A Brief History of Veracruz:
Four Places Called Veracruz

Photographs and Text by John Todd, Jr.

A Guidebook that Left me Scratching my Head
A friend came to Veracruz armed with a guide book written in English and I was curious about what others have to say. It´s because the history and culture of the area around Veracruz is vast and complicated and not easy to condense into a couple of paragraphs.

This guidebook is well known and widely read, and I was surprised to see the strange focus, and even some mistakes that left me scratching my head. It simply didn´t happen that way. I wondered how the editors could have missed many of the more important details about the fascinating history of Veracruz. The charm of this area is not so much in the beaches and palm trees, like other beach places in Mexico, but in the diverse areas to explore and enjoy. To fully appreciate Veracruz it also helps to know what you are looking at, and how it got here.

But, I´m not a historian and don´t make my living at it, so I consulted a friend of mine here in Veracruz who had been a teacher for many years, and she confirmed what I think is interesting about the history around Veracruz.

Here´s an overview of the History of Veracruz that the local people know to help you know what you are looking at when you come here. Other than hotel listings, I wouldn´t put too much faith in the guide books.

Map Gulf
Chicxulub Meteor Crater Site
The Big Bang: Prehistory
Before the meteor hit Yucatan, the Gulf Coast of Mexico looked very different.

In the 1950´s, fossils of swamp animal and plant life were found on the high plains of Puebla at 2,800 ft. in Tepexi de Rodriguez.

It was a mystery how they had gotten there.

In the 1990´s satellite data confirmed the existence of the Chicxulub crater, a 112-mile wide, 3,000-foot deep impact crater.

The meteor was responsible for the demise of the dinosaurs and more than 70 percent of Earth's living species 65 million years ago.

Meso America
Carbon dated bones around 12,000 BC indicate the first evidence of humanoids in Mexico.
Map Gulf
Meso America
The Olmecs
Around 6,000 BC the first cultures began to emerge.The first were the Olmecs which began around 1500 BC and died out around 200 AD. They were known for the Olmec Heads. 16 of them are at the Museum of Anthropology in Xalapa.

The Mayans
The Mayans began to emerge around the 3rd century BC and continue to the present day.

The Totonacos
The Totonacos emerged around the 11th Century and continue to this day. Their religious and commercial centers are El Tajín and Cempoala. They are also known for their groups of "Los Voladores" who perform all over the world.

El Tajín was a series of mounds until they were rebuilt and a park was constructed in the 1960´s.

Cempoala disappeared when one of Hernán Cortés´s men infected the people with smallpox.
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The Aztecs

The Quetzalcoatl: Europe Arrives
In the 11th Century the Quetzalcoatl arrived around Tampico. He was a blonde man with a beard who was also a great healer and brought a lot of knowledge to the Indians. Some think he was a lost Viking.

The Chilling Prophecy
When he left from Yucatan, he predicted that when a certain meteor crossed the skies, men with white skins and beards would arrive in huge houses on the sea. They would have strange animals, formidable weapons, and would bring illness and destruction to the Indian peoples.

The Aztecs
Also, in the 11th Century the Aztec culture emerged from the peoples of the north.

By the 1400´s they had conquered the areas of Veracruz and had outposts as far west as Xicalango, near Cd. del Carmen, Campeche. They exacted higher taxes and increased human sacrifices as part of their religion and were not well liked by the people they had conquered.
Map Gulf
The Route of Hernán Cortés
Their language was Nahuatl which is still spoken in many parts of Mexico.

The legend of the Quetzalcoatl was widely known. Moctezuma, the last Aztec king, saw the meteor in 1516 and was afraid because he knew the end of the Aztec Empire would be soon.

The Expedition in 1519
Through political contacts in Havana, a young Spanish scribe, Hernán Cortés was accepted on an expedition to explore the uncharted coast of the Western Gulf of Mexico.
The Voladores Performed for Cortes
The Formation of the Group
On the way, their 12 ships stopped at the island of Cozumel where they found two shipwrecked Spaniards, Gerónimo de Aguilar, and Navarro living with the friendly Mayan Indians.

Navarro had been a soldier and had married the daughter of the village chief.

Aguilar was a priest who had remained faithful to his vows of celebacy.

Both were fluent in the Mayan language.
The Voladores Performed for Cortes
When it was time to continue their voyage, Navarro chose to remain on the island with his family.

Aguilar chose to accompany the group and later proved indispensable as an interpreter for the group.

La Malinche
The Mayan Indians on the mainland were not friendly, so they pushed further south until arriving in Xicalango, the easternmost outpost of the Aztec empire.

This is where they met Malintzín, or Doña Malinche.

There is some discussion about whether she was a slave or was the director of customs tax collections for the Aztecs.

She spoke Mayan and Aztec, and decided to join the group.

She and Aguilar became the interpreters for Hernán Cortes.
Map Gulf
The First Veracruz
Cortes and his group stopped at the island of San Juan de Ulua which had been previously visited by Juan de Grijalva the year before.

Then, a few days later they sailed a little way up the coast and landed at a place called Chalchihuecan.

Cortes and his men called this place "Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz", or the Rich Village of the True Cross, on Good Friday 1519.

This was the First Veracruz.
Map Gulf
Villa Rica
La Villa Rica de la Vera Cruz: 1519-1523
Several weeks later he set up a new base camp just up the coast at Quiahuiztlán, which in those days was a cemetery for the nobles of nearby Cempoala.

Since it was more suitable strategically, the Second Veracruz was founded at Punta Villa Rica.

Cempoala: The First Allies
Cempoala was a large Totonaco Indian civilization nearby and it´s where Cortes made friends and his first converts to Christianity.
The Pyramids at Cempoala

Fifty years earlier the people of Cempoala had been conquered by the Aztecs and agreed to supply Cortes with an Army to face Montezuma, the king of the Aztecs.

At that point he sent one of the ships back to Cuba to tell the viceroy of his plans.

At Villa Rica, he dismantled his ships so his men wouldn´t desert, and built shelters for a small group of men to stand watch.

After a two year struggle against the Aztecs, he was successful and got a fabulous treasure of gold and silver as a result.
The New Viceroy Rejected
When he returned to Cempoala he found find another Spaniard, Pánfilo de Narvaez, with a letter appointment.

Narvaez would be the new viceroy of New Spain, as this area was called in those days.

A battle followed and Cortes succeeded in chasing Narvaez away. Later another viceroy was appointed.

Time Out for a History Quiz
One day when I was new to Veracruz, I was on the Zocalo, and started talking to an old man sitting on one of the park benches. He asked me the following question:

Question: What was the richest empire in the history of mankind? The Romans, the Ming Dynasty, the Vikings?

He told me the answer:

Answer: The Spanish Empire. It lasted almost 400 years, until it finally lost Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines in 1898 and no longer were provinces of Spain. That´s a long time.

Massive Amounts of Gold and Silver
In the mid 1500´s, massive amounts of gold and silver were discovered in what today is called the country of Mexico, (back then and for 300 years it was called "Nueva España"), this part of the world became the most important province in the richest empire in the history of humanity.

Veracruz was the Center of Logisitics and Traffic
Veracruz was the center of traffic and logistics for the richest empire in the history of humanity since all the treasures of the Orient, and all the gold and silver had to go through the Antigua, Veracruz and fort of San Juan de Ulua. That´s the way it was from 1519 until the day the last Spanish troops left Veracruz in November of 1825.

Better than Disneyland
Although they are in a state of disrepair, many of these original old buildings can still be explored. Veracruz isn´t spruced up for tourists and doesn´t look like Disneyland, but I think that is what makes it even more interesting. At least for me.

Over the years, I have been back to the Zocalo in Veracruz many times, but I never saw the old man again. I guess he was a tourist from Mexico City.

Another Version of the Conquest of Mexico
The other day a bunch of friends were having mid morning coffee and were talking about the Conquest of Mexico, and what might be the truth.

Still many questions remain about the Conquest of Mexico. Like how is it possible for a force of 300 men to conquer a huge geographic area like Mexico and Central America with millions of natives and a sophisticated civilization?

A new guy at the table sitting next to me was a man who didn´t come to Veracruz often. For many years, he had been a rural school teacher and had lived and worked for many years in the Indian areas around Zongólica all his life. He understood the local Indian dialects and knew the people well and still lived out in in the country somewhere.

The former school teacher paused, and said that historians tell us that Hernán Cortes conquered Mexico, however that is not the case. He went on to tell us the following story:

Resistance to the Aztec Conquests and the Legend of the Quetzalcoatl
It is worthy to mention that during the 100 years before the arrival of Hernán Cortes, Aztec conquests had caused a lot of friction among the various conquered tribes because of the Aztec practice of exacting higher taxes and increased the numbers human sacrifices.

Since around the 11th century, the story of the Quetzalcoatl was well known. When he left Mexico, he had predicted there would be a comet forecasting the arrival of another race of people carrying new weapons, and they would destroy civilization.

When the comet appeared in 1515, Moctezuma, the king of the Aztecs was filled with fear. It was then that the Totonaco and Tlaxcalteco tribes began to develop their plans to overthrow the Aztec yoke. Their plan was based on partially on faith that that the legend was true and reports from native traders that had been coming in from the distant Caribbean that a new race of people was exploring the islands there. It was also reported that they had new weapons, and horses that were unknown in America.

What they needed were new weapons they´d only heard about in the legend, and from the reports that had filtered in since 1493 from native traders in the Caribbean, it looked like the new explorers might have just what was needed to make the plan to overthrow the Aztecs work.

Solidifying the Plan to Overthrow the Aztecs
In later reports from the islands of the Caribbean, it was said that the Indians who resisted the Spanish soldiers were killed and local tribes were eventually wiped out. In Yucatan, the resistance was heavy, and the initial efforts of the Spanish explorers to conquer the Mayans were unsuccessful.

However, along the Gulf Coast, the tribes, especially the Totonacos near Veracruz along with the fierce Tlaxcaltecos near Puebla, hatched a plan to utilize the Spanish Conquistadores to attack the hated Aztecs in Tenochtitlán and free themselves from their oppressive yoke.

For that reason, when Hernán Cortes arrived on the coasts of Veracruz he was surprised to find that he was well received by the "Fat Cacique" of Cempoala, and received his full cooperation. Unknown to Cortes, word was also being sent secretly each day to the Tlaxcaltecos of the negotiations taking place with Cortes in Cempoala, Veracruz. Part of the plan was to make Cortes think that he was the leader.

Maybe Cortes was NOT the "Conquistador"
However, this was not the case. Hernán Cortes and his new weapons were only used extensively to supplement the forces of the thousands of Indians to completely defeat the Aztecs once and for all. Contrary to what most historians say, he was not the Conquistador, but an instrument of the Indians to overthrow the Aztecs from their local territories. And the Indians were successful, too.

When the school teacher concluded his brief story, we sat back and took another sip of coffee. It was a remarkable theory, and no one at the table could dispute it. History is based on writings, and obviously this was an oral history. The next time, I read the history of Mexico, I will remember this theory and watch for clues.

The View of Villa Rica from Quiahuiztlán

Antigua, Veracruz
Antigua, The Third Veracruz:1523-1580 to 1600
Villa Rica was not suitable as a port to transport the riches of the conquered Aztecs back to Spain and a more sheltered place was chosen as the new port of Veracruz.

A better site was found 3 miles inland from the ocean along the a quiet river. They called this place Veracruz and it functioned for about the next 80 years.

Each year when the fleet came in from Spain, Antigua was converted into a huge tiaguis, or open air market.

Later the market was moved to Xalapa.

Antigua, Veracruz
At that time the gold was loaded on the ships that formed the Annual Gold Fleet which returned to Spain.

Because of frequent flooding, Veracruz was changed to the Island of San Juan de Ulua where a fort was built.

Antigua is Unique
Here are some claims that no other city can make:

  • Antigua is the departure point for the largest transfer of wealth in the history of mankind.
  • Antigua is the location of the first municipality in the Western Hemisphere.

  • The First Church in America
  • The first church in continental America is in Antigua.
  • Antigua is Km. 0 of the original Camino Real which eventually reached San Francisco, California and Santa Fe, New Mexico.

    In the south the Camino Real reached Acapulco and carried all the commerce from the Philippines to Veracruz.

    Antigua was the beginning and end of the King´s Highway.

    The Present Veracruz:1600 to Now
    From 1523 to 1810, Antigua and Veracruz were the only official ports of entry and exit point from New Spain.

  • San Juan de Ulua and Veracruz in 1615
    During that time, all commerce and people had to go through Veracruz. Not many stayed long because of the heat and malaria, and an illness called the "vómito negro."

    In 1568, John Hawkins and Francis Drake were attacked by the Spaniards and lost 3 of their 6 ships in front of the fort of San Juan de Ulua.

    Huges quantities of gold and silver at San Juan de Ulua waiting for the annual gold fleets to take the treasures to Spain, and pirates from many nations lurked offshore waiting for gold laden ships to plunder.
    San Juan de Ulua
    Many other ships were lost to bad weather such as "nortes" or hurricanes.

    Lorenz de Graaf´s Raid
    Until 1683, life went on casually in Veracruz. The fort of San Juan de Ulua was safe, but the little town of 5,000 was not.

    In May of that year, Lorenz de Graaf, a Dutch pirate, locally known as "Lorencillo" took over the town at night and herded all the townspeople into the church.

    He held them there for three and a half days while he and his band of men did what they wished and sacked the town.

    May is one of the hottest months of the year, and with no food and water, many chose to leap to their deaths from the roof of the church.
    The Docks at Ulua
    When Lorencillo finished, he took 30 of the prettiest girls and left them on the Isla de los Sacrificios. The girls were there for another 5 days without food or water before help finally arrived.

    The safety issue shook the Colonial Empire of Spain and the King agreed to build a wall around Veracruz.

    Later a social protest song called La Bamba began to circulate through the street of the devastated village.

    Piet Heyn
    Each year the a Gold Fleet consisting of 50 to 70 ships laden with gold and silver, and treasures from South America and the Philippines, left Veracruz for Spain.

    They were well armed but were no match for hurricanes, and pirates that lurked beyond the horizon.

    In 1628, Dutch pirate, Peit Heyn, devised a way to capture the whole Spanish Gold Fleet and was successful.
    The Finished Double Wall of Veracruz
    It is said that when the King of Spain received the news of the loss he had a stroke and was confined to his bed for one year.

    Apparently, he had already spent the fortune before it arrived.

    To this day each school child in Holland is required to learn a folk song about the glorious deed of Piet Heyn.

    Over the years improvements were made and the fort was expanded and San Juan de Ulua became a strong fortress.
    The Churches in Old Veracruz
    (Click to Enlarge)
    The Best Kept Secret in Veracruz
    Almost unnoticed to the people who live in the port of Veracruz, is a solid building that from 1776 until now has been called the "Convento de San Agustin Nuevo". It was originally built in 1639 as the Colegio de los Jesuitas, and was the first school in Veracruz.

    At the same time,there are also 5 other convents, and two parish churches in Veracruz.

    From the earliest years of the Spanish occupation of Mexico, in addtion to the regular parish churches, there were 19 other Christian religious orders who came to Mexico to perform their services to the spiritual part of life in early Mexico.
    The Abandoned Jesuit Complex in 1875
    Each religious order performed its own special service, from taking care of the ill in their hospitals to teaching children in their schools.

    These early Christian missionaries were instrumental in outlawing human sacrifices which were prevalent, especially among the Aztecs.

    Built by the Jesuits in 1639, the First School In Veracruz
    It was in fact, a great architectural complex built by the Company of Jesus and was used as a school, a residence, and temple annex dedicated to St. Francis Xavier.
    The Same Building Today
    It was the first granted in New Spain in the advocation of the co-founder of the Society of Jesus, and the first "Apostle to the Indies."

    The Banishment Order from Spain
    However, in faraway Europe, the Jesuit Order began to have political problems first in Germany, then France, and later in Spain.

    Conservative King Carlos III of Spain could no longer tolerate dissention, and in early 1767, decided to solve the problem by banishing the Jesuits from Spain and all its colonies.
    The Colegio Now a Warehouse for a Brewery
    In Veracruz as in every city in Mexico, at 2AM on June 25, 1767, except California, Veracruz Governor Felix de Ferraz assembled his local authorities to read the latest "Royal Edict" from the King of Spain.

    As dictated by the order, At 4AM, they knocked on the door of the Colegio de Veracruz, documented the 7 occupants there, and dispatched them with royal troops several blocks away to the Convento de la Merced.

    Then the authorities began to take an inventory of property and records to report back to the Crown in Spain. This inventory had to be done secretly, and with meetings each day, took a little over a year to complete.

    Upon Pain of Death
    Along with the edict was an order that "upon pain of death" will the name "Jesuit" be spoken or appear in print.

    This is why the Banishment of the Jesuits has been lightly passed over by most historians, and even today, is perhaps the "Best Secret in Mexico". Even in Veracruz, the valuable contribution of the Jesuits is forgotten or ignored.
    There isn't much documentation about this event other than the official reports buried deep in the National Archives in Madrid.

    The Jesuits in Veracruz awaiting ships to go into exile were guarded by royal troops, and townspeople were not even allowed to speak to the new exiles, to give them food, or help them in any way.

    Gov. Felix de Ferraz was also responsible for caring of the 672 Jesuits brought by foot from as far away as California to Veracruz for banishment to Bologna, Italy, a task that took over a year and a half. During this time, some 34 Jesuits died from malaria.

    The First Seeds of Independence from Spain
    The Jesuits had the best schools in the country, and now they were closed. People in other parts of Mexico started riots because their children now were without schools. These riots were ruthlessly quelled, and not much was written about them.

    The Jesuits in Mexico were loved by the people who taught their children and were mostly innocent of the charges. However, with the Expulsion of the Jesuits began resentment against the Crown, and the first seeds of Independence from Spain had been sown.

    El Zocalo in the 17th Century
    After 1810 Came the Invasions
    The town of Veracruz prospered and grew to become the commercial lifeline to Mexico City.

    Although New Spain declared its independence from Spain in 1810, the fort was occupied by Spanish troops until 1825.

    In later years, the fort of San Juan de Ulua became a prison well know for cruel conditions. Many died here.

    The Pastry War of 1838 occurred when the French invaded to based on claims from a French citizen for damages.
    San Juan de Ulua and Veracruz in 1847
    The invasion was brief, but an Army officer, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna lost his leg in the conflict.

    US Invasion of 1847. US troops invaded Mexico from the North and through Veracruz over a border dispute along the Rio Grande River.

    The result was the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and the US gained California, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.

    Massive amounts of gold was discovered at Sutter´s Mill in California in 1849 provoking a gold rush.
    El Callejón de la Campana
    The French Invasion and Occupation 1862-1867. After many decades of insecurity and foreign debts and at the invitation of conservative groups in Mexico, Spain, England, and France invaded Mexico through Veracruz in an attempt to collect on old debts and perhaps bring some order to the country.

    After bouts with the "vómito negro", the Spanish and English retired their troops and the French remained.

    France was one of the most powerful nations in those days and many thought they could bring order to the country by installing a monarchy. Maxmiliano, Archduke of Austria, was invited to be king.

    Maxmiliano and his wife Carlota loved the country and brought stability to the country as long as French troops were there.
    The Maritime Building
    The arrangement lasted until 1867, when Napoleon III needed the troops in Europe. Benito Juarez became president.

    The Wall Comes Down and a New Port is Built
    By 1872, the Mexico City to Veracruz railway was completed.

    On July 14, 1880, the wall that once protected Veracruz from pirates had become obsolete, and it was ordered to be demolished, thus allowing the city of Veracruz to grow.
    Fort Santiago
    El Baluarte Santiago, one of the corner sentry stations was allowed to remain as a monument of the past.

    From 1897-1902 the port was modernized with federal money by the British company Weetman Pearson and Sons.

    The work was authorized by President Porfirio Díaz who is well remembered to this day in Veracruz.

    The US Invasion of Veracruz
    In 1910, Porfirio Díaz had left the country for exile in France. Francisco I. Madero was elected President of Mexico.
    El Malecon 1905
    In 1911, Victoriano Huerta overthrew the government and killed Madero.

    In the North, Venustiano Carranza, Alvaro Obregón, and Pancho Villa united their forces against the Huerta government, and unleashed the Mexican Revolution.

    US President Woodrow Wilson insisted on neutrality in the conflict and was concerned about the intervention of foreign governments supplying guns to the revolt.

    In 1914, a coded telegram was intercepted.
    Doughboys in Front of the Carranza Lighthouse 1914
    It said a German ship loaded with armament was scheduled to arrive in Veracruz or in Tampico.In April 1914, US troops invaded and occupied Veracruz for 6 months.

    The townspeople of Veracruz resisted bravely but were no match for the 17 battleships.

    During the occupation, school was held in the parks and homes of the school teachers in open resistance to the occupying forces.The troops organized baseball teams, and the local people became baseball fans.

    In November 1914, the troops pulled out and prepared to go to France at the start of World War I.
    Cafe de La Parroquía 1920´s
    Veracruz as Capital of Mexico
    President Venustiano Carranza was proclaimed President of Mexico and the Constitution of 1917 was written as an agreement to end the Mexican Revolution.

    Veracruz was briefly the capital of the republic.

    Carranza turned San Juan de Ulua over to the Mexican Navy, and the fort became an arsenal.

    He vowed it would never become a prison again.

    In the 1960´s it became a museum.
    The Flags of Many Countries
    The Flags of Many Countries
    By the 1940´s, malaria had been controlled, the fort became a museum, and peace came at last to Mexico.

    More people came to live and work in Veracruz and it is now Mexico´s largest seaport.

    Every night the Zócalo, also called the Plaza de la Constitución, is filled with the sounds of tourists and local people dancing to the live tropical music.

    The flags of many countries now fly in Los Portales welcoming people from all over the world to enjoy the best of life in tropical peaceful Veracruz.
    The Fort is now for Lovers
    Looking Down at the Water
    Sometimes I stand on the dock at San Juan de Ulua and look down at the clear blue water.

    I think about the battle that took place 1568 when Hawkins and Drake lost their ships in front of where I stand.

    I wonder how much gold and silver passed through the gates behind me to be loaded on ships sailing to Spain.

    Then I tell my children, this is a story of the three places called Veracruz.

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