Our conception of the composition of the elite in the late colonial period, its modes of recruitment and replacement, and its business and marriage patterns, greatly influences our understanding of the social, economic, and political processes of Latin America during the Bourbon era. In this article, I wish to describe the social and business behavior of the pinnacle of Mexico City’s society in the era 1750-1821—of the section of society I term “the Great Families” so as to differentiate them from other well-to-do and respectable families of the city who, though members of a broader elite, could not normally compete with or marry into this exalted group. The distinctions that separated the Great Families from the other elements of the upper class in Mexico City were their unparalleled wealth, the diversity of their holdings and investments, the success of their business practices, the honors that they received, their ability to place their children in the upper ranks of the civil and ecclesiastical administrations, their close alliances with other leading political and clerical figures, their choice of marriage partners, and, as a culmination of all of these other factors, their longevity at the summit of the social hierarchy. The Great Families shared no corporate or institutional structure; they did not all belong to a single organization, nor did they collectively enjoy a distinctive title, form of address, or profession that distinguished them. They were defined by their social and economic behavior, their business and personal associations, and their success. The above characteristics differentiated this group from others in this society, but they should not be applied inflexibly, for not every member fulfilled all of them simultaneously.1

The Great Families of Mexico City lived in mansions clustered around the center of the city. Some of these homes occupied a fourth of a city block. The censuses of 1753 and 1811 show that the heads of these families lived surrounded by other family members, many of whom were married, and a number of retainers who might be prominent members of the business and professional communities in their own right. They were attended by perhaps fifteen or twenty servants, who might be Spanish, Black, Indian, or casta, who themselves were often married, and who raised their children in the mansion.2

Being identified by society as a Spaniard, whether creole or peninsular, was in no way sufficient to locate a person in the ranks of the elite in the large and expanding population of late colonial Mexico City. In 1790, the city contained roughly 110,000 people, and approximately a half of them were considered to be of Spanish descent.3 The degree of race mixture that had taken place over the previous two and a half centuries and the increasing willingness of society to classify people of different ethnicities according to their individual accomplishments, marriage patterns, and cultural behavior caused the Spanish sector of the population to expand rapidly.4 The mere fact of becoming a store owner or a master craftsman—that is, ownership of nonresidential property or possession of a remunerative skill—was often sufficient to elevate an individual into the ranks of those regarded by society as Spanish. The fact that race mixture by itself did not diminish a family’s stature or eliminate it from inclusion in the highest elite is shown in Doris M. Ladd’s study of the Mexican nobility, which reveals that several late colonial noble families had definite strains of Indian or Negro blood in their ancestry, something well known and accepted in the society at large.5

Spaniards were not, however, able to enjoy high-status and well-paying employment by the mere fact of their ethnicity. Significant numbers worked at manual tasks. In a very real sense, the Spanish sector of Mexico City society in the eighteenth century was occupationally complete, with members to be found at every level of society, including the lower. This occupational distribution is demonstrated in both the 1753 and 1811 censuses of the city. Spaniards worked as unskilled laborers and house servants. The 1753 census reports peninsulars employed as weavers, carpenters, and tailors, among other socially modest occupations, while some were totally without employment. The Diario de México often carried advertisements by jobless Spanish immigrants soliciting low-level supervisory posts, whether in the city or the countryside.6

Terms of address commonly used did not identify the elite during the late colonial period, as they had in the first century after the conquest. Usage of the terms “don” and “doña” had been broadened to the extent that virtually every man in the city who was a master artisan or a small shopkeeper was so addressed, while women who were indigent and sometimes not even Spanish might still be referred to with the feminine equivalent.7 In general, in the business world any person not serving as a clerk or performing manual labor under the direction of another person could lay claim to use of this term. Thus, perhaps one-third of the adult male population of the city claimed to be a “don.”

Military and academic titles are equally poor guides to the highest reaches of colonial Mexican society. While it has been established that officer rank in the various militia units created in the eighteenth century was attractive to many of the provincial elite, hardly any of the male members of the capital’s elite pursued or received such appointments.8 Perhaps they did not have the opportunity, for Mexico City already had a regiment traditionally maintained and staffed by its consulado and did not seek new militia units. More likely is that while officer status offered the provincial elites an honor and title that they hungered after, the Great Families of the capital, secure in their positions in society and already enjoying a variety of real and honorary titles and positions, felt no such status deprivation. As for academic titles, a person planning to enter one of the traditional professions normally pursued a university education, but, as we shall see later, few among the dominant elite of the capital sought to become clerics, educators, lawyers, or physicians.

Wealth, enormous wealth, was an absolute prerequisite for a place among the Great Families. Genteel poverty was not tolerated; a family that lost its wealth lost both its status and its access to marriage within the group. A family in decline could continue to have considerable wealth relative to most others in the society, but it would no longer be eligible for inclusion in the social stratum we have identified. Possession of immense wealth differentiated the Great Families of Mexico City from the lesser elites of the capital and from virtually all the provincial elites of the colony, and it was the basis for the acquisition of the honors, posts, and personal connections that collectively composed the ideal of this exalted segment of society. To belong to the Great Families required possessions valued at more than a million pesos or very nearly so. About one hundred families in late colonial Mexico City possessed so much wealth. Only about a dozen families in the remainder of the colony could match their economic resources.9

The entire colony south of the capital, though it rendered products of considerable value, such as cacao and cochineal, channeled its wealth through the businessmen of Mexico City and Veracruz and therefore failed to maintain an elite with the stature of that of the Great Families.10 East of the capital, Puebla was a provincial center whose textile obrajes and fertile lands supported a prosperous regional elite. This area, however, neither produced a major profit-yielding commodity nor marketed any domestic or imported items on a scale large enough to yield the income necessary to make its leading families rivals of the colony’s most prominent.11 Veracruz was emerging as a commercial power of some standing in this era, but the rising merchants of that community had to look to long-distance trade with the interior for their markets.12

Only the North, or, more specifically, a few of its mining centers, yielded sufficiently large and regular profits to support millionaire families across generations. Many miners of this region, however, chose to locate themselves and their business operations in Mexico City. Exceptions to this rule were found only in Guanajuato and Guadalajara. The history of the few millionaire families based in these two regional centers amply demonstrates how restricted was the scale of business operations possible in even a thriving province in comparison with the opportunities for gain enjoyed by the major enterprises of Mexico City. D. A. Brading’s examination of Guanajuato in the early 1790s shows that only four or five families had fortunes that approximated or exceeded a million pesos.13 This local elite was unable to dominate its mining investments without interference from interests centered in Mexico City, as some of its members chose to operate their enterprises from the capital or to marry into its elite.

Guadalajara was the other city in Mexico besides Veracruz to gain a consulado in the late colonial era, but the scale of operations of both its merchants and estate owners and their reach into the hinterland were seriously limited by the size of the local market and did not approach the colonywide economic interests that characterized the elite of Mexico City. Guadalajara had only two families at this time with wealth equal to that of the Great Families of the capital. The other members of this provincial elite had estates worth at most 300,000 pesos, while the wealthiest merchants of Guadalajara ran businesses valued at no more than 100,000 pesos.14 The wholesale merchants of Mexico City commonly had fortunes of 500,000 pesos or more; a good number of large shopkeepers in the capital had enterprises worth at least as much as those of the wealthiest importers of Guadalajara. Finally, while the Bolaños was the only silver mine that Guadalajara could draw on for income, Mexico City attracted great amounts of revenue from mines throughout the country.

Late eighteenth-century Mexico City contained perhaps 400 families whose total wealth exceeded 100,000 pesos. Besides the approximately one hundred Great Families, this figure included a substantial lesser elite composed of wholesale merchants, large retail shopkeepers, and a number of families whose prosperity was based on some combination of estate ownership, proprietorship of a mill or obraje, mine ownership, government service, or the professions. The most successful artisans might have fortunes valued in tens of thousands of pesos, but none of the material examined by me has revealed any with a personal estate larger than that. The central district of the capital—the main plaza and the streets extending perhaps three blocks from it—embraced a complex of great houses, government buildings, artisan shops, and, especially, retail stores and commercial warehouses. Virtually all the nearly two hundred members of the Mexico City consulado had their operations there. In addition, most of the major outlets for imported goods were located in this area. These included not only the retail establishments that the trading houses customarily maintained, but also a number of independent stores, commonly termed cajones, that sold these items retail. The Parián—a walled marketplace, owned by the cabildo, in the main plaza—by itself had dozens of these businesses, many of which had values of more than 70,000 pesos. More cajones and a number of specialty shops were located on nearby streets. A single family might own several of these stores. These proprietors did not restrict their economic activities to retail commerce, however. A select few ascended into the ranks of the import wholesalers, but far more chose to invest their earnings in agricultural estates, artisan shops, mills, or other commercial operations.15 In like manner, the other members of this lesser elite, whether based in estate ownership or the professions, regularly invested in the various levels of commerce, in artisan shops, and in other business enterprises involving mining, milling, or agriculture, in an attempt to broaden their holdings and investments.16

The attractions of estate ownership were several. Throughout its colonial history the Mexican economy suffered from a severe shortage of circulating medium; as a result, the entire economy—from petty retail transactions to purchases of entire businesses—was dominated by credit transactions. To operate successfully in this setting required that the individual have a strong line of credit in order to contract loans and to buy on time. All parties that loaned money and goods demanded guarantees; as a rule the only collateral that agencies of the church—among the major lenders in the society—and private parties would accept was land. This did not mean uncultivated land, which at this time was virtually worthless, but developed land, haciendas, which had worth precisely because of their physical improvements and productive capacity. For this reason, among others, every merchant who had the capital to do so acquired at least one estate as early in his career as he could.17 If he could not buy one, he might marry into a family with rural properties and gain an estate in that manner. Even the great international wholesalers of the colony followed this tactic and for the same reason. These people valued liquidity—so necessary for overseas transactions—probably more than any other group in the society, but they also appreciated that estate ownership was absolutely vital to prolonged success in this credit-based economy, both for the economic return that it provided and for the collateral that it represented when extra funds were needed.

Those businessmen who did not have landholdings were required to turn to persons who did in order to secure the debts they contracted. Those dealings not guaranteed by personal pledges of real property were covered by bondsmen (fiadores) who themselves had estates with which to insure the debt. An examination of documents concerning bondsmen shows that whatever their declared occupations, they were normally property owners whose real estate could be seized if the contract was not fulfilled.

Although every upcoming businessman, whether in Mexico City or a provincial center, sought to purchase an estate, it was only the wealthy Great Families of Mexico City who could afford to own and operate hacienda complexes located throughout New Spain. Only the Great Families had the capacity to draw from the entire colony. Sheep consumed in the capital came from estates in the far north.18 The Bajío supplied a variety of grains and livestock, but the growth of central Mexico was causing ranching to move farther north as ever more land was devoted to agriculture. Nearer to the capital, the Chalco region produced much of the maize consumed in the city.19 Northeast of the city, in rather arid land, enormous ranchos dominated production of pulque for the capital.20

The Great Families of the capital, much like some religious orders, frequently had major holdings devoted to various branches of agriculture in different ecological zones. We now know that the classic great estate of Mexico was often a complex of holdings of different sizes and capabilities, which might not be contiguous. The owners commonly grew several different crops in a single complex, calculating that possible losses or market failures in one branch would be compensated for in another. The Great Families did the same thing countrywide, specializing in the production of a single crop in any given region, but raising a variety of products on the properties throughout the colony.21

The diversity of agricultural estates that the elite held across the country and the specialization characteristic of each one, when combined with the considerable attention, capitalization, and manpower devoted to each enterprise, rewarded the elite with economic security and, periodically, enormous profits. It was no accident that the agricultural investments of the Great Families were concentrated in exactly those branches of farming that were the most profitable and that their estates were best situated to supply the major markets—the capital and the mining centers—that had the largest number of consumers with disposable incomes. Furthermore, the very scale on which the Great Families produced commodities gave them enormous advantages over the many small producers.22

The wealth of the Great Families gave them other economic advantages. Their large-scale agricultural production enabled them to affect commodity prices through marketing networks.23 Their wealth meant that they could hold their harvests off the market in the expectation of securing the highest price possible for their crops. Smaller producers lacking financing and equal access to markets could not compete against the Great Families and often were forced to turn to less profitable crops. As a consequence, they were far more likely to fail.

The structure of pulque production for Mexico City in the late colonial period well illustrates the elite families’ means of controlling the most lucrative branches of agriculture and sometimes even the marketing of the product. Pulque rendered a steady and profitable return that at least equalled that of any other commodity. The abundant cash-paying public of the capital assured a continued demand for the beverage, while the costs of transportation and the threat of rapid spoilage limited production to the semiarid region immediately northeast of the city. The Great Families of Mexico City owned not only the vast majority of pulque ranchos, but also a number of the pulquerías that were rented to individuals who were required to buy pulque from the proprietors’ estates.24

Estate ownership offered yet another hedge against periodic economic slowdowns: leasing. An estate owner who felt that profits would be difficult to realize, or who lacked the funds to make necessary improvements, could choose to lease out all or part of his property to other individuals.25 Even some proprietors of very profitable haciendas regularly leased out portions of their land in order to use that steady income to cover operating expenses until their own harvests were marketable. Certain branches of agriculture were so lucrative that some merchants chose to lease rather than purchase estates, calculating that the land would yield an income greater than the lease price.26

The Great Families were outstandingly successful in maintaining their high social rank. There is no evidence from the 1750s to the end of the colonial period to indicate that more than a few of these families descended in status or suffered economic decline.27 In fact, it is remarkable how many elite families from the sixteenth century maintained their wealth and station throughout the colonial period. Several of these families gained noble titles at an early date, notably the Condado de Santiago, Marquesado de Aguayo, Marquesado de Salinas, and Condado del Valle de Orizaba. Other landed families established in the sixteenth century who chose not to acquire titles of nobility likewise enjoyed exalted social rank at the end of the colonial period. These included the Cervantes y Padilla, Teruel, and Luyando families.28

If ownership of extensive rural properties offered the Great Families a steady return on their investments together with occasional enormous profits, it provided yet another advantage to those concerned with transferring their wealth intact across generations. Of all major business enterprises, estates could be most easily subdivided and passed on to survivors. The transfer was facilitated by the fact that the complex called the family hacienda commonly comprised numerous individual properties. We shall see in due course that though subdivision of landed properties could with time threaten the economic power and financial stability of a family, there existed common patterns of social and business behavior designed to overcome this potential problem. Mines, on the other hand, typically consisted of a single system of tunnels, and while a mine’s profits could be easily divided up, ownership of the actual diggings could not, as the individual shafts and veins varied greatly in quality. Similarly, the international trading houses of Mexico City could not be simply split up or even transferred. These enterprises were based on both the existence of large amounts of liquid capital and lines of credit, combined with an extended, intricate web of correspondence accounts and commercial understandings that existed among the colonial wholesaler, his overseas suppliers, and the retailers of the capital and the provinces. These personal relationships were not readily transmitted; hence merchant houses were normally passed on to a single descendant, either a creole son or an immigrant nephew, who had been trained for years in the business, often with extended assignments overseas and sojourns throughout the hinterland of the colony.29

To say that particular individuals or families were estate owners is not to state that they dedicated themselves exclusively to production alone. Rather, one of the most distinctive aspects of agriculture as practiced by the Great Families was that they normally carried out vertical integration of the production, processing, and distribution of their commodities, a goal that was desired, but usually not achieved, by other elements of the society. While the higher profits available to the family that was able to eliminate middlemen and so handle all phases of production and distribution certainly reinforced this preference, the central reason was the security of supplies and markets that it ensured. Hence, as related earlier, a family that produced great amounts of pulque normally owned one or more pulquerías in the capital that were leased out for fairly low payments, but with the stipulation that the renter buy a stated amount of pulque from the proprietor. Such agreements freed the families from the inconveniences of retail distribution and provided them with a steady income, while guaranteeing that they would not be deprived of a market by competitors.

In like manner, some of the Great Families owned large flour mills in the Valley of Mexico, which processed and distributed the wheat from their farms, and textile mills, which converted raw wool from their sheep ranches into finished products.30 Ownership of these enterprises was profitable in its own right. The González Calderón family owned the largest flour mill in the colony and in some years ground a full third of the wheat marketed in Mexico City.

The wealthiest families stationed permanent marketing agents in the city to represent their interests, while also operating general stores on their rural estates. These separate acts had the same goal: control of the commerce of both locally produced commodities and imported finished goods in the regions that this elite’s estates dominated. Owners of large haciendas used their economic power to serve as commodity traders not only for their own properties, but also for the smaller haciendas and ranchos that neighbored them. Smaller producers cooperated with the wealthier proprietors in this regard because the latters’ ability to transport produce more cheaply and to sell the entire region’s harvest altogether meant higher income for all. So, being unable to compete against the economic power of the dominant owners, they marketed through them and thereby passed on to them the profits available to the merchant with major supplies of grain.31

The most powerful hacendados also exploited their commercial connections, their access to capital, their marketing capabilities, and their preeminence in rural regions to establish themselves as major retailers. Often, independent storekeepers were unable to compete with these landlords because of the low population density and relative lack of money and consumers in the countryside. Proprietors of large estates might therefore enjoy a commercial monopoly over an extended area. They had the capacity to extend credit for prolonged periods without suffering economically, and the debts the smaller agriculturalists owed them only bound these producers more tightly to the landed elite.32

While ownership of a diversified and integrated complex of estates was a vital part of the financial activities of the Great Families, these groups did not abandon commerce when they undertook large-scale rural investments. Many of them had used careers in international commerce as a route to elite status and recognized that the two economic fields were compatible and, in fact, enhanced each other. We have seen above that the landed elite exploited their rural preeminence to dominate both commodity trading and commerce in manufacturing items in the countryside. They were not satisfied, however, with just intracolonial trade. To maintain the wealth necessary to remain in the highest social stratum of colonial society demanded that the security and range of investments available in agriculture be coupled with the risk-taking and consequently higher profits of international commerce. For this reason, many of the Great Families, no matter how longlived their prominence, maintained members in the Mexico City consulado; typically, they were creole sons or immigrant nephews, who operated the families’ overseas trading houses. Both titled and untitled elite families regularly followed this practice. As a result, while there is no doubt that peninsulars made up the majority of the membership of the Mexico City consulado in the late colonial period, the creole elite constituted a significant presence. They often had an influence even greater than their numbers through their sponsorship of other, less powerful, members of the guild, who might be from the same family or an affiliate of it.33Table I lists titled and untitled creole elite families definitely represented in the consulado in the period 1780 to 1820. The frequency of intermarriage among elites, promotion of more than one family member in the field of wholesale commerce, and financial and moral sponsorship of former dependents of individual families combined at times to produce substantial interrelated interest groups in the consulado.34

These creole wholesalers were sometimes trained by being stationed in Spain for a period of years in order to develop the personal connections so vital to the efficient operation of overseas trade.35 At other times they worked directly under the tutelage of their fathers or uncles in the Mexico City trading houses or were encouraged to undertake their own commercial ventures in the provinces or the capital itself.36 In any case, once they had established their credentials, they were elevated to consulado membership and there represented their families’ interests.

Elite creole families did not invariably turn to their own children to manage their overseas commerce. As noted above, often a nephew was brought over from Spain and then trained in the business over a number of years before he, too, was installed in the consulado. To bind his interests yet more tightly to those of the larger creole clan, it was often arranged for him to marry one of his colonial cousins. Thus, his interests and those of his offspring became inextricably linked to those of the larger Mexican kin group.

The level of economic development in late colonial Mexico was still too low to permit specialization in a single field of the economy for any prolonged period. Though the internal market was growing, transportation was so costly and inefficient and markets so limited that any big businessman who concentrated his investments in just one financial sphere courted disaster. Great swings in the volume and profitability of production could be expected periodically in each field of the economy, and as the volume of goods and the types of business arrangements were still quite limited, diversification of a family’s investments was crucial to long-term prosperity. This was truer in mining and commerce than in other undertakings, as these were especially susceptible to the frequent interruptions in overseas shipping that characterized the late colonial period. When leading families of the capital were threatened by ruin, the cause was more often their overseas trading operations than their rural investments.37 The Adalid family, which had risen through affiliation with the first Conde de Jala, had large investments in both the pulque trade and international commerce in the late eighteenth century. An immigrant nephew handled the overseas trade of the family, while a creole son of the patriarch supervised the pulque industry. In 1792 the nephew was compelled to declare bankruptcy after a series of unwise business moves. The family fortune was recovered, however, when Ignacio Adalid, the head of the pulque operations, steered most of the family’s investments into that field. The rehabilitation of the family was both quick and lasting. Fanny Calderón de la Barca reported the Adalids to be among the leading families of Mexico City in the late 1830s.38

Because enormous capital was required to invest in silver mining, international merchants—noted for their liquidity and their reliance on steady supplies of specie—were far more prone to invest funds in this field than were elite families, who already had much of their money tied up in landed estates. D. A. Brading has shown, however, that a number of creole families made their original fortunes from mining.39 They had financed their enterprises by pooling family funds, by borrowing, and by accepting large advances from the merchants who supplied their mines and their communities. Families who made their original fortunes from mining, whether creole or peninsular, often consolidated their wealth through investments in agriculture.40 Once again, this form of investment was complementary to their prior specialty, for mining required massive inputs of animals and grains to keep functioning, and estate ownership provided the miner with guaranteed supplies. Thus, what occurred was diversification rather than abandonment of mining.

Ownership of obrajes or mills by itself did not provide enough wealth to lift any family into the highest ranks of society. The markets for the goods manufactured and the profit margin possible on them were both too small to produce the level of income necessary. Furthermore, proprietors of mills and obrajes who did not own rural estates periodically had to make very large capital outlays to acquire vital raw materials. The result, all too often, was that a pall of heavy debt hung over these enterprises. While the character of the colonial economy did not make these businesses a promising route to elite status, however, later investment in mills and obrajes was attractive to the established landed elite as secure markets for their agricultural production. Ownership of processing plants gave the Great Families the vertical integration of businesses that they craved. As a consequence, elite families, whether titled or not, purchased and operated such establishments over many years without considering their possession a threat to social stature or reputation.

Careers in the law and in the church were not prime avenues of advancement to the highest stratum of colonial society. Few children, indeed, of the Great Families entered the professions. When they did, however, the prominence of their families virtually assured them a quick ascent to the highest posts in the profession. Examination of the lawyers and clerics present in Mexico City in the late colonial period shows that the vast majority came from respectable, comfortably well-off families from the provinces and the capital, that is, from the lower elite and the significant middle sector of the society.41 Only a distinct minority of the Great Families sent even one child into the professions. In fact, probably as many or more children of the highest elite went into wholesale commerce as went into any single profession.42 These families already enjoyed such stature that they did not need the social luster provided by academic degrees or careers in the liberal professions. Likewise, as will be seen, they already had valuable connections with the high officials in both the government and the church and so had no immediate need of the access to these administrations that careers in the professions might open up. In general, children of the Great Families preferred to stay in the larger family business, directing one aspect or enterprise within it and perhaps someday the entire operation, rather than to get a university education. They certainly did not need the money that a professional could earn, which, though not insignificant, could not approach the wealth already attained by these families. So the professions were normally occupied by members of the lower elite who could benefit from the income, the status, and the connections that such careers could provide.43

Children of the Great Families who did opt for professional careers rose rapidly in the respective hierarchies. Those who practiced law became the legal representatives of important corporate bodies, rectors of the Lawyers’ Guild (Colegio de Abogados), or high-ranking officials in the colonial government. Licenciado Luis Gonzaga de Ibarrola was the son of a member of the consulado and the brother of two other members. Exploiting his family’s position, he served an extended term as head notary of the Merchants’ Guild and was later elected and reelected rector of the Lawyers’ Guild. His career culminated in his becoming a familiar of the Inquisition and honorary secretary to the viceroy.44 Those elite offspring who entered the church quickly rose to the Mexico City cathedral chapter or at least to prized assignments in the parishes of the capital or the university, while at least one became a bishop.45

It is not surprising, however, that some families put far more stress on participation in the professions and the government than did others. Hence we can refer to a subsection of the Great Families as the “professional elite.” Unquestionably the most prominent family in this category was the Beye de Cisneros. In the eighteenth century, members of this family served as lawyers, priests, academics, and government officials. Three brothers at mid-century became lawyers; two of the three also became priests. One founded the Colegio de Abogados and served four terms as its rector. Another occupied a chair in the legal faculty of the university and was later named agente fiscal de lo civil for the audiencia.46 The following generation also excelled in the professions. Four brothers became lawyers, priests, or both. Three entered the cathedral chapter of the Colegiata de Guadalupe, and one of them served twice as rector of the College of Lawyers; another was the colony’s representative to the Spanish Cortes in 1811. The fourth brother also became a lawyer, served as a subdelegado, and succeeded his uncle as a regidor of the capital.47

The Beye de Cisneros family was not unique, merely the most successful. Several others rivaled its achievements, and there were still others that sent one or two members into the professions. These professional families were all alike in having considerable wealth besides income from their formal professions. The Beye de Cisneros family owned a complex of estates, as did a number of other such families.

While several families rose into the ranks of the highest elite through government service, especially as officers in the mint and the treasury, they were exceptional. In general, those government officials of stature equal to that of the Great Families eventually moved on to service in Spain itself. Some creole elite families owned important permanent posts in the colonial government that were handed down through the generations as part of the family patrimony. Government service was prized not for the money associated with it, though many posts could be manipulated to yield a substantial return, but for the status that it conferred. In seeking out high-level government positions, the Mexico City elite was endeavoring to reinforce its economic power with political power and to serve in posts that the society deemed proper for its leading families.48

The business practices characteristic of the Great Families followed a pattern. In the organization and management of their businesses, the mighty clans of Mexico City sought diversification of their holdings, vertical integration of their enterprises, and patriarchal control over all economic operations of the family. Other elements of the society sought to do many of the same things for similar reasons. Most levels of society operated in a common economic climate and had the same need for good business practices, but only the elite had the scale of wealth and property that allowed them to use these procedures to their maximum advantage.

Fortunes made originally in commerce, mining, and agriculture were best secured through diversification on a large scale into other fields of the economy. Such large-scale diversification not only helped guard against financial collapse brought about by a downturn in any one economic sphere, but also was regarded as complementary to the other business enterprises. People of this time saw no contradiction in participating in different areas of the economy at the same time. Agriculture helped to supply mining; commerce offered a valuable assist to agriculture; mining could support further commercial activity.

An examination of the economic activities and investment patterns of both the Great Families and other, lower, elite groups shows clearly the imprecision of occupational designations in this society. Lawyers could serve as marketing agents, priests as merchants, and everyone might own landed estates. Businessmen pursued diversification vigorously. Most people who were prominent in a profession had large investments in other fields of the economy as well. And those who did not were still usually operating within a family business in which they were handling one or another of the family enterprises.

The typical business of the late colonial period was not headed by an individual specialist, but rather constituted part of an extended family’s diversified economic empire. The family sought to fill all important managerial and supervisory positions with persons related to it by blood or marriage. Outsiders who became indispensable to the business were normally made spouses of family members.

The business practices summarized above were not the sole steps the elite might take to enhance their economic standing. To consolidate its holdings—and thus increase its economic power—and to promote a sense of unity and identity, an elite family normally sought to organize all of its business operations around a single patriarch (or matriarch). This person oversaw the total operation and made the ultimate decisions, often not just over economic concerns but also over such matters as marriage partners and careers for other family members. Organization around a patriarch prevented a family from competing against itself and mobilized all its resources for the long-term betterment and stability of the clan. Most members of the family usually recognized the benefit of this approach and were willing to subordinate themselves and their immediate personal interests. Ultimate identification and status came from the family name, while the enduring prosperity of the family ensured prestige and security for all its members.

The position of patriarch was so crucial that competition for the post was sometimes the source of bitter rivalry within the clan. This was perhaps the biggest threat to the family’s solidarity and economic position. Some clans were periodically shattered by internecine struggle and jealousy over the choice of patriarch. Members might withdraw completely from involvement in family business. Despite the pitfalls associated with selecting a patriarch, most Great Families still did so because of the obvious advantages it conferred on their economic investments and the unity and direction it gave to the larger clan.

A person’s stated occupation was not a flawless guide to his actual function in the family business. While many patriarchs were merchants or had the largest estate holdings in their names, others followed different pursuits. In one case from the late eighteenth century, the Sánchez Hidalgo family had one brother in the Mexico City consulado and two sisters married to successful merchants from the peninsula. The person who directed the family’s agricultural and mercantile enterprises was yet another brother who was a priest.49

Marriage and death offered perhaps the greatest threats to the continuance of a family fortune. To marry offspring of a generation to their various partners probably meant to transfer significant parts of the family estate along with them. Likewise, the death of one of the leading members of the family often required the division of much of the property among a number of heirs.50 The colonial elite was not helpless before these potential problems. It was vital that some units of the family fortune—especially trading houses and mines—be retained as integral bodies; others could be more easily divided up. Hence, one heir might gain an entire commercial firm or mine, while the others would get substantially mills and estates, but would retain an interest in the merchant house or mine. Consequently, one person would control all the major commercial activities, but would be responsible for supporting other members of the family.

Furthermore, marriage within the clan, usually between cousins or between a widow and a nephew, helped to consolidate the holdings of the family. Just as effective was the common practice of heirs granting their power of attorney to the new family patriarch. No transfer of ownership was involved, but this act greatly consolidated the value and economic power of the family’s property. Finally, Doris M. Ladd has well illustrated both the importance of estate entailment for the preservation of large family fortunes over generations and the restrictions that this practice placed on the operations of family businesses.51

Having once gained wealth, families pursued honors and recognition that would bestow rank and glory on the entire clan and thereby certify its rightful place among the recognized elite of this society. Many chose to acquire titles of nobility. There were approximately fifty titled families in Mexico at the outbreak of the independence movement; all but a few of them resided in large mansions in the center of Mexico City.52 To say that titled families were among the highest elite of the capital, however, is not to say that they were its exclusive members or even that they dominated the top social rank of the city.

They constituted, I would estimate, somewhat less than half of the Great Families of the capital. Purchase of a title was not the only means to gain social recognition or to institutionalize a family’s elite status. Table II provides a partial list of untitled Great Families in this period. Some nontitled elite families chose to promote one of their members as a knight in one of the military or honorary orders, ancient or newly founded, of Spain: those of Santiago, Alcántara, Calatrava, Montesa, or Carlos III. These and all other high honors certified the blood purity and worthiness of the entire family over generations and hence served the vital purpose of validating the larger family and its ancestry and not just the individual who received the formal title. Also, membership could be maintained generation after generation, if good reputation and high social rank were preserved. The rigid qualifications required for membership and the consequently small number of persons accepted made entrance into any one of these orders a distinct honor, even for a long-established family.53

Acceptance as a familiar of the Inquisition was another of the honors bestowed on very few. Like membership in military orders, it glorified the ancestry of the entire family of the successful applicant. In theory, these people assisted the Holy Office in tracking down heretics and non-believers; in reality, the designation ratified the blood purity of the clan and helped to protect it from the threat of investigation. Thus, achievement of this honor stated the worthiness of a family that had risen through the ranks of the business world.54

The cabildo of Mexico City, while not the exclusive preserve of the highest elite, nonetheless contained a substantial number of representatives from the leading families. Membership on the municipal council was actively pursued by both established and newly emergent elites because it conferred considerable prestige and power. All the regidores who were not from the Great Families came from lineages of proven respectability and wealth in the city, often of very long duration. Table III lists the representatives of the Great Families found in the cabildo between 1780 and 1810. Titled families had members, as did ancient untitled elite families, new elite families drawn from the ranks of international merchants, and even some recently established professional elites. Reforms instituted by the crown in the 1770s were intended to open up the cabildo to a broader section of the population, especially the peninsular merchants. The reforms were, however, at best a partial success, for the cabildo itself determined the membership of both alcaldes and honorary regidores. As a result, the international merchants appointed to these posts were joined by a large number of established elite members who now received a chance to participate in the municipal council after having been shut out previously because of its very restrictive policies and the lifelong tenure usual to its members. Table III also lists the alcaldes and honorary regidores from this same period who were representatives of the Great Families, including those permanent regidores who simultaneously served as alcaldes, a very common practice. Note that some persons who began as honorary regidores later gained permanent posts.

The creole elite of Mexico City was able to secure high government positions for some of its offspring, to purchase and hold important and prestigious offices over generations, to affiliate itself intimately with important judicial and financial officers through intermarriage, and to absorb into its midst yet other top-rank government officials from abroad who settled in the colony. The close relationship the Great Families maintained with the highest functionaries of the government distinguished them from other members of the society. The officials were attracted to the enormous wealth, power, and webs of kinship affiliations that this local elite could mobilize on its behalf. On the other hand, the elite respected the power and prestige that the top officials enjoyed from their positions and from their identification with the king. Furthermore, if the officials were promoted to posts in Spain itself, this would add even greater luster to the people associated with them.

Even in the era of the Bourbon reforms, which had the explicit aim of diminishing the political power of local colonial elites, the leading families of Mexico regularly placed their offspring in important posts in the government and saw them rise steadily in the royal bureaucracy. Francisco Ignacio González Maldonado was elevated to oidor of the Audiencia of New Spain at the same time that his brother Luis Gonzaga sat on the municipal council of the capital city. Similarly, Tomás González Calderón was transferred from the Audiencia of Peru to that of New Spain and there rose to become regent during the time that his family held membership in the Mexico City consulado and owned a complex of agricultural estates. They were joined by other judges who either were born in the colony or had come there as youths to make their careers, fortunes, and marriages. The oidor Diego Fernández de Madrid himself controlled a complex of large estates in northern Mexico that had come to him through marriage and were managed by his brother.55 The Villaurrutia family, whose members occupied important judicial and ecclesiastical positions in Mexico and other colonies over two generations, was related through marriage to the powerful Fagoaga and Sánchez de Tagle clans of Mexico.56

Government service itself occasionally provided an avenue into the colonial elite. Some families were able to use their government positions to assemble the wealth, honors, and prestige that were necessary. The creole Miguel de Berrio y Saldívar was able to translate his tenure as dean of the accounting office of the royal treasury into a knighthood in the Order of Santiago and in 1774 into acquisition of the title Marqués de Jaral de Berrio. Two years later, the creole Juan María de Medina y Torres, the treasurer of the mint, gained the title Conde de Medina.57

Two local titled families had purchased important and prestigious posts in the government that they regularly passed down to their descendants. The Marqués del Valle de la Colina owned the notaryship of the royal audiencia, while the Conde del Valle de Orizaba had that of government and war.

The colonial elite not only placed its offspring in important judgeships with regularity, it also attracted the allegiance of oidores born elsewhere, including Spain, by offering its daughters to them in marriage. Three peninsular-born oidores of New Spain married daughters of titled creole families in the years after 1770. Two of them were later ennobled and eventually appointed to the Council of the Indies, while the third became a regent of the Audiencia of New Spain. The elite did not restrict marriages to high court judges. One of the fiscales of the audiencia wed the daughter of the Marqués de Aguayo. Antonio Mora, the intendant of Oaxaca, married a daughter of the Marquesa de Jaral de Berrio, while his daughter wed Antonio Iraeta e Icaza, a creole member of the consulado and the head of a family with extensive commercial and agricultural interests. Directors of the treasury and the royal mint were also attractive spouses. Domingo de Rábago, later to become the conde of the same name, wed the daughter of the director of the royal mint, while the Marquesa de San Román wed the superintendent of the mint. Finally, in what was perhaps the most prestigious match made by any citizen of Mexico in the late colonial period, María Rafaela Gutiérrez de Terán, the daughter of a powerful merchant family related through marriage to the González Calderón family, wed the Conde de Casa Flores, the son of a former viceroy of Mexico. Because marriage remained a prime mechanism for both acquiring and maintaining wealth and status, a person’s choice of a marriage partner was crucial. An examination of the nuptial patterns of an entire generation of specific elite families reveals several recurrent tendencies. The number of marriage partners suitable for the highest elite was severely limited. As the members of a family of this rank had few peers, any wedding to a person of lower station was potentially threatening to the status of an elite member and his or her family. So, as a general rule, offspring of the Great Families intermarried with other members of the same social stratum, either with persons from different clans or with their own relatives up to the proximity of first cousins. The result of this process over generations was that the great creole families were often related to each other by marriage or by blood. This naturally promoted a sense of common identity and political unity at this exalted social level.58 To date, the best illustrations of these marital patterns among the elite are revealed by the genealogical tables provided in books by Brading and Ladd.59

The extent to which family patriarchs were able to direct the marriages of their siblings and offspring is not totally clear. Some well-known family disputes and strategic alliances show that they often played some role. And, as most people identified strongly with their families and viewed marriage as primarily a financial and political undertaking to promote family well-being, they were willing to accept such arrangements. The exceptions were notable, however. Some sons of the elite lived openly with their mistresses or even wed them, while other sons and daughters who accepted the patriarch’s choice of marriage partner experienced insufferable domestic lives and sometimes became embittered as a consequence.60 In fact, when economic fragmentation afflicted elite families, it seems to have resulted as much from the actions taken by family members alienated for this reason as from any other.

A significant minority of elite offspring, both male and female, chose not to marry. Perhaps they could not locate a suitable mate among the limited number of socially appropriate candidates or the family could not afford the transfer of funds and properties that such a union might require, especially when there were a large number of children in a family. It was not in the best interests of either side in such a match to have the other subdivide its holdings to the extent that they would be insufficient to maintain the new couple’s elite status. Very few unmarried adults at this social level chose to enter the church. The number of bachelors and spinsters of elite station outnumbered those who donned ecclesiastical garb several times over. Neither the norms of the society nor the demands of the family required unmarried individuals of either sex to become ecclesiastics. Very few unmarried persons lived on their own, but then very few wanted to; to remain in the family mansion surrounded by relatives, friends, and retainers was an attractive option.61 Appropriate to the wealth and station of their families, those offspring who entered the church were noticeable because the males were likely to sit on the cathedral chapters or become heads of the university or some major ecclesiastical agency, while the females were likely to found a convent or to become the abbess of one already established.

Those offspring who did not marry into the established creole elite wed either high government officials—as related above—or the most successful of the international merchants and commercial agriculturists. While overseas commerce still afforded the primary means of assembling a fortune, the enormous growth in the urban market in the eighteenth century increased demand for products such as sugar and pulque to such an extent that trade in these products could also yield great wealth. The constituents of these two groups ardently pursued absorption into the established creole elite. If they were unable to marry into this social stratum, they were unlikely to marry at all (for that would mean marrying beneath them and thus limiting their social ascent) or they would wait until fairly late in their lives, when they had finally accumulated the wealth and honors required, and wed women of the elite who were typically far younger than they.62

The subject of the status held by international merchants in late colonial Mexico is undoubtedly controversial, but several things have become clear in recent writings.63 International commerce was a risky, but potentially very profitable, business. Many of the Great Families continued to participate in it even after their fortunes were made. Nonetheless, most international traders emerged from the ranks of peninsular immigrants, especially from those related to established Mexican families. Only a very few of the immigrant population actually rose to the rank of international merchant, and of these, even fewer accumulated wealth to rival that of the creole elite. Most wholesale traders acquired landed estates as early in their careers as possible. And finally, most of the very successful merchants married into the elite families of the colony, whether the family was itself ancient or recently established. Thus the individual merchant was absorbed into the larger, firmly based family, subsuming his personal interests to its concerns, adding his offspring to its population, and receiving in return the honors, prestige, connections, and certification of elite status that only membership itself could provide.

An examination of the Mexico City consulado in the late colonial period indicates that only a minority of its membership had wealth equal to that of the most important creole families. In fact, as stated earlier, established creole families themselves made up a substantial segment of this preeminent group within the consulado. In addition, many wholesalers remained subordinate to this group of traders in the guild who maintained the largest commercial networks, received much of the wealth, and gained most of the honors and important positions that the colonial and municipal governments, the church, and the consulado itself bestowed on merchants.64 It was predominantly those merchants of highest status in the consulado who were accepted as suitable marriage partners by the creole elite, some of whose members had themselves only recently attained this high rank thanks to their mercantile success.

Certainly these enormously successful entrepreneurs could bring a fresh infusion of capital and business expertise into an elite family, but in return they received not only the status and honors that came only to these families but also the real property, the diversified investments, the web of prominent and powerful relatives, and the connections in the local and colonial governments and the church that experience had taught these very pragmatic people constituted the indispensable base on which any long-lasting family fortune had to be constructed.

In summary, then, we have seen that while a significant, prosperous, and socially mobile middle sector flourished in late colonial Mexico City, the wealthy extended creole families, the true pinnacle of this society, were very successful in maintaining their elite station through astute business and social practices. These families were rarely supplanted by rapidly rising entrepreneurs, but rather absorbed them into their midst, usually through marriage. The level of wealth, diversity of holdings, business operations, honors, and connections enjoyed by the Great Families were emulated by other elements of the society, but none of them was able to muster the combination of ingredients that made these families so successful over the long term.

The strategy for maintaining wealth and status in the late colonial world was far different from that necessary for gaining them in the first place. Government service, overseas trade, mining, and commercial agriculture afforded the main avenues of social ascent, with marriage into an established elite family, purchase of a complex of rural estates, or acquisition of a noble title or some other honor for the family normally serving as the ratification of success. Very few of those who rose in business ever achieved all that was required to ascend to this heady level. The occupational specialization so necessary to the up-and-coming businessman became a potential threat once elite status was reached. At this point, the wise individual diversified his holdings and simultaneously integrated his financial empire as much as possible, but all the while without abandoning his original occupation.


This article was composed after long consideration of the provocative and seminal work of D. A. Brading, most especially his article “Government and Elite in Late Colonial Mexico,” HAHR, 53 (Aug. 1973), 389-414, and of Doris M. Ladd’s prize-winning book The Mexican Nobility at Independence, 1790-1826 (Austin, 1976). It is based on wills, business contracts, powers of attorney, dowry agreements, and related material located in the Archivo de Notarías del Departamento del Distrito Federal (hereinafter cited as AN); on court cases, membership lists, and census material found in various ramos of the Archivo General de la Nación (hereinafter cited as AGN); on the Diario de México and the Gazeta de México, the two newspapers of late colonial Mexico City; on membership lists of the Colegio de Abogados, artisan guilds, and other organizations; on population summaries and the Guías de forasteros found in the Biblioteca Nacional (hereinafter cited as BN); on published manuscripts and documents from the time; and on the substantial research, published and unpublished, that has emerged on colonial social history in the past two decades.


Eduardo Báez Macías, ed., “Pianos y censos de la Ciudad de México, 1753,” Boletín del Archivo General de la Nación, 8:3-4 (1967), 487-1115; AGN, Padrones, legs. 53-77, 1811.


BN, ms. 458 (1395), “Estado reducido de los habitantes de México empadronados en el año de 1790,” fol. 16.


See L. N. McAlister, “Social Structure and Social Change in New Spain,” HAHR, 43 (Aug. 1963), 349-370; William B. Taylor and John K. Chance, “Estate and Class in a Colonial City—Oaxaca in 1792,” Comparative Studies in Society and History, 19 (Oct. 1977), 454-487; Chance’s book Race and Class in Colonial Oaxaca (Stanford, 1978); and Dennis N. Valdés, “The Decline of the Sociedad de Castas in Mexico City” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Michigan, 1978), for discussions of the workings of social race in colonial Mexico.


Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, pp. 20-21.


Only those peninsular immigrants sponsored by uncles and cousins who were wholesale merchants in Mexico (not counting government and church officials) could expect to be placed in promising employment situations, and even then many of them never ascended very far, if at all. See John E. Kicza, “Business and Society in Late Colonial Mexico City” (Ph.D. Diss., University of California, Los Angeles, 1979), pp. 211-219.


Ibid., p. 473.


Christon I. Archer, The Army in Bourbon Mexico, 1760-1810, (Albuquerque, 1977), pp. 210-215.


The related questions of the size of the families being examined and the wealth of the greater entire kin group versus that of individuals within it are obviously crucial. The families, as will be discussed in the text, endeavored to define their membership as broadly as possible, but as a consequence, some members were clearly of secondary status. I regard a family’s wealth and property as being that which it assembled and managed as a collective unit, often in a very integrated fashion. Quite understandably, some families were wealthier and more extensive than others. These could subdivide and thereby create separate but related families, all derived from the same ancestry and now operating their holdings primarily as independent entities. Exact figures on the total value of individual family fortunes at a moment in time are very rare and seldom reliable. Almost as uncommon are declarations of the total business and property holdings of families. Though such precise information is lacking, however, an examination of the business operations and transactions of family members over time can convey the dimensions of a family’s economic activities, the fields in which it operated, and its ability to coordinate and integrate its various investments. An understanding of these traits, when combined with a knowledge of the family’s marriage patterns, social behavior, and level of prestige in the community, gives a reliable reading of the wealth of the family, at least in comparison to that of other such units in the society.


Brian R. Hamnett, Politics and Trade in Southern Mexico 1750-1821 (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 5-8; William B. Taylor, Landlord and Peasant in Colonial Oaxaca, (Stanford, 1972), pp. 199-201.


Reinhard Liehr, Ayuntamiento y oligarquía en Puebla, 1787-1810, 2 vols. (Mexico City, 1976), I, 22, 45-47.


Alexander von Humboldt, “Tablas geográficas políticas del reino de Nueva España” in Enrique Florescano and Isabel Gil, eds., Descripciones económicas generales de Nueva España, 1784-1817 (Mexico City, 1973), p. 153. In 1803 the Intendancy of Veracruz had a population smaller than those of nine of the twelve intendancies of Mexico. The Intendancy of Mexico had nine times its population, and Mexico City alone had approximately the population of all Veracruz.


D. A. Brading, Miners and Merchants in Bourbon Mexico 1763-1810 (Cambridge, 1971), chaps. 8 and 9 passim.


Richard Lindley, “Kinship and Credit in the Structure of Guadalajara’s Oligarchy 1800-1830” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1976), pp. 49-50, 63. The consulado of Mexico City, founded in 1592, was the oldest in the Americas.


For the diversified investments of one such storeowner, see AN, Juan Manuel Pozo, Nov. 5, 1784, Feb. 15, 1800, June 16, 1800, Feb. 6, 1801, and Feb. 28, 1805.


The diversified economic investment patterns characteristic of members of the lower elite can be seen in the following sources: AN, Pozo, July 20, 1786, Sept. 23, 1786, Oct. 12, 1787, July 30, 1798, June 25, 1799, Feb. 6, 1801, Jan. 10, 1809, Feb. 20, 1809, and May 25, 1810; José Antonio Burillo, July 19, 1783, July 14, 1784, Aug. 27, 1784, Aug. 12, 1793, Oct. 4, 1793, May 5, 1797, June 3, 1799, April 17, 1801, Aug. 12, 1806, and Sept. 23, 1808; José María de Torija, Dec. 20, 1784; Joaquín Barrientos, July 20, 1791, Dec. 13, 1793, May 20, 1808, and Sept. 28, 1813; Francisco Javier Benítez, July 7, 1812; Mariano Cadena, Mar. 2, 1789; Manuel Domingo Chavero, Aug. 17, 1796; Tomás Hidalgo de los Reyes, Apr. 19, 1792, Oct. 22, 1802, and May 17, 1806; Félix Fernando Zamorano y Barrera, June 17, 1803; AGN, Padrones, leg. 80, 1796; Consulado, leg. 226, exp. 8, fol. 4, Aug. 18, 1789; Diario de México, Mar. 18, 1806, Mar. 28, 1807, and Jan. 12, 1815.


The wholesale merchants of Mexico City, like many miners and other businessmen in this society, appreciated the economic benefits that derived from estate ownership and typically acquired one or more estates during their careers, often while still in the early stages. See AN, Torija, June 2, 1781, June 4, 1782, Oct. 25, 1783, Dec. 4, 1783, June 23, 1788, Nov. 8, 1793, Dec. 4, 1793, Oct. 4, 1805, and May 25, 1810; Hidalgo de los Reyes, Feb. 9, 1799 and June 1, 1810; Burillo, Jan. 16, 1793, Jan. 21, 1799, June 28, 1799, Dec. 9, 1799, Apr. 2, 1800, Nov. 15, 1800, Jan. 2, 1805, and June 19, 1806; Benítez, Nov. 30, 1797; Pozo, Aug. 6, 1792, Apr. 28, 1801, Mar. 31, 1806, Nov. 11, 1806, Apr. 22, 1811, Aug. 7, 1813, and June 27, 1815; Barrientos, Jan. 29, 1796; AGN, Civil, leg. 966, exp. 7, Mar. 9, 1785; Consulado, leg. 216, exp. 3, May 31, 1791, leg. 299, exp. 5, Oct. 4, 1799, leg. 188, exp. 7, Dec. 5, 1801, leg. 47, exp. 2, Dec. 22, 1803; AGN, Industria y Comercio, leg. 2, Mar. 1809; Diario de México, June 5, 1814.


Charles H. Harris, III, A Mexican Family Empire (Austin, 1975), p. 79.


Charles Gibson, The Aztecs under Spanish Rule: A History of the Indians of the Valley of Mexico, 1519-1810 (Stanford, 1964), pp. 328-329.


John E. Kicza, “The Pulque Trade of Late Colonial Mexico City,” The Americas 37 (Oct. 1980), 202.


See the maps and tables located throughout John M. Tutino, “Creole Mexico: Spanish Elites, Haciendas, and Indian Towns, 1750-1810” (Ph.D. Diss., University of Texas at Austin, 1976), chap. 2. They expected that in the best of times the commodities would yield considerable profits, while in the worst of times, one or another of the crops would still earn sufficient money to insulate the family from financial disaster.


Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” pp. 175-178.


Enrique Florescano, Precios del maíz y crisis agrícolas en México (1708-1810) (Mexico City, 1969), p. 92.


Kicza, “The Pulque Trade,” pp. 203-207.


D. A. Brading, Haciendas and Ranchos in the Mexican Bajío: León 1700-1860 (Cambridge, 1978), p. 11; Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” p. 165.


In his study of the landholding patterns of the elite of Guadalajara in the late colonial period, Richard Lindley found that sometimes merchants who leased an estate were actually supplying capital needed to improve the property immediately before acquiring it. There is no known evidence of this practice among the elite families of Mexico City; Lindley, “Kinship and Credit,” pp. 140-145.


Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, table 7, p. 28; Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” p. 24. Of the twelve noble families that Ladd maintains were unable to sustain their wealth, at least three were miners of northern Mexico who did not diversify significantly into agriculture. All the others, as indicated by her genealogical appendix, retained their titles intact until at least the end of the colonial period, and some of them married into other wealthy elite and noble families.


Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” p. 21; Brading, Haciendas and Ranches, p. 23. The titled and untitled families cited constitute a representative sample.


Examples of the transfer of entire commercial houses intact to a single heir include: AN, Pozo, Nov. 8, 1786, Aug. 8, 1794, Sept. 5, 1794, June 20, 1800, Dec. 9, 1801, Mar. 2, 1804, Nov. 5, 1804, and Oct. 27, 1807; Burillo, Sept. 22, 1801; Torija, July 17, 1782, and Feb. 3, 1789; Barrientos, Apr. 28, 1794; Benítez, Aug. 3, 1797, Mar. 5, 1816, and Oct. 29, 1821; Zamorano y Barrera, Dec. 24, 1804, and Aug. 6, 1808; Hidalgo de los Reyes, Dec. 15, 1798; Francisco de la Torre, May 23, 1804; AGN, Consulado, leg. 216, exp. 3, May 31, 1796, leg. 198, exp. 17, Jan. 1798, leg. 166, exp. 8, June 4, 1804, leg. 185, exp. 4, Sept. 3, 1804, leg. 161, exp. 8, Dec. 2, 1805, leg. 138, exp. 1, Mar. 14, 1807; Civil, leg. 966, exp. 7, Mar. 9, 1785.


AN, Pozo, Apr. 4, 1810; Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” p. 129. For vertical integration in mining, see Brading, Miners and Merchants, p. 149, and Peter J. Bakewell, Silver Mining and Society in Colonial Mexico, Zacatecas 1546-1700 (Cambridge, 1971), pp. 115-118, 125, and 137.


Harris, A Mexican Family Empire, p. 115; Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” p. 269. The planters of yet another American colonial society—the tobacco growers of the eighteenth-century Chesapeake—have also been traditionally described as disdainful toward commerce, but recent research has disclosed that they also acted as commodity traders and as distributors of imported goods for smaller upland farmers. See Aubrey Land, “Economic Base and Social Structure: The Northern Chesapeake in the Eighteenth Century” in Stanley N. Katz, ed., Colonial America: Essays in Politics and Social Development (Boston, 1975), pp. 345-359, esp. pp. 352-355. The commercial and manufacturing investments of São Paulo coffee growers are covered in Warren Dean, The Industrialization of São Paulo 1880-1945 (Austin, 1969), chap. 3.


Harris, A Mexican Family Empire, p. 115; Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” p. 269; Land, “Economic Base,” pp. 352-355.


Of the 190 or so merchants in the consulado annually in the late colonial era, I would estimate that perhaps forty composed this preeminent sector, with the other 150 clearly inferior to them. Some in this latter group were associated with this mercantile elite by blood or marital ties. Others had started their business careers as employees of these families, which sometimes financed their employees’ first independent commercial endeavors and subsequently maintained running accounts with them over extended periods of time. Examination of specific careers and business dealings over time reveals quite clearly this pattern of association, and sometimes of subordination, of lesser members of the consulado with its leaders. As examples of this phenomenon, for the Sánchez Hidalgo family, see: AN, Pozo, Apr. 10, 1786, Aug. 29, 1787, Aug. 3, 1792, Aug. 27, 1793, Apr. 9, 1795, and Oct. 17, 1796; Burillo, Aug. 29, 1794; for the González Vértiz family, see: AN, Cadena, Aug. 8, 1787; Pozo, Aug. 18, 1809; Benítez, Oct. 12, 1818, and Oct. 29, 1821; for the González Calderón family, see: AN, Pozo, Apr. 13, 1790, and Dec. 9, 1801; for the Icaza family, see: AN, Burillo, Dec. 9, 1793; Pozo, May 17, 1802, Jan. 14, 1805, Dec. 29, 1807, Feb. 21, 1814, and Feb. 17, 1815; Zamorano y Barrera, Dec. 24, 1804; AGN, Consulado, leg. 207, exp. 3, 1803; for the Sánchez de Espinosa family, see: AN, Torija, June 2, 1781, June 4, 1782, June 23, 1788, Feb. 3, 1789; and for the Heras Soto family, see: AN, Pozo, Feb. 12, 1805, Apr. 5, 1806, Oct. 27, 1807, Dec. 3, 1807, and Oct. 16, 1810; AGN, Consulado, leg. 76, exps. 2 and 7, leg. 102, exps. 3, 5, 6, 8 and 10; leg. 199, exp. 6.


In 1811 the following nine members of the consulado, the first six of whom were Creoles, were all related by blood or marriage: José María González Calderón, the Marqués de Guardiola, Juan Ignacio González Vértiz, Gabriel Manuel de Iturbe, Mariano José de Icaza, Antonio de Icaza, Francisco Alonso de Terán, Antonio Alonso de Terán, and José Maria de Echave. At one time or another, several of these men served as officers of the merchants’ guild or as deans of one of the two parties into which the organization was divided. In the period 1813 through 1823, the following members of the Heras Soto family belonged to the consulado for a year or longer: Sebastian de Heras Soto, Manuel de Heras Soto, Manuel de Heras, Francisco Javier de Heras, Miguel de Heras, Javier de Heras, and Ignacio de Heras. The first two, peninsular and creole, were father and son and successively held the title of conde of the family name; all the others were peninsular cousins and nephews of the son. For evidence on the first group, see: AN, Benítez, Aug. 3, 1797, and Oct. 29, 1821; Pozo, Dec. 11, 1789, Dec. 9, 1801, Jan. 14, 1805, May 20, 1806, Feb. 21, 1814, and Feb. 17, 1815; AGN, Consulado, leg. 207, exp. 3; Padrones, vol. 54, Dec. 1811. For the Heras Soto family, see the citation for the family in note 33.


The overseas training of the son of the Conde de Heras Soto is related in AN, Pozo, Feb. 12, 1805, and Oct. 27, 1807.


For one such case, see AN, Félix Fernando Zamorano y Barrera, Dec. 24, 1804.


Considerable information about the 1802 collapse of the previously mighty trading house of Oteiza y Vértiz and its repercussions on a number of smaller firms is available in AGN, Consulado, leg. 183, exp. 3.


Kicza, “Business and Society,” pp. 227-228; Frances E. Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico (New York, 1970), pp. 112-113, 215-221. The Adalid family was still marketing pulque in 1852; see Silvia M. Arrom, “Women and the Family in Mexico City, 1800-1857” (Ph.D. Diss., Stanford University, 1978), p. 54.


Brading, Miners and Merchants, pp. 169-170.


Brading, Haciendas and Ranchos, pp. 115-118.


These statements are based on a preliminary examination of the entrance records to the Mexico City Colegio de Abogados in the period 1761-1821 and on a much closer study of a number of individual legal careers. The name and rank of specific clerics in the capital are located in the Guía de forasteros for each year. The social position of a number of them was determined from notarial and judicial records as well as from census and membership lists.


This statement is based on an analysis of the career patterns of generations of children from a number of elite families. These careers have been pieced together largely from notarial and judicial records.


Kicza, “Business and Society,” pp. 292-294.


Gazeta de México, Feb. 8, 1800; AGN, Consulado, leg. 184, exp. 1, fol. 9, Oct. 22, 1802; AN, Zamorano y Barrera, Aug. 6, 1808.


Kicza, “Business and Society,” pp. 342-347.


Félix Osores, Noticias biobibliográficas de alumnos distinguidos del Colegio de San Pedro, San Pablo y San Ildefonso de México (Mexico City, 1908), p. 106; AGN, Hospital de Jesús, leg. 350, exp. 12, Oct. 23, 1784; José Mariano Beristáin de Souza, Biblioteca hispanoamericana septentrional (Mexico City, 1816), p. 350.


Gazeta de México, Feb. 14, 1786; Jan. 30, 1787; Nov. 20, 1787; Feb. 5, 1793; and Aug. 29, 1804; Lucas Alamán, Historia de México, 1808-1849, 5 vols. (Mexico City, 1942), III, 52; Walter Howe, The Mining Guild of New Spain and its Tribunal General, 1770-1821 (Cambridge, Mass., 1949), p. 88.


For a preliminary view of creole participation in the central government of the colony, see Linda Arnold, “Social, Economic, and Political Status in the Mexico City Central Bureaucracy: 1808-1822” in Elsa Cecilia Frost, Michael C. Meyer, and Josefina Zoraida Vázquez, eds., Labor and Laborers through Mexican History (Tucson, 1979), pp. 281-310, and Kicza, “Business and Society,” pp. 381-417.


AN, Pozo, Apr. 10, 1786; July 4, 1787; Aug. 3, 1792; Aug. 27, 1793; Apr. 9, 1792; and Oct. 17, 1796; Burillo, Aug. 29, 1794.


The inheritance laws of Castile applied in colonial Mexico. They are briefly summarized in Brading, Miners and Merchants, pp. 102-103.


Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, chap. 4.


Ibid., pp. 64-67.


An accurate guide, with dates, to those entering the different noble orders in colonial Mexico is provided by Guillermo Lohmann Villena, Los americanos en las órdenes nobiliarias 1519-1900, 2 vols., (Madrid, 1947).


Information on these families is available in Guillermo S. Fernández de Recas, Aspirantes americanos a cargos del santo oficio, (Mexico City, 1956).


AN, Barrientos, Apr. 16, 1788.


Brading, Miners and Merchants, passim, esp. the genealogical chart on p. 348.


Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, pp. 200-202.


A discussion of the extensive kinship and marital ties maintained by two creole families in the Mexico City consulado in the late colonial era is found in Kicza, “Business and Society,” pp. 236-239.


Brading, Miners and Merchants, appendixes 1-4; Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, appendix F.


For the case of the Regia family, see Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, p. 43, and Tutino, “Creole Mexico,” pp. 81-82.


For information on the number of unwed adults in this society and their residential patterns, see BN, Estado reducido, and the censuses of the city for 1753 and 1811.


Kicza, “Business and Society,” pp. 242-251.


These writings including Christiana Borchart de Moreno, “Los miembros del Consulado de la Ciudad de México en la época de Carlos III,” Jahrbuch für Geschichte von Staat, Wirtschaft, und Gesellschaft Lateinamerikas, 14 (1977), 134-160; Brading, Miners and Merchants, Haciendas and Ranches, and “Government and Elite”; Kicza, “Business and Society”; Ladd, The Mexican Nobility, Lindley, “Kinship and Credit”; and Tutino, “Creole Mexico.”


The topic of the honors received by international merchants in late colonial Mexico is explored in Kicza, “Business and Society,” pp. 261-275.

Author notes


The author is Assistant Professor of History at Washington State University.