Indigenous Coahuila de Zaragoza

Home of the Coahuiltecan culture

By John P Schmal
Published on LatinoLA: July 27, 2014

Indigenous Coahuila de Zaragoza

The state of Coahuila is located in the northern reaches of the Mexican Republic. Bordered by the United States (Texas) on its northern border, Coahuila also touches the state of Chihuahua on its west, Durango on the southwest, Zacatecas and San Luis Potos? on the south, and Nuevo Le??n on the east. As the third largest Mexican state, Coahuila is made up of 151,595 square kilometers, which is equal to 7.7% of the national territory.

Politically, the State of Coahuila with its capital in Saltillo -- is divided into thirty-eight municipios. With a population of 2,748,391 people in 2010, Coahuila has the 17th largest population in the Mexican Republic, which is roughly 2.4% of the Mexican population.

The distribution of Coahuila's population is roughly 90% urban and 10% rural, compared to a 78% urban and 22% rural distribution, nationally. Its largest cities are:

Saltillo (648,929 inhabitants)
Torreon (577,477 inhabitants)
Monclova (200,110 inhabitants)
Piedras Negras (143,915 inhabitants)
Ciudad Acuna (126,238 inhabitants)

The state was named Coahuila de Zaragoza: after the ethnic tribal group Coahuiltec and General Ignacio Zaragoza (1829-1862), who was known for his defeat of the French invasion force at Battle of Puebla on May 5, 1862.

Political Chronology

From 1575, the present-day area of Coahuila was part of Spain's Nueva Vizcaya province. On January 23, 1691, Coahuila became a part of the Province of Coahuila and Texas, and later became part of Nueva Vizcaya (until 1787). After that, Coahuila had become a separate province as part of the "Provincias Internas," a colonial, administrative district of the northern Spanish Empire.

In 1822, Mexico became an independent republic. The Constitution of 1824 created Nuevo Le??n, Coahuila and Texas as a single state. Nuevo Le??n was detached on May 7, 1824, after Coahuila and Texas had adopted a new constitution on March 11, 1827. Later, on November 14, 1835, Coahuila was separated from Texas and given statehood on its own.

Coahuila was occupied by U.S. forces in 1847 and 1848, but stayed a part of Mexico after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) detached a significant part of Northern Mexico and annexed it to the United States. However, from 1856 to 1868, Coahuila and Nuevo Le??n were granted joint statehood. Finally, in 1868, Coahuila earned separate status as the sovereign state of Coahuila de Zaragoza.

First Contacts with Spaniards

After the Spaniards had conquered Tenochtitl?n (Mexico City), they began to gradually expand to the north in search of new territories. The silver rush emerging in Zacatecas (commencing in 1546) inspired an increasing number of Spanish entrepreneurs to move further north. The first Spanish explorers probably wandered into Coahuila sometime after 1535. Initially, the arid conditions and fierce resistance of the indigenous groups in the region made it difficult for the Spaniards and their Indian allies to establish a permanent settlement. The Spaniards' initial interest in Coahuila was focused on the region's mineral wealth. Various entrepreneurs and explorers entered the area in the hopes of beginning new settlements, where silver or gold could be mined.

Nearly all of the indigenous people encountered by the Spanish explorers and settlers spoke dialects of Cotoname, a Coahuiltecan language in the Hokan group. But some of the people living in the sparsely inhabited area west of the Sierra were called Tobosos, who probably spoke an Uto-Aztecan language. In the South, the newcomers confronted Coahuiltecan-speaking Cabezas.

Alberto del Canto, later the magistrate of Saltillo, is believed to have discovered silver at the future site of Monclova in 1577, but his settlement Minas de la Trinidad was subsequently abandoned because of Indian hostility.

Irritilas and Laguneros

According to Peter Gerhard, "The North Frontier of New Spain" (1982), a missionary who knew the Parras region in 1595 wrote that the "original" inhabitants of the area were Yritilas (Irritilas) and Mayranos. Both groups are identified with the people who were later called Laguneros or Salineros, who extended westward to the vicinity of Cerro Gordo.

Inhabiting the Laguna de Parras (San Pedro), the Laguneros also known as the Irritilas were described by the Spaniards as "Lake People," because they occupied the lakes of the tablelands of Mapim?. They were believed to have been an Aztecoidan branch of the Uto-Aztecan stock, but this is not certain. The Indians lived primarily from fishing, hunting, and gathering, but they probably also sowed maize around the lakeshores as floodwaters receded. They are now extinct.


The linguist John Reed Swanton regarded the Toboso Indians as a "predatory tribe living in the Seventeenth Century in the Bols??n de Mapim? and extending northward at least to the R?o Grande." From their positions in both Coahuila and Chihuahua, the Tobosos frequently raided Spanish settlements to the east in Coahuila and Nuevo Le??n. Some evidence originally linked the Tobosos with the Athapaskans (Apaches), but more recent research has produced enough evidence to indicate that the Toboso language was probably Uto-Aztecan.


The Guachichiles, of all the Chichimeca Indians, occupied the most extensive territory, extending some 100,000 square kilometers from Lake Chapala (Jalisco) in the south to Saltillo (Coahuila) in the north. Considered both warlike and brave, the Guachichiles roamed through a large section of the present-day state of Zacatecas. The Aztecs used the term "Guachichile" as a reference to "heads painted of red," a reference to the red dye that they used to paint their bodies, faces and hair. The Guachichil group of tribes is regarded as connected with the present-day Huichol language group (of Jalisco and Nayarit) and has been classified as part of the Aztecoidan division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic family.

The Guachichiles and their "Chichimeca" cousins, the Zacatecos, waged the 40-year war (1550-1590) known as the "Chichimeca War" against Spanish forces, primarily in the vast region south of Coahuila (Zacatecas, Northern Jalisco, Aguascalientes, Western San Luis Potos? and Guanajuato). They were never decisively defeated in battle, but were pacified through gifts that included many of the materials used by Spaniards and "civilized" Indians to live and thrive in their Spanish settlements. A detailed discussion of the Chichimeca War is discussed in the article below: l


The Zacatecos were an indigenous tribe related to the Cazcan of the Aztecoidan family and Uto-Aztecan stock, occupying a large part of the State of Zacatecas and smaller portions of eastern Durango and southern Coahuila. They were bordered by the Irritilas and Laguneros on the north, the Tepehu?n on the west, and the Guachichile on the east. On the south, they were bordered by the Cora and Cazcan. According to David Frye, "Northeastern Mexico," by 1620, some elements of the Zacatecos had moved farther north to live among indigenous groups in the mission town of Parras in the aftermath of the Chichimeca War.

Conchos (Northwest Coahuila)

The Conchos have been described in great detail by several researchers. They were named for the Spanish word for "shells," a likely reference to the many shellfish found in the Conchos River. The Concho Indians lived near the junction of the Rio Concho River and Rio Grande Rivers in northern Chihuahua. However, the Conchos are also believed to have extended their reach into the modern-day state of Coahuila.

The Conchos were placed by Mason and Johnson in the Taracahitian division of the Uto-Aztecan linguistic stock, with two major subdivisions: the Chinarra around the salt lakes and sand dunes of northern Chihuahua, and the Chizo, an eastern subdivision that inhabits the area east of the Concho and near the big bend of the R?o Grande. In 1934, Kroeber placed the Concho in the Cahita-Opata-Tarahumara group, most closely related to Opata and less so with the Tarahumara.

The Apaches

In the north the Spanish frontier met the Apache southward expansion. In the first half of the seventeenth century, Apaches acquired horses from Spanish colonists of New Mexico and achieved dominance of the Southern Plains. The Apache expansion was intensified by the Pueblo Indian Revolt of 1680, when the Apaches lost their prime source of horses and shifted south to prey on Spanish settlements in Coahuila. Juan Dom?nguez de Mendoza recorded the names of numerous Indian groups east of the lower Pecos River that were displaced by Apaches.

In 1780, the Comanches from the north began to harass the Apaches with raids that reached as far south as Monclova. As a result, the Apaches moved toward the coastal plain of Texas and became known as the Lipan Apaches. The Lipans in turn displaced the last Indian groups native to southern Texas, most of whom went to the Spanish missions in the San Antonio area. By 1790 the Spaniards had turned their attention from the aboriginal groups and focused on containing the Apache invaders in Coahuila, Chihuahua and Texas.

The Coahuiltecan Tribes

The Coahuiltecan tribes were made up of hundreds of bands of hunter-gatherers who ranged over the eastern part of Coahuila, northern Tamaulipas, Nuevo Le??n and southern Texas south and west of San Antonio River and Cibolo Creek. It is believed that the Coahuiltecans reached all the way to the Gulf coast at the mouth of the Nueces. Northeast of that point they were succeeded by Karankawan tribes. Toward the north, the Coahuiltecans were displaced by the Apache and Comanche. However, some tribes along the lower Rio Grande may have belonged to a distinct family, Tamaulipecan (described in 1864 by Orozco y Berra).

The Coahuiltecans were tattooed and wore a breechcloth or hide skirt, fiber sandals, and, in bad weather, they covered themselves with animal hides. Animal teeth, bones, feathers, stones, and seeds were worn as jewelry and sometimes woven into their intricately braided hair. Shelter consisted of small temporary huts of brush or grass, sensible structures given their way of life and the climate of the area over which they ranged. It was the practice of the Coahuiltecans (or Coahuiltecos) to move from one traditional campsite to another, following the seasons and herds of migrating animals. During the Spanish colonial period a majority of the Coahuilatecan natives were displaced from their traditional territories by Spaniards advancing from the south and Apaches advancing from the north. A large number of the small tribal groups or bands belonging to the Coahuiltecan stock remain unknown to this day and even their locations in some cases are not clear.

Early Settlements

On July 25, 1577, the Portuguese explorer Captain Alberto del Canto founded San Estevan (later known as La Villa de Santiago del Saltillo) near a mission that had been established four years earlier. Saltillo became the oldest post-conquest settlement in Northern Mexico. However, in 1581, the Saltillo inhabitants were forced to retreat to Durango and Mazapil by sustained Indian attacks. But after 14 years, the Spaniards were able to return and establish San Esteban de Tlaxcala in 1591.

In 1578, Francisco de Urdinola established the town of Parras, which was actually abandoned for a few years, but settlers returned there in 1598. Between 1583 and 1585, an expedition led by Luis Carvajal y de la Cueva resulted in the foundation of Nuevo Almad?n. Other settlements followed in the Seventeenth Century, but unfortunately, no major concentrations of gold or silver veins were found. Coahuila's earth's richness is in metalloids such as iron, carbon, fluorite, and others, which would be discovered much later.

Tlaxcaltecan Settlements

In 1590, Viceroy Luis de Velasco II commanded that 400 families of loyal, converted Tlaxcaltecans Indians (from Tlaxcala in the south) be settled alongside the Chichimec and other nomadic tribes of the northern frontier area. In June 1591, a caravan of 100 wagons and 932 colonists began their journey. These 932 colonists consisted of 690 married individuals, 187 children and 55 single or widowed individuals. On August 5, 1591 the caravan arrived at Cuicillo, where the caravan split up for different destinations. One of the four groups -- 245 Tlaxcaltecans led by Capitan Buenaventura Paz -- was sent from San Juan del Rio to parts of Nuevo Le??n, Durango and Coahuila.

The purpose of the Tlaxcaltecan caravan was to offer the Tlaxcalans an opportunity to serve as examples of "civilized Indians" for the native Indians. They would play a role in the Christianizing of the nomadic desert tribes. The town of San Esteb?n de la Nueva Tlaxcala in Coahuila was among the settlements founded for this purpose. In 1674, Fray Juan de Larios conquered a great deal of the territory of Coahuila and established the village of Guadalupe, another Tlaxcalan settlement. Nearby, the city of Monclova was also established in 1674 and soon after it was declared the capital of the area.

Missions as a Place of Refuge

In northeastern Coahuila and adjacent Texas, the displacement of Coahuiltecans and other nomadic groups by the Spaniards and Apaches created an unusual ethnic mix. Inevitably, the numerous Spanish missions in the region would provide a refuge for the displaced and declining Indian populations. In the mission system, local Indians mixed with displaced groups from Coahuila, Chihuahua and Texas.

The number of Indian groups at the missions varied from fewer than twenty groups to as many as 100. Missions in existence the longest usually had more groups, particularly in the north. Mission Indian villages usually consisted of about 100 Indians of mixed groups who generally came from a wide area surrounding a mission. Although survivors of a group often entered a single mission, individuals and families of one ethnic group might scatter to five or six missions. Some Indians never entered a mission.

The former hunter-gatherers were willing to become part of the mission system for a number of reasons. The irrigation system promised a more stable supply of food than they normally enjoyed. Diseases brought by Europeans had depleted their numbers, making the Coahuiltecans even more vulnerable to their now-mobile enemies. The presidio frequently located close to a mission -- offered much greater protection from the Apaches.

The missionaries, along with lay helpers and usually no more than two soldiers and their families, instructed the natives in the Catholic faith and in the elements of Spanish peasant society. The Indians learned various trades, including carpentry, masonry, blacksmithing, and weaving; they also did a great deal of agricultural work.

Because the missions had an agricultural base, they declined when the Indian labor force dwindled. Missions were distributed unevenly. Some were in remote areas, while others were clustered, often two to five in number, in small areas. A large number of displaced Indians collected in the clustered missions, which generally had a military garrison (presidio) for protection. Eventually, all the Spanish missions were abandoned or transferred to diocesan jurisdictions.

Classification of the Coahuiltecans

Initially, the Spaniards had little interest in describing the natives or classifying them into ethnic units. There was no obvious basis for classification, and major cultural contrasts and tribal organizations went unnoticed, as did similarities and differences in the native languages and dialects. The Spanish padres referred to each Indian group as a naci??n, and described them according to their association with major terrain features or with Spanish jurisdictional units. Only in Nuevo Le??n did observers link Indian populations by cultural peculiarities, such as hairstyle and body decoration. Thus, modern scholars have found it difficult to identify these hunting and gathering groups by language and culture.

The first attempt at classification of the Coahuila Indians was based on language, but came after most of the Indian groups had become extinct. Over time, Indians from other linguistic groups entered the Texas, Tamaulipas and Coahuila missions. Eventually, many of the ethnohistorians and anthropologists came to believe that the entire region was occupied by numerous small Indian groups who spoke related languages and shared the same basic culture, the Coahuiltecan culture. By the mid-nineteenth century, Mexican linguists had constructed what is now known as "Coahuiltecan culture" by assembling bits of specific and generalized information recorded by Spaniards for widely scattered and limited parts of the region.

A majority of the Coahuiltecan Indians lost their identity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their names disappeared from the written record as epidemics, warfare, migration, dispersion by Spaniards to work at distant plantations and mines, high infant mortality, and general demoralization took their toll. Small remnants of tribes merged with larger remnants of other groups. By 1800 the names of few ethnic units appear in documents, and by 1900 the names of groups native to the region had disappeared.

Loss of Ethnic Identity

A majority of the Coahuiltecan Indians lost their identity during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Their names disappeared from the written record as epidemics, warfare, migration, dispersion by Spaniards to work at distant plantations and mines, high infant mortality, and general demoralization took their toll. Small remnants merged with larger remnants. By 1800 the names of few ethnic units appear in documents, and by 1900 the names of groups native to the region had disappeared. Missions and refugee communities near Spanish or Mexican towns were the last bastions of ethnic identity. The Indians caused little trouble and provided unskilled labor. Ethnic names vanished with intermarriages. By the end of the eighteenth century, missions closed and Indian families were given small parcels of mission land. Eventually, the survivors passed into the lower economic levels of Mexican society.

Population Figures

According to the "Handbook of Texas Online," estimates of the total Coahuiltecan population in 1690 vary widely. One scholar estimates the total nonagricultural Indian population of northeastern Mexico, which included desert lands west to the R?o Conchos in Chihuahua, at 100,000; another scholar (Ruecking, 1953) compiled a list of 614 group names (Coahuiltecan) for northeastern Mexico and southern Texas and estimated the average population per group as 140 and therefore reckoned the total population at 86,000.


Kikap?? is the only current indigenous language that might be considered indigenous to Coahuila. The Kikap?? of Coahuila are part of an Algonquin speaking tribe of northern origin that also lives in Oklahoma, Kansas, and Texas. The Mexican Kikap?? live primarily around the town of El Nacimiento de los Kikap??es, located in the municipio of Melchor M??zquiz, Coahuila. According to the INI (2003) and the National Council on Population (Consejo Nacional de Poblaci??n CONAPO), there were 339 Kikap?? speakers in 1995 and only 138 in 2000, but it is likely that many tribal members do not speak the language (but may be considered part of the Kikap?? ethnic group).

The Background of the "Kickapoo Indians"

Before contact with Europeans, the Kickapoo lived in northwest Ohio and southern Michigan in the area between Lake Erie and Lake Michigan. Beginning in the 1640s, the Algonquin tribes in this region came under attack from the east, first by the Ottawa and Iroquian-speaking Neutrals, and then the Iroquois. By 1658 the Kickapoo had been forced west into southwest Wisconsin.

About 1700 they began to move south into northern Illinois and by 1770 had established themselves in central Illinois (near Peoria) extending southeast into the Wabash Valley on the western border of Indiana. After wars with the Americans and settlement of the Ohio Valley, they signed treaties during 1819 ceding their remaining land east of the Mississippi River and relocated to southern Missouri (1819-24). Initially, most moved to the lands assigned them, but many remained in central Illinois and refused to leave until they were forcibly removed by the military in 1834.

Several bands of Kickapoo did not want to stay in Missouri and began wandering south and west, spreading across Oklahoma and Texas all the way to the Mexican border (and beyond). In 1832 the Missouri Kickapoo exchanged their reserve for lands in northeast Kansas. After the move, factions developed, and in 1852, a large group left and moved to Chihuahua in northern Mexico, where some of the Kickapoo had already made their home. The Mexican Kickapoo (known as Kikap?? in Mexico) were joined by other tribal members between 1857 and 1863, but between 1873 and 1878, approximately half of the Mexican Kickapoo returned to Oklahoma in the United States.

In 2000, the largest concentration of the Kikap?? were found in the Coahuila's north central municipio of M??zquiz, where 106 of the 125 Kikap?? speakers lived at the time of the 2000 census.

Indigenous Coahuila in the Twentieth Century

By the late Nineteenth Century, nearly all the indigenous groups of Coahuila had disappeared. The 1895 census recorded only 19 indigenous speakers in the entire state. This number increased slightly to 55 in 1900 and to 263 in 1910. In 1910, Coahuila had 262 Kikap?? speakers, which means that only one indigenous person in the state spoke a language other than Kikap??.

In the unique 1921 Mexican census, residents of each state were asked to classify themselves in several categories, including "ind?gena pura" (pure indigenous), "ind?gena mezclada con blanca" (indigenous mixed with white) and "blanca" (white). Out of a total state population of 393,480,

44,779 persons (or 1.1%) claimed to be of pure indigenous background
306,433 persons (or 77.9%) classified themselves as being mixed
39,853 persons (or 10.1%) classified themselves as white.

The 2010 Census

According to the 2010 Mexican census, only 6,105 persons five years of age or more in the State of Coahuila actually spoke an indigenous language. The most represented languages in the State were:

N?huatl (931 speakers)
Kikap?? (433 speakers)
Mazahua (336 speakers)
Zapotec (225 speakers)

With the exception of the Kikap?? speakers, the majority of these indigenous speakers were either migrants from other parts of Mexico or the children of migrants who arrived in the State at a later date. In 2010, only 39 residents of Coahuila were monolingual speakers of their indigenous language. In the final analysis, Coahuila ranked at the bottom of all the Mexican states for the number of its indigenous speakers.

Mexicans Considered Indigenous

The 2010 census included a question that asked people if they considered themselves indigenous, whether or not an indigenous language was spoken. The results of this question indicated that 15.7 million persons in Mexico 3 years of age and older identified themselves as "indigenous." By comparison, 6.9 million people in the same age bracket were tallied as indigenous speakers, meaning that approximately 8.8 million Mexicans aged 3 and older did not speak an indigenous language but considered themselves to be of indigenous origin.

In all, only 14,638 residents of Coahuila in 2010 were classified as indigenous, about 0.5% of the state's population and more than double the number of indigenous speakers (6,105). The two municipios with the largest number of "indigenous" persons were Saltillo (3,992) and Torre??n (3,219), but M??zquiz with 760 indigenous persons had one of the highest percentages of all Coahuila municipios.

The Future

Most of Coahuila's indigenous population disappeared, dispersed or assimilated in the Eighteenth Century. While the Kikap?? speakers hang on in northern Coahuila, the only other source of indigenous speakers in the State will come from the migrant workers who travel from Oaxaca, Guerrero and other southern states.

Coahuila is Mexico's top mining state in large part because of its large coal reserves. Thanks to Coahuila's coal industry, its export-oriented manufacturing industry (the maquiladora) and Saltillo's prosperous automobile industry, it is likely that migrants will continue to enter Coahuila's border, thus bringing an influx of new indigenous speakers from other states.

Copyright ? 2014, by John P. Schmal.


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About John P Schmal:
John P. Schmal is a market analyst, historian and genealogist.
Author's website

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