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Colonial Economy
Spanish Colonial Economy, 1706-1821

When Francisco Cuervo y Valdés founded the villa of Alburquerque in 1706, he chose the place because it would be good for farming. He wrote to his superiors that it was “a good place as regards land, water, pasture and firewood,” all required by Spanish law.

The new villa had another attribute, which would buoy its economy. It lay along the 1,500-mile Camino Real, the Royal Road between Santa Fe and Chihuahua, and near the Cañon de Carnué (Tijeras Canyon), which provided access to the plains east of the mountains.

The governor invited settlers to join the new Villa de Alburquerque, and farmers from Bernalillo joined people who were already in the area. They began establishing farms up and down the Middle Rio Grande Valley.

They raised corn, beans and squash, as the Pueblo people did. They also brought plants and seeds from Spain, including cabbage, onions, lettuce, radishes, apples, peaches, apricots, grapes, cantaloupes and watermelons, plus such grains as wheat and barley. Crops that came up with settlers from Mexico were chile, tobacco, Mexican beans and the tomato. And they brought a new variety of corn with a long cob and white kernels.

The Indian pueblos had irrigated agriculture, but the Spanish settlers expanded irrigation into a network of acequias, or irrigation ditches. The main ditch, the acequia madre, siphoned water from the Rio Grande several miles above the villa and carried it to tributary ditches that ran to individual fields. They used the ditches for drinking water, bathing, laundry, and livestock water.

The horses, cattle and churro sheep the Spanish brought adjusted well to the Southwest and provided an economic base. Sheep in particular were a staple. Not only did they provide food, but their wool could be sheared, carded and made into yarn and then woven. And it was difficult for raiding Navajos and Apaches to stampede sheep.

Sheep ranchers used the partido system, in which a shepherd (partidario) contracted with the owner to pasture and herd the sheep in exchange for a share of the increase. He could provide for his family from the herd but also had to make up for losses to Indians and predators. By the mid-1700s, a herd might have 1,200 sheep and 100 cows. By 1800 herds numbered in the thousands. There was little cash, so sheep became the unit of exchange, at a rate of one or two pesos per animal.

Textiles became Alburquerque’s leading commodity, and weaving was as important as farming and stock raising to the village economy. By 1790 there were 47 weavers, 25 carders and 15 spinners. Cobblers formed a smaller cottage industry, selling New Mexican footwear. The same census reported 57 farmers and four ranchers in Alburquerque and, across the river in Atrisco, 12 ranchers and 7 farmers.

In this time, the Spanish governors tightly controlled the export of products, grain and cattle because they feared the New Mexicans wouldn’t have enough to sustain them. The result was to depress the local economy. Alburquerqueans petitioned in 1737 to sell more woven blankets, stockings and piñons to Chihuahua. On one occasion, as inventories mounted, wool growers were threatened with ruin during a moth infestation. The governor relented.

Despite the government’s prohibitions against outside trade, settlers maintained regular trade with the Apaches, even though they were often at war, and this love-hate relationship came to be accepted. They also traded illegally with the Utes as far north as the Great Salt Lake. In fact, some Spanish settlers carried loads of trade goods east to the plains and west to Utah and searched out the Apaches and Utes. The Spanish governor attempted unsuccessfully to regulate this trade.

By the 1750s farms were yielding good crops of corn, wheat, chile, squash, beans, onions and the native tobacco (which they smoked in cornhusk cigarettes). There were also excellent vineyards and orchards of peaches, apricots, plums and apples. The residents raised enough for their own use and traded any surplus at nearby pueblos or in Santa Fe.

Merchants traded New Mexican blankets, woven cloth, corn, piñon nuts, buckskin, and buffalo robes, for manufactured products from other Mexican provinces. Every year in November, a convoy left for Ciudad Chihuahua. Anyone with goods to sell would rendezvous in Alburquerque, and a military escort rode with them down El Camino Real.

The merchants in Chihuahua knew they had captive buyers, and the Alburquerque traders didn’t fare well in this exchange.

The economy changed little during the Spanish period. The government’s restrictions, the distance between towns and villages, and the fear of Navajos, Apaches, and (later) Comanches, kept the settlers in their villages and off the trails. Although there were caravans that traveled the area to bring goods to the settlers, they were infrequent and not always dependable.

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