amounts. For further information, see Lavrin, “In Search of the Colonial Woman in Mexico, XVII and XVIII Centuries” in Lavrin, ed., Latin American Women: Historical Perspectives (Westport, Conn., 1978).


If the loans were for large amounts they were duly notarized. Some women had several thousand pesos in loan at interest. See ANM, Notary Andrés Delgado Camargo (1774), fol. 483. This was a loan for 12,000 pesos by a woman to two merchants; AIPG, Notary Manuel de Mena (menor), vol. 5 (1746), fol. 24; Notary Diego P. de Ribera, vol. 11 (1665), fol. 217v; Notary Miguel Tomás de Ascoide, vol. 1 (1674-1683), fol. 48; Notary Tomás de Orendaín, vol. 10 (1663), fol. 33; ibid. (1667), fol. 8; ibid., vol. 8 (1652-1654), fol. 106; ibid., vol. 9 (1654-1656), fol. 7v; Will of Antonio de Montero, ANP, Notary Francisco Antonio de Solano (1707), fols. 142-148. Elinor Burkett has found that in sixteenth-century Peru there was a special network of small debts and loans among the indigenous female population. See her “Indian Women in White Society: The Case of Sixteenth Century Peru” in Lavrin, ed., Latin American Women. No such clear sex or racial pattern emerges from the records of Guadalajara or Puebla, but the circumstances and the period were different.


Lafon, Les époux bordelais, p. 150.


As an example in English history, see Christopher Clay, “Marriage, Inheritance and the Rise of the Large Estates in England, 1660-1815,” Economic History Review (second series), 21 (Dec. 1968), 503-578. For Mexico, see also Couturier, “Women in a Noble Family” in Lavrin, ed., Latin American Women; Patricia Seed, “A Mexican Noble Family: The Counts of the Orizaba Valley, 1560-1867” (M. A. Thesis, University of Texas, Austin, 1975).

Author notes


The authors are respectively Associate Professor of History at Howard University and Associate in the History Department at Northwestern University. They wish to thank John TePaske and Dauril Alden for reading and commenting on an earlier version of this paper. Susan Socolow also suggested ways in which we might clarify our selection methods. Both Susan Soeiro and Keith Davis commented on this paper, posed interesting questions, and suggested useful changes.