Hacienda in Spanish America

Hacienda in Spanish America
Hacienda in Spanish America

Hacienda (ah-see-END-ah) in Spanish America refers to the institution of private landownership, or a landed estate, owned by a hacendado (ah-sen-DA-doh). Hacienda emerged as the principal form of landownership, and one of the principal social institutions in the core areas of the Spanish empire (especially New Spain and New Castile, or Mexico and Peru) in the late 16th century.

The transition from encomienda to hacienda has been the subject of considerable research and debate among scholars. Since the pioneering work of François Chevalier (1952), a large body of scholarship has shown that this transition was neither linear nor direct, and that attention to local and regional history is essential for understanding this transition in specific contexts.

It is useful to distinguish between two main types of hacienda, although the two were often combined: agricultural and pastoral. Agricultural haciendas were typically established in areas of densest Indian settlement, where a servile labor force made possible its day-to-day operation. The rich agricultural lands surrounding Mexico City, for instance, were peppered with hundreds of such haciendas.


At the core of a typical agricultural hacienda was the “great house,” the residence of its Spanish or Creole hacendado. Pastoral haciendas, devoted principally to grazing of cattle and sheep, emerged mainly on the periphery of Spain’s American holdings, such as in northern Mexico and the pampas (plains) of the Río de la Plata region.

Haciendas could also include mines, obrajes (workshops), and other enterprises. A typical hacienda included numerous tracts of noncontiguous lands devoted to a variety of productive operations, especially farming, ranching, and mining.

Hacendados accumulated their lands in numerous ways, mainly through direct and legal usurpation of collectively held Indian lands. Hacienda lands were also often acquired through purchase and legal appropriation of tracts left vacant in consequence of Indian depopulation.

The distinction between haciendas and plantations is not always clear, although the latter term is generally applied to large-scale, well-capitalized, market oriented economic enterprises devoted to one or two tropical export products (sugar, tobacco, indigo), often worked by African slaves. This is in contrast to the typically less capitalized, more locally and subsistence oriented production of haciendas, though the distinctions are often difficult to draw.

Other forms of landownership that blend into hacienda include estancias (a-STAHN-see-ahs) and latifundia (lah-te-FOON-dee-ah). The former refers principally to large cattle and sheep ranches on the periphery of the Spanish American empire, and the latter to massive private landholdings and monopolization of land resources in a particular area.

The question of labor relations inevitably accompanies discussions of the nature of the Spanish American hacienda. The typical colonial labor relationship on haciendas was the institution of debt peonage, in which laborers were bound to the hacienda principally in consequence of their accumulated debt to the hacendado. Yet here, too, there remains considerable controversy.

In some contexts, debt effectively bound laborers to haciendas. In other cases, mainly those in which population densities were lower and labor thus scarcer, debt was sometimes used as a kind of lever by peons in order to secure pay advances and more favorable working conditions, and to play one hacendado off against another.

In light of the great variety and complexity of Spanish American colonial society, questions regarding the nature of land and labor relations in specific contexts remain the topic of ongoing scholarly research and debate.